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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Children of the Night, What Music They Make: Horror in Music

I want to talk a bit about horror in music and how it's a thing that exists. This is kind of an odd way of framing this exploration, but I'm doing it this way because some people seem to think it DOESN'T exist--i.e., that horror can't be effectively expressed in music alone.

People like Charles Darwin.

So look, I like Darwin. I think he's a smart guy. But he's said some pretty stupid things, and I want to take this opportunity to talk about one and why it's so silly. Check it out:

"Music arouses in us various emotions, but not the more terrible ones of horror, fear, rage, &c. It awakens the gentler feelings of tenderness and love, which readily pass into devotion. In the Chinese annals it is said, "Music hath the power of making heaven descend upon the earth." It likewise stirs up in us the sense of triumph and the glorious ardour for war. These powerful and mingled feelings may well give rise to the sense of sublimity."

Oh Charlie, Charlie, Charlie. What the fuck were you thinking.

Now, to me, this is a pretty self-evidently stupid statement--hell, I've already written an article on horror in electronic music, even, which probably stands on its own as proof against this concept. It's stupid largely because of the absolutist terms in which he's working. Music simply does not express horror and fear, full stop. Also, wanting to go slaughter a bunch of other humans has nothing to do with rage, apparently. Ok, if you say so Charlie.

But maybe it's not fair for me to start an article on horror in music by picking on Darwin. After all, he was writing in an earlier, barbaric era--a time before humanity developed its pinnacle of artistic brilliance, Marilyn Manson.

This is the face of the apex of human evolution.
Horror, that logic runs, has developed quite a bit over the past century or so, especially in darker genres of music, and it's anachronistic to subject Darwin's theories to an analysis dependent upon cultural products of the present era.

Well, I'd at least acknowledge some validity to that claim if not for the fact that I pulled this quote from Denis Dutton's The Art Instinct, a text that argues, broadly, that it is possible to understand human artistic endeavor from the perspective of evolutionary psychology and biology. I'm not unsympathetic to that claim! I think there's a lot of potential for the understanding of art practice through the lens of biological models of vision, for example, and that necessitates at least a passing understanding of how evolution has generated particular kinds of eyes.

I take issue, though, when the obsession with a Darwinian model of sexual selection as the sole driving power behind human achievement leads people to say shit that's just fucking stupid!

For example:

"Darwin would not deny, presumably, that a musical soundtrack could be appropriate for a horror movie; he is only claiming that the raw horror a dramatic story might incite could never be produced by music, any more than anger or fear could be produced by music. Music's natural ground is--as you would expect from an adaptation of sexual selection--romance." (Dutton 213)

Uuuugh. It's actually difficult to know where to start with this quote. It's such a mess of nonsensical ideas tossed together. And it's not taken out of context, either--Dutton is legitimately arguing here and elsewhere in the book that music is obviously a product of sexual selection and therefore obviously incapable on its own of expressing certain emotions. Now, the fact that he and Darwin are willing to accept calls to war as allowable despite the fact that unless you're going to the battlefield to find your Kismessis I suspect strongly that boning is not on your mind when you're trudging out to lop the heads off the barbarian hordes should suggest how ridiculous an assertion this really is. In fairness, later in the same chapter he blithely states that "Annexing music wholly to the procreative interests in the way that sexual selection suggests misses a great deal of the art itself as we understand it today" (Dutton 218). If that's the case, though, why frame music this way from the beginning, and why leave Darwin's nonsense so completely unexamined critically? Why not take a moment to consider the obvious contradictions inherent in sectioning off a seemingly arbitrary set of emotions as incapable of musical expression?

So, what I want to do here is talk about a few expressions of fear and horror in music--Gothic music, in particular--and how it most emphatically can match other media in terms of expressing horror.

The Gothic Poet

If you're familiar with my article on poetry and horror from a few years back (which is actually, unlike much of my work from those early days, probably still worth re-reading) you know I'm not satisfied with the presence alone of creepy things. There's gotta be something more to a horror poem than just mention of vampires and zombies. Narratives take advantage of horrific events for their power, movies and comics and paintings take advantage of uncanny visuals, and to my mind the greatest advantage poetry--and music!--has is the modulation of expectation and language and the complex disclosure of information.

This is part of why I'm focusing on gothic music in this article. The other reason is that I really love goth, and I think it deserves sort of a wider visibility than it's gotten despite "gothic" stores like Spensers and Hot Topic. So, if this article gets a bit gushy, step back and try not to let the gushing get on your shoes.

Anyway, it's worth taking a moment to talk about the poetic focus of a lot of early bands sort of broadly gathered under the umbrella of goth, deathrock, and dark romantic postpunk whatever. I think this genre is particularly useful here given the way that many of the bands, particularly the early bands, use more than simply the subject matter to carry the meaning and mood of the music.

This isn't horror, really, but it's a good example of the kind of poetry games that these bands like to play:

I love the careful threading of meaning through the song. Particularly the second stanza:

God knows everybody needs
A hand in their decision
Some of us are not so sure
I seen his own held out
For a ride on television
I think he's still in Baltimore

The slow delivery masks the meaning quite a bit, actually. It took me an actual reading of the lyrics to get that the "he" of the fourth line there is God--God knows that we all need a hand; his own is held out to pick up a ride. He's going nowhere fast, though...

These are the kind of games these gothic poets play with the lyrical structures. The movement from line to line, and the way those lines are delayed and separated by the vocal treatment and the structure of the song, demands attention and forces the audience to put the pieces together.

Which is quite powerful when used to create a sense of uncertainty, foreboding, and fear.

Check out the song "The Dog's a Vapour" by Bauhaus:

I love, love, love the gradual escalation of the song toward the possessed, mantra-like conclusion, building up from that toned down beginning to its repetitive, screeching climax. Can't express fear in music my ass. This song is deeply, deeply disturbing, at least to me. And part of that comes from the way the lyrics are paired with the music and broken apart into a series of audible stanzas. In fact, let's break up the lyrics according to their auditory stanzas:

The moon sheds light
when all is dark
the dog's reaction
is to bark.
Is that the moon's fault?
Tell me true

Tis the dog's nature
So to do.
The moonlight fills all heaven with mirth
The dog's a vapour
Belched by earth

No matter how you break the song (and I've sometimes seen it broken after "mirth") there's an odd looping discontinuity between the end rhymes. The first stanza seems to end with "true," a rhyme without a pair, unlike "dark" and "bark." Then we complete the rhyme in the next stanza with "do," but that in turn is followed by the "mirth" line, which again leaves us hanging, waiting for a resolution. And finally we receive it in the form of the titular line: "The dog's a vapour belched by earth."

This creates a sense of winding and weaving, incompleteness, occlusion. Even though we could write the lines thus:

The moon sheds light when all is dark
the dog's reaction is to bark.
Is that the moon's fault? Tell me true
Tis the dog's nature so to do.
The moonlight fills all heaven with mirth
The dog's a vapour belched by earth

which produces a kind of sing-song, nursery rhyme quality to the lyrics, we're still left with the strange meter that begins with regularized iambic tetrameter (the MOON sheds LIGHT when ALL is DARK/the DOG'S reACtion IS to BARK), collapses in the middle before finally pulling its shit together at the climactic final line. It never quite comes together in a regular way. And when it is sung, the line endings and stanza endings break the poem even more, disguise its meter. The song is thus unsettling not just for its dark, surrealist subject matter, but for its very structure, which is fraught with fissures of discontinuity. It is unsettling because any resolution that we find is then counterbalanced by another misstep.

And, in fact, even when we think we've come to the end of the rhymed couplets, we receive one last line that throws everything out of balance once more:

The dog's a vapour
Belched by earth
The dog's a vapour
Belched by earth.

There's something in you.

Tis the dog's nature
So to do
The moonlight fills all heaven with mirth
The dog's a vapour
There's something in you

The dog's a vapour
The dog's a vapour
Belched by earth

The dog's in you

Now instead of rhymed couplets, we've got one rhymed triplet--the ominous declaration that "There's something in you!" paired with "true" and "do." Now, on top of the anxiety of unbalanced lines, we have another irresolution: just what is within us? Why is this line being drawn into the couplet describing the dog's nature? The song begins to break down even further at this point, with previous stanzas repeated irregularly, divorced from their actual rhyme schemes, and each time the final rhyme with "mirth" is deferred, pushed back and superseded by this strange interloping new line, held in anxious tension...

Until the final climax of the music, when they repeat the earlier statement: "The dog's a vapour belched by Earth." And then, the resolution that we know is coming finally arrives, and the seeming triplet is resolved once more with the eighth unique line of the poem:

The dog's in you.

Ha ha ha holy fuck.

I don't know about you but that gives me the willies. I don't even know for sure what it means--that's part of the fear, in fact, that the meaning of the song as a whole is occluded like the meaning of the individual lines are occluded by their strange placement--but it sure doesn't sound like it means anything good. If I could take a stab at it I'd say it has something to do with humankind's dark, bestial nature breaking out and asserting itself--not exactly an unheard of theme in horror, right? And when these lyrics are paired with the cataclysmic finale of the song, I really do think it reaches a level of terror matching your average horror film.

But, ok, you might say, this is still working on the level of lyrics rather than sensation. It's not, like, really music. Now, granted, that's a bullshit argument because love songs have lyrics too, but sure, I'll indulge this train of thought for a moment.

Horrible Structures

If one side of early goth is the darkly poetic, the other side is just straight up bonkers, and derives its dark edge less from comprehensible lyricism than from deeply unsettling abstraction--there's a lot of affinity between goth and surrealism--and dissonant composition. I'm just going to speed through a few examples here for the sake of time. Check out this track by Christian Death:

This is another example that isn't necessarily fear-inspiring, but is illustrative of the kind of games these bands play. The dominant mood here is one of tension and anxiety, and it's not, I think, caused (just) by the hoarse vocals and the organ and bass combo... no, it's the weird time signature.

This'll take a bit of explanation for those unversed in time signatures. A time signature is just the number of beats it takes for you to get back to the beginning of a repeated musical phrase. Think of it like this: if you tap your foot along with the high hat or bass drum on this track, you'll tap your foot a certain number of times between the beginning of a line of lyrics and the beginning of the next line of lyrics. Normally, this will be four or sometimes three taps.

Here, it's seven.

Roughly mapped out it's sort of like:

1         2         3      4         5      6     7        
Growing with time growing with fear [pause]
1           2     3          4    5   6     7      
Growing all alone to disa......ppear [pause]

This is an unsettling kind of structure because it feels truncated. We're used to simple four beat measures, and multiples of four like eight, so when you drop down to seven the rhythm feels off-kilter and unresolved. Paired with the alternately raspy and screaming vocals and you have a recipe for a jarring, somewhat unpleasant but, in my opinion, quite captivating song.

You can push this even further into the realm of what the fuck if you embrace even more dissonance and unnerving sampling:

Yeah, gotta love that clip from The Exorcist at the beginning. It sort of turns Dutton's statement on its head--rather than music backing a horror movie, a horror movie backs music. I kind of love that, in a way. And I think it kind of shows why that statement is so silly--it's not that the music becomes creepy because it's the score of a horror movie, the horror movie is creepy because of the score--a score that is often shrill, dissonant, and unnerving in its own right (think of the music from Psycho, for example).

In this case, the song is... I don't know, it doesn't hit me on a visceral level the way, say, The Dog's A Vapour does, but there's something about the sheer incomprehensibility of the song, the madness of it, that's creepy for sure. The tone of the song, and the lack of comprehensible lyrics, create a sort of blankness into which you stare, hoping for meaning. And then, of course, there's the elated howls at the end of "My body begins to burn!" What the hell is that about? Jesus christ goths are weird. Anyway, yeah, unnerving compositions, how 'bout that.

Gothic Love

There's one last kind of interesting wrinkle to this, and that's gothic love songs. This is the place where I think the argument most obviously falls apart, because there's quite a lot of romantic gothic music that draws its power from a mediation of sexuality and fear. It's the adrenaline rush of those combined emotions that makes the music so sexy.

For example, here's this track from gothic metal band Type O Negative:

Apparently this song is about deceased frontman Peter Steele's desire to make a woman orgasm so hard she passes out. Which. All I can say to that is. Yes please? Peteeeer why are you dead? [cries over old copies of the Playgirl in which Steele posed naked]


The song draws its power from the dark, animalistic lust--threatening, fearful--paired with intensely passionate eroticism. It's the interplay between fear and desire that gives it power. This wouldn't be successful as a song about procreation--the all important subject matter for evolutionary psychologists--without tapping into an emotion that music, according to Darwin and Dutton, can't express in the first place.

You're good enough for me, Peter Steele. You're good enough for me.

Too bad you were a raging homophobe. And are now dead.

Anyway, the point of all this is that there's some rich potential for horror in music that shouldn't be overlooked, there's some really incredible gothic music out there that you might not be familiar with, and you should never get so carried away with a singular theory that you are forced to warp the history of art and music in a really nonsensical way in order to make your theory work.

I mean, goths don't like it when you ignore their entire genre of music. And we've got bats. So many bats. RELEASE THE BATS! RELEASE THE BATS!

AAAAUUUGH! BITE! AAAAUUUUUUUUGH! BITE! Follow for updates, random thoughts, artwork, and news about articles. As always, you can e-mail me at Circle me on Google+ at you liked this piece please share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Reddit, Equestria Daily, Xanga, MySpace, or whathaveyou, and leave some thoughts in the comments below.


  1. Found some awesome new music due to this post, thank you. :)

  2. May I recommend the music of Super Metroid?

  3. Hi Sam, been trying to reach out by email but I am not sure we have the correct one? We'd love to discuss this non-fiction anthology we have been working on - could you contact us on contact AT thebooksmugglers DOT com. This is not spam, I swear! Cheers, Ana

  4. Can't believe this didn't mention Climbing Up the Walls. What better mainstream example of a viscerally terrifying sound? I get wanting to focus on lyrics and affecting things people do with them I just feel like composition, tones, mixing etc can be even more arresting and often get less attention for being done well. Probably being a longtime musician results in this feeling...anyway, I did really enjoy what you had to say. That Darwin...


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