Although previously double-billed as a downloadable album with the horror score for Joshua (2006), Jeff Grace's The Roost (2005) has been paired with the composer's latest for director Ti West, Trigger Man (2007), and whereas the latter isn't a horror film, the music does compliment the minimalist style of the former, which still stands as one of the most terrifying horror scores in recent years.
The title theme for Trigger Man is basically comprised of a pulsing bass motif, over which a string instrument mimics a kind of rustic wailing, with plucked strings reiterating the low pulses and harmonic shifts. The whole configuration is echoplexed, much in the way Jerry Goldsmith applied the effect in Alien to enhance the weirdness factor, but Grace exploits the inherent dissonance of his string instrument and creates a unique blur between what sounds like a worn-out fiddle, and an synth version that mimics whale songs.
In “The Innocent,” the variation is more concise, and Grace demonstrates the sharp level of unease that can be created through very simple tones and pulses when the harmonics of a theme are reduced to a few notes, and pulsate individually across the stereo spectrum; collectively they form a minimalist theme, but Grace emphasizes aspects of a simple strumming rhythm in the mid-range, low bass pulses, and high notes undulating from left to right. The result isn't gimmicky, and goes beyond mere pulsing ambient tonalities.
The longest cut in the short Trigger suite is “The Factory,” which recaps the main theme and its nuances, but with stronger dramatic progressions beyond waves of disturbing pulses, screeching string, and individual statements from a pair of strings that wiggle their way up from benthic parameters, screech across the stereo image, and disappear, leaving their final notes echoing in a disintegrating wake.
“Man on the Run” and “Taking Aim” are more formal action cues, with consistent percussion and bass work, but both cuts run under a minute, and lack strong resonance. That's unfortunately the only flaw of the Trigger suite – it's just too brief – but it's still a wonderful attempt at blurring the line between organic and electronic sounds, and applying a strange oceanic ambience to a film about forest hunters being hunted!
Grace's first score for director West, The Roost, is a superb evocation of those vintage chamber scores written for the original Twilight Zone series from 1959-1964. Whether it was Jerry Goldsmith, Morton Gould, Nathan Van Cleave, or Bernard Herrmann, each composer managed to create sheer terror using a handful of instruments, or emphasizing the darker range of more genteel instruments.
Goldsmith's use of harpsichord in the episode “Back There” is a fine example of an instrument usually heard in delicate gay renaissance music that was re-branded as a signal of eerie danger without being voguish. (The harpsichord became a choice instrument meant to infer loose psychological dispositions.)
In The Roost, Grace and his ace musicians mine the cello for some beautifully disturbing sounds that are guaranteed to send a nasty cold chill. The score consists of three main components: a cheesy horror show theme (heard twice) for Tom Noonan, who plays the host who introduces the tale; a tense theme for moments of flight and desperation; and a mass of experimental weirdness that conjures some very raw fear.
For the flight motif, Grace uses a sparse group of strings and thumping drum, all miked to capture the nuances and resonances of the instruments. The motif often starts at 50 mph, terminates in seconds, and sometimes reappears after Grace plays with shrilling notes that poke, stab, and tear much in the way the film's bats assault the terrified group in an old barn.
West's film might have made an effective short, but it just doesn't work as a feature-length tale of trapped souls picked off one by one by bats and zombies. Stripped of Grace's music, the film is flat, emotionless, and extremely dull, but Grace's music, separate from the film, is a potent little portrait of what it felt like to be a child cowering under the sheets because something in the hallway is making the floorboards creak again. And again.
Grace and his string musicians really exploit the buried textures, drones, and unnatural effects of their instruments, and the use of the Flux Quartet really adds a wonderful dimension to the score. The most horrific sounds involve gnashing clusters of shrill notes and vibrato, and chunks of notes that whine and bend in beautifully elastic forms, as in “Zombie Attack.” There's no way one can play that cue at 2am and not get the willies (unless one's inhuman, in which case, it's all moot).
“Pitchfork” is also memorable for sharp tones breaking through silence and low, coarse drone textures, and Grace knows how to apply silence in small doses as effective cheats before slamming the listener with searing string textures.
As a film score and textbook example on the daring and intelligent use of strings as the core sound source of a horror score, The Roost is a superb achievement.
Buy the album, kill the lights, and play it loud.
Note: for more info on Jeff Grace and his scores for The Roost and The Last Winter (2006), click HERE.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan