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First Listen: John Carpenter, 'Lost Themes'

John Carpenter's new album, <em>Lost Themes</em>, comes out Feb. 3.
Kyle Cassidy
Courtesy of the artist
John Carpenter's new album, Lost Themes, comes out Feb. 3.

John Carpenter is famous for directing movie thrillers such as Halloween, Escape From New York and Big Trouble In Little China. But to a swath of underground musicians, he's just as venerable for those films' soundtracks, which he composed and performed himself. The ominous synth throb he used to inject suspense into his movies echoes through recent work by Prurient, Umberto, Zombi and Com Truise, among others.

Carpenter has made this kind of music since he was a film student in the early 1970s, but Lost Themes is his first set of songs that don't accompany images. True to the album's title, each track feels like a soundtrack in search of a movie. The music is hypnotically simple yet always moving, filled with shifting moods and creeping tension. Those deftly timed changes are all the more impressive since Carpenter doesn't actually read or write music. As with his film scores, everything on Lost Themes comes from improvisation, this time in collaboration with his son Cody Carpenter and godson Daniel Davies.

Though Lost Themes could fit a Carpenter movie, the music often feels bigger than one plot could handle. That's reflected in his grandiose one-word titles: "Mystery," "Wraith," "Purgatory." And if these themes have lost their plots, then they've made up for it by finding each other. Carpenter weaves the nine tracks into a rich thematic whole, crafting sonic motifs that lurk like a killer hiding in shadows.

Lost Themes naturally conjures such slasher-film associations, but it also evokes the milieu in which Carpenter rose to fame. This is thoroughly '80s-sounding music, and understandably so; Carpenter wisely sticks with what he knows, leaning on his trademark synth sound rather than forcing his aesthetic into an awkward modern update. Paradoxically, the dated nature of Lost Themes gives it a timeless aura. At 67, Carpenter can still make something frozen in time feel eternal.

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Marc Masters