Monday, October 27, 2008

Halloween: Spooky Songs On Otherwise Normal Albums

Well, we're in the home stetch of Whiskey Pie's month-long Halloween celebration. All this week I'll have Halloween themed posts, including a special Album of the Week entry that is fairly ambitious (in that, it'll be ambitious for me not to ramble on for 10,000 words).

But today we're going to talk about scary music. I've already done scary movies and scary games (one more post each on those forthcoming, in fact) so it's time I gave music its due beyond the videos I've been posting. Rather than talk about 'scary albums', because I don't own any I think are scary all the way through, I'm going to explore some songs that are surprisingly creepy considering the majority of the rest of the music from the albums they come from is straightforward in comparison.

Aphex Twin- 'Grey Stripe' (a.k.a. track four of the second disc of SAWII)
Actually, Aphex Twin probably deserves some kind of lifetime achievement award for tucking away scary songs on his albums. In the case of Selected Ambient Works Volume II, the order of the day is mostly free floating texture and mood pieces. But 'Grey Stripe' is a terrifying song that sounds like indescribable echoes through deep space and the howls and shrieks of alien lifeforms as they bound through the corridors and ventilation shafts of some haunted space station. It's unsettling and unforgettable.

The Beatles- 'Revolution 9'
I may have told this story on here before, but the first time I listened to The White Album it was on a Fall afternoon. I just happened to put it on to coincide so that, when I got to the side four of the vinyl version, the sun had gone down and it was dark and cold outside. 'Revolution 9' is an infamous piece of musique concrete that most people hate and skip when they listen to the album. I never skip it, but it's still creepy as hell. Even while listening to The White Album with a friend, it leaves you with an eerie feeling that the final song, 'Goodnight', with its Disney-esque majesty, only partially dispels.

Boards of Canada- 'The Devil Is In The Details'
While much of the music and album artwork of Boards of Canada trades on psychedelia and the darker aspects of the 60s, this song takes things a bit further, with a horrifying female voice talking to you over the sounds of a disembodied child crying in reverse (??) and bizarre tape loops. Eeek.

Brian Wilson- 'Mrs. O'Leary's Cow'
So much history has been built up about the Smile album that it's hard to get past it and put this album in the context of 1967 even though it wasn't finished until 2004. Reportedly, while originally recording this album (and going crazy on drugs, naturally) Brian Wilson thought that this song had caused a fire in his area. True or not, 'Mrs. O'Leary's Cow' forms part of the 'Elements Suite' of Smile representing fire--another tale says that Brian Wilson made the band and gathered orchestra put on plastic fire helmets while recording the song. Its title references the cow that--true story--started the great Chicago fire all those years back. It's intense though short, mostly notable because of its supposed historical fire causing and for helping 1967-era Brian Wilson seem even crazier than he already did.

Can- 'Aumgn'
You could probably play this song in a haunted house and get away with it. 'Aumgn' is the most extreme and experimental song that Can ever produced, a 17 minute monolith that is indescribable. Spooky sounds, tape loops, screeching violin, keyboards, free jazz, free noise, scatter shot percussion...and at the heart of it all, Damo Suzuki saying/singing "AAAUUUUUMMMMMMMMGGGGGNNNNNN" over and over, slowed down, stretched out, treated with effects, or brought back and forth in the mix. The whole thing crescendos with a rising synth chord, frenetic tribal drumming, and a whole lot of studio trickery. Mind blowing.

Low- 'Don't Understand'
This is Low at their most gothic and deliberate, slowly building the tension of the spiralling keyboard atmospherics until the primitive death march led by drums kicks in. Then Alan Sparhawk holds a gun to our heads and relates how he doesn't understand while leading us through the woods to the spot where he'll leave our bodies after offing us. At least, that's what I picture in my head when I listen to this song.

The Microphones- '(Something) Cont.'
The Glow Pt. 2 has an otherworldly vibe that I can't explain. You really have to listen to it on headphones to get the full effect, but it traffics in sonic extremes. There are many quiet moments that linger, with barely audible sounds spread throughout, taunting you. Reportedly there are foghorns from boats at various parts of the album though I've only noticed a few. But on the other end of the sonic extreme, there's noisy storms like this that move in and then off like thunder, scaring the shit out of you before another unexpectedly catchy moment of lo-fi indie rock restores you to your senses.

Miles Davis- 'Rated X'
If you didn't know this song was by Miles Davis before listening to it, you would have no idea. It features no trumpet at all and comes from his late-electric era circa 1973/1974, when he would occasionally play atonal organ blasts during live performances to shake up and/or signal transitions to his band. This track, released on a compilation, is spellbindingly crazy, with a pounding drum/bass beat that predicts all manner of beat driven experimental electronic music to come. Over that we are assaulted with churning wah-wah guitar and ear splitting, Phantom Of The Opera-pissed-off-and-high-on-cocaine organ "chords." There's a remix of this track on an album by Bill Laswell that is actually listenable but therefore not scary. If you need a song to clear guests out of your house/apartment at the end of a Halloween party, here you go.

Pere Ubu- 'Thriller!'
No, not that 'Thriller.' This is a spooky instrumental with incomprehensible vocal samples, a slow, stumbling drum beat and guitars lazily detuning and tuning themselves. Eventually, odd scratching/chewing sounds show up and bury the rest of the mix. A very spooky song and one that, if memory serves, ends side one of Dub Housing in an oddly appropriate fashion.

Sonic Youth- 'Providence'
In all fairness, once you read that this song is simply a combination of an overheating amplifier, an answering machine message from Mike Watt, and Thurston Moore plunking away on a piano, it loses some of its power. But like all great double albums, 'Providence' is an anomalous, creepy track that doesn't quite fit in with the rest of the album but sort of does. Anyway, yeah. Spooky.

Sufjan Stevens- 'John Wayne Gacy, Jr.'
The song itself is actually quite pretty, if a bit sad. When you realize he's singing about infamous clown/child murderer John Wayne Gacy, it instantly becomes creepier than anything you've heard that week. Certain lines from this song give me chills and that's because this stuff really happened and is not just some lame ghost story.

Talking Heads- 'The Overload'
Primarily known for being a funky and vibrant album, Remain In Light leaves us with the intense conclusion of 'The Overload', all oppressive atmospherics, David Byrne's monotone delivery, and zombified drums. Phish took this a step further when performing the album live on Halloween '96 by adding an electric drill (!!) and stage antics (including a random crew member saying "where's my coffee?!") that confused the audience.

The Velvet Underground- 'Sister Ray'
Actually, the entirety of the Velvet Underground's second album is crazy and off-the-rails. But 'Sister Ray' brings the built-up tense atmosphere to its inevitable conclusion, rolling up into one 17 minute ball of evil all the drugs, sex, violence, and terror that marked the songs of the Velvets up to that point. The first time I listened to this song I was genuinely frightened of it because I didn't know what to expect. Now, I find it oddly exhilarating. Sometimes it's nice to just let go and become one with your inner nihilist psychotic drug addict.