Director’s cuts: John Carpenter, ‘Lost Themes III: Alive After Death’

‘Imaginary soundtrack music’ – creating a suite of pieces or score for a film that doesn’t exist – is not a new idea. In fact, it could almost be a genre in itself, and it’s hard to pin down its beginnings. Perhaps its seeds are in the vaults of library music (now the subject of much interest in its own right), cues and themes created by crack session musicians in all manner of styles to be married with appropriate visuals when needed. Or with composer-performers like Vangelis or Rick Wakeman, perhaps, dovetailing instrumental concept albums with actual soundtrack work.

In more recent years, bands such as Zombi or Symmetry have made the influence of film music on their work more explicit – particularly in their creation of tension and eerie atmosphere. To my sometimes bewildered but often bewitched ear, I find this all seems to come together in the resurgence of folk horror and the music surrounding it. Whether it’s pulsing electronica designed to conjure up ghosts of Italian slasher films, or winsome, acoustic harmonies telling you the Wicker Man is just over the ridge: the universes being built are full of delightful unease.

Some of this material is, appropriately enough, described as ‘hauntology’ – art and music that aims to evoke something of the bygone, a peculiar mix of the familiar, retro, cult and sinister. One of the most successful projects along these lines is Ghost Box – a record label whose major acts are primarily electronic, instrumental and somehow ‘analogue’. Often sporting deliberately prosaic and practical names that evoke institutions rather than bands – Belbury Poly, The Advisory Circle, The Focus Group – the acts on Ghost Box all subscribe to the label’s signature aesthetic. While variation has inevitably crept in over time, the house artwork style elegantly evokes old Penguin paperbacks, early audio-visual technology, or ancient maps and textbook diagrams, taking on almost runic properties, bathed in various retro tints.

Belbury Poly, ‘Summer Round’

It seems odd to me that Ghost Box is the immediate reference point I reach for when listening to the music of John Carpenter – yes, that John Carpenter, far more widely-known as a maverick film director associated with a fistful of 70s and 80s cult movies, than a musician. Ghost Box is a deserted village, a swinging inn sign, the airwaves after closedown, the past. Carpenter on screen is US suburbia, cold, bloody, harsh, uncompromising, the future. But as a composer, something else seeps out around the edges, and here we are.

Simplifying Carpenter is, if you will, a grave mistake. He is most often associated with the horror genre (which, as we’ll see, he wholeheartedly embraces), but I believe what really fires him up is suspense. A look at his filmography shows him circling through chillers, science fiction, action-adventure, often with lashings of comedy thrown in, but most with a healthy level of nerve-shredding tension. Also, scoring his own movies dates back to his early career when he multi-tasked to save money. The sleek, economical lines of early synthesised electronic music must have appealed to him greatly.

Opening credits of ‘Halloween’ (1978), music by John Carpenter

…As they must do now. Retired from directing (as far as I know), music has become Carpenter’s full-time second career. The first two ‘Lost Themes’ albums came out in 2015 and 2016, and feature Carpenter’s current co-writers and working band, his son Cody Carpenter and godson Daniel Davies. The records lovingly reflect Carpenter’s own aesthetic: the typeface that of the distinctive ‘Halloween’ opening titles; short, austere track names (most were one word only on the first album, and two words on the second); released not through some major studio or soundtrack label, but underground US indie Sacred Bones. The next record, ‘Anthology’, strayed from the formula, with the group re-recording Carpenter’s famous actual movie themes in a fan’s dream of a ‘greatest-hits’ collection. While the originals often have that cogs-and-gears quality of being hewn bodily from new-fangled machines, there was a surge of exhilaration on hearing them dusted down and re-fashioned by this fearsome family unit. Crucially, they applied all the modern resources, but did not try to ‘update’ the sound of the themes themselves. They are glories, but past glories.

Which brings us to the long-awaited ‘Lost Themes III’. The first in the series to carry a subtitle, we may have something approaching a concept album this time, as a number of the instrumentals reference familiar creatures who haven’t gone quietly: ghosts, vampires, the undead.

The opening, title track ‘Alive After Death’ lays the groundwork. Gradually building up synth pulses around a circular central figure in a steady, but irregular, time signature, we pass through three of the track’s four minutes before the unholy resurrection: a searing guitar solo cuts through the mix, bringing our unseen monster to life.

This is followed by the gripping ‘Weeping Ghost’, which introduces one of my favourite features of the record. Here the insistent beat is in command from the outset, but before long we hear more organic acoustic touches, here a cymbal but mainly piano. Despite valiantly carrying sections of the track, the piano is ultimately overwhelmed by the electronic, synthesised sounds, which of course do not sound like any specific acoustic or orchestral instrument. It’s the perfect audio expression of the otherworldly conquering the earthly. ‘Skeleton’ (an early single from the album) could be a companion track, with its shifting, uneasy piano chords cradled by bubbling synth chords and an equally insistent bass drum. The ominous pace notwithstanding, the track is one of the brighter moments on the album, a glossy keyboard sheen bringing out an almost-friendly, 80s-rather-than-70s vibe.

John Carpenter, ‘Skeleton’

The more you listen, the more some of the pieces seem to play off each other, or fall into natural pairs or groups. For example, the fourth track ‘Dead Eyes’ matches eerie chimes with a synth choir before the piano introduces a near-blues element, and guitar a hint of metal. Later on, ‘The Dead Walk’ – a more urgent number, barrelling along on train-track hi-hat and pounding bass drum, brings back choral harmonies, piano and guitar but cranked up to 11 – as if what had previously just opened its eyes was now on the march. Once again, the ‘human’ piano falls prey to the electronic undead, who by the last third of the track, are surrounding you in all corners of your headphones.

‘Vampire’s Touch’ and ‘Cemetery’ form the centrepiece of the album. The sequencing feels particularly important here, as at the point of no return (the absolute centre of the record, straddling the end of side 1 and start of side 2 in old money)… we hear the most jittery, agitated and spooked arrangements. The climactic moments of ‘Vampire’s Touch’ flirt with the unhinged, the dangerously-high heart-rate emphasised by the guitar-ghoul relentlessly closing in. ‘Cemetery’ is literally the flip-side. Here, long sustained notes and chords seem barely able to contain the restless activity stealthily rising beneath the (earth’s?) surface.

Carpenter is clearly having fun with these titles (“This is a delicate, gorgeous track – wonder what it’s called? Ah. ‘Dripping Blood’”) but they are perfectly apt for the twin emotions the album is likely to provoke: a genuine sense of occasional unease – dare you listen in the dark? – with a pleasurable nostalgia for a certain era of electronica, or horror, or (if you’re like me) both.

AA

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