Season of the Witch

The sky was midnight black, not blood red, above Reliant Stadium's open roof as U2 brought its epic 360º tour to Houston last Wednesday. And even without the four band members onstage, hundreds of stage crew and tour personnel behind the scenes, and 60,000-plus fans in the stands, we were not alone.

Even before Bono invoked the Judeo-Christian God directly, bridging encores "One" and "Where the Streets Have No Name" with the 18th-century hymn "Amazing Grace," U2's set list was replete with allusions to a world beyond the tangible one beneath our feet. Satan got name-checked early during new song "Get on Your Boots"; the front man again affirmed his unrealized faith in Kingdom Come in "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For"; and Jesus and Judas stopped by during the apocalyptic "Until the End of the World."

And beneath the extended, techno-fied whoosh of new album No Line on the Horizon's "I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight" beat the heart of an idea that stretches back eons before mankind first knelt in prayer, one that explains why we have song, dance, music and ritual at all as well as any other Noise has ever heard in modern pop: "Shouting to the darkness, squeeze out sparks of light."


the supernatural in music

Even as a longtime U2 fan, the level of communion between the band, the audience and whatever deity was in the building Wednesday night — even if it was just Euterpe, the demigod (or "Muse," from which U2's opener took its name) the ancient Greeks believed to wield control over the supernatural spigot of music — was higher than Noise has ever seen. It's why, in terms of scale, performance and the awestruck post-show evaluations of our friends and acquaintances, Wednesday will surely go down as the local concert of the year — if not the decade.

It's also why, a few days before the show, Noise was not surprised to stumble across the following passage in the "Song" entry while paging through Man, Myth & Magic: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Mythology, Religion and the Unknown (Marshall Cavendish Corporation, Reference Edition, 1985):

"While most pop music has a secular, commercial motivation, it is showing an increasingly liturgical trend," writes Gertrude Kurath. "The lyrics are becoming more sophisticated, using mystical, visionary ideas and words."

U2 may be the biggest, but that band is hardly the only one seeking a secular-pop route to a higher spiritual plane. Latter-day pilgrims traveling the same route — many taking at least some musical cues from Bono, Edge, etc. — include Arcade Fire, MGMT, MuteMath (Warehouse Live, October 30) and Muse, whose idea of spirituality is more X-Files than Exodus but is not entirely of this Earth nonetheless.

The calendar is rapidly approaching Halloween, or as U2's Irish ancestors once celebrated it (and many still do), Samhain. Besides lending its name to Glenn Danzig's post-Misfits horror-punk outfit, Samhain — pronounced sow-AHN — is the Celtic festival commemorating the end of harvest time, the Gaelic word for the month of November, and is said to be the time of year when the veil separating the living and the dead is at its absolute thinnest.

In other words, welcome to the season of the witch. Looking around Noise's office, we see several examples of supernatural phenomena manifested in contemporary pop culture.

Houston artist Carlos Hernandez's poster for his "Day of the Dead Rock Stars" exhibit at Cactus Music — the second installment of which opens next Friday — draws on the skeletal imagery of the Mexican festival that is a close New World cousin to Samhain. On our bookshelf rests Take Me to the River, the Reverend Al Green's recent first-person account of his soul's lifelong struggle between the sacred and the secular.

And, appropriately, Rhino Records chose Black Sabbath's The Rules of Hell to illustrate October in its Year of the Rhino wall calendar, a Celtic cross bearing a sword-tongued demon/gargoyle head dead center.

Intentionally or not, Black Sabbath invoked perhaps the earliest collision of music and the occult — which, stripped of its Satanic connotations, simply means "unseen" — on the title track of the UK heavy-pioneers' first album, released in 1969.

"Black Sabbath," points out James R. Lewis in Satanism Today: An Encyclopedia of Religion, Folklore and Popular Culture (ABC-CLIO, 2001), is hardly a celebration of the Lucifer-worshipping rite popularized by the likes of late Church of Satan high priest Anton LaVey around the time of Black Sabbath's release. Lest we forget, Ozzy Osbourne pleads, "Oh God, please help me" at the end of the second verse.

Nevertheless, the song is structured around something known as Diabolus in Musica, Latin for "the devil in music." Musically speaking, this devil in music is nothing more than a chord, two or more notes played simultaneously that form the basis of all harmony in not only Western music but, in different scales and intervals, across the globe.

What sets this chord, which came to be known as "The Devil's Interval," apart is that it is a half-step below a perfect fifth, the first true harmony the Catholic Church permitted to be used in its liturgical music, specifically the chants of the Gregorian monks. The octave, the root note of any composition (i.e., C, D, A, etc.) played or sung in a higher or lower register, was the first — but since it's essentially the same note, its harmonic use is extremely limited.

In any case, the Devil's Interval — achieved by striking the C and F sharp keys on a piano, for example — was sufficiently dissonant and unsettling that the Church banned its use in compositions in the Middle Ages, and those composers who did use it shared the same fate of, say, those suspected of witchcraft.

The Devil's Interval proved difficult to excommunicate, though, and became a recurring motif in classical music heard in, among other works, Liszt's Dante sonata, Wagner's Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods) within his Ring of the Nibelung cycle and Camille Saint-Saëns's Danse Macabre. Eventually the tritone, as it's also known, became one of the fundamental intervals of jazz and blues, which in their early days were often scoffed at by classical scholars for their reliance on dissonance.

Then, of course, the blues had a baby and called it rock and roll; that's also the Devil's Interval you hear in the introduction to Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze." And ever since, the struggle for the soul of rock and roll has continued between salvation-seekers such as Santana and U2 and the more diabolically minded likes of Slayer — who titled their 1998 album Diabolus in Musica — and Marilyn Manson.

But whichever side you come down on, this season of the witch is no different from, oh, the previous eight or nine hundred. The shortest path to heaven, or hell, runs straight through your ear canal. Sleep tight, children.


Noise's iPod currently contains just over 1,600 songs. Of those, a cool 75 — or about 4.6 percent — reference some sort of supernatural entity, location or condition in the title. (We need help, we know.) A random sampling:

"Bad Magick," Shooter Jennings

"Beast of Burden," Rolling Stones

"Bella Donna," Stevie Nicks

"Born Under a Bad Sign," Albert King

"The Cool Ghoul," John Zacherle

"Dead Souls," Joy Division

"Death," White Lies

"The Devil's Right Hand," Steve Earle

"The Ghost of You Lingers," Spoon

"Goliath and the Vampires," Monster Magnet

"Highway to Hell," AC/DC

"Houses of the Holy," Led Zeppelin

"I Walked With a Zombie," Roky Erickson & the Aliens

"Is There a Ghost," Band of Horses

"The Killing Moon," Echo & the Bunnymen

"Of Moons, Birds & Monsters," MGMT

"Personal Jesus," Depeche Mode

"Season of the Witch," Donovan

"Seven Spanish Angels," Willie Nelson & Ray Charles

"Spellbound," Siouxsie & the Banshees

"Turkish Song of the Damned," The Pogues

"Walking With a Ghost," Tegan and Sara

"Where the Devil Don't Stay," Drive-By Truckers

"Witchypoo," Heartless Bastards


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