We explore sinister songs from Black Sabbath, Throbbing Gristle, Nine Inch Nails and more.
With Halloween falling tomorrow, spooky season is well and truly upon us, and at Mixdown, we thought we’d get in the spirit the only way we know how: with a listicle, of course!
Today, we’re exploring how instrumentation, lyricism, production and theory can be employed within music to turn songs sinister as we dive into 13 of the scariest songs of all time.
Black Sabbath – ‘Black Sabbath’
Inspired by a personal experience bassist Geezer Butler had while obsessed with the occult, Black Sabbath’s ‘Black Sabbath’ – which, surprise surprise, comes from the album Black Sabbath – might be the most sinister song the Birmingham quartet ever made. In addition to Butler’s chilling lyrics of his experience with a Faustian figure, the main riff of the track makes prominent use of an inverted tritone – an interval often associated with Satan – and of course, that chiming bell will make anything sound far more terrifying than it should be.
Suicide – ‘Frankie Teardrop’
A ten minute tale of destitution and insanity that culminates in total tragedy, ‘Frankie Teardrop’ is considered by many to be one of the most disturbing songs ever made, with High Fidelity writer Nick Hornby famously describing it as ‘a song you only want to hear once’.
Complete with jarring synth loops from Martin Rev and and Alan Vega’s twisted, contorted vocal performance, ‘Frankie Teardrop’ sees the electro-punk pioneers at their most insidious, and more than 40 years since its release, it still sounds just as ghastly.
Aphex Twin – ‘Come To Daddy’
Aphex Twin is an absolute master of navigating the bizarre, but he’s never sounded quite as chilling as he has on ‘Come To Daddy’.
Fusing a ridiculously distorted drum break with spine-tingling spoken word vocals and warbling synths, this track is purely terrifying from start to stop, and when paired with the infamous Chris Cunningham-directed visual, you’ll never look at Richard D. James the same way ever again. This shit is nightmare material.
Primus – ‘Mr. Krinkle’
Funk-metal gurus Primus are no strangers to getting dark – their ‘90s output is jam-packed with songs that border on all things twisted and deranged, but there’s nothing quite as spooky as Pork Soda standout ‘Mr. Krinkle’.
Les Claypool’s borderline psychotic bowed double bass and the convulsing onslaught of feedback from guitarist Larry LeLonde help to seal the deal for this one, and the surreal nature of the music video just takes it all further up a notch.
The Beatles – ‘Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!’
Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band is a rather upbeat and colourful record, but sometimes, even jolly songs can take a twisted turn.
Like the spooky carnivals we all feared in our youths, ’Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!’ is is strikingly similar to what I’d imagine some deranged circus show to sound like, with the descending bassline, jarring harpsichord and dissonant harmonies in the bridge feeling awfully reminiscent of that weird boat scene in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory – you all know the one.
Radiohead – ‘Climbing Up The Walls’
An undeniable highlight from OK Computer, ‘Climbing Up The Walls’ is an absolute masterclass in building suspense.
Beginning with a shrill drone of white noise, the track slowly becomes more sinister and despaired as each new layer is introduced, with the track disintegrating in the final minute as Thom Yorke lets out an anguished, guttural scream and Jonny Greenwood’s atonal strings reach a spine-tingling crescendo.
Slipknot – ‘Iowa’
Slipknot’s entire career has revolved around being dark and off-kilter, but Iowa is just something else entirely: burdened under the pressure of recording their second album, the band turned on one another in spite and wallowed in their collective hatred, resulting in some of the most twisted music the band’s ever made.
Perhaps the most grim of all songs from Iowa is the title track, a fifteen minute long doom metal freakout that sees Cory Taylor – who supposedly recorded the track naked while cutting himself with glass – deliver one of most haunting and pained vocal performance of his career.
Nine Inch Nails – ‘The Becoming’
Considering that it’s a concept record about a man descending deeper and deeper into depression and insanity with each track, it goes without saying that Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral has its fair share of blood-curdling moments.
However, if there’s any one track that could be singled out as being purely terrifying, it’s ‘The Becoming’: a brutal, industrial bash that sees Reznor’s uncanny electronic programming work in tandem with a stunning vocal performance to create a song that’s nothing short of menacing.
The Birthday Party – ‘Deep In The Woods’
There’s no denying that Nick Cave is the master of murder ballads, and in all honesty, any number of Bad Seeds songs could have made this list: ‘Song Of Joy’ is an obvious pick, and ‘Red Right Hand’ is an all-time spooky classic.
However, I thought it’d be more useful to spotlight another side of the beloved troubadour with The Birthday Party’s ‘Deep In The Woods’, with Cave showcasing his trademark creepy lyricism alongside the cataclysmic guitar playing of Rowland S. Howard to incredible effect. It’s a bit of an obscurity, but ‘Deep In The Woods’ is quite frankly terrifying from start to finish.
Slayer – ‘Angel Of Death’
One of Slayer’s most infamous tracks, ‘Angel Of Death’ was written about the awful human experiments of Josef Mengle, a Nazi scientist who performed unthinkable procedures on unsuspecting captives in Auschwitz.
Lyrically, the song is gruesome, and musically, it’s not too dissimilar, with the band charging through the song at breakneck speed to result in one of the most memorable opening tracks of all time. Listen to Tom Araya’s ear-splitting scream approximately 20 seconds in, and tell me you wouldn’t shit the bed if you heard that late at night.
Immortal Technique – ‘Dance with the Devil’
Maybe the most haunting hip-hop song of all time, ‘Dance with the Devil’ is a bit of a unicorn in the world of rap. Sure, there’s been cautionary tales about leading a life of crime, but none have ever been quite as harrowing as Immortal Technique’s 2001 magnum opus, where the Peruvian-American MC details a gangster’s descent into immorality atop of a horrorcore instrumental with vivid imagery and sickly detail.
I can confirm that every 15 year old’s jaw drops straight to the floor when Immortal Technique drops the plot-twist in the song’s final verse: even to this day, it’s a life-changing song for many a rap fan.
Throbbing Gristle – ‘Hamburger Lady’
A nightmarish number from UK’s industrial pioneers, ‘Hamburger Lady’ is limitlessly horrifying. The 1977 song was inspired by a letter written about the victim of a catastrophic car accident – we’ll let you figure out the connection to hamburgers – with Throbbing Gristle using wailing guitar feedback and modular synths to create a tense soundscape to underscore the brutality of the song’s lyrics.
Few songs have ever married music and prose in such a gruesome way, and for many, it doesn’t get much more terrifying than this.
Krzysztof Penderecki – ‘Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima’
An avant-garde composition originally penned in 1960 by Krzysztof Penderecki, ‘Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima’ was written to invoke the destruction, confusion and sheer carnage of the civilians of Hiroshima when the United States attacked Japan with nuclear weapons to end World War II in 1945.
Spanning nine minutes and written for 52 stringed instruments, Penderecki’s composition is nothing short of apocalyptic, with his score instructing players to slap their instruments, play behind the bridge and employ drastic vibrato to create a piece which is truly horrific in nature. I can’t imagine there’ll ever be piece that sounds quite as evil as this, and if there is, please never show it to me.
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