Soundtrack Review: ‘Assault on Precinct 13/Dark Star’

Assault on Precinct 13 Dark Star soundtrack cover

Of all the soundtracks to John Carpenter’s movies, the ones for “Assault on Precinct 13” and “Dark Star” remain the hardest to find. “Dark Star’s” soundtrack has been out of print for years and is basically comprised of dialogue and music from the movie. As for “Assault on Precinct 13,” its soundtrack was available only as a bootleg until 2003 when a French company named Record Makers gave it its first commercial release. But now BSX Records has released “Assault on Precinct 13/Dark Star,” a soundtrack which contains the music from both movies and has been newly recorded by Alan Howarth, and the results are truly fantastic.

“Assault on Precinct 13” and “Dark Star” were Carpenter’s first movies which he directed and did film music for, and they were extremely low budget affairs which forced him to make the best use of whatever he had available. The soundtracks for each ended up inaugurating what is known as “the Carpenter sound” which was expanded on in later films such as “Halloween II” and “Prince of Darkness.” The theme to “Assault on Precinct 13” is one of Carpenter’s most memorable, and it was inspired in part by Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.” His music for “Dark Star” helped to illustrate the movie’s more thoughtful elements as well as its most comically absurd.

Other artists have re-recorded Carpenter’s music over the years with varying degrees of success, but BSX Records really lucked out here in getting Howarth to recreate these two soundtracks. A highly regarded sound designer and pioneering electronic musician, Howarth worked with Carpenter on the scores to many of his movies all the way up to 1988’s “They Live.” With “Assault on Precinct 13” and “Dark Star,” Howarth doesn’t try to update either soundtrack, but instead aims to remain faithful to Carpenter’s original versions and how they sounded back in the 1970’s. The only real difference is while both soundtracks were originally recorded in mono, Howarth gets the opportunity to record them in stereo which allows for a more powerful presentation.

“Assault on Precinct 13” ends up sounding better than ever here, and the main theme will give your stereo speakers a really strong workout. Track 16 is my favorite on the disc as Howarth takes the movie’s theme and adds orchestral elements on top of the electronic ones. It’s the closest he comes to updating any of Carpenter’s soundtracks, but the theme still stays very close to its original sound.

As for “Dark Star,” Howarth sounds like he’s having a blast recreating all those primitive computerized sounds which dominated the score for the 1974 movie. He even recreates “Doolittle’s Solo” which had the character of the same name performing on a makeshift instrument made up of bottles and tin cans, and he adds in those crazy sounds which emanate from that beach ball of an alien. In addition, composer Dominik Hauser arranges and performs a new version of the song “Benson, Arizona.”

This CD also comes with a highly informative booklet entitled “Assault on a Dark Star: The Musical Pulse of Early John Carpenter” written by Randall D. Larson, a film music columnist and author of the book “Musical Fantastique: 100 Years of Science Fiction, Fantasy, & Horror Film Music.” Larson goes into excellent detail over the challenges Carpenter faced in making both “Assault on Precinct 13” and “Dark Star,” and of how he went about created the music for each. Larson also talks in depth with Howarth on how he went about re-recording the scores for this release and the types of equipment he had to work with.

When it comes to re-creating a well-known soundtrack, composers and musicians usually find themselves at a loss. Whether they do a good job or not, they end up giving us something which makes us pine for the original version. The great thing about BSX Records’ “Assault on Precinct 13/Dark Star” release is how Alan Howarth makes both film scores sound as they were always meant to sound. Listening to them is like traveling back in time to the 1970’s when these two movies came out, and it makes for one of the best soundtrack re-recordings I have heard in a long time.

Click here to purchase a CD copy of the soundtracks.

Click here to purchase the digital copy of the soundtracks.

 

Music Review: ‘Houses of the Holy’ by Led Zeppelin

Led Zeppelin Houses of the Holy album cover

With “Houses of the Holy“, Led Zeppelin gave the world one of its greatest albums. Filled with a variety of unforgettable songs, it takes you on a musical journey which very few albums are able to do these days. It’s also the first album which they did not name after themselves, a curious habit Peter Gabriel picked up on when it came to naming his first three solo albums. It also captures the band at a key turning point where they began experimenting with sound designs which they used to great effect here and on future releases.

This sound experimentation is immediately apparent on the album’s first track “The Song Remains the Same”. Listening to it, you might think Jimmy Page was playing three guitars at once and using his toes to play at least one of them. Either that or he’s riffing off on his double-necked Gibson guitar. The song’s title is indeed ironic because even if this one does remain the same, nothing the band has done previously can easily compare. You can feel Page’s excitement as he layers one of his guitar licks on top of another as he creates rapturous dimensions which surround Robert Plant’s passionate vocals.

The other great thing about “Houses of the Holy” is it has the band exploring a variety of musical styles. Most of their albums up to this point were inspired by blues music, and with this one they almost leave that genre completely in the dust.

The second track, “The Rain Song,” has them playing one of their many great love ballads. Then there’s “The Crunge” which has them grooving obsessively to the funkiest beat imaginable, and it’s one of their most entertaining tracks as well as the kind you never want to end even if Plant never finds “that confounded bridge”. Along with the band exploring reggae music with “D’yer Mak’er” and even experimenting with doo-wop on the last track, “The Ocean”, you can tell every band member had the greatest time recording this album.

Some of the best Led Zeppelin songs have the listener feeling like they are on a journey, and this is definitely the case with “Over the Hills and Far Away” which makes you want to run through the fields. Plant is at his most beautiful here vocally as Page eases us in with his acoustic guitar before throttling into gear with an electric one. This is one of the musical numbers you feel like you are flying high in the sky more than anything else.

But the great thing about “Houses of the Holy” is how each band member make their unique contributions really stand out. When people think of the band, Page and Plant are the first people who come to mind. But then there’s the late great John Bonham who remains unrivaled as the greatest drummer ever, and I still cannot think of another who can match his genius. John Paul Jones never seems to get the same amount of respect as everyone else, and this is a shame as his bass playing here is what really drives the power of these songs, and the riffs he pulls off are truly thrilling.

With “The Crunge” and “The Ocean”, you can feel each band member coming together as one. No single person steals the show from the other on “Houses of the Holy,” and realizing this makes this album all the more enjoyable. Everyone here is on the same page (no pun intended) when it comes to their individual contributions, and you can feel the band’s joy as they perform the music.

Years after its release, “Houses of the Holy” continues to find new generations of listeners who love the music as much as we do, and Led Zeppelin continues to outlast the musical fads Beck sang about in “The New Pollution.” As much as fans want to see the surviving members reunite for another world tour, they don’t need to as their music remains as popular as ever. With this particular classic album, Led Zeppelin expresses an eagerness to stretch beyond their safety zone and explore avenues of creativity they had not previously tapped. It remains one of their best efforts, and there is no doubt future generations will come to love it as much as we do.

Music Review: ‘If You Want Blood, You’ve Got It’ by AC/DC

ACDC If You Want Blood Youve Got It cover

While it may be more fun to watch them in concert, AC/DC’s first live album, “If You Want Blood, You’ve Got It,” will still have music fans grooving to the relentless beats of this infamous Australian hard rock band. The album cover shows Angus Young impaled by his own guitar while original lead singer Bon Scott stands behind him with an incredibly demonic look on his face. It’s their ever so subtle way of telling the listener they are about to hear some nasty rock and roll their parents don’t approve of, and they ain’t about to apologize for that in the slightest.

This album was recorded while the band was on their “Powerage” Tour back in 1978, and it captures them as they begin to find an audience outside of their native Australia. Included on it are songs from “High Voltage,” “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap,” “Let There Be Rock” and, of course, “Powerage.” Things get off to a fantastic start with “Riff Raff” as Angus commands the audience’s attention with his lightning quick guitar licks. The listener will be unable to keep his or her feet still while listening to it.

Angus, one of the greatest rock guitarists ever, makes himself known with his amazing solos on songs like “The Jack” which captures the band’s love of blues music. By the time he gets to “Let There Be Rock,” one can’t help but wonder how he finds the energy to keep going full throttle without breaking any strings on his guitar. Listening to him play away is thrilling, and it’s easy to believe he could pluck away at any six-string guitar ever given to him even while he sleeps. There’s no getting sick of his amazing talent.

But the other band member who deserves as much attention here is the late Bon Scott. Scott sounds magnetic as he holds his own with Angus and the rest of the band. This was his next to last album with AC/DC (the last being “Highway to Hell”) before his tragic death in 1980. With all due respect to Brian Johnson who took over lead vocals when the band recorded “Back In Black,” Scott had a better vocal range and always sounded like he was having the time of his life onstage while singing “Rock ‘N’ Roll Damnation” or getting the audience to chant “HIGH” during the band’s performance of “High Voltage.”

The rest of AC/DC makes their presence known as well throughout this live album. Angus’ brother Malcolm Young plays a mean rhythm guitar which Angus can improvise off of endlessly. Cliff Williams’ bass guitar is supremely powerful and keeps the audience revved up during “High Voltage” and “Let There Be Rock.” And finally, there is drummer Phil Rudd who pounds away on his set and keeps everyone else in line as Bon sings and Angus lets loose on a solo which he sounds like he cannot fully control (not that it’s a problem or anything).

Actually, this is one of those live albums which could have been a double album if the band allowed it to be. While it’s great to hear the AC/DC rocking away on these songs, fans will miss other favorites like “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” or “T.N.T.” Unlike most other live recordings, this one feels surprisingly short and could have gone on for much longer. The band must have realized this years later on when they released double live albums for “AC/DC Live,” “Let There Be Rock: The Movie – Live in Paris” and “Live at River Plate.”

Listening to this live album again in its remastered edition, the sound design is incredible. Fans will feel like they are at the concert while they are listening to it, and they will be able to picture Angus doing his Chuck Berry two step move across the stage throughout. AC/DC remains a powerhouse of a rock group after an amazingly long run. “If You Want Blood, You’ve Got It” showed how full of potential they are when in front of a live audience, and hearing it again proves none of that potential has ever been wasted in the service of rock and role music.