Deep Digs: Mort Garson’s Lucifer: Black Mass (UNI Records, 1971)
Music for Satan and the people who love him
By: Michael Rancic | Mort Garson photo courtesy of Day Darmet
In Deep Digs we take a look at significant albums from Canadian history, with an emphasis on music that might have been overlooked the first time around. Our inaugural feature in the series focuses on Mort Garson’s Lucifer: Black Mass, which writer Michael Rancic argues is the most Mort Garson of all Mort Garson records.
Black Mass stands out in composer Mort Garson’s long and idiosyncratic discography like an inky smear on an otherwise colourful and varied canvas. The sole album released by his alias Lucifer is filled with shadowy melodies, minor key passages, and a fascination with the occult. It’s a stark counterpoint to Mother Earth’s Plantasia, the album Garson is best known for, with its music written for plants and the people who love them. This album, like Plantasia, is a testament to the electronic pioneer’s ability as a composer to take an idea and immerse himself in it, and speaks to the creative freedom that he was able to tap into once introduced to the Moog synthesizer.
Wherever he went, whatever he did, Garson never fit in neatly. He was born in Saint John, New Brunswick but lived most of his life in the United States. His synth of choice was a Moog, despite the fact that he lived in San Francisco where the pervading school of thought at the time was very much against the synth’s piano-style keyboard, opting instead for the waveshapers and low pass gate exemplified by Don Buchla’s eponymous machines. Like his contemporary and fellow expat Bruce Haack, Garson studied at Julliard and even had a hit on his hands in the early 1960s after writing Ruby and The Romantics’ “Our Day Will Come.” Yet he never quite had a home in pop music. Garson did find a niche where he could in writing novelty songs, guided by his love for the conceptual.
I spoke to Garson’s daughter, Day Darmet, for a feature that addressed Plantasia and its influence earlier this year for The Walrus, though those passages ended up getting cut from the final piece. Darmet’s insights into her father’s work are admittedly limited, as she was still a teenager when he wrote and recorded most of his work, but she does recall how the Moog changed him. Garson was working as a songwriter, conductor and arranger when he discovered the synth. For a classically trained composer, the familiarity of the Moog’s keyboard and controls was an open door to discovering the worlds of sound it contained.
“[Music] was a constant source of conversation just from being around him. He was consistently either writing, playing or at the very least tapping his finger to a song inside his head,” Darmet recalls. Having the Moog around gave him an unprecedented immediacy for writing and recording his ideas. For someone who was used to conducting orchestras, he now had one at his fingertips. “He could write inside his head and he could hear it back right away,” Darmet explains.
As it turned out, prior to his introduction with the Moog, Garson was looking for a way to inspire such a fundamental change in his work. “It had been a long time before he had an option to get out of commercialism and go into something that was more artistically motivating for him,” Darmet says, explaining that the synthesizer was liberating for him and his art for a myriad of reasons. “It was not conventional, it was something that was relatively undiscovered, and that allowed him to make music in a different way.”
Black Mass then is the sound of Garson embracing his anti-commercial side in the most anti way possible: a synthesizer-based album inspired by Satanism and the occult. A “black mass” is a fitting theme for Garson to explore at this stage in his artistry as it represents an inversion or perversion of one of the main pillars of the Catholic faith—essentially going against the grain. His alias, Lucifer, also shares that same contrary nature, acting as a foil to God himself. In that sense, by exploring these themes this record is wholly a rejection of Garson’s own commercial work, making it perhaps the most “Mort Garson” album he ever made. “It didn’t matter to him if it sold, if someone listened. It just had to be produced. It had to be made. It had to come out,” Darmet reveals.
As writer Sarah Jaffe points out, the connection between esoteric wisdom, the occult, and anti-capitalist beliefs is a longstanding one, and a growing stream of scholarly exploration given the recent revival of practices like tarot card reading (which Garson would later explore in full on 1975’s Ataraxia: The Unexplained. “The emerging proletariat had to be trained to defer gratification; to stifle desire; to value accumulation over expenditure,” Jaffe writes for Verso.“A belief in magic, instead, centered desires—and their fulfillment—communal and personal, for care and sustenance and protection.”
Black Mass begins with an invocation of the pentagram, or “Solomon’s Ring,” with fluttering notes that trill and bloom into an intensely percussive seance. Its driving beat and beguiling melody summon forth streaming synths that pan and howl before dissipating once more. The song establishes a dark mood that hangs over the entire record.
“Incubus” wanders insatiably before pitched-up moans materialize (perhaps taken from Garson’s other 1971 project, Music For Sensuous Lovers), while the title track “Black Mass” features disembodied synths and bells that announce the presence of a wildly gesturing, bright melody of mania. “Exorcism” is much more buoyant than the iconic creepfest performance Linda Blair would deliver two years later in the William Friedkin classic, The Exorcist. While the material on Black Mass isn’t purely purgatory, with lighter passages throughout that sound to a contemporary ear less demonic than the high drama typically associated with “horror synth,” they make the record all the more unsettling. As the most talented metal and goth musicians would demonstrate later that decade, horror is just as much about camp and hyperbolic fancy as it is an enveloping darkness.
There’s plenty of that too—“The Evil Eye” might just mark the birth of dungeon synth with its moody, atmospheric, bubbling electronic sounds that drip like they’re in a dank cave. Its pensive melody advances with trepidation from room to room as if being watched. “Witch Trial” begins with a melody that would not sound out of place on Plantasia, but the order of the natural world that he evokes later on that album gets disturbed and thrown into an unpredictably tense climax here, with an insistent drum machine beat that foretells Bauhaus’ “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.” Finally, album closer “ESP” leans into the sinister for one last disorienting minute.
Electronic music has always had a close relationship to the macabre, dating back to the theremin’s use in sci-fi and horror scores of the 1940s and 50s, or as a more Canadian example, Myron Schaeffer’s use of his hamograph in the 1961 film The Mask. Garson’s sonic explorations on this record anticipate the specifically synth-heavy horror of Goblin, John Carpenter, and frequent David Cronenberg collaborator, Howard Shore.
At first impression, Black Mass may seem leagues away from the rest of Garson’s work. But if there’s any throughline in his discography it’s his ability to take on a concept—be it the signs of the zodiac, reinterpretations of the musical Hair, music for plants—and completely live in it to do it justice. While we know albums like The Zodiac: Cosmic Sounds and Plantasia were ideas pitched to Garson that he carried out thoughtfully, how he arrived at the concept for Black Mass is a little less clear, and perhaps will be illuminated by the liner notes in the album reissue Sacred Bones have slated for November 2020.
It’s a path that even eludes his daughter Darmet. “I don’t know how he conceptually got to those places. I have no idea,” she explains. “I think that anybody that pitched anything to him, he could write music for.” Garson’s mercurial aspect lies at the heart of his creativity, and it’s something he couldn’t truly express until he had a Moog in his hands.
Correction: An earlier version of this article described the west-coast school of synthesizer thought as “very much against voltage-controlled synthesizers” and also characterized a Buchla solely as a “mess of wires” when that was not a main distinguishing feature between that make and a Moog.