Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Unsettling Sounds

I do most of my music listening on the hoof, so my Walkman is an invaluable piece of kit that pretty much goes everywhere with me. Obviously this isn't an ideal listening condition, as quite a bit of background noise inevitably leaks in, and most tunes are compressed to a medium rate MP3. At any given time my Walkman probably loaded with 60% of music new to me, I'm a sucker for the 'new' and spend a few hours each week scouring the web for stuff that sounds interesting. The other 40% is oldies and favourites from all over the musical spectrum.

Anyhoo, this week whist out and about, the 'shuffle' function has thrown up more than it's fair share of 'creepy' tracks. Or at least tunes that at one time or another have creeped me out big time. Now this could be cos' of the content of music or lyric, the original listening conditions, the context, or just where my head was at the particular time of listening. For me, more than a few of the recordings still have that 'hair's on the back of the neck' factor that's hard to pin down, so I thought I'd compile a short 'tape' of the stuff for your perusal.
Much of it I guess falls into the 'industrial' realm of music, but don't let that put you off.

Unsettling Sounds is here for your, ahem, enjoyment.

01. Throbbing Gristle - Hamburger Lady
Throbbing Gristle

This song used to freak me out massively. The sloooow metronomic bass drum, the slightly queasy droning keyboards, the haunting high pitched 'klaxon' interludes and the unsavory subject matter all collude to make this more than a little eerie. I realise that T.G. made a career out of being 'weird', and attracted all sorts of nutters and misfits to their strange form of art terrorism, but I feel this was their crowning moment of bizarre. In terms of modern music, it's pretty tame, but back in 1978, there really were not that many bands doing stuff quite so odd

02.The Butthole Surfers - Strangers Die Every Day
Butthole Surfers

Back in the mid-late 80's, The Butthole Surfers were the freak band 'de rigour'. Just about everyone who thought of themselves as a 'head' dug them. Their live shows were a riot of noise, smells and psychedelics that somehow their oddball records never quite lived up to. But their second LP proper 'Rembrant Pussy Horse' did have some genuine  'bad acid' moments of which, for me, Strangers Die Every Day' was the most disjointed. That sad minor key church organ refrain coupled with the unfathomable megaphone distortion of the lyric, the animalistic sounds and tape echo time manipulation all set a up a heavy 'downer' mood that permeates the whole track.

03. Test Dept - The Fall From Light
Test Dept

Test Dept were the ultimate industrial band who, like Einsturzende Neubauten, actually used industrial tools and environments to create and de-construct music. Heavy on rhythm and atmosphere, I don't think they ever made a better record than this track (though the album length interpretation of the Welsh poem Brith Gof  on the 'Goddodin' LP comes close). I first heard 'Fall From Light' in 1984 on the John Peel show, bookmarked between The Fall's 'Man Whose Head Expanded' and the Frank Chicken's 'We Are Ninja' (I know cos' I've still got the cassette somewhere) and to say it gave me the willies would be an understatement. Those delayed 'beaten' metal sheets and scrapings, the slightly 'bolshevik' sounding viola and the sung/spoken vocal all come together to evoke a post apocalyptic place of quiet desperation.
The track gave me massively uneasy, but, even so, I played it to death, almost wearing out a 'groove' in the lovingly coveted Peel tape. Each time it would turn up, I'd test my resolve by resisting pressing the FFW button and the urge to skip forward. Over time, it's lost some of it's early frisson and with familiarity, it's become an old favourite, and it's still a mighty fine song. I finally bought the double 12"'box set' of 'Beating A Retreat' second hand from the sadly defunct Reddington's Rare Records in Birmingham. It's still a thing of beauty, though the other tracks sadly didn't live up to the promise of 'The Fall From Light'.

04. David Bowie - After All

This is probably the most conventional track on the compilation, though for me, it still holds a sheen of 'otherness' that despite playing thousands of times I've never been able to shake. I find it just plain unsettling. The lyrics are not something I've managed to fathom greatly, though there's a heavy air of disappointment and sadness running through them and the song as a whole. The "by jingo" refrain I find particularly strange and alluring, and the occasional use of mellotron, tuba and the slightly 'greasy' keyboard sounds add a weird off kilter vibe to the record. Mind you, the whole of the album' Man Who Sold The World' has a ''not quite with it' vibe which I used to find uncomfortable to listen to full stop. It's a record I return to often though, as it's such a satisfying listen.

05. Sonic Youth - Ghost Bitch
Sonic Youth - 1983

I first became aware of Sonic Youth around 1985. They supported Nick Cave in the UK on his first solo tour to support the 'From Her To Eternity' album. It was a mid week gig, and there was only about 30 people in the audience, mostly for Nicky boy (as was I). As American 'no wave' punks, Sonic Youth were not like any British punks I knew. They took to the stage in 'normal' clothes, no leathers or mohawks, and went on to tear the ass out of everything, I was totally bowled over, it was love at first sight.  My 18 year old self had never heard any like them and I was totally sold. During the concert, guitarist Thurston Moore's amplifier caught fire, and the stage crew leapt up, extinguishers in hand to douse the flames. Thurston shooed them away exclaiming to them "NO, let it burn" and continued on with the song and the rest of the set, amplifier still smouldering, adding a real air of menace and danger to the precedings. Plus after they played, they came down and mingled and chatted to the crowd, which at the time was something I'd never seen any British punk band do. They were truly lovely people and I bought their record on the spot. Getting it home, it totally freaked me out, all of it, i found it an unsavory listen, except for the single 'Death Valley 69' which got many repeat plays, it was the most 'normal' track on the album. The rest had to wait a full 2 years before I finally 'got' it. I still find the whole album astonishing, and 'Ghost Bitch' will always be a slightly eldritch reminder of a great night out.

06. COIL - The Auto Asphyxiating Hierophant
Coil - Time Machines promo shot

I could name dozens of Coil tracks that I find weird, but this is what turned up on the player, so I went with it.I think it's the slightly un-nerving  sweeping electric violin juxtaposed with those enormous reverberating kettle drums that I find unsettling. Those multi-tracked boy/girl dicta-phone vocals, just low enough in the mix to make you concentrate to listen to the words, drawing you further into their 'nightmare culture'.
The premature deaths of Johnn and Peter means that there will never be any more Coil releases, which is something I find unbearably sad, as they have been a constant in my (uneasy) listening life since their first album Scatology came out in 1984.

07. Suicide - Frankie Teardrop
Suicide 1978

THE standout track from Suicide's debut 1977 album on Demon Records. I don't know anyone whose heard this track that hasn't felt a little 'weirded out' by it. I think, subject matter aside (the story of a guy who is driven to kill his family through abject poverty) it's the screams that get you. Your initially lulled by the motorik drum machine and gorgeous resonant keyboard drifts before, literally descending into hell. Don't listen in a darkend room, it'll give ya the willies for sure!

08. Cabaret Voltaire - Photophobia
Cabs - 1979

Cabaret Voltaire are another act whose early output up to 'Red Mecca' pretty much all leaves me more than a little uneasy. The track 'Photophobia'  is a track that for me evokes a place and time as much as just being creepy.
 Growing up in 1970's Birmingham, the city was encased in a concrete collar know as the ring road.
To access the city centre shops or museums from any direction, you had to 'promenade' through a rabbit warren of subways, all dimly lit, graffitied and stinking of piss. Many were long, and by the time you reached halfway, you were enshrouded in the reverb of your own footfalls. They were bad enough to navigate during daylight, but at night they took on a paranoia all of they're own. If you were unlucky enough to be followed into the underpass, a game of cat and mouse would sometimes ensue, where one or other protagonist would speed up or slow down they're walking pace, trying to avoid contact with the other unknown party.
If you came across a gang, then forget it, just give into the fear and run.
Cabaret Voltaire's early use of  heavily processed instruments, dark subject matter and the claustrophobic reverb is guaranteed to unsettle and get those 'hackle's' raised. It's hard for me to contrast the wonderfully 'post industrial' paranoid of early material with the later 'funk/dance' elements that crept into their sound, that I feel watered down their vision somewhat. Actually, I think after Chris Watson left to pursue his 'sound/recording engineer' role (he's credited, if not on just about every BBC wildlife programme nowadays) they changed direction massively.
'Photophobia is taken from their outstanding debut album 'Mix Up'

09. Gary Numan - Asylum

Asylum, rather bizarrely was the spooky B-Side to Numan's massive breakthrough number 1 'Cars'.
It wouldn't be out of place on one of those cheesy Hammer style horrors like Death Line.
It's a totally evocative track.You can imagine the protagonist scurrying through narrow dimly lit damp and slime encrusted tunnels, desperately employing the 'legendary' glance backwards trying to espy the villain who quietly pursues our doomed hero/heroine to their sticky end.
All plinking piano and arpeggiated Minimoog glassiness, it truly has an eerie vibe right up to the terrible 'spoiler' ending of 'carry on' descending notes. Still, it's a great tune.

10. Liars - Read The Book That Wrote Itself

I found much of the Liars second album 'They Were Wrong So We Drowned' more than a little eerie upon initial listens. Taking a massive cue from Sonic Youth's 1985 LP 'Bad Moon Rising' there was much tribal drummage and strange guitar tunings and processing evoking a slightly uneasy vibe to many of the tracks, inspired, so I read by the Broken Witch legends of old Bavaria. I'd be lying if I said it's become one of my favourite records, as it hasn't, but it does get the occasional airing, when I feel the need to be a little creeped out. Plus, it's a lush gatefold LP in white vinyl. Mmmmmmm  white vinyl!

11. Boris Mejart - Ballet Masque
Boris Mejart ?

I've got to confess I've no idea who Boris Mejart is, the track 'Ballet Masque' was sent to me on a compilation made by a friend, who in turn, has no idea either. All I can say is I fell in love with the slightly 'queasy' keyboard refrains and drifts, the spartan plinking piano, the mellotron-esque burbling's and the general air of awkward creepiness it evokes. I guess you'd file under 'Hauntology', but if I'm honest, it's far better than much of that genre I've heard.

12. Nurse With Wound - I Am The Poison
Stephen Stapleton aka NWW

I've been  a fan of Nurse With Wound for some time now. Spawned from the same scene as Coil and apocalyptic folker's Current 93 the track 'I Am The Poison' (bass/voice by 'Death in June's Tony Wakeford) is still for me his most unsettling aural outpouring, which is taken from the 1990 United Daries EP 'Soresucker'. Whether it's the metronomic 'plucked' bass, or the faintly menacing half sung/half spoken vocal I don't know. The staccato guitar screeches and random percussion samples don't help. Of all the tracks I've posted, this is the one that still freaks me out slightly. Hell, look at the back cover if you're not convinced.

Would you buy a coat from this man?

Well, if you tune in, hope you find something to unsettle you too.

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