[12 December 2013]
Film music tends to get a bad rap. Being part of what is principally a visual experience, film music can often end up feeling like an ancillary contributor. That statement might seem contentious on its face, but, remember, even Bernard Hermann’s staccato string bursts call to mind a certain shower scene, not simply their own dark momentum. Inextricably tied to the imagery it accompanies, film music occupies a very particular place in the musical universe, not exactly marginalized, but rarely coming across as a standalone entity.
This set of attitudes surrounding film music points towards my issues with Espectrostatic. For what it’s worth, this is the greatest homage to late ‘70s horror movie music ever recorded. In the same vein as John Carpenter (Halloween) and Italian prog-rockers Goblin (Suspiria), Alex Cuervo, the man behind the moniker Espectrostatic, has brought together forbidding keyboard melodies and uneasy synths with an expert awareness of his predecessors, crafting songs with silly names like “Doomed Lovers in a Gathering Storm” and “Consulting the Necronauts”, themes that would not sound out of place in your run-of-the-mill slasher film.
A former member (or continuing member) of almost too many groups to name – the Hex Dispensers, Blacktop, This Damn Town, Feast of Snakes, the Brotherhood of Electricity – Cuervo has spent most of his musical career in a punky, garage-rock idiom. So for someone who has shunned the elaborate sheen of prog-rock, this foray into the world of synthesizers and kitschy horror comes as somewhat of a surprise.
That said, “kitsch” is kind of an unfair estimation of the universe this music aims for. Cuervo’s creations are far more suited to Carpenter’s original and deeply creepy incarnation of Michael Myers than the later versions (in which the disturbed man-child descends irretrievably into movie monster Whack-a-Mole territory). There is a legitimate sense of horror pervading most of these songs, especially the penultimate track “The Infernal Elevator”, which captures a buzzy and claustrophobic sense of encroaching doom. The result is not unlike the recent Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross collaborations for David Fincher’s The Social Network and The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo, which also give rise to an equally unsettling sense of discomfort. Any inclination towards the kitsch-ier side of horror comes from the few songs that take cautious steps towards the dancefloor, including “Phantom Swarm”, with its driving drum machine and ominous synth lines, along with the first track, “Smokeface Appears”, which starts sparse but ends up crowded with buzzing synth lines.
But however admirable the accomplishment of this album may be, I’m not sure what the point of it is. A soundtrack for a film that exists only in Cuervo’s imagination? The playlist for an all-too-real Halloween party? Maybe those questions shouldn’t count against this album and maybe they should. In some ways, this album pushes me closer to – rather than away from – the idea of film music as artifice, film music as flavor and nuance and suggestion, and so not always “music” as we normally think of it. One might even tenuously stretch that idea of music as artifice to genres like horror-synth (Goblin) and electro-industrial (Skinny Puppy), where the cult of personality surrounding the group or musical culture is as nearly important as the music.
None of this is to say that artifice makes Espectrostatic “good” or “bad” or any less worthy a piece of art than any other album, but simply that it makes this album different. Indeed, if I were pressed on this point, I’d struggle to offer how this album could have been any better. It simply exists as it is. Ultimately, I find myself not able to offer exactly a recommendation, more like respectful nod.