John Carpenter's Lost Themes
An eclectic voyage into synthesised landscapes of pervasive texture
I don’t think it is at all surprising that cult auteur filmmaker John Carpenter has taken a side-slant from genre movies to create an album of mean and moody synth-heavy music. In fact, the shocker really should be that this new release, intriguingly titled Lost Themes, wasn’t unleashed a long time ago.
Heavily in demand to score videogames, a medium that he is wildly passionate about, Carpenter did not even provide the music for his last feature film, 2010’s The Ward, passing that honour to Mark Kilian, who clearly tackled the psycho-chiller in a similar style. And, barring some work on a few barely seen shorts, and forever being quizzed on the remake situation of his classics, his fans haven’t heard all that much from him.
Until now, that is.
The filmmaker has always insisted that he only did his own scores because he came cheaper and quicker than anybody else.
This is surely something of a jest. He loves music and it is a fact that his inimitable classic run of movies would have only half their fantastical aura if they weren’t branded with the sound of Carpenter’s synthesisers, so inextricably enmeshed into the fabric of Snake Plissken, those Fog-enshrouded ghosts, that besieged police precinct and the slasher-stalked streets of Haddonfield, are they.
Therefore, part of the undeniable appeal of John Carpenter is his talent for creating atmospheric and memorable synthesised music. His own heritage – his father was a jazz musician and music teacher who persevered with mentoring the young JC with piano and violin – and his interests in rock music, Heavy Metal and R&B lent him a fine ear for singular, pounding rhythm, gritty urban raunch and infernally catchy riffs, and his visionary filmmaking style provided the perfect outlet for such hypnotic material during a decade when the orchestral might of Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams seemed to go unchallenged.
When record label Sacred Bones approached him with a view to possibly obtaining an unused score, if he had one that needed dusting-down and airing, they were unbelievably fortunate to find him already in the throes of writing and producing new music for his own pleasure. Thus, this opportunity provided the perfect showcase for what Big John had been up to after directing the excessive Masters of Horror episode Pro-Life and The Ward, and helping to get the long-gestating Escape From New York remake off the ground. Besides playing videogames, of course.
Although the title of this release hints that we may in store for some alternate takes on his classic themes, or even some tracks that were omitted from his scores, all of the material here is new. Working with his son Cody and his godson Daniel Davies (the son of The Kinks’ Ray Davies, no less) he has taken what became the trademark electronic minimalism of his film-scoring and run with it through a spiral of creativity. Heavy, thickly brewed and thunderous themes provide the main thrust of each track, but he ensures that all manner of colourful abstraction, techno deviations and synth asides tumble around them. Essentially, he wanted to have fun. But what started out as a family jamming session of inventive improvisation now stands as a vibrant and exciting example of What John Did Next.
After his spellbinding, highly effective and cult-potent keyboard doodling for the likes of Assault on Precinct 13, The Fog and Escape from New York, Carpenter found dazzling embellishment from his collaboration with long-time associate Alan Howarth. Confessing that he never understood how to mix or layer multi-channels, or even grasp the rudimentary technicalities of programming a synth, this team-up was the essential evolution that he needed to propel his unique soundscapes into ever-more diverse, richer and more colourful realms. His influence has been far-reaching, of course.
Just those three film scores have become indelibly woven into the cultural fabric, having been sampled and riffed upon by many artists from Dance, Trance, Rock, Garage, Grunge and R&B. That fabulously phat bass-line from Assault, especially, ranks as one of the most immediately vibrant and aggressive, most recognisable and redolently anti-authoritarian of counter-cultural anthems. The irrefutably cool rage at its heart will simply never wither, nor age. Many films and, essentially, their scores have unashamedly referenced him. Both Adam Wingard’s The Guest (with Wingard and his Downton Abbey star, Dan Stevens, professing adoration for Carpenter) and Jim Mickle’s Cold in July being prime recent examples.
The pure and undiluted bliss of combined dense electronica and top-tapping beat would seep into the pop ballads of OMD, The Human League and Depeche Mode, such an awesome verisimilitude of dynamics permeating right on up to The Chemical Brothers and Daft Punk. But even Geoff Barrow of Portishead admits the impression and longstanding effect that these powerful, metronomic themes have exerted over him. Something he explored more fully in his Drokk project from 2012. Composer Clint Mansell, amongst many other synth-exploiters, also claims to owe Carpenter a huge debt for the sheer inspiration that he brought.
And where would Hans Zimmer have been without John Carpenter bravely breaking conventions and forging new electronic paths for him to follow?
When quizzed about whether his passion for videogames played any part in the album’s creation, he replied, “No. Hell, no! This is music for the movies in your head; every track has its own imaginary narrative that plays out differently every time you hear it.” And this is precisely what he has concocted. Ambient adventures that are unique unto each and every listener. Nevertheless, there is something of a “concept” approach at play here. If a narrative were awarded this collection, whether from a singular voice or from a vicarious procession of embellishers, this would fit right alongside Wayne’s invasion odysseys or Wakeman’s Return to the Centre of the Earth. There might not be one unifying theme that bookends and reassures the album, but the vibe remains constant and the album plays excellently in one continuous aural story made up of nine emotional chapters, or revolutions.This is a special reward for those who adored the gleaming treat of the Dream’s LA theme for StreethawkWith track titles that deliberately give an evocative impression of what dark delights they may contain, it could be argued that some false assumptions are bound to be made. Indeed, despite the glowering and brooding auras conjured up by names such as Mystery, Wraith and Abyss, the persistent mood is rather more upbeat and euphoric, and steadfastly non-fatalistic. Each track convolutes, mutates and evolves whereas the cues that made Carpenter so revered as a composer tended to be devoutly steady and iron-fisted in their resolve to either unsettle or embolden. No such bogeymen or anti-heroes trespass this collection.
There is much here that is reminiscent of 70s prog-rock and the experimental synth vocabulary of Tangerine Dream and Vangelis, even the more simplistic and playful resonances of Kraftwerk. Much seems to have made of this album having a dark feel, as if this is some kind of soundtrack to our nightmares. Well, I think this is a chunk of false propaganda because, despite how moody and exciting some of this is, there is absurdly little that could be perceived as being in the vogue of typical Carpenter fright tactics. There is experimental New Age material, with wailing wind and gushing water effects, as well as the more expected jolts and stingers and SF shenanigans. But really this is the sort of warped musical mirage that would emerge if Keith Emerson stumbled into Rick Wakeman and they both then bumped into Jeff Wayne.
In some areas, the music reaches a level of operatic flamboyance. In others, it is a distillation of tones and a stampede of syncopation. Pitch-wavering Sci-Fi blends with vintage Italian splatter-synth. Sometimes it is like an infernally catchy riff-combo of Carpenter and Goblin entwined – and this is where the album totally succeeds. At once a throwback to the unusual sound-designs of rock and electronica merged, and an entertaining deluge of fuzzy repetition. There is an essence of 80’s TV show pizzazz at work also. And this is a special reward for those who adored the gleaming treat of the Dream’s LA theme for Streethawk. The synthscape conjured here covers all bases, it appears. The old and the new. The sparse and the complex.
But the big difference between these tracks and the music that Carpenter composed for his movies is that although these contain that all-important pulsating rhythm and relentless momentum that we know and love, they are like engorged suites rather than perfectly established set-pieces. Engulfed and swollen with flourishes, tonal changes and collisions of synth, guitar and piano, you can hear and feel the diversely impressionistic mood-swings that filter the incessant beat through various passages of melodic, trance-inducing fugue into determined “movements” that are dementedly anti-classical in intent and execution.
He clearly didn’t want to just recapture those revered themes and simply give them a new spin. They are already out there, glorious and enduring. If need be, let Alan Howarth remix and re-record them – as he has been doing, in fact. This project enabled him to cut loose and not be tied to the imagery he had created for the screen. The music here does not, therefore, follow an eye-patched anti-hero through a hellish urban nightmare, or a supernatural William Shatner-masked killer on a rampage. There are no protagonists under siege from street-gangs or possessed demon-acolytes.
Threat and jeopardy are more randomly formulated and delivered, and frequently they are bested by awe. His biggest, most colourful and lush scores have always been those he created for Big Trouble in Little China and Prince of Darkness, the thematic richness and multi-layered density of which are the foundation stones of this project. So, the simple staccato style beat of the likes of Assault and Halloween are not permitted to hold sway here, and are swiftly submerged with further expressions and melodic meanderings that swoop and dive around the central locomotive themes with admirable dexterity and panache.
It should be mentioned that the engineering of the album from the two Carpenters and Daniel Davies is absolutely sublime. Carpenter’s scores have always benefitted from alarming depth and clarity and a profound stereo separation – I am still wowed by the round-the-houses swirl of the 69th Street Bridge cue on Escape - and these tracks here all exhibit such acoustic athleticism.
The best track, for me, and probably the one that most captures the spirit of those ultra-cool and hypnotic classic Carpenter themes is the very first one on the album, Vortex. This is tremendous stuff. At once vintage in its allegiance and extremely evocative in purpose.
There is the gentle, insidious and hi-tech oscillation of Halloween III and the prowling aggression of electric guitar from They Live. Piano notes capture the melancholy of the terror that Michael Myers brought to Haddonfield. Demonic electro-whooshes come straight out of Prince of Darkness. The beat is pure and irresistible. It feels macho and unstoppable, yet striated with an almost clinical clarity. Paul Leonard-Morgan’s impressive score for Dredd has much the same distinction and that, of course, was a bruised love-letter to Carpenter in the first place.
With this track welcoming you in, you really think that you are coming in for a pure, prime-time Carpenter cavalcade of dark and glowering might. But this is not strictly what he has in store for us. There is little herein that actually sounds like it hailed from a horror film. In fact, the music he has fashioned for Lost Themes, which he says stems mainly from improvised jamming, refuses to be pigeonholed. Which is a good thing, of course, as it reveals the composer’s courage at tackling this newfound level of freedom.
Then again, the more you listen to this album – and it is certainly a grower – the more familiar elements you can discern in other tracks.
The second suite, Obsidian, is a powerhouse of a track. There is a recurring two-note motif that always reminds me of the Martian Uuu-laa phrase from Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds. The beat is fast and dynamic, rhythmically relentless. Guitars punctuate its higher squalls. The pace halts into a miasma during a glowering mid-section that then caters for an eerie piano-led passage that sounds a little reminiscent of Charles Bernstein’s score for the first and best Nightmare on Elm Street.
This phrase then dives headlong into Claudio Simonetti territory, wangling, warbling synth sizzles and wobbles as though performed by some energetically demented church organist, before the beat from the opening returns, intense and throbbing. The guitars reappear, the piece now pounding away with furious percussion backup. Another queasy lull trips us up before Carpenter then runs for the finish line with the theme proudly striking up once more. This faltering style keeps you on your toes.
In Fallen, Carpenter provides what amounts to two tracks that mesh somewhere in the middle. In the first, there is a steady beat that sounds like a plank of staunch oak being thrummed like a ruler over the edge of a giant’s desk. A glass piano gleams, a peculiarly exultant motif shining like crystal over the top of this. The most compelling half, however, is the second. Almost immediately the pace quickens, the developing beat organic and infectious. Guitars and synth rise in waves.
A secondary rhythm picks up, the synthesiser twisting and contorting whilst the beat continues to gather strength. Little spectral SF effects fizz and pop, like a fateful experiment gaining lightning-fuelled acceleration. But the rock-forged guitar keeps such eloquence grounded. This is like They Live’s Roddy Piper gritting his teeth and mocking the unfathomable alien sophistication he suddenly finds all around him, revealed by those incredible alien-exposing sunglasses. This is the primal sound of the everyman clashing with the remorseless approach and dominance of technology. Spasmic jolts dance and dart, spiking the rush and goading it along. And then ... it is over ... Carpenter casually flipping the off button.
There’s a touch of the Lloyd Webbers about Domain, which is a glorious, over-the-top rock-opera of a track. Drums and guitars bounce alongside shining welters of synth. Shades of the Phantom surface and glide throughout this ebullient performance, the highlight of which is a percussive Suspiria-esque bridge that brings in the exotic twang of a mandolin, as well as finger-bells and chimes in a magically surreal circus of coiling, cavorting sound.
You can imagine some garish 80’s starlet being pulled this way and that across a neon-stippled stage, here by her demonic mentor and there by her mortal lover. Carpenter then takes the track speeding through a giddy slalom of racing rhythm for drums, jangling tambourine and sliding thematic electronica. Listen out for a snatch of John Harrison’s awesome Day of the Dead with a suddenly ominous synth lurch that echoes through the structure with barren treachery. Wonderful stuff that may take a couple of listens to really savour.
Mystery has a bewitching effervescence of diverse elements. There is that quasi-rock/ecclesiastical fervour, and a subtle hint or two of Spaghetti Western thrown in for good measure. This is set quite firmly in the vogue of experimental 70’s, early 80’s Euro-synth scoring. Some industrial groaning invades momentarily, lending an everything-including-the-kitchen-sink quality. There is also a splendidly gleaming transparency to the first section that shimmers with a cool, amphitheatre-like cadence. This is the realm of Jean Michel Jarre. Of the outlandishly avant-garde and the spectacular.
You can imagine the spectre-like figure of wispy-skulled Carpenter working at an array of keyboards before a huge and mesmerised audience, strobes and lasers igniting the show as he serenades the heavens. One phase emits an otherworldly warning whilst a guitar strains out a cloud-lacerating finale. This level of imagination and flair threatens to take such tracks far and away from the familiar Carpenter sound, which is something that he was probably very conscious of achieving.
The SF church effect continues in Abyss. Electro-plucking provides a delicate dance across a wave of sea-shell echoes until Carpenter becomes the spectral high priest presiding over a subterranean congregation for another mid-section phase of tonal climb-down. There is even a swelling effect not unlike some wailing robotic choir. These central sections of abstraction, often perpetrated throughout these tracks, act as time-outs.
Little breathers before he hurls us aboard another driving shovel of glorious, fizzing, whirligig Sturm und Drang. The momentum during this final chapter of Abyss is recognisable from several prior scores, although bent into an entirely fresh new configuration. Again, there is a nostalgic quality that weaves indelibly within an advancing storm-cloud of unstoppable, supremely addictive energy. The beat, here augmented with guitar, is enjoyably gritty. The finale reminds of the dreamy warnings of Prince of Darkness.
With Wraith, Carpenter lightens the tone and the pace. This enters the landscape of ambience, spectral clouds and trance and happily gads about for a spell of popping pulsations, sparky keyboard noodlings and waspish synth flutterings. When the guitars come in, the affair become agitated and incinerated with scorching rock anguish, however. Incendiary meditation.
Don’t be fooled by the lulling first act of Purgatory. Drums and percussion take the baton from the gentle, glassy plateaus of synth and pensive, almost penitent approach and jam along in martial intimacy with electro warbles and generator hoots and siren-calls flame-out and dazzle. If Vortex carried unmistakable echoes of Halloween III, then Purgatory is Carpenter’s homage to Big Trouble in Little China. The rambunctious truck-rumbling fanfare from Jack Burton’s Pork-Chop Express can be heard blissfully trilling in the background. With the persona of King Kurt’s adventurous buffoon grinning through the quasi-mystical spangles, this second half is ribald, keen and cocksure. It is a synthesised smirk.
A patented beat of severely sexy insinuation propels the tremendous and endlessly repeatable Night. With its rolling, folding main theme and pitch-bending rafters of writhing, rubbery motion, this is the Carpenter sound at its most laconic and sensual. Filigrees of Vangelis occasionally flare and ignite like far-off slow-motion explosions, but this is a track of spellbinding grace. It is a sexual piece, erotically charged and compelling. A female voice would provide a haunting tease ... which, as we shall see, is precisely what happened when Carpenter allowed the track to be enhanced and remixed. This sounds like a final act of lovemaking atop a skyscraper as the world below melts into oblivion.this second half is ribald, keen and cocksureNow, if you opt to download Carpenter’s album from Amazon, you will be rewarded with six remixes from a selection of performers. (If you buy the hard copy from them, you will also receive this extended digital version.) However, most of these are not very good, if you ask me. Not very good at all and smack of nothing other than Zimmer-like pseudo collaborations that only really add up to a marketing ploy. Then again, if you are a completist – like me – then you simply have to have them, regardless.
Sadly only a couple of them really seem to add anything to the original tracks, and most sound grungy, irritating and just plain dreadful. But, this said, the Zola Jesus (also trumpeted by Sacred Bones) and Dean Hurley remix of Night, is something quite special indeed. Replete with provocative vocals, this interpretation is actually quite addictive in its own right and could easily climb the charts if released separately. That female voice, courtesy of Zola, works its mournful, yet arousing black magic.
You’ve just got to love that CD artwork. In stark, moodily lit black and white, John Carpenter’s cadaverous head is bizarrely split in two. His face and neck float above his own balding bonce, as though in orbit around a weird world haloed by a penumbra of ghostly pale flames, and all set against an impenetrably stygian backdrop.
CD Track Listing
Extra tracks available with Download Version
10.Night (Zola Jesus and Dean Hurley Remix)
11.Wraith (ohGr Remix)
12.Vortex (Silent Servant Remix)
13.Fallen (Blanck Mass Remix)
14.Abyss (JG Thirlwell Remix)
15.Fallen (Bill Kouligas Remix)
Carpenter Nails It!
Some fans might not find what John Carpenter has done with his Lost Themes as riveting as they had hoped. I will admit that I came into this anticipating hearing something that could stand alongside Assault, Halloween, The Fog and Escape at best, and certainly be up there with Trouble, Darkness and They Live at worst. Well, the final result lies somewhere between the two, and yet inarguably its own beast. After an opening belter, the album pretty much becomes an eclectic voyage into synthesised landscapes of pervasive texture rather than exemplifying the genre clout we know the director/composer is capable of. But, rewardingly, it does so with an ear always cocked towards the nostalgic allure of yesteryear whilst employing the freshest sounds that electronica can boast.
Carpenter has stated that he would like to produce more albums and, on the basis of this image-liberated foundation stone, this can only be a great thing. I can imagine his already unique voice finding greater resonance and independence from the visual medium with further instalments. Lost Themes was a spell devised to evoke movies in your mind, but I feel the experiment is only partially successful at doing so. The end result here is more akin to prog-rock concept than individually thematic character invention, although that is no bad thing. And, this said, the music is supremely addictive and definitely gets better the more you hear it.
John Carpenter is back... though not in a form you might have expected. Nevertheless, this is a very welcome return. This album deserves to do well. We need more.
Long Live John Carpenter.
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