Sure, some of you will throw on Joy Division at your upbeat Halloween dance party and call it a day. (May I also recommend screening The Crow in the background? Classic.) But if you’re interested in exploring the actual dark side of All Hallow’s Eve, try some of these unexpected, underground, and completely drawer-soiling audio nightmares.
Swans, Holy Money (1986) You could pick almost any Swans album from the early period when bandleader Michael Gira still seemed to genuinely hate his audience. The dark, plodding slowness of a track like “Coward” is undeniably horrific, but so is the unrestrained bile that Gira so effortlessly summons.
Ornette Coleman, Naked Lunch (Score - 1992) For the most part, Ornette’s free jazz innovation gave musicians the chance to express torrents of unrestrained joy. Here (alongside Howard Shore and the London Philharmonic Orchestra), it sounds like a recording of spiders crawling underneath your skin.
Hector Berlioz, “March to the Scaffold” (1830) I’m not much of a classical buff, but my friend Francis Drake cued me to this. Written 35 years after the end of France’s Reign of Terror, this short section of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique has a romantic revolutionary fervor battling with a mounting sense of dread and menace, before the bottom finally drops out with the suddenness of a trapdoor.
Merzbow, 1930 (1998) As with Swans, you could put any number of Merzbow releases on this list — but in the case of Masami Akita, you’d be choosing from hundreds. Most of them sound like some variation of someone attaching your molars to contact mics, ripping them out of your skull, and putting them into a Vitamix.
Dr. Octagon, Dr. Octagonacologyst (1996) Early “horrorcore” rap albums — like Gravediggaz’ 6 Feet Deep and later versions by everyone from Eminem to Odd Future — peddled shock and gore, but this project by Kool Kieth, Dan the Automator, and DJ Qbert is way more deeply disturbing. The central character, a space-travelling experimental gynecologist whose patients tend to end up dead or turned into half-human monsters, is a villain out of Tobe Hooper’s highest-budget nightmares and the Burroughsian word salad Keith puts in his mouth is casually chilling to say the least (“First patient / Pull out the skull, remove the cancer / Breakin’ his back, chisel necks for the answer.”) The minor-key, mostly understated production and mind-bending scratching complete this psychic landmine.
Slint, Spiderland (1991) It’s a little hard to separate this record’s angsty emotional intensity from its downright spookiness. The key is the guitars (including one wielded by latterday Tortoise/Yeah Yeah Yeahs/Interpol guitarist Dave Pajo), which intertwine with a subtle menace before exploding into atonal frenzies of tragedy/terror. Over the course of the album, they make the discovery of a shipwreck and riding a roller coaster seem like equally epic and shattering experiences.
Goblin, Suspiria (Score - 1977) Goblin (whose triumphant reunion show passed through Tampa not long ago) do flirt with the cheesier side of ‘suspenseful’ music. But their work on Dario Argento’s witch-conspiracy film Suspiria holds up considerably better than the film itself. Creepy, then tense, then hair-raising.
Roscoe Holcomb, The High Lonesome Sound (1998) Okay, at this point I’m starting to freak myself out. Roscoe Holcomb was a discovery of the 1960s folk revival (this seminal collection was a reissue), and I’m sure he never intended it to be nightmare fodder. But his spidery banjo picking and, most of all, his reedy, bleak moans make his renditions of everything from “House of the Rising Sun” to “Man of Constant Sorrow” to the murder ballad “Omie Wise” into the stuff of deep-holler nightmares.
Honorable Mention: Mayhem, De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas (1994). Yes, this is the Norwegian black metal band whose members rampantly murdered and cannibalized each other in the ‘90s. But as much as metalheads consider the album a classic, it’s very thrashy and doesn’t really hold a candle to the plethora of extremely creepy, atmospheric basement-dwellers Mayhem inspired by the 2000s.