Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Music Review: LOST THEMES (2015, John Carpenter)

Stars:  5 of 5.
Publisher:  Sacred Bones Records.
Runtime:  Forty-seven minutes, fifty-three seconds.
Personnel:  John Carpenter, Cody Carpenter, Daniel Davies.

John Carpenter: the heir to Howard Hawks, an unrivaled enthusiast of "Albertus" font, the man who has most effectively used "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, and quite possibly the greatest genre director of all time.  I have sung his praises on many an occasion.  Carpenter (often and affectionately referred to as "Carpy" on this site) is not merely "The Master of Horror"–he is also the Maestro.  It's well known that he scored or co-scored the vast majority of his films with pulse-pounding vigor (that has inspired countless electronic musicians to this day), but less well known is the remainder of his musical oeuvre, much of which was rendered with the help of buddies Nick Castle and Tommy Lee Wallace under the flag of "The Coupe de Villes."  I've reviewed the Coupe de Villes' debut album, WAITING OUT THE EIGHTIES in two parts, here and here, as well as their contributions to the soundtracks of HALLOWEEN, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, and THE BOY WHO COULD FLY.

LOST THEMES is, quite obviously, not a Coupe de Villes album, but it is executed with the same unhindered passion, diligence, and privacy.  I mention privacy because I've come to believe that the hustle-bustle of a big-budget film set and the corporate entanglements therein have, over time, spoiled the joy of artistic creation for Mr. Carpenter.  However, with music, he can enter his inner sanctum and exercise the boundless powers of his imagination without unnecessary outside interference.  In a manner of speaking, this album represents the distillation of almost thirty years of artistic expression; each track brims with an élan vital, the force of feeling of a fully imagined feature-length film.  Close your eyes, lose yourself in the swirling sounds, and you're watching every film Carpy never made.  There's a reason this is entitled "LOST" THEMES.

Why, it's enough to force you to your knees like Charlton Heston at the end of PLANET OF THE APES, and scream (at the studio heads who made THE THING and BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA such ordeals for Carpy) "You maniacs!  We could have had all these films!  Ah, damn you!  Damn you all to hell!"

But enough psychoanalytical speculation and delusional wish fulfillment... onto the album itself!

#1.  Vortex
Runtime:  Four minutes, forty-five seconds.
Impressions:  This is the track they released in advance to whet the appetites of Carpenter fans, and it's a damn good one.  Immediately it launches us back in time, overwhelming with nostalgia...  the melancholy piano chords recall ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK; the synthy cannonade, PRINCE OF DARKNESS; the impish guitars, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA... but you can't go home again, and consequently it feels a little gloomier than your average Carpenter track.  But a dark power lurks in that gloom, persistent, threatening to rise to the surface...
Synopsis of the Fictitious, Not-Yet-Produced John Carpenter Film I Imagine While Listening to It:  VORTEX, the fourth film of his apocalypse trilogy (THE THING, PRINCE OF DARKNESS, IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS), a loose retelling of John Wyndham's unorthodox novel of extraterrestrial invasion, THE KRAKEN WAKES–set on an isolated sea base staffed by blue-collar, monster-slayin' heroes.  Starring Keith David, Peter Jason, and "Rowdy" Roddy Piper.

#2.  Obsidian
Runtime:  Eight minutes, twenty-four seconds.
Impressions:  Obsidian plays with several musical modes: one has more overtly pounding drums and a cosmic/heroic flavor (it feels sort of like UNDERWATER SUNLIGHT/OPTICAL RACE-era Tangerine Dream); one is darker and cheerfully macabre with tinkling arpeggios; one is thoughtful, with echoey, pensive piano; one is kickass Gothic with FOG-style cathedral organ and guitar riffs on rampage; one broods unrepentantly with percussive shakers and a wailing synth; and finally we return to the mode that began the piece.  Quite possibly my favorite track on the album.
Synopsis of the Fictitious, Not-Yet-Produced John Carpenter Film I Imagine While Listening to It:  OBSIDIAN ZONE, the story of cocksure coal miner (obviously, Kurt Russell) who accidentally forges a pathway to Lovecraftian terror and, along with his fellow miners, must use the tricks of the trade to destroy the creatures before they reach the surface.  Co-starring Yaphet Kotto, Harry Dean Stanton, and "Buck" Flower.

#3.  Fallen
Runtime:  Four minutes, forty-four seconds.
Impressions:  At the outset, this feels slightly more like a Jean-Michel Jarre track (think EQUINOX era) than a Carpenter one, but it's rather atmospheric and well-executed.  The mystery gives way to "gettin' shit done" guitar riffs out of VAMPIRES or IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, but it maintains a dark consistency.
Synopsis of the Fictitious, Not-Yet-Produced John Carpenter Film I Imagine While Listening to It:  In the far reaches of deep space, the leaders of a failing colony (Franco Nero and Harry Dean Stanton) must solicit help from a rival settlement run by a mysterious and dynamic commandant (Willem Dafoe), who may or may not be an iteration of the fallen angel Satan (as depicted in Milton's PARADISE LOST).  See all this and more in JOHN CARPENTER'S FALLEN.  (I imagine this as Carpy's first European co-production, with French and Italian financing.)

#4.  Domain
Runtime: Six minutes, thirty-four seconds.
Impressions:  It begins with haunting, ghostly synths–and launches into a wonderfully insane mosaic of the 1980s, flitting between a dance party and what could easily be the opening credits to an action-TV show.  It closes out with a melancholy-but-sort-of-sassy heroic theme that conjures imagery of say, a helicopter shot of a background character from MAD MAX riding a horse across a beach at sunset.
Synopsis of the Fictitious, Not-Yet-Produced John Carpenter Film I Imagine While Listening to It:  This is obviously the suite of music to Carpenter's first television series.  He directed the pilot, but then it was taken over by the same (quasi-charming?) hacks that laid claim to most of his real-life scripts for television.  It's called MASTER OF HIS DOMAIN, and it takes place in at futuristic prison, surrounded by desert in all directions.  Each week, via bloody kumite, the inmates must compete to become... MASTER OF HIS DOMAIN.  Starring Harry Hamlin, Jimmy Smits, and Philip Michael Thomas; with Wilford Brimley as "The Old Man," and Ernest Borgnine as "The Warden."

#5.  Mystery 
Runtime:  Four minutes, thirty-six seconds.
Impressions:  Sensitive and thoughtful, it begins with nearly Classical arpeggiating... that could easily accompany a space documentary on battered VHS.  Then, it gains traction and authority, and its latter half is comprised of commanding drumbeats and power chords; audacity with a hint of menace.
Synopsis of the Fictitious, Not-Yet-Produced John Carpenter Film I Imagine While Listening to It:  JOHN CARPENTER'S SHROUD OF MYSTERY, an interstellar romance (not unlike STARMAN), but one that ends with our two intergalactic wayfarers forced to confront an ancient, ghostly evil beyond the edge of the Solar System.  Starring Tom Atkins and Adrienne Barbeau.

#6. Abyss
Runtime:  Six minutes, seven seconds.
Impressions:  The beginning sounds a little Fabio Frizzi to me (Lucio Fulci's usual composer)–there's something in the tone of the modulation that feels like 80s Italy to me, though there are sparklingly dark electric pianos and deep synth chords that are pure Carpenter.  There's a tonal shift at the halfway point as a thumping beat and some reverb-y guitars get down to business.  So many of these pieces build an exquisite sense of macabre mystery before transforming into work of relentless, driving action–which is not unlike many of Carpenter's films.
Synopsis of the Fictitious, Not-Yet-Produced John Carpenter Film I Imagine While Listening to It:  HALLOWEEN III, BOOK 2: SEASON OF THE ABYSS.  Picking up directly after the end of HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH, Challis (Tom Atkins) struggles to survive in a world reeling from the aftermath of Conal Cochran's masterstroke, a world bereft of children but overflowing with bugs and snakes and the mournful echoes of the Silver Shamrock song.

#7. Wraith
Runtime:  Four minutes, thirty seconds.
Impressions:  A quiet, twinkling opening slowly builds ominous momentum before finally exploding with the energy of a tempestuous, mournful guitar solo in the David Gilmour mode.
Synopsis of the Fictitious, Not-Yet-Produced John Carpenter Film I Imagine While Listening to It:  WRAITH, a John Carpenter ghost story partly inspired by the writings of M.R James, starring Dennis Dun as an investigator of paranormal phenomena, Jamie Lee Curtis as his spitfiery competitor, Donald Pleasence as his Professor, and Lee Van Cleef as "The Wraith."

#8. Purgatory
Runtime:  Four minutes, thirty-nine seconds.
Impressions: Another diptych.  The first section lays heavy, with slow, emotive strains.  The second is rootin'-tootin' action piano, lively drums, and whooshing synth FX.  This is the soundtrack to a serious film– albeit one that's not afraid to tread in 'whacky' territory.
Synopsis of the Fictitious, Not-Yet-Produced John Carpenter Film I Imagine While Listening to It:  Clearly this is the theme to CAPTAIN RON VS. THE FOG, a film which resides only in the "purgatory" of my imagination, best explained in my three-part fiction, "Carpy & The Cap'n," which can be read here, here, and here.  Starring Kurt Russell as Captain Ron, Dennis Dun as Captain Kwon, "Rowdy" Roddy Piper as Nardo, and Powers Boothe as Blake.

#9.  Night
Runtime: Three minutes, thirty-eight seconds.
Impressions: The dark and deliberate oscillations call to mind imagery of flashing lights and wet pavement, a snaking and zooming futuristic highway after dark.  Unlike many of the other 'lost themes,' Night retains the same mood throughout, with varying degrees of gloom and wonder.
Synopsis of the Fictitious, Not-Yet-Produced John Carpenter Film I Imagine While Listening to It:  John Carpenter's N.I.G.H.T., a cyberpunk thriller (which brings us full circle– William Gibson, considered to have originated the genre with NEUROMANCER, was deeply inspired by ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK) set on a stretch of crumbling superhighway near Cleveland in the ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK universe, chronicling the clashes between outlaw biker gangs (led by Lance Henriksen) and the paramilitary forces of President Donald Pleasence (led by Michael Ironside).  Co-starring Adrienne Barbeau, Brion James, Sonny Landham, Pam Grier, and featuring a cameo from Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken.

In all, LOST THEMES is a treat for the imagination; for fans of John Carpenter, for the film buffs and the dreamers, for anyone who's relished the chance to escape to another world, even if only for an afternoon...    Five stars.

–Sean Gill


Jason said...

Thank you for this, Sean. A perfect tribute to "Carpy," I think he would be proud.

Henry Swanson's Glasses said...

I would give a whole heck of a lot to see even half of these imagined movies come to life...

Sean Gill said...


Thank you for the kind words, that means a lot!

Henry Swanson,

Thanks, man– glad you enjoyed the fictitious Carpenterian wish fulfillment!

John Weddell said...

Have you seen the video for Night? It may involve Carpy donning VR headgear:

Sean Gill said...


I had not seen that, thanks for sending it along! I appreciate that Carpy himself plays a central role, and I'm also pleased to see that it does not contradict any of the ideas I had for "John Carpenter's N.I.G.H.T.!"

John Weddell said...

It's possible that it jibes perfectly with your vision! Heavy Drive influence, too.