The Upshot: Three sonic and compositional progeny of filmmaker/composer Carpenter weigh in with intriguing new albums—as does the maestro himself.
BY MICHAEL TOLAND
For the past few years, it seems like the worlds of EDM and ambient have been the sole domain of synthesizer-dominated music. As usual, though, there’s more to the story if you scratch beyond the surface. There’s a whole movement of keyboard-wielding artists inspired by Tangerine Dream and John Carpenter soundtracks – electronic music that requires creators to sit down in front of an actual instrument and play it. Some of these synthwavers have been in practice for years and are just now starting to get attention beyond enthusiasts, while others have been the big dogs for a while.
One of the best-known acts of the current wave, Zombi returns from a hiatus with Shape Shift (Relapse; released 2/12/16). On its sixth LP, the Pittsburgh duo ignores any pretension toward ambience and puts some serious oomph into its performance. That’s in large part due to the fiery kit work of drummer Anthony Paterra – his jazz and metal inflections give the music a rock drive that makes it perfect for in-concert enthusiasm. Keyboardist/bassist Steve Moore responds with pulsing loops, licks that could translate easily to guitar and cosmic washes of sound that emulate space travel. “Interstellar Package,” “Mission Creep” and “Pillars of the Dawn” demonstrate the pair’s chemistry as much as its instrumental and compositional fortitude, directly translating its live power to disk. Zombi drifted off into the ether a bit on recent work, but Shape Shift puts it back into hyperspace toward greatness.
One reason for Zombi’s prolonged absence from the stage has been Moore’s increased responsibilities as a film composer. On Cub (Relapse; 2/12/16), the soundtrack to a Belgian horror flick, Moore takes a more orchestral approach than he does with Zombi – unsurprisingly, given the medium. Most of the pieces serve as support to visuals, as intended. But Moore’s ability to conjure some serious creep factor, a la the buzzing synth snarl of “The Hunt” or the ascending pipe organ melody of “The Treehouse,” makes this more than just an item that completes your collection. Play it from your porch next Hallowe’en.
Unlike a lot of current synth music revivalists, Parisian one-person-band Perturbator eschews pure atmosphere and embraces beat. The Uncanny Valley (Blood Music; 5/6/16), the erstwhile James Kent’s sixth LP, certainly maintains the film score ambience of its forebears – song titles like “Neo Tokyo,” “Assault” and the title piece indicate tracks that might be found on the soundtrack of some sci-fi exploitation flick from the 80s, and the cover looks like a Heavy Metal homage/knock-off. But Kent looks to the dancefloor and the charts as well. “Diabolus Ex Machina” (which adds some chunky electric guitar to the mix), “She Moves Like a Knife” and the appropriately titled “Disco Inferno” aim to engage your hips as well as your cerebral cortex, while singers Greta Link and Hayley Stewart help mold “Venger” and “Sentient” into brooding atmo-pop. Kent maintains a strong grip on melody throughout, ensuring that nothing here comes off as a mere pre-programmable trifle. The Uncanny Valley could soundtrack both your next DVR anime fest or your nightly sojourn to the alternative dance club.
In a way, the godfather of all these folks is John Carpenter. He’s better known as a filmmaker, of course – one of the most successful independent directors of all time, in fact. But he also composes and performs most of his own soundtracks – he’s responsible for the creepy-as-fuck piano line from the original Halloween – and they’ve been a great inspiration to the other folks in this review. He finally showcased his music side on last year’s excellent Lost Themes, and now he’s produced the inevitable sequel, Lost Themes II (Sacred Bones; 4/22/16). Backed by a band led by his son Cody Carpenter, the filmmaker worries less about scoring for scenes than for pure musical pleasure. “Persia Rising” and “Angel’s Asylum” soar, “Dark Blues” and “Windy Death” snarl and “Last Sunrise” and “Bela Lugosi” brood – all are clearly meant to be enjoyed minus moving images in the foreground. Carpenter’s no Keith Emerson, but for the atmospheric tunes he conjures, there’s no need for him to be – the resounding piano chords of “Virtual Survivor,” for example, make a perfect foundation for his band to flesh out. With Lost Themes II, Carpenter solidifies his second career.
Zombi: “Pillars of the Dawn,” “Mission Creep,” “Interstellar Package”
Steve Moore: “The Treehouse,” “The Hunt,” “The Truck”
Perturbator: “She Moves Like a Knife,” “The Uncanny Valley,” “Sentient”
John Carpenter: “Angel’s Asylum,” “Dark Blues,” “Virtual Survivor”