Anthology: Movie Themes 1974-1998 Album Review
Written by Richie Corelli
Released by Sacred Bones Records
Composed by John Carpenter
2017, 42 minutes
Released on October 20th, 2017
To support his most recent album, Anthology: Movie Themes 1974-1998, John Carpenter toured North America. He stood at the front of the stage, centered, smacking down on his keyboard. He postured like the showman he is, winking to the crowd, pointing at specific audience members, swaggering with confidence and style. To his right and left were his son and godson, musicians Cody Carpenter and Daniel Davies. Supported by additional instrumentalists, the band played through some of the most popular music from Carpenter's long list of movies. The spectators knew every song. They cheered and screamed through the entire concert.
John Carpenter never expected to be a rock star. Through the first 25 years of his career, he was a filmmaker. The music he made was simply a part of that process. It started as a financial decision. Carpenter had experience with music. His father was a music teacher. So when he started making movies, he scored his own films to save money.
His focus changed in the mid-2010s. By this point, Carpenter had taken a step back from filmmaking and went into semi-retirement. He spent most of his free time playing video games and messing around in his home music studio with his son. Those jam sessions eventually grew into an album. Lost Themes was released to critical acclaim by Sacred Bones Records in 2015. A not-quite-as-good-but-still-really-good sequel, Lost Themes II, hit the following year. With Carpenter's interest in music refreshed, he looked back on his impressive back catalogue of film score work. As the title indicates, Anthology: Movie Themes 1974-1998, compiles some of these best movie moments.
John Carpenter is credited as one of the inventors of the synthwave music genre. It's a celebration of the synthesizer; the sharp edge of each keystroke, the cold temps of the high notes, the deep pulse of the low. Anthology plays to this. The track "Assault on Precent 13" bows to the lower end. The bassline is put up front and tapped out on a keyboard while swaths of high notes glide beneath. "The Fog", meanwhile, hovers closer to the center of the board. This song is a sort of scary-synth version of "Dueling Banjos" where one hand stamps out a melody and the other repeats it with different notes. But it's Carpenter's most famous song, the theme from Halloween, that probably best exemplifies his synthwave aesthetic. The song's iconic melody hits with a crisp snap. A steady beat keeps time while layers of lower keys come in thick and juicy. It's a sound that couldn't be replicated by any other instrument. The synthesizer is the song.
While Anthology is synth-heavy, not every song is as synth-reliant. The keyboards are always to the front, but throughout the collection, other instruments make their voices heard. The bluesy feeling from "They Live" comes from a harmonica and "Porkchop Express (Big Trouble in Little China)" rides on a guitar grove. John Carpenter wanted Metallica's "Enter Sandman" to launch his movie In the Mouth of Madness. When he couldn't get that, he did the next best thing and wrote his own Metallica influenced track. The song starts out with Carpenter's trusty keyboard, but those notes are soon overtaken by the rumbling distortion of an electric guitar.
Though Carpenter didn't get Metallica, he did work with other musicians through the years. The Thing was originally penned and performed by the prolific Ennio Morricone. On Anthology, Carpenter and his band perform the song themselves, interpreting Morricone's writing their own way, accenting the keyboards and making the track a little more elastic. Jack Nitzsche's composed theme for Starman sounds a little more plastic in the hands of Carpenter and his band. They shed Nitzshe's earthier sound for something a little more synthetic. The original releases and the Carpenter covers are both strong, but for different reasons. The preferred version of each of these songs will likely depend on the preferences of the listener.
There is an immediacy to Carpenter's work. This was by necessity. He was busy directing movies while most of these were written, so Carpenter developed a songwriting process that was fast and raw. He has stated that the theme for Halloween was written in a few hours, the entire score for Assault on Precent 13 was put together in less than a day. As a result of this haste, most of the songs on Anthology are quick and straightforward.
Limited intricacy doesn't mean limited depth. Carpenter's genius is how he can take relatively simple structures and add weight to them through arrangement. Carpenter has an innate sense of placement. His layers tend to be thin, but he stacks his sounds and times his rests in a way that maximizes their effectiveness. John Carpenter's music is like comfort food. They're easy recipes, but seasoned so perfectly that they are absolutely mouthwatering.
The songs on Anthology: Movie Themes 1974-1998 are not laid out in chronological order. Instead, the tracklist is arranged by sound. This doesn't always work. While Carpenter's filmography is primarily categorized as horror, he's moved in other genres as well. As such, this 24-year spanning compilation doesn't always have the cleanest flow. Moving from the chill of "Halloween" to the blues-rock of "Porkchop Express (Big Trouble in Little China)", for instance, is a little jarring. But if the tracklist is bumpy in tone, it makes up for it in range. These songs show Carpenter's willingness to take risks. It was a willingness that pays off more than it doesn't.
It is important to stress that these are not the original recordings. Carpenter and his band played it smart. They didn't tinker with the original works and stayed mostly true to the old sounds. But there are some tweaks here and there. The sonic variations in production are the most obvious. The mixing is clearer this time around, the sounds more defined. Other tracks see small alterations here and there. With a few exceptions, the changes are so slight that they are barely noticeable. Yet, purists who grew up loving the original works may be more sensitive to these changes.
Sacred Bones knew that this album was an important one, so they went all-in with their pressings. In addition to the standard black vinyl, they issued a bunch of different variants to honor the significance of the release:
- "Anti-God Green" colored vinyl, limited to 500 copies, initial availability exclusive to Sacred Bones mail order.
- "Halloween Orange" colored vinyl, limited to 500 copies, initial availability exclusive to Sacred Bones mail order. This is a deluxe package that contains extra artwork and an additional 7".
- "Christine Red" colored vinyl, limited to 3,000 copies, initial availability exclusive to record stores outside of the U.S. This is a deluxe package that contains extra artwork and an additional 7".
- "The Fog Over Antonio Bay" colored vinyl, limited to 2,000 copies, initial availability exclusive to U.S. record stores. This is a deluxe package that contains extra artwork and an additional 7".
- "Dark Star Deep Space" colored vinyl, limited to 500 copies, autographed and exclusively available on John Carpenter's fall tour. This is a deluxe package that contains extra artwork and an additional 7".
There is also one more edition; a handmade, liquid filled, "Halloween Orange" clear vinyl. The inside of this version features artwork by Chris Bilheimer. With this variant, each record took over an hour to make. With only 60 copies produced, this is an extremely limited release.
The 7" that appears with some of the packages contains two extra tracks, "March of the Children", from the underrated movie Village of the Damned, and the deeper cut, "Theme from Body Bags". While neither track is vital, both are enjoyable.
The "Halloween Orange" and the "Dark Star Deep Space" editions are the subjects of this HorrorTalk review. Both are terrific. The outer casing is paper folded with an illustration on the front and wax-seal on the back. The design on the front of the record vaguely feels like a lost piece of esoteric and ancient art. Small symbols circle the album title like etchings surrounding an alter. Each symbol represents a Carpenter film. The emblem for Prince of Darkness, for example, is a skeleton key. The Statue of Liberty wears an eye patch for Escape from New York. The image for Assault on Precinct 13 is darkly funny for those familiar with the film; it's an ice cream cone centered in a weapon's crosshairs. These symbols come as larger 7" prints as well. On the back of each print is a write-up by Carpenter where he briefly discusses each song. It's a nice detail that brings the listener closer to this master of horror.
Inside is a second cover, a die-cut design that stencils out the word ANTHOLOGY. Pictures of Carpenter at different phases of his career are collaged within. The second cover is the standard cover. This is the packaging that is uniform throughout all the different releases. Both covers look good on individually, but they clash in conjunction with other another. The styles and themes are too disconnected.
The records themselves are splashed with color. They look vibrant on their own, but really pop when held in front of a light source. The mixing of Anthology could have been better and more consistent. Some songs feel thinner than others. Sound quality is good, but not exceptional. Still, the recordings on Anthology are far better than most of the older releases of these songs. And having them all on one piece of slab of vinyl is a huge bonus.
John Carpenter's influence is wide-reaching. Throughout his career, his peers followed him with similar scoring technics. And today, musicians like S U R V I V E, whose fantastic score to Netflix's runaway hit Stranger Things owes a huge debt to John Carpenter. Even outside of movie theaters and television studios, Carpenter's sounds could be heard. Artists like Chromatics, Cold Cave, Umberto, and Trust all pay homage to John Carpenter in their way.
A John Carpenter movie is like nothing else. They may differ in theme, but are tied together by a signature look and feel. He's earned cult acclaim for the films he has directed. But Anthology: Movie Themes 1974-1998 argues that he is much more than a film director, much more than a storyteller. This is a record that demonstrates Carpenter's skill went far beyond a camera. This John Carpenter retrospective proves that the horror master is as relevant for the ear as he is for the eye.