John Carpenter’s Best Sequel Yet – Lost Themes III: Alive After Death
My first encounter with the music of John Carpenter was on Siskel and Ebert’s Sneak Previews in 1978.
Surprisingly, both critics spoke highly of Carpenter’s low budget breakout horror film. They agreed that Halloween was a genre movie that didn’t hate women. Siskel in particular cited the effectiveness of the score.
That score was, of course, written by the director himself.
AUDIO: John Carpenter “The Hanger”
I can’t pretend to have consciously taken notice of the music in that scene when I was five years old. But certainly “The Hanger” entered my ears and chilled me to the bone. I squirmed while Jamie Lee Curtis hid in a closet menaced by The Shape. That scene remains one of the indelible images of terror from my childhood.
Artist: John Carpenter
Album: Lost Themes III: Alive After Death
Label: Sacred Bones
★★★★ 1/2 (4.5/5 stars)
Carpenter scored the majority of his films, with only a few exceptions. When he had the opportunity to hire the maestro Ennio Morricone for The Thing, it was almost a respite. Almost, because Morricone’s work was based on an unfinished film. Carpenter still ended up writing interstitial music that was finally re-recorded in 2020 as Lost Cues.
Overall, Carpenter’s music is characterized by its haunting mood and the use of minimalist piano and synthesizer. He was not interested in the technology of keyboards, simply the sounds they produced. Much of his best film music work was done in collaboration with Alan Howarth who actually knew how the machines worked.
Carpenter’s soundtrack LPs eventually became cult items, finally reissued by the Death Waltz label beginning in 2012. In 2015 Sacred Bones released Carpenter’s first non-soundtrack album Lost Themes. Whereas most of his soundtracks included a robust, memorable main title and a dozen or more bits of ambient music, Lost Themes was an album of nothing but the goods. It was a musical gift I never expected to receive, and still stands as my favorite album of the 2010s.
An inevitable remix set followed, with interpretations by Jim Thirlwell, Zola Jesus, ohGR, and others. Better yet, Lost Themes II arrived in 2016. Some fans found this to be more of the same, rather than some sort of artistic progression. Personally, all I wanted was more. You don’t fix what isn’t broken. I honestly can’t imagine what ingredient should be added to what I already consider a wish fulfilled. In my esteem, the only difference between Lost Themes I and II is simply the WOW factor.
Carpenter’s collaborations on new original material with his son Cody–product of John’s former marriage to scream queen Adrienne Barbeau–and godson Daniel Davies are perfect. All the essence of the immortal music from Escape From New York, Assault on Precinct Thirteen, Season of the Witch, and They Live is not only exhumed, it’s reanimated. The studio production is full and modern, bereft of any clever touches that would only date it in the future.
I have yet to hear a single Retro Synthwave band that comes close to the caliber of the compositions, execution, or arrangements on Carpenter’s original albums. That’s another reason I am so excited to have a third edition in Lost Themes III.
The new album features ten original tracks, kicking off with the subtitular “Alive After Death.” Likely designed as an opener, this track begins a syncopated melody over a deep synth drone. Arpeggiators weave in as the track pulses along, eventually erupting into one of Carpenter’s signature vampiric rock anthems. Check out the music video, animated by Liam Brazier.
“Weeping Ghost” is based on a driving synth riff with a four on the floor disco beat beneath. One easily imagines a film character driving city streets at night, wipers fighting raindrops off the windshield in time to the music. Perhaps the driver is unaware that he’s already dead.
“Dripping Blood” toys with melancholia and nostalgia. This is Carpenter in his sparest mode. “Dead Eyes” continues in this minimal vein, shimmering church organ shining stained glass rays over its funereal unfurling.
“Vampire’s Touch” is a slow burner that builds over its four and a half minutes into a showcase for tasteful, screaming guitar. “Cemetery” revels in the power of a two-note riff, then adds a third for good measure. The interweaving electronic bed beneath sounds like something from Nintendo 64 Goldeneye, and I definitely mean that as a compliment.
“Skeleton” was the first single released from Lost Themes III back in July of 2020 and was available on its own 12”. Top commenter Justin Martinez posted on the Youtube video, “Now that we’re all living in a John Carpenter film, we should at least buy the soundtrack.” Can’t argue with logic.
Track eight is the autumnal, “Turning the Bones.” By now it’s more than apparent that Carpenter’s three favorite modes are creepiness, brooding, and wistfulness. He must love pounding out the simplest melody and letting savvy young producers filter the sounds into something transcendent.
“The Dead Walk” is so immediately hooky that it feels on par with any of the original main film themes. This one has it all. One begins to run out of adjectives to describe an album of instrumentals, but the slashing guitar, synth melodies, dramatic breakdown, incessant drumbeat, are all arranged perfectly. It’s like a chocolate cake filled with prime rib, cooked medium rare, with the icing intact at room temperature. Both a great trick, and a delicious treat.
The album concludes with the piano driven “Carpathian Darkness.” Cody’s guitar and (presumably) Davies’ organ play respectful supporting roles, until the final minute when full moon light pierces the darkness, before clouds rush in to obscure its hopeful glimmer. The album concludes with the piano driven “Carpathian Darkness.” Davies’ guitar and (presumably) Cody’s organ play respectful supporting roles, until the final minute when full moon light pierces the darkness, before clouds rush in to obscure its hopeful glimmer.
Hollywood let down Carpenter many times. Most of his best films only became classics after critical reevaluation. Halloween was one of the most successful independent films in history, yet its director was never paid what he was due. In the nineties, his films suffered from inadequate budgets and studio meddling. It’s no surprise that he has largely ceased making films, coming out of retirement only seldom to create a couple of Masters of Horror episodes, or record a voice over for a video game.
None of the corporate oversight exists in Carpenter’s creative music world. No army of technicians is required to make these albums. His collaborators are literally his family. He’s able to write a simple piano theme and excellent musicians help shape them into powerful songs.
It would seem from a distance that Carpenter, at 73, is having the time of his life.