The Master Returns

Late-career re-recordings of hits are often crimes against humanity. However, this is not the case with John Carpenter’s latest release, Anthology: Movie Themes 1974-1998. The new release — in which the director and composer revisits his iconic movie themes and a couple that others created for his films — underscores the raw power his compositions extract from few notes, while showcasing the energy and spirit of his modern live shows.

Joining Carpenter on this mission is son Cody and godson Daniel Davies, who both tour with him along with a backing band. The trio also is behind Carpenter’s recent filmless scores, Lost Themes and Lost Themes II. On Anthology, they showcase their deft ability to maintain the late 1970s and 1980s vibes of the director’s iconic themes — and 1990s vibes of his lesser-known ones — while strengthening and emphasizing their impact in a modern context.

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This release comes at an interesting time for Carpenter, who is more relevant than ever. There are so many musicians on the landscape right now — especially film composers — who are influenced at least in part by his simple but profoundly effective approach to score composition. His synths are all over everything and a good chunk of us couldn’t be happier. Read a review of a film score today, particularly a horror film score, and you’ll see the adjective “Carpenteresque” used frequently. (I use it quite a bit, too, including in my interview with Cody in which I labelled him “a new kind of Carpenteresque.” Cody is himself a well-respected composer and songwriter. Davies, too, is part of the modern movement, and one of his best songs is on The Rise of the Synths companion vinyl.)

It’s with that in mind that I experience this release. In revisiting his past, Carpenter and his family are able to further our understanding of his impact on the present.

A Lifetime’s Worth of Important Music

Carpenter’s synth work isn’t sophisticated like that of Vangelis, but what he lacks in technical skill he makes up for a hundredfold in musical storytelling and a comprehensive ability to tap into every aspect of the human spirit to evoke strong emotions. He has a preternatural ability to create powerful moments with very little tools. (Carpenter frequently collaborated with Alan Howarth on several scores, some of which are mentioned in this review and many which aren’t. Howarth no doubt brings this sense of economy, too.)

Consider the theme for Assault on Precinct 13 from 1976. It’s a simple, fat synth riff backed with some colorful, one-note synth pads and a tight and polite drum machine. That’s it; but it unfurls an experience that is instantly rewarding. You can feel the urban decay in every measure.

On Anthology, the trio don’t mess with the formula. However, they do change the nature of the tones. The synth patches are newer and fatter, and the drum machine is more robust. It has the more present sound you get when seeing them live. It’s not a superfluous mission, though. What we witness is a compelling new interpretation of an idea we’ve embraced for 41 years.

The theme for Halloween is similar revisited. As many know, it’s a simple, minor-key piano run and some haunting legato synth notes supported by a frenetic drum machine. That minimal arrangement is nevertheless iconic and one of the best themes ever composed. It changed the world of film and score composition, quite frankly.

On Anthology, the modernization doesn’t strip away the meaning of the original. Those few notes are still there and still set us up for the horror that Michael Myers will unleash. If we’re looking at Anthology as both a retrospective and a reinterpretation, perhaps what the trio do with the Halloween theme is just make it scarier for our more frightening world 39 years later.

Those are just a few of the most memorable synth-driven numbers on the album, and, as established, the composer is widely regarded as a synth wizard. But what’s also established on the opening cut of Anthology is that we would be foolish to forget that Carpenter can also rock.

The theme for In the Mouth of Madness, a psychological-Lovecraftian story about a horror writer’s novels causing people to go crazy, is a full-out riff fest, chunky with the palm-mute and high on a searing lead guitar. Kinks guitarist Dave Davies played lead on the original version and here, ostensibly, his son takes over. The Metallica homage is alive and well on the revisiting. (Interestingly, Hey Arnold! composer Jim Lang cowrote this number with Carpenter and Dave Davies.)

If it’s not already obvious, Carpenter wanted to use “Enter Sandman,” for the Madness theme, but wasn’t able to. This would explain the character of this cue.

While not a guitar-driven number, the slow-burning theme for “Escape from New York,” my personal favorite, has its share of axe action. In many ways it represents Carpenter’s best work, showcasing both the nuance of his synth composition with his penchant for rocking out. Supporting the simple piano fingerings and triumphant synth arpeggiations are parallel guitar riffs and high-register leads. Underneath it all is a confidently molasses-paced drum beat. You can feel the raw desperation and drained spirit one feels living in a corporatist dystopia.

The trio of Carpenter, Carpenter, and Davies also tackle a few themes others have written for Carpenter films. Notably, there’s The Thing, which film-score god Ennio Morricone composed. Carpenter had some say in the general character of the score, though, because the the minimalistic interplay among synths is still there — I believe Carpenter specifically asked Morricone to compose with the fewest notes possible. On Anthology, they add layers of guitars, which has its positive effects both live and on the record.

‘Anthology’ shows how creators can revisit their work in a new way that only reinforces and expands our connection to the moments we’ve held with us for decades.

The beautiful and bombastic schmaltz of Jack Nitzsche’s Starman theme feels a tad odd among its cohort, but it nevertheless showcases another component of the Carpenter spectrum.

John Carpenter
John Carpenter.

Overall, Anthology is worth your time if you’re interested in the nostalgia-minded synth movements of recent years, and it’s crucial if you’re a John Carpenter fan.

The release is not a retread, or a cash-grab, or some aging artist’s bid to grasp at a fading brilliance. What it is, instead, is an important part of the output of a director and composer who has had a huge impact on our shared culture. It’s a sort-of hermeneutic on pieces that have shaped our film experience and awakened our sense of wonder, fear, and even serenity — showing how creators can revisit their work in a new way that only reinforces and expands our connection to the moments they’ve given us and that we’ve held onto for decades.

(I didn’t cover every track, of course, but never fear: You can stream the entire album below. But also buy it. Help support The Horror Master.)

 

 

 

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