John Carpenter has done about as much for the synthesizer as Giorgio Moroder, but all of his contributions to the elevation of the instrument have been obscured by the fact that, well, the dude is one of the greatest filmmakers — genre or otherwise — to ever have their works grace the silver screen.
You can hear his influence in the scores of countless movies, retro or otherwise, and in the Outrun and synthwave resurgence that we’ve been seeing over the past few years (Carpenter even narrated the intro to “Tech Noir,” a pop song by Gunship, a retrowave band that owes a considerable debt to his works, no matter the irony of him performing in a song named after the nightclub from The Terminator). And, this Wednesday (November 15), you’ll have the chance to witness him perform the iconic themes from his filmography at Royale.
Even though he’s toured before in the past (his shows for Lost Themes I and II were fantastic, but significantly less accessible), this is his first time basically doing a “greatest hits” series, all in support for his new record Anthology: Movie Themes 1974-1998.
What’s awesome about Carpenter’s music is that it exists perfectly even without the movie that it’s meant to accompany, and Anthology is structured like a typical new release, rather than a chronological assessment of a person’s career. We start out with the heavy synth-laced hard rock of his title track for In the Mountains of Madness, which is a shot across the bow signaling the pure adrenaline yet to come. There’s bits and pieces of Metallica’s influence strewn throughout, but it’s all Carpenter, and it kicks ass.
We head back in time with the next track, the theme from his breakthrough, Assault on Precinct 13, and this synth-and-drum-machine number still sounds as captivatingly badass as it did back then, evoking so much drama and grandeur with very little in terms of manpower. And his crazy ability to evoke tone and intensity holds up throughout the record — his iconic and haunting Halloween theme, recently covered by Trent Reznor, remains the gold standard for horror themes (sorry, “Tubular Bells”), the laconic cowboy trot of the They Live theme, the heavy oppression of The Thing.
But there are two tracks near the end, from two less-appreciated Carpenter films, that I think show his true anticipation of musical trends as well as his skills as a musician. The theme from Starman, his dark-as-fuck alien romance starring Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen, is a work of epic grandeur that melds so well with the heartbreak of the film itself, and sounds like it could be a late cut off of one of M83’s better records — the moments in between the swelling church organ-like crescendos especially — and it’s painfully gorgeous and sweeping. There’s also his theme for the Stephen King adaptation Christine, which essentially crafts the key aspects of the Outrun genre — pulsing synths, steady drum machine beats, and exaggerated, awesome guitar licks — and perfects them.
And, again, these are only two of his works, over the course of a career quietly composing music and changing the sonic landscapes of cinema. Carpenter’s nearly 70, and there may not be many chances to see him perform live before he inevitably retires from live performance or decides to make another film — it’s been nearly 15 years since his last theatrical release, but you never know — so you shouldn’t take your chances with seeing him work his magic in the flesh.