(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Recording review - Umberto, Night Has a Thousand Screams (2012)

Secret soundtracks in the darkness

Matt Hill contributes bass and beats to progressive-psych band Expo ’70, but he has his own project on the side. As his alter ego, Umberto, Hill plays craftsman, sculpting idealized film scores for obscure old horror films. Night Has A Thousand Screams is his latest project, created for the Glasgow Music and Film Festival earlier this year. The Festival hyped Umberto’s appearance as a live soundtrack performance for a secret film. He chose a cult favorite slasher flick called Pieces (1982), by Spanish director Juan Piquer Simón, as his inspiration.

The album’s 10 tracks follow the flow of the movie, allowing the listener to absorb every menacing moment. The first track, “Boston, 1942” covers the opening scene with its back story for the film’s killer. A child is playing with a jigsaw puzzle. Chastised by his mother, he ends up murdering her. Umberto’s music sets an expectant vibe with chiming tubular bells against mysterious sweeping synth drones. A grinding bass line ratchets into the tune to represent the violence. Umberto uses electronic distortion, sirens, and the persistent chimes to create a sense of unreality paired with heavy action. These bells become one of the motifs throughout the score. The next tune, “Opening Credits”, establishes a couple of other recurring themes. One is a bass run that suggests the intro to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”. This crops up during “The Investigation”, “The Waterbed”, and “Paralyzed”. It’s usually accompanied by an inexorable beat and shimmering keyboards.

Umberto’s soundtrack also relies on a lot of spooky underwater sounds that link several of the murders to the killer’s obsession with puzzles. Several of the tracks reference specific attack scenes in the film. The strongest of these is “The Pool”. It begins with the underwater theme, but picks up a stalking electronic beat. Initially, the music is simple, setting the scene of a young woman unaware of the coming threat. But the pressure builds as a heavier rhythm falls into place, until a sinister climbing melody line finally reveals the psychotic killer to his terrified victim. The track ends with the release of a grinding bass tone.

Night Has A Thousand Screams is a well designed film score. More than just an accompaniment to the action, it provides another medium to appreciate the story and feel of the movie. That live performance in Glasgow must have been a heady experience as Umberto’s trance grooves enhanced the suspense of Pieces. The music captures an ambiance of creepy tension, taking advantage of the same formula that horror films use to heighten the impact of violence. The songs begin with a calm setup, followed by the initial hint of threat that eventually builds. But like the best directors, Umberto breaks the flow occasionally to offset expectations, such as his slow-motion free fall section in “Paralyzed”. But the final strike is inevitable.

Even as Umberto aspires to soundtrack greatness, he has a slightly different perspective from most composers in this genre. Knowing that few listeners will get the full effect of pairing his music with the film, he’s structured his album for independent listening as well. Pieces vary in length from a bare minute for “Opening Titles” to the sprawling 10 minute “Paralyzed”. The longer tracks reuse the motifs of his musical lexicon, but they also work as standalone songs. Without the context of Pieces, listeners can still enjoy the music journeys, with trippy explorations, chill trance progressions and revelatory build ups.

(This review originally appeared on Spectrum Culture)

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