Before 1960, nearly all music existed within the dichotomy of sadness or euphoria. For the most part, the musical tastes of the public leaned away from anything abrasive or dissonant, primarily due to a larger influence of religious institutions and their fear of demonic or satanic undertones.
These organizations even made the use of specific musical concepts grounds for incarceration in the days of Beethoven and Mozart. For a more recent example, just look at Tipper Gore’s condemnation of profanity through the use of a parental advisory warning in the ‘80s.
Thankfully, through the normalization of genres such as punk, heavy metal and the infinite number of “post-whatevers” in the music sphere, there has been a sharp uptick in the amount of music that breaks out of this two-mood prison. So to get everyone into the mood for All Hallows Eve, here are five essential albums from history that are unnerving, haunting or downright evil. These records are scary, and they’ll totally kill your Halloween party — so beware.
Portishead - “Third” (2008)
“Third” is the, well, third album in the Portishead legacy, which started way back in 1994 with the release of the trip-hop trailblazer record, “Dummy.” Then, ten years after the release of the Bristol, U.K. trio’s self-titled album in 1998, the long-awaited “Third” was dropped. The minimalist cover art is intentionally deceiving, veiling the suspense and commotion the album so confrontationally interjects. Each little sound is so varied in its sinister undertones that it feels like walking down the hallway of an insane asylum and observing the various ways the human mind can be warped to oblivion.
The suspense is in thanks largely to the driving, repetitive krautrock influences on tracks such as “Machine Gun” and “We Carry On,” providing a long sonic hallway where no one knows what’s around the next corner. The moaning vocals of Beth Gibbons are the coup de grâce of the album, where the emotional energy and lyrical subtleties evoke visions of a middle-aged woman contemplating suicide. “Third” is an album that forces introspection down your throat.
Swans - “Public Castration Is a Good Idea” (1986)
Never mind the album title, this is the first live album from post-everything band Swans. Even though the band members were very young at the time of this record’s release, Michael Gira and company roar forward with metallic stabs and orc-growls like an army of phantasmal creatures of nightmare.
In "Public Castration Is a Good Idea," the listener gets to see Swans’ intention clearly — to unnerve. Like “Third,” the use of repetition and sound effects that are distinctly non-musical make the record more of a battleground and less of a symphony. Gira’s voice is hard to place within any context. It sounds like the singer is half commanding an army and half screaming in wrenching pain. Perhaps he is doing both?
Wolf Eyes - “No Answer: Lower Floors” (2013)
Possibly the most prolific drone-rock band in American history, the Detroit outfit Wolf Eyes spent the first ten years of its career developing a small, but devoted fanbase scattered around the United States and Europe. It’s not uncommon for the band to release more than one album per year, but “No Answer: Lower Floors” was the event of 2013, as the only other release was a demo album from the same sessions. These two albums are about the closest you can come to having the Predator hunt you like you're Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The majority of the sounds on this album could probably come from the same synthesizer, but the range of noises — from high-pitched cyborgish screams to rumbling chitters — neurotically whip each track into a disorienting flurry of hellish chaos. The sounds place the listener in the uncanny valley, left to wander with no water, sunlight or food. For those who enjoy the more playful aspects of this album, look to Pink Floyd’s “Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving With a Pict” for a track that could turn a study session into an avant garde nightmare.
Xiu Xiu - “Girl with Basket of Fruit” (2019)
If “Third” was a disturbing sampling of various insane people, then “Girl with Basket of Fruit” is an extended shouting match with one individual suffering PTSD from a traumatizing and oddly sexual experience deep in the jungle. The frontman and primary songwriter, Jamie Stewart, paints horrifyingly graphic pictures through his piercing wailing, as the limping electronic soundtrack is as complex as the social issues brought up through the lyrics.
Possibly the most disturbing selection, “Scisssssssors,” begins with distorted pig snarls and leads to softly delivered one-liners like “Pull the handle, you are erased.” Hurried bongo drums and other various abrasive percussion makes the track a thing of nightmares. Even the tamer tracks like “Normal Love” feature heavily-wavered piano riffs that sound as though they were being played through a boombox in the basement of your own personal murderer, minutes before your demise.
MGMT - “Little Dark Age” (2018)
This is the one album on this list that is debatable in its spookiness. What’s remarkable about this record are it’s cohesion and how well it veils its sinister undertones behind a pop-centric fence. “When You Die” is a dreamy, beautifully written acoustic pop song, but a careful listener will be able to pick out quick instances of demonic laughter, in-key-yet-possessed guitar riffs and backward tracking up the wazoo. Not to mention, the lyrics are just about as introspectively abrasive as can be. “Go f*** yourself, you heard me right/Don’t call me nice again/Baby, I'm ready, I'm ready, ready, ready to blow my brains out,” lead vocalist Andrew VanWyngarden excitedly yelps.
The album progresses likewise, creating shimmering waves that splash on the surface as the water beneath gurgles in dark uncertainty. “One Thing Left to Try” lulls listeners into a false sense of security with swinging hip hop beats that jump the gun, while heavy synth hits and booming bass tom drums plague the chorus like a storm brewing on the horizon.