, February 9th, 2015 16:00
John Carpenter presents a curious anomaly. Primarily known for contributing to the re-energisation of the horror film that took place during the 1970s and early 1980s, it could none the less be argued that it's as a musician that has influence has been the most widespread. Carpenter (occasionally with sound designer Alan Howarth) wrote and recorded a series of electronic scores for his own films – including Escape From New York, Assault On Precinct 13 and Halloween – which have arguably influenced aspiring artists more than the films themselves. While the majority of Carpenter's films are basically moderations on the horror and action film blueprint, in debt to the old masters of Hollywood from Howard Hawks to John Ford, and thus able to be seen as part of a stable narrative tradition, their soundtracks are so off-the-map that there are entire genres of music that simply wouldn't exist without them. The relatively recent revival in horror atmospherics from bands like Zombie and, erm, Zombie Zombie would be unthinkable without his music, and the genre of 'Outrun' (or 'Nightdrive', or whatever you want to call it) couldn't have happened without Carpenter's enormous influence on the computer game soundtracks of the 80s and 90s.
It's interesting how fresh his soundtracks still sound; eerie pulses and primitive whispering drum machines providing the perfect bedrock for Carpenter's tales of mayhem. Even when it's plain that Carpenter was perhaps not entirely proficient at playing the then new-fangled electronic instruments he used, his instinctive draw toward simplicity and nagging repetitive hooks won out and ensured he worked within a style that was always distinctively his. Indeed, so recognisable is Carpenter's trade mark sound that even the maestro himself, Ennio Morricone, for his soundtrack to the director's 1982 Arctic groo-fest, The Thing, turned in what is to all intents and purposes a pastiche - a piece of music more recognisable as being for a John Carpenter film than for having been created by the greatest of all movie composers.
So there were a lot of horror heads salivating when it was announced that Sacred Bones was to release an album of unheard Carpenter music. However Lost Themes is not a collection of previously unreleased outtakes from the director's golden age, nor is it a mysteriously lost album prepared in the great man's heyday, but rather a collection of brand new compositions put together by John Carpenter with his son, Cody, and Daniel Davies (lead singer and guitarist in Year Long Disaster, who have, perhaps worryingly, toured with the Foo Fighters and Velvet Revolver).
The results, though perhaps disappointing for those expecting a rehash of the minimal atmospherics of his classic soundtracks, are intriguing. Although it's never exactly clear who is doing the lion's share of the composing (Cody and John are both credited, with Cody's name first) these compositions sound like Carpenter's work, fleshed out and re-realised for a new century.
What it's important to remember when approaching Lost Themes is that Carpenter's musical style has not been frozen in ice since Escape From New York. His more recent films, such as Vampires and Ghosts Of Mars, have featured soundtracks that were far more guitar based and overtly 'rock' sounding. It's therefore not fair to grumble that this album doesn't just contain endless minimal synth arpeggios when Carpenter's been moving and growing as a musician for all these years. Having said that, 'Vortex', the first track unveiled off the album and its opening volley, is a bit misleading, being the most overtly Carpenter-esque thing here: A simple repetitive piano motif, an underlying electronic pulse and that repetitive, remorseless sense of dread that brings to mind Michael Myers slowly pursuing a barely clothed teen through a darkening neighbourhood. It's skin-pricklingly exciting - simultaneously familiar and brand new. You get the sense from some of the negative reviews the album has been receiving that a lot of people would have been happier it was simply nine variations on 'Vortex's relentless theme.
'Night', the final track on the album, follows the same pattern, giving the record a grimly understated finale in keeping with Carpenter's reputation for cryptic endings. But elsewhere the music is more colourful, more dense, and demonstrates a restless musical intelligence unwilling to be shackled to simple repeated motifs. Indeed, most of the tracks on Lost Themes are compositionally hyperactive, hopping between musical themes skilfully, and evoking a whole series of emotional reactions. In this respect the compositions are more like films in their own right, with strong narrative elements and a constant feeling of progression.
All this is not to say that there aren't some duff moments, and they happen mostly when the 80s-style guitars rear up and come riding into view. 'Obsidian' finds itself awash in a muddle of Ghosts Of Mars-style shredding and 'Domain' has a main riff more suitable to a countdown of American football scores than the tracking of a hooded stalker. The synths also sound a bit patchy when compared to the analogue fizz and heft of his early soundtracks. The beefy keyboards from Precinct 13 would certainly add a great deal of weight to the sinuous 'Wraith', which instead feels a little bit bleached out in their absence.
Some will doubtless wish that Lost Themes had more in common with Carpenter's legion of imitators; with the contrived-but-fun atmospherics of Giallo's Flame or Umberto, that have done so much to keep his work a relevant currency. However, apart from the clear influence of Goblin at several points in the album, the music of Lost Themes is radically different from that made by these later keepers of the flame. Carpenter doesn't share their passion for metronomic repetition – indicative of a keen fandom for Krautrock on behalf of his imitators. Rather his development of his themes is far more radical – some might call it forced – and this does leave to several alienating lurches in atmosphere.
What is readily apparent here, is that Carpenter is having fun. Freed from the need to score the action, he can merrily create it for himself, away from the more demanding discipline of direction. This is Carpenter, loaded up with digital technology and all the advantages it brings to spur-of-the-moment composition, simply enjoying himself and creating some mighty fine spooky wig-out music. It's an enjoyable, occasionally frustrating ride, and one that takes a few listens to sink in, even if its just to unburden yourself of your expectations.
And anyway there's nothing on it that's anywhere near as terrible as this...
Now that is scary.