I gotta say, when it comes to dark, nihilistic bands on this blog, I was pretty sure we bottomed out with Mayhem and GG Allin & the Murder Junkies. Turns out I was wrong. Meet Gulaggh (or, if you prefer, :GULAGGH:), the band formerly known as Stalaggh, and prepare to embrace their motto, “Existence is futile.”
Stalaggh came into its futile existence around 2000, when members of the Dutch and Belgian black metal and ambient music scenes came together for the express purpose of making an album that would fill their listeners with despair. To help achieve that goal, they dispensed with the usual growling black metal singers and instead brought in mental patients. Apparently one of the non-crazy (relatively speaking) members of the band works in an insane asylum and was able to get permission to work with some of the patients, under the guise of it being primal scream therapy. Allegedly, among the many “vocalists” the band has worked with in this way is a guy who was institutionalized for killing his mother by stabbing her 30 times.
Stalaggh released three albums between 2002 and 2007: Projekt Nihil, Projekt Terror and their most notorious effort, Projekt Misanthropia If you Google Stalaggh, one of the first results is an article about Projekt Misanthropia called, “Is This The Worst Album Of All-Time?” (Answer: No. That would be Lou Reed and Metallica’s Lulu.) “Not to go all grandpa on you,” the author of that article declares, “but that’s not music; it’s just noise.”
Well, yes, but it’s morbidly fascinating noise nonetheless. At first, the Stalaggh backstory (as recounted in this interview) set off our bullshit detectors. Black metal dudes round up a bunch of lunatics and record them screaming at each other in an abandoned monastery chapel? That sounds too perfectly horrific to be true. Then we managed to make it through about 20 minutes of Projekt Misanthropia (you can stream the whole damn thing on YouTube) and you know what? We’re pretty sure that’s the sound of a bunch of lunatics screaming at each other. It’s so thick with human suffering and despair that it literally makes your skin crawl. The room seems to get darker the longer you let it play. People avoid eye contact with you for days after you’ve listened to it. It might be the bleakest “music” anyone’s ever recorded.
Not content to stop there, the core members of Stalaggh (who keep their identities a closely guarded secret) formed a new band called Gulaggh in 2008. Where Stalaggh was inspired in part by, and named after, the prisoner-of-war and concentration camps of Nazi Germany, Gulaggh is more directly inspired by the Stalin-era prison camps (gulags) of Soviet Russia. Each album of a proposed Gulaggh trilogy will be named after a different Russian prison camp, and the first album in the trilogy, Vorkuta (the only one released so far), begins with a recording of a Stalin speech.
But Stalin isn’t the creepiest part of Vorkuta. The members of Stalaggh/Gulaggh have one-upped themselves by now incorporating atonally played classical instruments and, scariest of all, the shrieks and screams of women and children: 30 children from a youth mental hospital (it took them over a year to get permission to record them) and a group of what one Gulaggh member calls “damaged women,” by which he means rape victims and ex-prostitutes. The results are, frankly, fucking terrifying. We won’t subject you to the whole thing, but here’s a snippet:
Inevitably, this sort of thing begs the question: Is this “art”? Or is it just horrible, gratuitous noise? In their rare interviews, which mostly seem to be done via email, the members of Stalaggh/Gulaggh tend to sidestep these questions: “We do not like being called any form of ‘artist’. Art is creative, we are destructive.” But I think the real answer lies somewhere in the middle. By attempting to capture the worst human emotions—fear, pain, anger, hatred, self-loathing, despair—in their rawest form, and placing them in a context that evokes humanity at its worst (the “gh” at the end of both band names stands for “global holocaust”), the mysterious folks behind these projects force listeners to confront their own dark sides with an immediacy that I’m not sure conventional music ever could. There’s some art in that, I think. Then again, they’ve also allegedly prompted at least one fan to nearly kill himself by carving :STALAGGH: into his chest with a knife—so yeah, there’s a gratuitous, sadistic quality to this stuff that certain people respond to, as well.
The thing I actually find most interesting about Stalaggh/Gulaggh is this: Nearly everyone who first hears about the projects assumes that the mentally ill vocalists were somehow abused or tortured during the recording process, or at the very least were recorded without their knowledge or against their will. Wesley, the reader who most recently suggested we check this stuff out (thanks, Wesley!), noted, “Supposedly [the vocals] were mostly recorded in the hallways of a mental institution for the criminally insane,” implying that a.) the patients were unwitting participants and b.) this is what mental institutions usually sound like.
Well, no and no. (We’re not trying to single you out, Wesley; everyone, us included, buys into rumors and false assumptions when confronted with this stuff.) “All patients who have worked with us gave their full written permission,” a band member explained in one interview. “They are not retards, but they suffer from illnesses like schizophrenia, psychosis, borderline, multiple personality syndrome etc. Some of them are a lot more intelligent than normal people.” And, in another interview: “We always tell all vocalists who participate on our projekts what :STALAGGH: is all about. Most of them agree with our ideology….Several of them called recording with us the best therapy they ever had.”
So here’s another level Stalaggh/Gulaggh operates at: It challenges our assumptions about the mentally ill. It turns out you can be filled with almost unimaginable depths of mental anguish and have enough free will to participate in a recording session in which you channel that mental anguish into…well, not music, exactly, but an aural expression of anguish. So the vocalists are not merely the hapless victims of their illness; they are band members and active participants in the Stalaggh/Gulaggh aesthetic, as much as the non-institutionalized people who initiated both projects. At least that’s what I believe. I know plenty of listeners will reject the bands’ explanations about their clinically insane members and just hear sick people being exploited. But I think the reality is more complicated, and more interesting. (Although I do have issues with describing the women on Vorkuta as “damaged.”)
Just to keep us on our toes, however, Gulaggh have announced that the next album in their Stalin-inspired trilogy, Kolyma, will not feature mental patients, at least not exclusively. It will feature vocalists who were born deaf. “Their screams are almost animal like because they have never heard their own voice,” the band explains. “The other interesting thing is that they won’t hear the screams of the others, so it will be much more chaotic.” How it could get any more chaotic than Vorkuta we’re not sure, but Gulaggh will probably find a way.