Posted on Leave a comment

The Heavy Horror Sound from Underground

Horror and music have a relationship going back as far as both; from classical masterpieces to witch house, the kinds and uses of horror themes and tropes vary widely. There’s a special chemistry, though, between horror and rock music, specifically. Indeed, were one to try to divorce rock from darkness, devilry, and delirium, you’d most likely wind up with Donny and Marie, or maybe Stryper. That’s a fate too cruel to damn someone to, so it’s hard to begrudge even the most straight-laced moralist a little taste of horrific fun every now and then.

One of the great American musical forms (and a precursor to rock), the blues gave us Robert Johnson’s “Hell Hound on my Trail” and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You.” The darkness of the American experience was translated into music in a dazzling variety of ways and locales, and the fusion of the blues with electricity and tons of mind-expanding drugs gave us the psychedelic explosion. Heavy psychedelic music drew liberally from horror: Pink Floyd’s “Careful with that Axe, Eugene” and “Lucifer Sam” and Donovan’s “Season of the Witch,” Jefferson Airplane’s “House at Poonell Corners,” and countless more. The relationship was mutual and oft-requited, and psychedelic music had an outsized impact on horror cinema.

Then, in 1970, lightning struck and brought life to the shambling monstrosity of a masterpiece that is Black Sabbath. Their debut album invented heavy metal and, with it, brought a whole new aesthetic depth and commitment to the relationship between heavy music and horror. What, exactly, constitutes “heavy” music is a subject of tremendous debate and is highly subjective, but after Black Sabbath, the term would at first be associated with slow, distorted versions of blues riffs. The horror imagery – which often bordered on the Satanic – was impossible to separate from Sabbath’s music, and people took note. Alice Cooper – both the band and their singer – predate the heavy Sabbath sound, but quickly took note, and took the theatrics and horror elements to a new level of over-the-top goofiness.

This early sound and aesthetic is a musical tradition that proudly continues to this day, modulated to one degree or another, but much of it maintaining the fuzz-soaked, riff-drunk sound of the first great wave of “evil” music. The chaos of the late 60s and early 70s was the environment that brought us “Sympathy for the Devil,” the Church of Satan, and “Rosemary’s Baby.” There was a dark, morbid side to the love and freedom of the 60s, one that found an expression in music, but also in fiction: along with the rise of heavy metal in the 1970s and 1980s, America experienced a love affair with horror, driving paperback sales to heights previously undreamed of. This spike was, naturally, accompanied by a moral panic over both horror and heavy music, culminating in the real-life horror story of persecution and bigotry that is today known as the Satanic Panic.

Bands like GWAR and the Misfits demolished any dividing line between horror and music. Now, horror-themed music has spawned a dazzling sonic kaleidoscope of subgenres, from horrorcore rap (pioneered by artists like Insane Clown Posse and Esham and then smuggled into the mainstream by Eminem) to horrorbilly (embodied by bands like the Horrorpops and Nekromantix), actually Satanic metal (like Venom and Rotting Christ) to Christian metal that nonetheless avails itself of horror imagery (Demon Hunter). Some music stylings are more amenable to horror than others: just as heavy music in the 21st century has crossed and blended genres, so has it kept its roots in horror.

Although I’m hardly an unbiased observer (indeed, I am a shameless partisan), I don’t think I’m off the mark when I suggest that this relationship – and, indeed, the heavy horror sound from underground – has reached its zenith in the person of Robert Bartleh Cummings, AKA Rob Zombie. Rob got his start as the frontman to 80s and 90s metal legends White Zombie, and right out of the gate White Zombie became a vehicle for his obsessively realized aesthetic of carnival sideshows, horror and exploitation film, ghost train rides, and sleaze. Although he still makes music as a solo artist, he is now something of a renaissance man. In 2003, Zombie transitioned seamlessly into film with House of 1,000 Corpses, which starred his wife and muse Sheri Moon Zombie (and also Chris Gethard!) House marked the first installment of his Firefly Trilogy, which would go on to include 2005’s The Devil’s Rejects and 2019’s 3 from Hell. Both of those (and 2012’s The Lords of Salem) also star Sheri, and all of them are permeated with music of all kinds, but playing to Zombie’s interest in Southern rock.

Will the circle remain unbroken, by and by, Dark Lord, by and by? My hope is that it will.

Leave a Reply