As part of our October series over at the ol’ Ringing Ear Podcast, we’ve been exploring all songs dark, dank, and otherwise disturbing, and while this may well prove to be spoilers for some upcoming episodes (Songs about Murder – out 10/15; ‘Frighteners’ out 10/22), this seems as good of a time as any to explore Halloween music a little.
There are two schools of thought when it comes to music that pairs well with Halloween. Music that is fully entrenched in the holiday tend to be nothing more than #Shtick; palatable, safe, and categorically not scary (see: Bobby Pickett). The other end of the spectrum is less accessible, but only a Google search away are troves of abject darkness and noise, which is plenty frightening, but often unlistenable (see: Gorgoroth, Suicide, et. al). Songs that fall into the middle – say, “Thriller” – have all but been played into an early grave. Here to thread the needle, I offer 13 songs that are both, by the grace of the Dark Lord, creepy and yet still enjoyable.
13. “Mistaken for Strangers” – The National (The Boxer, 2007)
This may seem a strange pick from a band that, while certainly familiar with the darkness of the human soul, could hardly be accused of creeping anyone out. But this song’s forlorn clanging, its nervous beat, and foreboding tone look at the world through a dark aperture, and somehow manages to sound, like a murderer’s soul, dense and hollow at the same time.
This lonely, paranoid track – at over six minutes it’s an opus by pop standards – was reportedly inspired by the music of Aphex Twin (more on him later), and comes in two movements. The first is equal parts menacing mantra and layered noise, the beat stutter-stepping while Queen Bey chants about staying alive; the second movement is spare, a little cold even, before it opens its wings and enters a more danceable state, with a rhythm not unlike ominous knocking.
11. “Murder Spree” – Ghostface Killah, feat. U-God, Killa Sin, Masta Killa, & Inspectah Deck (Twelve Reasons to Die, 2013)
Wu-Tang & Co. have never hesitated from spitting grizzly and gory imagery, but “Murder Spree” is a treasure trove of wall-to-wall horror, including suffocation, mutilation, punctured lungs, a chainsaw, a Cuban necktie, and a medication switcheroo. All of that and more with sampling that creates tightrope tension and plays like the score of a mafia epic.
10. “Red Right Hand” – Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds (I Let Love In, 1994)
It should be no surprise to see Nick Cave on a list of anything chilling or frightening. The singer/songwriter has been crafting tales of madness since 1983 and he never, ever misses. “Red Right Hand” (which gets its title from Milton) is arguably the most notable single of his long career, having been featured in numerous films and television shows. Which is for good reason, as it’s entire arrangement conjures the sensation of walking home alone at night, on a deserted boulevard, being followed all the while.
9. “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson” – David Bowie (1. Outside, 1995)
This song appears on Bowie’s underrated 1995 album 1. Outside, back when Trent Reznor effectively acted as his muse. The album was a bit of a flop at the time, which is too bad since it contains some twisted fun, with this filthy lesson being the best of them. With eerie vocals and serpentine sound effects, it’s a twisted piece of pop-art, a perfect storm for director David Fincher, who used it behind the closing credits of “Seven”.
8. “London Dungeon” – The Misfits (The Misfits, 1986)
With The Misfits’ legacy of cartoonish horror-punk, any of their songs could find a place on this list (Runner-up: “Die, Die My Darling“). But “London Dungeon”, along with being a tale about being locked in “a British hell”, is one of their most accomplished songs, complete with a haunting lead, a dose of sarcasm, and cavernous production that invokes prison itself.
7. “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” – Black Sabbath (Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, 1973)
Black Sabbath acted as a harbinger of doom in the 70s, bringing darkness into suburbs and cities alike, if for no other reason than to frighten parents and other authority figures. Even without all of their legend and influence, it’s easy to appreciate Black Sabbath’s singular brand of ghostly blues-rock (which all but created the Metal genre out of thin air). This track is a cut above though, because within “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” is a tone of revenge, and a savage riff as heavy as anything they over recorded, which finds Ozzie in the grip of rage (“You bastards!”). Nothing of its era rocks or sounds more threatening than this.
6. “The Ghost Who Walks” – Karen Elson (The Ghost Who Walks, 2010)
If Dusty Springfield ever got together with Lux Interior, their progeny might’ve grown up to be Karen Elson, a former model and sultry crooner not unlike Springfield herself. The chord progression on “The Ghost Who Walks” swings like a pendulum and Elson’s vocals cut through the night like a spooky slice of moonlight.
5.”Psycho”– Eddie Noack (Psycho, 1968)
Eddie Noack’s 1968 single “Psycho” is a tale about a serial killer piling his secrets atop the breakfast table and warning his mother to do something before he hurts anyone else. It’s classic country twang, produced with the echoed effects of the era, which starkly underscores lyrics like “Seems I was holding a wrench mama/Then my mind walked away”. Surprisingly, “Pyscho” is remarkably breezy and easy to listen to, especially if you listen to Elvis Costello’s cover.
4.”Come to Daddy [Pappy Mix]”– Aphex Twin (Come to DaddyEP, 1997)
“Come to Daddy” is an astonishing combination of break-beats and sound effects that buzz, bounce, and sizzle like they were sitting in a searing frying pan. Add to that an arrangement that isn’t far removed from death metal, complete with otherworldly screaming, and you’ve got a song disturbing enough that it’s the one for which Aphex Twin (Richard D. James) will probably be most remembered. It is a cacophonous, barely-organized cauldron of chaos that is still somehow listenable, which makes it all the more astounding.
3. “We Know Where You Sleep” – The Paper Chase (Now You Are One of Us, 2006)
The most horrific thing to come out of Texas since the Bush administration, The Paper Chase do nothing if not set an ominous tone with each and every recorded moment. “We Know Where You Sleep” is everything wonderful and disturbing about this experimental band. All at once it’s a threat, an overture, a celebration, and one of the most oddly-addictive songs you’ll ever encounter this Halloween, or any other time for that matter.
2. “Black Sabbath (from the Satanic Perspective)” – Type O Negative (Nativity in Black: A Tribute to Black Sabbath, 1994)
In the opinion of this writer, the scariest song in popular music to this day remains Black Sabbath’s eponymous track one. The song, written in 1969 about a frightening experience reported by Sabbath’s Geezer Butler, makes use of the Devil’s Triad– a trio of notes that was dubbed Diabolus in Musica (“Devil in Music”) by medieval writers. Black Sabbath’s song tells the story of a protagonist who is confronted by a “figure in black” with eyes of fire. If that weren’t creepy enough, enter Brooklyn goth-metal outfit Type O Negative, who recorded a tribute 25 years later, adding chants of Ave Satanas (“Hail Satan”) in between verses, making it infinitely darker. Type O’s version is opaque and weighty, largely due to late singer Peter Steele, who sings like he’s still shaking off the dust from his coffin. The track culminates much like Sabbath’s original does – in a pulsing coda (“Could this be the end, my friend?”), making it catchy while still being downright fearsome.
1. “Mr. Krinkle” – Primus (Pork Soda, 1993)
In the 1932 MGM film “Freaks”, a carnival barker proclaims, “They didn’t ask to be brought into the world, but into the world they came!” The same could be said for Les Claypool, who’s been doing weird-for-weird-sake his entire career. “Mr. Krinkle” is a bizarre specimen, even for Primus, and at the center of its dirty soul is Claypool’s bow-dragged bass, which is as unsettling as it is entertaining. Pro tip: “Mr. Krinkle” is best paired with its accompanying video.