Breathe Easy : The Legendary Trainhoppers Ready New Album ‘Let It Breathe’

I always look forward to talking with Fort Wayne’s The Legendary Trainhoppers. That’s a group of six guys that are at an age of mature comfort. What do I mean by that? I mean they’re middle-aged dudes with careers, kids, mortgages, and all the dad life fixings, but are still willing to take risks for the sake of the muse. After a years-long hiatus from the Trainhoppers in 2015, the guys broke out the mandolins, Telecasters, and tube amplifiers to find that magic they used to make together. They found it and then some. Family Tree was a sweeping and rugged collection of dusty Americana and buzzing rock and roll. It wasn’t a weekend warriors kind of record where dad hangs in the garage with his pals and swills Natural Lights and jams on Petty hits. The boys really did get the band back together and it was glorious.

We’re not even at a year and some change since Family Tree was released and they’re already readying a new record they recorded back in March with Jason Davis at Off The Cuff Sound. It’s called Let It Breathe and it’s their best yet. It features contributions by Cassie Beer and The Hoppin’ Horns. But not only did the guys record an all-analog warm and fuzzy beauty of a long player, they had filmmaker Brad Bores document the whole process. On June 10th at Artslab you’ll be able to hear the guys debut the record, pick up a copy of the album on CD(0r download code if that’s your thang), and see the film and relive the making of the Trainhoppers beautiful new record.

I talked to Matt Kelley and Phil Potts about the record, as well as Brad Bores about the music doc and how he got involved.

J. Hubner: So we’re just a little over a year from the release of the last Trainhoppers album ‘Family Tree’ and now thanks to the wonders of internet voyeurism I know you guys have been recording a new record. The Trainhoppers are in one hell of a creative streak. How did this new one come about so soon? Was it a strike while the iron’s hot sort of situation? Is this a whole new batch of tunes?

Matt Kelley: We definitely felt like we were on a streak, and even when promoting Family Tree, we continued to write—fear that if we stopped, we might lose momentum. All of these songs but one were written in the 15 months since recording the previous album. I think our velocity has been helped by a couple of things; for starters, we’re a six-piece and everyone contributes song ideas (rather than there just being one songwriter), and second, we’ve hit a really great collaborative place where we share ideas very early in the process, and pass ‘em around to be made different and better.

Phil Potts: There are 6 of us in the band and we’re all songwriters, so while having so many creative voices has its challenges, the upside is there is a lot of material. It was a challenge just picking which 10 to record. . .so we recorded 11.

J. Hubner:  So the album’s called ‘Let It Breathe’. You recorded this time around over at Off The Cuff Sound with Jason Davis. What made The Trainhoppers decide to go full-on analog? It seems like a perfect fit. How was the experience with Jason?

Phil Potts: It was a very different process than our last album. With the last one, we made the conscious decision to produce it ourselves. We recorded it in a more modern way, digitally. On ‘Let It Breathe’ we decided we wanted input from someone who could help us best shape the songs for recording. Not everything that is great for a live performance translates well to the studio, so having someone like Jason who has so much experience in that realm was revelatory. Having input from fresh ears was helpful because we’d been living with these songs for a year now. The real artistic benefit to recording to tape in an analog studio, in my eyes, is not some fetishization of  is that there are limitations. Constraints can be immensely beneficial to creativity. You can’t have 100 tracks. You can’t Auto-Tune a bad vocal. You don’t make everything mathematically perfect and that’s what makes it beautiful.

Matt Kelley: Well, we’ve known Jason and known about Off the Cuff for a very long time, but had never been to the studio. We had the option to record in The B-Side again—it’s comfortable (it’s where we write and rehearse) and convenient, and there’s no clock running. Which is to say, it’s an easy option. So, we checked out Off the Cuff, considering it part of our due diligence. About ten minutes into the studio tour, we were in love, and sharpening our resumés in hopes that we might work there someday. Of course, folks often thing “analog tape” immediately when they hear about Off the Cuff, but it turns out that’s the smallest part of the story. It all starts with Jason Davis and his perspective and approach and process to making a record. The incredible collection of instruments is a blast, too. Using real instruments and real gear slows everything down, forces you to make more deliberate decisions, and cranks up the pressure.

So yes, The B-Side would have been the easy choice for us. But easy is a four-letter word, and we felt Off the Cuff was the more challenging direction, and could lead to a better album. We certainly believe that to be the case. It was an experience—grueling, hilarious, brilliant—that the seven of us (band + Jason) will never forget.

J. Hubner: Song-wise did the Trainhoppers go into Off The Cuff with completed songs ready to hit record or did you guys leave space to experiment a bit? What’s the overall vibe of ‘Let It Breathe’?

Phil Potts: We had the songs completed, but we were open to changes. And they did change. Off the Cuff Studios is an inspirational environment.

Matt Kelley: The songs were ready to be performed live. But live, The Trainhoppers are often pretty busy—very loud, everything and the kitchen sink, loud. The studio often gave us the chance to actually play a little less, and be very purposeful with what we played when, and how. Also, of course, the studio’s collection of gear gave us the opportunity to experiment more than we might in a digital environment. If you have a million options, you might just choose the one you know. When you have a dozen, you might find you want to try ‘em all…

Vibe-wise, you know, it wasn’t quite spring, and definitely not summer, when we recorded. Our final pre-production and early studio days were when winter was hanging on, and the rainy season had begun. I think there’s part of that in the album, but it’s also jubilant, and it’s got some real fight to it. We stretch into some places we’ve never been before, including a song pretty much without guitar, and working with a horn section. But hey, if The Replacements could bring in the horns with Jim Dickinson on “Can’t Hardly Wait,” we can do the same, right?

J. Hubner: The album release is Saturday June 10th at ArtsLab. Besides the album, the band will be premiering a film on the making of the LP that evening, too. How did the film come about?

Matt Kelley: I first met Brad Bores when he attended a Rayland Baxter show at The B-Side with some dear mutual friends. We hit it off, and share a love for a certain loose Americana music. We were getting the band together and talking about why we did, after almost a decade off, and I left Brad a five-minute voicemail essay about it, and it just seemed like there might be a story worth telling here.

J. Hubner: Is there any ‘I Am Trying To Break Your Heart’ drama in the film? No personnel changes or vomiting mid-mix I hope.

Phil Potts: Unfortunately for the Brad Bores, the filmmaker, we all get along and had a blast making the record.

Matt Kelley: Fortunately—I think—Brad wasn’t there on those days, lol. But really, this band is far more in simpatico in 2017 than it was in 2007. We did have conflict in writing and making this record, but it was always ultimately in service of the song, and the album, and ideas bigger than any of us as individuals.

J. Hubner: So what can folks expect on June 10th at Artslab?

Matt Kelley: We’re really excited to present a very focused show—a concert performance, rather than a gig. We’re doing two shows, one at 6:30 and one at 9:30. Each will open with Brad’s film, which will be around 15 minutes. We’ll then have a Q&A with Brad, and then the band will perform the album in its entirety, and maybe a couple of requests. It’ll be a fun, all ages show. The ArtsLab is an awesome venue, and we’ll have a bar by The Brass Rail.

Phil Potts: They can expect the rain to stop falling and the clouds to part. We advise bringing extra socks because we will have rocked them off by the 3rd song. All of the ladies in the first two rows run the risk of immaculate conception just by looking at our drummer, so sit accordingly.

J. Hubner: After June 10th where can folks pick up copies of ‘Let It Breathe’?

Matt Kelley: We’ll have hard copies at shows and at TheTrainhoppers.com, hopefully Neat Neat Neat and Wooden Nickel, and digital copies on all the usual outlets, including streaming services. I’m pretty proud of the album cover, so I do recommend the CD to those who still have a way to play such a thing…

J. Hubner: Any favorite memories of making the album?

Phil Potts: There was a game of HORSE. I was draining long distance shots over and over again while missing 5-footers. I think that’s a metaphor for this album. As John Irving said “If you don’t feel that you are possibly on the edge of humiliating yourself, of losing control of the whole thing, then probably what you are doing isn’t very vital.”

Matt Kelley: A long, long time ago I worked on the website for a studio in Nashville that was up in the holler surrounding the city, a getaway, a destination studio that was down-to-earth, outside the music industry and all about the song, and the art. This was when I was first discovering this guitar I had picked up was lucky. Well, I never had the chance to be part of recording there, but working with this band, with Jason at Off the Cuff, I really felt like I finally got to live an experience like the one I had daydreamed about all those years ago.


So June 10th, Artslab, and bring extra socks. And if you don’t want to be carrying an immaculate Trainhoppers baby sit in the back row. Seriously get out there. It’s gonna be great, and you’ll get to see the great film about the making of ‘Let It Breathe’ which was directed by Brad Bores, who I talked to as well.

J. Hubner: So how did you get involved in documenting the Trainhoppers recording sessions for ‘Let It Breathe’? Were you a fan of the Legendary Trainhoppers prior to the film?

Brad Bores: Yes but I wasn’t living in the Fort Wayne area for the first coming of the Trainhoppers so I am a newer fan. I met Matt Kelley at a B-Side show back in 2013(?) and when I heard his band was making a comeback a few years later I knew I would dig the music, just from knowing Matt and his musical tastes that align pretty closely with mine. Last summer the B Side hosted a screening of another music doc I made on Fort Wayne Musician PJ Sauerteig. While I was setting up Matt was talking about the Trainhoppers recording a 3rd album and I think it just clicked that this could make a great short film.

J. Hubner: Were there any music docs you were pulling inspiration from while filming?

Brad Bores: There are quite a few music docs I admire and I’m sure subconsciously elements may show up, but I was more focused on the inspiration coming from the Trainhoppers story and how the visual elements of Fort Wayne (trains, rivers, winter) are connected to the themes of their music.

J. Hubner: Did the filming take place specifically with the recording process or were you involved before that?

Brad Bores: I was filming sporadically the entire process starting last fall when they were still writing and assembling the songs. I also spent the winter chasing down countless shots of trains, bridges and rivers leading towards downtown Fort Wayne as well as the harsh winter vibes in general. The last phase of filming was in the studio this spring as they recorded the songs.

J. Hubner: How long have you been making films? Who were some of your early inspirations? Do you prefer docs to scripted films?

Brad Bores: I have been making films on some level since my college days back in the mid 2000’s. My first serious project was a feature length documentary titled “When the Bell Rings” completed in 2013. The Maysle brothers and John Cassavetes would be earlier inspirations with Roberto Minervini being a more contemporary filmmaker I have followed. I enjoy all types of films but only create docs.

J. Hubner: Will you be documenting the album release show on June 10th?

Brad Bores: Nope. I plan to just relax and enjoy the evening.

J. Hubner: What’s your overall takeaway from this experience? Could there be another music doc in your future?

Brad Bores: This isn’t my first music doc and I’m pretty certain it won’t be my last. There is such a strong relationship between film and music that when the right story or theme lines up it makes the process very conducive. I’m excited to screen this film as it is a departure from my typical style of verite into something more visual and stylistic.


Get to Artslab on June 10th for either the 6:30pm or 9:30pm all ages performances. The cover is $12 and includes a CD copy of ‘Let It Breathe'(or a download card.) Brad Bores’ short documentary will be shown first, followed by a Q&A with Bores and then a performance of the full album by the Trainhoppers. Don’t miss this one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Metavari : Metropolis(An Original Re-Score)

When I think of some of the most influential science fiction films, a few immediately pop into my head. Star Wars, Blade Runner, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Day The Earth Stood Still, Dark City, and 2001: A Space Odyssey(these are my picks…so yeah there’s plenty of other great sci fi pics out there. My pics, not yours) were all strong in their ideas, their visuals, and in their scores. They pushed big stories and concepts to new levels for sure, but the Godfather of science fiction films is Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. It was a truly awe-inspiring piece of cinema, and made in the age of silent film its visuals were overwhelming to the film-going public in 1927. When I watched it for the first time the one thing that stood out to me was the score that accompanied it. I always imagined what it would sound like if someone could’ve updated the score and give it more of a futuristic touch. The New Pollutants did it in 2005. Now, Midwest electronic artist Metavari, aka Nate Utesch, has re-scored it and to stunning effect.

Back on September 24, 2016, Utesch premiered his re-scoring of Metropolis to a live audience at the Cinema Center in Fort Wayne, Indiana as Lang’s historical “man vs machine” film played for all to see. It was an overwhelming experience, and one that took nearly a year and a half to come to fruition for Nate. For those that couldn’t see the performance, it seemed as if there would never be a chance to hear Metavari’s masterful work. But thanks to One Way Static Records, this re-score was released as a Record Store Day 2017 limited edition exclusive. 1,000 copies were released into the world. Did you get one? I did. It’s absolutely glorious.

Me being the simpleton that I am I’d imagine a re-scoring of Metropolis would be a bunch of drone-y synths, some crushing 808 beats, and maybe a touch of darkwave for good measure. But once again, me being a simpleton I would be wrong. At least in terms of what Nate Utesch had in mind. He definitely works the magic with the synthesizer, but there’s so much more going on here. “Epigram from Metropolis” is enough to wet the appetite. You know there’s someone truly gifted at the helm here, and someone that understands that first impressions are everything. It’s a big and swift opening that leads into “Worker City(Shift Change)”, which sounds like early 80s Tangerine Dream. Another woozy dose of synth, it sets the stage for what’s to come. Given though, that Metavari are quite adept at both headier synth sounds and pop-inflected electronic music “Club of Sons” and its percussive slant is not surprising. There’s a real Vangelis-meets-Giorgio Moroder vibe here. “Eternal Return, pt. 1” has some very effective vocal turns, which I think push the very human side of Metropolis.

And that’s just the first few minutes.

This is a truly remarkable feat. Utesch doesn’t take the typical route of the futuristic re-scoring(as apparently I would have done.) He makes some really creative twists and turns here. There’s plenty of the dense, Tangerine Dream moments. There’s the emotional wash of Vangelis strewn throughout, and pop elements that bring Metropolis even further into the future. “Moloch Rising”, “What Were You Doing in the Machine Halls”, “11811(The Dial l)”, “Tetrafugue(The Inventor’s Doors)” are all masterful pieces that truly work to push the “silent” story further. There are also some inspired bits of genius here as well, like a cover of Lindsey Buckingham’s “Trouble” done in an electro pop fashion. I think Lindsey would be impressed(as would Moloch.) “Furioso” and “Witchhunt” capture the spirit of “the new world”. The stuttering electronics and propulsive rhythms help tell a story all on their own.

I could mention literally every piece on this album and talk of their gorgeous warmth and prodigious construction in overwhelming platitudes, but we all have things to do. I’ll just say this, not a single moment is wasted throughout these 86 minutes. With the time constraints of vinyl, in order to fit this re-scoring on a double LP the run time was cut down. It’s all there, but pieces were shortened. You cinephiles with the 2002 restoration of the film will find you can’t sync this up to the film. Still, this album completely works on its own as an incredible electronic album. No syncing required.

Like some of his electronic music peers such as Oneohtrix Point Never’s Daniel Lopatin, Tim Hecker, and Under The Skin music composer Mica Levi, Nate Utesch has a true vision to everything he does. Whether he’s creating far out electronic pop or heady sci fi film scores, he never does what you would expect him to do. He pushes it to another level. Metropolis(An Original Re-Score) is everything you’d hope it would be and not at all what you’d expect.

It’s just plain brilliant.

9.2 out of 10

 

 

 

 

Sounds In The Ether : Science Fiction and Johann Johannsson’s ‘Arrival’ Score

One of the best science fiction movies I’ve seen in awhile is Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival. It’s one of those films that after you watch it you sit and ponder it on and off for days. The implications it possesses, the scope of its reach, and the overall emotional heft it lays on your head and heart. It’s not a perfect film by any means(a recent comparison to Robert Zemeckis’ Contact by a friend had me second guessing Arrival‘s overall approach…for just a second), but some of the best films aren’t perfect. They create the environment and give us the ideas to mull over and think about obsessively for days, weeks, that allow us to decide whether they’re perfect in their own imperfect way. Science fiction allows each of us experiencing it to decide just how perfect or imperfect it is. I’ve never been a fan of hard science fiction. I don’t necessarily need a story to be based in some sort of factual reality. I mean, isn’t the appeal of sci fi the escapism aspect of it? I don’t even need a well written story to be honest. As long as there’s a definitive mood, look, sound, and feel that pull me out of the moment for a bit then I’m good(see Beyond The Black Rainbow.)

Another friend had told me he wasn’t a fan of Christopher Nolan’s hard science fiction approach, both in his Batman films and especially Interstellar. I can understand that. I watched his Batman films prior to reading the Jeph Loeb/Tim Sale Dark Knight stories so I appreciated the films on a cinematic level. After reading those excellent books the films seem to have a certain detached brilliance to them. The fantastical ideas behind some of those great villains seems too grounded in our real world reality now. I still love the movies on a filmmaking level, but they seem slightly “colder” than before.

When it comes to Interstellar I have to disagree with my friend(who knows quite a bit more about sci fi then I do, honestly.) While the film is certainly steeped in a heady dose of real science and actual time travel theory, I feel the human aspect of the story trumps the hard science fiction approach Nolan uses to tell the tale. At the base of the story is a father wanting to save his daughter, and he’ll sacrifice his own life for hers. It’s pretty simple. If that means traveling to the far reaches(literally) of the universe to do so then so be it. I felt there was a perfect balance of emotion and intellect in that film. There’s lots of black hole theories, space/time paradigms, and general poindexter jargon to satisfy the Stephen Hawking in all of us, as well as plenty of emotional heft to satisfy the person looking for a deeply heavy film.

So Arrival. Well for those that are reading this that haven’t seen the movie I won’t talk about any of the heavy details. It’s best to discover things naturally as you’re watching. In a nutshell, the film is about a handful of oblong UFOs that land at various points around the world. The US military bring in a nationally renowned linguist and a physicist to try and figure out how to communicate with the creatures that live inside these objects that seem to float above the ground like skyscraper-sized cocoons. You’re given hints of some tragedy that occurred in the life of one of these experts, which the lifeforms in these ships seem to be connected to. Are they trying to bond with the human? Or manipulate? As the late Chuck Berry once sang, “you never can tell.”

The film has a dreamy quality to it. In Villeneuve’s direction, Bradford Young’s cinematography and the acting of Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, there’s a truly impressionistic approach to storytelling. There’s nothing bombastic here. It’s all very quiet, with muted colors and quiet conversations. The film feels very meditative. For those that like their science fiction with Will Smith and Luc Besson, you may not get the proper thrills out of this. But for fans of Blade Runner, Under The Skin, Ex_Machina, Beyond The Black Rainbow, and even A.I., I think you’ll love this film.

Johann Johannsson’s score to Arrival is just as big a character as Adams, Renner, or the Heptapods. He creates both quiet beauty and shaded dread. He uses both traditional orchestration, as well as vocalization, electronic manipulation and loops to create this musical world. But his approach is anything but “traditional”. You feel like you’re in another world listening to his beautiful music. Opening piece “Arrival” drones along and is accompanied by what sounds like whales communicating(strangely, the alien objects look a bit like whales floating vertically above the ground.) “Heptapod B” brings Steve Reich to mind, especially in the looping aspect of the piece. This piece feels like a hallmark of Johannsson’s score, which in turn makes the overall sound seem like something new and exciting. Johannsson turns the traditional film score on its head. It runs the gamut from incidental to emotionally crushing.

I recently picked up this score on vinyl via Deutsche Grammophon and its a beautiful piece of vinyl. The sound is pristine, with Johannsson’s work coming through exquisitely. And the last song is the beautiful Max Richter piece “On the Nature of Daylight” which the film dons both at the beginning and end(unfortunately, because of the inclusion of Richter’s piece Johannsson was ineligible for an Academy Award nomination.)

I guess it doesn’t really matter how you take your science fiction, just as long as you take it. It’s important to open your mind a bit and delve into some critical thinking once in a while. Even if you don’t understand it right off the bat, give it a shot. Ponder it, re-watch it, read Dune again, buy The Criterion Collection edition of  Solaris and put that in your skull. Go to your locally owned used book shop and buy a stack of Philip K. Dick paperbacks, hit a coffee shop, and jump into his world. Let Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson tickle your frontal lobe, then jump into some classic Terry Gilliam fare. Just step out of the intellectual meat grinder known as modern entertainment for a bit and go somewhere in your head. Somewhere strange, hard to grasp, and uncomfortable.

Stretch your brain a bit. Your heart will follow.

 

 

Scoring Horror : Steve Moore’s ‘The Mind’s Eye’

I find myself listening to more soundtracks than I do watching the movies they score. Is that a bad thing? I’m sure the film directors and writers and producers might think so. It’s not that I have anything against watching movies, it’s just that a lot of the time I have easier access to the scores, and the soundtracks are usually better than the film. That’s just a cold hard fact of life, people. I give the filmmakers credit, though. They’re smart enough to hire top notch musicians to score their films. And I’m not saying all those films are bad or anything. I’m just saying the soundtracks usually grab me right away.

There are a crew of great people making some amazing music for indie and low budget films that are really classing up these flicks. Jeff Grace, Wojciech Golczewski, Disasterpeace, David Wingo, and Steve Moore.

Not familiar with Steve Moore? Well he’s one half of the heavy synth/progressive rock duo Zombi. Not familiar with Zombi? Really? Just, well see yourself out the door, okay? Close the door, too. Okay, they’re gone. So anyways, Moore has been making some pretty incredible noise in Zombi for years now, and a few years ago he started scoring films. The first that I saw was The Guest, which was both a great film and an incredible score. Cub was another one he scored, and again he hit it out of the park with that score. Last year he scored the low budget horror film The Mind’s Eye.

So as I stated earlier, I don’t see a lot of these films I pick up soundtracks of. The Mind’s Eye is on my list of films to see, for sure. But I was more interested in hearing Steve Moore doing what he does best, and this soundtrack does just that. It’s got all of those great early 80s synth sounds Moore is known for. The moody, rhythmic arpeggios…the swaths of dissonance…the new age-y interludes…they’re all there. He tends to stick to certain motifs. I can hear repeated sounds and expressions in each of the soundtracks I’ve heard of his, but I think that’s true for a lot of film scores. Certain build ups during scenes, creating tension for a scene, yadda yadda. It’s sort of like a hallmark of a Steve Moore film score.

To get an idea of what Steve Moore does, you should hit up albums like Zombi’s Surface To Air, Escape Velocity, and Shape Shift. For my money, those three records really show his compositional skills(along with drummer AJ Paterra.) Then once you’re fully committed to this synth wizard’s chi(sorry, been watching Iron Fist on Netflix), I’d suggest you find his score for The Guest and put that in your ears. I think that’s the ultimate power punch in regards to his scoring prowess. It’s got it all, really. Want more? Then The Mind’s Eye should be your next stop. This thing is a massive chunk of synth-heavy goodness. It’s a double LP, so there’s plenty to enjoy here. 85 minutes of music, to be exact. It’s an epic collection of heady sounds.

The film itself? Here’s the trailer:

Like I said I haven’t seen it, but it seems to do a lot with a little. Low budget horror can be a tricky thing, but done in the right hands it can do what major studios do with millions more bucks and far better. This one sort of puts me in my of Cronenberg’s Scanners, just from the trailer. That was a classic of the genre, and a low budget flick to boot. If Joe Begos does just half of what Cronenberg did then The Mind’s Eye will be pretty damn good.

Well I’ve rambled enough. I think I got off point a bit, but that’s typical on a Saturday morning. Steve Moore. The Mind’s Eye. Film Composers. Indie horror. GO!

 

 

Friday Rentals

All this talk of classic horror films from when I was a boy in short pants has me reminiscing about Friday nights of my youth. The Friday night video rental, to be exact. It was a semi-regular thing for my parents and I to go out after my dad got home from work and go grab a pizza at Pizza Hut, stuff ourselves, and then head to Video World and rent some movies for the weekend. Of course, I’d head straight to the back room(not THAT backroom, you perv) and start perusing the horror and sci fi. Video World had a back room dedicated to nothing but horror, sci fi, music docs, and weird odds and ends. That’s where I spent a good portion of my time. This was my formal education into the world of the undead, vampires, alien creatures, soulless slashers, and general weirdos that I’d carry around in my memories for years to come. At first it was an appreciation for being scared, but then it changed. It was the whole aesthetic that I loved: the effects, the music, the set designs, and yes even the stories that were attempted. Some were better than others(much better at times), but each movie carried with it something endearing, no matter how horrible the film was. If it was really bad it would sometimes transcend into something even greater than scares. The horror film that tried so hard but missed the mark would become something else: parody. Something so bad that it became a completely different genre. Even a lousy movie could make for fun viewing.

This Friday night ritual continued on through high school. One of my best friends and I would crash at either my place or his, grab a Tombstone pepperoni pizza from the store along with a bag of Cheddar and Sour Cream Ruffles, hit Video World for the newest horror film(by this time we’d rent from either Video World or Video Plus), and spend Friday night distorting our minds(and our intestinal tract with that Tombstone Pizza.) Oh, and if you hadn’t guessed, we weren’t the partying types. Were we dorks? Nerds? I don’t think so. But we definitely weren’t “popular kid” material. Listening to Rush and Joe Satriani and pining over Daphne Zuniga didn’t win us any cool points, but we were cool with that.

I don’t think much has changed for me(except I make my own pizza nowadays.) The video store has turned into renting movies off of Amazon, and Fridays are also shared equally by watching movies and spinning records. If I’m going to waste time, I might as well waste on things I love to do, right? I do miss the video store, though. The strange cast of characters that haunted the aisles: whether it was parents and their kids looking for something to watch together, teens looking for something they shouldn’t watch, or the creepers disappearing into the “other” back room. And of course the folks working behind the counter, renting to the folks hungry for entertainment on a Friday evening. Spending their weekend making ours a little more interesting. I had much admiration for them. I was one of them, as I started working at Video World when I was 18 and worked their for nearly a year. A great year it was, too.

So here’s to Friday rentals and making the most of those little moments.

Who Goes There?

The first movie I watched that truly disturbed me to my core was John Carpenter’s The Thing. Sure, I’d seen films that made me jump and that had given me nightmares for a week straight. And yes, there were films that made me not want to go downstairs for fear of creature hands coming through the steps and pulling me underneath for a grotesque fate. Did Poltergeist make me fear clowns and looking under my bed? Absolutely. Friday The 13th cured me of ever wanting to be the outdoors-y type. Nightmare On Elm Street made sure I’d always try to wake up before I hit the ground in a bad dream where I was falling, for fear of never waking up. And The Food Of The Gods made me fear…well, giant worms? I don’t know, but I had nightmares for a week after my parents took me to see it at the drive-in when I was 3 years old. But the film that really grabbed me and viscerally messed with my head was The Thing.

I remember watching Howard Hawks’ The Thing From Another World on Nightmare Theater, a local Friday night “creature feature”- like show, as a little kid with my dad and not really thinking much of it. It was interesting, but for some reason I remember thinking James Arness’ “Thing” was a giant carrot. Maybe my dad told me that(he liked to mess with me as a kid…much like I like to mess with my own children.) I got to see a lot of great and not-so great horror flicks on Nightmare Theater, which I credit for my love of horror in general. But it wasn’t until I was 10 and we bought our first VCR that I truly began building up my horror knowledge. The first two movies we rented? Romero’s Creepshow and the Bob and Doug McKenzie flick Strange Brew. I was off to a great start.

Within that first year of renting movies from Video World The Thing came about 6 months into our Betamax journey. I’d heard things about the movie, mainly from my dad talking about it, and knew I wanted to see it. My parents weren’t super strict about what they let me watch growing up. There were some “off limits” films, for sure. Mainly movies with lots of sex and lots of bad language were gonna be on the “no way” list. I remember mom and dad usually watching those after I went to bed. I could hear Risky Business, Dressed To Kill, and Scarface through the wall as I tried going to bed. The TV was directly on the other side of the wall where my bed was. Horror movies, though, my parents were a little more lenient with my brother and I. I can remember mom and dad taking my brother and I to see the original Fright Night, Silver Bullet, and even Nightmare On Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge. I wasn’t even in middle school for any of those. We were just a horror film household I guess.

So The Thing. Both the original and Carpenter’s remake were based on the novella Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell(writing as Don A. Stuart.) Hawks’ version was more loosely based, where Carpenter took a more direct approach to the adaptation. I think, whether they were direct or not, there were nods to McCarthy-ism in the original as it was released around the time of the McCarthy trials and the Communist witch hunts in Hollywood. The idea of not knowing who you can trust among your peers felt very close to home to those working in the community at the time, as well as in the country as a whole. In 1982, Carpenter was coming off of a stream of classic films. Halloween(1978), The Fog(1980), and Escape From New York(1981), as well as a much-loved TV movie Elvis starring Kurt Russell in 1979. He proved he was capable of doing a hell of a lot with not much bank. He went from a $6 million dollar budget with Escape to $15 million for The Thing, and it showed. The movie’s special effects were unlike anything we’d seen before. Rob Bottin, then only in his early 20s, pretty much revolutionized special effects in film.

So for those that aren’t aware of The Thing, I’ll give you a synopsis(why aren’t you aware of this classic??): At an American research station in Antarctica, the crew is encountered with an alien life form that can take the shape of its victims, which causes the all-male crew to start wondering who’s really themselves and who’s actually the alien in disguise. How they come in contact with the alien I’ll leave that up for you to find out(if you haven’t seen it.) Like I said, the special effects in this film are impressive, even by today’s standards. CGI does some great things, but it doesn’t begin to compare to practical effects. Between Bottin’s special effects crew(and one memorable effect by effects wizard Stan Winston), this film was viscerally and stomach-churningly on-point.

The score was written by Ennio Morricone. Unlike most of Carpenter’s other films, he let someone else take the reigns this time around, and that person was the spaghetti western master himself. After recently picking up the Waxwork Records release of this stunning score, I have to say that I never noticed just how incredible it was. I think watching as a kid I was so engrossed with the film that the music just didn’t register with me. Even after watching it less than a year ago the music still didn’t register with me. I think more than anything after listening to it recently was that it sounds nothing like what I imagine Ennio Morricone and his scores to sound like. That’s probably due to my ignorance more than anything else.

Like I said before, I correlate Morricone to Eastwood and spaghetti westerns. On The Thing, Morricone goes for a much tenser vibe, complete with trickling strings and brasher symphonic sounds. At times it sounds more like Bernard Herrmann scoring Alfred Hitchcock, which for a film about isolation and paranoia you couldn’t ask for anything more. There’s also a real classic feel to the orchestral movements in this film, like you’re hearing pieces from a classic Universal monster film. You can almost see Dracula’s castle in the distance, or smell the electrified corpse of Frankenstein’s monster as its being lowered from the roof into the famous laboratory. There are also moments where Morricone seems to be pulling from Carpenter’s playbook here, with minimalist notes and quiet tension. “Humanity, Pt. 2” feels like something John Carpenter would’ve come up with, while “Eternity” sounds like it could’ve been used in Carpenter’s The Fog. “Humanity Pt.1” is all slow burn with lilting strings and piano. It puts me in mind of what Jeff Grace did years later in Ti West’s excellent The House Of The Devil.

All in all, this is a beautifully arranged piece of orchestral work.

So the film was universally panned when it came out in 1982. Carpenter was crushed as his great efforts were ignored and his classic science fiction film was downplayed as “excessive” and “a wretched excess”, “the quintessential moron movie of the 80s”. One reviewer states of John Carpenter, “Astonishingly, he blows it.” Of course, dear reader, none of these critics got it. In fact, hardly anyone did at the time. It was as if everyone in the cinematic-reviewing community felt as if John Carpenter had broken some cardinal rule when he mixed both science fiction and horror together in one film. Of course it had been done before. Anyone heard of Alien? Yeah, me too. Of course, science fiction and horror go hand in hand. Some of the most astonishing evils have come from science: the atomic bomb, chemical warfare, L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics. I’m all for science, folks. I’m just saying there’s a lot of scary stuff to come from scientific progress, as well some great stuff. But having said all that I don’t think John Carpenter was trying to say any great truths with The Thing. He just wanted to make a hard-boiled, bloody version of Ten Little Indians and he succeeded wonderfully. It was a film about a group of rough dudes stuck together in a place where there’s no escape, trying to figure out who’s who and what’s what. If the beast doesn’t get ’em inside, the sub-zero temps will get ’em on the outside. Even though it’s still basically a monster-in-disguise movie, there’s still plenty of “who can you trust when the enemy is hiding in plain sight” fodder that you can mull over and compare to the times we currently live in.

Everything about The Thing is perfect. From the casting to set design to the special effects to the frigid isolation. And of course the music. When Carpenter first asked Ennio Morricone to score his film, Morricone said “Regarding The Thing, by John Carpenter, I’ve asked him, as he was preparing some electronic music with an assistant to edit on the film, “Why did you call me, if you want to do it on your own?” He surprised me, he said – “I got married to your music. This is why I’ve called you.” I was quite amazed, he called me because he had my music at his wedding.” If I could tell John Carpenter why I spent so much time writing about and obsessing over a movie made 35 years ago, I guess I’d say it’s because it completely messed my prepubescent mind up.

But in the best way possible.

 

The Satanic Path Is The Right Path

The Satanic Path(1983) -courtesy of Gorgon Video

A young woman named Jamie, after just turning 18 years old decides to leave her cushy Midwestern upbringing after her mother dies from mysterious circumstances. She moves to Europe in order to search for her biological father whom she has never met. Her search leads her to a small village in the River Avon valley named Hedonshire where she encounters a mysterious and beautiful older woman called Zans who tells Jamie she knows the young woman’s father and that she can lead her to him, but for a price. That price? Jamie’s eternal soul? 

The Satanic Path works off the whole “Satanic Panic” fears of the 80s beautifully by incorporating the loss of innocence with also thea2059325644_10 liberating possibilities of “finding oneself” through spiritual, sexual, and even self-destructive means. The protagonist, the innocent and naive Jamie, knows there’s something dark and mysterious about her mother’s death and the man who is Jamie’s biological father whom her mother kept secret all these years. But after Jamie’s mother’s funeral Jamie comes across a letter hidden in a locked cedar chest in the basement of her grandmother’s home. A letter written to her mom by a man named Ezekiel. Ezekiel speaks of a forbidden love and of rituals, blood sacrifices, and wanting to see his daughter, whom Jamie realizes is her. The return address is Bristol, England, which is Jamie’s first stop on a journey for the truth. She finds the truth; as well as a coven of witches, Satanists, a demonic monastery, killer lesbians, a portal to an alternate universe, horny backpackers, a possessed church organ, dim-witted occultists, and a gateway to the “Dark Realm” where all of Jamie’s deepest, darkest desires come to life, but at a very steep price.

The Satanic Path was written and directed by Roberto Bava, the famous Italian B-movie director of such lurid(and at times X-rated) horror and occultist films The Dead In Your Bed(1965), Souls For Sale(1969), Bravo, My Dear(Fear Eater)(1973), and his game changing My Lesbian Summer(1976). The Satanic Path marked Bava’s return to the genre he helped to define after several softcore film adaptations of Shakespeare plays in the late 70s and early 80s and one catastrophic, orgy-filled production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream that played one time and one time only at the Herzog Theater near his home in Cologne, Germany.

The idea for The Satanic Path came to Bava after dropping his daughter off at her private school in the Swiss alps. He immediately returned to Cologne and spent the better part of September of 1981 writing. After securing funding from Spanish film producer Diego(Diablo) Garza and a small group of Italian investors filming began in the summer of 1982. Shot on location in both Columbus, Ohio, the River Avon Valley, and Zurich, Switzerland, the film was complete and edited within a mere 3 months.

The biggest change with The Satanic Path in regards to Bava’s previous work was with the film scoring. His brother-in-law, the famous German film composer Herman Wagner, had scored nearly every Bava picture since his 1959 debut Sisters, Lovers. With Path, Roberto Bava felt he needed to step away from the romantic, wind-swept drama of Wagner’s more traditional approach to scoring and he instead went with the mysterious Pentagram Home Video. He wanted the film to have a more modern feel, so the cold, detached sounds of analog synthesizers seemed to be the way to go. Pentagram Home Video would go onto to score the cult film Who’s Out There(1986) and most recently the short Slumber(2015). But with The Satanic Path, Pentagram Home Video would create a dark and foreboding aural companion to what might be Bava’s best work(it was his last as he died in 1985 at the age of 73 in a boating accident.)

PHV went about creating the musical pieces for The Satanic Path much like they created dark, dance floor ambient techno they used to perform in the dingy, smokey clubs of London in the late 70s and early 80s. Their approach is a minimal one, but one that pulls maximum reaction. With just simple synth lines and programmed beats, Pentagram Home Video can create a sense of dread and dark emotion. Pieces like “A Satanic Perspective On Youth Television”, “A Problem For The Occultist”, and “The Black Mass Part I/II/Leviathan” build upon Bava’s moody scenes, set designs, and help to fill the gaps that are apparent in Roberto’s sometimes thin script. PHV’s “The Parallel Realm” exquisitely captures the luridness and dark sexuality that surrounds Jamie’s quid pro quo near the end of the film. The music turns what could’ve been an exploitative scene of dark lust and sexual shock into something far deeper.

Overall, Pentagram Home Video helped turn Roberto Bava’s swan song of a film into something far richer, deeper, and compelling.

The Satanic Path will not make someone who’s not a fan of the genre a fan. It’s still lurid, exploitative, hedonistic, filled with sex and nudity, and can be quite shocking when it wants to be(Hell, what’s not to like about any of that?) If anything, it may have you searching for those old Pentagram Home Video soundtracks, as they’re absolutely stellar albums. The Satanic Path is one of the best. Look around, you may be able to find a copy…if you’re lucky.