The social feeds of anyone that grew up in the ’80s were lit up over the weekend by gushing praise for Stranger Things, a Netflix series coated in a thick frosting of nostalgia and references to genre filmmakers from the era. The three most identifiable influences on the series are the kids-on-an-adventure films of early Steven Spielberg, the small-town-with-a-spooky-secret stories of Stephen King, and the electronic scores of John Carpenter horror films like Halloween and The Fog. John Carpenter has proven to be influential not just in film, but in film music. On Monday night, Carpenter set up shop at the Pabst Theater with a small six-piece band, a few highlight reels from his films, and plenty of original-recipe tunes.
Though Carpenter hasn’t made a film since 2010’s The Ward, he has released a pair of Lost Themes albums (with another due out next year) full of the same synthesizer-and-percussion music that accompanied his films in the ’80s. Arguably, these scores became the foundation of the synthwave genre, featuring artists all over Bandcamp creating their own scores to lost ’80s films. The style of score has even come back around in soundtracks like The Neon Demon and the Mass Effect series of video games. The cuts from the Lost Themes album fit right in with their older siblings, getting a few audience members to clap along, or applaud the wailing guitar solos that cut through the cold synth sounds like Michael Myers through a co-ed.
Carpenter wisely spaced these newer selections in between film score favorites. A screen above the band featured scenes from the film matching whatever tune was unfurling. The lack of dialog, though it may have upset attendees looking to discuss what to do after running out of bubblegum, reinforced Carpenter’s bonafides as a great visual artist. The films have stuck around because they are great to look at, and it was easy to get pulled into the movies even though a live band lead by the creator was right there on stage. Carpenter and his band kept stage hijinks to a minimum. Outside of donning sunglasses for They Live and Carpenter’s old man jazz shuffle during some of the songs, the ensemble (all in black dress) put the films at the forefront.
The shakiest elements of the show were the transitions between songs. Carpenter was clearly reading from a script rather than off-the-cuff banter, and the band could stand to tighten up its synching with the film clips just a bit, a la the seamless experience in something like Star Trek In Concert. Regardless, any evening where an entire audience is banging its collective head to a collection of film scores is a night worth remembering. Carpenter has been called a master of horror for many years, but Monday’s show also showed just how important he is to the evolution of electronic music. The evening may have felt less like a concert and more like a film score session, but in John Carpenter’s hands, that didn’t make it any less impressive.