From the eeriest depths of the distant, far-off year of 1975 comes an album that, in the spirit of Spooky Month, I want to talk about, despite having only heard it for the first time about a month ago.
The Unexplained: Electronic Musical Impressions of the Occult is an album by Ataraxia, better known as Mort Garson, the eponymous Canadian composer and pioneer of Moog music. Though he is perhaps far more well known for the cult classic Mother Earth's Plantasia, he was very prolific during his lifetime; Ataraxia is but one of many aliases he recorded under over the years. And it's not even the first album to be considered Spooky; that would go to Black Mass under the name Lucifer.
Though The Unexplained generally comes off as more spacey and dark than anything else, a kind of proto-dungeon synth in its near-medieval sound quality, there are moments that call to mind other horror media quite profoundly. The opening chords of Tarot, the first track, immediately bring to mind the distinctly terrifying theme to The Shining, though soon afterwards it skitters off like a rat within an old castle at an almost Eurobeat pacing, with all the cheese that entails. Sorcerer turns to a very atmospheric sound palette, a gentle whistling wind accompanied with eerie bass thrums and descending Shepard tones. Here, placement of sound is incredibly important; take a walk through some dark woods with this on, and you might find yourself turning at the sound of breathing in your left ear, or (as I did) wincing at the grating tinkling chime sound that follows from the first-third of the track on. Oh, and there's also an audio jumpscare just to remind you that this is a spooky album, in case you forgot. Which you might've; some of the songs on this album feel like Mario Kart soundtrack rejects and not full-on spooks. Looking at you, Astral Projection.
The album sort of flip-flops between those two general ideas. The opening synths of the aptly titled Deja Vu brings to mind both Tubular Bells and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, strangely enough. It's disconcerting enough to be immersion-breaking, but tracks like this that are lighter in tone give you an impression of playing an old Halloween-themed video game, with some dark atmospheres and cheesy scares, but ultimately reinforces a harmlessness that, after Sorcerer, is a very welcome reprieve. And though I'm using this moment to talk about the album as a whole, there is one song on here in particular that prompted this writeup: Seance.
Seance starts at the bottom right corner of your hearing, and moves left, quietly yet noticeably, like a cold breath at the back of your neck. Taps on the right, as if someone knocks at the door. A messy 8-bit blip sound in the left, falling like rain, an audio trick which calls to mind my favorite horror game of all time, FAITH. A twisting of familiar sounds, almost straight out of a video game, to amplify the inhumanity. It builds into something more alien-like and spacey after that, but the sheer thrill of the first minute was the selling point on this whole album for me -- the perfect soundtrack to this month.
If there is any disappointing factor to this album, it's that the truly terrifying moments are so far and few between. Obviously, the Moog synth isn't going to immediately evoke "spooky" in your mind; indeed, it was more of an oddity in the music industry, and that quirky label translated back into some of its more famous albums. With Sorcerer's rather egregious misappropriation of sound and a general silliness shared between a lot of the tracks in the first half, it really makes me wonder where I even began to get the notion that this album was a good fit for Halloween.
But hey, cheesy scares are still scares. And the stuff that does land lands very well. Cabala's church organ is assuredly dark and ominous, a fitting piece for a B-movie, and the title track feels right at home in an old DOS game or Nintendo title about exploring a dark castle and blasting vampires away with your big revolver.
Upon reflection, it is quite funny that the album's intent was, in fact, to accompany meditation. I would not be able to meditate in the slightest to something like Sorcerer. I would probably be having an anxiety attack.