Sunday, November 1, 2009

"We are the army you see through the red haze of blood" - Horror in Music

This comes a full one day after Halloween, as I completely forgot to post this yesterday. Think of this as giving you a full 364 day head start on your October listening for Halloween 2010 (which sounds like a terrible Stanley Kubrick/John Carpenter mash-up - The Monolith is Michael Myers!). ANYWAY, I am a notorious wuss when it comes to horror-themed entertainment, be it movies, books, or even music. Blood and gore doesn't bother me, and, while I hate BOO! type scares, those aren't really what I am talking about either. Instead, I am fairly easily scared by genuinely creepy things. The Shining, Romero's first three Dead films, the first Nightmare on Elm Street, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (if you haven't seen it, I recommend it, but be prepared), etc., those things scare me more than they should.

For the most part, music that is explicitly horror-themed just can't measure up. While horror-based rock music has been around for a long time (see, e.g., Screamin' Jay Hawkins). While I have an odd love for Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath, even though they use plenty of horror elements in their lyrics, I have never found myself even slightly disturbed by a bit of it. It's kind of like the old Universal horror films, I know they are great, I know they're supposed to be scary, but, while I enjoy them, they don't bother me.

Likewise, the Misfits, the Cramps, and the Damned use LOTS of horror imagery, but their appeal is in more of the campy, B-movie horror variety. Tons of fun, but not scary in slightest - it's hard to take Danzig seriously while he's singing "I want your skull!" in his over-the-top "scary" voice, and even less so to hear Lux Interior (R.I.P.) singing "I've got 96 tears... and 96 eyes". This is not to knock any of these bands, as I love 'em to death, but they really are the Evil Dead 2 or Dead Alive of the scary music genre.

There are also the more "gothic" (and I use the quotes for a reason) bands, which call to mind more of the Interview With the Vampire, The Hunger, The Lost Boys, Near Dark (kind of), and even (ugh) Twilight. Basically, music that presents a more "romantic" view of horror themes. Some of these groups are great (I'll vouch for early Bauhaus any day, and The Cure (sorry Mike, you are right, though - Pornography is scary stuff) and Joy Division arguably somewhat fall into this category), but there is a TON of terrible stuff under this banner, which has recently sky-rocket due to the over-lap between the sub-emo "scene" that has embraced teen girls' obsession over Twilight.

The music that genuinely gives me chills comes from stuff that is a little more off the beaten path. Some of it is not necessarily meant to be "scary" music, such as some Robert Johnson, Leadbelly ("In the Pines" is a terrifying song), or even most Joy Division. It's scary music about the fact that everyday life is often really terrifying much of the time.

However, this is not to say that explicitly horror-themed music cannot achieve its goals - Liars They Were Wrong, So We Drowned, a concept album about witches, is one of the creepiest things I have ever heard. While the lyrics (including the title of this post) can be sort of absurd, the constant feeling of unease, odd sounds, creepy instrumentation (the drums most notably) all add up to an album that is really disturbing to listen to while walking or driving on a dark autumn night. Sonically, the closest parallel I can make is that it sounds like "Mole"-era Residents covering The Shining soundtrack (as if the Residents aren't creepy enough). Basically, it sounds like a David Lynch silent film about witches in audio play format. Likewise, while The Residents and Liars effectively evoke the the sense of creeping unease and absurdity that permeates Lynch's better work, His Name is Alive, perhaps the most under-rated genuinely scary band, pulls more from David Cronenberg's "body horror" sub-genre. HNIA's second album, "Home is in Your Head" is just really, really unnerving (I wish I had a better word, but the only thing I can think of when I think of that album is "GAH!", and that's not exactly poetic). Seriously, though what other word is there for this? It's a loose concept album (I think), which seems to be either about an abused woman killing her husband or him killing her and her coming back to haunt him. Either way, it's incredibly effective, and pulls its horror from a deep sense of uncertainty, jarring shifts in tone and sonics, and Karin Oliver's uncanny vocal resemblance to a ghost. While the follow-up Mouth By Mouth doesn't achieve the same sustained effect (mostly because it is decidedly more song-based and straightforward), it has sections that are among the most unsettling in recorded music. "The Dirt Eaters", "Lip", "Cornfield", and "Ear", for example, perfectly evoke that sense of disgust and horror of the human body and biological process that Cronenberg expressed in "Videodrome" and "The Fly". Both albums are highly recommended (they are genuinely great works), but just be advised of the mood you need to be in to listen to them.

Anyway, while I love the Halloween season and the music that goes along with it. I will be somewhat glad to turn my iPod away from music that doesn't cause me to eye with unease the dark trees I run past with my dog in the evenings. It's almost time for Christmas music to make it's way onto my listening schedule, and you can't be too scared while this masterpiece is playing.

1 comment:

  1. I'm pretty much with you across the board. Things that TRY to be eerie end up sounding silly (e.g. the goth stuff), the Misfits/Damned group is far too silly to be taken with any serious level of horror, and is seems like the best way to make music scary is to go atmospheric. Hearing descriptions of scary stuff is not scary. But have you ever played Silent Hill? TERRIFYING. That HNIA record is torturous but wonderful. I have trouble listening to it anymore. I love horror movies, but after moving to our new house, I can't watch ghost-y stuff - it's a giant, 200-year-old house with a basement that scares the shit out of me. Give me something gory. I can handle that. The thought of watching Poltergeist (not watching it, THINKING about watching it) is enough to creep me out these days.