‘Lost Themes III: Alive After Death’: John Carpenter Continues To Forge Creepy New Musical Territory
Just a few years ago John Carpenter was a horror luminary advancing gracefully into his twilight years, an artist rightfully taking his place among the genre’s standard bearers as descendants and disciples carried forward his artistic mantle. But his 2014 album “Lost Themes,” a collection of musical collaborations with his son Cody, quickly evolved from a victory lap for a former composer whose work came roaring back to relevance in the late 2000s into a new venture that gave his career new life and a new direction. “Lost Themes III: Alive After Death” continues this fascinating late-stage journey for the man responsible not only for some of the most striking horror and sci-fi films of the past five decades, but the medium’s most recognizable themes. Liberated from specific imagery or concrete narratives, Carpenter, his son Cody and his godson Daniel Davies concentrate his iconic, synth-driven style into ten succinct mood pieces that will no doubt inspire storytellers and horror fans as vividly as any of his films.
Carpenter was never a formal composer in the same ways as, say, John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith or even the creator of the “Friday the 13th” theme, Harry Manfredini. Frequently working on shoestring budgets, he would create the music for his films in a matter of days (“Halloween” was completed in just three) by borrowing inspiration from pop and rock music that he loved (“Assault on Precinct 13” was a riff on Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”). Although these new “themes” were created only for imaginary films, they clearly bear the hallmarks of his earlier work without seeming derivative — the result of forging what new territory he can in a body of work that encompasses more than 20 film projects, a handful of scores for films he didn’t make, across almost 50 years. Consequently, from the opening track, “Alive After Death,” “Lost Themes III” immediately evokes sounds, and even occasionally melodies from “The Fog,” and his other scores.
Since he used a 5/4 time signature for the score to “Halloween,” Carpenter has always maintained tight control on the sense of momentum he creates with his music, and on “Alive After Death,” he juxtaposes percolating synthesizers with a menacing half-time bass line, only dropping an actual beat into the track in its final seconds like the crash of a zombie horde through the door of an alcove where the few remaining living mount their last defense. Next, “Weeping Ghost” chugs with evil urgency over a four-four beat, adding in a naked piano that recalls “Escape From New York;” his instincts to throw in jagged electric guitar underscore his filmmaking heyday, which coincides with heavy metal’s peak, but the combination works without sounding anachronistic. In 2021, Carpenter is not only a significantly more accomplished musician than he was 20 or 30 years ago, but the equipment he uses is much more advanced, and he makes the most of it without adding unnecessary bells and whistles to his winning, immediately identifiable formula.
A close stylistic counterpart to this record is Daft Punk’s score for “TRON: Legacy,” which of course borrowed from him and from original “TRON” composer Wendy Carlos, and shares a unique listenability while clearly working to generate a specific mood rather than build into more traditional songs. Featuring the haunted, liturgical echo of a ghostly choir over a church organ, “Dead Eyes” conjures every detail in the listener’s mind that its provocative title doesn’t reveal. In a recent interview, Carpenter explained that the titles were more directly inspired by horror than on the previous two installments, but simultaneously were not conceived with any notions more specific than what he thought sounded good. That a track like this one reminds you immediately of his music for “Prince of Darkness”, and to a lesser extent, Phillip Glass’ score to “Candyman,” may or may not be intentional — Carpenter doesn’t seem like he second-guesses himself often, about his or anyone else’s influence — but it taps into the larger canon of horror film music and what we associate with the creeps and creatures that haunt our dreams.
Carpenter’s music has been covered, remixed and redone many times across his career, from German group Splash Band’s covers in the 1980s to Zombie Zombie’s 2010 tribute EP to Trent Reznor’s cover of the “Halloween” theme from 2017. Many of these were designed as much for the dancefloor as a darkened room. A track like racing, catchy “Vampire’s Touch” feels like his response to those tracks, demonstrating that he can create a mood and get feet moving at the same time, as electric guitars convey an emotional counterpoint to the driving electronic backbeat. Then on “Cemetery,” he balances that uncomplicated guitar and familiar, spare piano sound with electronic keyboards that sound like they were stolen from inventive French producer (and “Yeezus” collaborator) Gesaffelstein, a comparison it seems doubtful that Carpenter would even recognize but one that showcases the timelessness of his creativity, not to mention his willingness to take risks outside of a perceived comfort zone.
“Skeleton” forms the third part of a minor trilogy of dancefloor bangers in the middle of the album, turning his elegant piano melodies into a throwback to ‘90s house while ambient synthesizers fill the space between that throbbing drumbeat. This one sounds even more like Daft Punk than its predecessor, wafting delicately toward the melody of “Son Of Flynn” and away again before inattentive listeners pick up on its possible influence. But what’s great about the record is that even the downtempo tracks, ones like “Turning The Bones,” without clear beats or conventional rhythm patterns, are as interesting and seamless as a listening experience as the ones that get you moving. At 73, he’s not only a master manipulator of mood, but an effortless one, and you readily find yourself swept along by whatever musical excursion he takes.
Closing with “Carpathian Darkness,” Carpenter once again comes back to that piano as the backbone of both his melody and the atmosphere he’s trying to create, echoing the melancholy and imminent danger lurking in minor cues from the 1978 “Halloween” while electric guitar doubles his keyboard notes — the leitmotifs of a score for a film you can practically imagine in your head when you hear it. But if Carpenter doesn’t seem to be working especially hard to create these tracks, they work as powerfully as his most famous compositions, even without Donald Pleasance or Kurt Russell fighting for humanity’s future opposite them. “Lost Themes III: Alive After Death” offers another treasure trove of instantly memorable melodies, reminding the horror community and his fans that Carpenter still has much to offer before anyone should start thinking they’re ready to pick up from where he’s left off.
“Lost Themes III: Alive After Death” releases Feb. 5 on Apple Music.