John Carpenter’s contribution to the music of cinema is staggering. It’s hard to think of any soundtrack or score, excepting perhaps the Exorcist’s use of ‘Tubular Bells’, that defines the primal chill of good horror as much as his minimal work on Halloween, where a simple four-note synth line ('da duh-duh da duh-duh dah dah') is as relentless and insistent as the unstoppable killer it accompanies. His analog synthscapes are simultaneously cold and warm. Listening in 2016 they manage to be inescapably retro while somehow still sounding like the future. His music can seem distant and dream-like, while still being innately cinematic, it’s these contradictions that make his work fascinating; surely only Vangelis has done as much to establish electronic music’s place in movie scoring, moving cinema away from the default of grand orchestral sweeps.
Carpenter’s first volume of Lost Themes delivered pretty much as expected, a set of watertight micro-scores, drenched in the vintage synths and nagging melodies that worked so well on Prince of Darkness and They Live. On this second release Carpenter and collaborators Cody Carpenter, his son, and composer Daniel Davies widen their pallet - big, thumping drums, spidery guitars, real strings - but are at their most effective when sticking to the template. It’s demonstrated perfectly on the opening ‘Distant Dream’, where a nagging, urgent keyboard line recalls classic Halloween-era Carpenter, until the creepy effect is undermined by some big, thumping power-drums that come off as more dated than retro. Its an ongoing problem across a record that is often enjoyable, but just as often frustrating.
Updating the formula isn’t in-itself an issue, it’s admirable and understandable, the problem is that those updates often feel clunky and weirdly dated. Carpenter’s core sound is eternal, but the sub-NIN guitars, big, splattering drums and swoony strings often sound weedy and unsatisfying alongside the analogue synths and washes. It’s the difference between being timeless, as the best of Carpenter’s work is, and being of-its-time. ‘Angels Asylum’ has the clatter and gated-momentum of early-Noughties Marilyn Manson, ‘Dark Blues’ (which really isn’t a blues) feels like an outcast from Guns N’Roses Chinese Democracy, and ‘Virtual Survivor’ is the soundtrack to a forgotten Sega Gamecube thriller. They commit the unpardonable sin of making Carpenter sound just a little naff.
Which is a shame, because at its best Lost Themes II is gorgeous, and true to its title allows your brain to conjure the imaginary films it soundtracks. ‘White Pulse’s 7/8 tubular bells riff nods to the great man’s best work, turning from chiller to frantic cop thriller, to a tangled piano breakdown. It’s a potted Carpenter film in four minutes. The gothy-as-hell ‘Bela Lugosi’ (obviously) is a textured rise through a twilight electronic heaven, while ‘Last Sunrise’ sounds like the final sobs of a dying robot. ‘Persia Rising’ is a disco massacre, channeling Giorgio Morodor in its pulsing bass, and the closing ‘Utopian Facade’ is a gigantic fantasy epic scored for and by a killer mechanoid army.
6Marc Burrows's Score