There’s dark music and then there’s dark music. When dark music is brought up in a conventional setting, it’s safe to assume that albums like Depeche Mode’s “Violator” (1990) or Nine Inch Nails’ “The Downward Spiral” (1994) are on the table. Both albums are fantastic, as far as I’m concerned, and more than a little dark against the anachronistic background of the blithe, #YOLO culture of the post-millennium. But this is not a conventional setting and albums like these are definitely not on the table (although it is not uncommon to see them in a lot of half-assed “Darkest Albums of All Time” lists scattered in handfuls across the Internet). I am here to discuss truly dark music. The albums you will find on this list are so bleak that you can’t “rock out” to them (with, perhaps, a few exceptions, if you radically expand the common definition of “rocking out”). You won’t find yourself tapping your feet or humming along at any point along this dreary little journey. My pet theory, in fact, is that you won’t be able to tolerate even half of this list without having experienced a clinical depression at some point in your life (I’m dead serious about that). If you’re asking yourself why anyone would want to listen to music like this –a fair question, certainly–then these albums probably aren’t for you. But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn anything from reading about them.
I discovered most of these albums myself while in the pits of one period of depression or another. I’ve tried many things to take the searing edge off these downer periods. Two things work (or help, rather) without adverse effects: reading depressing books and listening to depressing music. It’s strange but true–these bleak, existentially horrific albums are like a dark balm that cauterizes gashes in a bleeding soul with a blast of hell-frost. Nevertheless, I don’t want to focus on their pragmatic applications (such a gauche and debased approach to art could not be further from my intents, even if such writing is still accepted in academia as legitimate criticism). Above all, these albums are works of art and will be treated as such here. Before we begin, however, I need to get a few disclaimers out of the way:
I don’t focus primarily on lyrics, as most “Darkest Albums” lists do (if you are interested in dark lyrics, there are a surplus of readily accessible lists out there that include albums by bands like Radiohead and Coldplay based on their lyrical content). My criteria for darkness is a gestalt approach. I consider each album’s pervading atmosphere, which does include lyrical content, but as dynamic element no more separable from the overall effect than would be rhythm or melody. In my opinion, song lyrics are not poetry. They simply can’t be extracted from their musical delivery and considered independently.
I exclude several musical genres for the purposes of this list. I don’t discuss so-called “classical” music composers. This is not for a want of darkness, but because this list would soon be overrun by the likes of Penderecki and Shostakovich before we even began. I don’t discuss rap (although there are more than a few seriously dark rap albums out there) to avoid a jarring atmospheric discontinuity in the overwhelmingly slow and ambient-oriented albums largely pervading this list. Nor do I discuss metal, although there are a few albums here that traditionally fall under the Black Metal classification. When I do include a remotely “metal” album, it’s “metalness” is not the aspect under consideration. These metal albums are barely metal, utilizing distortion to achieve something closer to ambience than anything classically metal in nature.
Sonic Youth Confusion is Sex (1983)
It’s always best to begin a list like this with an indisputable classic. If you start yammering about some esoteric recording by a band nobody has ever heard of first rattle out of the box, people tend to zone out. You’ve heard of Sonic Youth, right? (you are, at least, more likely to have heard of Sonic Youth than any of the other bands on this list. If not, no biggie, I won’t judge you. I’m no snob.) But wait, isn’t Sonic Youth that admittedly off-kilter but poppy-at-core shoegaze band with Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon, high on beat poetry, sex and god knows what else? Yes. And no, they aren’t typically noted for darkness (at least not the kind of darkness you’re going to find on this list, the darkest-of-all-darkness). Most people who have actually “heard” Sonic Youth probably know “Kool Thing” or “Dirty Boots” from Goo (1990)–dirty, rough little songs with a palpable edge which could conceivably fit semi-comfortably on a playlist next to tracks from early nineties grunge and alternative rock bands–but this is not the Sonic Youth of Confusion is Sex. Odd guitar tunings, droning feedback and a sheer, volatile listener hostility make this album a painfully frightening experience. What Confusion is Sex achieves that a lot of noisy albums of the early eighties don’t is a sustained atmosphere of pure hair-raising menace. Confusion of Sex comfortably heads this list because it is, to put it simply, fucking scary. It should come as no surprise to anyone that in 1982, a year before Confusion is Sex hit the New York underground music scene, Sonic Youth toured and shared practice space with Swans (a leviathan of a dark band which will certainly be featured on this list as well). Not convinced? I challenge you, then, to listen to Kim alter the line “I’ll take of your dress” to a screaming crescendo of “I’ll shake of your flesh” in “Shaking Hell” without getting chills. It is, to my mind, one of the most unsettling moments in music history.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor F#A# Infinity (1997)
The cars on fire
and there’s no driver at the wheel.
And the sewers are all muddied
with a thousand lonely suicides.
And a dark wind blows.
The government is corrupt
and we’re on so many drugs
with the radio on
and the curtains drawn.
We’re trapped in the belly of this horrible machine
and the machine is bleeding to death.
[stanza stylization my own based on the passage’s phrasing as spoken on the album]
Thus begins the haunting opening monologue of “The Dead Flag Blues,” the first track of Godspeed’s phenomenally dark magnum opus, F#A# Infinity. “Magnum opus” might be a little bit of a stretch by the consensus of Godspeed fandom. F#A# Infinity may not, in fact, achieve the level of epic grandiosity that Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven (2000) did, which seems to be widely considered their best album (It’s certainly one of the greatest ‘post-rock’ albums ever recorded, as far as I’m concerned). Nevertheless, in the world of dark music, F#A# Infinity is Godspeed’s masterstroke, an absolute classic. Still, compared to many other albums on this list, moments of F#A# Infinity might seem like brisk, conventional rollicks (see, for example, the fast and furious ‘climax’ of “East Hastings,” or the hokey folk skit near the end of “Dead Flag Blues”). Let me emphasize moments. True, Godspeed is not Godspeed without variety, but F#A# Infinity, taken as a whole, is one of the most gorgeously gloomy albums around, happy moments notwithstanding (which tend, actually, to darken the atmosphere even more, much as a flash of bright light renders a starless night utterly impenetrable). Like most seriously dark albums, F#A# Infinity is preoccupied with evocations of a post-apocalyptic mindscape. Unlike its peers, however, it also populates this dead world with humans–far and few between, perhaps, huddled in groups of threes around the noxious fumes of feeble trash-can fires along interstates emptied of traffic, but people nonetheless. Godspeed’s characteristic employment of spoken word alongside a cosmopolitan folk sensibility separates F#A# Infinity from the pervading genre obsession with misanthropy. More importantly, this tenderness for a declining humanity colors F#A# Infinity with a highly unique voice in the land of shadows. This may be why I can never truly put this album behind me. It was one of my early introductions to dark music and still serves, for those of you who haven’t decided if you are quite neurotic enough to embark on a fanatic obsession with deeply depressing music, as a good marijuana to the harder stuff. If you haven’t heard any of the albums on this list, I strongly encourage you to give this one a spin (please, for the love of god, don’t dive headfirst into Non or Current 93. You almost certainly wouldn’t survive).
Bohren & Der Club of Gore Black Earth (2002)
Black Earth is unique in that it will probably be the only “jazz” album on this list. It also happens to be one of my favorite dark albums of all time. When I find myself driving at night, particularly through some anonymous city-scape, I often put this one in for a spin (if I’m not too tired, that is. The average, sub-sixty beats per minute tempo, slightly slower than the average human heart rate, can put you right under if you are barely hanging on to consciousness to begin with). Why do I do this? Because Black Earth is noir from hell. The classic noir elements in Black Earth lend themselves to urban imagery, but the down-tuned, “from hell” modifier empties the urban of the human element in a truly surreal transposition. The album presents the listener with a city that has died on the vine. Black Earth is an album of unlit alleyways behind stores with broken windows, dark streetlamps dressed in brittle plastic shopping bags, useless crosswalks shadowed in unending night. I could go on, but you get the point. As I’m sure the astute reader has noticed, I put quotation marks around “jazz” in the first sentence. This is because Black Earth isn’t actually jazz. It sounds like jazz, but the atmosphere (thankfully) remains untainted by the visceral energy that improvisation tends to lend to jazz. It’s a jazzy, noir ambient album, or, as the Club of Gore describes it themselves on their website, “doom-ridden jazz music” “Doom-ridden” is certainly spot on–Black Earth sounds like what might result if Khanate or Sunn O))) decided to drop the guitars and pick up keyboards and saxophones. The metal connection isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds, since the members of Bohren & Der Club of Gore (Thorsten Benning, Robin Rodenberg, Reiner Henseleit, and Morten Gass) were originally united by an underlying enthusiasm for grind, death, hardcore, and doom metal. I, for one, thank the dark gods that they decided to give us truly dark and beautiful albums like Dark Earth rather than adding to the pile of traditional metal genres.
Lustmord [O T H E R] (2008)
Of course, any self-respecting “Darkest Albums” list is obliged to include something by Lustmord. The trick with Lustmord is merely deciding which album to choose. This difficulty is not a matter of choosing an album to best represent Brian Williams’ musical career as Lustmord. In fact, nearly any of the Lustmord albums will represent the others adequately in their core aspects–they are all mostly ambient, droning and cosmically suffocating (meditate on that oxymoron, “cosmic suffocation,” and you’ll probably end up entering something like the Lustmord headspace after a while). It’s this very similarity that makes the choice difficult–it’s like being asked to pick the rottenest apple out of a basket of equally decomposed apples (while writing this, as a matter of fact, I accidentally discovered that I was playing two Lustmord tracks simultaneously from different albums… and I didn’t even notice for several minutes–point and case). This isn’t to say that each Lustmord album doesn’t have individual merit. Some feature vocals (The Word as Power, 2013) sparser arrangements (Carbon / Core, 2004) or collaborative efforts with other musicians (Stalker, 1995 with Robert Rich). My choice of [O T H E R] is little more than a slight personal preference, tempered by the fact that it also tends to be a fan favorite (any of Lustmord’s albums, in other words, would fit in easily on this list). Somewhere in the vast sprawl of the Internet, I read at some point where someone wrote that “discovering Lustmord can be a mind-blowing experience.” Although I am extremely leery of the general deadening effect of hyperbole when it comes to describing art, I can see what that reviewer is getting at. Brian Williams is less of a composer of individual tracks than a painter of dead landscapes. Listening to Lustmord is certainly a new (if not exactly “mind-blowing”) kind of listening. You tend to fall into his dark, inhuman world and truly have a difficult time waking from it. Lustmord is an immersive experience, best listened to in the dark and with good headphones. While Williams is a more mainstream, uncontroversial personality than some of his compatriots (he collaborated with Tool’s Maynard James Keenan on 10,000 Days and Puscifer’s “V” is for Vagina, assisted on over forty movie soundtracks including The Crow and Underworld, identifies as a plain-old atheist rather than as Satanist, neo-Nazi, or member of The Partridge Family Temple–Boyd Rice is the Partridge Family Temple member, just to avoid unnecessary suspense) his work as Lustmord is certainly among the bleakest and darkest on this list.
Non God and Beast (1997)
God and Beast is simply not going to click for everyone, even among fans of generally dark music. Boyd Rice, experimental musician and close friend for Church of Satan founder, Anton Lavey, has produced under the ‘Non’ moniker since the mid-seventies. He’s collaborated with a host of other dark musicians, particularly of the so-called ‘apocalyptic folk’ tradition (Current 93, Death in June, and Sol Invictus). Rice’s devotion to Social Darwinism as articulated in the infamous 1890 book Might is Right by the pseudonymous Ragnar Redbeard (an anti-Semitic, racist diatribe against the weak) might be enough to turn you off before we even mention the music (and Rice certainly, as I’ve already indicated in the introduction, won’t be the last ideologically suspect individual to crop up in this list. What can I say, the darkest of the darkest imaginable music doesn’t tend to attract well-adjusted, morally outstanding individuals). Explicit articulations of Rice’s brutal ideology of domination certainly aren’t excluded from any of Non’s albums (at least not from any of them I’ve listened to. I’m admittedly a long way from making my way through Boyd’s 30-plus item discography as listed on Wikipedia). Check out, for instance, “The Law,” a five-minute, misanthropic chant over a militant, march-like percussion track. Rice repeats in a monotonic moan, “Only the law / of master and slave / only the law / from cradle to grave / only the law / of tooth and claw” …you get the idea. Nevertheless, in its defense, God and Beast isn’t as blatantly… well… ‘preachy’ as Might! (1995) which consists of long readings from that dirty book I mentioned earlier. Ultimately, ideology isn’t what earned God and Beast a place on this list. Wikipedia describes the album as alternating “abrasive soundscapes with passages of tranquility.” Abrasive soundscapes? Absolutely. Passages of tranquility? Um… what? The album is a perpetual tension generating machine. Electronic tape experimentation (Faust, anyone?), repetitive percussion, drones, scratches, screeches, and an altogether horrendous arsenal of angry sounds keeps things hot and heavy in God and Beast. It’s almost ‘just’ noise, but not quite. A dark atmosphere certainly pervades the recording owing to a structural coherence that pure noise generally lacks. There is an open hostility towards the listener (something Rice was infamous for, particularly in live performances) which (naturally) gets a little irritating, but what could be more darker and twisted than an album that tries to hurt its listener? Despite its drawbacks, there is no doubt that there is little God and much Beast in this indispensable dark classic.
Justin Burnett is a trans-genre literary aficionado, an avid reader of everything from the Sophocles to David Wong. He also has a long-standing interest in psychoanalysis (particularly in Freud and Lacan) and is something of a philosophical dilettante. Justin has a BA in literature from West Texas A&M University and is currently preparing to enter graduate school to pursue a degree in psychology.
© 2017 Justin Burnett