(Editor’s Note: This post has been updated at the bottom with some commentary on the second volume of the score, which was released on Aug. 19.)
Netflix’s Stranger Things is an 8-hour homage to the Spielbergian wonder and Kingian horror of the 1980s and the 90s mysteries of The X-Files, and it would only be a base hit and not a home run without Kyle Dixon’s and Michael Stein’s brilliantly evocative synthesizer-based score.
Before I proceed, let me quickly sum up the show for those who haven’t seen it. (Don’t worry, though, if you haven’t, because the score stands alone as an important contribution to our modern culture without any narrative attachments.)
The show, Netflix’s most popular, takes place in 1983 Indiana where a young boy vanishes into thin air. As the kid’s family and friends, and even local law enforcement, search for answers, they are drawn into a Fox Mulder-baiting mystery involving top-secret government experiments, horrifying supernatural forces and one fascinating, young female protagonist. The show stars Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Matthew Modine, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Natalia Dyer and Charlie Heaton. The series is now streaming on Netflix everywhere and anywhere (perhaps even in the Upside-Down.)
Now Back to the Score
The score, the first volume of which was released on Aug. 12 with the second to follow on Aug. 19, is made up of a haunting array of pulsating, dark synths that recall the likes of John Carpenter, cascading soft arpeggiators that invoke the spirit of Tangerine Dream’s 80s work, and sparse, crystalline moments that would make famed film score composer Cliff Martinez proud. This score is, like the visuals, 80s retro, but it unlike the visuals it is much more contemporary at its core.
Certainly, the score sounds much more modern than the dark synth work of SURVIVE, the band of which Dixon and Stein represent 50 percent. The band’s edgier work, songs such as “Omniverse” and “Hourglass,” both featured on the soundtrack to The Guest, are much more overtly 80s.
On this score, cues like “Photos in the Woods” have a droning, abstract quality that do a great job at emitting a nausea-inducing sense of foreboding. Others, like “Hanging Lights,” rely on an intricate interplay of note runs, with synth arps flying up and down to help underscore to the emotional chaos.
But then cuts like “Biking to School” and “Friendship” counter that, capturing the joviality that pops up from time to time in the show. After all, there are some happy moments when all of the boys are together in that carefree pre-teen way — with camaraderie built over those small, BMX bicycles and big questions. The former cut relies on soft and blissful arps, whereas the latter song features a delicately pleasing glassy synth. “Nancy and Barb” is a similarly uplifting cut.
Then there’s the title theme, of course. It’s a pulsating, haunting number whose spectral leads and Pale Blue-invoking synth runs epitomize Dixon’s and Stein’s delicate mixture of 80s retro and modern synth composition. It’s a quick minute-eight, but in that time it has cemented itself as a must-hear theme song, a dog-whistle for all of those in earshot to take heed, because someone is playing Stranger Things nearby. Years from now, people will still remember this song and be transported back.
Ultimately, what it seems that Dixon and Stein have done here is at least twofold: They’ve managed to create a score that’s fun and rewarding to listen to outside of the show it augments, and have solidified themselves as go-to composers for filmmakers and showrunners with dark stories to tell.
Anyway, those are just a few of the 36 cues on this volume alone. It’s easy to see why Lakeshore Records decided to split this thing into two: I imagine that Texas natives Dixon and Stein have put together a massive payload of delectable and engaging cues to accompany the most popular retro-minded narrative in years.
You can buy and/or stream the score in the Apple biosphere. CDs are forthcoming next month, with vinyl reportedly following soon after.
UPDATE: Read below for my thoughts on Vol. 2, which came out on Aug. 19.
Now that Vol. 2 is out, we have quite the corpus in front of us (pun mildly intended). The first volume of the score had 36 cuts and this second volume has another 39, the latter of which largely track toward the overall mood and sound of the first; for obvious reasons.
One standout is the extended, five-minute version of the Stranger Things theme song. We get to experience more thoroughly the nuanced genius of the Dixon and Stein cue that will no doubt soon be regarded as a classic TV theme song that everyone will remember for years to come.
Other cues to note are “Danger Danger,” a grinding pulse of dissonance that wholly reflects its title and intent, and “Tendril,” which represents a screaming, in-yer-face sense of horror. It’s a bona fide blast of sonic fear.
There are a few tracks that underscore that the show isn’t a one-note, sci-fi horror concoction.
Cuts like “Kids Too,” “Talking to Australia,” and “Still Pretty” feature innocent themes with sweet synth patches, with the latter coming off like something from a Sébastien Tellier score.
“Eleven is Gone” is an example of the sadder fare on the score. Its ambient synth pads tap into the horror the kids of Stranger Things face when their friend disappears.
Overall, listening to both volumes in one go could be daunting, but still consider buying them both and listening to them outside of the sphere of the show. What I wrote earlier when I reviewed Vol. 1 still stands. Dixon and Stein have created good music that stands on its own — although the show is pretty cool, too.