Halloween always makes me hungry for scary things. Movies, video games, books, and creepy stories of my home town all come to mind along with the appetite for truly frightening fare. I look to the brilliant works of H.P. Lovecraft, John Carpenter’s The Thing, Silent Hill 2 & 3, Fatal Frame, Resident Evil 2 and Eternal Darkness to sate my desires, but what about music? Is there any truly frightening music out there? I mean, aside from the Beibers and Insane Clown Posses of our era.
I think so. In the spirit of the holiday, here are some of my favorites:
Zao’s Liberate Te Ex Inferis
Though the title of this album is grammatically incorrect, its rough English translation is “Save Yourself From Hell“, which is all I need to hear to get my blood moving. Like an omen for the would-be listener, artwork for the album was inspired by Dante’s Inferno, and the track list is broken up into pairs named after the rings of hell: Limbo, The Lustful, The Gluttonous, The Hoarders and Spendthrifts, and The Wrathful.
Characterized by its metalcore sound, Zao was always known for its drop-tuned guitars, non-standard chord structures, and a love of dissonance. Gaunt, angular riffs and non-Euclidean chord progressions perfectly frame singer Dan Weyandt’s tortured vocals and cinematic lyrics pieced together from Apocalyptic foretellings and repurposed biblical imagery.
Part of what makes this particular record so effective is its roughly-hewn production; instead of the kind of tight, polished metal recordings we’re used to, this album takes on a decidedly loose feel. Whereas most producers might go for basketball kicks and software snares, the percussion here is full with a sense of space around them. The kick is low, muddy and dark, and cymbals seem to be coming from far off in the distance thanks to just the right amount of slapback echo. The guitars are pleasantly sludgy, mixing mammoth tones with those reminiscent of a Boss SD-1 through a buzzy 10″ practice amp to great effect.
Another piece of the horrorific puzzle here is the vocals. Dan Weyandt has, quite possibly, the most ghastly scream I’ve ever heard. It’s consistent, it’s demonic, and has an inhuman quality about it – it sounds as if it’s coming from a skinless nightmare beast rather than a long-haired, tattooed white dude. His is the kind of voice I would expect to hear from one of Lovecraft’s Elder Ones. Weyandt’s presentation here is everything, and so his howling, guttural yells are just low enough in the mix that even if you could understand him you’re not sure you’d want to.
When it comes to horror, subject matter is everything. You may not be surprised, then, to discover that Liberate was heavily inspired by the terrifying cult film Event Horizon. In the 1997 film, scientists created a starship capable of traveling great distances in an instant. Not quite traditional warp speed, the Event Horizon creates its own artificial black hole to fold space. No big deal, right? On its maiden voyage to Proxima Centauri the crew engages its “gravity drive” and disappears. Seven years later, it mysteriously reappears in a decaying orbit around Neptune with no contact or crew, and the viewer is lucky enough to be taken along for the ride to find out just what happened.
The film was poorly received when it came out, but has since gained cult status. Even though it has its flaws, that film is truly one of the most horrifying movies I have ever seen, and Zao deftly employ sound samples from the film to mate flesh to bone. The opening instrumental track of the record shambles along with its arms outstretched, before climaxing in a doomy storm of feedback and actor Sam Neil declaring “You know nothing. Hell is only a word. The reality is much, much worse.”
From that point on, the record is relentless in its thematic terror. Frenzied riffs and deranged 2/4 beats coagulate with demoralizing pop interludes and Weyandt’s singularly dark lyrics. The second song “Savannah” could just as easily be the DVD commentary for Event Horizon:
A day not to forget
The machine has collapsed under the program it’s been given
Look inside the broken shell
Look inside the broken shell
To see the broken heart
They can’t believe the machine was alive but we saw it bleed
We saw it bleed [8x]
The machine it falls apart and when it’s cut it bleeds
The machine bleeds [6x]
She was alive
I mean, my god! What a chilling way to open a record.
“Autopsy”, the very next track on the album, is the first instance of Zao’s effective use of decidedly un-metal sounds to further its unhinged moodiness. You may be aghast, questioning, “Tambourine? In my metal?” It’s better than you think. Really, hearing that tambourine treading through the verse sections of this song ups the creepy quotient of the album to a maddening degree, but then they do it again with the opening acoustic riffs of “If These Scars Could Speak”, a song like a seance or a ritualistic virgin sacrifice. At this point, I expect the dead to rise again.
“Ghost Psalm” just creeps me right the hell out, with repeated sections chanting “I am buried with your words” above a eerie dance-rock beat. Then there’s Dan Weyandt whispering in your ear, “Time to go one last look, one last touch. A ghost to those I love”, instantly sending shivers up my spine. I am now actively looking over my shoulder with the feeling that I’m being watched.
Where “Scars” makes even an acoustic guitar so foreboding and malevolent, “Skin Like Winter” (widely regarded as a signature Zao tune) opens with a menacing serial-killer riff and follows it up with gang clapping and the kind of drums you’d hear on an upbeat 1950s tune. Seriously, what other band do you know that can make hand claps so damn unnerving?
The album closes with “Man in Cage Jack Wilson”, a track that makes brutal use of samples from the movie, including the partial log recording that’s discovered in the Event Horizon’s computers, wherein we find the lost crew of the doomed ship engaged in a murderous blood orgy, mutilating one another while their minds short circuit, unable to comprehend the grim realities of where they’ve been.
As the album ends, I am in the fetal position, unable to move or speak, eyes wide with fright. And all of this from a Christian band…
Boards of Canada’s Geogaddi
Warbling and warping like a worn-out VHS tape, Boards of Canada’s Geogaddi is a truly unsettling masterpiece. With a flair for found sounds and obscure instrumentation, BOC’s compositions have more in common with 1970s educational films than they do with modern electronic music. Rife with distorted spoken word samples likely culled from old classroom reels, these songs give me the same feeling of dread that I get when I hear carnival music out of context. It’s sinister and brooding, with a twisting narrative full of childish nostalgia and quivering atmospherics. As if that weren’t enough, the song titles are vague occult references, and the total run time of the album is 66 minutes and 6 seconds. *shivers*
Geogaddi takes the listener on a dark journey from start to finish. The opening track “Ready Let’s Go” is the musical equivalent of watching celluloid film burn in front of a projector bulb, droning and pulsing as if BOC meant to waste no time melting away the layers of reality, leaving a rusty cage of dense sound in its place. The layering on this album is one of its greatest strengths, with amorphous beats plodding along beneath the eerie, haunting melodies and “the hell was that?!” instrumentation above. A constant feeling of psychological horror hangs over the whole record, as if you’re not really hearing what you’re hearing, like a phantom image in a daguerreotype.
The third track, “Beware the Friendly Stranger”, may be familiar to you if you’ve ever seen one of David Firth’s Salad Fingers videos, most of which feature this song on an endless loop beneath the titular character’s babbling insanity. This street monkey music box leads into the next track “Gyroscope”, a song that reassures my feeling of impending doom with the notion that I am being chased by something I cannot comprehend. I mean, this music really gets under my skin.
The entire album just gets darker and darker, as if it intends to tear apart your psyche before it gives you any hope of escape. The final tracks of this album (one entitled “You Could Feel the Sky”) bring a sense of closure to the rolling terror you’ve just come through. Even though you’re now breathing easy, in the back of your mind you know something’s not quite right as the album closes with “Magic Window” – nearly two minutes of silence. Do yourself a favor and listen with a great set of headphones to really get into the right mood.
If I ever get trapped in a decaying nightmare realm a la Silent Hill, this is the music I want following me as I solve puzzles and run from inexplicable horror.
John Cage’s Complete Piano Music Vol. 1
John Cage was a genius, we know that. His avant-garde compositions range in feel from a flurry of notes that mimic the sounds of traffic to no instrumentation at all. As a composer, Cage was more concerned with feeling and sound than strict melody and harmony, describing music as a “purposeless play” and an “affirmation of life” in that we make music as a way to realize that we are alive.
Cage studied under famed composer Arnold Schoenberg, who complained that Cage would always be going up against a brick wall without any sense of harmony. Cage devoted himself to beating his head against that wall, and the results are both minimalistic and intriguing.
John Cage loved plucking the strings of a piano just as much as most people enjoy playing in the conventional manner. This technique yields otherworldly textures and hammered tones that sound like the scampering of a small, precocious creature not of this earth. On this record you’ll hear steel drums and out of tune simultaneous tones from god knows what source, and seemingly atonal passages that seem right at home with the likes of today’s noise rock pioneers. If John Cage ever held a guitar, I’m certain he loved to pluck both behind and in front of the fretted note. He would likely have enjoyed ring modulators as well!
While his music isn’t necessarily scary on its own, it’s all about context. Around this time of year, innocent sounds can take on a special meaning that might not exist over the summer, for instance. If you’ve ever driven a long dirt road in the middle of a dark Pennsylvania night, just about any music is going to be disquieting. I know; I’m from there.
What really gets me about John Cage’s compositions though, is the perceived lack of logic or timing therein. Make no mistake: I’m aware that these compositions were well thought out, but would the casual listener call this music? It’s instinctively free form and disturbing in its shambling way, like a “walker” from The Walking Dead. Notes seem to flutter by loosely until they converge on the listener, embracing the chaos of a cluttered sonic mess before exhausting themselves and drawing back. It’s both cerebral and listless.
It’s not simply the notes he chose (or rather, threw like darts at the ear) but all of the other sounds in the recordings. There’s the shuffle of clothed arms, creaking of floorboards or the shifting bodies in the distance. Metal against metal, mallets barely missing the mark, percussive striking of piano keys and the very real mechanical sounds of instruments being played all lend to the ambiance.
Perhaps it’s not simply the notes that are there, but the notes that aren’t there. Cage was no stranger to silence, and it’s not uncommon for a track to wallow in extended periods of purposed quiet, where it seems like more is happening than you’re led to believe. In his well known work, 4’33”, Cage didn’t simply intend there to be no music, but to point out that the real music of life is actually the sounds that naturally occur around us all the time.
Side note: friends of mine recently attended a recital of the works of John Cage, and 4’33” was one of the titles chosen for performance. When the time came, a lady sitting close to my friends opened – get this – a giant bag of chips, happily crunching away. When I heard about this, I laughed my ass off, knowing that John Cage would have been proud. Some concertgoers did not get the joke, I’m told.
So, I’m not intending to tell you that John Cage is the scariest man alive, but what I am saying is that his music is so nuanced and off-kilter from the norm that it elicits such a strong reaction in the listener which, under the right conditions, could be more haunting than anything else on this list.
Silent Hill 3 Soundtrack
Speaking of Silent Hill, the soundtrack to the game franchise’s third installment is immensely terrifying in its own way. If you’ve never played any of these fantastic PS2 games, I highly recommend them for fans of psychological horror, especially games 2 and 3.
It may be an obvious move to call the soundtrack of a horror game “scary”, but there are reasons well beyond the simple connection of game to music. The soundtrack is moody and produced with a pop sheen, but what makes it memorable is its rickety back beats and off-kilter vocal performances.
It’s odd for a game about a girl that gets lost in a world of rusty fences and contorted monsters to have a soundtrack full of songs about love and distance, but it actually works well with the game’s read-between-the-lines imagery. Silent Hill is renowned for its character designs, with the ghoulish denizens you face created by the fears, neuroses and sexual hangups of Heather, the game’s protagonist. You come across frail zombie-like creatures with torsos encased in a bag of flesh, likely symbolic of the teenage heroine’s struggle with her own body image. Faceless nurses await you in the hospital, each of them with a slender body and an ample bosom, which can be interpreted as the insistence of the hourglass, 36/24/36 figure upon our culture’s young women. In fact, some of the first monsters you encounter are tall man-creatures with vaguely phallic heads and arms, a reflection on being a woman in a world that pushes masculine wants and desires. Not to spoil anything, but the most terrifying revelation in the game comes when, after having fought your way through hordes of blood-crazed beasts, you meet a character called Vincent who asks, “Monsters? They look like monsters to you?” He then says it’s a joke, but WTF?!
The sounds and songs of the SH3 collection is brooding and disorienting, with the sounds of a factory contorted into mechanical percussion. Tender melodies soothe while pulsing, distorted bass rumbles beneath, the punishing sound of implicit evil looming atmospherically in the background. You hear orchestral parts soaring while looped and cut beats crumble beneath your feet much like the collapsing streets of the game’s namesake town. Pitch-shifted cries and ring-modulated tones play a vicious game of hide and seek, there one moment and gone the next. And then there are the unashamedly “rock” songs on the album, “You’re Not Here” being the most obvious. Guitars careen and drums crack while the vocalist sings about being “…strung out, addicted to you”. Even with a song like that, the sense of foreboding is in full force because the sounds you’re hearing aren’t quite right.
A good example of this can be found just about anywhere you hear vocals. For one thing, the voices on this soundtrack are almost too produced, impossibly clean and pitch-perfect. As for what they’re singing, most of the lyrics were originally written in Japanese, then translated into English with little regard for syntax or lyrical flow it would seem. It’s not that they’re bad or poorly-written lyrics at all, but they’re just, well, ‘almost there’; That’s what makes them so creepy.
There are, of course, exceptions to this rule: “Letter – From the Lost Days” is a song that assuredly was translated but retains an inherent vibe of nostalgia. Vocalist Melissa Williamson – who honestly has a beautiful voice – sings the story of a girl writing a letter to her future self, pleading with her older self to be happy and remember “Daddy” and “Colleen” instead of some unaddressed misfortune that happened to the girl. The song ends with multiple repetitions of the phrase, “We were put here on this earth, put here to feel joy”, the last of which is whispered sinisterly.
There are a few spoken word pieces here that are equally discordant, with the same slightly off delivery that makes them so piercing:
The world is teeming with unnecessary people
It is God’s decision that I fight
As knight of honor, as a protector of the seal
I sacrifice myself to the blood of criminals
Nah, that’s totally legit. Nothing scary there.
The rest of the record is filled with the sounds of droning monk chants, the marching of giants, and in the case of “Flower Crown of Poppy”, what is presumably the machine that they used to challenge track layin’ American folk hero John Henry. The closing tracks of the album don’t really give any sense of comfort or release from the grip of sheer terror, with the following lovely little prose poem to remind you that the way cults like the one in the game are so effective: they take seemingly innocuous religious things people have heard before, but they offer them with a twist.
In the beginning people had nothing,
Their bodies ached and their hearts held nothing but hatred.
They fought endlessly but death never came
They despaired stuck in the eternal quagmire
A man offered a serpent to the sun,
And prayed for salvation.
A woman offered a reed to the sun,
And asked for joy.
Feeling pity for the sadness that had overrun the earth
God was born from those two people.
God made time and divided it into day and night.
God outlined the road to salvation and gave people joy.
And God took endless time away from the people.
God created beings to lead people in obedience to her.
The red God Xuchilbara
The yellow God Lobsel Vith
Many Gods and Angels
Finally God set out to create paradise,
Where people would be happy just by being there.
But there God’s strength ran out and she collapsed
All the world’s people grieved this unfortunate event
Yet God breathed her last,
She returned to the dust promising to come again.
So God hasn’t been lost,
We must offer her prayers and not forget our faith.
We wait in hope for the day…
When the path to paradise will be opened.
Awesome. I’m so scared that I’m involuntarily crysturbating. Happy, Akira Yamaoka? Actually, you probably are, you sick freak! (Kidding. Well done, sir!)
The penultimate track is completely wack, though. It has possibly the most ridiculous lyrics in the known universe, and the delivery of said lyrics breaks with established tradition by also being incredibly ridiculous. The songs’s “She’s gooooooooone” lyric rivals the absurdity of Darth Vader’s insipid “NOOOOOOO!” in Revenge of the Sith. Listen to this track once for teh lulz, then delete it. You’ll be glad you did. Also, the very last one is alright, but starts with a eye-rollingly awkward, “Okay, let’s do this. One, two, three, four.”
Any Carnival Music, Ever
I mean, that shit is frightening.
-Michael James Adams