Matriphagy by Tallah
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Horror fiction has had a profound influence on art over the years. Typically, when horror is mentioned, people think of movies. Some might even think of books, graphic novels, movies, TV, video games, and maybe even shorts/reels, creepypastas, and campfire tales. What they might not think of, though, is music.
Ever since Horace Walpole released his novel The Castle of Otranto in 1764, horror fiction has been spreading, crawling into every aspect of our lives. Horror itself goes back much farther, though, and its roots stretch back to our earliest recorded history—including ghost stories from Ancient Sumeria. Given the extensive history of horror, it should be no surprise that it has impacted music, shaping lyrical content and sounds.
A few direct connections in rock and metal can be found with famous bands like Alice Cooper, Black Sabbath, and Iron Maiden—each drawing heavily on horror imagery and themes. Or, outside of rock and metal, horror's influence can be seen in the dark soundscapes of industrial and gothic music, with bands like Bauhaus and Nine Inch Nails.
But the connection between horror fiction, the origins of Gothic fiction, and modern music goes much deeper, with artists blending their musical skill with storytelling in the form of concept albums. Let's take a look at one great example of this seamless blending in the Matriphagy album released by the band Tallah in 2020.
What Is a Concept Album?
Yes, yes, 2020 wasn't that long ago, and this is "Into Horror History"—but that's kind of the point here—that horror creators from hundreds or even thousands of years ago have had a far-reaching influence on the world, even today. Before we go any further, it's important to understand exactly what is meant by "concept album".
...an album whose tracks hold a larger purpose or meaning collectively than they do individually. This is typically achieved through a single central narrative or theme, which can be instrumental, compositional, or lyrical.
— Thanks, Wikipedia
If the idea of a concept album sounds rare, you might be surprised at just how many concept albums exist. Concept albums that weave in elements of horror allow exploration of dark and fantastical narratives through a combination of lyrics, music, artwork, music videos, and, more generally, aesthetics.
The structure of a concept album is a perfect fit for storytelling within music, enabling musicians to craft immersive and cohesive narratives that unfold over the course of multiple tracks, some even utilizing nontraditional narrative formats, such as telling stories without following the typical linear path (e.g., the film Memento), and ergodic literature.
Ergodic literature is a term coined by Espen J. Aarseth in his book Cybertext—Perspectives on Ergodic Literature to describe literature in which nontrivial effort is required for the reader to traverse the text. The term is derived from the Greek words ergon, meaning "work", and hodos, meaning "path".
— Thanks again, Wikipedia
The concept album has been a fruitful ground for many genres, with the bands I mentioned above, but also ones like Pink Floyd, King Diamond, and Opeth utilizing them to varying degrees over their careers. Some of the concept albums that draw from horror delve into themes of madness, existential dread, the supernatural, and dark psychological territory—all using the format of a concept album to build tension and develop characters in a way that parallels what you might see in the narrative structure of a novel.
Unlike a novel, concept albums extend beyond words on a page and allow a multisensory experience. An auditory landscape enhances the storytelling and evokes certain atmospheres and emotions to accompany the lyrical content and narrative. Some musicians might use unconventional time signatures (similar to nontraditional literary formats), unexpected shifts in dynamics, dissonant chord progressions, spoken word passages, sound samples, and other elements that blur the lines between narrative and music.
Anyone able to pull together this kind of multimedia storytelling has some serious dedication to their art.
Wait—What Is "Matriphagy"?
I'm glad you asked! (Or maybe you didn't ask, but you let me shove words into your eyeballs! Or ears if you're listening to this using text-to-speech!)
The consumption of the mother by her offspring.
-phagy (to feed on)
It happens a lot with insects, nematode worms, pseudoscorpions, other arachnids, caecilian amphibians, and—well—it's kind of all over the place, only we don't really hear much about it.
But that's not really a thing in anything except the most extreme underground films produced and only available on unlabeled VHS tapes...right?
If you've watched a Disney movie called Cinderella, then you have a direct and very strange connection to matriphagy.
As it turns out—and this is why horror history is so intriguing—the old fairy tales are way darker and grim than the modern retellings. The 1950 animated film Cinderella from Disney was based on a French version of the story published in 1697 in Histoires ou contes du temps passé ("Stories of Past Times with Morals") by Charles Perrault. But the story of Cinderella is much, much older. Ever heard of Aesop's Fables? The oldest (currently) known version of Cinderella was recorded by the Greek writer Herodotus of Halicarnassus (lived c. 484 BC – c. 425 BC) during the early first century AD—in Hellenistic Egypt.
I'm just pointing at the entrance to this rabbit hole for you so we can get back to the concept album. There are more links below in the Relevant & Related where you can explore Cinderella's special diet in more detail.
Unraveling the Dark Tapestry of Matriphagy: A Musical Descent into Madness
Right—now that we're all up to speed on concept albums and the meaning of matriphagy, let's dive into the actual album Matriphagy by Tallah.
Go ahead and pop on a vinyl or digital copy of the album because you're invited into a chilling narrative that delves into dark corners of human psychology—all within music. The story revolves around a young man named Kungan who is confined in an underground bunker with his elderly, disabled mother, Tallah. The bunker is deceivingly decorated to resemble a normal home—except Kungan wouldn't even know the difference because he's never seen the outside world. He's a prisoner to his mother, Tallah, who is overprotective and abusive.
Kungan is isolated and controlled by Tallah, and as a result, he spirals into madness, eventually succumbing to his own mental torment. He takes the advice of a stuffed toy rabbit named Lobifu and murders his mother, Tallah. Kungan then cannibalizes Tallah.
Much like a book, there's only so much I can say without spoiling the story, but I will say that it's a dark story with a twist ending that fits squarely into the horror genre.
There's even ambiguity around the nature of the stuffed toy rabbit Lobifu, who could even be a manifestation of Kungan's fractured psyche or is perhaps an evil supernatural entity exerting influence over him, a la possessed dolls.
As a listener, knowing the setting is that of an underground bunker intensifies the feeling of isolation and confinement, mirroring the mental imprisonment Kungan suffers at the hands of Tallah. Like any good horror story, many elements build the complex tapestry of a narrative, like the destructive power of toxic familial relationships and a person's rapid psychological decline after a long struggle to stay sane.
There are plenty of analyses of the music in the album available online, but as a non-expert in music, I can really only approach the album as a listener—one who happens to have expertise in horror, folklore, storytelling, and history. And, as a listener, following along with the intricate story leaves some rather haunting questions of reality and existence that linger long after the final note has played.
That's not even the best part.
Take everything I just wrote about it and throw it out your fake bunker window because storytelling is a conversation between the writer and reader—or, in this case, the creator and listener. The creator infuses their intent, but it's entirely up to the listener as to what they take away from it.
"Just because I'm giving you the concept and the story and handing it to you so you can follow along and enjoy the music better, that doesn't mean that this is what the song is about. This is what the songs are about to me. If you look at these lyrics and you get something else from it, that's totally fine. Whatever the song means to you, that's what it means to you."
— Justin Bonitz, Tallah
Who is Tallah?
Making metal disturbing again…
Emerging from Pennsylvania in 2018, nu-core gang Tallah combine the percussive force of second-generation drummer Max Portnoy with the pure fury of vocalist and YouTube sensation Justin Bonitz and the white-lightning speed of guitarist Derrick Schneider.
Formed with a singular and unifying mission of revamping the much-loved sound of popular nu-metal sensations of the early 2000s, Tallahdraw influence from the likes of Slipknot, Korn and Linkin Park while simultaneously fusing it with a modernised, hardcore edge as displayed by current sensations Code Orange, Vein, Candy and Fire From The Gods.
Following the release of their EP 'No One Should Read This', Max Portnoy received the Modern Drummer Award for "Best Up and Coming Drummer 2019", with the band performing at Boomtown Festival in the same year. Upon signing to Earache Records, Tallah recorded their debut album 'Matriphagy' with producer Josh Schroeder.
Released on October 2nd 2020, 'Matriphagy' expanded upon the concept outlined in 'No One Should Read This', armed with a disturbingly graphic tale that is to be taken as a series of both literal and metaphorical events.
'Matriphagy' was met with critical acclaim, with Slipknot's Knotfest crowning it "one of the best metal releases of the year". 'Matriphagy' claimed 8/10 and 9/10 album reviews in Metal Hammer and Rock Tribune. Matriphagy was also devoured by the fans, with the album racking up 9 million Spotify streams to date.
— Earache Records, Ltd.
Digesting Final Thoughts
When you started reading this, I bet Disney's Cinderella wasn't on your mind at all, but I like to dive into rabbit holes and explore unusual connections. As I mentioned before, I'm not an expert in music, and I would never have heard of the album or the band without my spouse telling me about it. In fact, a few topics I've written about have come from her because we both constantly have our eyes and ears open for horror and storytelling in all its forms.
All that, and we didn't even explore Kungan's Bunker & Plato's Allegory of the Cave.
Plato's Allegory of the Cave describes people living in a dark cave, chained in place, only able to see shadows on the wall cast by objects behind them, which they believe to be the only reality. One person escapes and experiences the outside world, realizing the shadows are not reality. When he returns to share this truth, the others don't believe him. Plato used this story to illustrate that people might live their whole lives with a limited perspective, accepting what they see and hear as the whole truth, but by questioning and seeking knowledge, they can discover a deeper understanding of reality.
Relevant & Related
- You can buy the full Matriphagy album by Tallah right here on Earache Records or Bandcamp.
- Check out a one-take vocal performance of No One Should Read This from the Matriphagy album, which showcases a bit of the impressive vocal range and style of Justin Bonitz. Don't stop there, though. Take a listen to one-take vocal performances of Red Light and L.E.D.
- Listen to Justin Bonitz discussing the concept album Matriphagy. It's always fascinating to hear creators talk about the development of their own work. The video I've linked is part of a playlist in which Justin Bonitz discusses each track on the Matriphagy album.
- Speaking of concept albums, watch A Brief History of the Concept Album.
- Read more about the links between music and horror fiction in a short article from Jon O'Bergh—Music and Horror Fiction: Appreciating the Perfect Marriage From Hell.
- Interested in horror novels that feature music? There might be more than you think.
- Want to learn more about ergodic literature, a term coined by Espen J. Aarseth, PhD? You know you do. You can also learn more about "Nonlinearity and Literary Theory"—which includes hypertext fiction, interactive fiction, and video games like Colossal Cave Adventure and MUDs.
- For many people, horror and music only collide in horror movie theme songs and creepy background music. Learn more with Rick Beato in What Makes Music Creepy? | Inside the Science of Horror Music and also What Makes Horror Music Scary? A Brief History of Horror Movie Music with Joe Shadid.
- Want to read more about the earliest known version of Cinderella as recorded by Herodotus of Ancient Greece? And, if that whet your appetite, check out Spinning and Cannibalism in the Greek 'Cinderella': Symbolic Analogies in Folktale and Myth. The same author has a follow-up titled "Stachtopouta" and "Nifitsa": spinning tales in relation to feminine productivity and dowry practices of modern Greece.
- Herodotus also wrote about werewolves, by the way.
- Check out these other articles: Zdzisław Beksiński | The Invention of PG-13 | Ann Radcliffe, Pioneer of Gothic Fiction | Incident in a Ghostland | Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver | Coffin Joe of Brazil | The Great King Boo Conspiracy