Vitskär Süden released an unexpected gem earlier this year. Their self titled album was a cosmic blend of progressive, sci-fi themed rock. The album is available via the bands Bandcamp page (click here).
Here, we welcome Martin Garner, bassist and vocalist with Vitskär Süden, to write in our Why I Love column. He has chosen the force of nature that is the master of horror; John Carpenter.
The first movie I remember renting as a teenager featured what was easily the most fantastic cover illustration in the VHS rental shop (that pre-streaming world where you made 90% of your viewing choices based on cover art alone). On this particular box, the Statue of Liberty’s crumbling, disembodied head has crashed between the buildings of Manhattan’s skyline. In the foreground, a buxom babe and patch-eyed antihero are seen blasting their way past a pursuing mob of stick-wielding lowlifes. The movie, John Carpenter’s Escape From New York, turned out to be one of the few worthy of its cover art.
Something else about it caught my attention, as well. The main title’s extremely catchy synth melody, layered over beds of string patches, pulsing sequencer bits and simple but effective drum programming, was so enticing I instantly had to begin pecking around on the piano in our living room to figure it out.
Shortly thereafter, I had to come up with a strategy to convince my mom I needed a synthesizer of my own. To this day, the signature sounds of Carpenter’s Prophet-5 are always somewhere in the back of my head when sketching out songs on my own or working in an improv setting with the other guys in my band.
As I discovered via the rest of the EFNY soundtrack and throughout Carpenter’s other homebrew scores, the director and composer is a master of creating tension, suspense and glorious ear candy with a stripped-down, DIY sensibility.
Even the standout non-Carpenter score to a Carpenter film, Ennio Morricone’s score for The Thing, is fully representative of the Carpenter modus operandi. The signature bass thump in The Thing’s “Humanity (Part 2)” (which seems to have assimilated EFNY’s “Orientation #2”) achieves so much with the simple repetition of a single note, I’d argue it decimates John Williams’ much-heralded Jaws theme on the dread and doom-induction front.
Even though this signature subwoofer rattle shows up in a number of his films, J.C. is no one-trick pony. He masterfully works over the listener’s emotions from the higher register on the Halloween soundtrack. Big Trouble in Little China works in some utterly-appropriate 80s guitar cheese. They Live gives us low-budget blues. In the Mouth of Madness hints at RAT pedal hair metal. His soundtracks for The Fog and Prince of Darkness double down on airy, atmospheric pads and bring touches of organ.
Although he hasn’t directed any films in the last decade or so, those of us who love his music have been lucky enough to be on the receiving end of two “Lost Themes” albums packed with synth-heavy instrumental tracks that could’ve stepped right out of any Carpenter flick. The songs are just as addictively ear-wormy, and so thick with tension and drama that one can’t help but sit and imagine the non-existent movie scenes they should accompany.
Even my 10 year-old son is hooked on the Lost Themes albums. Although they’re his go-to soundtrack for any kind of board game in our house, we’ve often had to put on something mellower to keep family dust-ups at bay.
As you sit there clawing at your armrests tapping your foot maniacally to the unrelenting kick drum and whistling synth of the eight minute-plus epic “Obsidian”, it’s tough to resist the urge to grab your Catan opponent by the neck and flip the board over, shouting, “But what about the mindless mob out there lurching toward this house RIGHT NOW?!? Stop playing games and start helping me board up the windows! THEY’RE COMING!”
That’s the ultimate beauty of music created by storytellers, I think. Carpenter’s music transports me to another place. It takes me on a visual, emotional journey. I desperately want to inhabit those spaces and worlds. When my band touches on that same feeling with a piece we’re working on — when we arrive at that “John Carpenter place” — I always know we’re onto something. Here’s hoping there are many more Lost Themes albums to come.
Many thanks to Vitskär Süden for their thoughts on John Carpenter. You can view the bands video for Trickle Of The Snail, below. You can read our review of the album here.