By Nathan Hartley Maas (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Horror movie director John Carpenter has long earned his living by creating richly foreboding atmospheres and adventurous feelings. He’s done this with imagery, like the emotionless mask and body-language of the killer in Halloween, or the misty killer-ghosts riding the fog into town in The Fog. He also uses situations and storytelling to evoke those emotional tones, like the oppressive paranoia in The Thing, where the characters (and even the audience) don’t know who can be trusted or who has been possessed by the hostile alien life-form.
But Carpenter is also famous for making the music which has become trademarks for most of his films. The very dated sounds of his rhythmic, driving synth-rock somehow pull you into the world of the movie rather than driving you away with their classic 80s cheesiness. When you hear that music you know you’re about to embark on a scary adventure. You feel not only that strange forces are afoot, but that you’re ready to battle them.
John Carpenter’s soundtracks are already part of my regular rotation of instrumental music. So I was pretty glad when I discovered that he’d recently released a whole solo album of music, independent from any theatrical release. The album, titled Lost Themes, came out earlier this year. I got it from iTunes.
It’s a really fun album. Each track sounds like it should be accompanied by movie credits and frightening footage. They all follow a similar formula (introduce atmosphere with weird sounds and melody, bring in the rhythm, then increase the complexity and intensity until we reach a heart-pounding climax), but it’s a solid formula. You can ignore the details of the music and just enjoy the feelings it inspires, or you can sit back and study the progression and musical ideas like you would with any classical or jazz album.
Sets up the ambiance of a movie’s opening scene. Then moves into some piano-music that sounds like it belongs in Halo or some other modern video game, before plunging into the driving 80s thriller synth-pop.
A little more complex and mystical, but no less driving. The chime-melody helps to make this an eery bit of music.
More haunting chimes, with effects phasing in and out for variation. This track finally rolls into an evil 80s anthem-rock outro. This is one of the pieces that reaches full cinematic intensity.
Maybe the cheesiest and most fantastical track on the album. If this were for a movie it would have to be an animated, dark sword-and-sorcery flick.
Super-repetitive, this track creates pure atmosphere with little in the way of variation or progression.
The iTunes version of Lost Themes came with a few remixes by artists who I don’t recognize. I enjoy them well enough but somehow they feel even more dated than the originals. The remixes throw away the natural 80’s thriller style and replace it with the non-cinematic feeling of darker dance music from the 90s. They make me feel like I should be dancing with monsters, instead of battling them.
I was afraid that Carpenter might have retired, since he hasn’t made a film since 2010. But apparently he’s still been making movie-music, even if he hasn’t made a movie to go along with it.
-> Read Episode 2 of Movie-making Musicians: David Lynch and The Big Dream (2013)
About the Author
Matt Payne is a self-published author and electronic musician. He lives in Guelph, ON. You can see his work at http://www.pattmayne.com.