Halloween wasn’t the first movie John Carpenter directed, but it was the first movie of his that really mattered. Not for the reason you’re probably thinking, which is that it was part of the first crop of films to really pioneer and embrace the idea of “slasher” as a genre. That’s pretty important, yeah. But it’s not nearly as important as Halloween‘s theme, which helped introduce the world to synths and made high-pitched repetition as scary as a whited out Shatner mask.
Carpenter’s soundtracks have remained stellar ever since, so it makes sense that he would begin a career as a proper musician, alongside his son and a family friend,with the release of 2015’s Lost Themes, roughly 40 years after Halloween. It also makes sense that his music, both on that album and its new, sorta sequel, Lost Themes II, sounds spiritually identical to his soundtracks. In fact, these albums reference the motifs of his soundtrack work so impressively that some songs can be traced back to specific moments on specific soundtracks, which is pretty cool, but also not exactly the best way to make an album that does anything but fade into the background.
To call Carpenter’s albums homage to, uh, Carpenter, would be disrespectful, and too reductive. But if these two collections were released by anyone else, they’d quickly be labeled as homages to Halloween and Assault on Precinct 13 and The Fog and however many other horror soundtracks. Hell, they’d probably be marketed that way, subject line, “Hot Young Producer Riffs on Classic Horror Themes. Check It Out!!” The strength of Lost Themes II is that each song makes you remember a certain film or, a type of film, or a certain thing you felt during that film. Unfortunately, that’s not what Carpenter was going for, and if anything matters in art, it’s intent.
Carpenter has called this album (and Lost Themes, actually) the score to the “movie[s] running through [our] heads,” which is a neat idea but one that also applies to most recorded music, or sound in general. It’s also really generous to our imaginations, which are surely warped when they hear the bubbly synths of “Bela Lugosi,” maybe even to such an extent that they imagine scenes from Carpenter’s first feature, Dark Star, rather than Dracula, which, given the title, must have been part of the equation. “Last Sunrise” lurks along like some chopped scene from “The Fog.” “Windy Death” plays with all of these things, too, but is maybe the only song on this album that stands on its own, though it’d still be OK to play in the Chinese buffet of some Ohio mall, maybe when more crab rangoon was being carted out, all frothing, 8-bit drama. Throw “Angel’s Asylum” on there, too — it’d be the perfect accompaniment to the slurping of hot and sour soup.
It’s unfair to criticize this album for its own lack of narrative, because Carpenter can (and does) at least create a mood — it’s just a very one-note mood. There’s very little in the way of dynamics here. To pull from Carpenter’s own oeuvre, it would’ve been nice to hear some echoes of Christine. That soundtrack’s oversized drum sound can be heard in “Angel’s Asylum,” which is one of few pretty solid jams. But the greatness of the Christine track is in its relative starkness, a thing made possible by Carpenter’s editing eye. And that eye seems to go blind while Carpenter operates in “musician” mode.
What Carpenter seems to have done with both Lost Themes and Lost Themes II is mistakenly assume that, because the music on these albums doesn’t exist to support the images from a film, they’ve gotta be huge. So he’s stuffed them with so much stuff, like sound dumplings bursting with sonic meat. Such abundance violates the appeal of the slasher flick, which is that a single killer is scarier than an army of killers (at least on screen). That’s why the solo synth trot of that Halloween soundtrack captivates. There’s so little there, but it’s doing so much, and so it evokes. And the stuff that is there isn’t even interesting. They Live‘s soundtrack is packed to the brim, but with such inventive percussion that, in comparison, these tracks sometimes sound like samples packaged with Logic Pro, the program Carpenter now uses for all of his synth sounds. The songs on Lost Themes II don’t provoke evocation. Carpenter has said that this album would be more substantial than the first, a promise that always sounds like a warning, but it’s at least one he’s kept. By making this album “more substantial,” though, he’s made what is essentially a sonic representation of the overcooked studio sequel to a horror original.
Going back to last year and reading an interview Carpenter did with Billboard, it might be unfair to critically evaluate any music he makes, at least under the Lost Themes titles, because he just maybe didn’t care enough. “So we’d improvise music for a couple hours, and then go back up and play video games. And then improvise more music. Over a period of time, this became the album,” he said. Maybe it’ll be rad to see these things live, where beer makes everything better and the novelty of John Carpenter on keys overshadows monotony of everything else. It wouldn’t be the first time a band excelled in the live show.
It’s such a shame, though, because the songs here have potential, and his soundtracks showcase that potential being fulfilled. True, listening to all of the scores back-to-back does make for pretty even listening, but the way Carpenter manages to explore genre through so few sounds — mostly cheese guitar, cheap synths, and big, round drums — blows away the hours of homogenous horror-jams found on these two albums. And maybe that’s tough on a guy two albums in to his music career, but that’s what happens when you’ve been making great tunes for four decades. If these songs are truly the soundtrack to what’s playing in our heads, then damn, we’ve got some pretty flatlined minds.