Let’s celebrate All Hallows Eve with some of the scariest metal ever recorded.
Halloween, unquestionably the most metal of holidays, has inspired plenty of great music. However, one thing seems to be lacking from even the most solid Samhain playlists: true terror. There’s nothing wrong with rocking out to goofy tunes inspired by reanimated corpses or seductive vampires, but we, your faithful Toilet ov Hell scribes, asked ourselves, “What extreme music has the potential to inspire genuine fear?” We came up with some tunes that are both awesomely heavy and at least a tad creepy.
Black Sabbath – “Black Sabbath”
We’ve all probably heard this song, the one that truly signaled the birth of heavy metal as an aesthetic distinct from hard rock, more times than we can count. Nonetheless, let’s take a moment to step back and appreciate its innovative distillation of sonic horror. It’s not just Tony Iommi’s much-discussed use of the tritone in the the main riff, but the perfect combination of that disturbing sound with Geezer Butler’s occult lyrics, Ozzy’s wailing, and Bill Ward’s crushing yet measured pounding on the drums. The song builds from the doom that launched a thousand bands to a cathartic ending that’s both frantic and good, headbanging fun.
Mercyful Fate – “The Oath”
King Diamond has been metal’s foremost master of horror since Mercyful Fate formed in 1981, and the sort-of title track from the 1984 classic Don’t Break the Oath succinctly sums up what makes him one of the genre’s greatest singers. Beyond the four-octave range, the Danish legend has always been defined by his commitment to atmosphere, storytelling, and infectious riffage. The King contributes eerie keyboards and sound effects while pledging obeisance to the Dark Lord. When guitar duo Hank Shermann and Michael Denner kick in with the galloping main riff, it’s clear why so many European teenagers were similarly prepared to trade their souls for evil by the late 80s.
Mayhem – “Freezing Moon”
With all the sensationalism that surrounded Mayhem in the band’s early years, it’s easy to lose sight of how effective the band’s leader and guitarist Euronymous was as a songwriter. His strengths are especially apparent on the eerie second track from De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas. There’s a strong case to be made for the demo version featuring the voice of Dead, who wrote the song’s bleak lyrics. However, Attila Csihar, who sang on De Mysteriis and eventually returned to the band in 2007, contributes a note of otherworldly weirdness that sets the album apart from Norwegian black metal’s other most beloved releases.
Godflesh – “Go Spread Your Wings”
The third full-length from the industrial metal masters closes with this lengthy exercise in atmospherics and delayed catharsis. The stripped-down ambience of the repetitive opening gradually brings in new elements, the relentless dissonance invoking dread to match the self-defeating lyrics. Justin Broadrick’s guitar offers melodic contrast to lead into pounding industrial breakdowns, but ultimately no relief from the existential despair at being trapped by social norms and religious guilt-mongering. The crushing, inexorable death march descends into a downward spiral as Broadrick concedes repeatedly, “I’ll never escape,” and finally resolves with an understated air of resignation.
Khanate – “Dead”
This drone metal collective has plenty of tracks appropriate for this list with its signature characteristics of jarring feedback and Alan Dubin’s shrieked vocals over crawling tempos. This particular one stands out for the way it spotlights Stephen O’Malley’s suffocatingly sludgy guitar and Tim Wyskida’s maddening builds on the cymbals as Dubin shifts into a pained, maniacal whisper. The musical backing perfectly matches with his ranting about isolation and self-hatred leading up to the narrator’s demise. This outcome is reflected by the song’s eventual fade into occasional snare and tom hits, paired with muted bass from James Plotkin.
Fantomas – Delìrivm Còrdia
Mike Patton, who composed this bizarre, nightmarish, hour-plus musical journey, said it can be understood as the soundtrack to a film about undergoing surgery without anesthesia. As in most of his work with this project, he foregoes lyrics, so we must use our imaginations (preferably with the lights off) to find any coherent narrative in the schizophrenic combination of ambience, metal, noise, chanting, and samples of a surgical team at work. Buzz Osbourne on guitar, Trevor Dunn on bass, and Dave Lombardo on the drums all gamely back Patton’s play with plenty of disconcerting blasts of dissonance and aggression.
Pig Destroyer – “Natasha”
Pig Destroyer have made their name on the artsier end of grindcore, building miniature epics out of Scott Hull’s thrash-inflected riffage and J.R. Hayes’ perverse lyrical forays. For this song, initially included as a surround-sound DVD bonus with 2004’s Terrifyer, the band breaks out of its comfort zone with an over half-hour horror story told in vocals that go from the usual screams to whispers and hints of melody. The music similarly metamorphoses, with a focus on sludgy riffs, heavy use of samples, and an unusually restrained but compelling performance from drummer Brian Harvey.
Sunn O))) – “It Took the Night to Believe”
Seattle’s drone lords, Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson, are joined by Wrest of Leviathan for this track from 2005’s experimental full-length Black One. The guest vocalist croaks and shrieks over the band’s deliberately paced tone worship. It’s a collaboration designed to inspire maximum dread, the unbearably heavy bass line and buzzing of the guitar ideal for an evening of maddening introspection.
Catacombs – “In the Depths of R’lyeh”
From Metallica on, countless metal bands have drawn inspiration from H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulu mythos of cosmic horror. However, the Arizona-based one-man funeral doom project Catacombs truly captured the morbid foreboding of man’s insignificant place in an uncaring universe, whiling away time until the return of unimaginable monstrosities who bring madness and death. Earth-shaking bass batters your consciousness while the guitar endlessly repeats a haunting melodic line and gurgling vocals incomprehensibly warn of Chthulu’s rise. By the time the piece builds in urgency around the ninth minute, it’s clear there’s no hope or reason to be found – just the certainty that nothing we do matters in the face of all-encompassing darkness.
Xasthur – “The Prison of Mirrors”
Xasthur’s sole member, Malefic, routinely wallows in self-hatred, unleashing jarringly inhuman screams of despair over minimalist yet emotionally powerful black metal. This song from 2006’s Subliminal Genocide shows his off-kilter sense for depressive melody and bleak soundscapes at its best. He draws on the repetitive darkness of doom’s dankest corners while finding plenty of room for blackened release and concluding with a hauntingly dissonant clean channel melody. Malefic and like-minded musicians such as Wrest established that all the satanic and blood-stained imagery in the world could not compare with the horrors conjured by an individual’s all-too-real real disgust for self and humanity.
Nortt – “Af Døde”
Danish one-man funeral doomster Nortt drives this composition onward with a mournful keyboard line, engulfing it with the oppressive wave of downtuned strings and black metal-influenced vocals. After four minutes, the proceedings briefly pause before the stillness gives way to the return of ominous keys and noises, the sounds of despair gradually building in heaviness once more without offering the reward of a true climax.
Grave Upheaval – “II”
Even more than fellow spelunkers into the cavernous underbelly of death metal like Dead Congregation or Portal, this Australian death metal band concentrates on building a massive droning edifice of impenetrable riffage. Classic death metal bands such Death or Morbid Angel wrote heavy songs that growled at you about the occult and man’s inhumanity to man. Grave Upheaval is more interested in forcing you to confront the rottenness, transcending language to point that the album includes no titles, no identifying information about the band members, and certainly no transcription of any words that may be included in the guttural, menacing vocals.
Altar of Plagues – “God Alone”
Unlike many other bands often tagged as “post” black metal, Altar of Plagues took the genre to strange, experimental places without ever sacrificing an ounce of viciousness. On the second track from their final album, drummer Johnny King delivers a pummeling to back the unsettling guitars and electronic flourishes from guitarist and vocalist James Kelly. It’s a highly concentrated dose of noisy, unsettling metal, lent body by Dave Condon’s reverberating bass tone.
The Body – “Hail to Thee, Everlasting Pain”
The most adventurous practitioners of sludge around, The Body have made a career out of making people uncomfortable with disturbing soundscapes and an unpredictable range of collaborations. This track, from the duo’s 2014 album I Shall Die Here, is notable for the way it shows off their range while synthesizing the disparate elements into a single, pleasantly disconcerting experience. It begins by going from a distorted sample to a synthesized, noisy beat with the signature pained screams of Chip King. The music cuts out entirely for a moment before returning with sounds akin to a Death Grips song, in turn giving way to a sludgy breakdown. The Body takes us on a tour of our inner hellscapes, never letting us get comfortable or complacent.
Dragged into Sunlight/Gnaw Their Tongues – “Strangled with the Cord”
The 2015 collaboration between British blackened doom collective Dragged into Sunlight and Dutch noisy black metallers Gnaw Their Tongues is disquieting, to say the least. The overwhelmingly heavy guitars, drums, and noises combined with harsh vocals and plentiful samples make for a devastating encounter with all that is awful in the human condition. On the other hand, there’s still plenty of groove and quality riffage here, so you can have a good time even as you’re sonically battered.
Chelsea Wolfe – “The Abyss”
Let’s close on a track that’s not really a metal song or performed by a metal artist. Chelsea Wolfe has nonetheless dabbled in various forms of heaviness with haunting and affecting results. On the closing track of her 2015 album, the dissonant keys convey the creeping terror of sleep paralysis, the experience that is central to the album’s unique merging of gothic folk, alt rock and doom metal. The slow crescendo of noise in the background cuts out to permit an eerie, discordant violin before coming to an abrupt end, much like a nightmare.
Thank you to 365 Days of Horror, W., Boss the Ross, and Ron Deuce for submitting your ideas for this article. Tell us about your own favorite scary metal songs in the comments – and may all the denizens of the Toilet enjoy a happy Halloween.