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CD: Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) / Dark Star (1974)
Review Rating:   Excellent  
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June 1, 2012

Tracks / Album Length:

27 tracks / (62:48)



John Carpenter


Special Notes:

Re-recorded scores performed by Alan Howarth / Limited to 1500 copies.

Comments :    

Up until Ghosts of Mars (2009) – the cinematic dud that effectively ended his association with major studios – John Carpenter scored virtually all of his feature films, several ‘in association with’ sound effects whiz / composer Alan Howarth. (Rare exceptions include The Thing, scored by Ennio Morricone; and Memoirs of an Invisible Man, scored by Shirley Walker, with whom he’d collaborate on Escape from L.A.)

During the first two-thirds of 1974-2009, the films scored by Carpenter bore the warm sounds of analogue synthesizers. The bass frequencies were deep and soothing, the chord textures eerie and sometimes shrill, and Carpenter’s simple rhythmic patterns were highly addictive. Most of his scores are driven by rhythmic hooks, and Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) – his second feature film – still possesses one of the most memorable synths scores of the era.

Part of the attraction is the instruments’ really fat sound which, even in mono, had great resonance. The 5-note motif works brilliantly as the score’s motor, and Carpenter’s softer keyboard variation compliments scenes where the characters, trapped in the police station, contemplate their fates as thugs repeatedly attack the building. Another important ingredient is a piercing sustained chord which signals imminent danger, especially when the thugs are off camera, or hidden in the dimly lit streets.

The score was originally ‘released’ as a bonus isolated music track on the old Image laserdisc, and the music has been consistently ported over to each of the subsequent DVD reissues (save the original DVD release), whereas the music from Carpenter’s feature debut, Dark Star (1974), only exists as edited excerpts from the mixed soundtrack (which includes sound effects and some dialogue) on LP and CD.

Purists familiar with the beauty of the original Assault recordings will be surprised as to how carefully Howarth captured the essence of the original recording and synth performances. Using contemporary gear, the emulations are really close (fat bass excepted), but more importantly, the sound design is just slightly stereo. It’s an unusual decision because the expectation is a full-blown stereo re-recording with more contemporary infusions (elements that Howarth does add a little in the “End Credits”), but the finished engineering sounds like a newly discovered stereo mix from 1976 with just subtle indicators of its 2012 origins.

Howarth applies the same care to Dark Star, a slightly lesser work insofar as it bears Carpenter's key musical elements – the rhythms, textures, and rather interestingly, some chords reminiscent of Morricone’s The Thing – which he would refine over the next ten years. The score also has a softly comedic tone (the syncopated electro-chimes in “Doolittle’s Solo”), warbling sound effects, and a snare drum motif (“Pinback Playback”), but its central theme is a 5-note ostinato over eerie chord changes – a definite portent of Halloween, The Fog, and Escape from New York.

BSX’ album is nicely mastered and features excellent liner notes from Randall D. Larson, who examines each score’s virtues with care and reverence. More importantly, he highlights how specific cues impact the viewer, and his narrative features comments from Howarth. Howarth’s care in reconstructing the music and evoking the sound quality close to the original recordings deserves a special nod, since fans will always want a score’s premiere release to be as faithful as possible. With that done, the door’s now wide open to new interpretations.



© 2013 Mark R. Hasan

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