New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: film music

Revisiting a Relentlessly Bleak, Minimalist Film Score

The annual monthlong Halloween celebration here may be past the midpoint, but there’s still plenty of dark music left in the pipeline through the end of the month here. Today we celebrate with the immersive score to the 2019 Rashid Johnson film Native Son, by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein (of S U R V I V E), streaming at Spotify.

This is a very atmospheric, minimalist series of electronic soundscapes. A brief series of doppler-like phrases sets the stage. There’s more ominous texture and contrasts – rumbling lows, hypnotically shifting sheets of grey noise – than there is discernible melody. Which isn’t to say that there isn’t drama: those moments of agitation spring up in a split second, only to fade down into the murk.

Much of this evokes echoey industrial drainpipes, waves of heat over asphalt, and cold mechanical drones which build to turmoil. In contrast, there are interludes with simple, slowly rising and falling synthesized strings, and vintage 80s synth patches. Somewhere a Terminator is running low on batteries.

The film itself is based on the iconic Richard Wright novel: if the score is any indication, the cinematic version of the story of Bigger Thomas is even more relentlessly bleak than the book.

A Rising Star Film Composer Salutes a Horror Icon

What could possibly be more Halloweenish than H.P. Lovecraft? Cthulhu’s tentacles slithering above the moonlit surface of the Miskatonic! The Old Ones in the caverns deep beneath the Mountains of Madness at the bottom of the world! Often imitated, never duplicated, the master of all things eldritch has been referenced by a gazillion metal bands and sourced for a movie, The Color Out of Space. The promo looks pretty cheesy, more Arkham House than genuine Arkham, but Colin Stetson‘s soundtrack – streaming at Spotify – is not.

All the requisite elements are in place. Moody, spare minor-key piano, check. Portentously hovering, still strings, check. Distant gurgles, ghostly washes, sudden white-knuckle swells, deep-space echoes, crashing electronic carnage, it’s all there, not necessarily in that order.

The question is where Stetson’s signature bass sax is and the answer is that it’s probably not, other than maybe that digeridoo-like drone after the “alpacalypse.” After getting a start at the crazed fringes of jazz, taking a detour into live techno and then finding a home in new classical and film music, he seems to be comfortable being more of a composer with a darkly ambient streak these days. And that’s fine. His big band arrangement of Henryk Gorecki’s iconic Third Symphony was as hypnotically poignant as anyone could want. Now if we could only go to a real theatre to enjoy all these movies he’s scoring!

A Broodingly Gorgeous, Haunted New Soundtrack From Morricone Youth

What’s more Halloweenish than porn? You want real-life abduction, torture and worse?

Dating back to the late 90s, Morricone Youth have scored a daunting number of films, many of them classics from the silent era. Their latest release is the original score to Kire Papputs’ The Last Porno Show, a suspense flick about a kid who inherits a seedy Brooklyn X-rated theatre and decides to try to monetize it despite formidable odds. If the band’s composer/frontman/guitarist Devon E. Levins is to be believed, it’s an incredibly sad place. On one hand, this is an absolutely gorgeous soundtrack, streaming at Bandcamp. On the other, it really captures the hopelessness of an exploitative industry. Like all of Morricone Youth’s scores, it’s best experienced as a cohesive whole. For those who want a breakdown of the nitty gritty, here goes.

The main title theme is a trickily rhythmic, marionettish strut, part Angelo Badalamenti Twin Peaks score, part Tschaikovsky. Levins’ eerie, clanging multitracks ring out over a brooding 6/8 groove from bassist John Castro and drummer Brian Kantor in one of the longer, more haunting interludes, Method Acting.

The coldly methodical third track, sarcastically titled Best Show XXX in Town, sways above Scott Hollingsworth’s orchestral keys. Sean McCaul’s echoey vibraphone sets the stage for a tense scene in Al’s Apartment. An audition for something is involved, Dan Kessler’s Rhodes electric piano and the bandleader’s gritty surf guitar reverberating over an eerie Ethiopian pulse.

From there the music gets quieter and more melancholy. Levins breaks out his glockenspiel for creepy twinkle, viola sorceress Karen Waltuch and torchy chanteuse Sami Stevens waft into an increasingly zombie-ish picture (something the band excel at – their George Romero soundtracks are to die for).

Motorik loops give way to sarcastic 70s vintage keys lowlit by Levins’ desolate, spare guitar and finally a rise to a big, menacing peak. Levins brings the score full circle with surprising subtlety. It’s been a cruelly bleak year for albums and the arts in general: good thing we still have these irrepressible, increasingly iconic soundtrackers.

Deliciously Lynchian Guitar From Ari Chersky

Guitarist Ari Chersky plays a darkly hypnotic blend of ambient soundscapes, slashing guitar jazz and film noir themes. His album Fear Sharpens the Dagger is streaming at Bandcamp, and it’s a great Halloween playlist.

The first track Take The Heart, is a noisier and eventually shreddier take on Angelo Badalamenti dub, as that iconic film composer concretized the style on the soundtrack to David Lynch’s Lost Highway.  Chersky’s bass runs a catchy loop over Craig Weinrib’s shuffling drumbeat while the guitar lingers and then cuts loose, Peter Schlamb’s tinkling vibraphone mingling with the mist of reverb in the background. It sets the stage for much of the rest of the record.

Distant elephantine snorts and warpy outer-space textures punch through the even dubbier backdrop of the second number, Dark Flow. A string section – Joanna Mattrey on viola and Christopher Hoffman on cello – plays wistfully over echoey drainpipe sonics in A Creature Divided, then Schlamb returns to add uneasy glitter over a hazy, drifting background in Magnificent Glow.

Chersky hints that he’s going to make a morose waltz out of Old Line; instead, he loops that melancholy riff as the song shifts between dissociation and minimalistic focus. Burn the Scrolls has a similar architecture, but with layers of uneasy, acidic guitar resonance.

Who Am I to You comes across as a mashup of Brian Eno, Pink Floyd and Bill Frisell in a particularly thoughtful moment. The strings return for On Heavy Wings, a gorgeously bittersweet miniature.  Then the vibes take centerstage in the loopy Lynchian dub theme In Human Form.

Sparse guitar phrases resonate over eerie, stairstepping funeral organ in the aptly titled Haunt: it’s the album’s creepiest and best track. Chersky brings in more than a hint of dusky desert rock in the brief, circling Pride in Effort (An Entity Separate).

Low growls and starry glimmer build a spacy contrast in Wizard in Grey, which segues into the album’s final cut, Out of the Shadows, a maze of loops and flickering accordion. Fans of multi-layered guitar instrumental bands like Steelism and Big Lazy, and David Lynch soundtracks have plenty to feast on here.

Revisiting a Dark Moment in New York History with Laurie Anderson and the Kronos Quartet

“Sandy was a huge swirl that looked like a galaxy whose name I didn’t know,” Laurie Anderson muses in one of the broodingly atmospheric early numbers on her album Landfall, an epic collaboration with the Kronos Quartet and cellist Jeffrey Ziegler. As Halloweenish music goes, the record – streaming at Spotify – strikes awfully close to home for any New Yorker.

The October 2012 hurricane was a defining moment for Anderson. She lived just off the Hudson River, and lost innumerable, priceless scores, archival material and instruments when her basement was flooded. The irrepressible violinist/composer/agitator has never shied away from dark topics, beginning with O Superman, the cynical Iran hostage crisis-themed single that put her on the map. This is arguably her most personal and most music-centric album: she’s more terse instrumentalist than narrator here.

Most of the thirty tracks here are on the short side, three minutes or less. What’s most intriguing about the album is that each member of the quartet – violinists David Harrington and John Sherba, cellist Sunny Yang and violist Hank Dutt, along with guest cellist Jeffrey Ziegler – get to contribute to the compositions, beginning with an ominous, searching, often Indian-tinged opening theme. As the storm looms on the horizon, there’s heavy, portentous ambience, loopy horror-film trip-hop and leaping agitation.

An allusive danse macabre above murky atmospherics signals Anderson and husband Lou Reed’s move to temporary digs in a hotel after they lose electric power. Evidence of cataclysms more commonplace in warmer climates seem shocking here: boats blown from their docks onto the West Side Highway, street signs twisted in the wind.

Anderson devotes as much if not more time to the aftermath. The music is sometimes austere and melancholy, punctuated by frenetic activity as well as coldly surreal variations on the initial trip-hop theme: Anderson’s long relationship with digital technology has always been conflicted.

To her immense credit, she doesn’t lose her signature sense of humor: her observations on people telling their friends about their dreams is priceless. The epic centerpiece, Nothing Left But Their Names, is considerably more disturbing, reflecting on how 99% of all species that ever existed on earth are now extinct. But the most chilling moment of all is when she finally takes us down to the basement.

Two Masters of Menacing Piano Jazz at the Peak of Their Powers

What could be more appropriate for Halloween month then a piano duo album by two masters of phantasmagoria? Ran Blake, the iconic noir pianist, may be the drawing card, but Frank Carlberg is no slouch when it comes to disquieting tonalities. Carlberg grew up in Finland captivated by his local amusement park; meeting Blake at New England Conservatory later on springboarded a long association fueled by a fondness for the darkly carnivalesque.  Not everything on the duo’s new album Gray Moon – streaming at Bandcamp – is creepy, but most of it is. Much of the time, it’s impossible to tell who’s in which channel. If you’re making Halloween playlists this month, there’s a goldmine of elegantly inspired, lurid material here.

Like the opening number, Vradiazi, which is more or less steady and strolling, Carlberg opening it very simply and matter-of-factly, Blake bringing in dry ice and menacing, Messiaen-ic chromatics. Likewise, the two take an otherwise blithe Carlberg stroll, Bebopper, and add gremlins peeking from just about every corner.

The rest of the record is a mix of reinvented standards, familiar Blake favorites and lesser-known originals. Stars glisten cold and remorseless over low lefthand murk throughout El Cant Dells Ocells. With their tightly shifting rhythm and icepick jabs, the two pianists make a real ghost train out of Take the A Train. Then they bring a sudden yet seemingly inevitable terror to Pinky, an otherwise wistful ballad that descends just as ineluctably into the abyss.

They follow the deliciously twisted ragtime of Blake’s Dr. Mabuse with a raptly spare, desolate take of Round Midnight that would make Monk proud. For all its steady, Satie-esque variations, Gunther’s Magic Row – a twelve-tone reference to the two’s old NEC pal Gunther Schiller, probably – seems mostly improvised.

Stratusphunk, which Blake has played for years, becomes a Monkish swing tune here. The bell-like four-handed insistence of Wish I Could Talk to You Baby seems to indicate that Baby can’t be talked to where she is now. Vanguard, another tune Blake has had a long assocation with, gets an angst-fueled, relentlessly unresolved attack from Carlberg. He goes completely in the opposite direction a little later with No More.

The two slash and stab their way into the sagacious soul of Memphis and then do the same on their way out. Marionettes strut and poke each other vigorously in this particularly uneasy Tea For Two. The final Blake favorite, The Short Life of Barbara Monk is more of a tragic mini-documentary than ever before and one of the most vividly conversational interludes here. The album concludes, sixteen tracks in, with Mood Indigo, sparse and saturnine. Blake and Carlberg each have a ton of good records to their credit, but this is one of the best of both catalogs. It could be the best jazz album of 2020, right up there with John Ellis’ The Ice Siren.

The DriverX Soundtrack: A Crazily Diverse College Radio Style Playlist

, Lili Haydn and Marvin Etzioni‘s soundtrack to the 2018 film DriverX – streaming at youtube – is a long one, with a grand total of twenty tracks. Even for a film score, it’s especially eclectic, everything from soul to powerpop to uneasy set pieces. Etzioni plays mostly the good-cop role here, showing off his multistylistic erudition, while Haydn gets to be bad cop with her stark, troubled instrumentals.

Her brief main title theme is a surreal mashup of Central Asian folk and sinister oldtimey swing. Etzioni pulls a first-class oldschool soul band together for Oh Glory Be, sung with gospel passion by Helen Rose. The Model rip through a brief powerpop sprint; a little later, Etzioni plays a grimly amusing Dylan spoof on ukulele.

Talon Majors sings a turbulent, Amy Winehouse-ish neosoul tune. The Satellite Four prance through a long series of variations on a famous Shadows surf theme. Danny Peck takes over the mic on Haydn’s breathy, Orbisonesque Nashville noir ballad I’m Here, which she reprises at the end, Julee Cruise style.

Etzioni’s tense soul-blues epic Trouble Holding Back slowly rises to a jaggedly haphazard guitar solo; then he goes into low-key, flinty olschool C&W with Hard to Build a Home. He sticks with gloomy Americana in Miss This World.

Haydn’s other contributions include a brooding violin and acoustic guitar interlude; a hazy trip-hop tune; a bit of psychedelic baroque pop; a dubby, twinkling nocturne; some haunting instrumental folk-rock and a ridiculous descent into EDM.

A Macabre Masterpiece From John Ellis and Andy Bragen

Considering how busy tenor saxophonist John Ellis always seemed to be – before the lockdown, anyway – it’s something of a shock that he was able to find the time to come up with his latest album, The Ice Siren – streaming at Bandcamp – a masterpiece of noir assembled as a collaboration with lyricist Andy Bragen. It’s also arguably the best thing, and definitely the darkest project Ellis has ever been involved with, in a career as one of the most sought-after musicians in jazz for both big bands and smaller ensembles.

The obvious comparison is pioneering, carnivalesque 90s band Kamikaze Ground Crew, who brought a lithe improvisational component into noir, cinematic circus rock tableaux. Is this jazz? Noir cabaret? Art-rock? All that and more, which is why it’s so interesting.

The opening theme, Graveyard Visit, begins with a striking violin cadenza over stark cello and slowly morphs into a macabre chromatic vamp that strongly brings to mind both Philip Glass’ Dracula score as well as Carol Lipnik‘s creepiest work, with the ghosts of Brecht and Weill nodding approvingly out there somewhere. But some of the phantasmagoria here has coy touches: devious accents from Marcus Rojas’ tuba and Miles Griffith’s wry, wobbly vocals over a backdrop that shifts from blithe bossa back to menace.

Ellis finally gets to interject a vividly searching solo over the eerily lingering, vamping backdrop in Heaven or Hell. Gretchen Parlato’s ghostly vocalese over Mike Moreno’s spare, broodingly picked guitar and Chris Dingman’s glitttering vibraphone meld into an increasingly lush horror theme.

Parlato sings Melusina’s Siren Song with an airy angst over a steady, slow bass clarinet pulse that expands back to a sweeping, distantly enticing variation on the central Lynchian theme. Griffith returns for a duet with Parlato in the disquietingly atmospheric She Shows Her Face, the most avant garde number here.

The orchestration grows blippier and balmier in Little Man, but by the end the disquiet returns. Ellis’ liquid clarinet delivers klezmer tinges over a brisk bounce in the next-to-last number, Cold, the most circusy track here. The wistfully waltzing conclusion, Entombed in Ice is chilling, literally and metaphorically. This is a frontrunner for best album of 2020 from a cast that also includes violinists Hiroko Taguchi and Olivier Manchon, violist Todd Low, cellist,Christopher Hoffman and percussionists Daniel Sadownick and Daniel Freedman.

Surreal, Entertaining, Strangely Cinematic Themes on Curtis Hasselbring’s New Album

Curtis Hasselbring may be best known as one of the mostly highly sought-after trombonists in the New York jazz scene, but he also plays a lot of other instruments. As a guitarist, he has a very distinctive, jagged style and impeccable taste in late 70s/early 80s postpunk and new wave. He’s been involved with innumerable projects over the years, but his most psychedelic one is Curha, his mostly one-man band. Hasselbring’s music has always been defined by his sense of humor, but this is where you’ll find some of his funniest songs. The brand-new Curha II album is streaming at Bandcamp.

The opening track, Casa Grande is a tongue-in-cheek surf tune with neatly intertwining guitars and keening funeral organ, Dan Reiser supplying a low-key beach-party beat. He sticks around for the second track, Togar, an outer-space Motown theme, guest guitarist Brandon Seabrook mimicking the squiggle of the keys.

Hasselbring keeps the sci-fi sonics going in Sick of Ants!: listen closely to the watery guitar and you’ll catch his appreciation for the late, great John McGeoch of Siouxsie & the Banshees and PiL. How airy is Blimp Enthusiast, a rare vocal number? Not particularly, but this quasi trip-hop song is very funny.

The blippy Blaster comes across as a motorik tv theme on whippits. With its loopy low-register piano and clip-clop beats, Soap makes even less sense until Peter Hess’ bass clarinet ushers in a somber mood for a second. Hasselbring’s trombone appears distinctly for the first time in Murgatroid, a clever mashup of 70s disco, outer-space theme and early new wave.

With its intricately dancing web of guitar multitracks, the rather disquieting MMS has echoes of early 80s Robert Fripp; then Hasselbring takes it further toward acid jazz. He goes back to lo-fi motorik minimalism with Totally Hired, then shifts toward spare, 90s electro-lounge with History of Vistas.

He closes the album with the coyly tiptoeing Her Pebble Fusion and then Blown Bubble Blues, which is kind of obvious but irresistibly fun. Hip-hop artists in need of far-out samples need look no further. You don’t have to be high to enjoy this, but it couldn’t hurt.

Noveller Puts Out Yet Another Epic, Picturesque Album

Nobody writes epic, cinematic, stormy loopmusic more expertly or vividly than guitarist Sarah Lipstate, a.k.a. Noveller. Her latest album Arrow is streaming at Bandcamp. As usual, Lipstate’s sonic palette runs the gamut from blustery to soothing to distantly menacing. In general, this is one of her calmer releases so far.

Even considering the ridiculous number of digital sounds that a guitarist can get through one effect or another, the vastness of Lipstate’s orchestration is breathtaking. The album’s first track, Rune, has what could be distant cannon fire behind a simple, rising three-chord riff, minimalist jangle contrasting with blustery digital strings.

Effectology is a study in echoey, atmospheric washes with hints of Renaissance polyphony. The album’s most expansive epic is Zeaxanthin, a galaxy of somber waves, deep-space twinkle and echoey Kraftwerk loops,

In Pattern Recognition, Lipstate builds symphonic variations on a series of ringing, melancholy phrases. Canyons, with its staggered series of wave phrases, is the closest thing to a rock ballad here. From here the album grows more ambient, with the cocooning, lushly oscillating nocturne Pre-Fabled and then the slow, tectonically shifting Thorns. Lipstate introduces the album’s closing diptych, Remainder, with a poignant, Gilmouresque spaciousness, the music receding to a slow, orchestral pastiche running through what must be an immense pedalboard.