The Darkest Chords: 13 Unsettling Works

Please note: You'll need a Spotify account to fully immerse yourself in the audio here. In an effort to do right by the artists, I avoided embedding non-official YouTube accounts unless absolutely necessary. If you're logged into Spotify, you should be able to access all the tracks. 


There's a place in popular music for songs that unsettle. Somewhere far below the bright sunshine of jangling guitars, whistles, hand claps and other tropes beloved by hipsters and car commercials, there is a dark sonic pit buzzing like an electrified underground cord. This place is terrifying, comprised of eerie instrumentation, creepy chanting, hair raising samples and downright awful imagery.

The best music has a way of - intentionally or not - placing a mirror before us and allowing us to see our own hopes and fears in a visceral way that few artistic mediums accomplish. Sometimes we're wrong about what a song means, but that doesn't take away from our experience as listeners. Music often simply allows us to hear what we want to hear, even if it's a hesitant glance toward our deepest, unnameable dread.

Richard Buckner - The Hill (Entire Album) / Bloomed,"22")
The final moments of doomed souls brought to life in two beautiful, heart wrenching tunes.

I've admired Richard Buckner for a long time and he also happens to be a hell of a guy, so I consider myself privileged to have seen him perform The Hill, his conceptual adaptation of Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon River Anthology, in its entirety. I am bowled over by some of the haunting, mysterious imagery that abounds in the music, all derived from Masters's book, a pseudo fictional turn of the century chronicle of life and death in a small town. Numerous characters posthumously assess their deaths, so Spoon River (and by turns, the Hill) is full of depictions of loss and sorrow and death. The way Buckner sets it to his typically sparse American Gothic alt folk is fitting and, as it so happens, mesmerizing and a bit scary. One hard driving song from The Hill, "Tom Merrit," is sung by a man shot to death by his wife's lover. Its sudden, unexpected burst of violence in the final lines still sends chills up my spine:

All I could say was 'don't, don't, don't,'
As he aimed and fired at my heart

"22," an individual song off Buckner's brilliant debut LP, Bloomed, is about suicide, as told from the perspective of a scorned young lover feeling her life ebb away in a bathtub, waiting for a call she's convinced will never come. Though I'm not certain, I've always imagined this song is from the perspective of a young pregnant girl waiting for the absentee father of her unborn child to call. In "22," as with "Tom Merrit," Buckner devastates in the final, tragic lines:

I closed my eyes and thought of you
As the phone let out a ring

Aphex Twin - "Come to Daddy" / "Analogue Bubblebath 3"
A chattering, maniacal killer sneaking down a dark hallway in slow motion, and a distant threat that looms and groans. 

There's no denying that almost all of Richard D. James's dark, ambient electronic music (known as Aphex Twin) is looked on as unsettling. Any one of you who know more about Aphex Twin than I do could probably pull out dozens of tracks by the British composer that unsettle. But consider how much Aphex Twin's popular reputation for eerie sonic travails derives from the composer's ridiculously creepy video for "Come to Daddy," wherein a cadaverous demon bellows down at an old woman and a gaggle of kids - all bearing the face of Richard James - pursue through dark alleyways. Not cool. "Come to Daddy," therefore, is the creepy song among many of his creepy songs to hold up as the standard. It is a song irrefutably linked to its video, but the music itself, though it comes very close to being just another ambient breakscape, is undone by its groaning synths and choked, crazy vocals. It's a scary song. 

Aphex Twin's first EP, 'Analogue Bubblebath,' is a rather nice electronic confection. But this lesser known track (part 3 of the Analogue Bubblebath trilogy, if there is such a thing) is not so conventional. This mood piece feels like the final laments of someone tied to the tracks while a train whistle blows in the distance and grows louder with each passing second.

Radiohead - Hail to the Thief, "We Suck Young Blood (Your Time Is Up)" / "The Gloaming"
Two songs depicting those who invite us to be lost, and those of us who are about to be lost.

Thom Yorke's agonized, haunted delivery really brings the creep to both these songs. They come, one after the other, on the album, and I think they're meant to be seen as a pair.

"We Drink Young Blood" is a sickly hymnal about the corruption of innocence that contains a series of slow, chill inducing hand claps. I hear this song and think of the how the fashion, movie and music and sex industries chew up innocence, exploit it, drain it of blood, and spit it back out.

"The Gloaming" immediately follows, and it's a prickly, moody, down-tempo drive through the woods at night. This song is a harbinger to Thom Yorke's later work on The Eraser and Atoms for Peace. It captures a witching hour between twilight and nightfall, when a hole seems to open in the world that threatens to pull you over to the other side.

Krzysztof Penderecki - Threnody (for the Victims of Hiroshima)
A modern classical depiction of a living nightmare.

Radiohead's Johnny Greenwood, a composer in his own right, is a big fan of Polish avante garde composter Krzysztof Penderecki. One of Greenwood's recent classical performances was a response to Penderecki's tribute the victims of the bombing of Hiroshima. The work, entitled Threnody, is a gut wrenching depiction of human suffering that shouldn't be listened to lightly. It's also probably the scariest piece of music I've ever heard in my life.

The screeching violins and the plucking of strings - like the falling of a black rain - unsettles the mind, but it's the air siren, a ceaseless groan of vast ugliness, that gets me every time I listen to Threnody. Try as I might, I can't bring myself to call this 'horror' music. It's too sad. It's too sacred. But damn, is it scary.

Death in June - But, What Ends When the Symbols Shatter?, "He's Disabled"
Creepy inverse hymn that invites memory of an infamous mass suicide.

Several of the songs on But, What Ends When the Symbols Shatter?, Death in June's neo folk masterwork are re-purposed variations of songs originated from a People's Temple choir album. The People's Temple, if you aren't aware, was founded and run by a megalomaniacal pretend messiah named Jim Jones. He and his followers infamously committed mass suicide at 'Jonestown' in Guyana, South America.

"He's Disabled" is a cynical, darkened take on the Peoples' Temple hymn "He's Able." Tihe song is a droning, guitar heavy dedicational, sung with Douglas P's typical lilting moroseness. Like many of DiJ's folk variations, most of the songs on BWEWTSS? sound like the pious prayers of a prisoner locked in a dank cell. On "He's Disabled," Douglas P. channels his inner Jim Jones and in the endless refrain of 'he's disabled,' his voice takes on a dual quality - one of angel, one of devil.

If you listen to the final recorded Jonestown sermon - the actual tape on which the screams of the dying, poisoned throng can be heard - you can hear Jones gently strumming his guitar and singing to the frightened group. Whenever I hear "He's Disabled, I think of that humid day so many decades ago, and what might have been prevented, or perhaps, what was inevitable.

Coil -  Snow EP, "The Snow (Out in the Cold)"
Like being chased by the murderous cadaver of an old woman through a blinding snowstorm.

There are several variations of The Snow. The original version appears on the famous "Love's Secret Domain" album, which is, interestingly enough, known as one of Coil's more upbeat efforts. Coil has hours and hours of dour, unsettling material in its back catalog, so it might strike you as a bit odd for me to pick Snow (Out in the Cold), one of the slight remixes on the Snow EP. It's more of a hard, synth driven electronic piece, but its use of awful, screwy, creeping voices and ancient chorals make it something frightening.

Ministry - "Scare Crow"
A bleak, horrifying dirge through humanity's moral self immolation.

Psalm 69 is Ministry's most popular and enduring album, thanks to a number of made for radio singles. A lesser known track off this album, Scare Crow, transposes chord progressions at home in a classic horror movie right onto an epic, cacophonous industrial metal soundscape. Jourgensen's vocals are terrifying.

When I heard this song for the first time, the album had just released, and all I could envision was the 'rotting corpse of inhumanity' the song depicts, juxtaposed on a frightening scarecrow, which had, of course, jumped down from his perch and was about to chase me. Don't listen to this song in the Santa Cruz mountains at 2 am. I made that mistake as a teenager, and I can still see the dead eyed scarecrow stalking me between the trees.

Diamanda Galás - The Litanies of Satan / Masque of the Red Death
Raw and brutal vocal catharsis.

Let me start off by saying that I don't consider Galás merely a purveyor of disturbing material any more than I consider her strictly a singer. She eviscerates boundaries in a way that few artists do, which enables her to perform in many different styles and broach topics that other artists would never dare go. The causes that Galas champions - AIDS awareness, human suffering and human rights, ecology - are brave, prescient topics that she comes at with a sharp knife.

Galas's first effort, Litanies, is more of a spoken word effort, but in listening to her sharp octaves, her speaking in tongues ranting, her shrieking, her low murmurs  it becomes impossible to distinguish the simple use of her voice from any number of noise projects. It's no less affecting, but Litanies is disturbing to sit through, and even a bit scary.

Rezső Seress - Gloomy Sunday ("Vége a világnak," "End of the world," "The Hungarian Suicide Song")
A song made infamous by its alleged ability to control peoples' minds.

There comes a point when a sad song's dodgy history cements its reputation as something more than sad, but eerie. Such is the case with Gloomy Sunday. An urban legend claims that anyone who listens to it is driven to suicide. I am frightened by the suggestion that any song might contain mind altering suggestions that lead the mind into despair, as ridiculous as it might sound.

The original version's ghostly instrumentation and singing qualify it for this list, but Gloomy Sunday has been officially covered by no less than 40 artists in the past eighty years, including Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey, Billie Holiday, the aforementioned Diamanda Galás, Bjork, and Christian Death.

The Cure - Disintegration, "Lullaby"
An id-fueled and crawly nightmare come to life.

Lullaby is a well known track from the Cure's best album. This song is so well known that I hesitate to write any more about it, since you likely know it by heart. If you deconstruct the song's popularity, though, and listen to it fresh, it reveals an id soaked bogeyman story filled with whispering dread. The spider man is always hungry. 

Kate Bush - Hounds of Love, "Waking the Witch"
A dream of dying, an accused witch drowning....

Hounds of Love is Kate Bush's finest album. It's a strange but well connected tableau full of the infectious, the reflective, the sad and bizarre, but Waking the Witch is just a damned scary song. 

It lures you in with a quiet, gentle melody at first, then insistent voices cut through the music, urging 'wake up, love,' 'wake up!' The listener feels as through drifting down through dark water, or into a dream, but the voices keep us on edge. The song sucker punches us then, with scrambled samples, noise, static, and a horrible, low growling voice, the finger pointing Puritan, the devilish house of god. Here, what started as a sweet lullaby has escalated into a rabid nightmare, and the song just keeps punching and punching with unexpected bursts of noise, and clanging, and that awful monster voice.

Help this blackbird!
There's a stone around my leg.
Get out of the water, get out of the waves!

Swans, Soundtracks For the Blind, "I Was a Prisoner in Your Skull / The Beautiful Days"
Intimate glimpses at insanity and apocalypse.

Swans (Michael Gira & Jarboe) have spent a long career doing whatever the fuck they please. Ambient noise pervades a good majority of their work, but they've been known to dabble in neo-folk and industrial metal and rock and everything in between. One of their insanely epic noise projects, Soundtracks for the Blind, is an exploration into some really eerie places, cluttered with sound samples, outrageously overcooked synthesizer and drum arrangements, and an overall tenor of unease.

Two of the songs herein scare me more than the others, simply because of the way they jostle the imagination into guessing the worst. Jarboe came into possession of some FBI tapes, and this man with the slightly southern fried accent confessing on a cassette recorder is possibly insane. We don't know for sure. Who is he addressing? His wife? His therapist? Himself? It's hard to say. This is found footage at its most raw, and as the man drones on about the person he is speaking to 'unable to hold a fork,' 'unable to turn on the water' it becomes clear that we're voyeurs to a relationship that treads the darkest waters. The man is probably insane, or dealing with someone who is.

Prisoner also benefits from a long lead-up to the man's monologue, a grating drone punctuated by some eerie, demon sounding vocals.

Beautiful Days is another haunted, forlorn soundscape. In it, the sound sample of a boy sing-songing loops again and again about a 'a sunny day.' When I hear this one, I think of Lyndon Johnson's infamous, fear mongering 1964 campaign commercial, 'Daisy.' Throughout this work, there are hints of the pastoral, but everything is off kilter and heard through gauze, and the threat of annihilation looms everywhere.

Slint - Spiderland, "Don, Aman"
Nothing scarier than loneliness and alienation.

Spiderland scares me. The whole album is sheathed in eternal night, and littered with the thoughts that hit us when the rest of the world is asleep.

There was a time, believe it or not, when appreciating Slint's powerful Spiderland was as simple as liking it, back before being able to list all the side projects and bands that Slint's member went on to participate in became a prerequisite for truly appreciating them.

Spiderland is now seen as a really amazing album, especially for having been released during a time when grunge and edgy, polished alternative was all the rage. Spiderland hasn't lost its potency. It's sparse but intense instrumentation and intentionally vague lyrics come together to create something startling and a bit scary. The song that stands out for me here ("aside from the more emotional than scary "Goodnight Captain") is "Don, Aman."

Don stepped outside.

With those words begins a deliberate strumming and hushed, haunted, barely discernible vocals far below the music. We hear whispers about someone experiencing alienation, self doubt, shame, disconnection, envy...

His friends stare
With eyes like the heads of nails 

Before long, the song builds and Don's intentions grow less clear. What is it that he has to do? What is it he plans to do? We don't know for sure, but that's the point. We feel his isolation and loneliness as though it were our own, and in a way, it is ours.

* * * 


For each one of us, the songs we find joyful, sorrowful, inspiring or scary will depend upon our individual points of view. One person's scary is another person's lame, and one person's  joy is another person's tripe. That's what I love about music. You may not have found much of music above very scary, but you've learned more about what I find scary, and as a result, you've learned a little more about me.


Mario Lima said…
Great list - I'd like to share one that I could definitely see added to the list:

Barry Adamson's - "It's Business As Usual" Off of Oedipus Schmoedipus - Creeps me the F*** out every time I listen to it.
Ben Djarum said…
Brilliant post Joseph. You've definitely inspired me to make my own list.
For now, the number one song that creeps me out -

Neurosis & Jarboe - "Within"

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