A horror soundtrack often relies on the same tricks as the images and scenes it’s trying to sonically enhance. Sharp and sudden explosions of sound to alert the viewer of the shadow now suddenly standing in the corner of the room. The strings building up tension as the maniac crawls through the empty dark hotel, his axe slowly dragging on the floor ready to smash the rotting bathroom door. Violins tortured in distorted high pitched notes in preparation for the horrifying surprise waiting in the basement.
All soundtracks accompanying terror seek inspiration from the same fear and darkness causing the images to come to life and make us shudder. A great story, though, is a balancing act of darkness and light, and a horror story burying itself in dark shadows only is bound to appear one-dimensional. The music carrying it through would be the first to reflect its superficiality – and as a musical preview of Luca Guadagnino’s upcoming remake of the classic film Suspiria, Thom Yorke’s first ever soundtrack tells us that one cannot experience true terror unless it strikes right after a few moments of calm and happiness.
The score begins with the disorganised distortion of A Storm That Took Everything, followed by the minimalist piano and classical movie strings of The Hooks, hinting something terrible is happening behind the scenes of the story through sounds of footsteps, disturbing moans and something which may or may not be blades going through skin.
The mood quickly shifts to the waltzing of Suspirium, in which Yorke returns to his natural ability to hear what already was a melody floating in the air, waiting to be caught and paired with nothing more than simplistic piano, turning it into one of the raw and pure compositions he’s known for. The words behind the bittersweet melody face the everlasting dilemma of someone who has lost everything, free to climb to heaven or descend to hell: “With only the clothes that we stand up in / Just the ground on which we stand / Is the darkness ours to take? / Bathed in lightness, bathed in heat”. The melody dances around the idea that there are no shadows without light, and sets the tone of an album which aims to explore what is beyond the darkness.
Moving on to a more sarcastic note, Has Ended is a nod to Yorke’s Radiohead roots both lyrically and musically. An addictive drum and bass loop floats calmly as the politically charged lyrics unnerve and remind us that witches, fascists and “their dancing puppet king” symbolise the real horror in our world. The score grows gradually darker as Open Again introduces dynamic guitar played over sinister, reverb-heavy electronic background, while the lyrics remain open to the possibility of darkness or light: “We’re demons / Or we’re birds / We’re open”.
We then hear a choir in Sabbath Incantation, voices echoing through a hall or possibly a church, starting off in unison and then splitting in harmony. Religion easily adds a new level of creepiness in horror and it doesn’t fail to send chills down our spines here; there are few things more beautiful in music than perfectly executed voice harmonies ringing through acoustic spaces, but beauty is often terrifying in its power.
With the cold perfection of the harmonies, the score turns darker and darker, and the piano returns to Olga’s Destruction, sounding eerily distant and echoing, like an old abandoned dusty object in a haunted house. A steady bass rhythm changes the dynamic back to a dance routine, suggesting a horrific change in the plot as the score focuses towards a more aggressive approach.
And in the middle of the building tension comes a temporary release in the form of Unmade, undoubtedly another highlight and significant new songwriting achievement for Yorke. The light as a feather piano mirrors the lyrics as if imitating something fragile, scared to be out in the world, unprotected: “Come under my wings / little bird”. It’s an attempt to hide from the ugliness and fear out there, or perhaps the evil masking itself as shelter, luring anything or anyone vulnerable to come and rest. The background choir sounds almost angelic, in a clear departure from the deeply religious and gothic sounding of the acoustic choir before. Unmade is a quiet place to rest on top of an isolated rock in the middle of the stormy sea, only to be pushed back into the chaos seconds later.
In Volk, the haunted piano returns in a more electronic interpretation, accompanied by the familiar purposely out of tune strings, as if to remind that this is a horror soundtrack after all. The track builds up slowly, creating the sensation of being watched, or even hunted by wolves as the title might suggest in Russian. Its primarily electronic composition achieves a coldness which would have been done with more difficulty using classical instruments. The jazzy drums finish the track in a rush and bring a new level of organised chaos suggesting the hunt is over and the prey has been caught.
The score then slows down and begins its return to the start, with Suspirium Finale reminding us of the beginning, now echoing exhausted and used up in the distance. A Choir Of One provides ominous ambiance while the synthesised screams in Synthesizer Speaks add another layer of sound effects to not be able to fall asleep to. In The Epilogue we hear hints of the Suspirium theme in the form of dragged out, distorted chords and a clock ticking away the seconds until the witching hour is over.
‘Suspirium’ is a musical tale exploring the art of soundtracking horror without losing yourself in the depths of darkness and darkness only. Its imaginative nature, often minimalist at the same time, creates a disturbing atmosphere of its own which will, hopefully, only be improved by the film it’s synchronising. All that’s left after hearing it is to wait and see it.