22 Apr 2016

The Living Dead of Film Scores

The Living Dead of Film Scores
or: The Lasting Appeal and Influence of Horror Film Soundtracks

There is no way around it. The soundtracks and scores for films are among the most powerful pop-cultural rallying points, and have remained so for quite some time. In many ways they help define generations, while in other cases they transcend age groups. John Williams' Star Wars theme seems to be the prime example - Literally anyone knows it right off the bat. Let It Go from 2013’s smash hit Frozen lingers too, and will in all likelihood be this generation's Circle of Life (from The Lion King, duh).

The Reign of Kings, Past and Present
Sure, it may be big-time Hollywood soundtrack masters like the aforementioned John Williams, or Hans Zimmer, James Horner and Howard Shore that rack up all the praise on a mainstream basis. After all, who doesn't know the score to Jaws, Lord of the Rings or Pirates of the Caribbean off the top of their head? The composer elite of Hollywood has authored some of the most memorable and epic tunes in history to go with their equally iconic blockbusters. In a way these songwriters have taken over for classical composers like Bach or Beethoven in terms of those household melodies that everybody knows, making songs like You’re the One That I Want from Grease (1978) this era’s version of Ride of the Valkyries.

But you don't see many bands emulating or aping the likes of Hans Zimmer. Basically, it is just not feasible for most amateur musicians to imitate a multi-million dollar production with dozens of exceptionally talented musicians, producers and composers involved. That doesn’t lessen the impact these compositions have – far from it. It does mean, however, that their influence on contemporary music is in all likelihood fairly limited, aside from the odd album intro or concert intermission.

Where Dark Horrors Lurk
But then what about the soundtracks to less popular horror films? In essence these films mirror their soundtracks, usually being produced with substantially less people and money involved than their large Hollywood counterparts, being driven instead by the passion of individuals. Certainly it stands to reason that the vibes of 60s, 70s and 80s supposed "b-movies" are more easily captured by regular musicians.

Is that all, though? Is it just that the style is more easily approachable, or could there be some other, more primordial reason why horror film music has garnered a cult following? When asked about this, Magnus Sellergren – Mastermind of Call Me Greenhorn and Videogram – commented, “I'd guess it's the suspense it creates. A lot of people, me included, love to get scared, and horror soundtracks - at least a good one - enhances that.” Continuing, he said “Fright is a very primal emotion, so maybe horror music … cuts through the more evolved parts of our psyche and touches us on an animalistic level, making our response to it stronger.”

Regarding the appeal of horror film music, Ustumallagam, vocalist of 30 Silver Coins and Denial of God – and connoisseur of the finest horror, offers the following insight, suggesting that the secret lies with the subtle nature of horror and fear: “The interesting thing about the music in horror films is actually whether you notice it or not. It's always one way or the other, I feel.” Carrying on, Ustumallagam too suggest that primal allure of fright: “Sometimes the music completely melts in with the picture and you don't pay any conscious attention to it, but it plays with your brain, and therefore works perfectly.” In relation to more prominent examples like Goblin or Frizzi, he adds “At other times … the music is really coming alive and in your face and ‘on top’ of the pictures, but still adding that certain oomph to the film that is needed.” The soundtracks to fright films are just as much works of art as any other soundtrack or album. Cutting corners and just going with some standardised music, to Ustumallagam, is inexcusable: “It seems a bit like a forgotten art nowadays. Nothing is worse than when someone adds ordinary pop music or death/black/grind to the soundtrack of a movie.”
John Carpenter

Director John Carpenter (known, of course, for The Thing, Escape from New York, Halloween and many more) took it upon himself to compose the themes to his films, using a minimal amount of equipment and ending up with eerily simplistic but incredibly powerful scores. From the stalking, 3-tone piece for Halloween, to the award-winning score to Vampires, he has composed his share of great music. He has even begun releasing music unrelated to his films, but in the same dark synth style. Other honourable mentions include the Italian progressive rock band Goblin, fronted by Claudio Simonetti to this day, who are well known for their frequent collaborations with legendary Italian giallo director Dario Argento, and especially their main theme for the 1977 film Suspiria. Another must-mention is Fabio Frizzi, whose slow rhythms are mostly known through Italian gore-maestro Lucio Fulci's films like Zombi 2 and The Beyond. The list goes on with the involvement of Keith Emerson from Emerson, Lake & Palmer fame, who composed the soundtracks for films such as Dario Argento’s Inferno and co-wrote and performed parts of the soundtrack for the occult horror film The Church.

An example of a Waxwork Records reissue
The Vinyl Resurgence and Obscurity
As testament to these unsung heroes of horror cinematography, smaller, independent record labels have begun releasing the original soundtracks, usually in phenomenal packaging, on vinyl once again. As the format everyone thought was dead and gone (This has already been explored in thousands of articles) has returned, so too has horror soundtracks risen from the dead. Death Waltz Recording Company and Waxwork Records stand out as the prime examples, having released over 100 should-be classic soundtracks between them. Other than relatively well-known themes, like Jerry Goldsmith's composition for The Omen, these are films and soundtracks that have by and large remained in relative obscurity to the average moviegoer, but have at the same time found a deep crevice-like niche of followers around the world. These composers usually have what seems like a much more dedicated audience, many of which pay tribute through their own compositions. While the recent surge in synthwave popularity is mainly fuelled by longing nostalgia for 80s pop-culture, many of the involved musicians can't renounce their inspiration from 70s and 80s film scores as well, or from the far-reaching influence of simplistic electronic artists like John Carpenter or Tangerine Dream (who, in turn, are also responsible for a few soundtracks).

Diving Head First Into the Depths
While horror films - both for their anti-establishment history, their visuals and their sounds - are frequently referenced and used for inspiration in many off-kilter music scenes like heavy metal or darkwave, in this write-up we'll be focusing on a few select artists that pay homage to or at the very least are highly influenced by the underappreciated soundtracks of horror films. Whether their inspiration stems from the creeping synths of John Carpenter and Tangerine Dream, the tribal, repetitive rhythms of Fabio Frizzi, the macabre, slithering latino-vibes of Francesco de Masi or the rough progressive rock themes by Goblin and Claudio Simonetti, these are the tales of Call Me Greenhorn, Slasher Dave, Zombi, 30 Silver Coins, Somnambulist Red and Nightsatan. Take it for what it is; A chronicle of horror film music’s lasting influence, a testament to its greatness, and most of all: The shameless plugging and recommendation of a bunch of musicians who keep the spirit of horror alive.

Call Me Greenhorn - The Slithering Voodoo Nightmare
L'Isola Dei Morti Viventi, the "film" in question
Usually going by the common name Magnus Sellergren, Call Me Greenhorn has found inspiration in Sweden through a great variety of channels, one of them being the soundtracks of horror movies. Sellergren even went so far as to compose a faux soundtrack to a film that never existed. Sporting the catchy and likely title of "L'Isola dei Morti Viventi" - "The Island of the Living Dead", from equally likely "director" Fabrizio Ardente, the supposed OST sounds like the bastard child of Fabio Frizzi and Francesco de Masi, taking you to that tropical hell where ritual zombies eat the flesh of the living. Complete with Frizzi's trademark rhythms lurking behind the cheap, layered keyboard choirs, Call Me Greenhorn's format is almost a carbon copy of the classic Italian zombie soundtracks, in all its cheesy glory. There are hints of de Masi's salsa-like Latino aesthetic crawling near the ground, jazzing up the formula every so often. A worthy homage indeed from a musician who not only has done his homework, but also excels at the curriculum. Sellergren’s other brainchild – Videogram – has been hailed by Doc Terror – Internet horror aficionado extraordinaire– as “the musical equivalent of renting your favourite horror movies from the mom and pop shop of yesteryear”, capturing the more synthy aspects of horror music. Citing films like Evil Dead II, The Thing and Zombie Flesh-Eaters, and the OSTs for Halloween, Phantasm and The Boogey Man as some of his overall favourites, regarding the origins of his fright-fuelled projects, Sellergren declares “A friend got me into creating music electronically. Call Me Greenhorn was an outlet for my more experimental side and Videogram is a marriage between my love for music and horror films, especially the 1980s VHS boom.” According to himself, Videogram has on occasion been referred to as “retro synth”, with Call Me Greenhorn being much harder to define. Additionally, he mentions Giallo’s Flame as another must-listen in recent horror music.

Slasher Dave - The Cheesy Synth Wizard
Less stripped-down than John Carpenter, and more ambitious than Tangerine Dream, this American musician doesn't just take cues from the tunes in question - He makes the sound his own. Though probably better known as one of the integral members of psychedelic death/doom metal band Acid Witch, his solo project is by no means an offhand hobby. Acid Witch has always been highly inspired by horror films, both in lyrical subjects and visually, their newest EP Midnight Movies featuring cover versions of rock and metal songs from horror movies, but musically Dave's love for the genre is best expressed through his numerous albums as Slasher Dave. He doesn't go easy on the synthesizer, and organs often chime in to add an extra, unexpected bone-finger touch. His albums, from his debut Spookhouse to his latest opus Exorcisms, are very varied, some bordering more on the campy Halloween-spookfests you'd expect from latenight television, and some perfectly capturing the best elements of the films we know and love. Their common ground lies somewhere between all that in an engaging and often spooktacular mayhem that really makes you want to put on Escape from New York just one more time. Labelmates on Bellyache Records, Voyag3r, are also responsible for some exploitation film inspired electro-rock worth checking out.

30 Silver Coins - The Creeping Lurkers at the Threshold
A group of three - two Danes and one Argentinian residing in Germany, 30 Silver Coins could be described as a super group of sorts. Ustumallagam from Danish black metal veterans Denial of God handles vocals and lyrics, Evil Spirit's drummer slash vocalist Marcelo Aguirre takes good care of percussion and various gongs and bells, with M. Ramdas - known from a variety of Danish bands - lastly touches upon most melodies and effects. Having thus far resulted only in a 2-song EP, entitled Death Waits in the Wing, there is precious little to go upon - But what en EP it is! The titular track greets you with a spoken word litany on top of layers of masterfully crafted atmospheric vibes. The second track, named after an H.P. Lovecraft poem, again touches on Fabio Frizzi-like rhythmic percussion with a subtle but noticeable framework of synths and vague, lingering melodies, the arrangements emphasised by the creepy tinkering of bells. A result of an interesting collaboration, 30 Silver Coins deliver those creeping, sepulchral tunes we crave. Speaking again to Ustumallagam, he proposes the following description of his two bands “Denial Of God play black horror metal while 30 Silver Coins play soundtrack inspired dark wave for a lack of better explanation. And even if both bands are driven by horror, it's two different universes we deal with here.” Delving further into their sound – and true to the theme, also putting it into pictures – he offers “Denial Of God would be a Hammer horror movie, while 30 Silver Coins would be more like Creepshow. Not that the band is comical, but because with that band there are no rules and we go wherever the music/lyrics take us. No rules, no boundaries.”

The latest incarnation of 30 Silver Coins

Somnambulist Red - The Revolting Paranoia Lurking in Your Head
The knife-wielding hand of giallo emerges from a dark, urban alleyway, New York Ripper-style. Somnambulist Red draws upon the progressive rock influences of Goblin, but also a variety of esoteric electronic elements and looping phrases of vulgar artsy post-rock in their evocations of paranoid delusions. Sean Townsend, the bedrock underneath a revolving door lineup and primary songwriter in Somnambulist Red, describes it as "cinematic soundscapes for the outer reaches of your cortex", and the description is morbidly accurate. Though the project's roots stretch back to 1995, the first official Somnambulist Red release wasn't out until 2007, and ever since then the band has been consistently active, often coupling their music as score for films. Citing a number of various artists, both in film and music, as influences - including David Lynch, Swans, Goblin, Popol Vuh, King Crimson and more - Somnambulist Red isn't wholeheartedly one or the other, but rather an amalgam of many currents, chief of which is that macabre atmosphere originally captured by Simonetti and company.

Nightsatan - The Chrome Knights of Northern Europe
Nightsatan and the Loops of Doom
With the three Finns in Nightsatan - Wolf Rami, Inhalator II and Mazathoth - there are definite nods to John Carpenter's simple synths and programmed drum rhythms. Apart from that, their music is also highly reminiscent of the tunes you'd find gracing the soundscapes of your odd apocalyptic exploitation films and Mad Max rip-offs of the 70s and 80s. As much as action exploitation cinema is a close cousin to horror films, so is the score, and as such the combination doesn't fall out of place. Going so far as to making their own film to score - Nightsatan and the Loops of Doom - this northern European trio are probably among the more dedicated of the lot. The film in itself isn't half bad, but the soundtrack is truly memorable. Having coined the term "laser metal" to go along with their debut album Midnight Laser Warrior from 2010, their style does perfectly encompass the 80s' infatuation with progressive technology.

Zombi - The Reanimated Corpses from the Morgue
An American duo, their music is anything but American in sound. Steve Moore and A.E. Paterra, the brains behind the project - most likely named after the Italian title for George A. Romero's zombie classic Dawn of the Dead, began in 2001 and quickly gained a small following, after which their debut album - entitled simply Zombi - was sold out. Largely inspired by the works of Fabio Frizzi, John Carpenter and others, their style plays the same tangents while yet leaving room for a progressive edge that developed over time. As such their creepy keys and droning synths are accompanied - and this is especially true for the 2003 EP Twilight Sentinel - by gorging bass lines, busy drumworks and assertive guitar tracks. Their large discography tells many stories - Much like the films and soundtracks from which the duo draw inspiration. Having toured with many prominent bands, a crowning achievement of sorts could well be their tour with Italian prog kings Goblin, who did the soundtrack for the film from which Zombi took their name.

Unforgettable final scene from Lucio Fulci's classic "The Beyond"

30 Silver Coins on FACEBOOK
Somnambulist Red on FACEBOOK // BANDCAMP
Slasher Dave on FACEBOOK
Call Me Greenhorn on FACEBOOK // BANDCAMP

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