In February of last year, forsaken John Carpenter fans were elated by the erstwhile director’s embrace of a second career: John Carpenter, recording artist. This new enterprise has paid off more substantially than either creator or fan could have expected, and in a surprisingly brief time, the album, Lost Themes, has produced two music videos (high-pitched squeal), an international tour (higher-pitched squeal), and a follow-up record (glass-shattering screech). With LOST THEMES II, enthusiasts of the sexagenarian’s signature sound could hardly have received a finer sophomore effort.
The title suggests this record is a sequel, and the suggestion fits. In nearly every way, this second release is a mirrored expansion of its predecessor’s core. Even the design of its sleeve is an elegant inversion of the original’s spooky simplicity, but like the music, it builds on this foundation, bringing bold new ideas to this familiar landscape. II is still classically Carpenter, but the arrangements and tones of synthesizers and electric instruments have grown in satiating complexity. Assigning the word “minimal” (which we did in the past so predominantly) sounds like a misnomer in this new world of melodies and counter melodies, intricate rhythmic elements, and heterogeneous sound experiments rich in signal processing. Again, these are still the sounds and moods we expect and desire from the horror master, but this lengthier album of original songs (11 tracks!) is a cut above anything he has produced before.
The opening tune, Distant Dream, acting as a sonic flagship (its ultra-cool live performance music video is embedded below), explores most of what to expect from the succeeding tracks. Like a siren, the oscillating whir of heavily distorted guitar notes (or keyboard notes) affected by wah (or something…often hard to tell) signal the triumphant arrival of more themes found. After that brief announcement, a reliably steady kick pounds out a 4/4 beat, and a picked bass guitar creates a chugging rhythm in a choral partnership with the chubby tones of a synthesizer. In comes a lead synth voice, holding lofty notes over the percussive elements to create a simple melody, and we recognize (we behold) the signature Carpenter sound. Then, we are greeted by what seems to be a new trademark of the songwriter.
On multiple occasions, these records meet a point I have started calling The Penultimate Pause-And-Shift. In Distant, and most notably, White Pulse, the song is moving along industriously, only to reach a sudden sense of finality, then wildly turning left into something palpably different, but entirely cohesive. It’s a always a fun and unexpected diversion (especially upon first listen), and it shrouds otherwise simple structures in the appearance of complexity. Distant Dream, for instance, could be reduced to: intro, chorus, intro, bridge, chorus, but the second time we hear those notes from the prologue, they have been mutated into something proggy, explosive and ostensibly unfamiliar.
There are so many tracks I would love to highlight, such as the gentle and haunting melodies of Windy Death and Hofner Dawn (which surprisingly features decidedly Latin-inspired guitar work), or the cinematic evocations of Utopian Facade. Or, I could spend some time talking about the cleverness of Dark Blues, which if only played syncopated, would be unmistakable as a true blues number, but is played straight, therefore making it odd and creepy. Instead, before I go on too long (as if I haven’t, already), I need to mention Carpenter’s homage to another legend of horror.
BELA LUGOSI makes me giddy every time I hear it. In a decaying tone, a lead synth melody creeps over an arpeggiated chord progression. At first, the song slinks toward you, calling up the actor’s face, obscured by a cape, but the melody and the rhythm progress into a multitude of moods. In only 3:23, the song practically captures its namesake’s entire career, in a tune which is equal parts haunting, mysterious, respectful, and loving (so, some might argue it skips the Ed Wood years, but still…). Just when you think you have a grasp on this song, a playfully fleeting toy piano dances in like a child’s curious ghost. Its beauty makes me ache. The late icon couldn’t have dreamt of a more wonderful tribute.
John Carpenter has outdone himself with Lost Themes II. His instincts as a composer have never been more resonant, but to really appreciate this material, you have to develop a taste for the textures of synthetic instrumentation. Carpenter gives you quite the sonic smorgasbord here to study and devour. As I mentioned in my review of his first album, this just isn’t everyone’s flavor, but he could hardly have resurfaced at a better time than at the height of electro-pop’s appreciation. Who knows, maybe he will tour with Chvrches?
THE PACKAGE (NERDY VINYL STUFF)
The staff hasn’t changed a bit since the first volume of tunes hit the streets. Sacred Bones Records has distributed a very cool sleeve-and-insert, a product of the design of Jaw Shaw, and photography of Kyle Cassidy. Together, they have created a package which is distinctly in line with Carpenter’s films and music, and will absolutely make for a prized possession in any record collection. No write-up on the insert this time, but hey…
There is something about vinyl and synth. Listening to this album on that beautiful black material, through headphones (BTW… Go Sennheisser for a spectacular pair of $25 phones), really allows this music to bloom. For those who can’t tell, don’t care, think this brand of audiophelia is bullshit, or just want to have a portable version, the staff at Sacred Bones have been kind enough to include an mp3 download card, allowing for the entire album, plus the very cool Real Xeno as a bonus track, to be played on any digital listening device.
It’s great. Go to a record store and buy it, or purchase it from the label online to receive the limited white/red swirl disc.
NERDY NERDY STUFF
I couldn’t help but notice the first record’s songs were all given single-word titles and the second record’s songs were all given double-word titles.
I think that is really cool… because I am really not.
Red Swirl Vinyl LP (Limited Edition of 1000) available exclusively at Sacred Bones Records or Live Shows