Album Review: John Carpenter - Lost Themes II

Album Reviews
04/24/2016
Gerrit Feenstra

If there's one rule about horror movies, it's that you always leave enough of a loose end for a sequel, regardless of whether or not it ever happens. Sure enough, that's exactly what the master of horror and suspense cinema John Carpenter did on his first solo LP outing. Lost Themes, an album comprised of heady prog-rock goodness and composed alongside son Cody Carpenter, was a heart-pounding delight from beginning to end. Filled with the same kind of driving, moody compositions that have scored all of Carpenter's most beloved films (Halloween, Escape From New York, The Thing, Dark Star, etc.). It's just the kind of record you want to see a "2" slapped on the end of. And this week, we get just that, as Carpenter gives us Lost Themes II, out on Sacred Bones. With the sequel, Carpenter looks backwards and forwards, giving us not just a collection of like-sounding songs, but a real album, with plot arc and a payoff and everything. The original Lost Themes was a great idea - an album from a director who has never seen his musical creations apart from a screen pairing. But with the sequel, Carpenter falls in love with the latter, letting the score take boundless precedent, running wild into the darkness.

The above video is a live in studio performance of Lost Themes II lead single "Distant Dream". In it, Carpenter sticks out like a bit of a sore thumb. Looking like a more moody Giorgio Moroder, Carpenter hovers stoically over a synthesizer, glasses at the ready, while his band (including son Cody Carpenter and godson Daniel Davis) feels entirely apart, jamming out on the prog rock setup with all the high definition finesse of a canned performance. What's makes this video unique isn't any Reznor-esque darkwave freakout or explosive live reinterpretation - in fact, the studio version sounds almost identical. Rather, what makes this video incredible is the fact that this is John Carpenter playing in a six man band in a single room, and that's exactly what it's going to look like when he plays his first ever live tour later this year. Yes, John Carpenter is taking 40 years of music on the road for the first time ever, and he's playing it with the band you see on the screen in front of you.

It's this backdrop with which we approach the whole of the album Lost Themes II. For the first outing, Carpenter wanted to make an album with his son, focusing on music standing alone without film, exploring prog rock textures not dissimilar from those he's toyed with for his entire film and scoring career. Carpenter is a man known for his moods. Nothing quite captures the feeling of anxiety you get watching Assault on Precinct 13 or the chase scene thrills of Escape from New York. Similarly, nothing equates the horror of that Halloween piano theme or the sweat-soaked 80s action glee of the Big Trouble in Little China opening scene. In each of these, Carpenter does more than direct - with the music at his own pen, he gives you the fullness of a scene, emoted by nothing more than himself. He captures the fullness of the sensory experience. Restricting himself to a more singular medium, Lost Themes did much of this with a surprising amount of grace for an album that only thought as far as the end of the studio. But with Lost Themes II, Carpenter's focus and his intention has an incarnate purpose: the stage. Together with Cody and four other musicians, John will take these songs to the stage. He's not just writing themes here - rather, he's writing live music.

The focus gives Lost Themes II a sense of flesh and blood that far surpasses the original. While Lost Themes is notable its resilience and atmosphere, the movement through singular themes and from track to track can feel, at times, too spacey. It was evident that the medium of the record was designed to be the final resting place for this spooky menagerie. On the new record, even the slowest and most atmospheric of the numbers have enough continuity and drive to feel adequate for stage translation. This makes the record feel less like a soundtrack compilation and more like a prog rock album with some solidarity. From the heart-pounding introduction of "Distant Dream", side A moves through great rising action with "White Pulse" and "Persia Rising" before exploding into the milestone setpiece of "Angel's Asylum". In this way, you stop trying to pick reminiscences from Carpenter's compositions, and you start falling in love with the path from one track to the next. Side B opens with "Dark Blues", an explosive horror trip, before morphing into "Virtual Survivor", a neon-tinged 80s suspense driver that feels like the chase scene of your favorite movie. The action grows and explodes and resolves in fantastic form, ending with the truly captivating "Utopian Facade", whose string arrangements find Carpenter at his most epic. And yet, never once does Carpenter seem to reach past his spacial limitations on himself. Known for exuberant minimalism, influencing countless musicians with his cold, calculated synth experimentations, John still knows how to make less count for more, and he does it here even unto the very end. That being said, bonus track "Real Xeno" does show you how to make more count for more too.

With the Lost Themes series, it really just sounds like John Carpenter is having buckets of fun writing with his son Cody and with the band. After a full career making some of the greatest horror and action films known to man, he now gets a chance to make another sort of dream a reality: playing the mainstage at Primavera. An innovator to no end, John Carpenter continues to push forth into the darkness and try something new. With Lost Themes II, he improves on an idea started last year with an album of prog rock goodness that you could listen to over and over again, just trying to find more hints at the classic sounds that make him one of the most influential composers of our time. Here's hoping for Lost Themes III: Season of the Synth.

Lost Themes II is out now on Sacred Bones. Pick it up at your local record store on CD or limited colored vinyl. John Carpenter will tour (for the first time in his near 70 years on earth) in support of the record, stopping at the Paramount Theater on June 14. Grab tickets for this once in a lifetime event here.

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