In case you haven’t heard, October has enveloped us all within its macabre embrace, so it only seems fitting to launch a new segment for the rest of the month entitled “Ghoul’s Night Out!” Each I’ll be reviewing various creepy albums in order to help you all in your search for the perfect haunting soundtrack to your Halloween season.
Blue Oyster Cult’s self-titled 1972 debut seemed like an obvious pick for a spooky good time. I mean, these are the guys responsible for “Don’t Fear the Reaper” and “Burning For You,” after all! The cover art is particularly haunting as well, an M. C. Escher cubicle prison stretching out into an infinite night- very striking. This would surely be a Frankenstein laboratory of fiendish musical delights!
Imagine my surprise when I discovered that it’s more like a room temperature cauldron of standard issue classic rock cliches. The album is populated by boozey boogie woogie guitar riffs and honky tonk pianos. Blues licks recycled from a thousand years ago rain down on every track, eroding any highbrow potential at all with the beer-swilling bluster of it all. The infrequent, spaced out Moody Blues segments are creepily welcome but, once again, marred by too many rehashed blues solos. The Phrygian melodies of “She’s As Beautiful As a Foot” add a darker dimension to the proceedings but it’s soon overpowered by “Cities On Flame With Rock and Roll” which sounds just a little too suspiciously like Black Sabbath’s “The Wizard.” Whoops!
The production has a garage demo ring about it, which can be effectively used to advantage by some- plenty of bands have maximized the latent power of poor production and achieved a grim, necro sound that suits the music perfectly. Here, however, it’s just poor production. When the drums sound like the drummer is hitting as softly as possible with brushes on what is intended to be a barnburner of a rock song, something’s wrong, especially when you consider the sound Bill Ward was getting on Black Sabbath records from the exact same period.
There’s no correspondence principle between the sleazy bar band sound of the music and the imagery of the cover or the song titles. The most frightening thing about this record is how much it sounds like ZZ Top most of the time! The math doesn’t add up properly with BOC, there’s no sense that all of the elements belong together because there is no unity of purpose behind it all. There’s a serious disconnect that I properly expect to be reconciled as a basic first step in the development of any artist.
Disappointed, I turned to a stalwart chill-inducer: Nico’s 1969 album The Marble Index. Don’t be fooled by this German chanteuse’s backstory or the innocuous album cover- this is possibly the scariest album I’ve ever heard. Its spinechillingness doesn’t stem from overt frights- it’s all in the atmosphere of dread that pervades the album like poison gas seeping into a room. The album dishes out more cerebral scares that stick with you much longer, the kind that make you hear spectral voices in the wind outside your bedroom window. The Marble Index is a frozen crypt of isolation, haunting in its stark beauty. Nico calls our attention to its icy arches and our blood freezes as we stand transfixed. She beguiles us with her voice, a mournful siren call warning listeners to flee the place of her imprisonment, but it beckons us irresistibly to the same shoals she wrecked upon.
John Cale, sometime madman partially responsible for the Velvet Underground’s lunacy and the primary musician on the album, summons up skeletal arrangements to enshroud Nico’s vocals. The musical accompaniment is sparse, sonically mirroring the arctic wasteland evoked in many of Nico’s lyrics. Swells of ghostly strings glide through the halls Nico’s Gregorian intonations haunt. Mandolins pluck sinister arpeggios in songs such as “Roses In the Snow” and “Evening of Light,” punctuated by distant, ominous rumblings of Cale’s distorted electric viola, continually sweeping between dissonance and harmony. “No One Is There” is one of the standout songs from the album and will make you check over your shoulder at least a couple of times to make sure no one is behind you (you can listen to it here). The album’s production is simultaneously intimate and chilly, tightly imprisoning Nico’s lonely lyrics in an oubliette you will not soon forget.
Well, folks, that’s it for this week’s installment of “Ghoul’s Night Out!” Tune in next week for more frightening fun to search Pandora for- if you dare!