Music

Funky Fanfares and Half-Forgotten Daydreams: The 'Unusual Sounds' of Library Music

Anthology Recordings releases a curious, surprisingly enjoyable collection of stock instrumentals from a bygone era.

Unusual Sounds
Various Artists

Anthology Recordings

9 November 2018

In its heyday, the art of low budget television and genre filmmaking came with a variety of challenges, most of it centered on finance. For example, equipping these programs and films with memorable music was difficult if you didn't have wads of cash to shell out to big-name composers or the rights to a Top 40 single. Fortunately, help was available in the form of library music.

Library music refers to LPs of stock recordings whose songs could fit any mood, any scene. What started as a quirky niche designed to help producers on shoestring budgets eventually became big business, and it's easy to see why. Not only was demand high, the product itself was top-notch. Library music sounds great. The people at Anthology Recordings are aware of this, and Unusual Sounds is their new collection of 20 songs from the genre.

While the artists hired to compose and perform this music can hardly be considered household names – unless your home turntable has the Gary Pacific Orchestra or Electric Machine in heavy rotation – what you hear on Unusual Sounds is expertly played and meticulously crafted. What's more, hearing this music a good three to four decades later is akin to stepping into a groovy, polyester-lined time machine. Sure, it can be kitschy as hell, but there's no denying the pleasure of dropping the needle on track one and hearing the rich, horn-spiked swagger of Keith Mansfield's "Funky Fanfare", a song so evocative of '70s film and television that you half expect a stentorian announcement that this is "a Quinn/Martin Production!"

Most of the songs are titled in a way that appropriately catches the desired mood. Italian film composer Stefano Torossi's "Running Fast" has the brisk, fluid air of a high-speed chase, with dexterous electric piano combining with strings for a swift jazz-fusion vibe. "Tropicola" by the fantastically named Stringtronics is a lazy, quasi-Latin number with a healthy helping of percussion instruments like guiros and triangles. On "Fancy Good", Electric Machine creates a compact, funky atmosphere where a playful Fender Rhodes, warm bass and wah-wah guitar weave in and out.

Some of the songs are downright bizarre. "Xenos Cosmos" by Janko Nilovic veers between mid-tempo jazz to rapid-fire, trumpet-fueled bebop to odd, almost Gothic choral sections. Not a bad library track if you're producing a psychological beatnik horror film, I suppose. On Joel Vandroogenbroeck & Marc Monsen's "Group Meditation", gongs, synth washes, and light keyboard noodling create a droning, Eno-esque atmosphere that lasts a solid 14 minutes.

The album is a companion piece to the book Unusual Sounds: The Hidden History of Library Music (available now on Anthology Editions), curated by David Hollander as a lush, colorful study of this strange, fascinating subculture. The book features an introduction by the late director George A. Romero, who famously used library music in Night of the Living Dead.

Other highlights among the 20 tracks on Unusual Sounds include the fuzzy, menacing funk of "La Dimostrazione" by D. Pattuchi, the mysterious, futuristic "Survivor", where Klaus Weiss unleashes an arsenal of chest-vibrating low-register synths that sound like Keith Emerson crashing a Wendy Carlos recording session, and Peter Patzer's subtle, oddball "Mild Maniac", with new wave synth sounds that show the library music genre easing nicely into the '80s.

If you're a fan of period instrumentals, peculiar jazz curios, soundtrack oddities or anything that works as "background music" but isn't nearly as dull as that description implies, Unusual Sounds is an absolute goldmine. The Anthology Recordings team has assembled a gorgeous collection of, well, unusual sounds that belong in any adventurous music lover's collection.

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