11 electronic music film soundtracks you should listen to now
Exploring the history of cinema, Martin Guttridge-Hewitt compiles 11 landmark electronic music movie soundtracks, arranged in chronological order, each of which earned its place on sonic merit, and significance in the canon of music and movies
When Bebe and Louis Barron presented their music for Forbidden Planet, Fred Wilcox's 1956 adaptation of The Tempest, the sounds were so alien, even compared to other sci-fi films of the time, the brothers were credited with a brand new job: Composers, Electronic Tonalities.
Widely regarded as the first synth film soundtrack, in the 66 years since the relationship between electronic sound and the big screen has developed almost in parallel with the music itself. Pioneering scores of the ’70s arrived amid a watershed era for sonic development. As those noises became mainstream, creating pop superstars, their use in cinema grew more visible.
Today, electronic producers aren’t par for the course on film scores, but their input is certainly far more commonplace. Names like Oneohtrix Point Never (Uncut Gems, Good Time), Flying Lotus (Yasuke), and Photek (Life In A Year) all offer recent examples. Elsewhere, film itself is also co-opted by synth musicians for their own ends — to be used within larger multimedia projects. Work that exists across different formats and platforms, creating vivid worlds for fans to become ever-more engrossed in.
Research for this feature revealed myriad revelations, not least the shocking lack of diversity and representation in film soundtracks, particularly those coming out of Hollywood, where it took until 1968 for a Black composer to receive an Oscar; Herbie Hancock remains the only person of colour to win Best Original Score. Meanwhile, just three women have won the same award in its 87 years.
On a more positive note, it quickly became clear trying to choose the best electronic movie scores from the annals of cinema was a huge challenge — there are simply so many great candidates. Unperturbed, we explored the history of cinema and wound up with 11 landmark electronic music movie soundtracks, arranged in chronological order, each of which earned its place here on sonic merit, and significance in the canon of music and movies.
In 1968, Wendy Carlos unveiled the album ‘Switched-On Bach’ — Johann Sebastian Bach’s music, reproduced with a Moog synth still very much in its infancy — laying foundations for her work on Stanley Kubrick's ultra-violent masterpiece, A Clockwork Orange.
Based on Anthony Burgess’ dystopian novel of the same name, the plot centres on a gang of young thugs, or ‘droogs’, in a future city de-sensitised to the delinquency on its streets. While leader Alex (Malcolm McDowell) and his friends have little respect for human life, they have great appreciation for the classics. This is most evident in the language they use — nadsat — which is akin to Shakespearean slang.
Taking that into consideration, Carlos’ score is perfect. Dominated by music written or inspired by composers like Beethoven (specifically his ‘Ninth Symphony’) and Henry Purcell, all played on electronic kit, it’s at once traditional yet born for a time thankfully still to arrive. The perfect accompaniment to a nightmarish depiction of dulled apathy and sadistic enthusiasm. Instruments such as the ‘spectrum follower’ — a prototype vocoder that converts human voice into electronic signals — give some idea as to how much experimentation was happening here, setting wheels in motion for the composer’s other two film scores, The Shining and Tron. But that’s a whole other story.
Brian Hodgson and Delia Derbyshire were among the best-known members of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, established to create innovative music and noises for various shows, not least those broadcast through BBC Third Programme, an intellectually-charged culture and arts radio station which was eventually replaced by Radio 3.
But they also worked under their own Kaleidophon studio banner. Run alongside David Vorhaus, the team developed audio material for adverts, made two albums (‘ESL 104’, entirely composed of sound effects, and ‘An Electric Storm’, released under the band name White Noise). They also regularly featured in theatre sound design, collaborating with acclaimed groups like the Royal Shakespeare Company.
However, it’s this rare film score for The Legend of Hell House that’s arguably their most significant contribution. Not least because it offered an early argument in favour of electronic music in mainstream cinema, and set a blueprint for drone as a genre. Think moody bass refrains, drum loops dubbed and EQd to within a few decibels of inaudibility, shrill harmonies and distortion. It would be one of the last musical projects Derbyshire worked on before switching careers, only returning to the industry in the early-2000s, while Hodgson would soon move back to the Radiophonic Workshop, eventually becoming the department head.
It would be impossible to write anything on electronic music and movies without a nod to John Carpenter. The horror, action, and science-fiction mogul has written and performed the music to almost all of his movies, and he’s made around 60. During that time, his role has gradually evolved from filmmaker with ear to bonafide artist, and not without justification.
At the time of writing, he’s released three stand-alone albums, and even began touring with a full band in 2015, first performing at sorely-missed surrealist paradise, All Tomorrow’s Parties.
Assault on Precinct 13 was the second time he composed music for screen, and is inarguably up there with his finest hours. It took just three days to write, but longer to finish thanks to the banks of old synths involved. Each had to be reset every time a new noise was needed, making for a mammoth task, but the endeavour proved worth it.
Between then and now, artists including Afrika Bambaataa, Tricky, and Dead Prez have cited the title track as a major inspiration. Sitting somewhere between Lalo Schifrin's Dirty Harry score, ‘Immigrant Song’ by Led Zeppelin, and retro-futurism, it offers a prototype for moody, downtempo electro-funk. Elsewhere, the soundtrack is more concerned with clear motifs used to represent the arrival of specific groups on screen, for example cops, or the gang members behind the attack on the titular police station.
Often cited as the pinnacle of synthesiser soundtracks, few could deny the Blade Runner score has achieved legendary status. Composed by Greek electronic, progressive, ambient, jazz and orchestral visionary Vangelis, despite the fanfares it took over a decade for the music to see an official release of its own — and even then it arrived as a watered down version with added parts that didn’t feature in the movie. All of which raises one question: how good is the proper soundtrack, really?
Simply put, the main title theme is up there with the most memorable in movie history. Waves of sound accentuate the feeling of a new world slowly revealing itself to you through a flyover of future Los Angeles. A perpetually rainy, gloomy city that has lost its soul; a sprawling urban mess where the very essence of what it means to be human has been called into question.
Across 12 tracks, Vangelis employs Roland’s ProMars, Jupiter-4, and CR-5000, alongside a VP-330 Vocoder Plus, Sequential Circuits Prophet-10, an E-mu Emulator sampler, and Yamaha’s CP-80 electric grand piano and CS-80 synth. The finished product nods to the jazz of film noir, neo-classical, and Middle Eastern folk music, making for a deep, textured, utterly mesmerising experience that easily transports you from the everyday. The word is overused, but this truly is iconic.
Perhaps not the first moment electronic music film soundtracks crossed into the mainstream, nevertheless Fight Club unquestionably helped that cause. Rounding off a successful decade for David Fincher (see Alien 3, Seven, The Game) with his most celebrated directorial piece, the filmmaker was determined to ensure every element of this production broke new ground, and so avoided hiring musicians with previous soundtrack experience. The fear being that they would essentially deliver more bog-standard movie music.
Radiohead were approached first, but opted out due to the groundswell and tour stress following their seminal album, ‘OK Computer’ (the subject of the 1999 documentary, Meeting People Is Easy). The crew then looked to E.Z. Mike, AKA Michael Simpson, and King Gizmo, better known as John King.
Under their Dust Brothers moniker, the pair had risen to underground prominence with sample based beats, and studio work for the likes of Beastie Boys (‘Paul's Boutique’) and Beck (‘Odelay’, ‘Midnite Vultures’, ‘Guero’). In return for the commission, the duo produced something close to their own style, but unlike most big film soundtracks at the time. Focusing almost entirely on drum loops, scratching, and samples, the result is a non-traditional breakbeat score many subsequent flicks have tried to emulate.
Since Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter’s debut album ‘Homework’ landed in 1997, critics had been wondering how the French house music pioneers could ever hope to follow the record up. Well, it took six years, and when ‘Discovery’ finally arrived it was a major hit. Albeit not exactly what everyone had been expecting.
Forsaking elements of techno, progressive house, and raw electro in favour of more chart-friendly, pop-oriented tracks that emphasised songwriting, it arrived with a pre-made mythology told through animated videos. Not satisfied there, the duo drafted Japan’s Toei Animation and director Kazuhisa Takenouchi to create ‘Interstella 5555’. A 65-minute adventure through time and space in which animated musicians are abducted and eventually rescued, set to the tracklist from ‘Discovery’, it’s a rare case of a soundtrack being realised before the film was conceived.
Perhaps what’s most significant here, though, is the way in which this became an early example of the multimedia, immersive projects that are now common in the art world. While the movie is entertaining, ultimately its raison d’etre is to contribute towards a rich fantasy universe, realising ideas in images, and in doing so adding more iconography to an already incredibly visual band mythology
Suffice to say, College and Electric Youth’s stunning and rousing synth pop anthem ‘Real Hero’ is hard to beat if you’re looking for emotionally supercharged electronica. As such it usually steals the show when it comes to conversations about this score, but Drive's real genius lies not in the songs, but the sounds.
Johnny Jewel, of Desire and Glass Candy fame, was originally asked to score the film, although only his Chromatics project made the final cut (via the rhythmically crunching ‘Tick of the Clock’). Replaced at the 11th hour by Cliff Martinez — incidentally once Red Hot Chili Peppers’ and Captain Beefheart drummer — the studio asked him to imitate the work that had already been done, and the outcome is astounding.
Based around an original brief to produce electronic music that is often abstract, and in a bid to help audiences see things from the protagonist’s perspective, moments of quiet dominate more action-packed movements. The listener, or viewer, becomes saturated in this unearthly atmosphere, with arrangements almost entirely void of beats. ‘Kick Your Teeth’ is an obvious exception, with that subtle percussive layer.
Tatsushi Omori’s adaptation of Shion Miura’s novel, Hikari, looks at the aftermath of sacrifice, love, loss and reunification, opening with the character Nobuyuki committing a crime to protect his classmate-girlfriend. He then wakes up the next day to witness an unforgiving tsunami strike their remote island home of Mihama.
The young lovers, and friend Tasuku, manage to survive, but the experiences scar them. 25 years later, the violence of both the opening offence and subsequent disaster still haunt all three, although they have lost touch. Then Tasuko reappears in Nobuyuki's life, the latter now married and with a child. Some of the parties would prefer to let sleeping dogs lie, others have different ideas, and a tense, socially uncomfortable narrative begins.
It' hardly a plot that screams “Detroit”, but Axis boss Jeff Mills managed to pull off something few movies dare attempt: writing original techno for a soundtrack. Anxiety-riddled driver ‘Incoming’ is perfect for 3AM chaos thanks to looped strings and its sense of menace, and ‘Trigger Happy Level' — with its dizzying arpeggiated madness — are both exemplary. As is ‘The Hypnotist’, its wasp-in-jar hook and frantic snares marching us to the depth of the rave. But then there is also the weird white noises on ‘A Secret Sense’, the tranquil wooden percussion on ‘Danger From Above’, and the twinkling keys and tribal drums of ‘Arrangements of the Past’.
If you’re unfamiliar with Hellenic cinema then Giorgos Georgopoulos’ critically acclaimed meditation on reform, responsibility, prejudice and stigma is a pretty good place to start. Although a late entry in the canon, the movie is part of a so-called ‘Greek weird wave’, where you’ll also find the director’s previous outing, 2011’s Tungsten, alongside earlier benchmarks such as Yorgos Lanthimos' Dogtooth and Athina Rachel Tsangari's Attenberg.
As with those titles, the story here combines subtle surrealism with poetic poignancy, centring on young-ish lothario Aris, who is found to be the carrier of a sexually transmitted virus which is deadly to women, but not men. As well as co-starring in the movie, Athens-born pop artist Kid Moxie was charged with interpreting the plot as music.
Her work is at times ethereal, in other moments sophisticated, serene, perhaps innocent (see ‘Love Poem’, ‘The Distance Grows Again’). Elsewhere, it’s pure cinematic cold wave. These are tunes that paint pictures of human emotion with robotic parts. Released as a standalone album on Lakeshore Records, the fact that the imprint also carries scores to Stranger Things, Rise of the Synths, and Drive should tell you everything there is to know about the ’80s-influenced tones at play.
Hannah Holland’s soundtrack to celebrated indie movie Electrician has garnered a long list of awards, and rightly so. Directed by British debutant Steve Conway, the story follows lonely electrician Mark as he realises that in order to reconnect with the family unit he is no longer part of, doors must be prized back opened and painful memories faced. Each interaction leading to another significant moment in his emotional journey.
The soundtrack is a sonic world away from regular releases for labels like Crosstown Rebels, Classic Music Company, and her own Batty Bass. Think minimalist compositions of echoed piano keys and mournful strings, combined to create something intimate yet deceptively epic. The result is an inescapable audio comment on how life’s little details make up far grander pictures.
“With the soundtrack you are very much working closely with the filmmakers and have a designed world for the sound, working with dynamics and also there is a whole technical aspect to score work, which is different," Holland once told PRS for Music. “But for me it all comes back to tapping into an instinct and conveying an emotion through music.”
Taking the idea of visceral audio to new levels, Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe’s chilling soundtrack to the update of this modern folktale uses one of the movie’s key motifs as a centrepiece. Set in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing projects, the nightmarish yarn involves a supernatural killer who can be summoned by reciting three words into a mirror: “Candyman, Candyman, Candyman”.
Largely made from field recordings, the phrase is threaded through many tracks, not that most would realise given it has been deconstructed, twisted and disfigured. In the end, it becomes abstract noise carefully sewn into an aural collage of stray vocals and tense harmonies, the sense of terror ebbing and flowing from background to fore, resulting in a constantly unsettling atmosphere.
It’s also worth noting that Candyman remains one of relatively few American horror films to tackle racial injustice, and its score inadvertently follows suit. The eerie menace (spoiler alert) turns out to be the walking incarnation of a Black man who was murdered in the 1800s after falling in love with a white woman. Meanwhile, despite arriving just last year, the remake is one of a comparatively small number of Hollywood movies scored by a person of colour.