Gather ’round fiends for a new slew of morbid (de)compositions guaranteed to shiver your soul and curdle your blood!
Black Sabbath’s 1970 debut album is a pretty obvious choice for spooky fun; first of all, it’s BLACK SABBATH we’re talkin’ about, and second of all… Holy crud, I mean just look at that cover! That album art used to keep me up at night when I first discovered Sabbath, haunted by that creepy lady in the woods. Who is she? A witch? A deranged English hillbilly? I haven’t the foggiest, but it gives me shivers every time!
To the untrained eye, Black Sabbath might appear to be yet another dated blues revival hard rock group but their significance lies in the epic hailstorm they rained on the flower power parade with their music. Originally called Earth, they borrowed the name of the 1963 Boris Karloff movie in keeping with a newfound mission to scare the daylights out of everyone. Black Sabbath were a grim reminder that the world was definitely not becoming a better place, that evil was real, and that the hippie counterculture was doomed to failure from the start. Peace? How about Armageddon instead? Love? Sure- the kind you find out too late you sold your soul for. Let the sunshine in? There wasn’t any in the industrial wasteland of Birmingham they grew up in- only dark shadows, buildings lying in ruins from World War II, creaking, lifeless machinery, poverty, addiction, and hopelessness. Black Sabbath is the black sheep of the late 60s musical landscape, exposing the stupidity and the shallowness of most of what was going on in the culture with juggernaut brutality. Black Sabbath was a desperately needed slap in the face of hippiedom’s baseless optimism and insipid musical message. Batten down the hatches, this album announces- things are already terrible, and they’re only gonna get worse.
It’s true- they were still a product of their time, and so bluesy swagger does dominate much of the material. Two of the album’s five tracks are extended medleys of songs strung together with extended solos to showcase Tony Iommi’s guitar prowess, recreating the late-60s approved live set they toured Britain’s blues-infatuated club circuit with. So yes, there are a few too many rave-ups and shuffles to maintain a totally consistent atmosphere, but it’s intriguing all the same how Sabbath manages to subvert those tried and true blues conventions from within with some seriously dark undertones, such as the sudden break in “Wicked World” (at 2:15) or the many times Iommi finishes a solo and uncorks a shadowy melody from another realm. Though they honor the parameters, it’s clear something unearthly is forcing its way out. They would spend the next three records honing their sound and crystallizing a Sabbath aesthetic that would only get heavier and darker, but it all begins here. Sabbath established themselves as the grizzled grandfathers of metal with this release. Almost every ghastly hallmark of the genre finds its genesis on this album; amp-shredding distortion, detuned guitars, palm muted 16th note riffs, canyon carving drumming, and dark lyrical subject matter.
The opening track, their title song, is a Plutonian eruption of paradigm shattering doom, a miasma of fears imagined and realized. The diabolical tritone riff that launches it sends shudders down even the staunchest spine, sonically epitomizing every horror movie shock with its bowel-shuddering discordance. The band proves that bombast doesn’t necessarily equal bigger scares- the quietness of the verses make the horror positively suffocating. The tug of war between dynamics fleshes out both the foggy fear of what lurks in silent shadows and the tangible fear of what has manifested itself right before your very eyes. The band eases off the volume to match Ozzy Osbourne’s narration of waking from a nightmare to discover a figure in black at the foot of his bed (an experience bassist Geezer Butler claims actually happened to him). The return to deafening guitar thunderstorms in the chorus is actually a relief, if anything- many times obscure, ill-defined imaginings are more starkly terrifying than fully defined, out in the open frights. Thoughtful use of dynamics make the scares more cinematic and visceral (to this day I believe Ozzy as he cries out, “Oh please God, help meeeeeee!” before the first chorus), a point more metal bands would do well to consider.
“The Wizard” continues the rampage before the live jam medleys take center stage, a high point arriving in the form of “N.I.B.,” a blast of savage riffery that takes no prisoners and turns sappy love ballad lyrics on their heads by unveiling a certain fallen angel as the one promising “the sun, the moon, the stars” in return for your love. Newsflash, flower children: This ain’t the summer of love! Even with all its warts, Black Sabbath is creepy fun to turn up real loud this month.
With Juju, Siouxsie Sioux and her crew of Banshees deliver some seriously funky fright and make melancholia deliciously catchy. Juju documents a spectacularly sinister synergy between singer, band, lyrics and music that is to be applauded whether you’re searching for killer Halloween music or just a really great record for any other time of the year. This, their fourth album, builds on their past successes and launches them into the gothic stratosphere with infectious hooks and evocative lyrics.
Siouxsie’s voice is as menacing as it is alluring as she whispers and shouts of secrets; arcane secrets scarcely guessed at by mortals and the more everyday secrets we all keep from each other. Straddling the line between warmly inviting and threateningly alien, she wins your trust as a confidant but as the album stretches on your heart stiffens with dread that she may drop the facade and expose all of your secrets. She is studying you even as you study her- “I wander through your sadness/ Gazing at you with scorpion eyes,” she sings in “Halloween,” and your fear steadily mounts that maybe her mask isn’t a mask after all.
The Banshees certainly put the “dance” in danse macabre. The insistent rhythms of songs like “Spellbound” and “Monitor” make you want to grab your leg warmers and cut a rug like it’s 1984 again but don’t be shocked when the sock hop turns out to be the prom night of the living dead. They know how to wreck your nerves at any tempo, as songs such as “Into the Light” and “Nightshift” demonstrate; here, they ease off the post-punk velocity and drench you in translucent black atmosphere, gossamer guitar lines and brooding bass arpeggios offering glimpses of realms pop music doesn’t dare to explore. As a total package, Juju is hard to beat- dancey but not brainless, morose without being a bummer, catchy as all get out but multidimensional, this album will grip you with its ghostly tendrils and haunt you well past Halloween.
Coil’s album Time Machines is a delirious haze of pure sound, an experiment in unrestrained paranoia. Sine waves pulse and cycle back upon themselves, reverberating through nothingness, dislocating the listener from any sense of place. This is the sound of the abyss percolating straight into your headphones. These four tracks are summoned into being through the patient manipulation and mangling of sound, purposefully making the listening experience as arduous as it is unsettling, offering no rewards of melody or resolution. Formlessness shapes these tension-soaked tracks into eerie emanations from another world and puts you right in the center of throbbing aural chaos. Very out there scares await any brave enough to give Time Machines a spin alone in a dark room.
Well, that’s it for this week, boils and ghouls- tune in next week for more fearsome musical fun!