A Journal Of The Dark Arts
Take a tour through a demonic boiler room, sleep deprivation, paranoia, and buried secrets, with Charles Bernstein’s masterful, and underrated, synthetic soundtrack.
Welcome back to Horrorscores, where we transform yr waking thoughts into living nightmares.
As you undoubtedly know (and if you don’t, i’m legitmately scared) we lost one of horror’s living legends this week, when director Wes Craven crossed the veil, due to a brain tumor, at the age of 76. We are truly sorry for the loss of Wes’ friends and family, and all of the millions of lives he touched (with razor claws).
As you undoubtedly also know, if you spend any time wandering through the boughs and turrets of Forestpunk, that we are obsessed with all things horror, particularly the music. Film soundtracks have a way of conjuring imagery that can be divorced from the images on the screen. Film music can also be separated from its cinematic origins and taken with you, rocked on Walkmans, perfect for making grocery shopping more interesting and dreadful.
In honor of Wes Craven, we turn our attention to a much-loved, but under-appreciated horrorscore – Charles Bernstein’s soundtrack for the original A Nightmare On Elm Street.
When people think of iconic horror movie themes, they may recall the simple motifs of John Carpenter’s Halloween, the immediately recognizable ‘Ki-ki-ki- ma-ma-ma’ of Mancini’s Friday The 13th, the chilling bloodsplattered orchestral ambiance of The Exorcist’s Tubular Bells or John Williams minor 2nd theme from Jaws.
Even though it is cited by hardcore horrorphiles, the music from the original A Nightmare On Elm Street doesn’t get enough love. We’re here to set the record straight.
First off, some accounts of Bernstein’s score describe it as “state-of-the-art”, when it emerged in 1984. This is not entirely correct. Charles Bernstein had been working with home recording techniques since the early ’70s, and is, in fact, rather lo-fi, carved out with the powerful but rudimentary home-recording equipment like the Yamaha DX-7 and the Oberheim Ob-SX, a stripped down version of the Oberheim Ob-x.
What is immediately striking about Bernstein’s score for Wes Craven’s most enduring creation is that it seems to occupy a direct intersection between the classic orchestral Hollywood themes, as practiced by Bernard Hermann and John Williams, and the industrial scraping soundscapes of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the so-raw-it’s-bleeding synthesis of John Carpenter.
You’ll find a bit of it all, in Charles Bernstein’s wonderful dreamscape.
Things kick off with a somber note, on “Prologue”, with a moody ’70s piano motif, shivering in digital delay, while the Oberheim OB-SX pulses, thick, warm, and ominous as a kiddy pool full of blood. “Main Title”, truly a timeless horrorscore if ever there was one, known to work its way onto dark dancefloors the world over, starts off with chilling dread, and a mocking, sing-song descending melody, and the mysterious, creeping 10-note theme that would be forever linked to Freddy Krueger.
What is interesting, listening back to “Main Theme”, is the crystalline resonance of, presumably, the Yamaha DX-7. While here it is being yoked to a sinister purpose, the DX7 was also a mainstay of ’80s New Age music, and seems to have an inherent mysticism and warmth, that no amount of diabolus in musica can fully erase. The combined effect produces images of some luxury spa in hell, perhaps astrally projecting from a flotation tank while the cries of the damned resonate through batwing cathedral halls.
Such is life, with 3 decades of allusions and musical associations, a large part of why we write the Horrorscores series, looking to trace the bloody chains of horror through every strata of society, looking for the bogeyman that haunts our collective subconscious.
For horror music lovers, there’s a little bit of everything on Charles Bernstein’s score, which just gets better and better with each listen. There’s the requisite rock power ballad of “Laying The Traps”. There’s the clangorous dark ambiance, like something from Brad Fidel’s Terminator soundtrack, of “Rod Hanged/Night Stalking”. There’s the nearly Radiophonic bubbles, dots, warbles, and loops of “Lurking”. All of it hums and purrs with the transistor warmth of the analog synth, with a growling bite that still soothes and seduces.
With several decades of accumulated listening, these early synth horrorscores sound oddly appealing, even when dishing out shrieking dissonance and industrial ambiance. Perhaps it’s nostalgia, or our nervous systems responding to the reality of the circuitry. The imagery may be stark, but there is still an attraction, a connection.
So, while this is a standard review, telling you about how awesome Charles Bernstein’s music is, how essential the NOES OST is and how you need to rush out and listen to it right now (which you really should). But most of you undoubtedly already know this.
Instead, this is a homage and a remembrance of a master. Let us take this opportunity, with the passing of a legend, to really remember Wes Craven and his beautiful nightmares.
Instead of a cut-and-dry document, etched into infinity, let us let these horrorscores ring out into the night, into our dreams, through our veins, and into our lives. I would like to see these tracks, this style, this sound dribble more into the collective unconscious.
For the musicians out there, I’d love to hear people working in this style, creating original compositions in a style similar to Charles Bernstein circa 1984.
To get you started, here’s a list of the equipment used to make A Nightmare On Elm Street OST:
Yamaha DX-7 (used a lot for the bell-like melody textures)
Oberheim OB-SX (used for the low pad on the Main Title etc.)
ARP 2600 (mk I – 1971/72 model) – Charles wasn’t totally sure whether this synth made it onto the score.
Very small Casio keyboard (used for the electronic violin sound in the Main title etc.)
Roland drum machine (Charles does not remember what model it was)
And for the DJs and curators, i’d love to hear more Bernstein in yr sets and mixtapes.
Of course, i will be participating in this challenge as well, so stay tuned to hear my personal creations.
For the makers and the dreamers, share your creations in the comments, as well as your favorite Wes Craven memories. Let’s make this a virtual memorial, complete with prayer candles and wailing.