Forty seconds into “Vortex,” the opening track on John Carpenter’s new album Lost Themes, and you’re already caught up in a 1980s thriller. You don’t know for certain who is doing the chasing and who is being chased, but you get the feeling you are the one running. Are you Roddy Piper in They Live? Stevie Wayne in The Fog? Jack Crow in Vampires?
Carpenter, known for composing 16 of the soundtracks for major films he directed, has released his first solo album, on the Sacred Bones Records label, full of tracks that could be scores for future–or lost–films, films only Carpenter could make.
You’re dropped into what could only be the aftermath of Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness with the second track, “Obsidian.” There, behind the old tenement. Jameson Parker’s Brian Marsh awakens from a dream in the alley. His girlfriend is back and this time she made her way through the portal of green goo into our time. Again, it’s time to run. And then there’s a shift. In fact, in 8 minutes an entire story plays out. Carpenter’s trademark pulsating synthesizer rampage and unapologetic steely trumpet solo is cheering on our hero in an honest to goodness rock ‘n’ roll hero anthem.
We get some relief in “Fallen.” Maybe Karen Allen’s Jenny Hayden is helping our lost friend as he returns from afar in a lost soundtrack to Starman? Maybe it’s the return of The Thing or the theme of the ice cream man in Assault on Precinct 13. Whichever, Carpenter knows the soundtrack of someone strange amongst us. Think classic 1950s sci-fi meets the 1980s.
You can’t help but get that hollow feeling at the opening of the next track, “Domain.” Uncertainty? Maybe. But it’s a trick, juxtaposed against something. Someone hopeful, someone optimistic leads the way this time, almost in a Sam Jones Flash Gordon sci-fi/fantasy montage, replacing Eddie Mercury with our eminent director composer. The themes here are new for Carpenter, no Snake Plissken, no Jack Burton. This is an entirely new sound and perhaps the unmade movie he makes us want to see the most.
With “Mystery,” we return to the Carpenter voice we know so well. Jamie Lee Curtis’s Laurie Strode. Forget about those other umpteen Halloween sequels. Laurie is teaching at some Northeast private college. The first leaves of autumn are beginning to drop. Dread. Who opened that door? Why? This time Laurie isn’t running though. This time she’s Sarah Connor in Terminator 2, picking up Plissken’s portable cannon and no Michael Myers is going to best anyone today. Damn you, Carpenter. Why do you taunt us like this?
“Abyss” takes you back to your neighborhood in suburban America as a kid. Playing monopoly with friends into the wee hours. You break away from the game to monitor the progress of a friend who is rebuilding not an old red Plymouth Fury but maybe a Ford Torino in his garage. But it’s not any old car. This car is perfection and his obsession. This car does something… more.
Carpenter’s next track, “Wraith,” skips us ahead into our future, beyond Escape from New York (and skipping way over Escape from L.A.) to Plissken’s last encounter. Escape from Detroit? That thumping, building synth drum is taking us along for the ride as we peer into that chasm and jump in at the last minute to save the day, along with our only friend, Kurt Russell and that eyepatch. Is this the end? Not quite. The heart-pounding rhythms of Prince of Darkness are here, too. An echo of his second track, “Obsidian?” “What theater is this?” you ask as you reach for the ticket in your pocket to recall what movie you bought the ticket for. You go to ask the man at the ticket booth and notice he looks a lot like Donald Pleasance.
So what’s not here? A requiem? The everyman theme of Nada in They Live? Nope. A quiet dirge followed by the arrival of Piper’s hero comes midway through the eighth track, “Purgatory.” Looking for a theme to your own soundtrack? This would be a good choice. And you can see Nada moving onto his next town in the last main track of the album, “Night.” And here the title is apt. It’s Carpenter’s cruising theme–the theme of a dark, endless highway to Noplace.
If John Carpenter’s Lost Themes were on cassette it would get worn out quickly, like my old copy of Carpenter’s They Live soundtrack. Like John Williams’ ability to bring out the best of Steven Spielberg’s blockbusters, it’s easy to see why the pairing of Carpenter with Carpenter created such a unique body of work, and has earned such a loyal fan following.
The six bonus tracks in the digital version of the album expand and offer remixes of “Night,” “Wraith,” “Vortex,” “Abyss,” and two other versions of “Fallen.” These have a completely different vibe from the earlier cuts–more modern, darker, sinister–the soundtracks for someone else’s films. Voices are added, lyrics in “Night,” ghoulish human sounds in “Wraith,” and Carpenter brings us back to the present day. The best of the final three remix tracks is the penultimate track, the epic, Daft Punk-esque JG Thirlwell remix of “Abyss.”
If you want to write your own film to accompany John Carpenter’s Lost Themes, pick up your copy here from Amazon.com, in CD, vinyl, or digital, available now.