Archive for the ‘Dark Ambient’ Category

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Halloween Albums

October 24, 2008

Halloween is near, and I have started to pick out some spooky favorites from the music library. I figured it might be appropriate to acknowledge some of the more genuinely scary or creepy albums I have come in contact with over the years. Six might seem like a rather arbitrary number, but these releases are of a rare breed and I find each one to be essential to the list. Of course there’s nothing wrong with traditional Halloween music (the Monster Mash, sure), or some other fun retro music that might be appropriate for the holiday (The Cramps!), but if you want something that might really creep you out, this list might be able to help.

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Alice in Chains – Dirt

Alice in Chains’ second album Dirt arrived just in time for the Halloween season in 1992, and took over the grunge scene with its spooky hard rocking style. The album is almost unbelievably advanced past the band’s debut album Facelift, every song taking on its own texturally rich identity. In terms of technical skill, every member of the band is in prime form despite their drug addictions which are reflected heavily in the album’s lyrical themes. The late and great Layne Staley spits “what the hell am I/thousand eyes a fly/lucky then I’d be/if one day deceased” on one of the album’s underhand knockouts Sickman. We can hear both the anger and anguish associated with personal breakdowns and drug abuse. The consistency of the album alone makes it one of the finest albums that grunge had to offer, with a killer lineup of singles, the hammering Them Bones, Vietnam reminiscent Rooster, and possibly the greatest grunge single ever, Would?. But the highlights don’t stop there; the album also has a slew of brooding, slow moving, moody masterpieces (Dirt, Rain When I Die, Down In A Hole), as well as many other sleeper highlights (God Smack is the origin of the name of AiC knockoffs Godsmack, to exemplify the album’s influence). Although Alice in Chains’ best work may be scattered throughout their albums and EPs, Dirt is easily their most representative and possibly most accomplished work, a scary, fun, and emotional masterpiece of its genre.

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Slint – Spiderland

Considered the premier post rock album, Slint’s second and final album Spiderland is made by a band with absolutely nothing to lose. Perhaps it is this that makes it so startlingly affecting. How out of no where the album must have seen at the time is also probably a reason that it was as vastly influential as it is. But legacy aside, Spiderland is quite a scary album by all accounts, softly building damaged melodies out of nothing and then disassembling them again. As soon as the opening arpeggiated harmonics of Breadcrumb Trail start, it sounds like the beginning of the end. This mysterious, slow urgency pulls the listener through the albums six unsettling songs with great anxiousness. All of Slint’s weaponry is fully formed here; their percussive anger, David Pajo’s atmospheric guitars and sense of instrumental tension, and Brian McMahan’s oft whispered creepy poetry. These elements make for six completely perfect songs, the rocking Nosferatu Man, the quiet, brooding Don Amon, the sadly beautiful Washer, and the extremely quiet instrumental For Dinner… It all seems to lead to something, and when it does, we get one of the single scariest and most beautiful songs of the nineties, Good Morning Captain, which evades all explanation. It may disappoint fans that the subsequent two song Slint EP was as far as the band would ever go, but Slint’s three releases, and particularly Spiderland were all they needed to be one of the most important bands of their genre.

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Boards of Canada – Geogaddi

With Board’s of Canda’s second major full length release Geogaddi, brothers Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin make certain that their love of degradation and psychosis plays itself out on more than just their own production values. In fact, one might be given the false impression of their own mental degradation while listening to the album, it is so elaborately and eerily constructed. Although its format is essentially the same as its championing predecessor Music Has The Right To Children (long pieces dispersed with very short pieces, beat driven IDM), their style is distinctly advanced over their previous works. The album is almost extravagantly detailed with myriad fascinating jigsaw pieces of sound; reversed beats, distorted vocal samples, dissonant chords, and heavy aural contrasts provide the album’s basic groundwork. Although some pieces here are vaguely reminiscent of previous fan favorites (Sunshine Recorder, 1969, Dawn Chorus), every song is highly advanced and vaguely unsettling. Throughout the album Boards of Canada paint as they call it a vast, winding, labyrinthine “journey” through a beautiful and horribly warped dreamland. Once you follow the white rabbit down the hole, something immediately seems very, horribly wrong, and this feeling is played with, turned upside down and inside out at every turn of the album. The more you think about it, the more it scares you, and the more one recognizes its intricacies such as mathematical structures, biblical references, and distorted fascination with the occult, the more one wants to dismiss Geogaddi as pretentious and supersaturated. However, it is a genuinely creepy album, and its ominous atmosphere cannot be denied. And yet the brothers state the ultimate innocuousness of the album in interviews. “…If we’re spiritual at all, it’s purely in the sense of caring about art and inspiring people with ideas.” (interview “Play Twice Before LIstening” by Koen Poolman). Despite what its message is, Geogaddi is an album that genuinely brings you to the brink of your own mind and refuses to let you forget the experience.

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Coil – The Ape of Naples

If any album has ever been literally haunted, or at least come close, The Ape of Naples is the culprit. Created posthumously after Coil frontman John Balance tragically fell to his death over the banisters of his Mansfield home in a drunken stupor, The Ape of Naples is actually a collection of the industrial/electronic band’s leftover material. This makes the overall cohesion of the album nothing short of a small miracle of planning. In fact, it makes little to no sense that this album is more than a rarities compilation, and it is more, much more. Through it’s lengthy textural songs it develops many stories with real life reference points, perhaps outlining both the experiences of the unsettling said ape on the cover art as well as John Balance’s descent into alcohol addiction. The haunting opening chords of Fire of The Mind (the original title of the album) set the stage for an album loaded with treasures, all uniquely disturbing and affecting. Songs call on an eclectic selection of instruments such as accordions, marimbas, horns and pipes, and as always carefully synthesized melodies, beats, and atmospherics. Songs range from gentle to violent, and the album’s transformation is downright scary. The Ape of Naples is an all around great performance from all those involved, but John Balance remains the album’s key player. His voice touches every song in different ways, and his emotion is fluid, sometimes gracing songs with subtle melancholy and other times with spitting anger. The album comes to a close with a cover of the British sitcom Are You Being Served?’‘s theme song Going Up, featuring vocals from Balance’s final onstage performance at the Dublin Electronic Arts Festival in 2004. And with John Balance’s final vocals, locations of bedding materials, tea, and travel products as well as the final direction of an elevator, it isn’t hard to hear him simultaneously falling down and going up.

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Merzbow – 1930

Many non-noise fans may turn on Japanese noise godfather’s quintessential album, 1930, and be disgusted. It is, to put it one way, a deliberately disgusting album, barely music in any traditional sense, and more of a terrifying sound assault. Perhaps best at home in a torture chamber (just how the bondage obsessed Merzbow would like it), listening to 1930 at loud volumes is a potentially terrifying experience that can push one’s sanity to the limit. Once again, it is barely even music, but more an aural representation of a mile high battleship with cannons filling every square inch, all firing at the listener at the same time. Reach for the off switch and the terror goes away temporarily, but curiosity will make you turn it on again at some point, and when you get curious enough to listen to the entire thing, you probably won’t be able to turn it off as much as you want to. There is something almost inhuman and unearthly about 1930 that manages to consistently fascinate here, and even if you can’t bear to turn the volume up higher than a whisper, it is unspeakably overbearing. Everything from the fiery title track to the dizzying cacophony of Degradation of Tape to the final explosive, twenty two minute, ever changing Iron, Glass, Blocks and White, everything here is sheer chaos. For how brutal and unpredictable it is, it is no surprise that this horrifying album is considered a cornerstone of noise music. To say it is good or bad is irrelevant, because it definitely shouldn’t be judged by the same standards as any other album on this list, let alone any form of “art” on this planet.

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Brian Eno – Ambient 4

Brian Eno’s final installment in his Ambient series is possibly the most emotionally startling ambient album of all time, and may be considered to be the first dark ambient album. In that sense it is hard to imagine the entire genre of demonic dark ambient texture without this album as a precursor, although Ambient 4 is anything but paganistic or demonic. In fact, there is little to nothing subversive about Ambient 4 in the slightest, except perhaps its one odd song out, the deliberately creepy Shadow featuring Jon Hassell on trumpet, although if we are talking about scare factor the song is the album’s clear winner. Beyond this song, the album makes its goals known almost instantaneously and follows through with its goals systematically, like the other members of the beautiful ambient family. Moreso than any other album on this list, Ambient 4 carries a wide range of emotions with it, of which horror is only one. The collection of soundtracks to geographic locations here range from touchingly calm (A Clearing) to impendingly scary (The Lost Day). The distant chains of Lantern Marsh, the distorted miasma of Tal Coat, the birds and frogs of Leeks Hills…The album is startlingly emotional in ways that can be simultaneously relaxing and unsettling. On one hand, you get the feeling that at any point during the album someone could appear behind you and cause your heart to skip a beat, and yet at the same time the soundscapes are warm and completely safe sounding. The wide range of emotion here is mostly due to simple skill in production and crafting of music. The soundscapes sound so deftly realistic that the emotion comes quite naturally and makes the overall product quite moving. This may be the one to play on the boombox outside when the trick-or-treaters come by.

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