When Anna-Varney Cantodea (Sopor Aeternus & the Ensemble of Shadows) first announced The Spiral Sacrifice last year, I had mixed feelings. While I was eager to receive a new Sopor Aeternus album into my life, I feared that The Spiral Sacrifice would, like its predecessor Mitternacht, reiterate familiar ideas she had already done better on previous releases. In part, The Spiral Sacrifice does exactly this but it revisits old ideas with a fresh perspective. While it isn’t quite as innovative as previous albums, The Spiral Sacrifice is nevertheless an accomplished work that is consistently engaging and quite touching.
Listening to The Spiral Sacrifice evokes in me a perculiar sensation of deja vu and this is, at least in part, due to the fact that most of its contents are revisions of songs that previously appeared on The Inexperienced Spiral Traveller (1997) and Voyager: The Jugglers of Jusa (1997). It is well known among fans that Anna-Varney abhors both of these albums and has long desired to remake them. When she announced the crowd-funding campaign on FaceBook in 2017, she made it clear that the remake would be a loose interpretations and not necessarily resemble the original material. Even some of the lyrics, she promised, would be omitted entirely.
The result is, at least for me, a refreshing interpretation of her older songs. The new arrangements are beautifully performed and are great improvements on the originals, many of which are monotonous and sound painfully cacophonous. The Spiral Sacrifice expertly avoids this and breathes new life into the old songs, blending their playful folk and medieval inspired melodies with the unearthly sounds of the theremin into an more fluid and enjoyable compositions. The only thing I could possibly say against the music is that I wish that some of them had been longer than they are. Many of the songs are, perhaps, usually short for a Sopor Aeternus album but this is a minor problem.
While most of the songs are based on old material, I was surprised to find and even a little disappointed to discover that all but one set of original lyrics were performed. This disappointed was particularly painful because I had hoped for a new version of Totenlicht, one of my all time favorite Sopor Aeternus songs, but after some thought I realize this is likely for the best. One of the problems that plagued The Inexperienced Spiral Traveller and Voyager were its lyrics, which were so cumbersome and awkward that Anna-Varney had to force them to work with her melodies. The Spiral Sacrifice left the most awkward lyrics behind, which was most of them apparently, and even omitted all of the original titles, which is fine since most of them would not have made any sense without their original lyrics and some were quite silly anyway. Plus, as Anna-Varney said herself, she would not include any lyrics she longer identified with and I can’t fault her for that.
The new lyrics are a different matter and are another reason for my eerie sense of deja vu. The album revisits a familiar topic from past albums, particularly Les Fleurs Du Mal and Mitternacht, and explores her feelings towards the object of her misplaced affections and how they have changed with time. In contrast to every other Sopor Aeternus album, The Spiral Sacrifice does not tell a story. Only one song even comes close (The Broken & Shattered Moon) and it’s a fairy-tale about a fairy who curses Anna-Varney’s childhood self with ugliness. It’s an unusual form for a Sopor Aeternus album but it works well here. Most of the lyrics are well written and poignant. A few restate sentiments she has expressed before and can feel redundant but they are conceptually consistent with the overall themes of the album and are even expressed better here than previously.
What ultimately saves The Spiral Sacrifice from feeling utterly redundant is the new insight Anna-Varney brings to her past. When you love a Man, If I could go back in Time, Let me say it now, and Through your Eyes poignantly reexamine her failed relationship and finds meaning in the pain. Although she was ultimately hurt by her partner, she nevertheless values the moments of genuine affection he gave her and expresses the desire to see in herself the qualities that he found so attractive in her. For an album that is grounded in sadness, anger, and frustration, it is a surprisingly sweet note to end on, and leaves the listener with a warmth that is rare for a musician known for her dark, despairing songs.
The artwork is striking eerie and is, at least in my personal view, some of the best she has done in recent years. The imagery does not directly illustrate the music, as in many previous releases, and instead captures the motions of a Butoh-like dance that perfectly compliments the complex emotional journey expressed throughout the album. I prefer it to the drawn illustrations that accompanied her last album and appreciate the focus with which she conceived the artwork. It’s quite straightforward and simple, a stark departure from the standards of previous examples, but it keenly demonstrates that less can indeed is more.
Now, something has to be said for the packaging. Sopor Aeternus albums tend to be released in rather luxurious formats and The Spiral Sacrifice is no exception. In fact, the packaging for this new release might be some of the best yet. I ordered a copy of the very fancy Supporters Edition box-set, which comes with the the album on CD and vinyl, an art book, a signed and personalized letter of authenticity, a 7″ picture disc vinyl, and a t-shirt. The box-set is exceptionally well-made and may even be superior in quality to previous physical editions. I suppose it’s something you have to feel to believe. The letter of authenticity is a nice addition, since Anna-Varney signed each with the name of the recipient. I cannot tell you how overjoyed I was to see my name (even my middle name) written out in her beautiful, almost calligraphic handwriting. Other editions, including a standard CD book and vinyl set are also aviable, and are, except for a few details, identical to those contained in the Supporters Editions box-set.