Monday, 9 February 2015

HORRIBLE NIGHTS - John Carpenter - Lost Themes

“It can be both great and bad to score over images, which is what I’m used to. Here there were no pressures ... It’s just fun.”
- John Carpenter [source]

You know John Carpenter. He needs no introduction, but he deserves one nevertheless. One of the most creative forces in the latter quarter of the 20th century in both film and music, John Carpenter scored and directed over 15 films between 1974's Dark Star and 2010's The Ward. His list of accomplishments during that span is significant. He helped defined the slasher film subgenre while simultaneously helping to define (along with Italian atmospheric prog masters Goblin), how music sounded in film for the next decade with but a single work: the classic 1978 film Halloween. He went on to direct and score some of the most iconic films of the 1980’s: They LiveBig Trouble in Little ChinaThe Thing and The Fog among other classics.

[Image source]
So what John Carpenter does today? According to recent interviews he plays video games and watches the NBA on TV. How's that for one of the most innovative musicians of the latter quarter of the 20th century? Well it seems the video games help fuel his creative fires. In between rounds of Borderlands 2 and Assassin's Creed: Unity, he would sneak off to his home studio to improvise an idea in sound.

'Lost Themes' is a deceptive title and I imagine it's intentionally so. It automatically makes one think that these songs are unused themes from his films, but that's not the case. Though he's had many a soundtrack album released from his films over the years this is in fact, his first standalone album of all-new original material. But that doesn't mean he's forgotten the lessons learned in his film work.

Carpenter improvises when scoring a film. He starts with a drone, adjusted for the mood of what's on screen. Then he adds layers of keyboards as he watches the scene in real time. For 'Lost Themes', Carpenter used much the same process, but he didn't have a picture reference to draw from and the result is apparently liberating. Carpenter is free from the constraints of narrative, budget and the limitations of special effects to imagine all-new scenes and then to score the hell out of them. 

[Image source]
Music can often "suggest" images. It's one of the great joys of listening to music, specifically that of the "horror synth" or "darkwave" subgenres which Carpenter basically created. On 'Lost Themes', the opposite is taking place. Imagination creates images which suggest music. The resulting album is unique within Carpenter's ouevre. While still filmic, the music is free to be more than accompaniment, it's free to be just what it is, music for music's sake.

The songs or "themes" are highly atmospheric, as always the songwriting process begins with a mood, which is turned into a drone. But rather than remain static for the duration of a scene, the compositions are free to wander around and tell entire short stories of their own within their 4 to 8 minute lengths. That means they're structured, though not rigidly so. Of course, the best moments on the album are the darkest in both tone and title, "Night" and "Obsidian" stand out as particular highlights, along with "Mystery" and "Abyss". If nothing else, how often do you see a 67-year old release one of the best electronic albums of the year?

The LP version will be released in March by Sacred Bones Records. The album proper stretches 47 minutes across 9 songs, but the iTunes download comes with a half hour’s worth of remixes, which is jarring, unnecessary and their entirely different tone (read, dancey) only serves to undermine the carefully laid fabric of the album. Stick to Carpenter and you'll do fine.

Rating: «««« / 5

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