Graded on a Curve:
John Carpenter,
Lost Themes

John Carpenter’s accomplishments as a director include a handful of masterpieces and a larger number of cult classics, his body of work defining him as a maestro of genre flicks and maker of personal films. Part of the distinctiveness relates to Carpenter’s frequent role as composer; he’s credited in this capacity on such heavyweights of the American Cinema as Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, Big Trouble in Little China, and They Live. Now Sacred Bones offers Carpenter’s non-OST debut with Lost Themes, his legion of fans unlikely to require much persuading in order to investigate further.

I guess the mainstream consensus on John Carpenter is that he’s just one in a long line of filmmakers who started out strong, hung in there for a while and then faltered as time progressed. And our current motion picture industry does a good job of making it seem like he’s retired; his last effort was The Ward, which hit US theatres, or a few of them anyway, back in 2011.

But for an ever growing pack of buffs, Carpenter is a very special auteur indeed. Gaining his biggest commercial and critical success with Halloween in 1978, it and the titles surrounding it in his filmography are trim, energetic no-nonsense affairs emerging from a motion-picture scene noted for self-consciousness and excessiveness.

Circa the late-‘70s, Coppola, Scorsese, Altman, Cimino, and even that lurid genre-dabbler De Palma were all clearly Artists. Where the family-friendly Lucas and Spielberg danced atop the rubble of the New Hollywood and ushered in the age of the multiplex, Carpenter rose out of the exploitation scene and subsequently spent the majority of his career in unfashionable if not always disreputable territory.

To elaborate, along with igniting the rapidly diminishing returns of the slasher film, Halloween spawned a string of sequels (the first of which he produced and wrote but didn’t direct) and the eventual Rob Zombie-helmed reboot. Also, two of his early features were made for TV (Someone’s Watching Me! and Elvis), while The Thing, now considered one of his triumphs, was once denigrated as a déclassé remake, its bleak tone and gruesome effects thrashed at the box office by the feelgood vibes of ET: The Extraterrestrial.

Across his oeuvre the subject matter is reliably scare inducing, supernatural and futuristic, but the finished work is consistently rich with film history. For one instance, the shaping impact of Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo on Assault on Precinct 13 is now commonly known. And Carpenter’s second feature contains other celluloid references, though as the frames unspool they generally resist calling attention to themselves, the director excelling as a borrower rather than a specialist in blatant homage.

Regarding Lost Themes, this helps to separate its ‘80s-derived music from the retro crowd, and while the title might lead one to assume it’s a collection of unused soundtrack material, the reality is nine self-contained, if occasionally expansive and structurally related, instrumental tunes. This is not to suggest a lack of affinity with the considerable achievement of Carpenter’s prior scores, however.

Director-composers don’t have many peers, though the ranks are wide-ranging; try Charles Chaplin, Satyajit Ray, Clint Eastwood, and Herschell Gordon Lewis on for size. Contrary to a misapprehension of auteurism, creative multitasking isn’t the true gauge of a great director, but it does bear mentioning that Carpenter is a writer of screenplays, actor of bit parts and in earlier days, editor.

The son of a music professor and Nashville session man, Carpenter reportedly only scored Halloween because the budget didn’t allow for the hiring of a composer. Even in his minor works he displays a firm command of the three Cs of successful commercial filmmaking: coordination, communication, and collaboration.

On the soundtracks (many are available on vinyl through Death Waltz Recording Company) he often worked with Alan Howarth, or in the example of The Thing, stepped aside and welcomed the input of Ennio Morricone. His partners on Lost Themes are his son Cody Carpenter, the leader of the prog-fusion project Ludrium and composer for both of his father’s Masters of Horror episodes, and Daniel Davies, the son of Kink Dave Davies, member of Year Long Disaster, and writer of songs for the 2014 film I, Frankenstein.

I’m unacquainted with the work of Davies or Carpenter fils, but “Vortex” immediately establishes Lost Themes as père’s album. Distinguished by flourishes of melodic, muscular keyboard enhanced with throbbing synth, ripples of distorted guitar, and intermittent flashes of swirling techno additives, the composition is layered and urgent, easily fulfilling the stated baseline objective to “make it moody.”

Ripe with tension, it would definitely well-serve as opening theme for a tautly-directed action-thriller. That’s no surprise of course, but “Vortex” is in no way constrained by the resemblance; the tone set, second track “Obsidian” spreads a broad sonic landscape to over eight minutes. Amongst the twists are glimmers of near-synth-pop ambiance, an insistent and recurring hard rockish motif, rhythmic thump, and some meditative respite followed by a spiral prog-keyboard staircase, the piece arriving at almost operatic terrain before a tidy conclusion.

Carpenter has expressed hopes that others might create films scored with Lost Themes’ tracks, and “Obsidian” emphasizes the tangible possibility of such an occurrence. The first half of “Fallen” returns to the exploration of tense atmosphere, here landing securely in the pastures of synth-pop, while the latter portion brought Giorgio Moroder and Goblin to mind.

Side one’s closer “Domain” is where the persistence of ideas really begins to take hold, the horror-castle organ exploding into zinging fanfares of rock guitar and a repetitive synth figure again redolent of ‘70s prog, though with roughly two minutes remaining it redirects into a showcase of montage-ready ‘80s keyboard.

“Mystery” essentially consists of two sections, glistening and somewhat baroque patterns giving way to a boost in tempo and a rhythmically driving finale. It and “Domain” are likeable stuff, but “Abyss” serves as Lost Themes’ highpoint. After a soaring beginning and an atmospheric, shape-shifting mid-section, the cut then transforms into a pulsing, edgy sound. It’s highly reminiscent of the end-credits accompaniment that shook me out of momentary slumber numerous times during my teenage years.

Thanks for the memories. Much of “Wraith” revolves around well-layered keyboard and techno ingredients, though the increasingly ripping guitar is a swell touch, and “Purgatory” moves from hovering keyboard into a spacious calm of cleanly-delivered notes to a vigorous and precise finish complete with escalating synth lines. “Night” concludes the record in relatively restrained fashion, favoring mood and repetition over bold gestures.

Worth noting is Lost Themes’ digital incarnation, which adds a half dozen remixes by a fairly diverse group of participants. None exceed the sources in quality, but conversely, nothing is subpar or ill-fitting. Indeed, there is some unexpected vocal incorporation, a bit Rihanna-esque in Zola Jesus and Dean Hurley’s “Night” as the voices on “Wraith” are diced and submerged by ohGr of Skinny Puppy fame. Even the veteran hand of JG Thirlwell gets a turn, cutting to the chase and imbuing “Abyss” with waves of dark synth and canned chamber strings.

Lost Themes has a few lesser moments, unsurprising for a LP so inclined toward mood, but those spots avoid mutating into full tracks and this so-called debut is a much appreciated release from a long-serving, individualistic talent.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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