ACL 2018 ~ Music for Haunted Houses

In 2018, the world reached a tipping point in which scary music is no longer scarier than real life.  The old monsters are disappointed; they just can’t compete with the news.  This being said, it’s one of our favorite times of the year, and we’ve chosen 12 albums that frighten, unsettle and rattle the nerves.  Ten of these are brand new to the site; some were just released, while others came out during happier months, when they just didn’t seem right.  We still love Nayt Keane’s original artwork for this feature, which began with an all-time list and since then has received yearly updates.  If you’re making a haunted house or just love scary music, this article is for you.  So turn off that TV, lower the lights and let this beautiful, haunted music wash over you!  And now, in alphabetical order, A Closer Listen presents Music for Haunted Houses 2018!

The Caretaker ~ Everywhere At The End Of Time Stage 5 (History Always Favours The Winners)
The early phases of this project sounded like dusty 78s spinning in a haunted ballroom ~ the very timbre we’ve come to associate with The Caretaker.  But the subject matter is the progressive stages of dementia, and the edges have continued to deteriorate, as heard in the mulched, distorted sound of Stage 5.  Pianos still play, records still rotate, voices remain audible, but clouded, as if filtered through a faulty hearing aid.  The mind is having a hard time holding onto what it remembers, as well as being unable to process what it now observes.  This is a terrifying, disorienting process, and its aural rendition is surprisingly sorrowful, recognizing the loss. The project has an amazing economic entry point ~ five pounds buys a full work day of digital music.  Physical editions are also available, and we suspect that when the final piece is released we’ll have something spectacular to hold and treasure … until the day when we can no longer remember what it is.


Desiderii Margini ~ Vita Arkivet (Cyclic Law)
Now on its 129th release, the Cyclic Law label should be considered dark music royalty.  The label launched in Montreal back in 2002 and relocated to Berlin in 2015, where it has continued to be an exemplar of consistency.  Concurrent with its Deadbeat reissue, Desiderii Margini has unveiled a dark ambient stormer in Vita Arkivet (The White Archive).  The title refers to funeral arrangements; as the label writes, “White is the colour of the casket lining, the plaster death masks and the walls of the chapel, it is the colour of the first and last pages.”  Dark drones and deep-throated vocals cover these walls, intimating melancholy, sorrow and loss.  To listen is to fall into deep remorse, making one vulnerable to spirits of depression and healing.  The metallic strikes of “The Scattering” could be an anvil and a forge, a new armor created in the fire of regret.  Ironically, as vita also means life, the grand symphonic blasts might also signify triumph, while the tolling bells of “Passing Bell” and “Eulogy” may imply a funeral service or call to worship.  As unsettling as this music may be, by the time the last black cars have pulled away, one may be asking, “Where, O Death, is thy victory?  Where, O Death, is thy sting?”


e. mordrake ~ anomalies (Kirigirisu)
That old Halloween photo looked out of season to us in April, but wow is it appropriate now.  The children seem cheerfully devoted to the masked, foreboding figure, creating a sense of disconnect.  This unsettled mood is extended by the artist’s enigmatic poem: the only prose to accompany the recording.  anomalies might be called hauntology, drone or tape music, but by any name sounds just as creepy: as the label writes, “a bit horrible, in the nice sense of the word.”  With titles such as “embodied despair” and “dreadful whisperings,” the album imposes a damper on all happiness, wallowing in unbroken, unresolved tension, wave upon wave, note upon note.  one of the tracks is called “make it stop already.”  but we don’t want it to stop; we want to play it again; and when we do, we discover that we’re caught in a loop.


Marco Beltrami ~ A Quiet Place (Milan Records)
One of two albums to appear previously on our site, the score to A Quiet Place was a slam dunk for inclusion.  Sporting a memorable theme that may go down as a classic, it instantly sets the hairs of the arms upright.  The score’s tender moments create a contrast that increases the impact of the horror.  A Quiet Place offers tension and release, buildup and breakdown, terror and eventual catharsis, a well-rounded aural experience.  If they hear you, they hunt you … 

Meitei ~ Kwaidan (Evening Chants)
The most intelligent and literary album on our list comes from Japanese artist Meitei and is the premiere release on Singapore’s brand new Evening Chants label, dedicated to “releasing strange and unknown musical textures/sounds on small run cassettes.”  Kwaidan certainly fits the bill. Originally released in Japan this past January, it now finds a timely re-release, just in time for Halloween.  The title refers to “a style of Japanese ghost stories,” while the artist’s name refers to “a Japanese mood.”  This particular mood, as can be gleaned from this intricate release, is distinctly connected to folklore, eeriness and the local setting.  With traditional music woven throughout, the album produces a nostalgic feeling at the same time as it makes one wonder what’s on the other side of the blinds, looking in.  The occasional narration is in turns as warm as a bedtime story and as unsettling as a stranger’s warning.  Stated influences include prose (Koizumi Yakumo), manga (Mizuki Shigeru) and cinema (Hayao Miyzaki), with many tracks connecting directly to the works of these legends.  Then there’s Katsukawa Shunsho’s cover art, surprisingly contemporary despite having been created in 1783.  Wind chimes, crickets, tape hiss and blunted hip hop mark this album as a hybrid, folding time like origami, locking past and present into a single, evocative form.


Ontervjabbit ~ Torture Garden (Vile Descent)
If you’ve ever visited an extreme haunted house, you may have experienced music like this: rife with noise, industrial, a few harsh vocals, nary a glimmer of light.  Torture Garden is the most extreme entry on our list, as well as the longest: a double-cassette that marks the first offering ~ let’s say sacrificial offering ~ from Vile Descent Tapes.  While listening earlier this year, I thought to myself, “what’s wrong with me, that I like music like this?”  We’ll have to save that for therapy.  There’s a lot more going on beneath the surface, as evidenced by the appearance of guests including Manuel Knapp and Simon Serc, both of whom have appeared on our site before, and the inspiration, Octave Mirbeau’s 1899 book titled Le Garden de Supplices.  The three-hour recording is in fact structured like a “sound book,” with corresponding chapters.  And of course that length is perfect for a haunted house, given the fact that so many rely on only a few sound cues.  While listening won’t reveal all of the subjects (surface notes of evisceration, undercurrents of existentialism), reading will, which is why the liner notes are so copious.  Too often “horror” gets a bad rap due to its supposed facile nature.  Slovenia’s Ontervjabbit spits in the face of such assumptions, daring listeners to delve deeper into their darkest selves, to take an unflinching look at what lies within.


Psychological Strategy Board ~ Penny Slinger: Out of the Shadows (Front & Follow)
The second title to appear previously on our site, PSB’s score to Out of the Shadows works amazingly well on its own, even without the movie.  Strange hisses and beeps emulate Slinger’s visual odyssey, keeping the listener off guard, unsure of which timbre will enter next: a tolling clock, a rat in the walls, an unplugged glissando.  When the tapes warp, the mind does as well, bending toward comprehension yet managing only an empathetic nod. We could never truly understand Slinger, the film seems to say: her strength and her albatross.  Neither can we comprehend this music, in which projectors whirr and stall and synthesizers stand in for the voice of the underappreciated auteur.


She Spread Sorrow ~ Midori (Cold Spring)
Midori is another spring album more suited for fall; like the previously reviewed Rumspringa, the new material is unnerving in a real-life manner.  Alice Kundalini (She Spread Sorrow) has never shied away from ugliness, choosing to embrace it through whisper and fog.  She moves unhindered through claustrophobic atmospheres and bludgeoning electronics, trailing blood and bruise yet never seeming victimized. She turns the tables on every oppressor, exposing them as weak.  In Midori, the protagonist escapes from a haunted house, but cannot escape from herself; she carries her darkness with her in a rotting black bag.  Electronic thunder covers “Night One” like a snuff blanket.  Even when Midori imitates Stockholm Syndrome (“The House”), she seems oddly fascinated by the idea of hard-won strength.  I don’t want to leave.  Do YOU want to leave?  The lead track is also featured on Cold Spring upcoming 250th release, Earthen, and the label has just reissued She Spread Sorrow’s second album, Mine, with two bonus tracks.  The sorrow keeps spreading, seeping under the cracks in our winter windows, and yet we never think to seal the cracks; we’re too grateful for how it makes us feel.  How dark, how dark.


Them Teeth ~ Alkemisten & Vansinnet (Works ov Cauldron)
The Swedish duo is in the middle of an ambitious “witchcraft trilogy,” but this fall has found time to give fans a bonus: a two-track drone release translated The Alchemist and the Madness.  Each track grows swiftly into its thickest architecture, allowing furtive scrapes and rustlings to be engulfed by thick, oppressive soundscapes.  The Medieval art suggests superstition, hex and (likely unsuccessful) prayer.  One imagines hooded figures in the woods, and an unseasoned priest dispatched to ward off evil.  In the opening track, the clacking of wood (rain sticks or bamboo) creates an impression of buildings and wards.  Evil descends like a fog.  Some things are more ancient than our current religion, and they do not like to be forgotten.  In the second, glissandos introduce a sweeping threat, like a witch on a broom or a dark spirit, a peasant rushing to shut his doors before the evil wind grabs the nape of his neck.  But all is for naught; the madness is now within.


Uruk ~ Mysterium Coniunctionis (Ici d’ailleurs)
There it was, the first day of summer, and we had our beach towels, sunscreen and soft drinks ready for a trip to the beach.  Then this album came in, and we weren’t feeling it.  This is October music, and now we’re in the mood.  Mysterium Coniunctionis unfolds like a slow walk into an abandoned building, looking for ~ and finding ~ ghosts.  It’s the second pairing of  Thighpaulsandra (Coil) and Massimo Pupillo (Zu), which alone should attest to its pedigree.  This is high level spookiness, designed to unsettle.  Inspired by Carl Jung, these two side-long tracks wander down the corridors of the mind, stumble upon unsettling truths, and seek to find their way back through the labyrinth.  Synths glisten, swarm and occasionally attack like long-repressed memories battling their way to the surface.  There are no sudden shocks here, no cheap scares, just a thick layer of suspense that settles on the listener like sawdust. Electronic beats appear only in the final four minutes, drawing a curtain of finality over the project. The danger, hinted at for so long, is finally here.


Various Artists ~ Don’t Look Now: Aural Apparitions from the Geographic North (Geographic North)
Want to hear something really scary?  Child abuse and human trafficking continue to exist.  Halloween can’t compare to these real-life horrors.  Flipping the script, Geographic North has released this Halloween-themed benefit, whose proceeds will be used to fight real evil.  This is like winding up Michael Myers and dropping him in a den of sex traffickers.  Everyone wins.  The music is of high quality throughout, and at 90 minutes, generous.  The project includes some big name artists, too ~ Eluvium, Félicia Atkinson and (surprisingly) even Claire Jensen are but three of the 21 artists represented.  Like any good horror movie, the cassette is careful to establish mood before terror.  Just as one is lulled by Ka Baird into a false sense of security, Algiers launches the John Carpenter synth and screams.  Jensen’s “Sada” is just as atmospheric as we’d hoped, like walking down a labyrinth of corridors.  Secret Pyramid shows their sinister side on “Opus 50.”  An unexpected surprise is the anonymous Geographic North House Band, whose “chapter breaks” paint some of the album’s biggest melodrama.  Overall, this is a fantastic set, one that makes the listener happy to be frightened, and all for a good cause.  Don’t look ~ listen.


Various Artists ~ Heresy (Eighth Tower Records)
This Italian label has released a number of intriguing collections this year, most notably a tribute to H.P. Lovecraft.  But for haunted house purposes, we have our ears on Heresy, whose theme is fitting for this time of year.  So many people were executed for heresy that one would think evil would be stamped out by now ~ until one realizes what sort of things were considered heresy.  Galileo was told to recant.  Joan of Arc was burned at the stake.  Oops.  By definition, a heretic challenges established teaching.  Sure, there are plenty of opinions that are downright wrong (child sacrifice), but there are also many which were once considered wrong by nearly all and later reversed (women as property).  Heresy (the album) revisits a time of fear and apprehension, when witches were believed to fly about the forest and tiny bundles of twigs in human form could be considered evidence of sorcery.  Swerving from dark ambient to drone to industrial and beyond, this collection is a fine entry point into the Eighth Tower roster, as well as a variety pack of midnight music.  Given the number of artists involved, it’s important to note how well the album is sequenced: no jarring transitions, just smooth segues between varying degrees of darkness.  Choirs sing, chords crash, organs reverberate.  One starts to imagine strange noises in the house: something in the cellar, something in the attic, something in the closet.  Yes, this is scary music, but it’s also philosophical, making reference to Bruno, Nietzsche and (in the cover art) Rembrandt.  This may sound like terror, but ironically, it’s a call for love, peace and understanding.  Not that anyone will hear such things in a haunted house; but it’s nice to know it’s there.

Richard Allen

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