“At the beginning, I was doing the music out of necessity, because we had no money. At some point, I realized that the scores became another voice, another way I could further what I was doing as a filmmaker. It became an extension of directing. Composing was a lot of extra work, but I kept going as long as I could stand it. Kind of like directing.” —John Carpenter
John Carpenter is best known for his horror and science fiction films of the 1970s and 1980s, and at a time when he was severely constrained by budgets for his independent films, he resorted to composing his own scores. He turned to the one instrument that he could get the most out of with his limited funding: the synthesizer, which could provide a wide range of sounds and moods. His simple, straightforward scores became another character and an additional element to the visual experience of a Carpenter film. For those who have enjoyed Carpenter’s films, the release of his album Lost Themes was exciting news.
The album features a trio of musical talent: Carpenter, his son Cody Carpenter (of the progressive rock band Ludrium), and Daniel Davies, who scored the recent Aaron Eckhart film I, Frankenstein (2014, dir. Stuart Beattie). All three have been equally credited with composition, performance, and engineering duties for each of the nine tracks.
Having enjoyed several of Carpenter’s films over the years—especially his early horror films—and after listening to Lost Themes several times, it is obvious that he drew heavily from some of his early films such as Dark Star (1974), Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Halloween (1978), The Fog (1980), Escape from New York (1981), and They Live (1988). As a fan of his compositions from those films, I was pleased that Carpenter revisited his musical roots and explored those “lost” themes with newer technology and the additional input from his son and Davies. Between the three of them, Carpenter’s music has become fuller and far more rich, but without losing the straightforward and clean compositions that I have come to expect.
Lost Themes commences with “Vortex,” which seems apropos given that the word is defined as a whirling mass that draws everything within reach into its center. Starting with a brief piano prelude, Carpenter’s familiar driven style of synthesizer develops into a hypnotic pounding beat and in the background, one can hear what sounds like wings fluttering. This song, and really the entire album, embodies the feel and tone of his early films; yet, with the layers of sounds and instruments incorporated, Carpenter’s music has taken on a degree of complexity that was missing before. Carpenter’s approach to music has aged and matured like vintage wine.
The second track, “Obsidian,” starts with light melodic notes that one might imagine refers to the shimmering golden specks in a piece of volcanic rock when the light hits it just right. There is a nod to science fiction with swirling synthesizer notes accompanied by a pounding beat. The tone slips into a darkness of piano notes only to explode into a cacophony of instruments—organ, electric guitar, bass, cymbals, and tambourines. It jars the listener from becoming complacent, which is not unlike watching a jump-cut in a film. I sensed Carpenter was making nods to Dark Star and The Fog here.
“Fallen” is similar to “Vortex,” however Carpenter experiments with a combination of hints of classical composition with classic horror and a touch of the demonic. It seems to unfold into a suburban dream state, lulling the listener into a perceived comfort only to jump-cut back into the horror, which was never far below the surface. The demonic synthesizer shifts into a higher pitch and a wavy instrumental voice. In the background, the tick-tock beat builds a rhythm with skips that begin to remind me of Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory painting in which time is distorted.
All four A-side tracks feel as though Carpenter explored and experimented with a specific core of notes. In “Domain,” the synthesizer falls into a repetitive cadence that is cyclical in nature. There is the feeling of moving upward as though toward some hopeful light. Here, Carpenter uses the synthesizer as a voice, calling out; thus the first side ends.
Carpenter leads the listener down a twisted, dark path as is evidenced by his selection of bold one-word titles: “Mystery,” “Abyss,” “Wraith,” “Purgatory,” and “Night.” While the synthesizer continues to loom large in all of the songs, in “Mystery,” he starts pulling in other instruments that deepen his explorations. On track five, he adds a percussive element in triangle and what sound like tubular bells that bellow big, round notes, resonating with the overwhelming heaviness that mystery brings.
“Abyss” and “Wraith” fall into an interesting harmony of harpsichord, echoed by an electric guitar and a liberal dose of synthesizer. The two songs crescendo into a primeval chaos, bringing together modern and classic horror. However, with “Purgatory,” Carpenter takes the meaning of the word to heart and starts the song at a slower pace. It provides a pause then brings the best of percussion, bass guitar, and synthesizer together again into a passage the reminds one of They Live.
Our lost journey concludes with “Night,” which harkens a haunting stillness in the last vestiges of the darkness. It feels like an ode to the last one standing—the one to come through alive and intact (hopefully for the most part, at least). As a slower paced song, it follows up “Purgatory” well with a lonely mood that both tracks successfully evoke. Clocking in at 3:39, it is the shortest track and ends abruptly, leaving me wishing the song and the album were longer.
I mentioned at the beginning of this review that I had listened to Lost Themes several times. Candidly, I was initially disappointed the first couple of times I listened through the album because I expected to hear a full symphonic sound as well as brand new and different themes. However, as I listened again (and again), the nuances of each song, the pacing, the instruments utilized, and encapsulating within the framework of each song title, I continued to find new appreciation. Each song is rich with an experience and maturity that Carpenter’s early scores would not have had during the 1970s and 1980s. As he admitted in the quote above, he was initially scoring music out of necessity, but in time found that his music provided another voice. That is how I interpreted Lost Themes: a character’s voice from an auditory film that we can visually compose in our own minds. With Lost Themes, John Carpenter has effectively created an incredible new world for his fans.
1. John Carpenter, Biography. IMDB. No date. Retrieved Here