The neighbourhood of Clerkenwell, London, is one of the most haunted places in one of the world’s most haunted cities. The most notorious of its many ghost stories involves the tale of the Cock Lane Ghost in 1762.
The story centres around a man called Michael Kent, who was romantically involved with his dead wife’s sister Fanny. As was not uncommon within the era, Fanny died of smallpox. Kent’s landlord Richard Parsons then claimed to be haunted by the ghost of ‘Scratching’ Fanny, named so after the spirits preferred method of communicating with the living. Parsons, via Fanny, claimed Kent had poisoned her with arsenic. And you thought EastEnders was grim.
But tonight we’re in Clerkenwell for a different type of haunting, as Thom Yorke lifts the veil on his third solo recording, the soundtrack to director Luca Guadagnino’s remake of the seminal 1977 Dario Argento horror movie Suspiria. It is, to say the least, an ambitious undertaking.
The original Suspiria was soundtracked by the Italian progressive rock band Goblin, and is largely seen as not only that band’s greatest work, but a work intrinsically tied to the film it scores. Yet you sense the Radiohead singer has a point to prove with this, his first feature film soundtrack. It’s now been almost twenty-years since he declined to score David Fincher’s Fight Club, so exhausted was he by the ‘OK Computer’ promotional treadmill. He only agreed to this project after being badgered by Guadagnino, the Call Me By Your Name director being a Radiohead obsessive.
Yorke has chosen to unveil the record in a location befitting the record’s contents. Since 1616, a prison has stood on the ground we stand upon tonight. Latterly known as The House Of Detention, it was in more recent times used as a holding centre for those awaiting trial. It’s estimated around 10,000 people a year passed through its doors en route to judgement. The main prison was demolished in 1890, but the catacombs beneath it have remained. They served a shelter during the Blitz, and as a museum for a brief time in the ‘90s.
Unsurprisingly, it’s alleged to be crawling with ghosts. There’s the silhouette of a man who leads the way through the dank corridors, always ahead, always out of reach. The old lady, searching for something, but who’ll never reveal what. The unseen sobbing of a child has been heard numerous times over the building’s lifespan. There’s been reports of a malevolent spirit who seems to predominantly attack women.
NME has attended album launches on boats, in limos, at dog racing tracks… but descending the House Of Detention’s stairs tonight, pulling back the iron clad door, entering the building – our footsteps and who-knows-who-else’s bouncing off the cold, stone walls; walking into the darkness; the repeated discordant piano plonk of a tune we’ll later learn is entitled The Hooks playing somewhere inside the void – well, we’ve never attended any event like this.
It’s fitting, in the sense that Yorke has never made music resembling anything like this before, either. A double album, around ninety minutes in length, which we will listen to in its entirety, the record features a number of interesting titbits. For one thing, it features The London Contemporary Orchestra and Choir, who Radiohead fans will know from their appearance on 2016’s ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’. For another, Yorke’s son Noah plays drums on on the song ‘Has Ended’.
Yorke has said that the record took a year-and-a-half to write. The composer, his head filled with bad intentions concerning the rise of Trump and Brexit, watching rushes of the grotesque film, composed on piano what he describes as “spells”. Wisely, from the off, the record forges an identity indistinct from the Goblin record. It’s closer in style to the work of the Exeter musician James Holden, of whom Yorke has expressed his admiration before. Less surprisingly, there’s the DNA of krautrock acts like Faust or Can in here too.
Yet while in time the record will get discordant, abrasive, unsettling – all the things you would expect Thom Yorke reworking Suspiria being reworked would be, there are some lovely moments here, such as ‘Suspirium’. Just Yorke and a piano, his voice adrift and exploratory, it could have been a single plucked from the ‘OK Computer’ era. It sounds not so much ghostly, but certainly spiritual.
As we sit, our senses bound by the dark we’re entombed in, underground, confused by the flickering lights, seeing things in the periphery of our vision that may or may not be there, the record’s cryptic brilliance washes atop of us.
‘Open Again’ is a Mediterranean tinged funeral waltz; Olga’s ‘Destruction’ takes the piano-led doom of ‘The Hooks’ prior and moulds it into a more unsettling shape. ‘Unmade’ is another work of unsettling grace, a great Yorke composition, and further justification for the musician’s solo third record being a canonical to his talents, and not just two sides of wax featuring him making spooky noises… even if we swear something just whispered something indistinguishable into our ear.
As we leave the venue tonight and amble through the ancient streets of Clerkenwell, we do so content in knowing that we witnessed a haunting that might not outlive the legacy of the Cock Lane Ghost – but will certainly possess those present for the rest of our mortal days…