Horror-related and -inspired music remains a weird, wonderful, unpredictable mystery, no matter how adventuresome your tastes may run. There are the composers who create soundscapes and identifiable themes for our favorite monster. There are also artists old and new who are heavily influenced by the macabre, as well as those whose material shares thematic and tonal similarities with luminaries of the genre - filmmakers and artists and storytellers. And then there are acts that work those influences into their material in a less conspicuous way, or perhaps one less familiar or conventional - subliminally or subversively embodying the sense and spirit of horror.
For more than a decade, Mater Suspiria Vision has advertised its horror bona fides in songs, music videos, movies, artwork, collectibles and more, starting with a name inspired in part by Dario Argento. Starting in 2009, German founder and ringleader Cosmotropia de Xam developed a sound that combines slowed-down audio samples with syrupy, hallucinogenic electronic beats - chopped-and-screwed Houston hip-hop by way of demonic, dancefloor lullabies. (Imagine a trap version of Goblin’s “L’alba dei morti viventi” and you’re on the right track.) As a pivotal act for the idiosyncratic “Witch House” subgenre, de Xam (or CdX, as he likes to be called) has created volumes of material for a wide variety of formats - LP, CD, VHS, DVD, and even Betamax. Today, his particular collective and the genre as a whole remains an exhilarating, endlessly inventive, mostly underground movement whose combination of obscurity and prodigious creativity affords fans discovering it now a unique, thrilling and meaty opportunity for exploration.
FANGORIA recently spoke to CdX at length about the conception and development of Mater Suspiria Vision - as a musical group and artistic collective - as he celebrates ten years under its creative banner.
Talk about your initial inspiration for developing Mater Suspiria Vision. Are you just a big Dario Argento fan? Or of Goblin? Or of trap music and liked horror?
Cosmotropia de Xam: It all started around late 2009, when I founded Mater Suspiria Vision as a worldwide collective. Around early 2010 this Witch House movement started where Mater Suspiria Vision was one of the first acts within the Disaro [record label] fame. Around that time all the artists had their own "spooky" original sound but all was framed under the term Witch House. The early video collages and images I used at that time had a focus on 60s/70s bizarre obscure horror, giallo and sexploitation movies - I’ve been a fan of that kind of movies since the early/mid 90s - must have been around that time when Jess Franco's Vampyros Lesbos had a re-release on the German market [via the Crippled Dick Hot Wax label]. From then I discovered all these exploitation, giallo and horror stuff also within this era of Argento's work, and was also into soundtrack collecting from then onwards.
Do or did you have other favorite soundtracks, either for enjoyment or as an influence?
CdX: In the 90s there was more focus on that easy listening / jazz when they released soundtracks. I was always more into the more psychedelic/dark stuff like [Ennio] Morricone's Spasmo soundtrack for example, or the soundtracks for Jean Rollin's movies as well as the - from 90s point of view - "outdated" prog stuff like Goblin and Keith Emerson did for Argento movies. And Mater Suspiria Vision was thought of as a Youtube channel - that's where the “Vision” came from originally. And Mater Suspiria as an Argento tribute - originally it must have been Mater Suspiriorum but I preferred Suspiria for phonetic reasons and as a direct tribute to the 1977 movie.
What was the catalyst for your approach to that backmasked, syrupy, chopped-and-screwed sound? Were you a fan of actual chopped and screwed music? Or did your style run parallel to hip-hop?
CdX: I’d actually never heard of DJ Skrew when the movement started - so I was more the European way influenced with Daniele Baldelli and Beppe Loda and the whole Cosmic disco movement. The hip hop beats were like a direct thing coming from the contact with Disaro I guess. Seven days after Mater Suspiria Vision was founded he got in touch via Myspace through some videos I uploaded around that time - the music was more intended as a soundtrack to the images in the beginning. With Disaro I saw for the first time a certain context for all the stuff I liked - so when in contact with him, I actually started making music and became very fast member of the Disaro family, around mid-January 2010. “Exorcism of the Hippies,” which was released around mid-January 2010 was the first track where I heard people talking about a genre called Witch House. Some people called it drag or rape gaze but mainly it was called Witch House - I actually liked the term as for a non-native English speaker with an exploitation background it was less cheesy. The early Myspace page even played with the terms: “Influence: underground culture of Kabul, machine gun noise, Hansel and Gretel” was written there.
Did you always imagine it as a collective? Or how soon did that emerge - enlisting other people nearby and around the world?
CdX: The collective thing came very early as the late Myspace, early Facebook had lots of options for social networking. It was all so fresh to connect with other artists and it worked pretty well - so the first artist involved in the network was Shazzula from Belgium, then more artists were involved such as How I Quit Crack, Butterclock (she later teamed up with oOoOO), Scout Klas and Aura (this was the status quo till around September 2010) when the movie projects started. It was mainly a vibe of interest and over time there were more and "references," and it was quite easy to find people who wanted to be involved. The first movie project was via Shazzula, actually. I saw a friend of hers who looked like she was out of a Jean Rollin movie - it was Marina Dellamore. So I talked with Shazzula about the idea of doing a movie. She said, “we will be in Berlin next week, so if you want to shoot a movie let's try it!” And that was Surrealistica Uniferno, my first movie.
How easy did that make it to develop music and film projects concurrently? Were they always intertwined (meaning, when you created a sound you immediately had an idea for what the visuals would be, or would you share a piece of music and they would piggyback on it)?
CdX: When I shoot a movie it starts with collecting ideas - we never had a conventional script. I can tell more later about it, and in the end I create the soundtrack to the images - I heard from many people that the effect of image and sound is very strong, so I guess it's mainly coming from the workflow and being created completely out of one hand. Mainly, the original locations are like the motor and the connection point. Some locations still look the same (it's like using a time machine - a real mindfuck when you being there), and from then things mostly happen. It's like a ritual - magic is happening and as we are a small team, mostly just the camera + light + actors all is very intimate. With the use of digital cams you can often see how the magic looks on screen. This again is something the actors directly get - so all in all comparable to a ritual. We mostly don't have a plan to recreate certain scenes from the original movies, but also don't exclude the idea (like in Phantasmagoria 1 there is like a 1:1 tribute to the Blood-Spattered Bride) but mostly recreating is way too static.
Were there specific movies or tracks from early in your career where you were like, "this defines my sound," or things where you recognized you were on the right track creatively?
CdX: I guess there were some let's call it trademarks that defines a certain recognition of Mater Suspiria Vision quite early - like the harsh use of delay, moaning and screaming samples + pitch down elements, mainly defining the "Ghost Drone" side of MSV as well as the idea of pitching down rave and happy hardcore tracks bringing them in an ironic dark context with "Zombie Rave." Even with lyrics, it becomes a very ironic art form when being used with horror film collages - like Bon Jovi's “It's My Life” mashing up images of Romero's/Argento's "Dawn of the Dead," or Ace of Base's "All That She Wants" mashing up with the images of "The Fan" with Desiree Nosbusch. It's like playing with the past, morphing the past - very much a drug-like effect. Before the Witch House movement there was already Hypnagogic Pop which had similar ways, but most of it became later Vapor Wave in more commercial form.
Would you consider your visual output capital-F films? Music videos? Or does it depend on the length or content?
CdX: So mostly I see everything I'm involved in as a huge complex universe divided into 3 parts: (1) The music via Mater Suspiria Vision, Pwin Teaks, Drug Machine and several other side projects (I guess Discogs has listed them all); (2) The original movies - around 30+ now, mostly improvised and with a certain history background in terms of filming locations (such as Possession, Clockwork Orange, Vampyros Lesbos, Bloody Moon, David Lynch's Inland Empire) - discovering the filming locations and doing something new out of the spirit these places have; and (3) The Artwork (collages, cover art, etc.).
It feels like as active as you are creatively, your output feels sort of self-contained. Have you entertained the possibility, or attempted to make films that have wider distribution or theatrical runs? Or do they run in Germany, but don't run elsewhere?
CdX: It's always a pro and con with wider distribution. Within the movies I've made there are some which I would consider as more abstract and some more accessible as they are built on a certain narration (started with including narrative strings with Diabolique (2013) which was a huge success and had lots of screenings. Since everything is self-financed without any support or funding you have absolute freedom, and I think this and the use of unlimited material within filming digital allows that films can be more experimental than they were decades ago. So as everything is self-financed and self-distributed, it's good to have contact to the actual fans and you get direct feedback and there are no limitations on how you shoot the movie. On the other hand, of course, it would be nice to have a wider distribution - as far as I remember, we had the most screenings with Hollywood Necronomicon (a movie we shot in LA and SF when we had shows there in 2013), Diabolique and Phantasmagoria - around 40 screenings worldwide including Festivals, Cinemas and Clubs.
What about composing? A lot of electronic artists have migrated towards film scoring - creating these incredible musical soundscapes for horror films. Is that something that interests you, and/or have directors reached out to ask you for material?
CdX: I guess it depends on the material. Up till now there were a few directors who asked for licensing Mater Suspiria Vision tracks for their movies, mostly I'm quite critical with the material - I once licensed the “Book of Eibon” track for a Polish semi HC-Art Shortfilm as I liked how it fit in there. But until now I was never into doing compositions for other people's movies. But never say never - if I like the concept, I'm totally open for it.
How eager in general are you for broader recognition? Your output seems to consistently sustain you - do you enjoy or cultivate an almost cult-like popularity or how actively do you want more people to know your work?
CdX: The interesting thing is that Mater Suspiria Vision started with a huge hype - there was a lot of press interest within 2010 as one of the most interesting new things. But over the years it went more and more to an underground thing with a small but constant crowd of followers. For me, the most focused point is to realize (film) projects and their releases (with a strong focus on physical releases, as digital will vanish within the spheres of time and the quantity of it, I'm sure) and that people stand behind it. So I mainly focus on authenticity - with a wider audience it's easier to extend projects and build them up. But as long as it stays authentic, I'm in.
You release so many art projects - packaging of your albums, different formats, et cetera. Do you have an internal gauge that to you determines how these are created - what's a digital box set versus a cassette, perhaps - or how those choices complement the music or film that goes on them? Or is it purely intuitive?
CdX: I guess we come again to some ritual part, but this time the ritual part of collecting. Over the years and because of the early hype, we were able to release quite early vinyl releases (which are still the most expensive from the complete product range). As a long time vinyl, cassette, CD, VHS, Betamax, DVD and Blu-ray collector, I'm aware of what a collector likes, and what I like, so the product itself and its presentation is very important for me - the haptics, the process of ordering a strictly limited "holy grail," the play with the past. We released in 2017 the first Betamax in 20 years for Phantasmagoria - no factory is doing this anymore in 2017, so you have to copy them by hand, one by one. This is like a throwback to mail order times of the mid-80s to mid-90s and reminds me of how Jörg Buttgereit's Nekromantik (for example) was sold back in the late 80s, all copied by hand, xeroxed stickers etc. It's authenticity in packaging, something which digital streams cannot do. It's a history a physical item has. I mean how many people spent hours of time, reading a CD booklet, watching an LP cover or starring on a VHS sleeve when it was only available in rental stores back in the days - I guess that's something missing today, also within the retro hype, where you can buy Blu-rays in VHS boxes.
Are there specific (or general) creative endeavors that you haven't undertaken yet, but want to?
CdX: We once did a comic book with Sarah Horrocks - it was released super limited via Phantasma Books with a soundtrack to the comic book by Mater Suspiria Vision. The comic book was based on the universe of Mater Suspiria Vision and contains characters based on actresses. I would love to do more in that vein, since the name Cosmotropia de Xam is a tribute itself to a comic book from 1967 where Jean Rollin was involved called "Saga de Xam." I would be excited to do more comic books in the vintage psychedelic style; I am a huge fan of Guido Crepax’ works, as you can see in Phantasmagoria where the characters are built on / influenced by. Also I wish I had time to write a book on the universe of Mater Suspiria Vision and the movies or the history of Witch House, since I experienced it from the beginning. Also I once had the idea to release a video game based on the characters and the universe of Mater Suspiria Vision (maybe even in the style of the 80s or 90s). But I have no skills in programming nor found the right person for it. I love that "Clock Tower" game which was a tribute to Dario Argento's Phenomena - something like that would be cool with some 8- or 16-Bit score by Mater Suspiria Vision.
At this point, how much of a mystery do you want to be, or remain? You've been wonderfully forthcoming about your creative process, but also you work and communicate via a pseudonym. Does that mystique help you be more free or creative, or is it a fun exercise, or is it after a decade, more than anything, a habit?
CdX: Actually, most of the Witch House acts began with a hidden identity. I still like that, as the focus is on the universe I built not on the ego presentation of myself. Maybe it’s quite rare in today's selfie world, but I see my art as a selfie I want to present. So I’m still more than comfortable with how it is.
Visit Mater Suspiria Vision's online shop for music and film offerings.
Todd Gilchrist is a Los Angeles-based film critic and entertainment journalist with more than 20 years’ experience for dozens of print and online outlets, including Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, Birth.Movies.Death and Nerdist. An obsessive soundtrack collector, sneaker aficionado and member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, Todd currently lives in Silverlake, California with his amazing wife Julie, two cats Beatrix and Biscuit, and several thousand books, vinyl records and Blu-rays.