Crimson and Cleaver
Horror-Film Soundtrack Legends Goblin Finally Haunt America
Daegal Almond/Metal as Fuck
It's scary how fantastic Goblin sound at their best. When it comes to scoring a horror movie or a giallo (lurid crime and mystery thrillers that peaked in Italy during the early '70s), these Italian musicians are the Maserati of film composers. Goblin will be forever revered for the three soundtracks they cut with director Dario Argento: Profondo Rosso (aka Deep Red, 1975), Suspiria (1977), and Tenebre (1982). They also won (g)rave reviews for their work with George A. Romero on his 1978 opus Dawn of the Dead (aka Zombi).
Goblin are the rare group who made the transition from progressive rockers to soundtrack auteurs; they also developed into dandy disco producers, something most prog musicians never attempted, let alone mastered. Their closest rivals are probably Pink Floyd, whose Obscured by Clouds, More, and contributions to Zabriskie Point rank among their best efforts. But more so than most rock bands, Goblin have become inextricably linked with their extraordinary film music, which viscerally captures feelings of dread, terror, and repulsion without resorting to moldy Hollywood mannerisms. It's a tribute to Goblin's creativity that these records easily endure when divorced from the garish imagery they're augmenting.
A direct line of influence can be drawn to Goblin from the recent wave of morbid, chilling electronic music coming from the likes of Demdike Stare, Vatican Shadow, Raime, the Haxan Cloak, and others. (Which isn't to say Goblin don't have their light moments: Check "Torte in Faccia" and "School at Night [Lullaby].") Right from their first full-length, Profondo Rosso, Goblin established a distinctively expressive approach to cinematic sonics. "Death Dies" is a paranoia-inducing pulse-pounder that could also work in a chase scene from a James Bond flick. "Mad Puppet" creates nearly unbearable tension with intensely bleeping synthesizers and kettle-drum hits until it momentously shifts into a stealthy, hypnotic motif that conjures the accompaniment to a sinister striptease. "Deep Shadows" might be the greatest example of Goblin's febrile prog-rock chops used in the service of generating a complicated delirium. But the most harrowing Goblin track of all may be "Sighs" from Suspiria. It begins with sad exhalations, then shifts into a chaotic miasma of anguished voices and manically repeated harpsichord strums, sending the fright factor into deep red. Effective!
Unbelievably, despite their global renown and longevity as a rotating-lineup unit, Goblin have never played in North America. The impetus to bring them to this continent is the Housecore Horror Film Festival in Austin, Texas, where they'll perform Suspiria in its entirety on October 27. The Windish Agency then suggested Goblin build a tour around this date, and here we are. Prog-rock and horror-flick-music nerds are bloody pumped, to say the least.
On the phone, in heavily accented English, Goblin keyboardists Maurizio Guarini, 58, and Claudio Simonetti, 61, discuss finally playing in the States. (Simonetti did journey here with his other band, Daemonia.) These guys have done and seen a lot, so one doesn't expect bubbly glee from them. And neither musician is shocked by the fervent demand for a live presentation of Goblin's material more than 30 years after their prime. "At this point, I am not surprised," Guarini says, "because I think we have a unique sound and I understand that we're being taken as an inspiration for other bands." Simonetti concurs, saying, "To meet young people who know our music very well is an extraordinary thing. After 30 or 40 years, they know and follow us... I'm sure it will be a very incredible experience."
The show will essentially be a career retrospective, Guarini explains, with emphasis on Goblin's 1976 non-soundtrack album, Roller. Expect to hear songs from Suspiria, Dawn of the Dead, Profondo Rosso, and Tenebre, too. It's always nice when artists realize what their best work is.
What most Goblin fans want to know is, how did they interact with Argento when composing soundtracks for his artfully gory cinema? Guarini and Simonetti are a bit hazy on the details, only volunteering general impressions. "[Argento] would request moods and atmospheres, especially for Suspiria," Guarini says. "He asked us to prepare the main theme even before watching the movie. It was the opposite method of what we usually did. He made suggestions and listened to what we were about to create. Dario was very much involved in the process. Every director, they feel like the film is their creature, so the music is very important for them."
Simonetti adds, "In the beginning, when he asked us to write the music for Profondo Rosso, we spent many nights with him in his house, listening to many records, to get an idea what he wanted. He would point out what sounds he wanted us to create for him. Then we'd go to the studio and follow his instructions, more or less. Of course, we create ourselves, but most of the ideas Dario told us how to do in real life."
Guarini claims that Goblin were not influenced by other film composers, though he admits to being a die-hard prog and fusion fan—especially of Gentle Giant, Genesis, and Weather Report. However, one can hear similarities to the eerie tintinnabulation of Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells, which William Friedkin used in The Exorcist, to Goblin's "Suspiria" theme. "Oh, yeah," Guarini says, "that might have inspired treating that kind of horror in a different way that wasn't the usual dissonant, high-stringed note that was the standard in the '60s."
Given how demented and vertiginous some of Goblin's music is, one might think they had a fondness for strong hallucinogens. But Guarini denies this. "Actually, we are a very non-drug band. Being progressive rock, this kind of music needs a very clear mind. You cannot do this kind of thing on drugs. You can be psychedelic without taking drugs. It's just a matter of your way of thinking. Especially with Suspiria, for example, the movie itself is psychedelic together with the music."
Legendary horror director/composer John Carpenter is a big fan of Goblin, particularly of Suspiria. Quoted in the liner notes for Goblin's six-disc boxed set The Awakening, Carpenter praised the soundtrack for "its absolute simplicity, its effectiveness. It's just stunning, using that simple melody line over and over again to create that much tension. If it had been more complicated, if it had been the John Williams 'Mickey Mouse' kind of score that you hear all the time today, the movie wouldn't have been half as scary."
Another rabid Goblin aficionado is Alfonso Carrillo, a Los Angeles–based DJ/blogger who heads the monthly night at Hyperion Tavern called RENDEZVOUS!, which focuses on obscure European film and library music from the '70s and '80s. Carrillo cites Suspiria as a peak in Goblin's canon: "The prominence of the music, combined with the colorful brilliance of Argento's carefully composed scenes, is almost as if the music itself is part of, and as vital as, the dialogue, conveying a sense of suspenseful tension."
Ultimately, Carrillo says that Goblin's collaborations with Argento "can be held in the same regard as Fellini and Rota, or Leone and Morricone."
Simonetti, the de factor leader of Goblin, says he doesn't have any overarching philosophy or ironclad axioms for scoring music for films. "I just start working on the music when I see the film and when I speak with the director. Every film inspired me and us differently. Normally, I don't like to repeat what I did before. Every film has its own life and its own way to compose. You change your mood in your life; of course, I'm not the same as I was 20 or 30 years ago. Every time is a new experience, so I don't have any cliché for that, you know?"
This article has been updated since its original publication.