Aaron Turner: 8 Albums That Scared Me | Revolver

Aaron Turner: 8 Albums That Scared Me

From Diamanda Galás to Carcass, extreme-music innovator behind Isis, Sumac, Split Cranium shares stories of records that frightened, baffled, impacted him most
aaron-turner-by-thomas-mansanti.jpg, Thomas Mansanti
photograph by Thomas Mansanti

For over two decades, Aaron Turner has been on the front lines of intelligent forward-thinking heavy music, first with Isis, a band that inspired a legion of post-metal imitators, and later with disparate projects such as Sumac, Old Man Gloom, Greymachine and Mamiffer, among others. He also founded the influential independent metal label Hydra Head Records, has appeared as a guest performer on tracks by an eclectic group of musicians including Boris, Chelsea Wolfe, Converge, Full of Hell, Wolves in the Throne Room and more, and has created visual art for an even longer list of taste-making bands.

Recently, Turner has been exploring a more straightforward punk sound in Split Cranium, which also features members of Finnish experimental act Circle and New England crushers Converge, as well as his partner Faith Coloccia (who's also his teammate in Mamiffer). The project is about to release its second full-length I'm the Devil and I'm OK, a ripping record that draws heavily from the well of hardcore punk à la Minor Threat, Leatherface and Bad Religion, with a slight nod to Discharge and GBH.

"Jussi [Lehtisalo of Circle] said he had some riffs written and a rhythm section in mind, and asked if I wanted to do the vocals and maybe some additional guitar," says Turner of the material that would become the new record. "I had no idea what he was going to come up with."

What they came up with were short, fast and aggressive punk ragers — but it's the atmosphere and layers of keyboards that make the songs more than just a nostalgia trip or the progeny of a band looking to gain cred by showing off its punk roots.

A prime example of this genre-merging formula is the track "Ingurgitated Liquids," which, fittingly, is also the longest song on the record clocking in at 4:45. It starts off punk-as-fuck until a distant, reverb-drenched guitar line lazily drifts in. A slight hint of synth creeps in resolving itself at the end of the song into a languid, electronic drone. Other standout tracks are the raucous, ambiguously titled "Death Bed – The Yellow Room," and the album opener "Evil Hands," which pretty much lays down the law for the entire album.

"The template of punk/hardcore is hard to fuck with and still have it come across as sincere, and that somehow became our goal," says Turner when asked why a collective of forward-thinking musicians would choose to look backward into the murky past of hardcore punk. "We love this style of music, it's part of our shared history, and we also collectively enjoy muddying the waters of supposedly pure stylistic forms, maybe especially those we ourselves revere. This album in particular was meant to convey a dualistic, co-mingling of despair and hope, noise and order."

Revolver was curious to find out what other styles and records were critical to helping form his unique creative perspective — Turner generously obliged us, with the following caveat:

"[These] are some pivotal albums for me; not an ultimate top 10 list … because that kind of ultimate list can't really exist for me. It's always in flux," he says. "There are records that impacted me a lot when I was young that have zero relevance for me now. Conversely there's some stuff I listened to casually back then that have taken on much greater significance over the years since my first exposure to them. [These] are eight records I love. Most of which share the common trait of having scared me when I first heard them."

Circle 'Rautatie' (2010)

I'd like to start with this one as it embodies much of what I love about Jussi [Lehtisalo] and the music he's been a part of; I believe this may have been the record Circle was touring on when we first played together. This record is so full of life it's practically bursting. It's joyous and triumphant, awkward and sincere. There is an epic quality to a lot of the songs, they're grandiose even, but it never feels forced or trite. This record is funny for me because I don't generally like more straightforward melodic rock, and I don't like much of what probably influenced this album: Seventies power rock and AOR [album-oriented rock].

Somehow though when filtered through Circle's idiosyncratic lens it becomes truly powerful, meaningful and most importantly, life-affirming. This album reminded me of how I felt when I first heard rock music when I was young; the inherent power in the sounds produced by AC/DC, Metallica, etc. There's little else I've encountered as an adult that has recalled that initial rush for me, at least nothing that would constitute anything vaguely resembling more traditional rock music. I've yet to tire of this album after countless listens.

Moor Mother 'Fetish Bones' (2016)

A genuinely scary album; it overwhelmed me the first time I heard it. It's fierce and deeply crushing, pertinent to the problems of American culture, current and historical. It is extreme out of necessity, music that sounds as if it could exist in no other form than the one it has assumed, perfectly conjured, simultaneously caustic and vulnerable. It's not a record I can listen to often as it's quite demanding which is also a big part of its allure. There's no possibility of passive listening here, you can't just dig the "vibe," and even if you tried to ignore the lyrical content the meaning is imparted in the very sound itself.

This is truly radical music and there's very little else from recent memory that the same could be said of. Cynicism is not something I embrace as a listener, yet I often feel that much current music has no real tooth to it, both in terms of content as well as the aesthetic form it takes. This is an exception - confrontational, sophisticated, hallucinatory and moving. Very much looking forward to seeing Moor Mother live soon I hope. I can only imagine the even great force it must carry in that incarnation.

Lurker of Chalice 'Lurker of Chalice' (2005)

This album was recently reissued, and as such I was reminded to revisit it. It struck me as hard as it did when it was initially released; the embodiment of everything I hope for in a metal album yet rarely find, or even know I'm seeking. The atmosphere is supremely enveloping, and while there's a fair degree of variation through out the album in terms of dynamics, song structure and sonic treatment, the big picture is consistent, a fully realized vision. It's rife with a sense of desperation, wretchedness and isolation, and came to me at a time when I was grappling with these sorts of feelings.

At the time I was having a hard time finding any real way of expressing them, or even acknowledging their existence. There is little light emanating from heart of this album, but there is an abundance of tragic beauty and readily apparent passion. It's heft feels real and substantial, and isn't contained behind a mask of macho posturing, a trait that much metal suffers from. While it is no doubt deeply personal, the conviction behind the writing and performance carries it into the realm of wide-reaching and profound resonance. What sounds like the creator's inescapable nightmare offers a door to transcendental exhilaration for the witness.

Leatherface 'Fill Your Boots' (1990)

On the surface this is a melodic punk record; something which is often trite, or merely entertaining. Yet the tone of the album, the melodies, the cover art and especially the vocal delivery offer a much broader emotional vista. It's one of the few albums I listened to regularly as a teenager that I still find compelling. When I first heard it I wasn't sure I liked it. The incongruous nature of the gurgling vocals in tandem with the fast paced and often upbeat music seemed somehow wrong to me. Yet it was this "wrongness" that was ultimately its sustaining charm.

Frankie [Stubbs'] voice sounded inhuman to me, he seemed more like some subterranean troll spirit than a person and gratefully to this day I still don't know what he looks like. In the pre-internet age it was possible to hear a lot of a particular band without ever knowing what they looked like and this made it easier to become steeped in the mystery of the music rather influenced than the image of its creators. Even still the magical atmosphere conjured by this album remains - muted blues and rusty bloody reds that convey an enveloping sadness coupled with a determined persistence to exist. It should also be noted that this album was specifically mentioned in conversations leading up to making the second Split Cranium album.

Deathspell Omega 'Kénôse' (2005)

I came to black metal somewhat late, having avoided it for many years due to the political implications and the ridiculous nature of some of the higher profile bands I first encountered such as Cradle of Filth. Isis opened for Cradle of Filth, Usurper and some other black-metal bands I can no longer recall around '99 or so, and that experience reinforced my impression that it wasn't for me. Both the music and the antics we witnessed that night were preposterous to say the least.

Anyway, some years later around 2002 or '03, I was convinced to investigate black metal again at the behest of the folks at Aquarius Records from whom I was regularly buying from and discussing music with. Knowing my predilection for heavy adventurous music they turned me onto a handful of amazing bands that set my down a path of furious investigation and acquisition of black metal albums that resonated with me. Very quickly Deathspell rose to the top of the heap for me, partly because of [2004's] Si monvmentvm [reqvires, circvmspice], but especially because of Kénôse.

Again, it was exactly what I was looking for, but didn't necessarily expect to find: patient, creeping, brutal, obtuse and beautiful. At the time this came out I was seeking the darkest, most sinister music I could find. I couldn't effectively deal with some of the situations I was experiencing in my own life and this music offered a reflective surface that allowed my existence to become more comprehensible and tolerable. It wasn't catharsis so much as some kind of means of self-evisceration/devastation, perhaps the necessary cleansing before moving into a stage of eventual rebirth …

Anyway, there are still few bands and albums that explore the darker side of human existence in such a sophisticated and musically satisfying capacity as does Deathspell here. It feels deeply exploratory and spiritual, rather than sensational or exploitative. Their entire output from Si monvmentvm on has provided constant inspiration and hours of listening. To this day if I encounter anyone who has a shared interest in heavy music but has the same misgivings I once did about black metal, this is where I send them to reconsider.

Diamanda Galás 'The Litanies of Satan' (1982)

Truly perfect music. Untouchable. I feel alternately inspired and intimidated by this era of her work. It's so overwhelming, perfectly composed, alternately restrained and relentless … and frightening. It's hard to imagine any other music should be heard or even exist after listening to this. It feels like a synthesis of 20th century composition mixed with the most purely primal spiritual expulsion of sound, carefully constructed and instinctual in a very palpable way. Though she has clearly inspired a lot of imitators, especially with her stuff from this era, there is still nothing else like it stylistically.

I tend to be drawn towards music that sounds like it was made by a person who couldn't help but make it, who simply had to do what they were doing. This sounds like the essence of that idea. It is holy music that comes across as more ceremonial than performative, and so completely exposed that it almost makes me flinch to hear it — like witnessing something I'm not supposed to see. It's the sound of a hostile retaliation against the anti-life forces that abound in the world, or a rite of invocation to protect humanity, all born from a fierce place of love: pretty much the same goal to which I've constantly aspired. 

Lull 'Way Through Staring' (1997)

This, along with some of the earlier [German ambient musician] Thomas Köner albums, was some of the first really minimal music I encountered that really captivated me. I didn't know at the time that Lull was [former Napalm Death drummer] Mick Harris, but maybe something about his roots in metal were somehow communicated in the vibe of this album and that was part of my initial attraction to it. In any event, I remember listening to this album a lot quite late at night, lying in bed in the dark, which is pretty much the most fitting way to experience it. It is at once alien and eerily familiar. Knowing what I know now, I wonder if it recalls the first human experience of being contained in the womb? It seems to exist somewhere on the threshold between consciousness and the unconscious, being and non-being, and in some way provides a portal to a waking experience of that state.

Though the sounds function well at any volume, I found that having it blaring was most effective, the louder it was played, the more soothingly immersive it became. I suppose it could be described as dreary or dark, but it always felt more peaceful than anything else; interesting to consider as well that this music which is utterly arrhythmic, was made by a guy primarily known for his drumming, and later beat-making. It's still my favorite stuff of his vast and overall excellent output.

Carcass 'Symphonies of Sickness' (1989)

I can't say this is, or ever was, a favorite record of mine. It did however leave a very lasting impression on me, and still stands as one of the most distinct "first-time-listens" I ever experienced. At the time I got it I'd been going to a local record store in Santa Fe where I grew up. I had been befriended by one of the employees there who seemed to take an interest in guiding me towards ever-increasingly extreme music. It started by buying Appetite for Destruction and when I came back for more, this guy handed me … And Justice for All. Not too much later, it was this. The cover with the original artwork was immediately intriguing, and brutal as it was, it did little to prepare me for what I was about to hear. I threw it on my parents' stereo in the living room and was shocked by the seemingly unintelligible gurgling I heard coming from the speakers. I listened to the whole thing, trying to figure out what I actually thought of it, and was left mostly mystified.

What I wanted at the time was something heavy and angry and scary, but this was beyond my ken at that point, yet still somehow paved the way for me to start absorbing more and more extremity thereafter. I still have my scuffed-up CD copy of this and I'm still very happy to have encountered it all those years ago, even if it was too gnarly for me at the time to include it in my list of heavy rotation. The artists that have scared or baffled me, or both, on first encounter are usually the ones that have had the greatest impact on me, and Carcass certainly did both of those things in ample measure. I couldn't even tell what the fuck was going on when I first heard it; it just sounded like a rotten cacophony, albeit one that was somehow satisfyingly engaging. I'm pretty sure it freaked my parents out too, which of course was an added bonus.