Assortments of Thought

A Tour of the Shadows

Posted on: June 13th, 2011

Scary stories and films and such have been favorites for generations. From the monsters of the silent film era to contemporary horror films, and from all the scary tales surely told since the dawn of humanity, of ghosts and goblins, vampires and witches, there’s been something about the dark and the supernatural that’s just too alluring to pass up. Hence we’ve called for the production of all the scary movies and books and such that people continue to enjoy, and today, one man and company furthers this vibrant tradition with everything from stories to artwork, and even music. Indeed, Joseph Vargo has created many stunning works of gothic art, and even more remarkably, he founded and works in the band Nox Arcana–until recently along with William Piotrowski–to bring the world several gothic, instrumental concept albums, in a significant step beyond the typical “Halloween music” that’s more suited for the background than focused listening. He’s also collaborated with various other writers to produce a couple of story anthologies, and has–through his company, Monolith Graphics–made various other gothic items available as well. And so Vargo, Nox Arcana, and Monolith Graphics continue to bring forth a wonderful assortment of spooky and darkly romantic works, just perfect for when allure of the darkness comes tempting … or, for when a little gothic romanticism feels right.

Perhaps the most remarkable offering from Monolith Graphics is the music of Nox Arcana. Scary stories and films have been around for a long time, but aside from the “Halloween music” that sets a background with sound effects and sometimes a bit of organ playing or such, there really hadn’t been music to stand alongside the stories and films … at least until Joseph Vargo developed it. Indeed, in 1998, he met and worked with two other musicians to develop and produce the world’s first two gothic fantasy albums, but after having financed and set those two individuals up as the successful group Midnight Syndicate–Nox Arcana’s only competitor, for which Vargo provided the concept and direction of the genre–he soon left to pursue his own work as Nox Arcana. (See the interview “Interview with Joseph Vargo of Nox Arcana,” pp. 3-4, at MonolithGraphics.com). Once he brought the young but talented William Piotrowski on board in 2003 (see “Nox Arcana Biography” at NoxArcana.com), Nox Arcana then proceeded to begin creating and releasing its magnificent work.

Magnificent work it is too. While music centered around gothic fantasy may sound too Halloween-ish to be taken seriously, Nox Arcana’s music remains as true artistry. First, the music itself is melodic and complex. Unlike traditional “Halloween music” (which certainly has its place, albeit not for pure listening enjoyment), most of Nox Arcana’s tracks are genuine songs, carefully composed and constructed as such. Mostly instrumental but inclusive of melody, they not only vary in form and feature multiple instruments and parts, but are also rounded off with occasional sound effects, while a select few even feature vocals, such as chanting, or, even more selectively, singing. Hence by means of dark and complex orchestrations with effects and occasional vocal work, even alone, Nox Arcana’s songs really bring gothic concepts to life … except they’re not alone, but rather occur together as albums.

Indeed then, second, Nox Arcana’s albums don’t contain so many random tracks, but rather, each album sports a carefully chosen theme or even “storyline” … and the variety of themes itself is astounding. Some of Nox Arcana’s albums, for instance, are “soundtracks” to classics of literary fiction, like Transylvania (2005), a musical rendition of Bram Stoker’s classical novel Dracula, or Shadow of the Raven (2007), a fitting companion to Edgar Allan Poe’s famous works. Others, in contrast, are based on original concepts, such as Darklore Manor (2003), which centers on an old deserted mansion whose mysterious history is steeped in tragedy and blood, where the restless dead can find no release, and where an ancient evil yet lies in wait. (See “The Legend of Darklore Manor” at NoxArcana.com). Finally, while many of the concepts are rather macabre and dark, Nox Arcana hasn’t limited itself to that. Some of their albums take a more action / adventure focus, and perhaps most surprisingly of all, a couple are even holiday / winter-based. Blood of the Dragon (2006), for instance, tells of those who would seek a great, ancient treasure, while Winter’s Knight (2005) tells the wondrous and darkly enchanting tale of a lost soul seeking redemption during the holiday season (see “The Treasure of the Four Crowns” and “The Tale of the Winter’s Knight” at NoxArcana.com). Indeed, along with Winter’s Eve, 2009, Winter’s Knight really is great to listen to during the holidays–distinct from traditional Christmas music as it may be–and in fact in 2007, it even reached #8 on Billboard’s chart of top 10 holiday albums. (See “Holiday Albums: Week of January 27, 2007” at Billboard.com). Overall then, Nox Arcana’s albums present a wide variety of concepts and moods that unite their individual songs together, demonstrating a versatility that only furthers the fact that Nox Arcana’s music is true art, worthy of being listened to for its own sake.

Finally, it’s worth noting that aside from the music itself, most of Nox Arcana’s albums feature great artwork as well, and even puzzles of a sort. Indeed, the CD booklets all feature Joesph Vargo’s artwork in front, while all but the earliest have it throughout their pages as well … chosen, of course, to flesh out the given album’s theme. And, while such artwork certainly isn’t necessary (and people who download the albums won’t receive it), it’s certainly nice to look at, and it adds to the atmosphere and allure of the albums. Lastly, many of the albums sport a puzzle as well. That is, between things in the CD booklet; on the website; and on the CD or in a narration (including at the end of the last track, where’s there’s always something, no matter if it’s part of a puzzle or not); there’s often a puzzle or riddle to be solved, if one is so inclined. In fact, the puzzles began with Blood of the Dragon (2006), although Vargo has stated that even earlier albums now have them on their recent re-printings. (See the interview “Interview with Nox Arcana’s Joseph Vargo!” at Ideology of Madness). Here again, the puzzles aren’t a necessity, of course, and while many people won’t be concerned with them at all, others will probably acknowledge they’re not that big of a deal. Still, they can offer more than a few hours of thinking for those who choose to tackle them. In short then, for those who buy the physical CDs, Nox Arcana not only provides great music, but captivating artwork and even puzzles as well.

Of course, it should be mentioned that, understandably, not all of Nox Arcana’s albums are equal in all ways. I think it’s pretty clear, for instance, that the music became more sophisticated after the first few albums, although that’s not to say that those first few albums are bad by any means, just that they’re a bit simpler in sound. Personally, I feel that the band reached a first peak with Carnival of Lost Souls (2005), which remains my favorite of all their albums. (It just does such a wonderful job capturing the essence of wandering through a carnival after dark, discovering the sinister transformation it’s undergone. The music is quite varied in sound; the interludes are varied and rather effectively add to the atmosphere and story; and to top if off, there’s even a great metal/rock song hidden at the end of the last track). Also, William Piotrowski left the band in 2009 to pursue other interests (see “Nox Arcana Biography” at NoxArcana.com), and it’s too soon to tell how that’ll ultimately affect the music. Joseph Vargo did state in the past that while he’s the better composer, it was Piotrowski who was the better musician (see the interview “An Interview: Nox Arcana,” of Joseph Vargo at Gnostics.com), and indeed, it does seem that the three albums since then (Blackthorn Asylum, 2009, Winter’s Eve, 2009 and Theater of Illusion, 2010) have been more piano-heavy and less instrumentally-varied than the earlier albums. Nonetheless, I do think that Winter’s Eve, for instance, is another among Nox Arcana’s best work (it just has many, many truly outstanding tracks, and really captures a bright and wondrous mood perfect for the holiday season), so hopefully Vargo still has a lot to offer so far as Nox Arcana goes. (Incidentally, for those new to and interested in Nox Arcana, I’d recommend either Carnival of Lost Souls, 2006, Phantoms of the High Seas, 2008, or Winter’s Eve for a good introduction). Hence overall, the music of Nox Arcana is truly artful, innovative, and wondrous, and so it remains one of the most remarkable offerings from Vargo and Monolith Graphics.

Monolith Graphics has even more to offer, however, such as a couple of story anthologies that Joseph Vargo and other writers have collaborated to write. These are, respectively, Tales from the Dark Tower (2000) by Vargo, James Pipik, and various other writers, and The Legend of Darklore Manor and Other Tales of Terror (2008) by Vargo, Joseph Iorillo, and Timothy Bennett. And as it turns out, both are good in their own way. More recently, The Legend of Darklore Manor features 12 short, sinister stories, plus the novella “The Legend of Darklore Manor” by Vargo (the story that elaborates on the Nox Arcana album, of course). Almost all are clearly meant to invoke terror, and here they generally succeed–depending on one’s threshold for fear–by dwelling on monstrous creatures and spirits, and bloody and gory happenings. However, that said, I do feel that some of the stories lose their edge here a bit, but that’s probably just from individual taste, as I tend to find quieter, more eerie tales of ghosts and such to be scarier than outright gore and monstrous creatures. Incidentally though, not all of the stories in The Legend of Darklore Manor are in this vein. Some dwell on the darkness within the human heart, for instance, and one I feel like mentioning in particular–“Brotherhood of Shadows” by Joseph Iorillo–relates the tragedy of a man seeking admission into the highest and most wealthy, powerful rank of an ancient philosophical society, but who ultimately doesn’t have what it takes to belong there. Finally, “The Legend of Darklore Manor” itself is a well-crafted tale. The focus on a monstrous, ancient evil aside, it does a great job of starting as a simple paranormal investigation story and then spiraling into a tale of woe following all those who dared to step foot inside Darklore Manor, and the inevitable final confrontation is well-executed and set up as well, as is the gradual revelation of the Manor’s full history. Hence The Legend of Darklore Manor and Other Tales of Terror deserves a spot on the shelf of nearly anyone who likes scary stories.

If The Legend of Darklore Manor (2008) is good, however, then Tales from the Dark Tower (2000) is that much better, painting a truly captivating world that readers won’t want to leave. It features 13 stories much as The Legend of Darklore Manor does, but unlike that work, Tales from the Dark Tower isn’t meant to terrorize, it seems, but rather to paint a rich and darkly romantic portrait of an accursed keep–the Dark Tower–as well as tell the tales of those who dwell within it, plus the villagers who live within its dark shadow. Also unlike The Legend of Darklore Manor, the stories in Tales from the Dark Tower are all intertwined and each somewhat longer, carefully set in different times and from different perspectives so that collectively, they tell of a grander saga, not of terror, but of human emotions and failings that often lead to tragedy. Thus the first story–“The Dark Tower” by Joseph Vargo and Joseph Pipik–sets everything up, establishing a Dark Tower of which it is said dark things dwell and none who venture to ever return, and we get our first glimpse of that when Lord Brom–the central character and protagonist–becomes cursed to dwell there for eternity. And from there, the stories proceed to tell of Lord Brom’s new life–of his quest to unravel the mysteries of the accursed keep, and of his interactions with the very few visitors he receives–while others tell tales of previous occupants such as the Baron or the Dark Queen; of the tragedies that befell those whose ghosts now roam the Tower grounds in the dead of night; or, indeed, of the villagers and outsiders who continue to live under the Tower’s influence. And through it all, as we read more of the Tower’s history and of how Lord Brom in particular thinks and feels, we begin to recognize that, despite being a creature of darkness, he isn’t evil, but that perhaps he’s even darkly noble, with a purpose to fulfill throughout his decades and centuries of solitude. Overall then, Tales from the Dark Tower is a truly enchanting read for those who enjoy tales of dark romanticism, of tragedy, and of human emotions and failings with occasional virtues, and–as the whole book is filled with beautiful works from Vargo’s art portfolio to boot–it’s all great to look at too.

Finally, Joseph Vargo and Monolith Graphics have various other gothic items available as well. Vargo’s artwork, for instance, is probably still his “primary” work–it was definitely his first–and much of it has been handsomely collected in Born of the Night: The Gothic Fantasy Artwork of Joseph Vargo (2005). Indeed, for those who would like to see his works in print rather than just on his website, Born of the Night is indispensable. As well, he used some of his artwork in 2002 to create The Gothic Tarot, a stunning tarot deck for which he and Joseph Iorilllo have also written a guide, The Gothic Tarot Compendium (2007). Indeed, with all of The Gothic Tarot‘s dark beauty, it’s the perfect deck for games that use the Tarot, or else attempts as divination. And then in addition to all that, Monolith Graphics continues to produce and distribute the likes of greeting cards and t-shirts and such as well, including, incidentally, a set of fortune cards–Madame Endora’s Fortune Cards (2003)–illustrated by Christine Filipak. Finally, Nox Arcana has occasionally paired with other artists to write or produce music, and these albums–Blood of Angles (2006) by Michelle Belanger; and Zombie Influx (2009) and House of Nightmares (2010) by Buzz-Works–are of interest too, though note they are collaborations with Nox Arcana, not main or even guided works. Such then are the many offerings that Monolith Graphics provides, each suited to a different dark need.

And so Joseph Vargo, Nox Arcana, and Monolith Graphics have truly pushed the envelope when it comes to producing amazing gothic works. Perhaps the two story anthologies wouldn’t be so unique on their own, but factor in the music of Nox Arcana–unique as it is among “Halloween music”–and it’s all already pretty incredible. Then consider Vargo’s lavish artwork–plus all the other items he’s made available through Monolith Graphics–and it becomes clear just how remarkable it all is. And, there aren’t any signs of anyone stopping yet either. For instance, Vargo has recently announced the two newest projects (due out at summer’s end)–a sequel anthology to Tales from the Dark Tower (2000) entitled Beyond the Dark Tower, and a Nox Arcana CD centered around the Dark Tower saga, appropriately called The Dark Tower (see “Nox Arcana Band News” at NoxArcana.com)–and conceptually at least, they sound great. Indeed, one can only hope they’ll match or even beat what Tales from the Dark Tower has long since established. In any case though, Vargo, Nox Arcana, and Monolith Graphics have more than built on the work of previous masters of the macabre, and here’s to hoping they have a darkly bright future yet ahead of them as well.

References:

Billboard.com: “Holiday Albums: Week of January 27, 2007,” at Billboard.com as of June 3rd, 2011
[http://www.billboard.com/charts/holiday-albums?chartDate=2007-01-27#/charts/holiday-albums?chartDate=2007-01-27].

Nox Arcana: Various albums on CD, 2003-2010.

NoxArcana.com: “The Legend of Darklore Manor,” at NoxArcana.com as of June 3rd, 2011
[http://www.noxarcana.com/curse.html].

NoxArcana.com: “Nox Arcana Band News,” at NoxArcana.com as of June 3rd, 2011
[http://www.noxarcana.com/news.html].

NoxArcana.com: “Nox Arcana Biography,” at NoxArcana.com as of June 3rd, 2011
[http://www.noxarcana.com/bios.html].

NoxArcana.com: “The Tale of the Winter’s Knight,” at NoxArcana.com as of June 3rd, 2011
[http://www.noxarcana.com/ebonshire.html].

NoxArcana.com: “Treasure of the Four Crowns,” at NoxArcana.com as of June 3rd, 2011
[http://www.noxarcana.com/lyrics-treasure.html].

Vargo, J: Born of the Night: The Gothic Fantasy Artwork of Joseph Vargo, ©2005
(ISBN #978-0967575667).

Vargo, J: “An Interview: Nox Arcana,” interview by JEFarrow, May 2007, at Gnostics.com as of June 3rd, 2011
[http://www.gnostics.com/noxarcana.html].

Vargo, J: “Interview with Joseph Vargo of Nox Arcana,” interview by GamingReport.com, Dec. 23rd, 2004, at MonolithGraphics.com as of June 3rd, 2011
[http://www.monolithgraphics.com/interviews/GamingReport.pdf].

Vargo, J: “Interview with Nox Arcana’s Joseph Vargo!“, interview by Paul, June 2nd, 2009, at Ideology of Madness as of June 3rd, 2011
[http://ideologyofmadness.spookyouthouse.com/archives/5201].

Vargo, J. & Iorillo, J: The Gothic Tarot Compendium, ©2007
(ISBN #978-0978885724).

Vargo, J, Iorillo, J, & Bennett, T: Various stories in The Legend of Darklore Manor & Other Tales of Terror, ©2008
(ISBN #978-0-9788857-6-7).

Vargo, J, Pipik, J, & more: Various stories in Tales from the Dark Tower, Revised 1st Ed, edited by Vargo, J. & Filipak, C, ©2003
(ISBN #0-9675756-0-5).

©2011, D.S. Applemin. All rights reserved.

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