Murder ballads and other dark songs

I’ve always enjoyed songs about the darker things. Songs about characters in extremis, pushed to the edge and pushing back. Songs about murder, and killing and weirdness. Nick Cave, Tom Waits, the darker traditional folk songs.

I couldn’t pinpoint exactly when I started to love songs like that. I’ve always liked heavy metal, which has its fair share of horror songs. As a very young child I liked musicals, and that’s stayed with me, even though a great many musicals suffer from not being Sweeney Todd.

But wherever it started, I like music that’s melodramatic and macabre. Here some inspirations:

Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads

Where the Wild Rose Grow by Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue is one of a great many Nick Cave songs I could have picked. The juxtaposition of a pop princess and a raving madman stoving her character’s head in then putting a rose between her teeth works beautifully. What I particularly love about this is that if you were listening with half an ear you could be forgiven for thinking this was a cheesy love song, rather than a murder ballad.

It’s also unforgiving and bleak. Apparently the older, more traditional murder ballad folks songs would contain verses where the murderers get a proper comeuppance. The law, or at least justice, would find them. Not so this song. The tradition changed, particularly over in America and murder ballads just focused on the dastardly doings of the antihero. This Nick Cave song is definitely in that tradition. There is no light. He just kills her. And yet musically it is a straight ahead, simple song.

What’s he building in there?

The same cannot be said of Waits’ What’s He Building in There. That ain’t no normal song. This is character, through and through.

What I love about the video in the link above is the melodrama. It is dark, but the audience are happy to laugh as well. What’s often missing from more experimental stuff on record is the audience reaction. Laughing is okay. If it’s weird, it’s weird.

Waits’ songs aren’t always about murderers, but so many of them are populated with these weird, over the top characters who get up to all sorts of strange things. I know people always focus on the unique character of his voice, and rightly so, but for me what stands out are the protagonists of his songs.

Sweeney Todd

I couldn’t write about the music that has influenced me without mentioning this show. Sweeney Todd has a special place in my dark little heart. I’ve never seen a live show so blood soaked and gleefully, messily, violent. And Sondheim is a genius, isn’t he? The words are genius, the accompaniment grotesque and perfect. And there are moments of real beauty in the melody, but every one of them is undercut with an air of menace.

In short, I like ’em dark.

What about you? What dark, storytelling songs would you add to my list?




New EP Announcement – Hear the first track “Butcher Boy”


 

I am very pleased to announce my new ep of murder ballads Spirit Box is now open for pre-orders.

It’s a noisy collection of acoustic songs about murder and mayhem.

The first song ‘Butcher Boy’​ tells the story of a butcher who practises his craft on customers he doesn’t like.

​’Ashes’ is about a man who, having murdered his wife, decides he isn’t happy with the urn full of ashes he got in return. So he uses a ‘spirit box’ ghost hunting device to try to find her again.

​’August and Whiteface’ tells the tale of a pair of murderous clowns, and the finale ​’And The Voices Sang’ returns to the murderous ghost hunter just as he is giving up hope of ever contacting his wife again

You can pre-order the download, or the CD digipack that has two extra songs ‘Here Love Dies’ and ‘Paper Scissors Stone’.

Or you could just join the Immoral Supporters club which includes all of the digital stuff I’ve released, plus a discount on the CD.

I’ve never been to Durham

In 2016 I was nominated for a prog award. I was in the ‘limelight’ category for new comers. I didn’t have a chance of winning of course, but I was very, very happy to be nominated.

The Beast of the Air – I have to admit, this is here because I love the song and video. Not sure what it has to do with the rest of the blog post…

By this point I was working with prog-related independent record label Bad Elephant Music and they had released my album Fit the Fourth. So here I was, a signed artist, nominated for an award, heading to the awards ceremony with my label boss. I was the big I am.

My record label boss might have had opinions on my album being late.

There were 43 tables in the venue, and we were on table 43. And then things got worse. The programme claimed I was from Durham.

I’ve never been to Durham. I can only assume the researcher at Prog Mag took a wrong turn on google somewhere. But it was a fun evening nonetheless, as you can hear in this entirely true story (by which I mean largely made up, very silly story) below.

The main serious point in amongst all the lies in that video is this: I was nominated in the same category as an act produced by Paul Draper from Mansun. I loved Mansun when I was younger, especially their album Six which I regard as a modern prog masterpiece. So I was well chuffed at being nominated and regard this as a highlight of my career so far.


Hello you! My latest release ‘Spirit Box’, a ‘concept EP’ about ghost hunting and murder, is out now. Evil Clowns, murderous butchers, failed attempts at ghost hunting, what more could you want from an EP? Here’s a link.

Four words to chill the soul – ‘But is it prog?’

When did you first get into prog?

If you’d asked 15 year old me what my musical goals were they probably wouldn’t have included playing at prog rock festivals, being nominated for a prog award or receiving positive reviews from Classic Rock and Prog magazines. I was a 90s kid, and liked 90s rock and to be honest Prog wasn’t often mentioned on the pages of Kerrang.

Some of the Creatures have Broken the Locks on the Door to Lab 558 is probably my ‘signature’ song. It’s a little bit prog. 

I like rock music that surprises you. That doesn’t stick with the expected 4/4 beats or the usual chords. But I didn’t know that kind of music sometimes gets called ‘progressive’ until I’d been writing it for several years.

Now I don’t think of my music as ‘pure’ prog. If you just want a copy of the 70s classics, I’m not your guy. But about fifteen years ago when I was teaching guitar, one of my pupils bought in a CD and said ‘I want to learn this’ and everything changed.

He’d bought in a Dream Theater CD. Now, I’m not going to claim to be the world’s biggest Dream Theater fan, but my student called it ‘prog metal’ – a term I hadn’t heard before. And that woke me up to the fact that prog hadn’t stopped in the 70s. In fact it had gone from strength to creative strength, even as the mainstream became less interested.

I got into prog metal, and then went back and discovered the classics, especially King Crimson, but also the amazing wealth of current acts – Knifeworld, The Fierce and the Dead – who are keeping the weird-rock flag flying. I also saw the connections with the prog-tinged acts I loved when I was younger like Radiohead and Mansun.

All the while I was writing my own music, so it seemed sensible to start getting in touch with prog radio and podcast producers.

Flash forward a year or two and I played my first prog gig supporting Alan Reed (ex of Pallas) at the now defunct Peel in south London. I played my 5 song cycle ‘The Miser’s Will’ and instead of people looking at me like I was mad, I sold out of the last copies of that album before I’d got off stage.

I’d found my audience. People who loved music that surprises, who like lyrics that tell a story, that want their musicians to explore a wider pallet.

Not long after I travelled with guitar player extraordinaire Matt Stevens (The Fierce and The Dead) to Summers End festival to play on their acoustic stage. That nailed it for me – the audience were really supportive and seemed to get what I was doing. I had found a place I fit.

Here’s a rough ‘bootleg’ recording of my acoustic set at Summers End festival in 2014. 

Is my music prog? I’m not really interested in boxes, and I’m not trying to sound like anyone else. But do I love prog, and has that influenced my songs? Yes, absolutely.

What about you? When did you first get into prog rock? Let me know in the comments!




Tom Slatter’s Tournament Of Perfectly Adequate Demo Songs

I have written quite a lot of songs. There are plenty already recorded and released, but lots more just exist as rough demos.

Lots of those just aren’t good enough to bother recording properly, but plenty are actually pretty good songs that just haven’t found a place on an album.

I want to record some as singles, but there are lots to choose from. Therefore it seems sensible to have a demo song tournament to decide which I will record ‘properly’ and release as a single.

Introducing Tom Slatter’s Tournament Of Perfectly Adequate Demo Songs.

Here are the rules:

  • There are 8 songs. Loser in each bout will be eliminated. Most votes wins.
  • Anyone can vote and you do so by commenting under this post, or the facebook post, or the bandcamp post.
  • Votes from the members of the Immoral Supporters Club on bandcamp are worth twice anyone elses. I know who they are.
  • I can’t be bothered setting up a proper poll – I’ll just count the comments manually. Any mistakes I make are irrelevant – this is my competition. I am the referee. I reserve the right to make arbitrary and unfair decisions.

The eventual winner will become a properly recorded single, rather than a rough demo.

Want a double vote? You need to be an immoral subscriber then. Here’s a link for that.

First up: ‘Mysteries and Monsters’, a very old song lamenting the death of magic, and ‘Anything to Make you Mine’, an extremely creepy ‘love’ song.

Of course they are demos, not the finished article, so don’t expect perfect recordings or performances.

Have a listen to the video and let me know which you prefer.

Songwriting – Run

There’s a fictional band in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy called Disaster Area. Douglas Adams wrote that ‘Their songs are on the whole very simple and mostly follow the familiar theme of boy-being meets girl-being beneath silvery moon, which then explodes for no adequately explored reason.’

I obviously took that idea to heart, at least subconsciously because I’ve got several songs that follow a similar story. Set Light to the Sky is one of them, so is Satellites – Love songs set to a backdrop of apocalyptic goings on.

My new song Run is similar.

It’s a love song about two people holding each other’s hands and running from the end of the world.

It is also a pretty straight ahead rock song – verse chorus verse chorus, singalong bits, nothing complicated and nerdy.

Or is it?

Run was written in about twenty minutes when I was attempting to complete February Album Writing Month in 2017. I started at 9 o’ clock with the intention of having an entirely new song. Some time before ten I had recorded this:

The verses are in 7/8, the verses 4/4 and the verse has an augmented chord in it: F#minor D Bb Augmented, C#minor – so there are enough unusual elements in there to keep the nerdy muso side of me happy.

Did I decide at the start to use funny time signatures? No, not at all. These things are just part my palette now, I find them as natural as more common rhythms.

The song was pretty much an improvisation and it hasn’t changed a whole lot between demo and the finished version, except that it is now well played and has the guitars turned up.

It is part of a ‘double a-side’ because I don’t have an album for it to go on. You can have the two songs for whatever price you want, including free.

Thanks for listening!

My part in Dial by Shineback

Dial by Shineback is now out.

This track, Here I Am, features some of my guitar playing:

Simon Godfrey, the madman behind Shineback, asked me to play something ‘disturbing’ to fill the gaps in between The Wizard Ramsay’s spoken word performance.

Most of the backing track was already there and there’s not much that’s rhythmic in it. It’s all big ominous chords and drones. So it made sense for me to play something with a bit of rhythm to it.

I read ‘disturbing’ as an instruction to play odd notes. They’re not random though, I’m playing with a whole tone scale centred on D – taking advantage of the symmetrical nature of that scale to slide up four frets and play the same pattern again a few times. It’s only right at the end that I return to a nicer, more ‘in tune’ scale for the last few notes.

My original performance was rough around the edges – as I’ve said elsewhere I can’t compete with proper lead guitar players on technique, what I have is funny note choice.

I spent several hours trying to record a version that had the same idea as the original but was better played. None of them sounded right so I sent Simon the original rough version instead.

Thankfully his inspired processing and choice of effects disguises how badly played the part was.

Thanks for letting me join in, Mr Godfrey. Its a great album.

New music – Rubble and Dust / Run

Today I’m releasing Rubble and Dust / Run.

This double A side digital single thingie contains two songs connected by theme and by the fact that they’re the nearest I get to straight-ahead rock songs.

“Rubble and Dust” probably has the most prominent heavy metal influence of any of my songs so far, thought it isn’t full on metal. It’s a big singalong song about mad world-leaders bringing us all to ruin. Yes, I’ve accidentally made a political comment again. I didn’t mean to, honest!

“Run” is about love at the end of the world. It’s a rocky pop song hiding 7/8 verses and at least one funny chord to keep the nerdy muso side of me happy.

Both of these are my first attempt at mixing something rocky in my new project studio. Not perfect of course, but I’m very happy with how both tracks sound.

I didn’t write a review – Dial by Shineback.

I didn’t write a review for an album that I played a small part in:

With ‘Dial’ Godfrey at the height of his powers – a mature songwriter who really knows how to put together a good record. If you want rocky guitars, it’s here. If you want extended prog rock structures, you get them too. If you want synths and electronic drums you get those. Above all you get songs that really pay you back for multiple close listens. I’ve heard the album about five times and am still discovering new details.

Is it good? I’m biased of course, but yes I think it’s fantastic.

Read the whole thing here.