People are sometimes confused when I describe music as being “scary, but in a good way.” To me, music that’s frightening and chilling is to be embraced rather than hidden, even if my initial reactions to such music can be rather severe. The first time I properly listened to Radiohead’s Kid A, I was reading Phillip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass: more specifically, it was the chapter in which Will and Lyra travel through the land of the dead, in order to create an opening and thus free the millions of fading ghosts that occupy it. As I recall, the combination of words and music was pretty chilling. To be reading about the end of death, while listening to music that appeared to depict a post-apocalyptic world, was fairly overpowering, and now, whenever I listen to the album, I can’t help but be transported – in my mind’s eye – into Pullman’s equally startling vision.
Some years later, Radiohead’s guitarist, Jonny Greenwood, composed the music for There Will Be Blood – one of my favourite films in recent years. The film is terrifying, but in the abstract, because we are simultaneously horrified and glued to the character of Daniel Plainview as he tears up the land in pursuit of oil and wealth. The scene in which his first oil tower explodes is all the more memorable for the accompanying score, which borrows liberally from Greenwood’s own score to the arthouse film Bodysong. The track in question, “Convergence”, explores the phase music of Steve Reich, but with pounding drums and scattershot percussion in place of piano. What starts out as a tribal rhythm grows into a many-limbed, writhing beast of a composition, as all the diverse elements gradually coalesce into a solid beat. Set against images of a landscape that is literally on fire, the effect is exceptionally powerful.
Finally, 2008 also brought us Portishead’s return to music, with the dark, dark vacuum of terror that was Third. Beth Gibbons never sounded so tortured and fragile as on this record, particularly when her achingly beautiful voice collides with the band’s hypnotic, droning music. The album closer, “Threads”, is an undoubted highlight – over a spare and fluid guitar figure, Gibbons mournfully wails of being “always so unsure” before a repeated cry of “Damned one”. On paper, this may sound melodramatic and ridiculous; when heard, the song is almost nightmare-inducing. Eventually, marking the passing of the album, guitars and synths beat a crushing crescendo, which is turn dispelled by a droning clarion call, which sounds halfway between a Tibetan wind instrument and a dying synthesiser. You almost believe that the unholy racket (and I mean this in a good way) will never end. What a chilling cure for insomnia.