JOHN CARPENTER’S LOST THEMES – So Happy He Found Them

If you’re a cinephile, you dig John Carpenter, or you at least dig one or two of his films. He’s that kind of director. I’ve met movie buffs that think Spielberg kid stuff, Raimi is a hack, Truffaut should suck it, and Kubrick is all style and no substance. Like Hitchcock, however, Carpenter seems to hold a higher level of respect amongst film enthusiasts, potentially only for the influence he had on filmmaking… even if that influence boils down to only one film. Barring these elite opinions, though, Carpenter may be the most loved American director in any film nerd community. He is definitely loved at this website.

Ever since 2001’s Ghosts of Mars flopped hard and left even his most passionate acolytes scratching their heads, the horror master has obscured himself from directing. He has reappeared occasionally for a couple TV movies, and one other feature film in 2010 (The Ward… which I hear is more than just “worth seeing”), but for the most part (and due to further commercial and critical decline) it seems evident Mr. Carpenter’s career as a filmmaker may be… let’s go with “waning”. That word doesn’t hurt so badly.

Only five years have gone by without a new John Carpenter vision… but the Carpenter sound has been gone much longer. This guy hasn’t taken the opportunity to compose music since Ghosts. Now, to the rapture of even his most pedestrian fans, the legendary filmmaker has taken a brand new, and possibly permanent direction as a recording artist. Welcome to John Carpenter’s Lost Themes.

The Record

Opening the record, “Vortex” doesn’t waste a moment in telling us what we should expect. A familiar horror sound bite is sharply interrupted by a series of synthesized chords. The ensuing progression couldn’t be more classically Carpenter if he had taken it directly from one of his best known works… in the ’80s.

Nothing has changed!

I was flabbergasted to think, with his wealth, experience, and connections, he would still prefer to be sitting in front of a keyboard, choosing a pulsing 4/4 beat, and slowly and minimally tinkering in a minor key like he did so many decades ago. I would have been happy with that, alone. I would have been perfectly content with nine tracks of that signature sound without anything remarkable, but track-by-track his first album of original song writing grows to be every bit as interesting and diverse as his movies.

The whole thing is still couched in that dark, proggy synth aesthetic, but just like his movie scores, the instrumentation and moods shift regularly to accomplish a variety of effects. The synth tones are all across the board, reminding me what all can be accomplished with electric pianos, organs and distortion. Electric guitars soar in pregnant bends over chugging rhythmic piano chording, but they aren’t completely stuck in the ’80s either, as they are utilized for beautiful melodic work on tracks like “Purgatory”. He, and his collaborators (son, Cody Carpenter and Daniel Davies) refuse to rest on familiar minimalism for long, and we are treated to an array of complex rhythms and song structures. As long as synthesizers don’t make you want to blow your brains out, there is something here for any music listener.

It’s interesting to hear his sense of adventure and dramatic significance being applied to these smaller compositions. The songs move effortlessly from gentle lyrical melodies to harsh, pounding riffing akin to the driving forces which accompany boss battles in something like The Legend of Zelda. (It should be noted John Carpenter has a great affinity for video games). Hearing that kind of work within individual songs is maybe the most exciting aspect of this album. When his themes are repeated within a single track, rather than for the sake of establishing a character or motif through the entirety of a feature film, we receive so many more musical ideas (track after track) from him than we would watching his movies.

The title is appropriate. You can imagine nearly any one of these songs playing over opening credits, or during early exposition. These are still themes, and most of them are catchier and more emotionally resonant than most of the filler they throw at the tent pole comic book movies every summer. Can you hum a tune from X-Men: Days of Future Past? Can you remember the theme? I am willing to bet you will be humming Carpenter’s latest material for many days to come after a single listen. This is an excellent bunch of songs that deliver images of sci-fi landscapes, nightmares, perilous adventures and beauty. The more you listen, the more you feel like maybe his career as a visual story teller isn’t quite over yet.

THE PACKAGE (NERDY VINYL STUFF)

I am willing to admit not everything sounds better on vinyl…

This does.

Sacred Bone Records has constructed a perfectly simple centerfold sleeve for this single disc release. The photography is beautiful and creepy. There are liner notes (Really great ones by Daniel Schweiger), but that centerfold is only there for the sake of this:

HOW COOL IS THAT!?

The Vinyl edition comes with a download card (one that actually works – am I the only one who always has trouble with that shit?) with super-high-quality mp3’s and six bonus remix tracks. You know… for you weirdo’s who like to listen to that stuff…

It’s great. Go buy it.

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the author

Ryan Lewellen has loved movies ever since he was programmed that way by his creators from a universe parallel to, but reachable from, your own. He knows he shouldn’t be telling you that, but in 3 years, 2 months, 29 days, 16 hours, 30 minutes, and 55 second’s time, your awareness of our existence shan’t factor, for it is your fate and fate is inescapable, human. Enjoy your final moments reading his movie blog.

  • circyn

    Excellent article. I really enjoyed The Ward, it felt somewhat like a return to form for Carpenter (although not near his heights of the 80’s, but what is?). My personal favourite movie of his is still In The Mouth of Madness. It’s cheesy but I love the concept and everyone in it is giving their all. ‘Sorry about the balls – it was a lucky shot!’

  • RyanUCM

    This article once included an embedded Big Trouble In Little China music video. I highly recommend you go find it for yourself on Youtube, as my original link is now deceased.