Sunday, 12 November 2017

On the musical range of some Stranger Things

Image: Legacy Recordings

After one watches the first and second seasons of the Netflix hit series Stranger Things, it could be a perhaps strange exercise to listen through the two volumes of tiny electronic pieces that constitute its soundtrack.

Perhaps strange, as the pieces are often ultra-short in length - and many could rightly say that in such cases, without the soundtrack's themes being assembled into a suite, it might be difficult to enjoy the music without the visuals that it underpins.

However, Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein's historically accurate score, made with many by-now-classic electronic instruments of the early and mid-80s, can be a surprisingly pleasing musical journey even after the myriad tiny pieces are disconnected from the TV series...

What is particularly remarkable in Dixon & Stein's set of little electronic gems is that their often surprisingly economical electronic arrangements and structure cover a huge range of moods and sub-genres of electronic music.

Yes, they could have gone for direct musical references, after all, early '80s Tangerine Dream, the soundtracks of John Carpenter (also hugely influenced by Tangerine Dream) and the soundtrack hits of films like Ghostbusters from same period are infusing the TV series' sound world.

Instead, with careful instrumentation and very organic work flow based on improvisations and hands-on controls instead of computer automation of certain stages, the two key figures of the Austin-based electronic outfit S U R V I V E strike a highly personal and recognizable tone.

Microscopic gems like Home or Symptoms (both from the 2nd season) demonstrate eloquently, that Dixon & Stein can create exquisite quasi-ambiental and hauntingly beautiful electronic melancholy with just a few tens of seconds of economic material.

The ominous main theme has become a synthesizer hit in its own right, receiving a big nod also from the electronic maestros of Tangerine Dream in the form of a splendid cover version. Tracks like Soldiers land us in the world of early-to-mid-80s Tangerine Dream soundtracks like Firestarter and The Keep.

Whilst Kyle & Dixon can coax out of their analogue keyboards and ample modular gear such typically '80s-sounding, intentionally back-referencing and catchy synthesizer tunes, they also produce musical moments of utter darkness and menacing glory - after all, among the myriad elements successfully combined in the TV series, science fiction and horror combine to great effect.

The Upside Down or Descent Into The Rift are such musical moments of menacing eeriness, but Kyle & Dixon can counterpoint such sonic journeys with at the same time nostalgic and wonderfully worry-free musical moments like Kids and Walkin' in Hawkins.

Tracks like She Wants Me to Find Her or One Blink For Yes are achieving the seemingly impossible on their own, without the images: despite their short length, they are structurally perfectly constructed, develop hauntingly beautiful minimalist themes and even after they fade, they leave behind emotional impacts usually only reserved to elaborately long pieces.

What Else Did You See or Eggo in The Snow are also tiny tracks that demonstrate an enormous dose of empathy for the characters, and manage to project via sound their inner states.

In many ways a  central notable feature of this soundtrack is what it could have been (i.e. what it successfully avoided) and what it is not.

Dixon & Stein could have gone for wall-to-wall electronica, they could have gone for catchy cuteness, or for an '80s synth pop feel - as many electronic soundtracks have done so, then and now during the '80s revival.

Instead, they avoid the stereotypical sonic treatments and manage to produce a long series of tiny electronic gems that go from high-octane action to thundering menace to subtle ambiences and delicate, almost fragile, musical constructs of astounding simplicity and emotional effectiveness at the same time.

While they had the not so simple task (technologically and otherwise) to recreate instantly recognisable and time-accurate sound worlds of the era that the action takes place in, they could have approached it via the easier route: creating a replica sound with noticeably superficial earworm-hunting - after all, that's what many in so-called synthwave genre do nowadays.

However, the result is highly imaginative, uses its historic accuracy and its specific references with great restraint, while the music actually stays fresh, emotionally involved, non-intrusive and effective.

There is talk of a third and possibly even fourth series, so while the script writers have their work cut out (to what new heights can they elevate the story set within its both time and location-wise very limited Universe), it will be an interesting puzzle also for the music...

If the duo keep their approach heard so far in the first two seasons, and continue not to be whisked away by the very sound world they so carefully constructed, then one can be certain that '80s superficial electronic stereotypes will continue to be avoided successfully.

Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein (in the background) - photo: Sound on Sound

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