A few weeks ago, my buddy Matron Thorn and I were discussing the concept of “scary music”. Being that he is a musician himself, I decided to ask him if he’d be interested in guest-authoring a piece about the topic for this blog. Luckily for us all, he said “Yes”.
I’ve found that the most frightening musical experiences have happened not usually due to the inherent “scariness” of the music, but rather for how the music is framed, either if, for example, by context, by reputation, or by circumstances. Sometimes, it’s all of these.
In the past, I’ve been recommended albums that, while interesting, didn’t exactly leave me feeling a sense of fear, even if that seemed to be the album’s intent, but were lauded anyway for being “evil” and so on. But on the other hand, we attach our perception of something to where it’s qualities are deeply rooted in our past experiences; there’s someone out there with coulrophobia who is absolutely terrified of Insane Clown Posse. It’s all very subjective. To describe a “scary” album of music to you, I will have to also put it’s effect on me personally into perspective. I’ll have to answer the question of ‘why’ for each album, and this answer is always different.
I should perhaps also state the obvious, that my own recommendations to people about stuff like this almost never usually “land” their intended shock to my satisfaction so if I invite you to keep an open mind, I do so with the lowest of expectations. But, do read on.
Earlier, I was much more open to suggestions from peers when it came to movies and music. One of my musical projects, Benighted in Sodom / Benzo was on tour in 2008, joined by Chaos Moon from then-Tennessee, and Frostmoon Eclipse from La Spezia, Italy. As you’ll soon understand why, my memory of the exact order of these events is hazy, but at some point before we disembarked, we decided to christen the impending performances with a celebratory night of excess. Flying from Fort Lauderdale to Nashville, I was off the plane for about 30 minutes before I had a bottle of whiskey in my hand. I remember little after that, but then awoke on my host’s couch after some unspecified amount of time cradling a now quarter-full liter bottle of Southern Comfort, when someone from one of the bands handed me something and said, “eat this“.
I wouldn’t say I had a tolerance for this sort of thing, but the experience thereafter took some dark turns that to this day I have real difficulty explaining. I’ll save the full scope of those experiences for later, but for now, we can, for relevance, examine the first of questionable entertainment decisions that were made that evening.
“What’s the most fucked up thing you have to listen to?” I asked Alex Poole, Chaos Moon founder.
He turned to someone I affectionately named “Nice Guy Aaron” during some point in my intoxication, and that person suggested Outré by Australian “metal” “band” Portal, of whose music I could someday similarly write a few words about in the context of terrifying music, but the fact that Alex dismissed Nice Guy Aaron’s idea in favor of something else, something more effective than Portal, should give you an idea of what we are talking about here.
“No“, Alex said, kind of with a smirk,”this.”
He produced a CD from a stack of albums, which might have looked like some kind of weird TV-order compilation from the 90s at first glance, but my most optimistic assumptions were quickly dissuaded.
They had a pretty decent sound system in Alex’s apartment, which became all the clearer at this point in my psychedelic intoxication. When the album started, I heard what sounded like vaguely ethnic violin music, like I was wandering through a Turkish bazaar. I heard sparse vocalizations, like something from a Disney film. I believed for a moment that since this activity followed a bit of Tim & Eric and Xavier viewing, that he put it on as a joke.
But then came this heavy abrupt banging, like someone was pounding on a massive door. It was overwhelming and the very timing of everything, musically, felt disjointed. Guitars faded in as harsh tri-tones. I could no longer tell if I was tripping harder or if the music had seemingly devolved into this sinister, deliberate discordance. I knew Alex had interesting if perhaps unorthodox tastes, and it was furthermore obvious from his own approach to weird, mentally disturbing music, so it was around here that I started to experience that classic psychedelic panic of “Who are these fucking people? What have I got myself into?” We made it through several minutes which abruptly ended after what I perceived to be this harassing sound of the music skipping, but no, this was an intentional part of the performance. It repeated several times, nauseatingly. Then it ended, and a few people chuckled. That was the entirety of the first song.
I think everyone was amused by how visibly shaken I seemed to be. The combination of psychedelics and fucked up music was much more regular for them, or so I assumed by how casual everyone seemed after. “That was Sleepytime Gorilla Museum,” he eventually told me.
The band themselves were music students at Berkeley and as I later learned were not exactly strangers to the consumption of certain pharmaceuticals to enhance their writings, lyrical Dadaist musings, and sometimes their performances live, it was suspected.
My own later independent indulgences led me to revisit the album in it’s entirety when I was able to find the most debilitating substance available. I recall sitting in the car with my then-girlfriend after we had imbibed what we found, and it became clear to me, much clearer now with persistent focus and resolve to see this album through to it’s end, that this was a work of some perverse sort of genius.
Right at about five minutes and five seconds into the epic closing song, “Sleepytime (Spirit is a Bone)”, the repeated prosaic, almost forlorn-sounding chanting of Nils Frykdahl began it’s final ascent into demonic heights, wrapping my mind in the gradual escalation and additive accompaniment of more instruments, some obviously of their personal design, giving this climactic harrowing end an even more pronounced flavor of the alien, the obfuscated arts of something not at all inspired by the wholesome sights of this earth.
She started crying beside me. She was begging me to turn it off, eventually yelling at me, “I don’t like it! I don’t like how this makes me feel! Just FUCKING turn it OFF!” Her grievance was of course concerning but also somehow offered a fitting hue to this theatrical audial exorcism that was unfolding for what seemed like hours, with both vocalists now seemingly competing for the most severe demonstration of their derangement. The bass bounced and distorted sometimes off time, and therefore perfectly on time to stoke the fires of mind terror. Drums were hit hard, like they were subject to abuses consistent with the turmoil felt by their pained, despairing operator. It mystified me that this would be committed to a CD, that people made this. And that people made this, brought the nature of their inspiration to ominous hypotheses.
When it was over, we needed to chase it with something much less spiritually demanding, so we resumed our music listening with “Becoming X” by Sneaker Pimps, an appropriately mellow solace from the ordeal we just endured.
Sleepytime Gorilla Museum no longer exists, but they were well known in their Bay Area orbit, near other experimental artists like Secret Chiefs, Faun Fables, The Residents, even Mr. Bungle. This album of theirs, Grand Opening and Closing, started my fascination with them which continued since then. Their music is highly elaborate, dense with thematics and symbolism, so much so that to unpack the ideas discussed by a band using Finnegan’s Wake and the writings of the Unabomber as their lyrical basis in some cases would require an entirely separate exegesis of its own.
Objectively, there is quite a bit to take in, even without the aid of edible agitators of sanity. What makes it scary, in my personal opinion (besides circumstantial drug use), is what it suggests when heard in it’s own singular context. What I mean is, if we dismiss the reality for a moment, that these are people of flesh and blood, artists creating art, and we supposed that this was someone’s actual perspective of their world, what does it tell us? What does it suggest the human mind is able to conceive? If art is an opaque reflection of the paths of its origin, what kind of landscape is this showing to us?
by Matron Thorn