Why listen to unsettling music? It can’t accomplish many of the functions that many seek in a more pop sensibility: it doesn’t lift our mood; it doesn’t bring us a temporary peace; it’s not good background music for a party (and there are few appropriate occasions for it other than, say, Halloween); it does not ease pain and may actually cause it. Few genres can truly achieve this aesthetic anyway. Even dark metal (several exceptions, such as Portal or sunn 0))) come to mind) usually fails in producing real fear. You have to seek this music out, and it might require taking some chances on the experimental record bin.
Venexia, by the high-powered quartet of Mika Vainio, Kevin Drumm, Axel Dörner, and Lucio Capece, provides an excellent example of disquieting music. To give some picture of the experience of listening to this work, imagine that it’s 4 AM and you’re sneaking into a dirty, broken-down munitions factory inside the Chernobyl exclusionary zone, where sputtering power surges from the backup generators cause the machines to click on at unpredictable intervals, and that you had originally decided to take this trip because you heard that a serial killer was using this as his home base before his arrest and you wanted to verify the details of his living situation. No real danger threatens us by listening to Venexia, but rarely can we convince ourselves of that fact. We’re pretty sure those noises are coming from electronics or signal-processed instruments, but it sure sounds like a horrific beast is lurking in the wings, dragging a bloody corpse across the diamond-plate catwalk or sharpening its claws on the lifeless machines.
Some sounds, like the ones on Venexia, just have this effect. Microtonal chords, feedback loops, and arrhythmic sequences can all evoke fear. What biological or evolutionary function does this serve? No creature can naturally reproduce the pure frequencies of a synthesizer or the novel timbres of a heavily processed bass clarinet. It requires certain tools. Perhaps these sounds evoke the fight-or-flight reflex not just because they are loud or dangerous to our eardrums, but because they suggest that some tool-user is purposefully creating this racket; surely whoever is doing it must know no fear, and therefore must be dangerous. And yet the sounds provoke a great curiosity in its listeners: Just where and what are they coming from?
Perhaps it’s the death drive that urges some of us toward this strange music. Maybe we’re predisposed to uncovering mysteries. Or it may be that we wish to know our fear, believing that it holds some secret; that we wish to test its limits or just sink down into it to explore its depths. Music is one way to do that exploring without finding oneself in any real danger. Venexia is for those who wish to delve into areas of the brain from which many flee or totally avoid. It provides an emulation of danger with considerable effectiveness. These musicians, masters each in their own right, have crafted two pieces that, apart from achieving status as “art music,” affect some of the mind’s most primal functions using some of the most developed technological means. Turn back now.