Like clockwork, we embrace horror as adolescents, when our impending adulthood forces us to contemplate mortality for the first time in our lives. Horror takes our unthinkable, deepest fears and makes them palatable, all the while perpetuating them. But although it enhances our appreciation for our lives, it gets little to no respect, because successful horror—shocking, larger than life, oddly funny, and without resolution—depends on an even balance. If any of these ingredients overshadows the others, the horror becomes novel, and it releases us from its clutches. Successful horror is a rare occurrence.
It was Dickie’s own playful desire to amuse, shock, and scare his early high school friends and classmates when he started the chain letter. Teen horror novels had become all the rage by 1988; they literally repositioned Stephen King-styled plotlines into a high school setting. One such novel told of a chain letter that circulated amongst a group of friends, where those who did not follow its ludicrous instructions ended up dead. As soon as Dickie learned of this book, he sacrificed an entire evening to engineer an elaborate letter of his own, initially targeting poor Amanda, the slightly undefined but fun-loving girl in his biology class who sought approval from everyone. The request was simple: she had to eat a miniscule sample from her frog dissection…or else.
Despite its billing as “Perfect for parties, haunted houses, or trick-or-treaters”, Quintron’s new record The Frog Tape has little to do with the clichés of Halloween. It actually shares more with that biology class chain letter dare: frogs, organs, and offbeat ideas that probably should never have come to fruition. But just as Dickie’s brilliant wording managed to convince Amanda to eat that tiny piece of frog skin, Quintron’s commitment to fulfilling his eccentricities as a musician somehow manages to make even the most ridiculous ideas work, if only for a moment.
On The Frog Tape, Mr. Quintron, an eccentric figure legendary in Chicago indie circles (now based in New Orleans), is an organist with a tape recorder. The antiquated sounds of the organ and the tape’s ability to manipulate them lend themselves to any number of post-modern ideas, including a variety of strange experiments on display here: an instrumental cover of “Stray Cat Strut”, re-envisioned as old-time theater intermission music; a one-minute snippet of distorted glottalling (“The Throat”) that sounds like a’50s B-movie frog/man hybrid attempting to swallow the microphone; a discordant number played while the volume control is rapidly twiddled to simulate the effect that it is being played backwards (“Backwards”), and a ghoulish cover of “Here Comes the Bride”, adequately renamed “Bride of Frankenstein”. Fleshed out by some original material of semi-notable interest, such as the bleepy “Horror”, the funereal “Mood”, and “Scary Office”, which is so upbeat that it’s cute, the record is mostly novel, something equally indebted to Dr. Demento and Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.
But after the gumption of releasing a collection of all this like-minded miscellany wears off, does The Frog Tape ever work as horror? Quintron does save the best for last—a 15-minute field recording of a chorus of frogs croaking in the night (“Frogs”) that becomes progressively more unsettling as each minute passes. The scariest bits develop after the first three minutes, when one frog starts calling out like a muffled, far-away scream. The remaining chorus then slowly seems to mutate into the incomprehensible chattering of little aliens or demons, plotting the downfall of mankind. When played in the right environment, whether in the dark or around any number of ranidaphobes, this part of the record might qualify as a success. But “Frogs” is sadly the part of the record in which Mr. Quintron is the least involved. And though you can hear traces of this field recording subtly underlying several of the other pieces, giving The Frog Tape an overall, respectable coherence, the ingredients never quite balance.
For the record, Amanda attempted to pass on Dickie’s chain letter to another unsuspecting friend, but the new recipient, while surprised, found it neither frightening nor funny. The novelty had worn off, and the letter passed into oblivion. Most likely, The Frog Tape will share the same destiny, which shouldn’t necessarily mean that Quintron’s ideas didn’t come from a respectable place.