John Carpenter cashes in his cool points on 'Lost Themes'

City Paper

Everybody’s cribbing moves from John Carpenter these days. Not cinematically, mind you, because the smart-dumb director’s Howard Hawks-like sense of how to handle lots of macho men moving inside a tightly packed frame, all the while summoning some Lovecraftian dread when necessary, is not something today’s ham-fisted horror auteurs can even approximate.

Instead, it’s Carpenter’s cheap-sounding, iconic soundtrack work for movies like “Halloween,” “Escape From New York,” and “The Fog,” that’ve become part of the currency of cool: Niche label Death Waltz Recordings has been steadily reissuing his rare soundtracks on vinyl since 2012; mainstream R&B creep The Weeknd named one of his gnarly slow jams ‘John Carpenter’; and ambient film composer Cliff Martinez, dead-eyed disco auteur Johnny Jewel, and Eno-for-the-Tumblr-set Oneohtrix Point Never are just a few to cite him as an influence. If you dig wobbly, throbbing, retrolicious dance music in 2015, Carpenter, weirdly, has got a lot to do with it.

Locally, look no further than your boy Panda Bear, whose lead single ‘Boys Latin’ off his latest album “Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper” has the strut-through-muck rhythms of an instrumental from, say, “Assault On Precinct 13.” During its spazzy peaks and cool propulsive valleys, Dan Deacon’s “Gliss Riffer” makes an end run around his usual electro-complexity and pumps like Carpenter’s budget atmospheric electronica. And last year, a few of the most creative Baltimore records recalled Carpenter: the chintzy-chic club of Normaling’s “Corpus Callosum”; Terence Hannum’s slowed-up drone on “Via Negativa”; and Vlonde’s “Hemagoblin Hollow,” a terse bundle of Carpenter-indebted electronic globs presented as the score to a non-existent horror flick.

And so, Carpenter has understandably, finally decided to cash in his cool points. He teamed up with curatorial death-rock label Sacred Bones Recordings to release “Lost Themes,” a collection of new Carpenter compositions in the vein of his famous stuff from a few decades ago. As we’ve learned from interviews, “Lost Themes” is the result of jams with guitarists Cody Carpenter (his son) and Daniel Davies (his godson). It’s tossed off, but also pretty personal music that he’s been making for shits and giggles with his fam—probably while crazy stoned—and nobody else, and we’re fortunate enough to get to hear it.

Carpenter’s compositional style, although rudimentary, is as immediately identifiable as, say, Thelonious Monk’s and his naive thud anchors all of these tracks. Though freed from the utilitarian qualities of his soundtrack work, a little more contrast’s let into these songs: The drums on ‘Domain’ hit like big dumb EDM and songs often tease tension and release for much longer than a movie score cue, especially the eight-minute ‘Obsidian.’ The moment on ‘Abyss’ where a super-obvious synthesizer march climbs out of, well, an abyss of bleeps and bloops, with a bit of a wink, conjures up images of a Carpenter zombie movie that’ll never be. There’s something elegiac about “Lost Themes”: These are the only way the 67-year-old filmmaker, out of step with Hollywood these days and disinterested in compromise, can deliver new scares.

That “Lost Themes” seems so firmly tied to Carpenter’s aged aesthetic yet remain unselfconscious is an accomplishment. And how goofy and unashamed “Lost Themes” sounds is a big part of its charm: The guitars on ‘Mystery’ are often Trans-Siberian Orchestra-like pomp and circumstance, and the icy, synth-twinkles on ‘Obsidian’ sound like the music from the movie “Scrooged” or some shit, but hey. If this were made by a no-name and thrown onto Bandcamp it would be just as incredible and baffling. Though if Carpenter’s name weren’t on it, there’s no fucking way a cool label like Sacred Bones would even touch an album best described as aggro elevator music. But that’s the perk of being a hyperinfluential horror hero. The cool kids’ll spot you a little bit.

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