The opening music in the Netflix thriller Stranger Things, scored by the Austin duo S U R V I V E, immediately sets a mood: buzzy bass bombs detonate around celestial synth melodies and strikes of sci-fi sound effects, the deeper beats pounding like a heart jolted into rapid activity.
The Texas band’s creepy John Carpenter-referencing score has not only helped spur immediate fandom for the '80s-referencing, Winona Ryder-starring hit series -- it's also sparked discussions about the current renaissance of the '80s-riffing synth soundtrack.
If you’re into the sound of terror -- whether that music accompanies Stranger Things’ plant-faced monster, the lumbering human STDs of It Follows, the WTF-is-Scarlett Johansson-exactly in Under the Skin, or the grim New Age vision of Beyond the Black Rainbow -- there’s never been a better time to bask in sinister synths. Below is a breakdown of the best new-school scores by the next generation of electronic mood masters.
S U R V I V E, 'Stranger Things'
It took exactly 12 days after the premiere of Stranger Things for Netflix to announce its soundtrack release of music written by Survive’s Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein. The fervor for the band was so immediate, driving the underground group’s Facebook following into the 28,000 range, that the streaming network had no choice but to feed the fandom. The timing is great for Dixon and Stein, since Survive releases its new full-length record for Relapse, RR7349, on Sept. 30. (The name of that album, rather than being some kind of cool secret code, is simply the catalog number for the label.) Much like the Stranger Things score, RR7349 sounds both edgy in tone and surreal in mood. The band plays Oct. 7 at the Elbo Room in San Francisco.
Sinoia Caves, 'Beyond the Black Rainbow'
Beyond the Black Rainbow is one of the best sci-fi films of the past decade: with its focus on a “new age of enlightenment” and “energy sculpting,” it slithers neatly into modern spiritual language while offering a stylishly dystopian view of the New New Age. Like Stranger Things, the film features a young female protagonist held captive in a nefarious laboratory, but there’s no room for levity in this narrative. Musician Jeremy Schmidt, who recorded the excellent Beyond the Black Rainbow soundtrack under the moniker Sinoia Caves, coats the movie in operatic dread. His psychedelic synth work is fitting for both stage and screen: Schmidt is also the keyboardist for Canadian space rockers Black Mountain. You can hear more of his sci-fi flourishes in the band’s latest opus from earlier this year, IV.
Disasterpeace, 'It Follows'
Who knew murderous people moving at the speed of sloth could be so terrifying? The title of this gripping 2015 movie refers to a sexually transmitted curse suburban teenagers catch where they’re plagued by zombified bad guys until they can screw someone new. The movie’s menacing vibe is enhanced by the excellent score from video game soundtrack whiz Richard Vreeland. The music sonically describes the unnerving experiences unfolding visually -- eerie banging footsteps and stabbing beats to jack up anxiety levels. A sonic connection between Vreeland’s score and John Carpenter’s Halloween theme only deepens the ominous vibe.
Mica Levi, 'Under the Skin'
Strings are a given in any dramatic soundtrack, swelling dark moods to orchestral heights. Micachu and the Shapes' Mica Levi composed an experimental score for Under the Skin that deconstructs the instruments, much like predator Scarlett Johansson deconstructs the hapless dudes she picks up in her kidnapper car. Under the Skin made such an obvious impact on Stranger Things directors Matt and Ross Duffer that they use one of the chilling reveals in the Johansson thriller as a visual plot point in their TV show. Levi’s abstract music, which has been compared to György Ligeti’s music for The Shining, is equally impactful, enveloping the viewer in sound that keels between beautiful and deadly, always threatening something evil under the surface.
Tangerine Dream, 'Stranger Things' remix, 'Halt and Catch Fire' score
Ok, so Tangerine Dream definitely aren’t the new generation. In fact, S U R V I V E specifically cite the German synth soundtrack legends as inspiration for their music. But the band has to be mentioned on this list for two reasons. First, their members remain relevant (and thrust themselves into Stranger Things discussions) by doing things like posting a cover of the Stranger Things theme to Soundcloud. Second, ex-Tangerine Dream member Paul Haslinger released another '80s-inspired TV score this summer for the AMC personal computing drama Halt and Catch Fire. That show is by no means scary. But like the Stranger Things soundtrack, Halt and Catch Fire’s theme is very '80s-reverent.