In 2020, the entire world became a haunted house. Buildings were deserted, town squares were emptied, and a million people died of a new virus. We became terrified of an unseen enemy. Any person could be an asymptomatic carrier. On top of this, a detached sense of fear and dis-ease permeated our society. Despots attempted to solidify their hold on power; democracy itself seemed doomed. For Black Americans shot in the streets or their own homes, Antebellum seemed less a horror movie than a true-life nightmare.
So what’s the use of haunted house music ~ especially as so many haunted houses will be closed this season, a gentle irony implying that even serial killers are afraid of the virus? The appeal is that this fear is something we can understand and tame. Most of us will never meet a malevolent ghost, or watch a cursed videotape, or be murdered at a sleep-away camp (also closed due to the pandemic). But we like being scared in a controlled setting, and laughing at our fears. Haunted houses can produce bravery, and the traditional Halloween of going out into the dark to ring strangers’ doorbells represents a conquering of childhood fears.
This is the second of our year-end lists to be published, the first being our Pandemic Playlist. We’re publishing when it’s timely, and this year, time has become a strange construct. This is the moodiest, most disturbing music around this season, but it’s not about excess ~ we also look for subtlety. (As a parallel, what’s the use of having the hottest buffalo wing if no one will eat it?) A successful haunted house is about the contrast between quiet and loud, dread and scream. And now, whether venturing outside into the scary world or quarantining inside while the virus rings your doorbell, we hope you enjoy this year’s edition of Music for Haunted Houses!
Alessandro Barbanera ~ Haunted Houses (Laverna)
Given the title, as soon as this came in, we knew we were going to include it here! The surprise is that Alessandro Barbanera delves far deeper into modern psychology than we would ever have imagined. Haunted Houses is less scary than lonely, reflecting the haunted houses of the mind. A church bell tolls in the opener as wind presses against the leaves. One thinks of the elderly person, isolated in their own home save for their memories; or the feeling that one is besieged by malevolent forces. A “Torture Room” can be any room, anywhere, if we allow it to be; we are great at torturing ourselves. This is not to say that it’s all in our heads: these scrapings and clanks seem disturbingly real. By “Pure,” the anxiety relents, but sadly, as if giving in to dementia and the inevitability of death.
Broken Thoughts ~ Hearing Ghosts (Merrie Records)
In 2017, Keju Luo enchanted us with the futuristic Realign. Three years later, he’s delved into the past to retrieve pieces of performances by deceased composers. The “broken” part of his moniker is well-chosen. At first, it seems that the album will be akin to the work of The Caretaker, but when a pulse develops, one remembers Murcof: low, slow techno in a haunted ballroom. A clock in “every man be blind” comes across as a taunt to those whose time is endless. Radio fragments about “evacuation” hint at a possible doom, whether past or future. “cap811” dissolves from club beat to sinking cruise ship. Strings resound from empty rooms. Opera singers seek new audiences. These ghosts are filled with remorse and rumination, less likely to haunt than to ask that one sit and listen to their stories. Refusing them would be unwise.
Graham Reynolds ~ The Lodger (Fire Records)
We’re big fans of the reimagined silent film soundtrack, and The Lodger is an exemplar. This is already the fourth in an ongoing series from Fire Records, who previously released new scores to “The Tenant,” “Vampyr” and “Feherlofia.” Hitchcock’s 1927 film benefits from this new infusion of suspense, which ironically references 80s soundtracks as well. Bells, synth and bracing glissandos produce a feeling of excitement ~ but all in good fun, as in the film quote, “God forgive me! I let her go out with the lodger. And it’s Tuesday night!”
Jason Herrboldt ~ Copse (Self-Released)
Jason Herrboldt has been traveling back and forth between sci-fi and horror over the course of a dozen releases. With Copse, he’s gone full-on Halloween. The album hearkens back to the dark ambience of the Cold Meat Industries label, heavy on atmosphere and drone, with buried signals attempting to rise to the surface. A claustrophobic atmosphere is established early, and never lets up, although some tracks subtract density in order to concentrate on texture. The tension snaps on “Bewitch,” which delves into abrasion and distortion before receding; after this, the suspense begins to build again, erupting in the title track like a killer hiding beneath the backyard leaves.
NERATERRÆ ~ Scenes from the Sublime (Cyclic Law)
Every track on Scenes from the Sublime is inspired by a famous dark painting: Dalì, Goya, Bosch, and many more; and nine out of ten tracks feature collaborators. This near-perfect execution of a concept was marred only by its release date: the opening day of spring! Fortunately we have long memories, and we’re happy to highlight it in this haunted season. If pressed to pick a winner, we’d go with “In Deafening Silence (feat. Phragments), but the entire project is moody dark ambience at its best.
Phantoms vs Fire ~ Modern Monsters I & II (Blackjack Illuminist Records)
Thiago Desant (Phantoms vs Fire) has a knack for releasing albums at unusual times; Swim was first released in January before finding new life in June; Modern Monsters debuted in February, but autumn is its real season. This super-dramatic, synth-based release sounds like a greatest hits of 80s monster synth scores, but it’s all new. Intimations of brass and strings set this release above the rest. There are even little twists in the tracks, as found in the closing sample of the opening track. We love the rapid beeps in “The Roanoke Colony Zombies,” which sounds like It Follows after an energy drink and ends in a murder of crows. The orchestral blasts of “Breaking In”, “Fair Is Foul and Foul Is Fair” and other tracks are enthralling. The treats of this cinematic set include footsteps, thunder, rain, organ, choirs, church bells, dogs and all the touches that make a haunted house album so endearing. Play this and remember what it was like to be a child, watching “Creature Feature” as lightning flashes outside and something moves in the trees outside your bedroom window.
Samutek ~ Omamy (Evening Chants)
The Evening Chants label scores another appearance in our Haunted House feature, riding on the heels of Meitei’s Kwaidan. Omamy is another fascinating set, rife with radio waves, whistles, chains, gongs, bees, rain, disembodied voices and the sound of spectral intruders. (To be fair, there are also flutes, a little less scary.). This is the Polish artist’s 32nd album, and he’s working on a Master’s thesis on UFO photography, so he’s in it all the way. The clanking “Żerowisko” (“The Feeding Ground”) is an obvious highlight. The album title means Hallucinations, which fits the material; the music sounds like a fever dream. A mini-booklet of phantasmagorical art accompanies the red, centipede-claimed cassette.
Troy Schafer ~ Magnificat in Castle Ghoul (Self-Released)
Warning: this release is not scary at all. We include it because it’s fun. The album was written by a man who stumbled into a moat and drowned. After his death, his peculiar cat-themed cassette was discovered, and is now revealed to a larger audience. This leads to classical meows on “Ninth Life,” surprisingly melodic felines on “Magnifat Summons Troubodours of the Distant Past,” and the main cat playing cello on the cover. The set includes a batch of tiny pieces, like Meow Mix (which actually might have been a good title), and breezes by like a children’s book. We enjoyed this reminder that haunted houses are often meant to be cheerful; they don’t always have to scare the cat out of us.
Various Artists ~ A Little Night Music: Aural Apparitions from the Geographic North (Geographic North)
The title is a bit misleading; this isn’t a little night music, it’s a lot of night music, 31 tracks in all, two hours of music on two cassettes. This is the label’s third Halloween compilation, after Death on the Hour and Don’t Look Now. And while not every track is scary, every track is moody, tailored for the season of the blood moon. Zelienople’s “Dense Cover” brings the Hitchcock birds, which return on Meitei’s “Okue.” Clarice Jensen adds tape warp to organ, a satisfying combination. The mysterious Geographic North House Band contributes cinematic openers to each side, begging for Blumhouse. Their tracks are the album’s most unnerving, but face it, you were never going to be scared by Mary Lattimore. There are plenty of frightening gems here to offset the ambience, courtesy of Louise Bock, Alex Zhang Hungtai and more. Enjoy this set after the kids have gone home and the axes have been put away; you’ll have earned it by then.
Various Artists ~ Demonology in Dante’s Inferno (Eighth Tower Records)
Last year, Eighth Tower released Witchcraft & Black Magic in the United Kingdom in October, just in time for this article. This year, they jumped the gun with Demonlogy in Dante’s Inferno, unveiled at the beginning of beach season. But we didn’t forget! Each track is accompanied by an Italian quote. From the moment a tea kettle meets a deluge in Lars Bröndum’s “Lo Minotauro,” we’re hooked ~ like Dante himself as he began his tour. The drone is suffused with gloom, as befits the source material. Deeper the journey goes, circle by circle, the narrators soft yet suspicious. Knives, ghosts and choirs abound. The digital version contains four bonus tracks, each by artists on the disc, so no one feels left out ~ unlike the souls condemned to live for eternity without hearing this melancholic music.
BONUS: raison d’être ~ In Sadness, Silence and Solitude (Cyclic Law)
A modern haunted house classic is set for reissue on November 20. raison d’être is something special ~ an artist to which many are rightfully compared. Without Peter Andersson, this annual feature might not even exist. (His Collected Works was included in our all-time list.) This will be the first time on LP for In Sadness, Silence and Solitude, but it will also be the first time that many experience the template of dark choirs, chanting monks, spectral scatterings and military percussion: one that survives the test of time because it exists outside time.