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Thom Yorke - Suspiria (Music for the Luca Guadagnino Film) Music Album Reviews

Luca Guadagnino’s remake of a horror classic features Yorke tackling a broader range of styles and ideas than any of his previous solo work, and all of them shine.

Thom Yorke is an unexpected choice of composer for Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Suspiria, Dario Argento’s 1977 horror classic. The original’s iconic soundtrack came from Goblin, an Italian progressive-rock outfit who brought a wild, cacophonous aesthetic to Argento’s moody mind-fuck of a film. Shoveling all manner of seemingly incompatible ideas into the blender—Baroque harpsichords, synthesizers, tabla, splatter funk, even intimations of death metal—they yielded a score even gorier, in its sticky dissonance, than Argento’s gaudily fake blood.

Yorke, on the other hand, is, well, Thom Yorke—the brainy, sensitive possessor of a falsetto and a perpetual melancholy that lingers like a head cold he can’t quite shake. To call him “anemic” might sound unkind, but a scene from Argento’s film comes to mind: Protagonist Suzy, following a faint and a nosebleed, is prescribed bed rest, bland food, and a nightly glass of red wine. “It builds the blood,” enthuses the unctuous doctor, and one suspects he’d probably want to get Yorke on a regular Sangiovese regimen as well.

But unlike Argento’s film, with its almost cartoonishly supersaturated, blood-red hues, Guadagnino’s remake favors a drab, wintry, washed-out palette, which is precisely what the Radiohead frontman does best. Just listen to something like “There Is No Ice (For My Drink),” off his last solo album, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes: In Yorke’s hands, even muscular club tracks come off sounding like vaporous sighs. (For what it’s worth “suspiria” is Latin for “sighs”; the film’s title comes from Thomas de Quincey’s essay “Suspiria de Profundis,” or “Sighs from the Depths.”)

However it may work in the film, on its own, Yorke’s score tackles a broader range of styles and ideas than any of his previous solo work, and all of them shine. There are appropriately cinematic, minor-key passages for piano and strings; great sheets of electronic buzz; gorgeous choral miniatures with a whiff of Arvo Pärt’s arctic grace; brooding, gothic Americana; and striking forays into pure electronic abstraction, the kind of thing you might have found on the German experimental label Mille Plateaux in the late 1990s.

There are even a few bona fide songs. “Suspirium,” a lilting ballad largely for piano and voice, wouldn’t sound out of place on a Radiohead album, and though the lyrics gesture at some of the film’s themes, they’re oblique enough to stand on their own, and spooky enough to sound haunting even outside the context of the movie. “Unmade,” a stately showcase for Yorke’s voice at its most moving, is cut from similar cloth, and “Has Ended,” a droning dirge set to a hurdy-gurdy grind and a slow, almost funky drum shuffle, is even more compelling, if only for a Mellotron-like solo about halfway through. It’s only some 15 seconds long, but it has a powerful impact, transforming transform sullen trip-hop into something transcendent.

While Yorke’s score doesn’t sound anything like Goblin’s, you can hear the influence of their spooky central theme—a minor-key melody for celeste and bells that Argento deploys as a means of anticipating moments of awful violence—in a handful of skeletal melodies that lend cohesion to the soundtrack, primarily in the form of piano figures pacing haltingly against an orchestral morass, tritones hanging in the air like echoes of a scream.

Despite the tension between songs that could pass for Radiohead’s repertoire and more soundtrack-like material, the whole album flows remarkably well, particularly given its 80-minute running time. Tracks run together, connected by viscous strings and unsettling sound design; the “proper” songs float along a vast expanse of half-frozen slurry. Occasional Foley effects—footsteps, rustling, ominous groans—serve a function similar to the muffled screams of Goblin’s score, infusing the music with a subliminal pedal tone of terror. Yorke has said much of his compositional process entailed extensive studio tinkering, and that’s borne out in the richness of many of his sounds here—particularly in “Olga’s Destruction (Volk tape)” and “Volk,” where brooding piano and synth melodies dissolve into eerily detuned fugues reminiscent of Aphex Twin’s microtonal experiments.

Of all the obviously cinematic pieces, as opposed to “singles” like “Suspirium” and “Unmade,” one stands out: “A Choir of One,” a 14-minute study for voice and, presumably, electronics. For nearly a quarter of an hour, wordless vocal harmonies float like some sulphurous vapor hugging the treeline of a haunted forest, queasily rising and falling in pitch, with a dark shimmer reminiscent of Ligeti or Xenakis. It is shapeshifting, almost formless; it sprawls like a glistening oil slick, and it serves as the album’s de facto finale. It’s followed only by a handful of short sound-design experiments, which conclude with “The Epilogue,” a brief collage of organ drones, Foley effects (traffic noise, a ticking clock), and, after a fade to silence and a false ending, a deep, rumbling analog throb, a sound as bleak as the void itself. I’d imagine—I hope—that’s what’s playing when the credits roll. In its minimalist opacity and Vantablack depths, it’s the polar opposite of Goblin’s playfully neon-hued approach, and it’s in going to that extreme that Yorke has made Suspiria his own.

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