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John Carpenter – Lost Themes

From the opening notes of “Vortex,” the first track on Lost Themes (Amazon, iTunes), it’s clear that the album could only be the work of John Carpenter. The moody piano chords that open the track soon give way to the insistent, pulsing bass immediately recognizable from Carpenter’s iconic film scores for his movies. It’s joined by the eerie sustained high notes that put one in the mind of a cursed seaside community in northern California, or a sleepy midwestern town terrorized by a terrifyingly motiveless killer. And the power chords that punctuate the track are straight out of Carpenter’s scores for his action movies – my first listen to the track inspired the thought “Snake Plisskin is back,” which is a nonsense thought, but there it is. Lost Themes lives up to its title, frequently inspiring the listener to imagine Carpenter-esque images from movies the director never made.

At the same time, the title is just a bit misleading, and it helps to know about the nature of this album’s creation to better appreciate it. Working with his son Cody and his godson, Daniel Davies, Carpenter produced these tracks in his basement for fun and, to hear him tell it, the decision to release them as an album was almost a whim. Also, the tracks were composed using Logic Pro software, which gives them a different feel than the many scores that, while performed on synths, were recorded live while Carpenter and his collaborators played along to the film. Without the restraint of the timing and precision necessary to underscore a movie and punctuate its scares, Lost Themes is, perhaps inevitably, all over the place.

This results in some tracks, like “Obsidian” and “Mystery,” that sound more like video game music than anything else. Carpenter is famously a huge fan of video games, and if you are too, you’re likely to dig these tracks, but they have a distinctly different feel from his film scores. The most out-of-nowhere moment comes on “Domain,” which breaks into an out-of-nowhere power ballad riff that sounds more suited to a training montage from a Rocky movie than anything we’d expect from Carpenter. Granted, the idea of Carpenter scoring training montages is kind of awesome in its own way, but anyone expecting nine tracks of Carpenter doing horror themes should adjust their expectations.

At other points, the uneven quality results in some pleasant surprises. Tracks like “Wraith” and “Night,” the album’s closer, remind of the film scores of Trent Reznor; it’s interesting to hear Carpenter engaged in a sort of dialogue through his music with the younger artists he’s influenced. There’s also the distinct influence, particularly in “Abyss” of the Italian group Goblin, who scored many of Dario Argento’s films. Carpenter has long credited Goblin as an influence on his Halloween scores, and while the director has never shown much of a desire to reflect on his own career in interviews, Lost Themes shows ties both to the past and the present.

Overall, the album creates the kind of fantastic atmosphere that Carpenter could create better than anyone with his movies and scores. I first listened to the album on a long drive on winding mountain roads, and the music made me feel like I was on a journey to a fateful confrontation with some centuries-old evil force (actually, I was just visiting some friends). And for anyone writing a genre screenplay or book, this album will make for ideal background music to get your imagination going. If you go into Lost Themes expecting as coherent a listening experience as Carpenter’s film scores, you might be a little disappointed. But as far as albums that were born out of an old guy screwing around in his basement with a computer go, it’s probably the best ever.

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