I am hoping I’m not too late to put out a past due Halloween article. But no matter the time of year, music will always be an art form that captures fear in a way pure visuals cannot. This could be seen as an incomplete list, as surely there’s a large multitude of tracks that fit the description of “nightmare fuel”. Within my own experience however, I find these particular cuts to be the most compelling.
I. ‘Medicine’, Throbbing Gristle, 1982.
For fans of disturbing music, songs like “Hamburger Lady” and “Slug Bait” need no introduction. They are great examples of how avant-garde extended the traditional Western philosophy of music beyond pleasant melodies and blues rock chord progressions. It seems many view the works of Throbbing Gristle as if they are the dead end of music, however their presentation is really just that of a horror movie through sound, a genre that continues to find an audience of millions. It seems they simply were the ones to popularize the idea in audio form. Their best use of auditory fear isn’t so much on their earliest works as most might assume, rather I find it most intense on their last (classic) studio album, 1982’s Journey Through A Body.
This record is the aborted fetus of 20 Jazz Funk Greats and D.O.A, and I don’t mean this in a negative context. Much like their former work, the dispersion of odd horn passages and elongated noisy ambiance bring upon a nightmarish atmosphere. Journey Through A Body’s opening track “Medicine” shows this idea most clearly through a continuous heartbeat monitor drone alongside the presence of uncomfortable female vocal tones. Whether these elements are supposed to represent someone who is about pass or already deceased is completely subjective, but what cannot be disputed is how accurately this portrays death in a pitch-black manner.
When I think of words to describe Medicine, synonyms for “bleak” come to mind. Helped are the metallic echoes which insinuate the feeling of emptiness contrasted by the zany follow-up track “Catholic Sex”. This parallel only seems to make the fear present more strong. As a whole, Journey Through A Body could surely be its own entry, but I find its opening track to be Gristle’s apex as far as disturbing soundscapes are concerned.
II. ‘forever’, Infinity Frequencies, 2014.
Our shortest and most simplistic entry is that of Infinity Frequencies’ “forever” at a whopping 42 seconds. But do not let this overshadow its ability to unnerve you. Forever is a vaporwave track released during the genre’s early years back in 2014. It presents a reverse philosophy to the standard idea of traditional vaporwave by clouding our memories with hazy and apocalyptic overtones as opposed to blissful nostalgia. All we hear for its entire runtime is a cryptic voice repeating the title before making way to a short hopeful piano loop. There’s no proper introduction, we are simply thrown immediately into these two contrasting sound worlds, not dissimilar to how thoughts enter our subconscious without warning. This track resembles the feeling of deep regret, a perfect audible representation between imagination and uncomfortability. The corresponding album in of itself, “Computer Decay”, is one of very few records that actively makes me uneasy, yet the journey’s beginning remains as the highlight, bringing an appropriate introduction for an album that acts as the soundtrack to purgatory.
III. ‘Gloom’, Endless Dismal Moan, 2005.
For those well versed in disturbing music lore, perhaps no group is more infamous than black metal innovators Mayhem. Their entire history is plagued with mental illness, crime, murder, and cheap shock value far beyond any heavy metal collective of the time. The events that transpired amongst the band members are so ingrained in pop culture that names such as Varg Vikernes are known even to those outside of the heavy metal fanbase, gaining them a continued cult following all these years later. A group under the name Endless Dismal Moan would act as Japan’s equivalent to the original Mayhem legend, led by the deceased Chaos 9. He would unfortunately share the same fate as Pelle Ohlin by taking his life at a young age, only finding solace in artistic expression. His works in Endless Dismal Moan are meant to represent his own personal disturbed thoughts and dreams, creating an atmosphere even more brooding than the cold and cryptic soundscapes of traditional black metal.
This is most clearly seen on their instrumental track “Gloom” which could be described purely as nightmarish. It’s a symphony of guitar dissonance, creating tension with each additional tonality. We are thrust into the mindset of Chaos 9, one entangled in a web of mental distress, not bound by structure or composition. “Gloom” illustrates suicidal ideation in a far more candid fashion than even the aptly titled spin-off genre of ‘depressive suicidal black metal’, which in of itself relies on a cliched formula that has since been repeated at naseum. This is not to say that many of said genre’s most prominent artists are without pure intention, but rather that Endless Dismal Moan present such a unique atmosphere in their overlooked discography. All the remaining tracks on their eponymous debut are sure to bring unease to any seasoned fan of black metal, however “Gloom” is surely the most violent. The ability to bring us to such a deserted and torturous place through sound is a skill that few possess, brought upon to us by an artist who can no longer hear our feedback. In memoriam, perhaps we can bring attention to the works of Chaos 9, someone who brought unmatched fear to a genre that still is revered as one of the most punishing out there.
IV. ‘Hymn’, John Duncan, 1997.
To many, John Duncan is nothing more but the poster child for cheap shock value. The ultra infamous release “Blind Date” cemented Duncan particularly in recent years as not just one of the most disturbing to be loosely related to music, but amongst one of the most disturbing figures in media phenomenon. Blind Date had graced the bottom of notorious content creator Nick Crowley’s YouTube iceberg back in 2022, an inclusion that surely led millions of viewers to his work who would’ve otherwise overlooked it completely. Supposedly the recording details the excruciating process of necrophilia for the purpose of self-punishment, in which the authenticity of the act is still unconfirmed. This new found attention led me to dig through Duncan’s back catalogue of bizarre soundscapes, mostly based in odd narrations and shortwave radio stations. 1981’s effort Creed has stuck in my mind as possibly the most forward thinking record in noise history. It’s hard to believe cuts like “Workjob” and “Tango Delta” were even pressed to vinyl at the turn of the decade over forty years ago.
He had even beat Peter Sotos to his own game a whopping seventeen years before any child abuse testimonials appeared on a Whitehouse record with the soul-draining closer of “Happy Homes”. It’s a discussion between Duncan and a psychologist as he recounts the instances of child abuse and neglect he witnessed during his career as a bus driver. Later interviews detail that these repeated occurrences led to Duncan quitting this profession altogether. As cold as “Happy Homes” may be, it would be closer to the realms of field recordings more so than a direct sonic composition. Composed soundscapes channelling the same pitch black violence presented on Creed would appear over a decade later on his magnum opus, “Mort Aux Vauches: Seek”.
The entire runtime paints an unending landscape full of dead-end emotional emptiness, in which its opening moments make especially clear. “Hymn” stands as the most focused out of the five tracks, even descending into a calm subtle tone halfway through as if to add some sort of temporary bliss state. Like a natural disaster it is soon pummeled by overpowering forces that leave little if nothing left. No song can really act as a Mariana’s trench for extreme music moreso than much of Duncan’s work, yet “Hymn” shows Duncan at his most dreadful. For a figure most notorious for featuring on an album consisting of supposed necrophilia audio, this feat is simply astonishing.
I challenge any and all to make a grocery trip to the entirety of Mort Aux Vauches, as I have done myself many times.
“Black Vampyrr”, Woods of Belial, 2003.
A painful exploration in extreme emotional anguish. The track Black Vampyrr is an effort by virtually unknown black metal collective Woods of Belial who coined the term “suicidal doom”, a genre that extends far and beyond the horror of traditional depressive suicidal black metal into even noiser territory. Unlike their imitators, I find Belial maintains strong songwriting qualities alongside dreadful atmospheres.
“Crying Tone”, Laurie Spegiel, 1975.
The idea of “making a guitar cry” is one well-known to everyday musicians. But few have tried to quite literally recreate sadness through music. Sound artist Laurie Spegiel has a plethora of heavenly ambient pieces that rival the work of Brian Eno, (see ‘A Garden’ off of the same Obsolete Systems compilation) yet she simultaneously enters the furthest reaches of what can be considered music in an artistic context. Crying Tone is definitely worth a listen for those with an interest in serious sound experimentation.
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