Horror is an amorphous and controversial genre. Few people are able to agree on what truly scares them. What may cause one person to not sleep for weeks can be cheesy and hilarious to another. Many individuals would prefer to eschew the genre completely by dismissing it as campy, trite, or cruel. Yet, effective horror is able to tap into a certain set of emotions that no other work of art can usually get close to touching. The best creations in the genre are able to creatively explore the very common human experiences of fear, anxiety, and death.
The following songs have been selected from various forms of horror ranging from the uncanny to the genuinely frightening. Therefore, the overall effect of these songs will undoubtedly vary depending upon the mindset of the listener. Hopefully, the selection will challenge and enrich the listener in ways that are not commonly found in music. Enjoy!
Perhaps one of the most memorable scenes of the surrealist film Eraserhead is when the main character, Henry Spencer, dreams of the “lady in the radiator.” During the dream, this odd, nightmarish figure sings a song of hope and reassurance called “In Heaven.” While this may be considered the “happiest” portion of the film, there is a definite sense of unease that runs throughout the scene. The song itself is a distorted tribute to 50’s love songs. On paper, the song is pretty tame with catchy lyrics and a simple melody. But, in execution, the song quickly descends into uncanny territory. The backing instrumentation of a dreary keyboard and white noise conjure up an unsettling mental image of an abandoned, haunted carnival while the vocals are sung as a perversion of sweetness. Even when the song is not paired with the visuals of Eraserhead, it is evident that, in heaven, everything is not fine.
While much of Jamie Stewart’s work as Xiu Xiu could easily find its way onto a selection similar to this one, there is a very human element in the song “Little Panda McElroy” that channels a uniquely eerie atmosphere. Instrumentally, the song consists of a gently strummed guitar and a propulsive synth line that occasionally boils up in conjunction with Jamie’s expressive vocals. The lyrics present a strange adoration for McElroy by listing how the narrator can now stop various abusive acts “because of you.” The pairing of Jamie’s unique vocal style with the uncomfortable instrumental ambience creates a piece that is equally disquieting and depressing.
Coil, an offshoot of the notoriously disturbing industrial band Throbbing Gristle, created one of their most primitively disconcerting songs with “It’s in My Blood.” The main draw to this track is John Balance’s extreme vocal delivery. Bordering on being overly campy, Balance sounds pained as he continuously screams, “it’s in my blood stream.” The track is given an appropriately unsettling backdrop via sinister, repetitious synth lines, horns, and a peculiar sample of moaning. The general meaning of the track is definitely up to interpretation, but the overall atmosphere is unquestionably that of all-consuming dread.
While death metal pioneers Carcass are best known for bringing a sense of melody and accessibility to the genre with the album Heartwork, the band’s early work is easily some of the vilest sounding music to ever be recorded. During this period, primary songwriter Bill Steer would use a medical dictionary to find the grossest medical terms to use in their songs. The end result was the creation of some of the most disgusting lyrics that only a medical student could truly appreciate. “Ruptured in Purulence” is a fantastic example of their early style. For instance, Steer, sounding like he is close to vomiting, growls out the lines, “Bursting carcinosis as chylase melts your guts/ Crepitating neoplasm erupts with gore.” While obtuse medical terms are being thrown around, the band provides a crunching, demented swirl of guitars and drums mixed with muddy, unflattering production that adds to the overall vibe of disgust.
Perhaps the strangest track on Aphex Twin’s nearly 2-hour, scatterbrained album drukqs, “Gwarek2” is an otherworldly piece of musique concrète. The track is an anomaly in Richard James discography and features unconventional usage of electronic instrumentation and an uncomfortable amount of silence. Over the course of the six minute experimental piece, James samples an eerie mixture of what sounds like metal bars being hit with a stick, minimal electronic clicks, and a child’s pained screams. The track plays like an especially uncanny version of an ASMR piece and the overall effect is absolutely unsettling.
Sunn O)))’s bleak cover of Immortal’s relatively lively “Cursed Realms of the Winterdemons” is a deep plunge into darkness and terror. The vocals are provided by Malefic (best known from the one-man black metal project Xasthur) and his voice on this track sounds like the tormented screeches of some unholy creature roaming an empty forest during a snowstorm. Sunn provides a fitting backdrop to Malefic’s dark tone by utilizing their staple drone riffs in combination with the sounds of harsh winds and chaotic electronic noise. Throughout the 10-minute track, the band masterfully emits an unrelentingly hopeless atmosphere.
Experimental composer György Ligeti originally wrote “Atmosphères” in 1961 as a commissioned work for German radio and, at the time, the piece remained mostly unknown outside of experimental enthusiasts and modern classical circles. But, in 1968, the composition was rocketed into the public consciousness when it soundtracked the infamous psychedelic space travel sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick’s decision to use this unearthly piece to orchestrate one of popular cinema’s most puzzling sequences was ingenious. Ligeti’s jarring work fits the tone of being lost in space by flowing in and out of disturbingly muted dissonance and sharp, atonal noise. By completely dismissing melody, Ligeti wrote music that slowly builds into total sonic intensity and invokes a singular sense of unease within the listener.
Swans are notorious for making some of the most intense, cathartic music ever created by a rock band and “I See Them All Lined Up” is not an exception to this rule. Within the song,band leader Michael Gira crafts a nightmarish tale of revenge paired with unrelenting, repetitious industrial pillars of noise. The lyrics conjure up images of murder, rotting corpses, and fire while the narrator simply observes, “I feel fine.” In true late-period Swans fashion, the track concludes by eschewing the steady industrial beat and exploding into a mind-bending mixture of blasting guitars, drums, and piano. While the Soundtracks for the Blind version of this song may be more unnerving, the live version captures a better performance that effectively channels the torment that is outlined in the lyrics.
Power violence act Full of Hell have experimented with fully fledged noise in the past (look no further than their collaborative album with Merzbow), but they fully indulge in this genre during “One Day You Will Ache Like I Ache” and throughout their collaborative album with The Body. Starting with a tense drumbeat, the track suddenly detonates into an insane mass of noise and screams. The track ingeniously taps into the primitive efficacy of the jump scare and the end result is extremely rewarding. Unlike most jump scares, Full of Hell and The Body shock the listener with a complex sonic assault and, once the surprise wears off, the listener is left with powerful, chaotic music.
Released in 1966 on the fantastic ESP record label (at one time, home to both the Fugs and Albert Ayler), Patty Waters’ Sings is a masterwork of vocal jazz. Despite the seemingly innocent genre tag and album title, this cover of the traditional folk song “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” is perhaps the most shocking song in the selection. Throughout the piece, Waters uses her versatile voice in an experimental fashion by shifting between moans, mumbles, whispers, and brain-shattering screeches. These screams are so profoundly human and genuinely horrifying that they easily best the most evil-sounding extreme metal vocalist. The backing instrumentation is wisely subdued to provide a disquieting atmosphere for Waters’ vocals to wreak havoc.
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