Review: Umberto – Alienation

Frightening music seems to be all the rage right now and, no, I don’t mean Coldplay’s current stadium tour. I’m talking about music that comes straight out of horror movies, or else music that sounds like it comes straight out of horror movies. Recently, the self-described “Horror Master” John Carpenter appears to have abandoned movie directing altogether in favour of making music that resembles a film score without a film. Every month sees the latest batch of vinyl-pressed reissues of cult horror soundtracks such as Candyman, Cannibal Holocaust, Phantasm, Zombie Flesh Eaters, Friday The 13th Part 3 and Ghostbusters 2. Plus, venues across the world host events where ensembles or composers provide live soundtracks to screening of classic horror flicks.

Kansas City’s Matt Hill, who records as Umberto, has actually done that himself in the past, having live-scored The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in collaboration with fellow horror buff Antoni Maiovvi. Hill also pioneered the idea of a film score without an accompanying film long before Carpenter realised he didn’t necessarily need visuals to accompany his music on 2015’s solo album Lost Themes. By that time, Umberto had already released several imaginary soundtracks influenced by Carpenter’s old scores as well as other horror-master composers such as the Italians Fabio Frizzi and Claudio Simonetti.

Such are his skills at recreating the atmospheric techniques of his spooky idols, some of Umberto’s early output risked being little more than tender pastiche. However, Hill does seem determined to subtly and gradually stretch himself out of this comfort zone with each new release and, while his music remains essentially rooted in the blueprint set by 70s and 80s horror scores, his music does keep evolving and moving forward. It comes as little shock, then, that Hill has further expanded his palette on Alienation with a range of extra dyes, not all of them pitch black or blood red.

There are a few points at which Umberto’s latest record appears to be an exercise in restraint. Indeed, on its opening title track Hill holds himself back in order to explore ambient paths. Despite its menacing minor chords and dusty crackles, ‘Alienation’ has a decidedly chilled-out New Age feel that might suit the ambience of a joss-stock emporium as much as any scene from a video nasty. Elsewhere, ‘Elimination’ is the twinkliest thing Umberto has ever recorded, so much so that you’d be forgiven for believing it was created by some Icelandic electronica artist signed to Fat Cat Records or mistaking it for a long-lost Notwist instrumental from the Neon Golden era. Similarly, the mournful-yet-consoling piano notes and soft background drones of ‘Lost Night’ could form an appropriate intro to one of Sigur Rós’s glacial epics.

In contrast to these exercises in mellow minimalism, at other times Hill strives to make Umberto slightly bigger and brasher. The seven-minute ‘Drifters’, for example, starts off like a lo-fi take on Carpenterean atmospherics with its scrunched-up beats and slowly pulsating synth throbs but by the time its vocals appear, chanting away like Satanic monks, the track begins to flirt with industrially-tinged EDM. Poppier still is ‘White Light’, which includes more comfortingly blissful lady vocals. It is at heart a DIY pop song, wrapped up in a mellow trip-hop blanket, with one eye on Major Lazor and the other on a Russian orthodox choir.

If that all sounds a tad too cosy and amiable, Alienation still has its fair share of sinister spookiness. A case in point is ‘Black Sea’, which couples baritone male vocals to Umberto’s signature spine-tingling moods to evoke an exotic sacrificial ceremony from the kind of sadistic Orientalist gorefest in which Indiana Jones doesn’t turn up at the last minute to save anybody’s life. Or at least if the film’s hero does manage to gatecrash the evil ritual then it’s only to have his brain speared through the eyeball by the high priest’s bearded henchman. ‘Awakenings’, too, wallows in creepy organ tones, even if it becomes more fist-pumpingly triumphant as it unwinds. Perhaps this imaginary movie’s protagonist does save the day after all.

Written by JR Moores

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