ACL 2019 ~ Music for Haunted Houses

In this article, we list ten albums to play while holding a seance, carving pumpkins, or giving out candy to trick or treaters!  Some of these albums were released when we weren’t in the mood ~ we were building snowmen, painting cherry blossoms, or frolicking on the beach. But now their time has come.

Frankenstein’s monster just isn’t that scary anymore. This selection stretches boundaries, bleeding into real life: climate change, weaponized music, the sex trade.   We’ve chosen to list only previously unreviewed albums in this year’s article ~ but in addition to the albums listed below, we recommend previously reviewed dark works from The Caretaker, Whettman Chelmets, and the split release from Gridfailure/Feel Happiness, making a Halloween-happy total of 13!

The above image is taken of the Mini Mantle Black/Purple Haunted House, from Hyde & EEK! Boutique, available at Target and other retailers.

Chestnut ~ Dark Tourism (Noise And Art)
Dark Tourism mingles memoir and murder, tracing violence through its origins to its execution.  The duo of Daniel Watkins and Christina Santa Cruz uses tape hiss, drone, voiceover and shady strings to maximum effect, painting a harrowing picture of an underworld few will ever see; yet when listening, the imagination kicks in.  Could we be capable of murder?  Would we ever be the thing to fear in a dark alley?  When we hear the children playing in “Gardens of Honor,” we fear for their safety, even if we can’t glean the intentions of the narrator.  Sure, they’re screaming for fun now.  “These are the rules …”  Listening to Dark Tourism is like uncovering a horrifying tape and not knowing if it’s real.  We become tourists in the depths of our minds.


Mark Korven ~ The Lighthouse OST (Sacred Bones Records)
After scoring Robert Eggers’ The Witch, Mark Korven won the opportunity to delve into the horror of The Lighthouse.  This chilling, slow-developing tale would not be as effective without the restraint of its composer, who plays with silence and extended dread before tumbling all-out into the abyss, as heard in the later tracks.  By “Mermaid Lust,” the focus has shifted from inward, psychological horror to something primal and visceral.  If listening to the music alone in the dark is enough to produce chills, imagine what the film might do!  Critics are calling it a masterpiece, but we hope they won’t ignore the score.  Vinyl copies are available with a die-cut cover through which a light might shine.  If the light in you is darkness, how terribly dark it will be.

MIRA ~ Torque (Amen Records)
Torque is the single most disturbing release I’ve encountered all year ~ so much so that I passed on reviewing it when it first came in.  But I think it might belong here.  At this time of year, we talk a lot about masks and evil, but we tend to concentrate on serial killers and the supernatural.  For reasons both noble (shielding children) and shameful (we’re implicit), we ignore sexual violence.  Torque is a gutsy memoir: a 20-minute body performance by Honami Higuchi with music from Raphael Leray.  It’s difficult to watch, as Higuchi’s contortions imitate abuse and even rape.  She also survived the sex industry, and the half-angel wing that appears beside her head at the end is a symbol of hope.  Scarred, bleeding, yet determined, she fails to flinch when faced with one of earth’s truest horrors.


MONOCUBE ~ Substratum (Cyclic Law)
Cyclic Law has so many dark releases that it would be easy to list them all ~ but when choosing one for this list, we settled on MONOCUBE.  The album’s title is perfect.  These sounds exist not in the foreground of ritualistic chant, but the substratum of drone.  Any vocals are buried beneath a pile of dusty debris.  The clanks and winds are offset by strings.  As is often the case in haunted music, the subtle has a deeper effect than the obvious.  And in a slight surprise (because we tend to think of such artists as hermits), a couple of friends come along for the ride: Antti Lindmanen on one track and Visions on another.  After you’ve heard this release, be sure to check out the rest of the catalog, including a frightening new album from Clavicvla, strangely released the day after Halloween.


Kevin Richard Martin ~ Sirens (Room40)
You’re looking at that cover and thinking, “this is a haunted house album?”  No ~ it’s much, much worse.  What could be scarier than parenting?  How about being a parent whose spouse and child have difficulty making it through delivery, and whose son needs two life-threatening procedures in the first week of his life?  No haunted house can compare to this.  These tracks include isolation, terror, depression, anger, and the related feelings associated with being unable to control anything of importance.  The fact that there’s a happy ending is beside the point; there are scars.  Sirens (which does in fact include sirens, on “Alarms”) is as unnerving a listening experience as one can imagine, perhaps as one track says, “Too Much.”  Yet it’s also a rare window into the human heart.


SØS Gunver Ryberg ~ Cutterhead OST (Endless Process)
With Cutterhead, SØS Gunver Ryberg turns her attention from video games to the big screen.  Cutterhead is about a disaster that strikes during the construction of the Copenhagen metro system.  At first, the artist’s music is pleasantly electronic, easing listeners into a false sense of security; but when the alarms begin to sound in “The Accident,” all bets are off.  In “Earth Pressure Balance,” the tone turns claustrophobic; one intuits the presence of radiation.  The shredded end of “Heaven and Hell” is particularly effective, and closer “Tearing Worlds” is the set’s most harrowing piece.  It’s no surprise the score has already scored festival awards.  We also recommend the artist’s Entangled, which adds dark percussion for a different angle: from stalagmite to stalactite.


V/A – Active Noise Area (Unexplained Sounds)
Some haunted houses use silence, while others use suspense.  But there’s nothing as disorienting as noise. Torturers use it to draw out confessions; soldiers use it to pummel enemies.  To play Active Noise Area in a haunted house is to drown out one of the essential senses; to shout into a megaphone is to drown out dissenting voices.  The best noise artists present more than walls of sound, as heard on this compilation.  These frequencies may be loud, but they represent different levels of loud; after a while, patterns emerge and dissonance becomes music.  This isn’t dinner music by any stretch of the imagination; it’s a weapon.  But it’s our weapon, to wield as we choose.  Active Noise Area proves that the definition of “noise” rests in the ears of those who hear it.


V/A – New Anxieties (Crux Axul)
New eras bring new anxieties, a point hammered home by this insightful new compilation on Crux Axul.  The decision to release the album on Halloween underlines the fact that fake monsters are nothing compared to real threats such as global warming, xenophobia and digital disconnection.  We want candy, but even more, we want reassurance: that our lives won’t end abruptly, cancelled out by our own stupidity; that people still care about each other; that our children won’t live on rafts.  These seven artists do a fine job reflecting the coldness of the current climate, their electronic tones stuttering like missed calls and dark drones like reactor alarms.  YS samples protests, while Shannon Soundquist tackles phone phobia, and by the end we’re all chewing our nails.  In 2019, anxiety is the new fear.


V/A – Spectra ex Machina / A Sound Anthology of Occult Phenomena 1920-2017 (Sub Rosa)
There’s a weird glitch on the Bandcamp page, implying that an album including material from 2017 was released in 2016.  The physical edition was released in 2019, and this is the first of a three-part series.  But it fits, as this archival collection includes haunted mediums, spectres and other occult phenomena caught on magnetic tape. Harry Houdini and Oscar Wilde are summoned; knocks and whistles abound, all charmingly lo-fi.  There’s an exorcism which in this context sounds like a radio play; and a whispering, “haunted” airfield.  (“In the plane, you died ~ do you remember that?”).  At times, the set is more charming than scary, but that’s the appeal of the best haunted houses.  We’re lulled into a false sense of security until something truly disturbing surfaces.


V/A – Witchcraft & Black Magic in the United Kingdom (Eighth Tower Records)
Nine artists join forces to offer a tribute to the witches of the old world.  A bell tolls in Rapoon’s “The Village,” a reminder that the full force of the church was aligned against any alleged witchcraft in a manner that itself became evil.  The history of witchcraft is inextricably tied to the subjugation of women and promoted in large part by male insecurity.  Satori’s “Hag of Hair” is creepy, yes ~ but the real energy arrives in Daniel Williams’ “Do You Believe In Witches,” as the true villain shows its face.  Sky High Diamonds’ “The Discover” is the most effective piece, thanks to a combination of voiceover and sound effects, but the scariest reveal arrives at the end with Williams’ “You Can Do Anything You Want With Them” ~ a chilling indictment.

Richard Allen

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