Ant Timpson has built a career that has often meant believing, endorsing and promoting the catchlines from the finest, fruitiest and most deranged films known to man, so it’s fair to say the self-styled “film impresario” and founder of the New Zealand International Film Festival’s Incredibly Strange strand is not averse to a spot of hyperbole. But when he says bringing Italian prog legends Goblin over to New Zealand to play the soundtrack to Dario Argento’s 1977 horror classic Suspiria is “the show I’ve been waiting 30 years to see”, it’s wise to pay attention.
Long regarded as one of the all-time great soundtracks, Goblin’s certifiably scary score is musically and contextually unique, eschewing the usual predictable thrust and parry of horror soundtrackery for something far more cerebral, challenging and sublime.
Unusually, the soundtrack was written before the film was shot, with Argento blasting Goblin’s fear-filled funk on set to create the necessary atmosphere for the actors.
In his delightfully broken English, Massimo (Max) Morante, guitarist, composer and founder of Goblin, explains this way of working was truly a one-off. “It was the only time we did it; for the other films, we have not had much time for composition – maximum three month.”
Formed in 1972, first as Oliver then Cherry Five, Goblin were influenced by the prog rock sounds of Yes and King Crimson and their ilk, but failed to really find favour with their initial forays into the noodling subgenre.
They were originally hired by Argento to do the soundtrack for Profondo Rosso (Deep Red) after the game-changing “giallo” genre director fell out with Ennio Morricone, rejected Italo-jazzer Giorgio Gaslini’s performances and was turned down by Pink Floyd. They produced a top-selling score that justified Argento’s faith in the hairy, previously untested outfit.
Naturally, back then Morante had no clue this fledgling relationship with Argento would have such a lasting impact.
“I never raised the issue. We started very well with Deep Red – the LP came in first in the standings in most of the world – then we kept getting better. Beginning, everything worked because Argento was [making] wonderful films. We worked with him until Notturno [Darkness], then silence for 17 years because the movies were increasingly ugly, but we have taken [up with him again] with [2001’s] Sleepless [Non Ho Sonno], because it was a real thriller, then anything else.”
Topping the Italian album and singles chart, Profondo Rosso remains Goblin’s most commercially successful record. As to why they never chased fame afterwards, as most would, Morante is typically oblique: “In any soundtrack or LP which is out to a movie, Goblin have always done something different, which is why we are the only ones in the world to do this music.”
Although Suspiria remains the unimpeachable standalone classic, Goblin’s other work for Argento – especially Tenebrae and Dawn of the Dead (aka Zombi) – alongside their own albums Roller and Il Fantastico Viaggio Del Bagarozzo Mark, have been almost as influential and revered, especially in recent years, with tastemaker Finders Keepers label-owner Andy Votel declaring them “the greatest band ever”. Increasingly, that fanship has included gratuitous sampling by everyone from rapper Cage to French electro stars Jus†ice, as well as having the Suspiria theme used as opening music for A-list ghoul Marilyn Manson.
“Everyone can sample music and sounds, as long as they ask for and pay to the authors and composers rights. The song of Jus†ice is done right,” declares Morante.
Realistically, if all of Goblin’s content were removed from Phantom – the Jus†ice song that envelops the Tenebrae theme – there wouldn’t be a whole heap left over. It’s canny and reverential, but captures little of the breathtaking intensity Goblin can muster, particularly when their proggy tendencies are tempered and channelled directly into the sinewy rhythms.
In Suspiria, the marriage of the group’s extreme, chilling, yet relentlessly funky pieces with Argento’s bold, vivacious colours and magnificently warped vision is truly remarkable, and justifiably regarded as an unsurpassed cinematic high point. The plot is considerably less spectacular, involving an American ballet student who attends a German dance school run by a witches’ coven, with predictably bloody results, but as a set-up for outrageously stylish film-making with a mind-blowing cacophonous soundtrack, it’s more than adequate.
“We studied all the soundtrack for a long time. I played the bouzouki, a Greek mandolin, because Helena Marcos was a Greek witch. We gave it a gruelling pace with the tabla, then a sweet melody that is deceptive, because it is magical and mysterious to same time.”
That magic and mystery will be abundant at Auckland’s Civic when Morante is joined by fellow Goblin originals Claudio Simonetti and Maurizio Guarini on keyboards, alongside a highly rated new rhythm section featuring Titta Tani and Bruno Previtali, to recreate a soundtrack that only grows more potent, legendary and exceptional with the passing of the years.
GOBLIN PLAY SUSPIRIA, the Civic, Auckland, July 19, as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival.