Last summer I profiled Sin-Tech, a dark and disturbing compilation of experimental music from indie label Shinto Records that really opened my eyes to some envelope-busting artists from many different genres – including gothic, industrial, EBM, dark ambient, neo-folk, abstract noise, and a few categories that probably don't have names yet. The macabre landscape explored in that collection was only the first step, as the creators have gathered yet another amazing group of artists for this summer's new collection Torture Garden. Mainly an electro-industrial label with a lot of club-friendly content, Shinto has been bringing aboard a lot more sinister experimental acts lately, and it's these horror mini-soundtracks that make up the bulk of this particular release, resulting in a Hellraiser-type puzzle box of chilling and challenging sounds. Read on for a closer examination and the album's most definitely NSFW cover art...
Like the 1967 Amicus horror anthology and the world-famous British S&M club, Torture Garden takes its title from the controversial novel by avant-garde writer Octave Mirbeau – and each of the 22 artists collected here might very well be exploring that book's nightmare world of sadistic sexuality and violent death through their own unique musical language. Like last year's Sin-Tech comp, many of these artists defy categorization – like post-punk unit Strange Walls, who combine grotesque sample loops and acoustic guitar in Black Mold, or Italy's D.B.P.I.T., blending FX-treated brass instruments with bubbling electronic atmospheres in Homesick, calling to mind a Sergio Leone flick from hell. But all of these bizarre wonders manage to work together to create a sense of lurking, unknown fear and dark, seductive forces prying their way into your brain.
While most of these tracks could be loosely placed in the dark ambient genre, the differences come in their level of nightmarish intensity. The middle-range of subtle, drone-filled walls of sounds and nondescript voices include the down-tempo darkwave of Phantoms Of The SS – the only carryover from the first Shinto compilation – with Everything That Rises Must Converge; that band's side project 1 Phantom also contributes the somber We Are The Sound Of Falling Angels. Black Grass by Pennsylvania act e.g. creates a hypnotic swirl of analog synths, death-machine rhythms and dark piano chords, while guttural groans and cosmic drones saturate Attainment Of The Death Posture by Scapegoat. Portuguese artist Z.O.T.E. fabricates a fuzzy alien transmission in Parasitar; Justin Tharpe's Implication creates a strange, disembodied feel with its murky, echoing vocals and troubling beat loops, and the epic scope of Wolfen by France's Barbarossa Umtrunk emerges from a vast, arena-like ambiance into military drumbeats and ominous, distant chanting.
Among the few cuts falling within a more conventional sound, French band Life's Decay offers one of the best lyric-driven offerings here with Swanics – a hauntingly effective, sinister and sexy piece – and Glasgow goth-folk group Psychogeographical Commission create a subtle, floating guitar atmosphere beneath the spoken lyrics of Have You Ever? The dry, brittle piano patterns of Broken Fingers (Interlude) by Greek band iN[s]CissorS provide an ice-cold gothic touch, and [de]Solo by Italian neo-classical group Trama afonA evolves into a sublime dark symphony complete with strings, ethereal choirs and the occasional sound of breaking glass.
More exotic world-music flavors occasionally join the party: the album itself opens on a cyber-tribal note with Outside The Void by NY group Post Abortion Stress (PAS), a throbbing echo chamber of exotic percussion and electronic drones; Mau Bast from San Francisco artist Protea depicts a futuristic pagan ceremony, paying lyrical homage to the Egyptian cat-goddess, and sampled dulcimer meets ominous beat patterns as the hypnotic backdrop for Soul's Rattle by LA ambient artist Sadore.
Creating an effective balance between the beautiful and the dangerous are some interesting swatches of down-tempo terror industrial, like 1984 by from Spain's Maldito Mutante (featuring unidentifiable voice samples that call to mind some of The Residents' more unsettling works), and San Francisco act 15 Degrees Below Zero conjure up electronic beat textures that steadily creep up behind you in the tense track Ticking Down The Moments.
But it's not all formless atmosphere and fuzzy beats... some of these tracks are clearly designed to rip your face off. The overdriven sample loops and buzzing pulse rhythms of Today by French industrial noise unit Schultz is a sharp jab to the cerebral cortex; Buhloon by New Jersey ambient act Mutcer creates a cavernous slaughterhouse feeling through echoing high-pitched squeals and coarse growls, and an unbearable tension infuses Settle Down by Australia's Twisted Subterranean Death Trap. On the furthest end of the spectrum, Eigenstate completely blow your head off with an extreme noise track bearing the equally extreme title Blood And Semen.
You can probably tell by now that this music is not for rocking out with your car windows rolled down... unless maybe you want to convince your fellow commuters that you've got at least three bodies in the trunk... come to think of it, that actually sounds like a groovy idea. But seriously, these sounds are mostly intended to challenge your ears, jostle your brain and send shivers up your spine. Just keep that in mind as you start laying out your Halloween party plans this fall. If you're still too afraid to dive in all the way, check out some song samples from Torture Garden and other collections at the Shinto Records website.