Ahh, Halloween. It’s the finest time of the year to listen to some spooky fuckin’ music. And I don’t mean the Monster Mash or some shit neither. We’re talking the real deal: some freaky, dark, disturbing album that’ll leave you sleepless tonight, or perhaps shivering to yourself in the corner of a crowded party. If you’re into that sorta thing. And I am! So, to celebrate such a lovely season, I made it my mission to dig up five kickass scary albums from my catalog that I’d solidly recommend to anyone out there looking for something to jam to tonight. Five flavors of scares: rock, electronic, jazz, ambient, and no wave. Hopefully it’s a little something for everybody. Onward!
1. Suicide – Suicide
The… well, campiest of all the albums you’ll find here, and campy in the same way an 80’s slasher flick is: low budget, grimy, and unintentionally doofy, but at times also genuinely horrifying for all the above reasons. For those not in the know, Suicide were a 70’s (cyber? synth?) punk band, and this, their eponymous debut, was recorded in 1977 on the budget of I’d assume could probably purchase about four potatoes. Armed with a synthesizer, a drum machine, a microphone, and a whole lotta attitude, vocalist Alan Vega and musician Martin Rev cranked out seven tunes, most of which were fairly short, buzzing punk rock pieces. “Ghost Rider” is the finest example of this punk attitude matched with freaky electronica; two and a half minutes of stomping percussion, odd lyrics, and an insanely catchy three-note bassline. And it’s a thin line to walk between the strange and the stupid, but Suicide had it nailed right here. Scoff all you want at the hammy whoops and hollers from Vega, or the timid, often rickity drum machine programming, but to deny just how strikingly original this sounded in ’77, or how influential it’s been on punk, electronic music, or hip-hop since its creation would be ridiculous. Short, bassy, rattling instrumental loops set against reverb soaked moaning should sound laughable; instead, it’s tense, disorienting, and downright fucking mortifying. The main attraction, beside indelible opener “Ghost Rider” is “Frankie Teardrop.” Depending on who you ask, it’s either one of the scariest songs ever made or one of the goofiest. Me, I think it’s fuckin’ horrifying. I won’t dare give away what it’s about, or any musical details, but it’s worth listening to even if you’re not planning on checking out the album. For best results, listen to “Frankie Teardrop” at maximum volume alone in the dark at one in the morning. Then don’t sleep.
2. Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures
A classic. I put it on her for completion’s sake, but if you really don’t know it by now you damn well should. Joy Division’s debut record is one of the all time post-punk greats, and one that sparked the fledgling genre into wild productivity. I debated between putting this or sophomore record Closer on the list, but ultimately I settled on what I consider the finer work; think atmosphere with this one. Lots and lots of toned, deep dark atmosphere. But don’t go in thinking this is some drab, inert goth snoozefest. Joy Divison, despite being the cornerstone and ideal post-punk band, were actually pretty punk themselves (not that you’d guess here). Formed in 1976 as “Warsaw” by singer Ian Curtis and several schoolmates, their early sound was very, very raw – obviously Sex Pistols influenced. By 1979, though, the band had teamed up with producer Martin Hannett to help record their first album, and… well, just listen to it! It’s punchy and crisp, but also shadowy and soaked in ambiance. Songs like “Interzone” or “Shadowplay” are essentially just terrific punk tunes, played with less distortion and more atmosphere. But Ian Curtis and co. don’t wallow in the terrific gloom – there’s a tremendous, frightening edge to every word spoken, every chord struck, every snap of the snare, every bass hum. And much has been written on those thrumming, melodic, forceful basslines, the sharp, echoey drum sounds, the faraway ring of the guitar, the cryptic lyrics, the masterfully dark production, etc. But it’s all been said before, and the album’s so good it rightfully speaks for itself. There’s a dark, paranoid sense of dread it holds, but you can still dance to it, or even drive to it if you’d like. Play it loud. Loud.
3. Sonic Youth – Bad Moon Rising
This is, as it happens, a lesser Sonic Youth album, but it’s a testament to the band’s strength that it’s terrific nonetheless. I consider this the weakest of all the albums I put on this list, but funnily enough it’s also the most suited to a Halloween night. I mean, if your album has songs called “Ghost Bitch,” “I’m Insane,” “Satan Is Boring,” and yes, “Halloween,” it’s bound to be pretty fuckin’ spooky. And, you know, that cover too. ‘Tis the season.
Sonic Youth in their early days weren’t a very song-y band, and by that I mean that their focus was more in on the texture and tone of the distorted, detuned guitars, and less on song structure or lyrics. Bad Moon Rising is a prime example; songs on both the A and B sides fade into each other, melding into twisting, furrowing guitar passages that groan with feedback and clanging (nails on guitar strings, I suspect). And that’s really what you’re gonna have to do with this one: focus in on the guitars and let their tones sweep you up. There are some remarkably done transitions here; take the one between “Brave Men Run” and “Society Is a Hole.” “Brave Men Run” collapses near the end of its runtime, devolving into the pairing of bass feedback and a sampled loop of… something. Something creepy. And out of that chaos emerges a new riff, and new set of lyrics, a new basic musical idea. That’s the gist of the album; not terribly complicated. But this constant motion, paired with freaky subject matter and sheer volume of noise, makes it one of the best Halloween-related albums ever. It makes me want a pumpkin scarecrow burning in my front yard.
4. Miles Davis – Dark Magus
Primal, tribal, eclectic, funky, jazzy, noisy, and long. This is probably the weirdest thing on the list, considering it’s 1) a live album, 2) it’s not a rock/electronic album, and 3) well, Jesus, just listen to the first 30 seconds of the album: that’s everything you need to know right there. Instead what you get with Dark Magus is over an hour and a half of anemic, groove-oriented jams, displaying Miles’ love for jazz fusion (specifically acid rock and funk). Though released in ’77, Magus was actually recorded in 1974 in the midst of a lot of turmoil for Davis as an artist: he was in low critical and commercial standing following his forays into rock and funk with albums like In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, and was suffering from drug addiction and depression. These aspects crawled their way into the music as a darker, edgier, more freakish sound than even attempted on Bitches Brew or A Tribute to Jack Johnson. The audience of the stately Carnegie Hall probably expected a rendition of “Freddie Freeloader” or “Summertime,” not nearly two hours of atonal, rhythmic jazz bombardment. (I just love imagining the faces of those prissy, upper-class white folks in 1974 hearing the first few moments of the performance before realizing they’re not in for 90 minutes of the modal jazz Davis was pioneering a little over ten years prior. I’m sure the hippies in the crowd loved it, though.) The live album and performance itself, as expected, weren’t initially viewed as successes, but have since retroactively been acknowledged as being enormous influences on jazz fusion, funk, and noise rock. And if you think that maybe a 100 minute jazz fusion album maybe isn’t for you but still want to try it out, it shouldn’t be that difficult, I don’t think. There are just 4 songs total, broken up into two parts each, that run about 25-30 minutes apiece. And you can expect just about everything I listed in that first sentence. If you’re looking for something really unhinged this Halloween, give it a shot. Ideal for dancing.
5. Tim Hecker – Virgins
Up until this point, we’ve discussed albums that deal with the mystical, the monstrous, and the garish. But let’s say you’re more into the subtle, psychological side of horror. You don’t like silly monster movies or disturbed Americana – you want bone-chilling tension and ambiance. And in that case, Tim Hecker’s got you covered: Virgins is one 2013’s best albums, and the best ambient one of that year too. Previous Hecker projects were rooted in audio sampling and keyboards tones, but beginning with 2011’s Ravedeath, 1972, his sound drew closer and closer to sheer noise and cacophony, the likes of which were only hinted at in Ravedeath. Here’s that idea and sound performed at its peak; much of the album is drenched in plinking pianos, grinding sub-bass, airy wind instruments, and radiant keyboards, coalescing into a soundscape straight out of a modern psychological horror flick. Listening is like watching a real-life haunted house collapse inward on itself, one room at a time. It’s strangely beautiful, too – “Black Refraction” is this three and a half minute stripped-down little piano piece with a simple, elegant melody. It’s set apart from the rest of the album as a brief but gorgeous respite from the otherworldly calamity occurring around it. And lest you think there’s an absence of scares here, check out “Live Room,” which sounds like a room with only a piano, keyboard, and amp being filled with ghosts and every horrifying noise they produce on the instruments. The piece grows and swells incredibly, reaching a heady, powerful climax in the last fourth that rivals anything Hecker did on Ravedeath or Harmony in Ultraviolet. This one’s best suited for the outdoors, as it happens – a walk through the woods alone.
And to finish it off, here’s some stuff that didn’t make the cut, maybe because it really didn’t fit the Halloween theme, or maybe because it wasn’t as scary as some of the other stuff on the list; could’ve been a myriad of reasons. If you’ve listened to all of the above, or maybe just need something you’re not seeing up there, try:
- Slint, Spiderland
- Oneohtrix Point Never, Replica
- Joy Division, Closer
- Sonic Youth, Sister
- Black Sabbath, Black Sabbath
- Husker Du, Metal Circus
- Danny Brown, Atrocity Exhibition
Thanks for reading, folks. It feels good to have something big finally get posted on the blog after a month. Car Seat Headrest review soon. Happy Halloween, and may you eat a ton of candy and/or get totally wasted. Cheers!