The horror community in general, and fans of European cult horror cinema in particular, have been buzzing like crazy about Peter Strickland's meta-horror film Berberian Sound Studio, which made the festival rounds last summer. Reactions were mixed, to put it mildly, but the flick got a lot of people's attention – especially regarding its faithfulness to Italy's golden era of giallo cinema, a time when directors like Mario Bava and Dario Argento created nightmarish thrillers and murder mysteries with their own brand of disturbed logic and surreal imagery. A critical element of any good giallo is the music, with bands like Goblin breaking free of symphonic and jazz scores and into the domain of progressive rock, with heavy electronic elements that were fresh and new at the time. Berberian recreates the look, feel and sound of that era (the title is a reference to '70s avant-garde composer Cathy Berberian), and Strickland turned to UK-based retro rock duo Broadcast to summon the musical vibe to match.
Sadly, this would be the final project for Broadcast vocalist Trish Keenan, who passed away before the score was completed and whose work can only be heard on a handful of tracks. But it's an impressive legacy, and one which any fan of Goblin, Ennio Morricone, Fabio Frizzi, Riz Ortolani and many of their contemporaries would be proud to add to their music collection. Even the album artwork is a callback to '70's-era vinyl, with its distressed look and the creepy promotional art inspired by Dario Argento's Four Flies on Grey Velvet.
Much like recent scores from Goblin founder Claudio Simonetti for Dario Argento (which I love), this record is comprised of individual music cues, pretty uncommon for most soundtrack albums, which tend to fuse cues together or arrange them differently to create mini-suites, resulting in longer tracks. Here, we get a whopping 39 mini-tracks, many of which are less than one minute in length. That may pose a problem cherry-picking tracks for a playlist, but personally I enjoyed listening to the album all the way through for a more cinematic experience.
At the fingertips of Broadcast's James Cargill, all of the classic elements are front and center – from the warm textures of vintage recording gear to familiar instruments like rock organ, electric piano and analog synthesizers, as well as unearthly touches of harpsichord, bells, flute and metal percussion objects, all treated with unearthly processing techniques and blended with dialogue from the film. Loops are put to excellent use, though not in a dance music mode; instead they create a dark industrial heartbeat befitting an early David Lynch film. Much of the music crosses the boundary into sound design, taking on an eccentric personality and interplaying with the surreal dream-logic of the film's bizarre puzzle-box storyline; in fact, many of the tracks like the creepy "The Fifth Claw" and "Monica’s Burial" (both dead-on homages to Argento's Suspiria and Profondo Rosso) are more sound effects than music in the traditional sense. But the more musical combination of those elements, enhanced by Keenan's ghostly non-verbal singing, can be summed up fairly well in the über-gothic track "The Equestrian Vortex,” which accompanies the film's title sequence. Cues like "Teresa, Lark Of Ascension" bring those vocals much closer, hovering in the sound space like a barely-glimpsed specter with a seductive siren call.
Even the track titles themselves call up images from countless European horror films and their themes, including lots of witch-hunting references like "Mark of the Devil,” "Malleus Maleficarum,” "Burnt At the Stake" and "Our Darkest Sabbath,” to obvious shout-outs like "A Goblin” (which ironically doesn't sound like Goblin's music at all, but is pretty crazy in itself). But while it's a great nostalgia trip for classic horror buffs, the album itself is not just a blow-by-blow replication of a bygone musical period; there's a unique voice at work here, with a more distinctly gothic horror flavor than the retro-futurist sound that forms the pulse of films like Drive and the upcoming Maniac remake.
Although horror fans seem very divided on the merits of Berberian Sound Studio, this music stands perfectly well on its own, and is just as much of a cinematic experience. Even if you don't really care for what Strickland's put on the screen, you can still ease back into this album and summon up a new set of images for that perfect giallo of your imagination.