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Friday, January 1, 2021

The Terrifying and Soothing Sounds of 2020: The Top 10 Best Horror Soundtracks of the Year

It has been a tumultuous year for the music industry, but there was never a loss of resiliency or creativity. This year, the Lovecraft Country soundtrack made history by becoming the first-ever series scored by an online orchestra, with players from Metropolitan Opera, New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony and the Toronto Symphony recording solo in their respective areas. Composers worldwide followed suit, developing new ways to simulate live orchestras with clever engineering and mixing. As of late, there has been discussion about creating VR technology where musicians can play at the same time.

As we reflect on the wonderful horror films released in the past months, let us remember how their music deserves just as much recognition. Horror composers generated tracks that ranged from the profoundly powerful to the fun escapism we as listeners needed.

Let’s take a look at the best in horror music for 2020.

10. Scare Package

Composer: Alex Cuervo (The Pale Door, A Bad Idea Gone Wrong)

Jumping from Western in The Pale Door to a synth-sual style in Scare Package, Alex Cuervo conjures a mixture of delightful and danceable cues for this anthology film with directors Aaron B. Koontz, Courtney Andujar, Hillary Andujar, Anthony Cousins, Emily Hagins, Chris McInroy, Noah Segan and Baron Vaughn. With 20 years of experience performing and recording with garage and punk bands, the qualities of these genres emerge through the lens of horror. It’s a grand party that compliments this riotous film.

Favorite Tracks: Rad Chad’s Horror Emporium, The Backwoods Slasher, Hunting A Creature, The Final Final Final Kill, Battle of Mages, You Mess With the Bull You Get the Horns

9. Lovecraft Country

Composer: Laura Karpman and Raphael Saadiq (Underground, L.A.’s Finest, Step)

Fittingly called “gothic R&B,” the score generated by Laura Karpman and Raphael Saadiq connects the thematic worlds of the episodes. This is their second time working with Executive Producer Misha Green, and she gave them “a wide palette to musically explore every conceivable genre while focusing on the hearts and souls of our heroes.” The pair recorded the score remotely over Zoom, focusing on piano, strings, and guitar. The music supervision, helmed by Liza Richardson (The Watchmen, Leftovers), is also worthy of praise, with its powerful genre-bending selections.

Favorite Tracks: Ardham – Sundown, Goat Blood – Holy Ghost, Celestial Hippolyta – I Am., Tulsa, 1921: Catch The Fire (feat. Janai Brugger) – Rewind 1921, Dee’s Transformation – Full Circle, Full Circle – Full Circle

8. VFW

Composer: Steve Moore (Bliss, The Guest, Mayhem)

VFW (referring to Veterans of Foreign Wars) has a killer synth palette that rings of the 1980’s and John Carpenter. Being a fan of the band Zombi, Director Joe Begos reached out to Steve Moore and that kickstarted their first collaboration with The Mind’s Eye. For VFW, Moore pulled inspiration from “Tangerine Dream soundtracks like Near Dark, Alan Silvestri’s Predator scores and late 80’s/early 90’s metal — the slow stuff like Obituary and Winter.” The grindhouse flick is carried by the no-holds-barred performances of its cast, and the music meets them with like minded intensity.

Favorite Tracks: Montage, Do What You Gotta Do, Run Lizard Run, Axe Attack, The Mud, Hello Fred, Nobody’s Gonna Take This Ridge, End Credits

7. Swallow

Composer: Nathan Halpern (The Rider, Minding the Gap, One Child Nation)

A classicist approach was brought to Swallow, with a “Douglas Sirk-ian kind of callback to the Hitchcock style of filmmaking,” noted Nathan Halpern. The intention was to bring the studio-era Hollywood style while being authentic to the psychological state of its protagonist, a housewife who develops pica, an urge to eat inedible objects. Director Carlo Mirabella-Davis expressed needing a balance of romance and melancholy, marking the scene where she eats the thumbtack as its first “love scene.” It is a journey that pushes and pulls, leaving you hungry for more.

Favorite Tracks: Siren Call, Temptation, Equilibrium, Tempest, Love and Acceptance, The Glass House (Reprise)

6. The Haunting of Bly Manor

Composers: The Newton Brothers (Doctor Sleep, The Haunting of Hill House, The Grudge)

This is the eighth collaboration between Mike Flanagan and The Newton Brothers (aka Andy Grush and Taylor Newton Stewart, who are unrelated). Flanagan is a pianist himself, which influenced the communication, ranging from ultra specific to broad. To prepare, the two were flown to set to meet the actors and take in the mood of the space. Instead of creating themes for each character, they represented the multiple storylines by using instruments suited to those time periods. Piano is the star, effectively dripping with nostalgia, longing and bittersweetness. It’s a perfect ode to the mood of this year.

Favorite Tracks: The Haunting of Bly Manor (Main Titles), Perfectly Splendid, We Are Special, The Jolly Corner, It’s You It’s Me It’s Us, Did I Miss the Ball?, Lady of the Lake

5. Vivarium

Composer: Kristian Eidnes Andersen (Antichrist, Submarino, Sami Blood)

For a film about being trapped in a labyrinth, listeners would be happy to be lost in this cacophony of sounds. Kristian Eidnes Andersen unites his sound design history with music to texturize its story. It drags you through playful, menacing, and somber moods within thirty minutes, making it repeat-friendly. Director Lorcan Finnegan stated: “There is an element of horror in the everyday […], taking something that’s normal and looking at it in a different light until it becomes very strange.” Listen on days you find yourself trying to make sense of isolation.

Favorite Tracks: Vivarium, Lost, Nest, Tom Died, Garden and the Sun, Gemma Dies

4. Shirley

Composer: Tamar-Kali (Mudbound, The Assistant, The Last Thing He Wanted)

While Shirley is not a horror film in the traditional sense, its score breathes with dread and deserves a spot on the list. Centered around horror writer Shirley Jackson, the film takes on a surreal identity, and Tamar-Kali’s touch is dreamy, haunting and provocative. Director Josephine Decker sent her the film’s cut with temp music, aiming for a “fever dream” quality and a push to be daring. This music drips with magical realism and femininity, and it would be a worst of crimes to not expose yourself to it.

Favorite Tracks: A Not So Humble Request, “I Didn’t Ask You To Behave,” What a Writer Does, Shirley’s Vision, Rose’s Dream, Emissary / Captive Queen, Rose on Top, Possession, Baby

3. Possessor

Composer: Jim Williams (RAW, Hotel Babylon, Beast)

Jim Williams’ relationship with director Brandon Cronenberg began when he scored his short, Please Speak Continuously and Describe Your Experiences as They Come to You. For Possessor, Williams, Cronenberg, and editor Matt Hannam were in heavy dialogue to create a visceral experience that mutated picture and sound together. Techniques such as heavy distortion, distorted vocals and “a subverted melody that seems to try and drag itself out of the rich ambient textures” were deployed, successfully painting a portrait of remote controlled slaughter. Listen with caution. It is not easy on the mind… and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Favorite Tracks: Reborn in the Mind of Another, A Psychic Poison, The Owned Cannot, The Owned Cannot Have a Soul, The Possessors are Possessed, Possessor

2. Color Out of Space

Composer: Colin Stetson (Hereditary, The First)

Director Richard Stanley’s first question was: “What exactly is the sound of an alien, an advanced alien life form who manifests itself in our world as a spectrum of light and color that does not exist in our reality?” Colin Stetson answered with a musical code of “the natural made unnatural.” He used a variety of methods to create sounds that merged coral reefs, percussion, and moans by layering them on harmonic generators. Experimentation gave life to the sound of The Color and the terror of the Gardner family. This creeps inside your brain… ultimately swallowing you into H.P. Lovecraft’s euphoric cosmic nightmare.

Favorite Tracks: West of Arkham, The Gardners, Contact, Taken, Peaches!, The Color

1. Gretel & Hansel

Composer: Rob (Maniac, Revenge, Horns)

An off-beat approach to a fairy tale calls for an off-beat score, and composer Rob (aka Robin Coudert) created a wickedly magical soundscape for Gretel & Hansel. Foregoing the expected combination of music boxes or orchestral cues commonly used for fairy tales, director Osgood Perkins embraced electronica, instructing Rob with a single note: to be humorous. In abstract interpretation, the music should feel dark and in-between worlds, but also serve as a bridge for the film’s artsy aesthetic to be more accessible to mainstream audiences. This result is unforgettable, grim and bewitching… a score not to be missed.

Favorite Tracks: Midnight Bath, Witchcraft, Arise, Agaric, Doom, Kids

Sources: VENTS magazine, Vehlinggo, Nightmare of Film Street, Film Music Mag, IndieWire, Cineuropa, American Songwriter, The Guardian, Lights Camera Austin, Variety, ET Canada.


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