Halloween has long been an opportunity for musicians to assume a new identity, whether taking the stage in costume or performing a cover set in character as another band. For some artists, though, costume and character are a year-round state of affairs. For some, donning a disguise seems to be a bit of tongue-in-cheek fun; for others, their artistic voices and personal identities depend on it.
The idea of a “stage costume” goes back to the ancient origins of live musical performance, but contemporary artists continue to find novel ways to incorporate it into their shows. The 12 acts below may share relatively little in common musically, but they’re all spiritual siblings, pushing the boundaries of how musicians can express themselves when they put on a mask.
BiS Kaidan is a collaboration between the J-pop idol group BiS and the long-running noise project Hijokaidan. The result is something akin to a Babymetal that’s more unsettling than adorable. The most disturbing part? The five young women in the band always perform in white schoolgirl uniforms, stained with blood and bearing cartoonish entrails.
Photograph of Buckethead by V’Ron.
To casual fans, Buckethead is probably best known as the most improbable member of Axl Rose’s Chinese Democracy-era traveling circus. His legions of devotees know him as a virtuosic solo guitarist, whose almost incomprehensible discography (264 LPs!) spans jazz, funk, metal, ambient music, and more. Oh, and he wears a Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket on his head.
Photograph of Fiend Without a Face by keri.
Brent Hinds of Mastodon has never been known as an especially serious man, but in his fun-as-hell surfabilly trio Fiend Without a Face, he aspires to a new level of goofiness. In Fiend, Hinds and his bandmates pull black pantyhose over their faces and don Shriner caps and Evel Knievel capes. It’s the kind of costume you wear for a Halloween party you didn’t know you were invited to until an hour before. Coincidentally, that pretty much nails the vibe of the band.
For the Swedish psych-folk band Goat, costuming is an act of obfuscation. They claim to hail from the small, and apparently witch-doctor-crazy, community of Korpilombolo, but openly refute that notion in their own press releases. They wear elaborate, beautiful garments and masks onstage that seem to belong to no culture in particular—perfect for their polyglot world-music symphonies.
When Haley Fohr (Circuit des Yeux) puts on her white jacket, white mask, and red cowboy hat, she doesn’t pretend she’s Jackie Lynn; she becomes her. Fohr’s Jackie is a master class in how a costume can create a character. This character happens to be a country singer (and possible cocaine trafficker) with a haunted voice, but Fohr’s commitment to the part transforms Lynn into a real person.
DOOM (a.k.a. MF DOOM) is the MC behind such modern classics as Madvillain’s Madvillainy and his own Operation: Doomsday, which makes it easy to take for granted how insane it is that he started rapping in a silver Dr. Doom mask back in the late ’90s. To this day, he remains a crucial point of tangency between nerd-rap and rap nerds.
Like many of his contemporaries, Nobunny comes from the Reatard/Segall school of lo-fi garage rock, but his white rabbit mask has created a cult of personality that sets him apart in the field. He’s like a drunk mall worker who gut suckered into playing the Easter Bunny when the original employee called in sick.
H.P. Lovecraft’s shadow looms over metal arguably more than that of any other literary figure, but precious few of the bands who take lyrical inspiration from him successfully evoke his prose. Portal are the great exception,—not just in their depraved, improvised death metal, but in their appearance. Shapeshifting vocalist The Curator has most recently been seen behind a black muslin veil, with long, gnarled tentacles where his fingers should be. Cthulhu fhtagn, indeed.
Bronx MC Prince Metropolis Known has collaborated with Kool Keith and credits Slick Rick for getting him into rap, making him the modern New York underground’s most direct link to true old-school hip hop. The luscious lion’s mane that he wears when he raps serves as a boast — I’m the king, it says, and this proves it.
As Prince Rama’s co-fronters, sisters Taraka and Nimai Larson make psychedelic new-age music that relies heavily on showmanship. Their costumes have changed over the years, but their current incarnation makes them look like ’80s glam metal versions of Power Rangers villains.
The noisy New York industrial musician Saran Man has easily the most fitting stage name of anyone on this list: He performs while completely mummified in clear plastic wrap. The danceable menace of his music makes it difficult to tell if the asphyxiation the costume implies is erotic or painful, but it makes for a powerful image either way.
Rightfully one of the most legendary heavy bands of all time, Sunn O))) have always smartly supplemented their louder-than-everything-else drone with a strong focus on theatrics. The hooded cloaks the band wears make them look like high priests of the amplifier, converting the masses one eardrum at a time. (Fittingly, the band considers the robes not costumes, but ritual ornaments.) And that’s without even mentioning Mayhem and sometime-Sunn vocalist Attila Csihar, who’s as likely to take the stage dressed as a polygon-draped Pinhead from Hellraiser as he is an anthropomorphic tree.