“Stranger Things”, “Halloween III”, and The Rise of 80s Synth Music
Many who took the time to watch Netflix’s original series Stranger Things during the summer of 2016 became die-hard fans of the show. The captivating storyline, gorgeous visuals, strong acting, and healthy doses of nostalgia all helped make it an instant hit. The online response to the show was massive and immediate, with amazing fan art popping up all over the internet and people immediately clamoring for a second season as soon as they finished the first. Now their prayers have been answered, as Season 2 launched late last night.
In the past fifteen months leading up to Season 2 many have dissected the show and its influences from a variety of angles, with the soundtrack being one of the most talked about aspects of the first season. Co-creators Matt and Ross Duffer made excellent use of popular 80s music and fans gushed over the incorporation of songs like Toto’s “Africa”. Although the emotional resonance of these songs is undeniable, the original synth music used in the opening credits and other key scenes really steals the show.
The music, provided by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein— members of the Austin, Texas synth band S U R V I V E — harkens back to the era of original movie scores crafted by Goblin and John Carpenter. Throughout all of Season 1 their compositions showed us why synth music is so captivating — it sounds great as a stand-alone work of art while also enhancing the visuals of Stranger Things.
The inclusion of Dixon and Stein’s music in the show also points to an ongoing resurgence of synth music that’s been several years in the making. Twitter user SONNYHANCOCK rightfully pointed out to me when I first published this article in 2016 that the increasing popularity of synth music — particularly synthwave — isn’t new a new phenomenon, but it does seem to be reaching new levels of interest from the general public. The ever-growing popularity of vintage horror soundtrack reissue labels like Mondo and Waxwork and the enormous Bandcamp success of synth artist Perturbator indicate that the audience for this kind of music is larger than many may have thought a mere four or five years ago. If watching Stranger Things has awakened your inner synth nerd, there has never been a better time to discover the artists who influenced today’s new wave of boundary-pushing synth musicians.
When talking about Survive’s influences in a recent interview with The Rolling Stone, group member Michael Stein said “Obviously John Carpenter’s films. That brooding kind of … awesome use of dissonance and just propelling scenes.” Fans of Carpenter’s work will appreciate the nod, and those unfamiliar with his work should take notice. Many movie fans will recognize Carpenter’s iconic Halloween theme song, which has grown into one of the most recognizable theme songs in cinematic history. But those willing to dig a bit deeper into his back catalog will find a collection of beautiful synth compositions begging for rediscovery. If you’re looking to sample Carpenter’s work, you would do well to listen to his Halloween III: Season of the Witch soundtrack.
Halloween III is often the target of ire from horror fans because of the omission of Michael Myers that tried to steer the franchise in a new direction. The movie did not meet franchise box office expectations, Myers was quickly brought back for next entry in the franchise, and fans of the films often consider it the worst Halloween movie. As result, many have overlooked the outstanding soundtrack composed by Carpenter and frequent collaborator Alan Howarth.
The soundtrack alone makes Season of the Witch worthy of viewing. It starts off with a bang, as Carpenter and Howarth waste no time in letting us know that something terrible is about to happen, right from the opening credits. By using piercing synth sounds at the beginning of the track followed by a dull, ominous opening theme, they successfully set a tone of dread and prepare viewers for the awful events to come.
From there, the two composers take us into a more upbeat, energetic tune titled “Chariot of Pumpkins”, which works as a perfect accompaniment to the opening chase scene. The track is marked by the same dramatic, penetrating sounds that Carpenter and Howarth used to accentuate important moments in the first sequence of the film. If you watch the chase scene, you’ll notice there are several high-pitched notes that mark when car headlights first appear onscreen as well as other other key visual developments.
The entire soundtrack, much like Dixon and Stein’s work in Stranger Things, enriches the visuals of the film while also sounding great in isolation. Though Carpenter may have never imagined his fans would want to sit and listen to movie scores on their own, the rising popularity of synth music demonstrates there’s a growing audience for his signature sound. In addition to having many of his soundtracks reissued on vinyl in recent years, Carpenter has also released two entries in his Lost Themes series since 2015, with October of 2017 seeing the release of his Anthology: Movie Themes 1974-1998 compilation on Sacred Bones Records. It seems like the passage of time has helped more people realize how important his scores were to his films and as standalone works of art.
Fans of Carpenter and other composers from the 80s should celebrate the popularity Stranger Things. It will introduce new listeners to great composers from the past while helping with the discovery of new talent within the genre. Hopefully Season 2 gives us a new sampling of synth-heavy tracks that are on par with the music from the first season. In the meantime, there’s plenty of amazing horror-themed music new and old awaiting discovery.
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