This compilation from Upstate label Lo-Fi Kabuki Records is a mixed bag of twenty Capital region acts all united by a few different elements, most notably the broad idea of each group submitting ‘scary’ songs, as in songs that fit neatly into the overarching theme of ‘Halloween music.’ Some of the songs are very explicit in their references to the one widely recognized holiday that seems to acknowledge and even encourage darker, more experimental music; the words ‘Halloween’, ‘ghost’, ‘blood,’ and ‘haunting’ appear in several of the song titles, while others are somewhat less conventional but no less moribund, sporting titles such as “Cannibal Bride” and “We’re Not Dead.”
The accompanying music might be a little shockingly subdued for listeners who see the titles and automatically expect the kind of over-the-top death metal that a release presented in this manner might be expected to contain. Instead what we have is a set of songs that seem to take a number of cues from underground music of the 1980s, specifically post-punk and the music generally associated with that term. The heaviest influence on these groups across the board seems to be Wire; the manic energy and even danceability of the group’s overall early catalog is married to the slightly more sublime flirtations with synthesizers that appeared throughout Chairs Missing (1978) and 154 (1979), as well as the lo-fi nature of their 1977 debut Pink Flag.
This amalgam shows up in varying degrees throughout the majority of the songs here and is on full display in the best two tracks on the compilation, “We’re Not Dead” by Hungry Wives and “The Haunting Party” by Severe Severe. The former relies heavily on one of the main ingredients of dark music; a propulsive beat courtesy of the drummer leaning on the toms and ignoring the typical crashes, which are mixed low, largely substituted by a tambourine. The result is not unlike the furious drumming of some kind of jungle death cult, banging out a primitive rhythm that captures the desperation of the vocals and lyrics. The latter song similarly employs the rhythm section to create a sense of impending doom by likewise forsaking the cymbals and shifting the emphasis to the relentless pounding of the snare drum, creating an effect of being chased through the woods at night by a madman who continually revs his chainsaw in anticipation of chopping you up. These two songs are not too much alike, the tempos and instrumentation are very different, but they share an approach in that they conform to the typical verse-chorus form. Other songs here flirt with this but often eschew it in favor of a more open-ended experimental approach that forgoes any discernible structure, which at times can lead to admittedly mixed results. But these two songs revel in it and are, as a result, the most successful pieces of music on the compiliation.
Other songs tend to lean one way or another in the balancing act of Wire’s musical spectrum; “Witch Hunt!!” by Black Andy is a nice sketch of what might serve as a slice of a larger work. There are some nice minimalist rhythms, as well as atonal intrusions by the synthesizer, and is one of the better tracks. Similarly, “Blood and Guts” by Bleeding Hands is a somewhat interesting little bit of lo-fi almost in the vein of early Redd Kross, and makes its point with a walls of guitars and synths overdriven until they are little more than furious sheets of white noise.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are the pieces that delve very deeply into the synthesizer predilections, such as “Traps” by Todd Is New Each Moment, “Blood Angel” by Moondoon, and “Hause” by Mr. Owl. These three cross the line and lapse into dance, trance, rave, even disco-esque music. A wonderful use of synths is displayed on Matthew Carefully’s “Four Halloween Dreams” and Kite Person’s “Doom at the Door,” both of which manage to not overwhelm the listener with way too many layers of faux-instrumental nonsense, and in the case of Kite Person’s track even manages to smuggle in some beautiful, haunting (pun intended) vocal melodies.
Beyond the basic Wire, Magazine, Bauhaus et al. references there are a few songs that sound explicitly like other acts from around the same time period. That’s not necessarily a good or a bad thing; some of them can pull it off very well. The Grave Surfers turn in a pretty good tip of the hat to the Jesus & Mary Chain in “Sid & Necromancy,” right down to the laconic delivery of the Reid brothers. Swanfeeder is able to deftly ape some of the signature moves of the Birthday Party in their own “Show You,” where the production is claustrophobic with the lead guitar sounding like it was pulled from Dick Dale’s nightmares in the middle of a bad trip. The titular Ghoul Poon turns in “Hell Rides a White Horse,” which sounds almost exactly like something Eric Gaffney would’ve turned in to the early Sebadoh records; double-tracked vocals droning about dark subject matter over a sparse rhythm and meandering guitar leads.
Scattered throughout the album are four hip-hop tracks that fit in well with the same lyrical/musical themes. The best is definitely Oddy Gato’s “Kings of Halloween.” Gato knows the elements of a successful track. Firstly, he seems to understand that good hip-hop comes not just from being able to rhyme but being able to produce a clever turn of phrase. Secondly, he doesn’t try to overextend himself by singing as well. Thirdly, it is short; once he has made his point and said his piece, he is done.
So, lots of stuff here, and depending on whether or not you have a soft spot in your heart for certain genres that were prevalent in the underground of the 1980s music landscape and are contemporaneously beloved by certain niche communities, then you will like this. Like most compilations that attempt a cross-section of a certain basic locality, there are bound to be a few songs that endear themselves to the listener more than others. Try to find the gems here, of which there is a good number, and you’ll be satisfied.
Review by Liam McManus