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Buster Keaton on a Laptop: Haiku Salut Bring 'The General' Into the 21st Century

Photo: Ashley Bird

British instrumental trio Haiku Salut create a new soundtrack for Buster Keaton's classic 1926 film The General with brilliant and unconventional results.

The General
Haiku Salut

Secret Name

2 August 2019

It's one thing for an album to have unique origins and inspirations; it's another thing for the album to produce such thrilling results. For the British instrumental trio Haiku Salut, their new album takes an unusual source material and translates it into a breathtaking and wholly unexpected experience. The band – consisting of Gemma Barkerwood, Sophie Barkerwood, and Louse Croft – composed and performed a completely new soundtrack for Buster Keaton's classic 1926 film The General, pairing their trademark post-rock/electronica aesthetic with the images of a classic action/comedy film.

As a result, what The General provides is not the boisterous, roaring 1920s honky-tonk normally associated with films of this era or genre. If the listener insists on syncing up the music with the original film itself - which is readily available a variety of streaming services - it presents Keaton's masterpiece in a brilliant new light, imbuing the classic images with a combination of moody melancholia and industrial modernity. Whatever sounds are anachronistic to Keaton's era give the film a new life and one that's not at all unsettling or inappropriate.

With all the comparisons between the film and Haiku Salut's new music, it's important to note that this is an album that stands perfectly well on its own. The fact that the music can be paired up with the film is really just gravy. Anyone interested in this stoner-type Dark Side of the Moon / Wizard of Oz activity is free to do so. But as a solely auditory experience, The General is simply breathtaking.

While the band play a bevy of traditional instruments – accordion, piano, glockenspiel, trumpet, guitar, ukulele, drums, melodica – there is a distinct and vital electronic component to their sound, much more so than on previous albums. This type of tilt towards a modern sensibility, which they refer to as "loopery and laptopery", serves the arrangements exceptionally well and gives The General a welcome edge. Opening track "Start" combines glitchy distortion, sparse percussion, and stately piano chords to create an almost regal introduction. Backward effects and a hiccup of a synthetic beat accompany the almost interlude-length melody of "Intro". There's a downbeat, almost funereal vibe to much of the music.

The album also seems intent on embracing the occasional traditional film score motif. The deeply moving "Enlist" is a rich melodic experience, sounding not unlike Yann Tiersen's Amelie score in slow motion. But there's also a fair amount of upbeat moments. "Going Back" combines playful electronic arpeggios with the lush sounds of an angelic chorus. "Train Steal", which is paired up with an early chase scene in the film, is propelled forward by a flurry of blips riding along a languid electronic beat.

Speaking of electronics, The General has plenty of industrial moments that mesh well with the overall feel of the album. "Deserters" is a low-key, highly percussive interlude that takes on the feel of humming machinery. "Traction" contains plenty of stop/start moments where sustained synth chords mix with tumbling keyboard notes and twitchy drum beats (while a somewhat muted accordion keeps the overall mix rooted in more organic forms). "Reunited" is probably one of the best examples of old and new technology on The General, as gospel-inspired minor-key piano chords roll over mechanical, white noise and running water. It sounds like a dubious concept on paper, but the song itself is flat-out gorgeous and – like the rest of the album - an oddly fitting companion piece to the film itself.

Closing track "Finish", essentially a reprise of "Start", places the appropriate second bookend onto the album, the rich piano chords eventually morphing into a sort of church bell sound. The track concludes roughly 80 minutes of sensory delight, an album that – like the film that inspired it – is both deeply enjoyable on a primal level as well as dense and rich enough to revisit over and over. Haiku Salut may not compose any new scores for classic films, but if they wanted to take a crack at another classic film, they would probably succeed mightily.

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