Netflix’s Stranger Things is an early contender for TV show of the year, and its soundtrack is one of the best TV accompaniments since Angelo Badalamenti’s score for Twin Peaks. John Twells bolts together a list of 10 sinister synth sizzlers perfect for a summer of Demogorgon hunting.
Unless you’re living in a cabin in the woods, you’ve probably heard of Netflix’s stunning new science fiction series Stranger Things. Released in July, the show has been a runaway success, despite having been rejected by “15 to 20” TV networks before landing on Netflix. Its skill lies in writer/directors The Duffer Brothers’ ability to not only bring back fond memories of Steven Spielberg’s E.T., vintage Stephen King books (It or Carrie, for example) and John Carpenter’s eerie suburban landscapes, but paint an authentic picture of Indiana in 1983.
The series’ secret weapon is undoubtedly its woozy score from Austin-based analog synth collectors Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein of S U R V I V E. The band had already achieved moderate success, releasing the Tangerine Dream-influenced S U R V I V E full-length in 2012, but the success of this score has seen them move to the next level. Their next album RR7349 is out this fall on esteemed metal label Relapse while the Stranger Things soundtrack is said to be “coming soon”, so in the meantime, we’ve come up with 10 tracks to sink your teeth into while you wait.
The acts in this list take the pioneering work of Jean Michel-Jarre, Tangerine Dream, Vangelis, Goblin, John Carpenter and Italian horror maestro Fabio Frizzi as a guide, navigating through the choppy waters of Italo disco, prog, ambient and new age. From Pittsburgh duo Zombi’s towering horror tributes to Emeralds’ foggy electronic soundscapes, there’s something for anyone who was wowed by Stranger Things.
Head over to Apple Music to stream the entire playlist.
Read next: The 100 greatest horror soundtracks
‘Flesh For Frank Booth’
(from Zulawski, Fright, 2010)
Despite the name, Antoni Maiovvi is not a forgotten Italian composer from the 1980s. He’s actually Anton Maiof, a producer from Bristol who (of course) now lives in Berlin. Don’t let that put you off, though – his throwback electro compositions are right on point, and his 2010 Zulawski EP for short-lived Kompakt sublabel Fright is an essential artifact for horror/sci-fi soundtrack aficionados.
‘Flesh For Frank Booth’ is best of all, dedicated to the madman of Blue Velvet (colorfully played by an on-form Dennis Hopper in the movie) and playing on the title of Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey’s 1973 horror oddity Flesh For Frankenstein.
(from Does It Look Like I’m Here?, Editions Mego, 2010)
Influenced by trashy VHS movies, new age cassettes and psychedelics, synth/guitar trio Emeralds burst out of Cleveland, Ohio in 2006 and changed the noise scene for good. At that stage, noise was reaching critical mass and moody, messy-haired boys in ripped T-shirts were desperate for an alternative to screeching feedback and overdriven groans. Enter Emeralds, with their Klaus Schulze and Tangerine Dream-influenced ambience and movie soundtrack-indebted prog – a breath of fresh air.
‘Goes By’ is the perfect example of their sound, using billowing pads to obscure melancholy melodies and recalling long nights spent chomping pizza, slurping cherry cola and rolling dice with friends.
(from Optimus Maximus, Fright Records, 2009)
While Brooklyn duo Gatekeeper eventually ended up welding together fractured acid and THX drones for Hippos in Tanks and Lorenzo Senni’s Presto!? imprint, back in 2009 they put together Optimus Maximus for Fright. This particular record was rooted in the sounds of Italian horror and giallo (the crime subgenre), pulling references from composer Fabio Frizzi and prog legends Goblin.
‘Visions’ is the finest example of their sound, hitting on Italo disco bliss as much as creeping, dread-laden horror. One for the dancefloor, surprisingly – or the roller disco?
Oneohtrix Point Never
(from Zones Without People, Arbor, 2009)
We’ve spilt more than enough digital ink over the years on Daniel Lopatin’s crucial productions as Oneohtrix Point Never, but as perfect as last year’s Garden Of Delete and its predecessor R Plus 7 were, we still have a soft spot for his earlier synth-led work.
Zones Without People caught Lopatin at a special time when, not unlike his peers Emeralds, he was harking back to an era that had been cruelly brushed under the carpet. ‘Hyperdawn’ is a gorgeous slice of contemporary Americana, and if it was heard blaring from a tinny transistor radio in Stranger Things or casually playing on a flickering CRT television in the background, you wouldn’t bat an eyelid.
(from EP 1, Self-released, 2010)
Aussie synth duo Power Glove are best known for providing the soundtrack to Ubisoft’s hilarious (and actually very good) Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon. That game sent up low-budget ‘80s sci-fi and action films with just the right amount of warmth, and Power Glove’s soundtrack was the icing on the cake, taking the best bits of Tangerine Dream’s post-Sorcerer excess and expanding it.
Before Blood Dragon, however, they’d already made a proof of concept, 2010’s deliriously fun EP 1. If you can get through ‘Night Force’ without bringing to mind They Live, Surf Nazis Must Die and Street Trash then you need to head down to your local Blockbuster immedia–oh, wait a minute…
(from Valerie and Friends, Endless Summer Recordings, 2009)
Steve Moore is usually found manning the keyboards in long-running synth duo Zombi, but his solo stuff is equally important and possibly even more eerie. If you need an album recommendation, his 2007 debut The Henge is still essential, and his 2013 album for Emeralds man John Elliott’s Spectrum Spools imprint, Pangaea Ultima, is a woozy set of Schulze-influenced mini-marvels.
Loosie ‘Saturnalia’ is an underrated gem, however. It closes out 2009’s Valerie and Friends compilation on Endless Summer Recordings and still sounds completely essential, eschewing Moore’s usual doom and gloom and replacing it with sense of awe. It could be an alternative soundtrack to that Stranger Things clifftop scene.
(from Prophecy Of The Black Widow, Not Not Fun, 2010)
From the name, you can probably guess that Umberto’s primary influence is Italian horror. Cannibal Ferox director Umberto Lenzi is the likely source of the moniker, and it’s fitting too. Prophecy Of The Black Widow, released on Britt and Amanda Brown’s influential Not Not Fun imprint, could easily sit alongside any number of lesser-known straight-to-VHS Italian horror or giallo flicks.
‘Temple Room’, with its wobbling, unsettling analogue drones, crashing electric guitar and buzzing atmospherics conjures up images of terrifying alternate dimensions. Is that the lights flickering, or is it just me?
(from Form Hell, Death Waltz Originals, 2016)
The most recent track on the list, ‘Cleonova’ comes from Maine’s Victims, and was released this year on the Death Waltz imprint. As many readers no doubt already know, Death Waltz has made it a mission to reissue some of the finest horror move scores of all time, from the likes of John Carpenter, Fabio Frizzi, Goblin and others, and their Death Waltz Originals sublabel concentrates on contemporary music that shares similar themes.
Victims’ ‘Cleonova’ certainly stands proud alongside The Slumber Party Massacre, Halloween III and Zombie Flesh Eaters. We can’t imagine a better accompaniment to a midnight chase through the woods of suburban Indiana.
‘Tanned Skin Dress’
(from Urban Gothic, Not Not Fun, 2011)
With a name snatched from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and a sound influenced by countless trashy VHS horror movies, it would have been impossible not to include Austin’s Xander Harris here. His 2011 Urban Gothic album is one of the genre’s best examples – it’s hardly surprising that he was snatched up by post-rock heroes (and notorious synth music junkies) Mogwai for their Rock Action label.
‘Tanned Skin Dress’ is as queasy as the title (a possible Texas Chainsaw Massacre reference?) might suggest – all bubbling synthesizer arpeggios and fizzing leads. If you were in a possibly-covert lab in a remote part of America and this came on, we would not judge you at all for pissing your pants.
(from Digitalis, Relapse, 2006)
If John Carpenter, Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze, Goblin and Fabio Frizzi were the pioneers of the first wave of eerie synth music, Zombi have a gilded seat at the head of the second wave’s table. The Pittsburgh duo have been churning out horror-influenced electronic music since 2001 and they’re still at it – last year’s Shape Shift showed that they’re still at the top of their game.
‘Digitalis’ is built around the kind of memorable melodies that made SURVIVE’s Stranger Things score so effective, but manages to bring to mind Rick Wakeman (specifically his soundtrack to 1981’s The Burning and, of course, Goblin. It’s the perfect triumphant finale to the list.