Analysis: The Synth Revival

This was originally published at Soundtrack Geek  on 7th October. 

Given that there is now a mandatory requirement for every online journalist to write a minimum of 300 articles that are in someway related to Stranger Things, I really need to start boosting my numbers. Sorry, I don’t make the rules, I just live slavishly by them. Anyway, here goes.

One of the best things about the now-ridiculously popular Netflix show is its era appropriate soundtrack, which beautifully harkens back to the scores of the 1980s through the use of dark electronic music and, more specifically, the synthesiser. It’s a really great soundtrack, working perfectly as an authentic tribute to all of the cult-classic works that the show itself is lovingly paying homage to.

The score has received a lot of mainstream media attention, which I’m genuinely happy about, nevertheless there’s one thing that many articles seem to forget. Whilst Stranger Things’ soundtrack may well be the most high-profile case of the recent old-school revival movement, it is not the first. From 2013’s You’re Next, to The Guest, to Cold in July and It Follows, 80s inspired scores are quickly becoming an increasingly prevalent aspect of modern cinema. It’s hard to deny that when you first encounter it, the style is fresh and invigorating, as well instantly endearing. But it’s a very prominent trend now, and it could soon be in danger of becoming worn out if it’s overused. For now, it still retains some of its novelty value, but eventually that’s not going to be enough, and composers are going to have to think of ways to innovate and use the aesthetic in interesting and appropriate ways. It can’t simply be a nostalgic device forever, indeed, the films of the past used synth for a variety reasons, not just for style.

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Credit: Icon Film Distribtuion

Of course, all of the aforementioned examples that I’ve listed have been very effective and successful, especially Stranger Things. Yet I have a small fear that the inevitable mass of imitators are going to force electronic music into any context and give no thought whatsoever as to why they’re doing it. That’s what happens when something becomes popular, studios latch onto the latest trend without considering how to properly execute it, which results in a promising idea becoming trite. I might be worrying over nothing, but I can just sense it coming for some reason.

To stop this from happening, we have to realize that, just like with any other kind of score, there’s a difference between simply using synth music, and using it well. People have been so quick to praise Stranger Things’ soundtrack for using retro techniques, as if that’s the sum total of its achievements. But it’s more than just a mindless pastiche, it’s a well written, wonderfully implemented soundtrack that functions as a key component of the storytelling. If this retro revival is to continue (which I sincerely hope it does), then it’s important to understand the specific functions and qualities of this returning musical style.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at an example of a retro classic that uses this type of music in a creative and effective manner, and deconstruct exactly how it works and what it adds to the overall film. The example I am referring to is John Carpenter’s severely underappreciated 1980 horror gem, The Fog. In particular, we’re going to be taking a look at the ‘Reel 9’ sequence, which is essentially the climax of the film.

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Credit: Embassy Pictures

For those who haven’t seen The Fog (do yourself a favour and rectify that immediately by the way), it tells the story of a remote coastal town that is invaded by a supernatural mist, that brings with it vengeful spirits. Said wraiths are the bloodthirsty ghosts of a group of shipwrecked lepers, who were deceived into sinking their boat 100 years ago. Over the course of the film, the murderous revenants kill anyone who is caught in the fog, and it is later discovered that they will not stop until they have claimed six victims.

By the time we make it to ‘Reel 9’, the fog is making a final assault on the town, engulfing Antonio Bay almost entirely. Following the advice of the local radio DJ (who broadcasts from a lighthouse), our protagonists travel to Beacon Hill church, supposedly the only place left untouched by the paranormal force. However, before long the ghosts smash open the windows, allowing mist to seep into the building and permit their entry. What follows is a suspenseful sequence that cuts back and forth between the assault on the church and the radio DJ’s attempts to survive an attack from atop the lighthouse.

Before we go any further, it is worth pointing out that John Carpenter is almost as famous for his soundtracks as he is for his filmmaking. He’s adept at taking stripped down, somewhat repetitive pieces and bestowing upon them a palpable sense of menace. Central to all of his compositions is the synthesizer, an instrument that many indie films used in order to circumnavigate the high costs of an orchestra. However, Carpenter was one of the very few masters of this craft, and The Fog is perhaps the clearest demonstration of his skill.

For the film, the composer primarily uses music as a tool for characterisation, although crucially not for his protagonists. Instead, Carpenter’s music is employed to give a personality to the ominous and terrible fog. It’s a genius creative decision, one which is fully realized thanks to the uniquely impersonal timbre of the synth. Whilst most other instruments are organic and familiar, the synthesizer is cold, intangible and almost alien-sounding. Half of the time with synth we don’t even know what we’re listening to, and we struggle to precisely describe the things that we’re hearing. It is thus the perfect device for defining the abstract threat of the unrelenting fog.

It therefore juxtaposes perfectly with the intimate jazz music that plays on the radio, as well as the soft piano motif that we hear throughout the film. Those soothing pieces are intended to reflect the vulnerable, effectively helpless, human characters. They represents us in all our weakness. The dominant and foreboding synthesizer music? That’s the fog, the supernatural and the unknown. It makes sense then, that the electronic music consumes the entire soundtrack once the fog takes over the town.

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Credit: Embassy Pictures

The aforementioned ‘Reel 9’ begins with our characters driving into Antonio Bay, in a desperate attempt to flee from the fog. As they do so, a faint pulsating drone sound can be heard in the background, keeping a regular tempo that leaves roughly 3 seconds between each beat. This distant sound is the audio embodiment of the fog. We know this, because as soon as the fog begins to encroach upon the streets, these drones become drastically louder.

With the fog now an immediate threat that is blocking the path of our heroes, the music ramps up in intensity, with a percussive dark synth line being added into the mix. This new element fills the aforementioned 3 second gap between the drones, meaning that there are no longer any silent moments in the soundtrack. What this articulates, is that there is no longer any escape from the fog, as its musical representation is now constantly playing. It’s a very clever touch from Carpenter, as he is able to signal the total dominance of the ghosts entirely through music. Meanwhile, the original throbbing drones have now changed distinctly in their timbre, becoming strikingly more aggressive. I did a bit of research (All credit goes to Kevin Donnelly) and from what I can gather, the drones basically transform into blasts of white noise created in the synthesiser. Whatever they are, they produce a very harsh crashing sound, one that gets exponentially more intense (and louder) with each and every note.

Before this auditory assault becomes too unbearable, our heroes make a temporary escape and begin driving to their last haven, the local church. With the fog left behind them, the music settles down once again. Nevertheless, whilst they may have momentarily escaped from the mist, it’s still a looming threat. Consequently, we still have the quiet droning sound from before, this time with a reverb effect that makes it linger after each note, reminding us that the ordeal is far from over.

All our characters eventually converge in the church and begin to assess the situation, whereupon the priest reveals that the solution to the problem can be found in an old journal. As this happens, Stevie Wayne, the local radio DJ watches over the town from her lighthouse. She soon notices that the fog is approaching her tower, and before she can even formulate an escape plan, it has totally surrounded her. Seeing as Stevie is totally imprisoned by the fog, it makes sense for the music to reflect this development via a new addition to the score. The resultant sound is a looping synth note with an unbearably high pitch.

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Credit: Embassy Pictures

It’s long been theorised that both incredibly low and incredibly high frequencies like this can be extremely uncomfortable for a listener, and that this explains their inclusion in many horror films (think of the shower scene from Psycho). If this is true, then it is in full effect here, as the opposing low pitched drones and shrill synth notes contrast in an unpleasant manner. I mean this in a good way obviously, it’s very effective at generating tension. The fact that the sound is looping additionally reflects the unrelenting nature of this threat; the fog won’t go away, and so neither will its music.

Having said that, the music does proceed to calm down for a little bit after this, lingering faintly in the background whilst our characters take stock of their situation. The group in the church decipher from the journal that the only way to appease the ghosts, is to offer them their stolen gold, which just so happens to have been melted down into the form of the church crucifix. Meanwhile, Stevie prepares for an inevitable attack as the fog seeps slowly but surely into the lighthouse. As aforementioned, during this period of comparative calm, the music is fairly sedate, however crucially, it is not completely absent. This creates a feeling of unease, as we’re not quite allowed to feel secure, but we’re equally awaiting something horrible to happen. The music is central to this tension, as we wait in agonising anticipation for the return of the formidable synth.

This musical suspense is maintained for the majority of the action, excluding one moment in which the ghosts break down the church windows. Eventually, the priest volunteers to deliver the golden crucifix to the spirits, in what he imagines will be a suicide mission. He accordingly comes face to face with the wraiths, who are eerily stood in the center of the hall, staring unwaveringly at the cross. Reflecting this subdued but haunting presence, is a constant and ominous electrical humming sound. It’s perhaps the most unsettling musical element of all, even though it’s so restrained and quiet. In other circumstances, it could almost be calming, but here it is the disturbing representation of the inhuman, threatening forces that lurk in the fog. The longer we linger with this scene, the more dominant this ethereal humming becomes, to the point where it is actually rather imposing. A more melodic piece of orchestral music could not achieve this same subtly unnerving result, because it’s too familiar, too recognisable, too traditional. No, this is undoubtedly a job for the synth, and it pulls it off exquisitely. It’s precisely this kind of artful implementation that can make electronic instruments such a valuable commodity for a composer, which is something that Carpenter is clearly very aware of.

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Credit: Embassy Pictures

Coming to the end of the sequence, Stevie has retreated to the roof of the lighthouse, as the fog climbs ever higher. With nowhere left to go, she can do nothing but watch the ladder, awaiting whatever is coming for her. An extreme pitch is once again used to contribute to the onscreen tension, as we’re left with a piercing ringing sound that characterises the incoming threat. There is perhaps no sound more distressing than a sustained high pitched note like this, it’s the polar opposite of the smooth jazz that this radio DJ is always playing and it is all that we can notice. Unlike the jazz, which so easily goes unnoticed in scenes whilst characters converse, this shrill note is impossible to ignore. This is potentially the most perfect expression of how the human characters are so feeble in comparison to these unknowable forces, as just a single note of electronic music from these ghosts is more commanding than anything we could ever produce.

Stevie is subsequently assaulted by two revenants on top of the tower, one of whom is shown in extreme close up. This is the only time in the entire film that we get a good clear look at the ghosts without the fog obscuring their faces, and it is suitably memorable. The spirit in question, referred to by Carpenter in the DVD commentary as ‘wormface’, is barely recognisable as a person. He has no distinct facial features or reassuringly human qualities, he’s just a grotesque spectre. The music used to accompany his close-up is accordingly inhuman, as a discordant alarm-like noise sounds off at an extreme volume. It’s distressing, unpleasant, and totally devoid of melodic structure. It’s just senseless noise that is beyond any true comprehension, which is fitting, as there’s no better way to represent the supernatural in musical terms.

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Credit: Embassy Pictures

I’ll leave it there because I think you get the point. Despite the ostensibly simple nature of the composition, this is a sophisticated piece of soundtrack that is incredibly economical in how it conveys information about the antagonists. Carpenter is using his soundtrack primarily to add personality to an otherwise mysterious and unknowable antagonist. It just so happens however, that this personality is equally mysterious and unknowable. The audio qualities of a synthesizer are perfect for channelling this character, and the diversity of sounds that the instrument offers simply gives Carpenter more opportunity to play around with an unfamiliar soundscape. This is a rare instance where no other instrument could have achieved better results, where the style so perfectly matches the content of the narrative. My point is, it is not just ‘cool’ because it’s synth.

I worry that the monstrous success of the Stranger Thing’s soundtrack will send the wrong message to those in the film and TV industries. All that they’re going to extrapolate from it is that ‘if we put in synth in something, then people will like it’, which may well be true, but I think that there is more to it than that. Synth works in things like The Fog, and indeed Stranger Things, because it’s designed to work with the content of the story. If this salient fact is overlooked, than we could veer into the same attitude that made Warner Bros. cynically slap pop songs into Suicide Squad, just because the same thing worked for Guardians of the Galaxy.

As much as I love it, I don’t want old-school score to infiltrate every corner of culture, it has its place and it needs to be deployed with care. Stranger Things had its reasons for using these specific musical colours. On the one hand it was an homage, but on the other, they were used to emphasize the dark, unknowable mysteries at play in the narrative. As long as people use this retro style intelligently like that, then I am all for it, I really am. I don’t want to give the impression that I’m against this movement. All that I’m saying is, electronic scores can do many things, and so I hope that this resurgence will play to that fact, and not just lazily copy for nostalgia’s sake.

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