MOJO's James McNair welcomes Halloween with a selection of music to scare your pants off.
Asked what tunes make them feel happy, sad, horny or uplifted, most folks can reel off examples. Ask them to name pieces of music that scare the living bejesus out of them, though, and brows tend to furrow. From "The Monster Mash" to the groovy exorcism service offered by Ray Parker Jr's theme from Ghostbusters, pop, at least, tends to de-fang the purportedly terrifying. Dig deeper, though, and there is some genuinely frightening music underfoot, its ability to unsettle us tied to personal associations or some inherently scarifying trait of the arrangement or lyric.
Association plus sonic disquiet is, of course, a powerful double-whammy. Think of the ominous, two-note motif that signals an approaching great white shark in Jaws, or the shower scene in Hitchcock's Psycho that Bernard Herrmann scored for jarring, pulse-quickening violins. "Even without the visuals, Hermann's music freaks you out," Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne told me recently. "Whatever is happening, you know it's not good."
Coyne reckons that songs that touch upon human evil or frailty--rather than, say, zombies we know don't really exist--tend to unsettle most. "Unsolved Child Murder" by The Auteurs; Napoleon XIV's "They're Coming To Take Me Away Ha-Haaa!"--these are deeply disturbing songs which play on our worst fears. You'd think twice about playing them and thrice before singing along.
It is intriguing, too, that even seemingly innocuous material can disturb. One friend of mine is inexplicably alarmed by the theme music to cartoon-dog animation Roobarb, while David Bowie's "Life On Mars?" gives my sister Alison the heebie-jeebies, though for wholly understandable reasons. As a teenager she and some friends dabbled with an ouija board one night and got spooked. "If it's really a dead spirit moving this glass, let 'Life On Mars?' be on the radio right now," spoke sis into the candlelight. They turned on Clyde FM and were duly scared sh**less. No more Hunky Dory for Al.
Less fathomable, on the face of it, is music's ability to spark collywobbles solely through the use of certain timbres, harmonies and harmonics. The demonic-sounding discord that results from combining the first and diminished fifth tones of a scale can be heard in both Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze" and Camille Saint-Saëns Halloween-encompassing Danse Macabre, but when I broached the so-called "Devil's Interval" with Tyondai Braxton of Battles recently, he told me it was but the tip of the scariness iceberg.
"If you want to be truly scared I suggest you go straight to Les Espaces Acoustiques by the French composer Gérard Grisey. He pioneered something called Spectralism where the chords form these weird alien harmonics. One movement of Les Espaces, Transitoires, is absolutely terrifying."
Just for the record, the song that I won't be listening to alone in a graveyard after midnight this Halloween is Kate Bush's "Waking The Witch." Demonic growls, suffocated-sounding cut-up voices, and a tale of innocents drowned as coven girls--it's enough to put the willies up Vincent Price.
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