This week we venture into the outdoor produce market of contemporary music, there to compare apples and oranges: two collections of reinterpretations of classic and semi-classic film music, rooted in heavy metal and remix aesthetics.
Fantômas, a sorta-all-star hard-rock quartet, consists of Mike Patton (Mr. Bungle, Faith No More), King Buzzo (Melvins), Dave Lombardo (ex-Slayer) and Trevor Dunn (also Mr. Bungle). The Director's Cut features 16 horror/suspense movie themes written between 1955 and 1992, ranging from the classic Charade to the cult classic Spider's Kiss to the genuinely psychopathic Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.
Can you imagine what Nino Rota's "Godfather Theme" would sound like if it were played by a death-metal band? Howzabout a sludge-metal band covering the theme from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me? Or a speed-core band ripping through Henry Mancini? Can you imagine that? Huh? Can ya?
Well, of course you can. After all, it's not that hard. Does that make The Director's Cut a joke? And if so, is it a good one or a bad one?
For argument's sake, considered as a joke -- Fantômas is a pickup band, after all, and not a real day job, even by the standards of the personalities involved -- The Director's Cut is reasonably funny, if not exactly hilarious. The real problem isn't premise but consistency, and this is a record that rides those crests and troughs like a surfer with an inner ear infection.
Perhaps predictably, Fantômas delivers much more satisfying performances when it resists the easy punch line of ripping everything to heavy-metal shreds. The cover of Henry Mancini's theme from Experiment in Terror is reserved and frightening, and demonstrates that Patton still possesses one of the more versatile voices in contemporary hard rock. And Ronald Stein's "Spider Baby," a classic of '60s drive-in horror with a rockabilly theme, sounds like it was written strictly for this band, four decades in advance.
But their delivery of Bernard Herrmann's title music for the original Cape Fear, while an ominously atmospheric ride, relies almost exclusively on power chords for its weight, which saps some of its creativity and impact. And the opening blast -- the theme from The Godfather -- is simply God-awful. Nothing but the familiar theme, played straight, and then a full-bore plunge into speed metal with no variance, no forethought, and no discernable thematic resemblance. Is it funny? Yeah: for the shock value, the first couple of times. But it's tough to imagine anyone but the most unregenerate headbangers liking it, and then for all the wrong reasons -- a statement that applies to far too much of The Director's Cut overall.
There's also an Ennio Morricone track on The Director's Cut, the theme from Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, of which it's probably best not to speak. But it does provide a thematic segue, and so we turn now to the "oranges" portion of our discussion, an album's worth of music by the founding father of modern film scores, as interpreted by remix artists.
Morricone, perhaps the most influential and prolific film composer in the history of the medium, gave his blessing to Morricone RMX, and his instincts appear to have been well-placed. Presenting an international roster of artists -- maybe "surgeons" is a better word, considering the talent and precise restraint on display here -- Morricone RMX consists of 13 remixes of themes and songs from his long and illustrious career.
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Part of Morricone's genius for film composition has always come from his refusal to limit his work along generic boundaries; styles and influences from hundreds of musical traditions thread through his scores, leaving the echo of their passing but combining to create a sound at once foreign and familiar. Even the haunting guitars and whistles of his "spaghetti Western" soundtracks were but one part of the whole. The score to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (so memorable that the opening bars have become a pop-culture reference all by themselves) contains as much choral work and outright balladry as it does Spanish guitar flourishes, but plays agreeably as an unbroken suite from start to finish.
Morricone's work, then, is eminently suited for latter-day deconstruction, which is the real word for what's happening on Morricone RMX. But the cool understatement that informs his work isn't often emulated in contemporary DJ and remix culture, which tends toward apoplexy in its scramble after the new, the fast, the loud. In other hands, under another set of circumstances, this is precisely the kind of record that might have become an embarrassment of the first water, a Golden Throats for the new millennium.
Thankfully, the remix artists here come to the originals with enough care and respect that the source material remains the dominant element. Apollo Four Forty's take on "The Man With the Harmonica," for example, sounds only slightly updated, retaining all the atmosphere and style of the original. Bigga Bush's reworking of "Clan of the Sicilians" is another standout track, favoring light strings and hushed percussion, with Morricone's melody riding the high, thin air beneath it. Ali N. Askin's "Un Bacio," probably the most satisfying track on the album, succeeds because Askin employs modern technology and generic exercises -- looped voices, effects samples, synthesized percussion -- in a stringent attempt to replicate the ominous atmosphere of the original's sparse interplay between voices and accompaniment. Without exception, the tracks here are interpretations in the best and most faithful sense; there's not a single self-indulgent or disrespectful note to be heard.
There are a host of wonders here -- the faraway guitar that plays the horn melody on Tommy Hools' version of "Doricamante," the dance-hall chord progressions of Fantastic Plastic Machine's run-through of "Belinda May" -- but these are pleasures you should really come to on your own. Suffice to say that Morricone RMX is one of those rare albums that will appeal to thoughtful techno fans and au courant music scholars, in equal measure and with equal revelations.