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If you’re not into thrash metal or sexless exercises in sound-design, you might be forgiven for thinking the contemporary horror score is a lost cause.

Stumble into the sort of arenas that tend to cover film music – classical magazines, little-read nooks of film websites, ill-tended message boards – and the diagnosis for contemporary horror scores is clear: not good. Compared with the imaginative ferment of the 1970s and 1980s, the current landscape is much less vivid, with the short, sharp shocks of yore replaced with something more tasteful and clinical. The lo-fi naffness has been dialled down, for sure, but that wonderful sense of flair, so obvious in the works of Carpenter, Frizzi et al, has been pitifully diminished as a result. Precision has superseded play; chrome and steel have replaced blood and guts. To ask a trite but ultimately telling question: could you hum a horror film theme tune from the last 15 years?

Still, it would be a shame to chuck the demon baby out with the holy water. A glut of composers are doing strong work which has something to say to the casual listener: Clint Mansell’s compositions for Darren Aronofsky have made their mark; Christopher Young’s music for the likes of Drag Me To Hell and Sinister remains compelling; Lalo Schifrin’s unexpectedly lavish score for his son’s no-budget Yeti flick Abominable is great; and Thomas Bangalter’s OST for Gaspar Noé’s punishing Irreversible trumps most of the music he’s made since. The VillageLet The Right One InThe Orphanage…none of them are Escape From New York, for sure, but there’s still some great music there.

The following piece offers runs through our 10 favourite horror OSTs released since 2000. The lion’s share are long-form exercises in tension and release – albums of instrumental electronics that could happily slip out on Mego, Kranky or Raster-Noton. Some take a wry postmodern approach, cannibalising old horror licks or biting from the masters. A couple are unmistakably “film music”, but transcend the form through sheer chops and/or emotional heft. Crucially, all have something to say independent of the visuals they were designed to soundtrack. Great horror scores aren’t a thing of the past. To quote you-know-who: They Live!

Note: This list is a part of a series of Halloween-friendly beginner’s guides. Also profiled so far: the work of video nasty legend Richard Band; the essential releases by Italo horror go-to Fabio Frizzi; the output of storied horror trailblazers Goblin; and, of course, the back catalogue of the almighty John Carpenter.

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(MILAN, 2001)

Much-loved slow burner Session 9 follows a team of cleaners gutting asbestos from a dilapidated asylum, and – who knew? – finding more than they bargained for in the process. Seattle duo Climax Golden Twins, responsible for a string of sound art and post-rock releases since the mid 1990s, provide the excellent score, which takes its time rather than racing to the jugular. The OST offers rich drone and ambient afterglow, spotted with chilling local detail – tones that approximate busted heart monitors, feral blurts of static, Pan Sonic-style digital chatter, hesitant piano motifs. Climax Golden Twins’ Robert Millis claims that, during the sessions, the pair would “huff asbestos and go on killing sprees”. It shows.

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Tindersticks’ creative relationship with French director Claire Denis goes back some time – indeed, they’re practically her house band. The Nottingham group’s lugubrious chamber pop soundtracked 1996’s coming-of-age flick Nenette Et Boni, 2002’s flâneur drama Vendredi Soir and 2008’s family piece 35 Rhums, amongst others. Trouble Every Day is Denis’ unlikely attempt at ‘erotic horror’-  a sexy cannibal thriller with a soundtrack for cosy Autumnal evenings. As on previous efforts, the band stick to wistful, finely-wrought alt.rock. The film hovers tentatively between psychological study and out-and-out gorefest, and the rustic score massively contributes to that sense of ambiguity.

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 仄暗い水の底から (DARK WATER)
(KITTY MME, 2002)

Veteran Japanese composer Kenji Kawai is best known for his work in the Manga industry, most notably on 1995’s Ghost In The Shell. He’s also, however, a regular associate of J-horror overlord Hideo Nakata, providing the music for the (in)famous Ringu flicks, and his score for psychological horror Dark Water is an excellent dark ambient record in its own right. Water is the enemy in the film – bogwater emerges from faucets, strange leaks telegraph the arrival of nasty spirits – and Kawai’s score is similarly fluid: drones ebb and flow throughout the album, occasionally disrupted by processed Herrmaan strings and treated pants and sobs.

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These days, Francois Tétaz earns his crust as a producer, working with Architecture in Helsinki and producing Gotye’s ubiquitous mawkfest ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’. Don’t hold the latter against him, though: his breakthrough score for Greg McLean’s 2005 backpacking nightmare Wolf Creek is properly accomplished stuff. The ‘Theme’ sets out his stall – keening and melodic work, spotted with moments of disorder and discordance. There’s a classic sensibility at work throughout that elevates the Wolf Creek OST above the usual spiritless Dolby-porn, lending grace and poise to this yucky story of travellers being butchered in the Bush.

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(LA-LA-LAND, 2006)

Lucky McKee’s demented 2002 film May gradually morphs from tongue-in-cheek teen romance into tongue-in-fridge body horror. Fittingly, Alien Tempo Experiment 13/Poperratic member Jaye Barnes Luckett’s score offers sprightly, clockwork compositions that can’t quite decide if they’re cheery or eerie. There’s some cheeky throwback stuff going on here – Carpenter looms large – but the rips are impish rather than slavish. La-La Land’s 2006 set also features lesser-heard material for a string of small-scale horror films, including work for 2004’s The Toolbox Murders and 2007’s Roman. In keeping with the slacker-slasher feel, the full May soundtrack also features music by The Breeders and The Kelley Deal 3000.

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(MILAN, 2006)

Guillermo Del Toro’s feverishly imaginative 2006 film is probably the most critically celebrated horror of the decade, so it’s not surprising that Navarrete’s score crops up in just about every list of classic modern OSTs. It’s not just a proxy nod, though – the Spanish composer’s OST is every bit as picaresque and ravishing as the story it soundtracks. Although lush, Navarrete’s compositions for orchestra avoid Elfman-grade sentimentality, and the little-girl-lost vocals and choir arrangements are stunning. Definitely the most filmic selection on this list, but one that works as a standalone entity.

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(LA-LA-LAND, 2009)

You could never get away with it in a psychological nail-biter or torture porn film, of course, but there’s a certain breed of horror flick – the more knowing, self-referential, burlesque sort of affair – that demands a big, brash score. Four-stories-in-one anthology Trick-R-Treat is one of them, and Douglas Pipes’ OST really goes to town. Pipes’ horn-heavy compositions don’t hold back, piling on the cymbal crashes and upping the pomp throughout. Pipes’ most celebrated work remains 2006’s kid’s flick Monster House, but Trick ‘R Treat shows his music isn’t just for nippers and softies.

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God bless Jeff Grace – one of the best contemporary practitioners of controlled tension. His scores for I Sell The Dead and I Can See You are jarring, but The House Of The Dead OST is borderline claustrophobic – you need a bolo machete to hack through the tension. Discordant drones and sustained diminished chords run throughout the score; we’d be surprised if there was a single page on the score that didn’t feature the word ‘tremolo’ at some point. Grace keeps the instrumentation pared down, and the effect is needling and insidious. Perhaps more so than any of these selections, not for the faint hearted.

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Taking a leaf out of Carpenter’s (presumably self-published and personally bound) book, director Shane Carruth – previously responsible for 2004’s exceptional cult flick Primer – composed the score for his surreal virus horror Upstream Color himself. It’s one of our absolute favourite OSTs of the year, touching on the mist-wreathed minimalism of Stars Of The Lid and bringing Donato Dozzy’s twinkling electronics to mind. Carruth also starred in the film and wrote the screenplay, earning him a cache of extra brownie points .

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ROOM 237

As far as we’re concerned, Death Waltz could continue churning out lovingly packaged John Carpenter reissues until the end of days. Props, then, to Spencer Hickman’s label for turning out a nice line in contemporary horror scores. This year has seen a limited vinyl release of Ben Wheatley’s Civil War mindfuck A Field In England and an outing for Justin Greaves’ The Devil’s Business. Most interesting has been this special pressing of the score for story-behindThe Shining documentary Room 237, which affectionately pays tribute to vintage horror recordings. Analogue synths, explicit nods to Goblin and Frizzi, winks galore – it’s a wonderful confection.

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