Bleeps and Shrieks: An Electronic Halloween
by Philip Sherburne | October 27, 2014
People tend to think of electronic music as happy-happy good-times party music, and that's true of a lot of it. But electronic music has a dark side, too -- one that stretches back through ambient, noise, goth and industrial, all the way to the quavering tones of pioneers like Daphne Oram and her colleages at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.
Most dark-side electronic music has played out far from the dancefloor, but not all of it. The past few years have seen a resurgence in dreadful affect in the shadowier corners of techno, in artists like Raime (signed to the appropriately named Blackest Ever Black label), Emptyset and Gatekeeper. The parallels between "dance music" and the experimental underground are laid bare when comparing the alter egos of New York's Dominick Fernow: As Prurient, he has spent more than a decade coaxing brutal, excoriating noise from his machines; more recently, as Vatican Shadow, he has channeled his visceral rumble and squeal into the throbbing beats and dark ecstasy of industrial-strength techno.
In celebration of Halloween, I've put together a two-and-a-half-hour playlist of deeply unsettling drones, rumbles, shrieks and, yes, even beats, drawing from decades of music. Daphne Oram kicks things off with one of her typically otherworldly electronic fugues, and from there we venture into the unknown via an example of "electronic voice phenomena," or E.V.P., in which ghostly voices are purportedly caught on tape. Electronic music's industrial and goth roots are laid bare in chilling selections from Laibach, Throbbing Gristle, Diamanda Galas, SPK, Cabaret Voltaire and the perennially underrated Crispy Ambulance, among others; there's also classic, beat-oriented creep-out fare from Godflesh, Scorn and Test Dept. Black metal hovers in the wings with KTL -- featuring Mego's Peter Rehberg, aka Pita, and Sunn O)))'s Stephen O'Malley -- and the French avant-metal musician Blut Aus Nord, whose most recent LP takes an unexpected turn into dystopian hip-hop. The Blut Aus Nord track keeps reminding me of Witchman, a British producer who took drum 'n' bass and trip-hop to their darkest extremes in the 1990s; he makes an appearance here too, along with his fellow traveler in trauma, Christoph de Babalon, a jungle producer who alternated between blistering breakbeats and bleakest ambient. Mixed in with those canonical touchstones are present-day examples of dancefloor doom from Raime, Gatekeeper, Vatican Shadow and Pan Sonic.
The Halloween hook is really something of a red herring; listeners with a predisposition for the dark side will enjoy the mix all year long. But, laced with ghoulish noises and genuinely terrifying glimpses of the unknown, this doubles nicely as a kitsch-free soundtrack for the trick-or-treaters who may come 'round your house. If the mix does its job, it actually ought to send them running in terror from your doorstep: more candy for you, then. Savor it with an evil grin.