Album Review: John Carpenter - Lost Themes

Album Reviews
01/26/2015
Gerrit Feenstra

This week, Sacred Bones invites a second filmmaker into their musical midst. Much like his label predecessor David Lynch, John Carpenter has influenced numerous generations across every genre with both his films and his music. Afrika Bambaataa sampled the Assault on Precinct 13 soundtrack on "Bambaataa's Theme". Chromatics paid homage on tracks like "Tick of the Clock". And since the early 80s, there are very few who work with electronic music of any sort that can say they've never obsessed over a John Carpenter record. Thus, it is exciting to see Sacred Bones releasing the first ever John Carpenter record made without an accompanying film with it, Lost Themes. Exactly how it sounds, Lost Themes is a collection of musical themes newly recorded by Carpenter himself for this collection. They take you all across the master's decades-worth of sonic exploration and can give the perfect soundtrack to any eerie night of your choosing. For fans of horror films and movie soundtracks alike, take a dive and let one of the true godfathers of the genre show you why he's still #1.

There's just something magical and mysterious about the way that Carpenter wrote his synthesizer-heavy dark disco grooves to fit every scene of his films perfectly. While he may be most remembered and cherished for his earlier work (Assault on Precinct 13, Escape From New York, Halloween), this aspect of Carpenter's creation followed him throughout his career. In Big Trouble In Little China, Kurt Russell's Jack Burton piles into town in an eighteen wheeler with the "Pork Chop Express" theme blaring, showing Carpenter going the direction of big hair 80's rock. Towards the end of the decade, They Live! did a bodysnatchers flick with a spastic rock flair, boasting all the treble-heavy synthetic drums you could ever ask for. For Carpenter, the film and the accompaniment always went hand in hand. One was never without the other - it almost seemed wrong or out of context to separate them.

Thus, hearing a record of literal Lost Themes from Carpenter is a bit surprising at first. These are the big, bombastic opening credits scenes, with the wide angles and the panoramic over a destitute city or the anxiety-inducing first person creeping around a haunted house or the rock and roll drifter piling into town on his Harley. In other words, it's very important to note that this record is not called Lost Chase Scenes, or Lost Mood Music for a Five Minute Scene Without Dialogue. Nope, these are the in-your-face overtures that make you beg to see the next scene. But as the driving cool of opener "Vortex" ends, you don't see a next scene. Rather, you get another theme, another Chapter 1, another sample platter - eight more of them, in fact.

This isn't a bad thing, though. Truthfully, a handful of the tracks offered here are some of the best themes Carpenter has ever written. The aforementioned "Vortex" is an Escape-type burner that builds tension from beginning to end. With heavy piano chords and a pounding bass drum, Carpenter takes you back to the early 80s in excellent fashion. The track sounds completely ageless. The album's closer "Night" exists on a similar plane. The endless synth arpeggios and dark overtones highlight the textures that have carried Carpenter's legacy forward the most. These two tracks are absolute necessities on this release - if nothing else, make sure to give both of these a listen to hear classic John Carpenter mixed and mastered into timeless perfection.

Elsewhere, you can hear the different chapters of Carpenter's journey throughout the record. First, tracks like "Obsidian" and "Fallen" get spooky. The synth bells on "Obsidian" sound like they come straight from the Halloween III soundtrack, mixing itching horror with other-worldliness, showing fear of the unknown more than fear of the horrific. The pulsing anxiety of "Fallen" could have fit in just fine on the soundtrack to The Fog, balancing a strong driving force with a definite consciousness of a strong dark power at hand. After "Fallen", the album's one truly dated point emerges with "Domain", which, to its credit is a totally badass arpeggiator and organ synth rock jam. But the cheesy haunted house theme music can be a bit much out of the blue. Thankfully, this break is only a single movement of the massive theme, and the track ends with a sweeping, melodious march that totally redeems the whole.

Later, tracks go more sci-fi. More synth bells show up on "Mystery" a la Prince of Darkness, but halfway through, a jarring synthesizer break speeds things up into lighter, more excitable territory. "Abyss" and "Wraith" are all Starman, with spacier oscillating synth textures and wider scope, mixing the spooky with the massive dark. The years definitely pass as the record goes on, but much like Carpenter's whole career, it all seems fitting and intentional. The focal point of the moment shifts with time, while the energy stays the same. It's all classic Carpenter stuff - I honestly wish there were a movie to go with each.

As great and as classic as "Vortex" and "Night" are, the real hidden gem on Lost Themes is "Purgatory". One strike from the end of the record, it is the softest offering to be found here, opening up with muted strings playing a somber mood that, quite honestly, doesn't feel like much of a theme at all. But as the melody passes from the strings to an eerie piano, the music fades and enters an echo of the first half, led by a cool piano and dry kit mix that grooves as hard as anything Carpenter has ever written. And when that synth and bass come in, there is nothing keeping that groove from coming alive in your speakers. It's a slow burn that mixes disco with all organic jazz in brilliant ways. Plus, Carpenter throws in the old Escape descending/ascending synthesizer creepers in there for the bridge - how can you not be in love. Here more than anywhere else on the record, it feels like Carpenter is writing in a totally modern context, and it sounds incredible.

John Carpenter's work exists best in the full spectrum of its experience, and that truth is not lost on Lost Themes. At times, the record can feel like half of a picture, but elsewhere it truly shows off the best of one of cinematic music's most honorable contributors. For exactly what it is, a selection of rarities and b-sides from the mind of a master, Lost Themes is a balanced and revealing collection.

Lost Themes is out this week on Sacred Bones. Grab it at your local record store on CD or vinyl. Pick it up digitally and get a bunch of remixes with it, from the likes of Zola Jesus, JG Thirlwell, and Blanck Mass. Also, you can dive further back into the Carpenter classics with the help of Death Waltz records, who have remastered and reissued the soundtracks to a number of his best films. In other Carpenter related news, you can catch a live scoring of Escape From New York at the SIFF Cinema Uptown on February 6, featuring Seattle's own Roladex. Grab tickets here.

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