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Opinion: Hayley Williams’s Simmer Trilogy Is A (New-Wave) Horror Masterpiece + New-wave horror music videos playlist

[DISCLAIMER: This article is an opinionated case study on a new subgenre of horror some critics and academics have coined as “new-wave horror”, but it can also fall under “elevated horror” or “post-horror”]

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Hayley Williams’s Petals for Armor album looks very different in 2022, two years after its release. Because of an overabundance of new acts, new releases and new avenues of distribution, albums nowadays have a “product lifecycle” that is much shorter than those of the past decades. However, albums like Petals, accompanied by critical support, a great narrative from the artists themselves, and a solid social media presence strategy behind them, can become timeless, both descriptors of our current culture and time capsule to be uncovered in later years. 

Petals for Armor, originally released as sequential EPs, (and later as a full album) now exists as a collection of fifteen videos put together in a playlist. In recent years, the rise of the “lyrics video,” or “visualizer” has ensured that even songs that are not promoted as singles get a story of their own (Now Now’s “Enda,” a video we have covered this month, is such an example, blurring the definition between visualizer and official music video). As such, it is practically ensured that fans get the immersive experience that they crave for, and that albums get to live on – at least until YouTube decides to change its algorithm or policies.

It feels almost redundant to say that Hayley Williams is an incredibly versatile musician, her output ranging from the emo-rock anthems characteristic of earlier Paramore albums to the “laughing in the face of darkness” attitude of the “After Laughter” album. Petals for Armor is her first-ever solo release, the first time she had stood on her own, but some of its DNA stems from “After Laughter.” Two of the singles from that album, “Hard Times” and “Rose Colored Boy” almost serve as prequels for Petals for Armor when closely inspected.

The in-your-face, hyperactive and colorful punch of “Hard Times” masks some dark lyrics about deep anxieties, while “Rose Colored Boy” hints at themes of rediscovery and reconnecting with your inner self. For “Simmer,” “Leave It Alone,” and “Cinnamon,” Williams reunites with Rose Colored Boy‘s director Warren Fu and creates a story of overcoming trauma which fits in a much greater context and is so cleverly put together that, in our opinion at least, it will brave the test of time and should be recognized as the horror masterpiece that it is.

What makes Hayley Williams’s Simmer trilogy a work of new-wave horror, and a stunning one at that? It is owned by Williams (although directed by Wu) and the threat depicted is mostly internal. The video and accompanying lyrics are thematically rich and teeming with savviness when it comes to adopting, while also subverting horror movie tropes. Williams’s character runs around in the woods under the full moon, hunted by a red light. A stunning transition from her visage to the sight of the moon masked by trees is accompanied by syncopated beats and a catchy bassline.

Williams had already proven herself as a master at working within clear musical boundaries, “limited” intervals and minimal instrumentation. This minimalism masks a rage and infernal anxiety that haunt her character as much as the more immediate threat to her life. Because she emanates white light, which would betray her position, she has to hide herself from her assailant behind trees. Most of the interludes see Williams singing behind such a tree, bathed in red light. The viewer follows her to an empty house, alluding to another horror movie staple, “the cabin in the woods.” The lyrics speak of control, mercy, and resistance, hinting at deep-rooted trauma.

The video’s second act takes place inside the house, starting off with yet another stunning shot of Williams obscured by moving shadows. The lyrics are much more overt, discussing valuing oneself, a “f***er” that is most likely the source of her trauma, motherhood, and a child needing protection (“nothing cuts like a mother”). The enemy, this time, takes the form of a masked entity, much more like a slasher movie villain. This act is filled with tension and peering behind corners. When the protagonist discovers an ointment next to a bunch of lit candles (a common witchcraft-related image) she, “wraps herself in petals for armor” and is finally able to face her assailant – who, in a cruel twist, is revealed to be…herself. 

This reveal is a powerful one and is one the album’s central themes – as well as a requirement for new-wave horror. A trauma survivor often feels like their own worst enemy, second-guessing becoming their second nature. That ointment used by Williams’s character is a narrative device for transformation, for finding the willpower and – yes, the well-directed rage required – to face your worst fears, your dark side, and move on.

“Simmer” is so poignant in that it depicts the despair a trauma survivor feels when looked at from a place of healing. The lyrics, “If I had seen my reflection/As something more precious/He would’ve never” speak not only of the anger felt directed at the person who was the abuser, but the grief of feeling like they let themselves down. As Stephen Chbosky says in his novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, We accept the love we think we deserve.” This takes the discussion of surviving trauma to a new place. Sadly, quite often the victim of abuse or trauma will blame themselves – but once a larger level of understanding is reached, there is the anguish that they did not love themselves enough to demand to be treated with love and respect. They may have noticed red flags in the beginning, but discounted them or were too quick to blame themselves because of a shattered self-image. Hindsight being 20/20, as they say, there is quite a lot to unload after leaving an abusive relationship – and Hayley Williams is spot on in depicting the experience of anger, grief, regret, and healing.

Leave It Alone,” the “sequel” to “Simmer,” feels entirely like a dream: Williams’s character is mid-transformation, shown through the motifs of the butterfly, the cocoon, and the creature’s thick claws. Depicting a shedding of the skin, this second part of the trilogy is far less about horror, more a surreal visualization of one’s inner truth and possible future. The dominant color is blue, as Williams appears dressed in witch-like garments and performs a strange ceremony, becoming centered. Subtle body-horror and a sense of loss, both the loss of one’s self and loved ones, seem to be the central themes. The song is not as immediately catchy as “Simmer,” but a more complex affair – the syncopated beats are joined by strings and low-key harmonies and crescendos which recall the brilliant Torres’s brilliant “Sprinter“.  As it is the second part in a trilogy, it’s perhaps doomed to be less analyzed and even less watched, having the fewest views out of all three videos. 

A far more personal work than “Simmer,” which was teeming with homages and iconic shots, Williams’s “blue dance” in “Leave it Alone” is noteworthy because of its slo-mo choreography and framing – the performer has always been a force of nature onstage, often moving around and engaging with the crowds. This short interpretive piece was a new side to her, cementing “Leave” as a contemplative music video, one almost entirely eschewing the horror aspects (coincidentally, a lot of new-wave horror films are “slow-burn” ones, in which the scary aspects are more often in the background, the camera movements slow, the pacing almost glacial, all in order to create a sense of being frozen in place).

The final part, “Cinnamon,” finds Williams’s character wrapped in bandages and rags, navigating the rooms and hallways of her home. The bandages are an apt motif for the amount of therapy trauma survivors are often forced to partake in, a good therapist providing them with the language and means to lead a better life. The ominous threat of home invasion is everywhere, and the danger again becomes external. This is seemingly more about a survivor being afraid to face other people, to be a part of a community post-recovery, afraid that others will look at her and only see damage. A snare drum provides a steady rhythm, and this time the instrumentation is more pronounced. There is the horror of “seeing things that aren’t there,” as Williams is now comfortable in her own home, “Home is where I’m feminine,” but is afraid of letting other people in. “I’m not lonely/ I am free/ But if I let you in/ You would never want to leave,” are incredibly moving and honest lyrics describing her state of mind.

The main conflict is, as such, a home-invasion scenario with a twist: the faceless people are hinted to be “remnants” of Williams’s former life instead of actual strangers, pieces of her stuck in time. The main message could be: don’t dwell on your past, but do try to reunite these past “pieces” into a coherent whole, do try to give your life meaning and context. This is more often one of the last stages of trauma recovery, and as Williams’s character recognizes the nature of the faceless people, the video finally ceases to be a work of horror and becomes a side of the new Hayley Williams: awake, bold, free, wildly creative.

Another interpretation of “Cinnamon,” is that the video paints a vivid portrait of the threat inside her home, within the walls where she felt safe. This alludes to a danger that had gone unnoticed, as Annie Wilkes may most aptly put it in the second season of “Castle Rock” when speaking of Ace Merrill, “He’s just the roach you can see – the rest are in the walls.” Surviving a trauma is an event in and of itself and “Cinnamon” takes us to a place past the healing process that we do not often see discussed. The healing seems to have happened, but how can you trust someone else to come into your life? You feel safe, you love yourself, you are free of the toxicity – but there is always the danger of those threats you cannot see, the roaches inside the walls. Abuse does not often come in a form that is recognizable the moment you set eyes on a person, and a partner can have manipulated the situation to make you feel you yourself were to blame for every mishap, and even had all your friends and family convinced of this as well. This often happens in a situation where the abusive partner is also the breadwinner, and this is used to manipulate the power dynamic of the relationship heavily in their favor. After living with such a person for years – how could we ever trust our own judgement again? How do you really know anyone? Are we even capable of trusting a person in that way again?

“Cinnamon” is so poignant to us for this reason. Having achieved a place of love and respect for ourselves, and a feeling of safety in your own home – the prospect of those roaches in the walls leaves us terrified. The monsters could (quite literally, in this video) come out of the woodwork at any moment. “I’m not lonely, I am free” is a huge achievement for anyone coming out of a toxic relationship. The most necessary moment in healing is when you learn to love yourself, and love being by yourself.

When everything is finally just right – you’ve made a home of your own and everything is just how you like it – how could you possibly trust someone enough to invite them into your life again, when you know there is always the possibility of the roaches you can’t see?

Other songs from Petals for Armor describe different aspects of Williams’s road to recovery, but the storyline of “Simmer,” “Leave It Alone,” and “Cinnamon,” is a complete one, one of the best statements of intent from an artist we’ve seen in recent times. “Roses/Lotus/Violet/Iris,” a collaboration between Williams and the band boygenius (Phoebe Bridgers, Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus) is a stunning interlude/side-story to the trilogy, and a highlight of the album: a shimmering production about not comparing yourself to others and echoing the fears of evolving.

There have been some beautiful analyses of Williams’s so-called “Rebirth” trilogy (this one and this one in particular), but we’ve tried to place it in the context of new-wave horror, a subgenre hinted at, but not quite entirely delineated by fans and critics. One aspect we haven’t covered yet is that we call new-wave horror has most definitely been also influenced by music, from witch-house to the wave of brilliant music videos directed by visionaries (think Purity Ring’s “Begin Again,” or FKA Twigs’s own body-horror releases). Indeed, the music industry was far ahead of the film industry when it came to horror stories. In the past decade alone, the aesthetics of art-pop (from Lady Gaga to Mitski) has flirted with horror motifs, and the dark, twisted sounds of artists like Twigs or Sevdaliza have defined new worlds that encapsulated horror. If the soundscape of new-wave horror cinema is still dominated by extreme synth manipulations akin to Ben Frost’s Venter, or booming noise a la Hans Zimmer/Christopher Nolan meant to induce fear, artists like Gazelle Twin, Twigs, or more recently, yeule, have surely paved the way when it comes to feeling afraid, but overcoming anxiety through art.

As such, we have compiled a playlist of 55 new-wave horror music videos. The themes predominant in new-wave horror are: racism, trauma, misogyny, motherhood, fear of aging, toxic masculinity, gaslighting, oppression, family, sisterhood, pregnancy, religion and witchcraft. Revenge can still be a theme if coupled with the depiction of abuse and sin. You’ll find most of themes represented in the videos in this playlist. Got any to add yourself? Please add your thoughts in the comment section.

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Featured image is analog photography by Ruth Jacobs

Reading/viewing material: Experimental Photo Festival

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