Posted on February 27th, 2015 (12:00 pm) by Matt LaBarbera

“Make it moody.” A slight twist on the classic modernist maxim, this is the stated goal of John Carpenter’s debut, standalone release, Lost Themes. The famed director of more than a handful of ‘80s classics (Halloween, They Live, Escape from New York, Big Trouble in Little China, etc.) is also regarded as something of synth pioneer, along with fellow contemporary soundtrack artists Vangelis and Goblin. Known for his mastery of tension and pacing, Carpenter returns to form with Lost Themes, a soundtrack without a film. These cuts are not lost in the sense that they are archival scraps and dregs, repainted and repackaged, but are nine themes in search of a film. Composed following the renewed interest in atmospheric horror synth (artists such as Umberto, Zombi, GosT, and the label Graveyard Calling, which releases on cassette for added nostalgia), Lost Themes both reconnects to Carpenter’s past works and identifies a path forward for him, free from the constraints of both ‘80s technology and the very images he used to cater to.

Just a cursory glance through the track listing will give you a good sense of what direction Carpenter is heading in. “Vortex,” “Abyss,” “Wraith,” and “Night” are not ambivalent titles, and each provides a central image or way of aligning oneself to the music. The opener, “Vortex,” for instance, in a self-referential gesture, pulls the listener in with an eerie, metallic scraping that elides into a somber piano line backed with a buzzy synth. This soon gives way to a reverbed guitar undergirded with plodding synth pads. On show is Carpenter’s ability to direct the focus and emotional state of his listeners. He can turn a stagnant phrase into a propulsive one and downshift again, all in the same breath. These sustained atmospheres that are ruptured by new, thundering lines of thought evoke the same sense of tension that made him a skilled director of horror and thriller.

The following track, “Obsidian,” continues along this aesthetic trajectory over its eight minutes. Turn a corner and you’re suddenly in a thick fog with shadows playing alongside your wandering. At the drop of a hat, it’s an organ-fueled graveyard chase scene with thick, rolling bass and gently squealing synths. It’s a thrilling song aimed at the sympathetic nervous system, and really demonstrates how effectively narrative can be conveyed through just sound, without any weighty verbiage or loaded images. These songs insist films be made to fit them. It's not shocking at all to learn that while his father was a professor of music, Carpenter did not actually receive any extensive musical training prior to scoring his films. His scores took the form of extended improvisations that molded themselves perfectly to the substance of the film, an exercise guided not through rigid composition, but a certain psychological tenor. Here we see the opposite of that process; these songs have already created the world, they’re just looking for something to populate it.

Typically, the cuts on Lost Themes depend a great deal on dynamic shift and nowhere is this more evident than in songs like “Mystery” or “Abyss.” Both start towards the ethereal edge of spectrum, inviting in an atmosphere of the uncanny, but shatter that aura of creepiness with wailing guitars or massive, abrasive synths. There is intensity and surprise built into each of these pieces, and those slight-of-hand shifts between registers are the largest contributors. Genuine suspense, in anything, is difficult to achieve, but Carpenter does great work in providing that anxiety, that icy chill of unknowing. The closing track, "Night," revels in this kind of fear by suggesting that any number of monsters might be lurking in its depths of ragged rhythm and spacey synth washes. Right up until the end, Lost Themes tries to keep its listeners on their toes, and it succeeds.

The sounds Carpenter utilizes should seem familiar to anyone who has seen his films, but his new setting, a nicely appointed home studio, and lack of creative restraints allow him to do so much more with the lonely decay of a plucked guitar or the sandpaper synths that mark the style. It's a wonderful demonstration that synthesizes what he has already done with what he could do. Of course, for any fan of Carpenter’s work, Lost Themes is surely to become something of an essential listen. After all, for those who fell in love with his scores, a chance to hear him at work untethered by a script, or actors, or producers is an opportunity to hear Carpenter at play. For one of the greatest conjurors of the ghoulish and spooky, Lost Themes is, “just fun,” and that playfulness and urge to create are evident throughout. Despite its crooked corridors and Dutch angles, this record is a straightforward and honest appeal to imagination. It’s a challenge to put on headphones, close your eyes, and direct your own encounter with the abyss. It’s dark, and it’s moody, and it’s completely Carpenter.

Track List:

  1. Vortex
  2. Obsidian
  3. Fallen
  4. Domain
  5. Mystery
  6. Abyss
  7. Wraith
  8. Purgatory
  9. Night
John Carpenter - Lost Themes Review
Purchase at: Amazon | eMusic

Our Rating

85 / 100
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