Monday, October 18, 2010

Sleep Chamber - Satanic Sanction (1988)

Sleep Chamber are an American industrial group that focuses on ritualistic and occult music. Whereas other industrial groups in the late eighties were moving increasingly in the direction of either danceable electronica or guitar-dominated heavy metal, Sleep Chamber stays true to the original and frightening vision of pioneers like Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire.

The sounds on this record are those of haunted machines. Metallic clanking, droning atmospherics, repetitive rhythms and samples of sinister sounding voices. Everything I look for in industrial music! There are some strange scraping violin noises on "Ov This Flesh" as well, and I think the sampled vocal in the track entitled "Presence of the Magi" is that of the infamous occultist Aleister Crowley (later sampled by Fields of the Nephilim), but I can't be totally sure.

There is not a lot of variety of sound to be found here, with every track consisting mainly of murky, far away sounds of things that go bump in the night, but that's alright by me. The sound is very well crafted and the atmosphere it creates is one of exquisite spookiness. An excellent choice for Halloween. I only have the vinyl, but I understand that the CD reissue has an altered and considerably expanded tracklist, so that is nice.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Sopor Aeternus & The Ensemble of Shadows - Dead Lover's Sarabande (Face Two) (1999)

Sopor Aeternus is the name under which German transsexual Anna Varney records, and the Ensemble of Shadows are the ghostly spirits that provide her with her inspiration. Yes sir, top 40 this ain't.. "Dead Lover's Sarabande" was released in two parts, the second being rather superior in my view. Both are worthy of notice if you're into this sort of thing though.

What is this sort of thing, you ask? Well, it's best decribed as very dark chamber music with vocals. The instrumentation consists of cellos, violins, trombones, french horns, vibraphone and a number of other orchestral instruments with only the barest smatterings of acoustic guitar, but played in a classical fashion. The style is that of the most mournful of classical requiems, and Varney's vocals croak along in German, rarely varying from a near sob (except for the occasional nightmarish shriek.)

This is melodrama at a level you're unlikely to encounter anywhere else, and at times the overwrought emotion approaches the comical, but most of the time it's just spooky and unnerving. The first track is, appropriately enough, a cover of the Nico song "Abschied," so Varney's influences are pretty clear. Other songs like "The Dog Burial" are very unsettling indeed, with lurching rhythms, twisted melodies and demonic vocals. Elsewhere, the proceedings step back from the edge of terror, content to be merely depressing, such as the English-sung "No One Is There." The lyrics are not any more cheery than you would expect from the title. There are, however, a handful of more upbeat moments, such as in the masterfully developed "Procession / Funeral March." This is an all instrumental number that takes a simple melody and elaborates on it over the course of its seven minutes. It's quite captivating, and the rhythm is propulsive (although the style is no less dark than anything else here, really.)

Both volumes of the "Dead Lover's Sarabande" are ideal for Halloween parties and Vampire: The Masquerade sessions. It's hard to get any more Goth than this, but the music is undeiably beautiful in its tragedy and there's nothing else quite like it for complimenting a melancholy mood. I believe this disc (along with several other Sopor Aeternus albums) was recently reissued, so anyone wanting to pick up a copy should be in luck.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Nico - The Marble Index (1969)

Happy October everybody! It's my favorite month and my favorite holiday, Halloween, is just around the corner. Consequently, I'm going to dedicate this month to reviewing "scary" music, so maybe you'll get some ideas for a nifty Halloween playlist.

Nico is, of course, mostly known for her vocal contributions to the first Velvet Underground album, but few people kept track of her after she left the band. Her first solo album was a pleasant, but hardly groundbreaking affair, filled with folky songs by Lou Reed and Jackson Browne, as well as a forgotten Bob Dylan gem. It's a good record, but in no way prepared listeners for what was to come.

On "The Marble Index" Nico started writing her own songs. She hired John Cale to produce and went into the studio armed only with her own voice and an old harmonium she had somehow acquired. The result was a set of terrifyingly bleak, avant garde pieces comprised mainly of the drone of her voice, the drone of her harmonium and the drone of Cale's viola. It's hard to understand the inspiration for such a strange transition. The style of the music here seems to come out of nowhere, and it really sounds like nothing else. Maybe if you had been in Germany's Black Forest in the twelfth century, you might have heard some Grimm's fairy tale witches chanting something like this, but apart from that I'm at a loss.

Elements of medieval music are certainly present, and I have long contended that "The Marble Index" is the first Goth record. From the funereal quality of the music to Nico's perpetually blonde hair being dyed black for the cover, I'm sure that legions of depressed, black clad, clove cigarette smoking teenagers were deeply inspired by this. Unfortunately, most of the music they would end up churning out pales in comparison to the original.

Cale's production is worthy of mention. He's smart enough not to try to polish up the raw edges of these songs too much, letting his avant garde credentials take over and stepping in only to add some gloomy piano and percussion effects. The overall quality of the sound is somewhat murky and muted, and this indistinctness add to to the mysterious, frightening atmosphere. I dare anyone to listen to "Facing the Wind" in the dark and not get the chills.

Nico's next album, "Desertshore" is just as good, but she was never again as raw and confrontational as she is here. This is a stunningly original record and although it's not the most accessible album ever, in my view every music lover owes it to themselves to check it out.