John Carpenter album

Not only is John Carpenter an acclaimed filmmaker behind some of the best horror movies ever made – HalloweenThe ThingThey Live – he’s also the creator of some of the best horror movie music. Just as E.T. wouldn’t be nearly as effective without John Williams’ orchestral score, Halloween would be a lesser film without Carpenter’s eerie yet simple themes, made up of repeating piano melodies that alternate between sporadic and heart-attack fast. Horror movie music wouldn’t be the same without Carpenter’s contributions, which are just as exciting and influential as his films. While other horror soundtrack composers tend to encroach on an audience with loud, stunning musical cues, Carpenter’s scores hang back; waiting, biding their time, and building dread.

Carpenter is releasing a new album, Anthology: Movie Themes 1974-1998, a collection of 13 of his movie themes re-recorded with his touring band. And it’s pretty great. So join us: we’re going through the new John Carpenter album track by track.

Music can make or break a film. The score that blankets the imagery we’re watching has an almost magical quality, to the point where we can’t imagine the film in question working as well without it. John Williams crafts scores like this – try to imagine E.T. being as incredible without his score tugging on your heartstrings. And then there’s the other side of the spectrum. The type of score that grates, and distracts, and comes across as completely overblown. If you’re searching for a recent example of this, look no further than 2017’s It, a wonderful film hampered by its cacophonous, over-the-top score.

And then there’s John Carpenter. Carpenter’s scores are subtle things. They create mood and tension right along side his imagery, and are almost never over-the-top. You may not entirely notice a Carpenter score is there, but you’d miss it the moment someone removed it. The director and composer describes his scores as being “like carpet”: “What I do in a movie is carpet the scene so that you watch them and my music supports the sequences – so it’s like a carpet in that sense. I come in and I’m like a guy who carpets your house. I put down carpet on the floor, and you walk across it and it’s very comfortable.” 

The filmmaker originally turned to scoring his own films out of necessity. Working with low budgets, he was unable to hire full orchestras and turned to the next best thing: himself. “I can play just about any keyboard, but I can’t read or write a note,” Carpenter once said. Using synthesizers to make the music sound fuller than a simple piano, he was able to create subtle, moody music that has gone on to be emulated again and again.

Carpenter doesn’t direct anymore. “I don’t miss working,” he says. “Working is hard because you have to get up in the morning.” But in the last few years, the director has returned to music. He released two albums, Lost Themes and Lost Themes II, filled with the type of moody, synthesized music he used to create for his films. Think of them as soundtracks for movies that were never made. He also took to the road, engaging in tours with a full band, playing both cuts from the Lost Themes albums and also several of his classic movie scores as well. It’s one hell of a show, complete with a projector screen playing out scenes from the films.

Now Carpenter has released Anthology: Movie Themes 1974-1998, a collection of 13 of his movie themes re-recorded with the collaborators that worked on his Lost Themes and subsequent tours – his son, Cody Carpenter, and godson, Daniel Davies. It’s a treat for any Carpenter fan, but it’s also a collection of music that could easily be played on its own, without the listener having ever seen the films in question – although if you haven’t seen the films, you should, immediately.

Anthology opens with one of Carpenter’s heaviest themes – the opening number from In The Mouth of Madness. That 1994 film found Sam Neill as an insurance fraud investigator discovering that the fantastical works of an H.P. Lovecraft/Stephen King style horror novelist were slowly becoming reality. It’s one of the filmmaker’s last great flicks, a truly unnerving, highly entertaining experience. The music that makes up most of Madness is typical moody Carpenter, but the opening credits song, recreated on Anthology, is borderline heavy metal, inspired in part by Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.” Here, as the first track on the album, it’s a wake-up call to the listener. A kick in the ass that prepares you for an album of peaks and valleys, ever changing, always a treat.

Madness gives way to Assault on Precinct 13, from Carpenter’s post-modern Western about a police station under siege. Originally composed with pop synthesizer riff featuring a drum machine underneath, it’s an eerie, mood-setting piece that perfectly illustrates Carpenter’s knack for making simple themes that get their hooks into you. Precinct 13 is followed by The Fog, from Carpenter’s 1980 ghost movie. Like the film, the Fog track is slow and creepy, almost somber. Like Carpenter’s familiar Halloween theme, it uses a simple piano medley that continues to build, hinting at a danger to come.

One of Carpenter’s most underrated films is his 1987 slice of metaphysical horror Prince of Darkness. Like Precinct 13, it finds its characters trapped in one location with malevolent forces closing in. The track from the film here is magnificent, filled with drum machine beats and synthesizer sounds that sound as if they’re emanating from a slowly dying alarm. Under it all is a choir of synthetic voices. Like all Carpenter themes, Prince of Darkness keeps building towards something grander. Here the beats continue into a guitar riff blanketed with a pulse. It’s wild and lively.

Vampires is up next. Another post-modern Western from Carpenter, the film set a band of intrepid vampire hunters into the desert to stake some bloodsuckers. For all its bloodshed, the film’s tone is mostly light hearted; one gets the sense that Carpenter is winking at the audience. The theme selected here, however, is mournful; the music of a dying gunslinger, limping off into the sunset, leaving a trail of blood in the dust behind him. Escape From New York follows Vampires up with a livelier track, although again Carpenter’s prevailing sense of moodiness shines through. Escape is a film always on the move, propelling its main character from one location on the prison island that is Manhattan to the next, and the steady rhythmic beat here represents that propulsion.

If there’s one John Carpenter theme that towers above the rest, it’s Halloween. Anthology nestles Halloween’s theme in the middle of the album; on vinyl, it’s the first track of side B. Dripping with dread and menace, the theme is like a heartbeat working overtime, as if reacting to something in panic. As is his style, Carpenter has downplayed the theme in subsequent interviews. “I had the theme already written for years,” he said. “It was just something I’d tinkered out on the piano. I played 5/4 time on an octave on a piano, that’s all it was. I hadn’t necessarily applied it to Halloween, it was just sitting there and I thought, Oh, I’ll use this. That works okay. I’m not an accomplished composer of symphonies, I just do basic, straight-ahead, riff-driven music.” That makes the Halloween theme sounds underwhelming, but it’s anything but. It’s a force; something with a life of its own, signifying that death is approaching, and it cannot be stopped.

The rock and roll score of Carpenter’s delightful action-comedy Big Trouble in Little China immediately follows Halloween. It’s a startling contrast, but an agreeable one, and recalls the In The Mouth of Madness opener slightly. They Live, Carpenter’s most socially conscious film, using science fiction to tackle the Reagan years, has a track here that, like Vampires, has a bit of that Western feel, mingled in with a synthetic blues riff that represents the down and out working class stiffs at the center of the film. It’s music for abandoned train yards and railway bridges.

While the majority of the music on Anthology was created by Carpenter himself (with occasional assistance by Alan Howarth), he does have a few scores he didn’t initially work on yet are recreated here nonetheless. One such score is for his ice cold existential nightmare The Thing, which had a soundtrack composed by the legendary Ennio Morricone. Morricone’s score sounds fairly similar to something Carpenter would’ve done himself, albeit with a bit more zest. This was by design. “John played for Morricone the score we did for Escape From New York,” said frequent Carpenter collaborator Alan Howarth. “Ennio gave it out two passes. John comes from the other side; he says: ‘Hmm, there’s a couple of things I really need. You mind if we just kind of go to the studio for a day and sneak this one in?’ We did three more cues, making it more John Carpenter-esque…’

Morricone himself later said, “I’ve asked [John Carpenter], as he was preparing some electronic music with an assistant to edit on the film, ‘Why did you call me, if you want to do it on your own?’ He surprised me, he said – “I got married to your music. This is why I’ve called you.’…Then when he showed me the film, later when I wrote the music, we didn’t exchange ideas. He ran away, nearly ashamed of showing it to me. I wrote the music on my own without his advice. Naturally, as I had become quite clever since 1982, I’ve written several scores relating to my life. And I had written one, which was electronic music. And [Carpenter] took the electronic score.”

Carpenter himself added, “[Morricone] did all the orchestrations and recorded for me 20 minutes of music I could use wherever I wished but without seeing any footage. I cut his music into the film and realized that there were places, mostly scenes of tension, in which his music would not work…I secretly ran off and recorded in a couple of days a few pieces to use. My pieces were very simple electronic pieces – it was almost tones. It was not really music at all but just background sounds, something today you might even consider as sound effects.”

The track that sticks out like a sore thumb on Anthology is Starman, which is another piece of music Carpenter didn’t score himself. Unlike The Thing, though, this bit of music, from Jack Nitzsche, has none of that Carpenter feel. Perhaps that’s appropriate, since Starman is an outlier in Carpenter’s filmography; a romantic sci-fi film that may also be his most commercial. Nitzsche’s music recreated here is triumphant and boisterous, which may work fine in the film but here, nestled among the moody, low-tempo themes of Carpenter’s other work, seems out of place.

The album closes out with music from Dark Star, Carpenter’s feature directorial debut, and Christine, Carpenter’s adaptation of Stephen King’s killer car story. Dark Star, a sci-fi comedy co-written by Alien writer Dan O’Bannon, gets an appropriately eerie science fiction style track, the type that would be right at home in an alien invasion movie from the 1950s. Christine, the album’s closer, is another piece that mingles synthetic mood with an underbelly of sadness. The film at the heart of the story is a tragedy, once you get beyond the somewhat silly “killer car” concept. The sadness gives way to yet another propulsive beat; a pounding drum track that makes one think of hammers striking steel, sending sparks flying in some car workshop in hell. It may not be one of Carpenter’s most memorable scores, but it’s a fitting send-off to an altogether wonderful album; one that perfectly encapsulates why Carpenter’s music has become the stuff of legend.

Anthology: Movie Themes 1974-1998 will be released October 20, 2017.

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