Our friends, coworkers, and subway-squinters-at-our-patches all say the same thing: “Metal? You like scary music.” Like every cut pumping through our cans is nothing but a game of Candyman. To them, we’re frittering away our hearing with ultra long distance calls to the devil. They don’t get what we get. That’s kind of the point.
But, of course, finding time for fright isn’t exclusive to our niche. As a species, we love to be scared. We just don’t love fear. Fear is too real. Cheap scares, though? The kind of lower-level pensiveness occurring when harm is away, hamming it up with danger, and we’re left alone to have a mortality house party? Sorta the best, right? We seek out these feelings to make sure we can still feel. Or, maybe it’s just practice for the grand finale, allowing us to grow a callous so we can fade away with something resembling dignity. Whatever our attraction, it’s one of life’s finest spices. If love is sweet, being scared is the salt, enhancing and enriching our otherwise boring existences.
Where our aforementioned short-hair-interlopers are wrong, though, is how we regard metal’s ultimate utility. Unlike other media and, hell, other forms of music, metal never really intends to freak us out. No, metal positions us to be the counselor snickering during a campfire ghost tale. We get the gag. We find kinship in not being repelled. “So, you didn’t stain your knickers during the double-tracked howls from hell? You smiled instead? We can be buds.”
That said, sometimes metal’s playful nip draws blood. When you’re young and you haven’t yet burned through supernatural blueprints by way of rigorous idiocy, odes to demons and disembowelment aren’t inspiring smiles. You miss the wink since your eyes are scrunched shut. On the other end of the spectrum, old age provides one enough evidence to deduce the most frightening thing on the planet is a human without buffers and inhibitions. Indeed, the evil that men do goes on and on. And then, sometimes, a song is so laughably bad, such a colossal misfire, it causes us to examine the fallibility of human perception. In the process, we kick out our only crutch keeping us upright against the patternless chaos of reality. St. Anger goes from punchline to Psycho once you realize lucidity is never guaranteed and you’ll never know the day when the switch is flipped. Those are the moments of real terror, when you just don’t see it coming. It hits you deeper than the boos in the borks, at least the ones beating away the timid beings around us.
So, the songs collected here by the crew are those increasingly rarer experiences when our music gives us the wonderful willies. The reasons differ, the timeframes jump more than Sam Beckett on DMT, and the genres are as diverse as Dan Obstkrieg and Ian Chainey trying to put together a roadtrip playlist. The unifiers? Raised hairs, dilated pupils, and a long-lasting buzz of, “Oh…shit. What was that?”
For your seasonal enjoyment, we present Things that Go Blargh in the Night.
On its own, Pig Destroyer’s “Jennifer” is almost silly. The somewhat humorous visuals of an overweight woman sloppily eating, a middle-aged pervert not-so-discreetly masturbating, and a crowd of gawkers staring at what they think is two girls about to engage in coitus is only tempered by the disconnected paranoia/emotional catatonia that makes up the bulk of Prowler in the Yard. But the bookend, immediately following “Piss Angel”, brings the tale of these two women to a halted, emotionless conclusion. There’s not going to be a better example of the words ‘thighs’, ‘crotch’ or ‘vagina’ used in such a directly sexless and hollow context found anywhere, much less being read by a disturbing word-recognition automaton. With a background of singular church organ notes and a child doing this weird, fucked-up chant/sing… thing, the visual of a ‘dead’ woman sitting up and literally entering another woman is every bit as creepy as it sounds, if not more so. If never sleeping again is your thing, feel free to get a little legless and play this one in complete darkness. [CHRIS REDAR]
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An overactive imagination paired with an abiding captivation toward most anything dark makes for an interesting childhood. Desperate to keep me from pestering them in the middle of the night with extensive details of witches prevailing behind my bed-board, my parents set me up with a small boombox at a young age in hopes of distracting the gremlins in my head with the soft, lilting sounds of The Little River Band and Alan fucking Parsons. The early 80s were dark in a number of ways.
By the time I was 14, however, I’d already begun using heavy metal as one of my shadowy outlets, and one particular college radio station in Cleveland was all too willing to deal devilry into my rookie ears. One night – long after the rest of the house had gone to sleep – the nightmarish call from Mercyful Fate drifted into my world, and I can genuinely state that my life has never been the same since.
It was quiet, too – the volume knob pinned low to ensure no one else could hear – and somehow, that extraordinarily sinister intro to “The Oath” seemed all the more terrifying when whispered into my ear like some hushed spell. The organs, the thunder, the knelling Hell’s bells – by the time the Devil’s laugh split the silence, I was thoroughly and fearfully damned.
No other song has ever matched “The Oath’s” evil; no song ever will.
“As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. A world without end. Amen.” [CAPTAIN]
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While the “metalness” of Primus has always been up for debate, few deny their frequent heft, and fewer still would be willing to deny the absolute creep factor of “Southbound Pachyderm.” Starting with a simple, foreboding bass line, the song builds gradually with Larry LaLonde’s jangled guitar hits coming out of nowhere like a GOTCHA moment in a slasher movie. The way Les Claypool delivers the title of the song – with some combination of fear and absolute reverence to the “ingenious device” – only solidifies the eeriness.
But that is just the song. And “Southbound Pachyderm” is an audio and visual experience. The ultimate fright factor comes from that fucking video. Let’s start by getting one basic fact perfectly clear: by default, claymation is fucking horrific. Characters and objects move as if possessed, so a seemingly innocent item like a flying elephant is rendered demonic. I still remember being skeeved out by the old Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer TV special as a child, so I can’t imagine how the combination of song and video would have affected my young psyche. The stuff of childhood nightmares, for sure. [ZACH DUVALL]
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Okay, so this is cheating, since Blut Aus Nord’s MoRT is a full album instead of a single song. But that’s kind of the point, though: I don’t know where this album stops and starts. Right when this album was released, the first time I sat down with it, planning to devour it with a nice set of headphones, I quite honestly didn’t know what to do with myself. The entire album felt like a fever dream, like the sound waves had been intercepted and fed through a thousand micro-permutations before being reassembled delivered straight to my quivering brainstem. More so than any of Blut Aus Nord’s other albums, MoRT feels like all the light has been sucked from the spectrum, and then focused and refracted invisibly through a black prism. I still have a visceral sense memory of that first encounter with the album, and how I kept hearing noises, but couldn’t place if they were coming from the music, or from somewhere outside my headphones. MoRT is made of discrete pieces, but each track feels like a splintering, an idiosyncratic unraveling of a single disorienting musical thread, and even now, as I’m listening again while trying to write this, the music makes my brain feel a bit like a racquetball sent careening endlessly around a transparent cube in zero gravity. Plenty of music can plausibly claim to be hallucinatory; few albums that I’ve encountered are as pitilessly destructive of any attempt at post-hallucination clarity. It’s not my favorite Blut Aus Nord album, and I don’t think it’s their most accomplished, but I do think it’s the most holistic, aesthetically rich piece of work the band has done in their staggeringly brilliant career to date. [DAN OBSTKRIEG]
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Devin Townsend’s Ocean Machine: Biomech is the sound of being alone. The entire album is a strain against angst, a hopeful push/pull against the aches and groans of a nascent adulthood. From the pleas for companionship within “Night” to the abandonment issues that rear their head in “Bastard,” it’s a rollercoaster of a coming-of-age tale. But as the minimalist dirge “The Death of Music” gives way to the reflective ballad “Things Beyond Things,” it lulls itself into pool of false security.
“Things Beyond Things” may be subtle, but it’s the most disconcerting thing on the record. It’s a reflection on prior memories, on the longing for grandeur that pushes at the perimeters of young mind that’s desperately trying to grow older. Few things are more horrifying than realizing that your life’s goal to that point — to be an adult — isn’t turning out the way you’d planned, and the nagging, gnawing feeling in your gut just isn’t going away.
And then you scream. [JORDAN CAMPBELL]
• • • •
The early 1990s was an odd time for technology, and because of my limitations, I recall originally listening to Tool’s Undertow on my television via Sega CD (before I got The Little Bookshelf Stereo That Could, which is miraculously turning twenty next August). I’d really been into the videos from Tool, and when this album became cheaply acquirable through a BMG 12-for-1 deal, I was quick to acquire. As it wound down to its final track, the numbers kept climbing higher, and when 69 finally struck, the bizarre proselytizing began. But then it didn’t end after the mantric midsection; several minutes of chirping crickets allowed time to let the First Law of Thermodynamics creep into my brain and stew for a bit. Then while nodding off, I was startled awake for the last two minutes: a phone message left by a landlord named Bill. As a young teenager I thought it was about aliens, but something about the surreal nature of the color changing and the way it speaks in detached reflection is strikingly strange. Plus, does it all link together, or is the end more like a bonus track itself since “Disgustipated” is actually listed proper? Either way, it still stands as one of Tool’s most enigmatic pieces. [MATT LONGO]
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Want to put a little fear in someone’s heart? Just mention the name “Black Sabbath.” Want to put a little lump in their pants? Play them this eponymous track, which sounded like the soundtrack to hell when released over 40 years ago, and still does to this day. The scene is set by the sound of pouring rain and a distant bell growing louder behind the roar of thunder. Then the main riff — delivered in Tony Iommi’s inimitable guitar tone, weighted down by Bill Ward’s enormous percussion, and creepily underscored by Geezer Butler’s deep basslines — comes crashing down from above and knocks the listener right on their ass. Next thing they know, they’re looking up at the devil himself. Ozzy Osbourne’s creaky, anguished vocal is the narrative of a man staring down his ultimate doom while the band shifts into an eerily quiet riff straight out of black mass. When Ozzy wails “Oh no, no, please God help me!” one can almost feel the evil spirits floating nearby. You’d better run, because Satan’s coming ‘round the bend — do you escape, or are you engulfed by the darkness? Check your underwear to find out. [DAVE PIRTLE]
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Spiritual Catharsis, Striborg’s first full-length album, was also my first experience with the Tasmanian one-man outsider black metal project. Following a guitars-only introduction and two proper songs of absolutely blown-out blizzardy treble assault, “Glorification of Mother Nature” would seem like a fairly effective breather. It’s a three-and-a-half minute ambient piece made up of very simple, gently oscillating tones. But friends, let me tell you, this quiet little piece of music threw me for quite the loop when I first heard it. Until you reach this ambient piece, it’s easy enough to encounter Sin-Nanna’s (admittedly) demented black metal and think, “Ah, well, this dude’s just spent a lot of time on obscure black metal message boards, and done his homework on ultra-raw demos from the early Norwegian scene, the LLN, and all sorts of Australian and other depressive black metal.” But then, somewhere in the middle of this tone poem of horrifying suggestion, it hits: Maybe…maybe this guy’s for real. I had that same thought the first time I heard “Glorification of Mother Nature,” and it absolutely shattered and reframed the way I experienced Striborg’s music. I’m a rabid devotee of Sin-Nanna’s output now, and I can still never shake that first unsettling experience. What if the human we think is behind this music is actually a spirit haunting the forests of Tasmania, summoning tertiary terrors to screech bloody suspended madness into a sorely abused four-track recorder? [DAN OBSTKRIEG]
• • • •
Mr. Bungle’s expansive, ten-part, 10m28s concept track built around decompression sickness is one of their finest experiments. Trey Spruance was allegedly inspired by the work of Joe Meek while recording “The Bends” — both compositions are infused with a wide variety of musical styles, plus the submerged sound effects of “Glob Waterfall” and “Entry of the Globbots” strike similar sonic chords. Mr. B is here less fascinated with outer space (that comes with the crushing “Merry Go Bye Bye”) and more interested in doom from the depths that not Cthulhu for once. Patton further explores his vocal boundaries, only speaking explicit words in ‘The Drowning Flute’ and ‘Love on the Event Horizon’, and evoking a sense of terror as our panicking protagonist starts to run out of oxygen. The tipping point is surely ‘Screaming Bends’ — 40 seconds of pure Spruance, channeling and updating everything awesome about that classic sci-fi horror sound. All told, nothing compares to the outro, especially those last moments that are guaranteed to raise the hairs on your… well… damn near everywhere, really. A full immersive headphones experience is highly recommended. [MATT LONGO]
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To consider any second of The Work Which Transforms God less than an ideal Halloween soundtrack would be inaccurate. Blut Aus Nord’s most celebrated achievement is one continual invasion by some unseen force, boring its way into the listener’s mind, but “Inner Mental Cage” solidifies the malevolent intent and proves earlier respites from the violation were all lies. This 2:55 of spooky perfection is exactly the kind of song that you don’t want to suddenly wake up to in case you were brave enough to fall asleep to The Work.
The track is infinitely basic, revolving around a couple very simple guitar themes, but finding ways to continually twist it over those three brief minutes. A dissonant harmony here, a distant chant or unidentifiable noise there, or the smallest change in the delivery of those programmed drums makes all the difference in upping the general feeling of unease. The growing sense something is coming to kill you becomes so great that not even 10 minutes of the relatively peaceful closer “Procession of the Dead Clowns” can wash it away. Probably because the back of your mind is still echoing “Inner Mental Cage” while looking at the song title “Procession of the Dead Clowns.” New age horror. [ZACH DUVALL]
• • • •
Tunesmiths majoring in unsettling jams, you say? How about ol’ James Plotkin.
Know the name? If not, your unfamiliarity automatically becomes the scariest thing about this entire feature. That’s not a comic book nerd slight, an indictment of your noobness, or a sentiment deserving IMPACT font to be plastered on the selfie of some poor unaware schmo. It’s just the cold, depressing truth: Even if you’re brilliant, advancing your field with landmarks the size of Stonehenge, there’s a chance you’ll never be truly appreciated.
Debuting with Old Lady Drivers’ zany grind in 1988, Plotkin has made a career out of detours into the wilderness years before the rest of metal could come through with the bulldozers and steamrollers. OLD’s 1995 release Formula still sounds fresh with its shimmery electronic gazes. Atomsmasher and Phantomsmasher are even fresher still, with a collage approach akin to a severely fragmented hard drive sautéing smidgens and smudges of noise, ambient, and Dave Witte at his Discordance Axis blasting best. And, James’s always adventurous solo/collabo works are worth the digital dust accruing under your nails while crawling through Google’s crates. (Prepare thy wallet: KK Null is a frequent contributor and Mick Harris returned the favor after Plotkin guested for Scorn.)
Be that as it may, his bread and butter is klonopin scarfing drone utilizing negative space to capsize metalheads’ comfort zones. Khanate is the household name as long as your household is a padded cell. His bass work was the contrasting deep body high compared to fellow former AARP car pooler Alan Dubin’s full-scale freak out. One-off Khlyst subbed in Runhild Gammelsæter and shifted slightly towards the laptop-aided marionette hand of later Merzbow. Then, naturally, the Jodis debut used the previous template, but decided to cloak everything in the timbres of a dream. Few can eff with form like James Plotkin.
Cool bio, bro! So, what does this duder have to do with spooky songs? Namanax is your answer. Called in to provide studio support for Exit-13 member and Relapse Records cofounder Bill Yurkiewicz’s power electronics/soundbomb project, James gated the “cascading waves of electronic turbulence” into large scale, cinematic prose-less audio-plays befitting Toho or Universal. In fact, perhaps that was the point of reference for 1998’s Monstrous. The album uses kinda contemporaneous Nurse With Wound-esque repetition as an analogy for the unrelenting drive of slow-moving movie monsters. After all, we don’t fear zombies or Michael Myers for their need to make things bleed. We’re terrified those entities keep coming. Forever. And that the terror never stops. Like time. Until it, you know, stops.
That’s heady stuff for an album cover containing Doc Frank’s creation. Of course, that’s James Plotkin; the guy who is always able to shock silly things through the neck bolts and make it all into Mensa material. Creepy as hell Mensa material. [IAN CHAINEY]
• • • •
The crumpled butcherpaper mountains lay in sharp shadowfold under the long blue dusk and in the middle distance the glazed bed of a dry lake lay shimmering like the mare imbrium and herds of deer were moving north in the last of the twilight, harried over the plain by wolves who were themselves the color of the desert floor. Glanton sat his horse and looked long out upon this scene. Sparse on the mesa the dry weeds lashed in the wind like the earth’s long echo of lance and spear in old encounters forever unrecorded. All the sky seemed troubled and night came quickly over the evening land and small gray birds flew crying softly after the fled sun. He chucked up the horse. He passed and so passed all into the problematical destruction of darkness.” – Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West