The intersection of horror and heavy music – beginning with Black Sabbath and continuing to this day – has produced some sonic gems, many of which can be and are appreciated widely outside of the niche markets for heavy metal and horror culture. Artists like Alice Cooper and KISS brought theatrical horror tropes to mainstream rock audiences, although there was much clutching of pearls and swooning about Satanic influences at the time. For anyone interested in this particular chapter of music and pop culture history, I’d recommend George Case’s engaging Here’s to My Sweet Satan: How the Occult Haunted Music, Movies and Pop Culture, 1966-1980, which outlines some of these horror trappings and predictable conservative religious responses thereto.
During the very late 1970s and early 1980s, what had begun as flirtations with imagery of diabolical darkness evolved into outright adoption of the aesthetic (and, in some very rare and quite extravagant cases, the actions) of the evil and the sinister. This ultimately both led to and fed off of what is now known as the Satanic Panic of the 1980s and 1990s – a complicated subject for another day which, for now, we can look back on as that time when religious zealots believed that Dungeons & Dragons would summon actual demons and that He-Man was a Trojan horse of diabolism. As a result, an entire generation – my generation, as a matter of fact – came of age with dark murmurs of Satanic cults and unspeakable acts of evil attached to quite interesting, harmless, and exciting media and games. Much like the rhetoric of the War on Drugs that characterizes cannabis as a dreadful menace, these warnings backfired when we realized that those cautioning us against Magic: the Gathering and fantasy novels were, not to put too fine a point on it, full of shit.
The music produced by Gen X and Millennial artists – the horrorcore rap, industrial, metal, and other “dark” music of the 90s and 00s – gloried and reveled in the imagery that so terrified moral scolds, and I’m happy to report that this fusion has continued to this day. What’s more, a brand new generation of artists has emerged, genre-bending, horror-obsessed, and imaginatively theatrical. I think that a look at two of these artists – Ghostemane and SKYND – may illuminate some fascinating trends in heavy music.
The intersection of horror and rap began as early as the 1980s, when the Geto Boys and Ganxsta N.I.P. pioneered dark, horror-themed lyrical content. Eventually, with the emergence of artists like Esham, Brotha Lynch Hung, and the Insane Clown Posse, this subgenre of rap would come to be called “horrorcore.” It remained a vibrant but subterranean scene throughout the 1990s and into the 00s. In recent years, as lines of genre have blurred and collapsed, horrorcore has met with more mainstream acceptance, adoption, and success than ever. It has had a big influence on SoundCloud rap, with artists like $uicideboy$ and Ho99o9 writing dark, hard, excellent rhymes. For my money, however, the most interesting of these new artists is Ghostemane.
Ghostemane – AKA Eric Whitney – got his start in the hardcore punk and doom metal scenes in South Florida before transitioning into rap. His music first got my attention when I noted that instead of sampling jazz, funk, or pop songs to create his beats, he drew on industrial and metal. As one Stereogum article put it, “Thanks to Ghostemane, Industrial and Metal Are Rap Now.” I think that’s a bit of an overstatement of the case, but have a listen to “Bloodshot,” and see if you can identify the sample the song is built around. Ghostie’s lyrical content is worth noting, as well. For example, the song “John Dee” is loaded with more occult references than your average Slayer album. (It’s worth noting that this is not just pure theatrics; Ghostie is a follower of Thelema, the Left-Hand Path religion founded by Alastair Crowley.)
SKYND is, not to put too fine a point on it, my favorite new artist, bar none. Her music is difficult to describe, sonically; a mix of rap, industrial, metal, and pop that is reminiscent of Mindless Self Indulgence, only less frenetic and more subtle. SKYND is absolutely a concept project; every one of her songs takes its title and lyrical content from a serial killer or, in the case of “Elisa Lam,” a young woman who died under mysterious circumstances supposedly related to “the elevator game.” Her music is worth doing a little research for – I had never heard of Tyler Hadley or the “house party murders” before SKYND brought them to my attention, for example. Other songs – “Jim Jones,” “Richard Ramirez” – are about people who have become household names. Her videos are absolutely worth checking out for their unsettlingly realistic reenactments of the songs’ subject matter.
As horror continues to evolve – entering the realm of creepypastas, urban legends, and internet rumors – music will no doubt change as well. As long as the heavy sound from underground endures, it will change. Like horror, heavy music reacts to and artistically interprets places of human darkness. To those with ears to hear it, the song of horror will always have a terrible beauty.