This is a continuation of yesterday’s post. I hope you enjoy! Stay tuned for a future part three. What albums do you think belong on this list? Let me know in the comments below!
Current 93 Dogs Blood Rising (1984)
Let’s begin with another classic. Dogs Blood Rising, the second release by Current 93, consistently makes appearances on Darkest Albums lists across the strange and mysterious land of the Internet, and certainly not without justification. David Tibet, the eclectic, long-term talent behind Current 93, treats us to a barrage of satanic chants, screeches, groans, and hisses–in essence, this is the soundtrack to a nightmare straight from the stock imagery of a fairly mainstream but inarguably convincing conception of Hell. While Tibet doesn’t appear to dip as deep into the Social Darwinist aspect of Satanism as does his once-upon-a-time collaborator Boyd Rice (see the entry on Non’s God & Beast in my preceding Darkest Albums list), Dogs Blood Rising sounds every bit as evil. The comparison doesn’t die there, of course. Blood Rising is also just as noisy as Non’s God & Beast, and consequently, generates just as much of a listener-hostile environment. This is before Current 93 evolved into an ‘apocalyptic-folk’ band with a cult fan base as they are known today. Current 93 would never develop into anything remotely classifiable as ‘easy listening’ (thanks, in large part, to Tibet’s tone-deaf, yowling vocals, which are certainly an acquired taste and yet entirely absent on Dogs Blood; making this album, strangely, simultaneously one of Current 93’s most difficult and most approachable albums for new listeners–but only for listeners, it must be forewarned, with a radically open musical sensibility and a willingness to venture courageously forward). Yet in Current 93’s later scary-folk fame, the darker elements leaking from their source in Dogs Blood are exquisitely tempered by folk passages, rendering the tendency to noise somehow both more frightening and less overwhelming. Expect no such rescue from Dogs Blood. This is Current 93’s heart of darkness. It is suffocating, unbearable and deeply, awesomely wicked.
Toby Driver In the L.. L.. Library Loft (2005)
I admittedly have a personal vendetta connected with Toby Driver and his work with the black metal, jazz, electronica and otherwise unclassifiable band Kayo Dot. This is that band (everyone has one) that I can’t help but feel doesn’t get the recognition they deserve (a cliche, but a true one). I deliberately kept Driver away from the top of my first list. I didn’t want my fanboy adoration to cloud my judgment. After much deliberation, however, I have no doubt that Driver’s …Library Loft definitely deserves a place here. In fact, Driver will appear on this list twice. Get over it. It is well deserved.
…Library Loft ended up here due to a thoroughly considered thought experiment that went something like this: if I had to pick one song that represented the utmost extreme limit of dark music, which song would I pick? My response would undoubtedly be the fifteen minute, fourteen second long “Kandu vs. Corky (Horrorca)” from …Library Loft (Don’t ask me what the title of the song means. Trust me, I’ve tried to find out. The Kandu are a community of Hindu merchants. Corky is a 1972 movie about a race car mechanic. Even if these were Driver’s references–and they probably aren’t–I have no idea how to fit them together). In an interview with Ultimate Metal, Driver explains that the ellipsis in the title of the album are supposed to indicate fearful stuttering. So imagine yourself in an abandoned, dank library loft with something so terrifying an encounter with it renders you a stuttering, inarticulate lump of semi-insentient tissue. Now listen to “Kandu vs. Corky”“Kandu vs. Corky” and tell me this isn’t exactly how an experience like that would sound. Go ahead. Consider it a dare. I’ll wait.
If you listened to the song, then you know what I’m talking about. The entire album certainly consist of some of the darkest music recorded, but opening with “Kandu vs. Corky” is the masterstroke of Driver’s atmospheric creation. The track begins slowly, but electric tension immediately accumulates between the intermittent rattle of cymbals and the low, feedback guitar drone. Over the expanse of fifteen minutes (Which feels more like five, if you really immerse yourself into the experience. You know what I mean–good headphones, no books, no phone screen, no lights, just you and perhaps a candle and the unfolding inner hellscape), the song reaches a mind-shattering crescendo you wouldn’t have thought possible given “Kandu vs. Corky” fourteen minutes ago. For the remainder of …Library Loft, you are drained, exhausted, not so much physically or even mentally, but existentially. Driver tears open a wound with every intention of poisoning it with a morose, unsettling minimalism that leaves you in an uncertain daze. …Library Loft truly feels like it’s from another world, and not a pretty one.
Khanate Clean Hands Go Foul (2009)
Before we return to the incomprehensible universe of Toby Driver, let’s tackle another classic. As those of you who read the first part of this list may have gathered, I’m on a mission of sorts. Part of the motive behind this list is to correct the grave disservice done to deeply depressed people looking for soul crushing, nocturnal enuresis-inducing sonic torture by authors of ‘darkest albums’ lists who suggest Radiohead and Korn (nothing against Radiohead. I love them, but the darkest music ever? Not even close. And Korn is only disturbing to people 85 and older). Allow me to rectify this problem by suggesting a litmus test of sorts: if a ‘darkest albums’ list doesn’t include Clean Hands Go Foul, then it isn’t worth taking seriously. Not only is Clean Hands a bone-chilling eruption of black fire, but it was recorded by a supergroup of very well-known dark musicians. Consisting of James Plotkin, Alan Dubin (both of the grindcore band OLD, and before that, Regurgitation, not to be confused with Relapse Records’ Regurgitate), Tim Wyskida (of legendary Blind Idiot God fame) and Stephen O’Malley (of Sunn o))), who we’ll meet again later in a possible third installment of this list), there’s no good reason Khanate shouldn’t be in every dark music fanatic’s repertoire.
Although Khanate’s members originate from a diverse array of metal bands, Clean Hands isn’t simply another dose of what you might expect from extreme metal. Wikipedia Wikipedia recklessly classifies Khanate as “doom metal,” which tends to evoke bands like Black Sabbath and Candlemass. Khanate is nothing like them. In true, doomy fashion, Clean Hands is certainly slow. But unlike doom, Khanate’s masterpiece is so slow it seems to inhabit it’s own alternate system of temporality. It’s like doom on a heroin overdose. Identifying rhythms in the syrupy morass of feedback isn’t easy, and it’s an utter waste of time, since such an academic exercise would certainly detract from the experience rather than enhance it. Clean Hands is no less than a highly controlled and expertly executed work of art. Layers envelop layers of heavily distorted feedback, often reaching achingly beautiful moments of harmony before dissolving again into the primordial soup (Anyone who has worked with live amplifier feedback to create music will tell you how difficult it is to control). Alan Dubin’s shrieks punctuate the turmoil like the death agonies of inhuman creatures burning alive in a restless pit of lava. There is no energy here, no forward propulsion forcing the album onward to the finale. In Clean Hands Go Foul, there is only pain. Endless, unendurable pain. It isn’t easy to shake the sensation, after the album ends, that your hands have been irrevocably soiled.
Scott Walker Tilt (1995)
It would be a travesty not to mention Scott Walker while we’re on the subject of litmus tests for ‘darkest albums’ lists. Strong cases could be made for the appearance of any of Walker’s albums after 1995 on this list, including a collaboration in 2014 with above-mentioned Sunn o))). Tilt is almost an arbitrary choice as a representative of Walker’s unsettling later period. Almost.
Scott Walker is something of an anomaly in comparison to other musicians included on this list. While Sonic Youth (who’s album Confusion is Sex topped the first part of this list) and Current 93 began at their darkest, most experimental moments and worked their way into a more commercially viable sound (much more profoundly in the case of Sonic Youth than Current 93), Walker approached the evolution backwards. With Judy and John Maus, Noel Scott Engel (Scott Walker’s birth name, changed at Judy Maus’ suggestion to adopt ‘Walker’–John’s stage name–as a surname to justify the christening of the trio the ‘Walker Brothers’) enjoyed pop-stardom at a level unheard of for most artists on this list. In 1965 and 66, the Walker Brothers topped UK charts at number one for two singles (“Make It Easy on Yourself” and “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine (Anymore),” respectively). Not long after this burst of success, official membership of the Walker Brother’s fan club swelled, exceeding that of the Beatles (I know, difficult to believe. But check it out. I ain’t lyin’. ) The pressures of stardom, however, were not good to Scott. Between 1969 and 1975, the mechanisms of contractual obligations submerged Walker’s creative process and he entered a period he didn’t “remember […] at all very well,” according to a 2012 interview with Simon Hattenstone at The Guardian. While remaining professionally active, Scott felt he “was acting in bad faith for many years during that time. […] I was trying to hang on. I should have stopped. I should have said, ‘OK, forget it’ and walked away. But I thought if I keep hanging on and making these bloody awful records…”
After his 1984 album, Climate of a Hunter, Scott essentially disappeared from the music scene. When he returned, it was with Tilt, nearly a decade later, and a long way musically from his crooner days with the Walker Brothers. Walker’s voice, still as beautiful and deep as ever, is paired down in Tilt to an unsettling minimalism, accompanied by chilling, distant orchestrations and electronic soundscapes. Tilt is a soundtrack to a nightmare–not a nightmare of Bosch, filled with the restless activity of torture and dismemberment, but one of Samuel Beckett, sparse and lonely, with the slightest hint of bitter, time-weary humor. Simon Hattenstone evokes the comparison to Beckett in his interview, which Walker seems to respond warmly to, citing Kafka in turn. In both Beckett and Kafka, people have been stripped of their superfluities and left agonizingly exposed to their most fundamental, habitual sufferings. But hidden in this vulnerability, as in Tilt, is an uncertain beauty more profound due to its qualifying harshness than mundane enjoyments easily won.
Kayo Dot Choirs of the Eye, 2003
In his highly-recommended book of quirky celebrity interviews, Everyone Loves You When You’re Dead: Journeys into Fame and Madness, Neil Strauss claims that “[a]rtist is an overused term when it comes to musicians. Most are primarily entertainers, giving the public what it wants. Their motivation is not self-expression but attention and acclaim. If no one were watching, they wouldn’t be making any noise.” If there is any common denominator amongst the musicians featured on this list, aside from their ability to create incredibly dark music, it is that none of them are merely entertainers. I don’t discuss a single album, here, that is fitted for the glare of the pop spotlight. None of these albums can be consumed distractedly, like the bagel you munch on while driving to work. No one cranks up Lustmord at the office. You’ll never hear Non at a house party. These musicians willfully and cheerfully doom their creations to obscurity. These albums are true labors of love. They are works of art.
This isn’t more obviously true for any of these albums than Choirs of the Eye. Kayo Dot, fronted by the above-lauded Toby Driver, is a band comprised of an ever-changing pool of dedicated, meticulous musicians. While Choirs of the Eye is Toby’s first project following the dissolution of the avant-garde metal band Maudlin of the Well, it is vastly matured distillation of the madness often featured in the latter. Melodic, eerie, and oh, so morose, Choirs is a long way from the cut-and-paste genre mashing of its legendary predecessor (nothing against Maudlin of the Well. It’s highly entertaining stuff, albeit more rooted in metal than Kayo Dot, and definitely worth a spin in its own right). Choirs was my personal introduction to extreme calibers of darkness. Not that I was a stranger to dark music–I was a devoted black metal slave at the time (around 2004, a year after the album’s release), fanatic about bands like Emperor and Mayhem. I downloaded the album based on a sterling Amazon review (don’t worry–I’ve purchased over five copies legally since), popped it into my portable disc-player, and went outside to mow my mom’s lawn. Within a few moments of hitting play on the opening track “Marathon,” everything I thought I knew about music changed. “Marathon” begins with a strange guitar and drum crescendo, which falls away to unveil an aching trumpet solo. It takes off again with a searing black metal riff that immediately quietens back down to a haunting melodic passage, complete with low, spoken words. It is, of course, impossible to convey the emotional impact of these shifts that accumulate throughout Choirs, sometimes subtle and always seamless, into a work of profound gloominess. Violins, cellos, bells, synths, clarinets, pianos, tubas, organs, flutes, French horns–it’s all there, nearly an entire orchestra, all manipulated expertly for the most precise accuracy of expression. The composition never feels crowded, even though Choirs is a product of layers and layers of studio tracks. Choirs is a masterpiece of control, diversity and bitterly somber atmosphere.