Ever watch John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 only to pause it before the opening credits finish just to do a quick web search to determine which hip hop producer sampled the main title theme? It’s no surprise Afrika Bambaataa was onto Carpenter scores well before some of us were even born. Carpenter’s soundtracks are characterized by modulated synthesizer textures that create tension through minimalism. Throughout the 70s and 80s Carpenter, often assisted by Alan Howarth, understood the futurism of synthesizers and drum machine tracking. Synthesized music told futuristic tales of dystopian collapse, it made portals between our world and the darkside, and it transmitted to alien life.
His critics considered the Halloween score simple and unsophisticated, criticizing his lack of symphonic texture. He was often misunderstood in his prime, but his scores remain distinct, undeniable, and resonate influence across the horror and sci-fi genres. Since the heydey of Carpenter scores he’s been remixed by Ital-disco, sampled by hip hop producers, and re-issued in special editions by labels like Death Waltz Recording Company. John Carpenter continues to inform and inspire the works of countless bands and composers who look to his scores for lessons in drone, ambient, and sustaining tension. We asked several self-professed Carpenter fans to share their thoughts on their favorite Carpenter score and how it has shaped their music.
“John Carpenter’s sound and vision influenced how I wrote my last album as Stygian Stride. I was writing with a cinematic ambiance in mind because I knew it had to have a melodic and rhythmic propulsion to contrast it. Carpenter’s movie’s such as Prince of Darkness, Christine, They Live, and the obvious Escape From New York all embody that. Carpenter and his main collaborator in those movies, Alan Howarth were able to build tension in the sounds without being overt. Their melodic notions were very deliberate in that it made the movies seem more tense and foreboding. For Stygian Stride, I wanted to evoke a sense of strong cinematic tension. They Live and Escape From New York were my main Carpenter-esque influences for Stygian Stride. The rhythmic and sound texture in those movies evoke an urgency that I wanted to come through in my album.” – Jimy SeiTang of Stygian Stride/Psychic Ills
John Carpenter’s Escape From New York OST
“John Carpenter and Alan Howarth’s 1981soundtrack for Escape from New York is nothing short of a modular synth magnum opus. Escape signaled an adventurous and varied turn and is more daring than anything the pair had previously done. No need to go deep into this one to get hooked….”The Main Title” perfectly melds the mellow flashbulb pop of a Krautrock / Moroder piece with the easiest 808 kick drum ever recorded while the bad vibe vicodin groove of Back to the Pod / Crazies Come Out could stand out as a top track on the latest Blackest Ever Black comp. It’s an excellent cinematic score counter punch to a formidable cast (Harry Dean Stanton, Lee Van Cleef, Isaac Fucking Hayes, Adrienne Barbeau) and the endless sneering of Snake Plissken (the never better Kurt Russell). Get your hands on the Death Waltz Recording Company’s remastered vinyl reissue if you still can.” – JR Robinson, aka Wreckmeister Harmonies
Wreckmeister Harmonies’ You’ve Always Meant So Much to Me is out now on Thrill Jockey.
John Carpenter’s The Fog OST
“I really love the dreadful, crawling ambient sections of this score. The opening is just an incredibly atmospheric slice of film scoring elegance – that patient, deliberate piano motif over the long, slowly modulating synth drone – So spooky! I love how it swirls in and out of the entire film like a fog itself. It makes for a somewhat repetitive experience when you listen to the score afterwards, but up against the picture (where it really matters) it’s just incredible.
And although the slower moody/spooky parts are the big draw for me, there’s those trademark Carpenter ostinatos effectively peppered throughout the rest of the film. I’m also a sucker for those pulsing bass lines with maddeningly repetitive high notes that he uses to create tension – definitely a signature maneuver. The big recognizable “theme” is kind of only hinted at during the movie – which is a shrewd choice – especially because it has such a memorable Carpenter-style earworm of a melody. And because it doesn’t dominate the film – it’s really a punch in the guts when the end credits hit.” – Alex Cuervo, aka Espectrostatic
Espectrostatic’s self-titled LP is out November 19 on Trouble In Mind.
“John’s a huge influence us so to pick a favorite soundtrack is going to be difficult, it could be one of the Halloweens, maybe Escape From New York, the electronic spaghetti western They Live, the onslaught of Assault on Precinct 13? For us its the subtle masterpiece The Fog. Johns a master of mood and patience, and nowhere is that more noticeable than on The Fog. From the long pieces to the small cues the record continues to build without ever reaching that critical peak, it’s an angst ridden listen as you’re constantly waiting for that tipping point … it never arrives, the fog covers everything. We actually got our first soundtrack gig, and John’s compositions are our running templates and building blocks.
Side note, before Death Waltz made it so easy to own John’s soundtracks it wasnt that common to find copies of the Halloween soundtrack on vinyl. While on a digging excursion with a friend of mine, he seemed to stumble upon a pristine unopened copy. I did everything I could to trade or barter with him for it. Took it home and it was a fucking laser disc of the actual film.” – 3:33
3:33’s The Bicameral Brain is out October 29 on Parallel Thought.
John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 OST
“It’s hard for me to pick a favorite JC score, as they all play their own role within the film. I love them all for different reasons. This time around, I’m going to go with Assault on Precinct 13. There’s a synchronicity between the tones and the images. The score starts with a drum machine beat that has some reverb on it, and that combination sounds very cold and metallic to me. There are alot of scenes of streets that have a post-apocalyptic, abandoned feel in the film. Something about the combination of the score and the images of streets very much draws me into the feeling of being alone on an LA street, one of the most populated places on earth. When the theme fleshes itself out, it still has an overtly synthy, cold and desolate feel to it. It’s repetitive, and fairly minimal, harmonically. It builds up to a few synth elements, and then gets stripped back down to just the drums. It just works so well in the context of the film; it’s not a very advancing piece of music in “standalone” form, but doesn’t need to be to nail the mood of the images it happens against.” – RJD2
RJD2’s More Than Isn’t is out now on Electrical Connections.
“Many letters including the letter ‘h’ are broken on my laptop which makes it extremely annoying to type anything, including the name ‘John Carpenter,’ which has an ‘h’ in it. I have to keep cutting and pasting an ‘h’ I copied from somewhere. Anyway, the John Carpenter score that means the most to me at this moment, and was probably the biggest influence on something that my band did was Assault on Precinct 13. It has a bunch of reverbed, pulsing drum machines and futuristic sounding synths. The movie almost seemed post-apocalyptic with this music even though it was supposed to be present day California. When we recorded the interludes on our first twelve inch, The Grid, I had some of these sounds in my head. We wanted it to have a cinematic, sci-fi feel. Carpenter did a lot with just a few simple synth lines and rhythms, and in general that approach always appeals to us.” – Ivan Lip of Pop.1280
Pop.1280’s Imps of Perversion is out now on Sacred Bones.
John Carpenter’s Halloween III: Season of the Witch OST
“The film isn’t one of my favorites but the score is pretty good. The beeps that start out over the dark synth tones when the pumpkin is forming on the screen are perfect for the main titles. It’s one of my favorite intro sequences. I think ‘Chariots of Pumpkins’ is my favorite track but there’s a lot of dreadful synths going on throughout the score that I like as well. Sometimes I do a cover of ‘Chariots of Pumpkins’ at my shows.” – Umberto
Umberto’s Confrontations LP is out now on Not Not Fun.
“It was really difficult to pick a favorite among John Carpenter’s scores, there are of course the classic dance versions of ‘The End’ from Assault on Precinct 13 or the main title from Escape from New York, but the one that I frequently return to and listen to in its entirety is Halloween III: Season of the Witch. The film itself may not inspire (though I actually love it in that bad horror movie sort of way) but the soundtrack is awesome!
In this score, Carpenter and Howarth omit the classic, foreboding Halloween theme with its insistent piano motif and instead use atmospheric sound design and arpeggiated synthesizer lines to evoke tension and mystery. Stand out tracks for me are ‘Chariots of Pumpkins’ and ‘First Chase’ for the layering of arpeggiated lines and ‘Robots at the Factory’ for the atmospheric detuned synth that holds the tension in the track.
The score has influenced my own work with sound design and synth programming. I’ve always been attracted to repetition and interweaving of arpeggiated synth lines and this soundtrack is like a masterclass in that process. It also has guided me to exploring detuning through either oscillator or delay effects as a means of creating tension within music.” – Ian Hicks of Soft Metals
Soft Metals’ Lenses is out now on Captured Tracks.
John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness OST
“If you were to ask me what made me fall in love with the possibilities of synthesizers in film scoring, I can peg it to the first time I rented Prince of Darkness. Prince of Darkness, in my opinion, is a charming film that might be the most overlooked entry in Carpenter’s body of work. The film has always been a personal favorite due to its mixture of science and the occult, two realms that hardly agree with each other, but Carpenter was able to explore their interweaving admirably.
I don’t know if John Carpenter consciously chooses obvious synthesized sounds in scoring but I hold the personal belief that he does so to achieve a certain sonic effect to enhance the visuals of his work. The soundtrack is a full on digital synthesis orchestra that has held up well over the years.. I have never been shy about my love for composition created with the tools of computers, general midi, and digital synthesizers. I always point to the Prince of Darkness soundtrack as a great example of digital sounds working well to support that opinion.
Prince of Darkness has all of the hallmarks of the things I love about a Carpenter/Howarth composed soundtrack. The introduction of a very simple bass line left alone in the cold, coupled with glassy atmospheric sounds underneath, before the main thematic melody is introduced. A nuance that I have always looked to for inspiration whenever writing my own compositions.” – Xander Harris
Stand Out Tracks:
“The Devil Awakens”
“Through The Mirror”
Xander Harris’ The New Dark Age of Love is out now on Not Not Fun.
John Carpenter’s Star Man OST
“When most people think John Carpenter films they think horror, or really Michael Myers and Halloween. Halloween is great, Donald Pleasance as Dr. Sam Loomis, Myers’ psyche, is awesome. The Kurt Russell run was a good one too, Big Trouble In Little China and Escape from New York in particular. We’ve always been fascinated by his sci fi films and it’s had impact on the way we do what we do. Dark Star is slow and meant to be funny. It’s not really that funny, that is probably a context thing, the theme music, a country track in space, is probably the funniest part.
Star Man is really fantastic. Jeff Bridges as an alien! It’s a kind of love story between an alien and a human as well as showing the human condition and what it can be like. Essentially we take a little coaxing before we open up. The concept of the Gold Phonograph Record aboard the voyager reaching someone is too brilliant for words. Jack Nitzsche score to this film is so cool. Synth driven but all in major keys, it’s really uplifting. It is very dated but the melody and sonic remain offering up something more each time I hear it.” – JW Wilson of Castratii
Castratii’s Nesting EP is out November 19 on Time No Place.