Horror Music

It’s fun to be scared shitless, especially in October. When he wants to be terrified, lionhearted Jeff Merrion turns to music instead of movies.

Halloween is nigh. The perennial signs are all there: spindly trees lamenting lost summer by expending their golden tears on the street, an overabundance of bite-size candy at supermarkets, and showings of Hocus Pocus and Halloweentown on the Disney Channel.

Most people celebrate the Halloween season by watching horror movies, but I mark the annual time of terror by listening to two albums that put the fear of God in me. Not in a, “Oh, man, that’s freaky,” sense, but in the sense that these two albums actually make me afraid to turn off the lights.

Joy Shapes by Charalambides and Telegraphs in Negative/Mouths Trapped in Static by Set Fire to Flames work my nerves over worse than any movie I’ve seen or book I’ve read.

The former, Joy Shapes, comes straight out of left field. I’ve never heard any stylistic predecessors to it, though I suppose it could be lumped into the vast wasteland genre of “outsider primitive folk” by a lazier critic. Maybe the most apt description that I’ve heard is “Harry Partch and Lorren Connors playing with Blind Lemon Jefferson,” to which I might add, “at some sort of bizarre Appalachian animal sacrifice ritual.”

The instrumentation comes primarily from lap steel guitar and an instrument called a psaltery, which, according to my research, is an ancient Greek predecessor to the zither. For the duration of the 75-minute album, the lap steel and psaltery churn out dissonant, beatless tone clusters. On top of this unsettling canvas, the singer, Christina Carter, wails and warbles like a soul possessed. When the lyrics are discernible, the music is uncomfortable, but when Carter’s hysterical shrieks lose coherence, the album becomes absolutely terrifying.

Joy Shapes works for me the same way a horror film does. It’s grotesque and unpleasant, but at the same time fascinating and captivating. Maybe this just speaks to my weak psyche, but I make sure I come into this album with a stable mindset. Otherwise, the music makes me as scared as the time my father told me that ash trees were called “Gotcha Plants” and that their limbs would snatch me from the car.

Telegraphs in Negative/Mouths Trapped in Static is definitely more conventional than Joy Shapes, as the musicians are all part of the incestuous Godspeed You! Black Emperor crew. As such, the music sounds fairly similar to the various Canadian post-rock bands. If I were to equate each of these bands with a horror movie genre, I would say that Set Fire to Flames is a slasher movie (predictable, but still scary) while Charalambides is on par with… well, I don’t know. Maybe Rosemary’s Baby. It terrifies me in an indescribable way.

Set Fire to Flames is a group of 12(!) musicians who set up shop in some abandoned structure in the frigid urban sprawl of Montreal. Their attempts to evoke the feel of the place–a derelict edifice–are a bit frightening.

Telegraphs in Negative/Mouths Trapped in Static is an endurance test (two full CD’s worth of harrowing music), but one with rewards. Unlike Joy Shapes, which is 75 full minutes of unrelenting terror, Telegraphs contains beautiful orchestral interludes between the most terrifying tracks, alleviating the oppressive gloom of the longer, darker songs.

The scariest track on the album is “In Prelight Isolate,” a horrifying ten minute exploration of tension with no release. The song opens with an arpeggiated three-note dissonant guitar line, and the band just slathers on layer after layer of tense string work until the listener’s brain stretches like taffy with suspense. I’ve actually only made it through this song in its entirety once or twice. The other times I put on Belle and Sebastian and curled up in the fetal position, waiting for the fear to leave me.

So there you have it. If music is your bag, then let these two albums fill said bag this Halloween;if not, well, give them a try anyway. The beauty of music is its ability to evoke emotions of all kinds, not just happiness or love or nostalgia.

Below is a list of other albums that scare me (albeit much less than the above albums).

  • Slint – Spiderland
  • Aphex Twin – Selected Ambient Works, Vol. II
  • Experimental Audio Research – The Köner Experiment
  • Jim O’Rourke – Terminal Pharmacy
  • Lee Ranaldo – East Jesus
  • A Silver Mt. Zion – Though He Has Left Us Alone, Shafts of Light Sometimes Grace the Corner of Our Room
  • Wolf Eyes – Burned Mind

While he excels in most other areas, Jeff Merrion’s spatial logic falls within the lower third percentile of United States citizens. He is a Religious Studies major and, as such, has a long life of administrative assistantship awaiting him. To potential employers: Jeff makes a mean cup of coffee.