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John Carpenter - Lost Themes (2015) review

John Carpenter 'Lost Themes' (Sacred Bones, 2015)

There are few, if any, debut albums that have been as eagerly anticipated this year as John Carpenter’s first non-soundtrack release Lost Themes from the Sacred Bones label.  Carpenter has risen to fame over the past forty years, originally for his award winning cult films like Halloween and Assault On Precinct 13 and subsequently for his now ravenously collected, and harder and harder to obtain soundtrack releases – many of which have seen deluxe reissues and expanded editions over the past few years, while original pressings fetch ridiculous prices on the second-hand market at this point.  With so much hype surrounding an album where so few details were available before its release, the end results could have proven disastrous for any number of reasons.  It was hard to even fathom a guess as to what exactly Carpenter had in mind for his first foray into music that wasn’t attached to moving pictures; especially considering the album is a collection of tracks that were done with help from his son Cody and godson Daniel Davies, son of famed Kinks’ guitarist Dave Davies, at Carpenter’s home, recorded during downtime between video game sessions.  Though the musicians’ partnership began years earlier with work on some of Carpenter’s later work, such as Vampires and Village Of The Damned, it was rather difficult to predict just what the enigmatic master of synthesized minimalist horror had up his sleeve given that there weren’t any visual images to bind the music too for the first time and he was working with two other people when composing and writing the material for the album.  Lost Themes, however, sounds exactly like the name would lead you to believe.  It’s a collection of songs seemingly constructed from images and ideas kicking around inside of Carpenter’s head that he has not dedicated to film as of yet, but it’s also so much more than you would ever expect.  There’s a sense of freedom, an almost reckless abandon, which permeates from Lost Themes.  It emanates from the tracks like a monstrous aura of evil, in the form of sinister throbbing synthesizers and pulsating arpeggios that meld into each other, mutating and giving form to the things that go bump in the darkest recesses of Carpenter’s mind.  Opening like the maw of a leviathan with “Vortex” Lost Themes instantly recalls all of the grandeur, power and mastery of minimalist composition that have become so closely associated with Carpenter’s soundtrack work; which should come as no surprise, really, considering how long he’s been at it and how much practice he’s had at it, some nineteen soundtracks under his belt at this point.  The real surprise here is just how well Daniel Davies fits in on Lost Themes.  Rather than his guitar sounding shoehorned into the sound, let’s face it Vampires had some moments that seemed a bit forced and even Dave Davies stuck out like a sore thumb on Village Of The Damned at points, Daniel seamlessly blends in like a chameleon though, taking on the form of the demonic electronic bellow which he’s accompanying.  “Vortex” is as catchy and hard hitting as anything you’ll find on the Escape From New York or Assault On Precinct 13 soundtracks, but it also manages to integrate a lot of tricks and ideas that Carpenter developed working in the depths of minimalism on stuff like the jazzy They Live and despotically haunting The Fog and Prince Of The Darkness soundtracks.  It was interesting to hear Carpenter work with music where he was able to seamlessly blend together all of the different styles that he’s worked with over the years without fear of stepping on images or doing a film an injustice musically somehow.  I’m not precisely sure what I expected from Lost Themes but I know it wasn’t this, an almost inhumanly perfect blend of old and new sounds that build up, gathering pressure and steam, before crumbling back to the ground, lumbering and lurching along in a funeral march to the pits of your subconscious.  Picking up from the first track, “Obsidian” is a truly haunting tune, jangling bells and choral progressions calmly beginning the song before unfurling to reveal the snarling synthesized hook lurking just below the seemingly placid surface of crystalline noise.  Another thing that sets Lost Themes apart from John Carpenter’s earlier work though is Cody’s percussion, which really helps propel the album beyond my wildest expectations, replacing the simplistic minimalist electronic rhythms of John’s earlier endeavors.  The inventive percussion imbues the music with a new sense of life and power while remaining fairly sparse, lurking mostly in the background of the mix without getting too flashy, but instead, only appearing when necessary, helping to propel the music.  The explosive organ section four minutes into “Obsidian” is a perfect case-in-point of Cody’s immaculate work on the album.  Not only does he hammer the hard and heavy sounds of “Obsidian” like a razor blade into your eardrums, but he adds another layer to the already intricately crafted and constantly shifting melodies of the track.  I’ve never heard Carpenter knock the loud-quiet dynamic out of the ballpark quite like he does with this one, and I think that’s in large part due to the involvement of Cody and Daniel to be honest.  They obviously bring something to the table and allow Carpenter to explore outside of ‘the box’ with new ideas and approaches, but they also seem to help tighten the ideas down and make the songs more fluid and dynamic.  Next, “Fallen” opens with this immaculately crafted Prince Of Darkness sounding construct, slowly building high-end synths jangling above the scratchy, thick thud of low ends below it, growing like the hideous creature from The Thing, somehow mesmerizing and yet obscenely beautiful as well; a primal force of nature that can’t be ignored.  It builds and grows into this out and out head-bopper a la Escape From LA that just refuses to let up once it sinks it’s hooks into you!  “Fallen” is just about everything I could have possibly asked for from Lost Themes, it is very nearly perfect.  Following on from that, you have “Domain” which opens with a delightfully twisted melody, sweeping organs swelling like fog and mist on the gates of the old Meyer’s house, building slowly until it explodes into an out-and-out 80’s sounding glam or almost hair progression meets funk/boogey head-on.  I think “Domain” is a perfect example of the growth and expansion that this album brought about for Carpenter.  It takes elements of almost all of his other work The Fog perhaps excluded, and hits the blender button on it, which was a risky move on his part.  He could have played it safe and just done something he’d already done before, but “Domain” is a beast all its own and I have to applaud the hell out of that fact.  The territory once again retreats into the well-worn streets of Mouth Of Madness and Assault On Precinct 13 as “Domain” draws to a close, paving the way for the next track.  “Mystery” is an invocation of it’s namesake without a doubt and bringing the energy down a little, kind of signals the second half of the album in a few different ways.  The sense of mystery and suspense just drip off of the track from the get-go, sparse landscapes of bleak synthesized cries into a murky darkness are peppered with gnarled snarling guitar outbursts and a harmony of bells shining a satanic light on the corridor of tension the listener has suddenly become claustrophobically trapped in.  “Mystery” is perhaps the best combination of John, Cody, and Davies playing.  There’s a tasty guitar riff and wicked synth lines in this one, and it’s all held together by Cody’s drums slipping and sliding out of the song like a shadowy serpentine form along a dark river bank.  Continuing on with the tension filled atmosphere of “Mystery” “Abyss” pulsates and breathes, incorporating some heavy strings into the composition, which is generally somewhat of a rarity for Carpenter.  The choral chanting and nightmarishly dark synthesizers that open the song give-way to reveal a true abyss, the gaping yawn of hell itself opening beneath your feet.  When the drums finally snap the song back onto its feet and out of its hypnotized state, it’s to begin a steady march towards the flaming gates that lie at the end of everything we’ve ever known.  While he often employed the jangling high-ends of a lot of synthesized sounds as well as pianos, bells aren’t extremely prevalent throughout Carpenter’s back catalog and they just so happen to be one of the coolest sounding things in the world to me, so I was stoked, as well as impressed to see how effortlessly he incorporated their mesmerizing sounds into his music.  I don’t even know where to begin with “Wraith”; the arpeggiated madness that begins the song, the heart wrenching strings that lie just beneath, or the almost Harry Greigson-Williams sounding percussion and volcanic outpour of guitar that comes after!  It’s one of the tracks on the album that highlights not only all of the musical knowledge that he’s accumulated through his years of synching sounds with moving images, but his abilities as a director of character driven stories as well and his almost unbelievable ability to convey the emotions of those characters through music without ever saying a word or having the character ostensibly lift a finger!  Just when I thought I had reached the highest level of Carpenter worship, suddenly I’m aware of yet another facet of his art that fascinates and impresses me to no end…  I guess you learn something new every day, ha-ha.  After “Wraith” “Purgatory” almost sounds like a funeral dirge, the sounds of bones being laid to rest; which is appropriate, being the second-to-last track and ushering in the tail-end of Lost Themes.  Davies’ impeccable guitar work just melts into the rotting rhythms and synthesized cynicism that Carpenter lies like carpeting in the eerie decaying Victorian landscape for what seems like a blissful eternity.  Then suddenly, three minutes into the song, Cody makes his move and the drums come rampaging through the procession like a bull in a China shop!  The bone-crushing rhythm slams against the glittering synthesizers and relentless piano hammering beneath it building to a frenzied head before giving way to the final track of Lost Themes.  “Night” is what I imagine it will sound like when I’m eventually stalked and murdered while I sleep in my home by a disturbed mental patient who’s escaped from some local psychiatric facility sometime in the far, but not too distant future.  The bass track on “Night” is just absolutely brutal and murderous.  It almost sounds more aggressive and visceral than anything Carpenter’s presented on a soundtrack before, but I don’t know exactly how.  It’s not louder or faster than anything else he’s done, there’s no super catchy rhythm that infects your mind like an alien presence seeping into your subconscious or anything – it’s just the sparse, but relentlessly persistent, synthesizers which surround you from beginning to end that scare the hell outta me!  While I don’t think that there was any other song than “Vortex” better suited to opening Lost Themes, there certainly isn’t any other song that could have finished it off from this batch of recordings with any better.  I’ve seen enough interviews to know it’s not true, but listening to his music one might draw the conclusion that Carpenter is an extremely dark individual his music is so unnerving.  His music really can be scary if you put it on in the right setting, but there’s a transcendent element to it as well.  There were only two things that left a sour taste in my mouth when I was done with Lost Themes.  One, it wasn’t longer and two, I don’t know if Carpenter will ever do another album.  Mind you, I’m not complaining about the length of the album, I simply lament that there wasn’t more to savor as I don’t know how much interest John Carpenter will have in ever doing another album…  If he does have that inclination at any time in the future though it would sincerely delight me!  I’d love to hear how he would evolve as a musician over the span of at least a few records.  Thank god, or whatever/whoever, someone at Sacred Bones took the time to make sure that Lost Themes happened, because I think it was important and needed to happen.  It’s a musical statement from a man who helped define what and how modern audiences think about and listen to film soundtracks.  His historical importance, as not only a film maker and a musician, but as an artist in every sense of the word, is only now really beginning to be acknowledged and I’m grateful someone allowed him this opportunity before people lost sense of time and it was too late.  Lost Themes is everything and nothing that you’d expect from the master of suspense in the best possible way and I’m heartily hoping that we see a second helping of this nature sometime soon.  In the meantime, make sure you pick a copy of Lost Themes on CD, LP or digitally via the links below because John Carpenter hasn’t gone anywhere, he’s just waiting, like The Shape, biding his time to strike from the shadows and Lost Themes is as strong a stab at an album as you’re likely to hear anytime soon! 

Review made by Roman Rathert/2015
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