If you Google Devil Doll, you’re going to wind up with some common search results. You’ll get a couple of early hits for the Tod Browning movie. You’ll find a bunch leading you to various resources for a nasty rockabilly band and you’ll find some cyptic hits for fansites related to an experimental rock group fronted by a wide-eyed lunatic by the name of Mr. Doctor.
Every couple of years I’m stricken with an irresistable urge to listen to this group even though I could write a comprehensive case study for why Devil Doll is bad for your overall mental health. I know what’s coming every time I press play for the first time. The following few weeks will be dominated by obsessive streaks of ceaseless listening. When not listening, the silence in my head will be replaced by passages from particular movements played again and again. It takes a considerable effort to put a stop to this and the withdrawal period is a tough one to ride out.
The history of Devil Doll is a strange one and in many ways, the story is a lot more interesting than the music, but you’ll be hard pressed to find something as completely original and compelling as Devil Doll, a fractured blend of style that spans some of the most unlikely genres. Nearly every album is a single composition made up of several movements. Militaristic orchestral pieces flow seemlessly into slavonic folk and then further down into driving metal and out into more orchestral horror that smashes influences together from Wagner to Weill to Hermann. All the while, the proceedings are overseen by the leader of the band, the enigmatic Mr. Doctor, whose vocal style is an obscure method called Sprechsang, an abrasive operatic technique that lives somewhere between speech and singing. The end result is consistently unsettling and one of the grestest untold chapters in horror.
The actual history of the group is tough to get a handle on. Facts are hard to come by and illusion plays a large part in the life of Devil Doll. At the heart of it all is Mr. Doctor, real name Mario Panciera. Devil Doll sprang from the following call to musicians in Ljubljana, Slovenia in 1987:
A man is less likely to become great the more he is dominated by reason: few can achieve greatness – and none in art – if they are not dominated by illusion.
Thus begins work on the first Devil Doll composition, entitled The Mark of the Beast. I’m afraid that I can’t comment on what this album actually sounds like, though. Mark of the Beast is performed live once and then recorded in Slovenia by Jurij Toni (who had worked previously with industrial legends, Laibach). A single copy of this album is pressed and is housed in a sleeve handed painted by Mr. Doctor. It remains in his possession.
Shortly thereafter, in 1988, Devil Doll goes back to the studio and records The Girl Who Would Be… Death, named after and heavily influenced by an episode of the seminal cult British show, The Prisoner. Hurdy Gurdy Records is established by fans in Venice, Italy to release Devil Doll’s music. Label owners maintain that at no point has Mr. Doctor ever recevied a single payment for his music and no contract exists. The only agreements between the two is that the band is paid and that ten copies of each release be pressed in a special velvet lined box with handmade inserts that will be sold only to fans. Shortly thereafter, The Girl Who Would Be… Death is performed live where cassettes are handed out to audience members. 500 copies of the piece are pressed on vinyl and at a second performance, 150 copies are given out to attendees. Each one c0ntains a hand written letter from Mr. Doctor. Some are written in his own blood. The remaining 350 copies are destroyed by Mr. Doctor. Why? Who the hell knows?
The beginnings of the next Devil Doll release emerge as separate pieces. Supposedly brimming with subliminal messages, The Black Holes of the Mind is performed and rehearsed. Around the same time, a second hour long piece, Eliogabalus, is rehearsed and performed. However, due to budgetary limitations from Hurdgy Gurdy Records, both of these pieces are released in a severely truncated package that cuts each piece down to around 20 minutes and combines them for a single release. To further complicate matters, nine fans in Slovenia form the Devil Doll Fanclub and release an alternate version of this album with entirely different artwork.
In 1991, Devil Doll performances in Italy introduce pieces of the next release, Sacrilegium. The political climate in Slovenia forces most parties associated with the group out of the country and into Italy and in only a year, the nine member Devil Doll fan club swells to over 1,000 fans. The album is recorded and released and a follow up performance in Ljubljana introduces the concept of Mr. Doctor as a filmmaker to the audience, as the performance accompanies his film, The Sacrilege of Fatal Arms. It turns out that Mr. Doctor has made several films, in fact. None of these films are seen outside of their initial screenings and none are ever released theatrically or on video.
The score for The Sacrilege of Fatal Arms is released, a reworked version of the Sacrilegium album.
In 1993, Mr. Doctor and Devil Doll begin work on the album, Dies Irae, but a fire in the studio destroys the nearly completed album. Mr. Doctor goes quiet for a long time. Over the next few years Hurdy Gurdy Records and the fan club begin reissuing previous recordings in new packaging. Some releases come in velvet bags, some come in velvet lined boxes. in 1996, the rerecorded Dies Irae is released in several very limited editions. This is the last Devil Doll recording even though Mr. Doctor has gone on record confirming that over 700 minutes of recordings exist from this session.
Over the next few years, Mr. Doctor operates below the radar. Since an interview prior to a televised performance of Sacrilegium is heavily censored he takes a hard stance against the media and grants no interviews ever. This policy changes in 2008 when interviews begin to surface in various music magazines. This late stage revelation is never cited as the end, but the fact that the enigmatic Mr. Doctor not only openly revealed his name by way of author credit on a book but his pulling the curtain back with these interviews can be interpreted as the death of Devil Doll, a band whose entire existence hinged on illusion and obfuscation. The band has never officially disbanded and what scraps come down to the fan club and Hurdy Gurdy seem to suggest that Mr. Doctor has continued to make movies and record music. The experience of creativity for Mr. Doctor is a factor that motivates his entire life but much to the frustration of his fans, his interest in releasing this work is nonexistent and he will, most likely, take these works to the grave. In 2004, superfan W. Timmer begins a mailing action that winds up in a 1,000 page leather bound book sent to Mr. Doctor with the cooperation of Hurdy Gurdy Records and The Devil Doll Fan Club. The action was meant to illicit a new release from Mr. Doctor but no release was issued. For his trouble, Timmer is rewarded with a single word from Mr. Doctor, “Astonished”. He’s also sent Mr. Doctor’s personal copy of Sacrilegium.
Devil Doll is a hard sell on most folks. I realize that the music is often explicitly melodramatic and just listening to some lyrics can be an embarassing experience but what Mr. Doctor has done is taken the notion of music as art and extended the artistic influence to the entire Devil Doll experience. The mystery, for the longest time a maddening web of inconsistencies and facts too good to be true, was central to Devil Doll. Aside from the aspects of the band’s history that are distinctly gothic, Mr. Doctor has gone on record stating icons of the golden age of horror as his major influences and every note of the band’s music is a sort of theater of the mind’s eye experience, heavily inspired by the music of Bernard Hermann (who did a lot of Hitchcock’s music, The Day The Earth Stood Still and Taxi Driver). Each album is a harrowing listen, reaching a crescendo with the final act, Dies Irae.
I can feel myself slipping into that state of mind again where I’m going to spend the next few weeks listening to Devil Doll and Devil Doll only. If you don’t hear from me in a week, send help.