The idea of horror in music can be traced back to 1956. Screamin’ Jay Hawkins released his greatest commercial success in ‘I Put a Spell on You’. Hitherto, Hawkins had been an average blues singer and the song was intended as a ballad, but a drunken recording session produced something completely different, with Hawkins screaming savagely above a scant musical backdrop. Its success led him to embrace a new gimmick that included the use of macabre stage props such as coffins and live snakes, wearing a cape and tusks, and carrying a smoking skull named Henry.
Though tame by today’s standards, his influence was undeniable. The Who used smoke bombs and thrashed their equipment, Jimi Hendrix set his guitar on fire, and Iggy Pop threw himself around on stage with reckless abandon and blatant disregard for the bodies of his audience, his bandmates and himself. All of this would eventually give way to the more outwardly controversial and sardonic Alice Cooper, who in turn influenced the likes of W.A.S.P., Gwar, King Diamond, and Marilyn Manson.
Meanwhile, the emergence of heavy metal and punk rock – at the time transgressive, subversive and to the parents of those whose kids loved it, terrifying – begat offshoots and subgenres that took certain aspects of each sound and blended them with others or simply pushed what was already there to certain new extremes. So we go to extreme metal in all its forms, horror punk (Misfits), psychobilly (The Cramps) and more.
It was only a matter of time before hip hop got in on the act, too, with the emergence of horrorcore in the mid to late ‘90s, arguably most famously, or infamously, exemplified by one Marshall Mathers III. You may know him by other names.
In an essay entitled ‘Science Explains Why We Listen to Music That Scares Us To Death‘, Tom Barnes posits that sound and music are capable of inducing terror due to our evolutionary advantage of being sensitive to sound, and that the fight or flight response to music that scares us triggers a rush of dopamine. Furthermore, there is a link between our ability to interpret pitch variations and our ability to feel, so when tension built by dissonant music putting our pitch-interpreting abilities to the test moves back towards a more melodic passage, we experience a tremendous rush.
In doing so, he alludes to the work of alternative hip hop darlings Mykki Blanco, Odd Future and particularly Kanye West’s album Yeezus. While these artists are certainly iconoclasts where hip hop is concerned, how scary their music, or cinematic their output, is as a whole is up for debate.
Yes, while there have long been albums of cinematic quality and also music and artists that shock and abhor the average listener, the cinematic, scary album is a rarity. The most recent and, perhaps, best example of the art of the cinematic album as a horror, however, may be 2018 LP You Won’t Get What You Want, from recently reformed Providence-based noise rockers Daughters. The group’s first studio album in over eight years was met with unanimous critical praise and marked a major development in the group’s sound from their previous self-titled album (2010).
Daughters started as a grindcore band. Debut album Canada Songs (2003) was precisely 11 minutes and 11 seconds long. While a tight unit – a necessity to pull off the math-minded time signatures typical at this juncture of their career – Daughters were shambolic in a live setting. Those curious can find pro-shot footage from this era, which sees Daughters abandon a set due to police interruption. The authorities having been informed that drunk and disorderly frontman Alexis S. F. Marshall exposed himself to his audience on YouTube.
In 2006, came Hell Songs, an album twice as long as its predecessor. Hell Songs saw the group incorporate industrial-noise sounds into their sound but during the process of completing their self-titled third album, tensions between Marshall and guitarist Nicholas Andrew Sadler came to a head. The band completed the album, their most accomplished to that point, but disintegrated before its release.
The band would eventually reform for a one-off show in 2013 and by 2015 they had re-entered the studio to begin work on You Won’t Get What You Want – Daughters’ most expansive and fully-realised record to date. At just under 49 minutes, the band have deconstructed their former sound and completely shirked their math/grind roots to further explore and imbue their new material with influences from industrial rock, noise rock and no wave.
But what is it about You Won’t Get What You Want that makes it so terrifying and cinematic? Well, it’s that we may not get what we want. Instead, we get disturbing tones and creepy atmospheres arising from the interplay between instruments and Marshall’s off-putting vocal delivery, which lends itself deftly to the depraved narratives and vivid imagery depicted in his lyrics.
The album opens with ‘City Song’, a heavy, industrialised track driven by pulsating, fuzzy, warping synth bass and shotgun blasts of clipped, treated percussion. Here, Alexis Marshall sets the scene for his horror story, monotonously describing a ghost town, offering descriptions of this barren wasteland in between the mantra “this city is an empty glass”:
“Words do nothing
No one sleeps…
Graciousness is lost
The betrayed yearn…
Shops are closed
There is nothing…”
Later verses are interjected with disorienting groans and sharp, jarring waves of effect-soaked guitar. The juxtaposition of deadpan vocal delivery and caustic music make it clear that this setting is not a friendly one. Maybe even a source of trauma for our narrator as he tries to collect his thoughts. The cacophony in the background builds continuously until it comes to a sudden halt and the narrator leaves us with his final recollections from the silence:
“In the air: shrieks
The breath is long
And the fires are out
The waters sit still”
With no warning, we enter ‘Long Road, No Turns’ – five minutes of sea-sick droning guitar fashioned over a broken disco drum pattern. Sadler’s twangy guitar tone resembles that of the carnival, merry-go-round organ from hell. Here, our narrator espouses his nihilistic worldview:
“Everybody climbs up high then falls real far
A little is all it takes
A little is all it takes”
All hard work and success, according to our narrator, is temporary:
“I don’t know what to say when people come apart
The road is long, the road is dark”
Our narrator offers little sympathy to those who have fallen from grace. Throughout we are reminded that “these are just the words to somebody else’s song”, implying that, one way or another, we all stumble down this long, dark road at some point.
As the song continues to build, becoming even more frantic and dizzying, Marshall’s vocal delivery becomes increasingly urgent and desperate. It’s clear that our narrator may not be reliable or even mentally sound:
“It may please your heart to see some shackled, wrists and throat
Naked as the day they were
But no one’s going to do that for you”
Our narrator has snapped. He is soon to hit rock bottom and envies the listener’s better fortune, before giving us another reason to add to the appeal of scary music in the form of another truism:
“Well, ain’t it funny how it works
Someone’s always got it worse
(They hit the ground harder than you)”
‘Satan in the Wait’ sounds almost familiar at first, given how consuming the first two tracks from the album are. A cyclical tom drum pattern backed by dissonant, sustained double-track guitars gives way to a grinding, grimy bassline. Relentless drums build suspense. We are constantly anticipating some sort of increase in intensity or a release that never comes.
Marshall’s lyrics describe a hideous character, one seething with rage:
“That bastard had a head like a matchstick
Face like he was sucking concrete through a straw
‘Some faces not even a mother can love.’
Says the spit and spatter of broken glass from above
‘There’s a tombstone where your headboard used to be.’
They tell him every night before sleep”
The interjection of insults towards this character poses questions. Are they the introduction of antagonists into the story? Are these the man’s memories of those who have scorned him? We get the impression the man is resentful, with allusions to being held back or being of a lower social status than those who mock him, but:
“Every night before he dreams big and comes complete
Then he sees himself floating high above the certainty of his feet
Are these delusions of grandeur?”
The refrain sees a deceptively beautiful guitar passage. So far the most melodic musical movement on the album, playing beneath a chorus of “this world is opening up” and offering a sense of optimism. This proves to be false:
“Tell me what’s best and when. I’ll save the date
I’ll set the tone, I’ll wander in my sleep
They each raise a glass and clang
Here’s to the tragedy to ensue.”
Our protagonist has made a deal with Satan himself out of blind hatred.
The refrain of “their bodies… their channels are open/this world is opening up” plays out again and now we realise that our narrator has been more than unreliable. He is the devil himself, preying on the downtrodden to do his bidding. The melodic guitars take a dark turn, disappearing amongst the other instruments. The lyrics are repeated like a mantra, tripping over themselves and becoming increasingly urgent in delivery until they are screamed. This world is opening up to violence, hatred, and transgression – consuming the listener.
Elsewhere we encounter a complete mental breakdown conveyed through relentless cacophony and sentence fragments repeated ad nauseam (‘The Flammable Man’), biblical imagery and rejection of faith due to the idea of God wanting to see humanity suffer (‘The Lord’s Song’) and a subdued, industrial-blues fable about sex addiction (‘Less Sex’). But the finest example of what Bermann talked about, regarding music intensifying the innermost thoughts of movie characters, and Barnes’ take on the dissonant being a head rush inducing test of the ability to feel, is saved for closing track ‘Guest House’.
Our ending is hideous, with ear-piercing, relentless guitars. Marshall’s vocal delivery instils fear and panic to his audience masterfully as the narrator tries to force his way through our front door.
“I’ve been knocking and knocking and knocking and knocking
Pounding and knocking and knocking
Let me in”
Gorgeous, synthetic horns and strings bolster the song’s insanity, as the constant barrage of guitars run concurrently with the narrator’s desperation to get inside. The false orchestra supports what we should now have come to realise. Our narrator is unreliable and malicious, attempting to persuade us to open the door by playing to our sympathetic side:
“I have come from the distance
Where you can’t see
It is there, believe me
Now let me in”
Even more terrifying are the implications that he has been here before:
“Who put a padlock on the cellar door? Let me in
I’ve been knocking, let me in
Who bricked off the chimney?
I can’t hear you speak”
The narrator begs and pleads until finally, the song coasts out. The band peel back, allowing the strings and horns to soar. Release. The panic is over. You Won’t Get What You Want has succeeded in its goal of not only terrifying us as listeners, but also conjuring haunting imagery and, as Barnes suggested, the abrasion finally giving way to melody comes with a well-earned sense of euphoria.