Tag Archives: Soundtrack

Exploring Roger Eno’s Cinematic Ambient Music

Roger Eno

If there’s a single name synonymous with ambient music, for many, that name is Eno. Despite there being multiple pioneers in the genre, spanning several decades—from Erik Satie to Aphex Twin—Brian Eno is largely considered to be the genre’s chief innovator and responsible for coining the term and concept, in the liner notes for his 1978 album Ambient 1: Music for Airports.

Yet there’s another Eno closely linked to this genre: his brother, Roger.

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Hi Bias: Notable Cassette Releases on Bandcamp, November 2017

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Welcome to Hi Bias, a monthly column highlighting recent cassette releases on Bandcamp, and exploring the ideas behind them with the artists who made them. Rather than making sweeping generalizations about the “cassette comeback,” we prefer here simply to cover releases that may escape others’ radar due to their limited, cassette-focused availability. Continue reading

11 Creepy Horror Soundtracks for All Hallows’ Eve and Beyond

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Illustration by George Wylesol

We’re currently experiencing something of a golden age for horror soundtracks. Reissue labels like Mondo/Death Waltz, Waxworks, and One Way Static are returning classic horror scores to record racks with elegant artwork and beautified sound, and newer scores for films like It Follows and The Void manage to be both forward-thinking and ambitious, while tipping their caps toward the classic sound of slasher scores of yore.

As a musician in The Holy Circle and Locrian, I’m attuned to the atmospheric, and every year, I compile a horror soundtrack radio show called Dead Air; this year, it will broadcast on Baltimore’s WLOY on Halloween night. Surely, some of the creepy, fascinating, well-composed soundtracks below will be included. So turn out the lights, get out the snacks, and dig in.

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John Carpenter on Aging Alongside His Horror Masterworks

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“It’s not precious, none of this is. I just want to enjoy myself,” John Carpenter says. He’s reflecting on the music he wrote for his pioneering films, which have been recently anthologized in a new collection, Anthology: Movie Themes 1974-1998. These days, Carpenter is well-known as the director of cult (and occasionally commercially successful) films such as Assault on Precinct 13, They Live, Halloween, The Fog, Big Trouble in Little China, and Escape From New York. But when he was a young, broke, and ambitious filmmaker in the ’70s, necessity often required him to take on other roles: writer, editor, producer, and composer. The music he wrote for his movies is the perfect complement to his visual aesthetic: Moody drones and ominous, throbbing slabs of synthesizer (an instrument of which Carpenter was an early adopter) mark the scores to many of his films, while the chilling piano stabs that comprise the classic theme from Halloween are still able to provoke an automatic feeling of dread—especially in people who saw the film when they were perhaps too young. One of those people is Trent Reznor who, along with Atticus Ross, remixed the track with Carpenter’s blessing. “We left the theater forever changed. We were damaged and scarred, with the shit genuinely scared out of us and that theme stuck firmly in our heads,” Reznor says.

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The Musical Legacy of Italian Film Composer Ennio Morricone

Ennio Morricone

In popular culture, the name “Ennio Morricone” summons up images of cowboy hats, cheroots, and swarthy, dusty men dying in extreme close-up while a whistle sound dramatically pierces the background. Bang! Bang! Strum. Aaaaaaaaah! Clint Eastwood squints.

Morricone’s work for Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Western films is justly famous, but it’s only the very tip of an enormous mutant iceberg of musical genius. As an Italian film composer, Morricone worked within a huge number of cinema genres including Westerns, giallo, horror, and mainstream Hollywood productions like The Mission. His hugely influential compositions mix elements of classical music, jazz, and the avant-garde. Contemporary acolytes include artists from Radiohead to John Zorn to Jay-Z.

Exploring the music of Morricone quickly leads to more than the music of Morricone. He himself composed hundreds of scores for Westerns, horror, suspense, action, and every other pulp genre, but he was only one of numerous composers working in the idiom. Bruno Nicolai may have conducted the orchestra on Morricone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, but he also famously composed his own soundtracks, including the blockbuster Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Other prolific composers of the period include Piero Piccioni and Piero Umiliani, the latter best known for “Mah Nà Mah Nà,” a song for a sexploitation film about Sweden which was covered and made famous by the Muppets.

Morricone however, having the household name in the Italian soundtrack world, stands in for numerous other composers. It’s no wonder that on Bandcamp, Morricone is not just an influence, but a subgenre. Bands with links to Italian soundtrack music, or inspired by Morricone’s Western goth, use his name as a shorthand for their style. The list below collects the best music by Morricone, his peers, and his disciples.

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Album of the Day: Yasuaki Shimizu, “Music for Commercials”

The title here is not a clever goof. Japanese composer Yasuaki Shimizu is best known for his tenor saxophone arrangements of Bach, for collaborations with singer Helen Merrill and composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, and for his experimental rock band Mariah. But back in the 1980s, he did a lot of work creating background jingles for television commercials. These were collected on a 1987 release that has since become a low-key classic, pointing towards the vaporwave future and cited as an influence by retro-library music enthusiasts like Oneohtrix Point Never.

Crammed Discs‘ reissue confirms that, yes, despite its generic title, Music For Commercials is indeed something special. Except for “Ka-Cho-Fu-Getsu,” a 10-minute composition written for an animated short feature, most of the 24 tracks are only one or two minutes long—more fragments than songs. The whole is a kind of flattened cross between Paul McCartney and Raymond Scott, a mildly stoned Bugs Bunny taking Sgt. Pepper’s hand to trip through smooth fruity blips and plangent melancholy.

“Tachikawa,” the album opener is built around an “aah”-ing chorus punctuated by tinkling pianos and sudden unexpected laser blasts—it sounds like a spinning carousel of angels displayed for purchase while intermittently but tastefully exploding. On “Boutique Joy,” a single female voice sings slowly while the beat thumps and plods, occasionally stuttering like a dropped coin coming to rest; it’s some sort of unholy fusion between doom metal and elevator music. “Seiko 4” speeds things up again, with repetitive tinkling slowly overwhelmed by horn-like lyricism. “Bridgestone 5” is a distorted, painful waltz. Music for Commercials treats the crass, bland soullessness of capitalism with such invention that you can’t help but be seduced into raptures, giggles, or both.

—Noah Berlatsky

Synth Soundtracks For Films That Don’t Exist

Ogre

Ogre

Back in the ’60s, new technology emerged that changed film music forever: the synthesizer. Spurred on by the pioneering work of Wendy Carlos and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, this innovation allowed low-budget filmmakers the freedom to create their own scores, as orchestras were damn expensive. And while there was a lot of questionable synth-produced music being churned out, some artists transcended the form.

A few that reached critical acclaim include director/composer John Carpenter (Halloween, Escape from New York), prog rockers like Goblin (Suspiria) and Tangerine Dream (Sorcerer, Thief), and New Age artist Vangelis (Blade Runner). Film composers like Fabio Frizzi (Zombi, The Beyond), Brad Fiedel (The Terminator), and James Horner (Commando) used the otherworldly sounds of the instrument to take action, science fiction, and horror flicks to the next level. Synth even made its way into the “serious drama” territory—Vangelis won the 1982 Oscar for Original Score for Chariots of Fire.

Synthesizers fell out of fashion for a few decades, relegated to the cheesy heap of the ’80s. Recently, however, synths have made a big comeback as ’80s-influenced sounds have found their way into modern-day compositions. John Carpenter has embarked on an unlikely second career as a rock star, SURVIVE’s Stranger Things score thrilled new audiences, and contemporary composers like Cliff Martinez and Disasterpeace crafted incredibly effective music for revered flicks Drive and It Follows, respectively. More than 30 years later, those classic compositions inspired an entirely new generation.

Despite digital advances and the democratization of film, making movies is still time-consuming and costly. So some new-school synth composers have decided to skip the “having an actual film” step entirely. According to Robin Ogden, aka OGRE, who’s put together music for video games and created alternate soundtracks (with collaborator Dallas Campbell) for films like Night of the Living Dead and 2001: A Space Odyssey, there’s a real freedom to making imaginary soundtracks.

“The biggest appeal to working on an imaginary film is full creative control. You’re the director, writer, and composer, and dealing with cinema of the mind, so things don’t need to be locked to picture. The music doesn’t need to follow traditional musical formats, so it can be a break from structuralist convention,” Ogden says. “The other thing I really enjoy is being able to reprise thematic ideas, and explore them more fully, which isn’t something you can always get away with across a more conventional album, and try to tell a story through music. Exploring a narrative instrumentally is a pretty awesome thing.”

Synthesizers make that easy, as orchestras are still damn expensive. Ogden explains, “We’re definitely having a real renaissance of synthesizers right now, and hardware is more affordable than ever—in some cases it can even be cheaper than some software instruments or effects. It’s a new golden age for analog, and digital gear is taking things into new uncharted territories. Modern synths stay in tune, and there’s considerably less risk compared to buying vintage gear.”

Imaginary soundtracks not only provide fun listening experiences, but their homages help introduce people to the original sources of inspiration. Similar to the days when zero-budget straight-to-video exploitation flicks flooded video stores, there are a lot of imaginary soundtracks to wade through and discover. The selection below should help you make some informed listens.

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Sam Phillips on Slinking Between Genres and Composing the “La La’s” for Gilmore Girls

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Sam Phillips. Photo by Joshua Smelser.

The music of Sam Phillips has long defied convention, so it’s fitting that the Los Angeles singer-songwriter’s career has itself been comprised of a series of unexpected twists, brave leaps of faith, and happy strokes of luck.

Beginning as a Christian-pop singer in the early 1980s (under her birth name, Leslie), Phillips eventually crossed paths with recording artist and multi-instrumentalist T Bone Burnett, who produced what would become her final album before she adopted a long-time nickname—Sam—and crossed over into secular music.

Signing to Virgin, she made four excellent long-players between 1988 and ’96 (including the Grammy-nominated Martinis and Bikinis), each of them produced by Burnett and featuring contributions from a raft of distinguished admirers, among them Van Dyke Parks and Elvis Costello. Too maverick for the mainstream, she found a safe harbor at the turn of the century in the adventurous Warner-owned imprint, Nonesuch. The move coincided with a seismic shift in the tone and structure of her songs. Where her Virgin records favored lush, cockeyed takes on pop music, her later records opt for brevity and sparseness. The songs evoke the smoldering atmosphere of a European cabaret, cigarette smoke hanging in the air above scattered wooden tables and chairs.

At roughly the same time she changed labels, Phillips received an invitation from television writer/producer Amy Sherman-Palladino to provide the score for her new series, Gilmore Girls. The epitome of a cult sensation, the dramedy lasted seven seasons, and Phillips’s contributions—strummed acoustic melodies accompanied by wordless vocals—led to her becoming known as “the la-la lady.”

In the interim, Phillips’s marriage to Burnett ended, and she parted ways with Nonesuch, but her commitment to music remained steadfast. She began self-producing and self-releasing music, promoting it via social media (and, before too long, Bandcamp) for a devoted global audience. Late last month, in the same week that Gilmore Girls returned as a four-episode Netflix miniseries (with new music from Phillips), she released Human Contact is Never Easy, a digital-only EP featuring four tracks from a new album, World on Sticks, due in 2017.

We spoke with Phillips about her work habits as an artist.

Fan Dance [2001], your first album for Nonesuch, seemed to be a watershed in terms of your musical style. Did it feel that way to you?

I would agree with that. I think it was a perfect storm of things. I’d had a little girl right before that, and when I was pregnant it was really strange: My songwriting abilities were just wiped. I could not, for the life of me, sit down and write a song—and that was even before the sleep deprivation! But it was also a lot of years of being married to, and making my own records with, T Bone, because there was a lot of experimentation with my records. There wasn’t as much pressure as there was with some of his other [production work]: Counting Crows and the Wallflowers were supposed to be hits. So it was a long journey of trying to figure out different sounds and arrangements, and I think by that time I was ready to roll up my sleeves and do something different. I would usually have ideas on guitar, and T Bone would end up playing it, because he’s such a great guitarist; he’d play on all of my records. But he just turned to me one day and said, “I think you have to play guitar now.” I’m kind of an odd guitar player; I have my own feel, and I’m a rhythm guitar player—I’m not a shredder. But I did the best I could, and it came out sort of wobbly and fuzzy and impressionistic. It was a signpost: “Go this way.” That marked the first time, also, that we were able to record a lot at home. We weren’t always on the clock in a big studio.

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The thing that I shared with T Bone was that sense of always moving forward—that just because they threw you a peanut when you did a trick, you didn’t have to keep doing that trick over and over again. You could actually walk out of the cage and do something different. I always admired the way T Bone had the courage and the tenacity to keep going. I guess I’ve followed suit, because here I am all these years later, still writing songs and recording them.

Is it more gratifying to be an independent artist than it was being signed to a major label?

I miss the sandwiches—they do take you out for sandwiches, and some pretty good coffee. I guess I could take myself out for a sandwich, though. I loved all the people I worked with at the labels. I really did. But, you know, the business was set up a certain way, and there were only so many slots for women in terms of marketing, and you had to be marketed just—you know, pick one of three: You’re the good girl or you’re the slutty girl or the smart girl.

But [when I became independent], I had this beautiful chance to grow, and also to think of a collection of songs in a different way, because one of the first things I did was a project called Long Play. It was a subscription—50 songs in one year—and this was a little bit before a lot of people were doing that. Usually I would take years to make a record, and I only had a few weeks to write and record songs. So that was a very interesting experiment that I really liked.

Why did you feel compelled to enforce such a cruel deadline upon yourself?

I think part of it was working on Gilmore Girls, because, like it or not, we did 21 episodes, and basically every week music had to go in the show and on the air. So we didn’t have a lot of time to write or record or think about it; it just had to be done. And I really enjoyed that. I mean, we’re talking about smaller amounts of music and not as many lyrics [on Gilmore Girls], and I am very, very slow at writing lyrics. I love lyrics, and I don’t know why it takes me so long to write them. I wish I was faster, but I’m not. So I thought, ‘I’m free to try this before the new record business comes along and everything gets set up probably a lot like the old one, only different,’—which is kind of what has happened. ‘So I might as well just make hay and do something like this, that I may never get a chance to do again.’

I think it’s interesting that I’ve come back—and a lot of people have come back—to vinyl, to as many songs as can fit. There’s been a resurgence of vinyl and making albums that are [shorter]. Maybe because my attention is, um… challenged [laughs], maybe that’s why I like the album format. I like people to be a bit more brief, musically. I love the album format so much that when I would turn in an album [to a label], I’d think, “I’ve made a long one this time! This is a long one!” And they’d be like, “Urgh! It’s 32 minutes, Sam!” That’s just my natural tendency, to make something around that time and to break it up into 10 or 12 songs.

But now I’m getting a little itchy, and I made a 30-minute album in just the last few months. I didn’t think it was quite ‘there,’ so I decided to release a few songs to kind of preview it, with some older songs from [her 2013 album] Push Any Button, in case people had missed it, and a couple of live songs. I decided to do that really selfishly, because I thought it would challenge me to figure out how to finish this record, how to expand it, because it just didn’t seem like it was finished.

Is it too soon to say what your fans’ reaction to the new EP has been like?

I’ve been a little bit distracted, because at the same time we had the premiere of the Gilmore Girls revival. That was a big deal, having scored the show for so many years and having it come back. This time, we worked on four 90-minute episodes, so it was like doing four movies. It was a lot of work, and a big deal for me, because I’m also a fan of the show—it was a labor of love for me. So I was watching to see how that was received, and actually a little more excited about that because it was a team effort. There are just so many wonderful people who worked on it, and I want to see them get the credit and the love they deserve.

I love that despite all of the music you’ve made over 30-plus years, you unashamedly refer to yourself on social media as the “composer and singer of Gilmore Girls la la’s.”

[Laughs] I was so busy writing songs and touring in the ’90s, I just didn’t watch TV. And when Amy asked me to do the Gilmore Girls score in 2000, I didn’t know what that meant, and I thought, “Do I want to do television?” Even before I went to the meeting, I thought, “I don’t think I want to do this.” But then when I met Amy and saw the show and fell in love with that—she and her husband, Dan, are amazing writers and funny people. It was so much fun working with them. And they were up for something a little more odd and melodic, like what I do. In the old days, it was probably looked down upon a little bit: ‘What? A recording artist doing a television score?’ It’s inconceivable for young’uns these days, but that’s the way it was.

It really was the people who love the show that named my score—the little songs—“the la-las.” It was so sweet and touching to me that they did that—first of all, that they even noticed the score, and that they gave it a name. I’m very happy to be known as ‘the la-la lady.’ A lot of inspiration for songs came out of doing that show, just because I had to make music every week. Just having that discipline was really good. The show was very odd; I don’t know another show like Gilmore Girls, so I’m glad it had music that was odd as well.

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Did Gilmore Girls have an impact in terms of increasing the audience for your own music?

Yes, but in a very insider way. Gilmore Girls didn’t win Emmys; it was just this little show that hung in there for a long, long time and developed this following. But the following was interesting. I remember talking to one person who would watch the show with her mom; she was away at college and she would call her mom and they would watch it on the phone together. People had a deeper connection to the show—the fan base was a little odd—so it was more natural that they would discover my music. It was a gradual coming-together of like-minded people.

Push Any Button was conceived as a collection of imaginary AM radio songs that you might’ve listened to when you were a child. Is there a theme you have in mind to tie the songs from World on Sticks together?

I’m still figuring that out, but it seems to be a little bit more—lyrically, I think things are tied together a little bit more, and a little bit more on the serious side. Not pop songs so much as a little bit of soul searching, and looking around at the world and trying to figure out what’s happening and what we—or I—can do about that. And, of course, the results of the election have changed the direction of the album. There was some social commentary before the election, and that’s going to factor into the lyrics post-election. I feel sympathetic for all Americans, and what I don’t want to see is our country being torn apart, and I want to see all of us thriving and doing all we can to take care of each other and our planet. However well this administration will or will not do, maybe I feel for the first time in my life—and maybe a lot of other people do, too—that the onus is on me more than it ever has been, just as one single citizen.

Michael White