The most celebrated director-composer partnerships are based on a deep understanding of the effect that one medium can have on the other. Bernard Hermann’s taut, atmospheric scores were central to many of Hitchcock’s most memorable thrillers; the Dollars trilogy would be a jarring exercise in nihilism without Morricone’s bombastic orchestrations and leitmotifs. But when it comes to horror films, there are few musical practitioners more compelling than the aptly-named Goblin, an Italian progressive rock group—that’s rare already—who almost exclusively recorded horror soundtracks. There we go. That’s the ol’ one-two punch.
Best known for soundtracking the work of Dario Argento and occasionally George A. Romero, Goblin took horror music to heights previously unknown. At their peak they consisted of Claudio Simonetti’s terrifyingly meticulous, time-signature shifting synth and harpsichord lines as well as Massimo Morante’s angular, restrained Frippesque guitar riffs and disjointed volume swells, all over a rhythmic bed of whatever the filmmakers called for: anxious 70s funk, hypnotic tribal drums or berserk, otherworldly marches to name a few. Theremins and stock audio be damned! This necromancy was layered.
Argento’s kaleidoscopic horror films are often stylised B-movies on LSD, with a good dose of questionable performances and unnecessary exposition. Despite this there is a profound sense of surreal menace and a dreamlike logic to even the most contrived of developments. But along with the sensational cinematography and fluid camerawork it is the music of Goblin that lifts the best of his films to another level, and nowhere is this more obvious than the soundtrack to 1977’s Suspiria.
“Maybe [Suspiria] is the Goblin masterpiece,” keyboardist Simonetti told alainfinkielkrautrock in 2008. Goblin’s first horror soundtrack was the three-million-selling Profondo Rosso (or ‘Deep Red’)—another Argento film—recorded in little over 24 hours in 1975 when they were barely in their twenties. The result was a superb study in spontaneous tension. By the time of their second Argento collaboration, however, they had more clout and more gear, and did it ever pay off. “We did a lot of research …we used this big Moog, but we also used ethnic instruments like tabla, bazouki and dobro. We used a lot of stuff to record it and were three months recording it.”
Argento’s most touted film, Suspiria has been called a ‘hallucinatory nightmare’ and his crowning achievement despite its share of flaws. But from the moment the opening credits begin rolling we are held in place by a rising crescendo of floor toms, strings and organic synthesisers that quickly gives way to the creepiest main theme in history. This is Goblin at their most brutal: a childlike baroque melody played on glockenspiel with wheezing, guttural chants, a skittering harpsichord that quickens the heart rate, a single thunderous drum and a wavering, alien synthesiser all in a frightening dirge which rises to a fever pitch until it finally explodes with church organ, guitar stabs and cries of “Witch! Witch!” in a maelstrom of aural violence and controlled chaos. It’s nothing if not exhilarating.
On the heels of Suspiria, Goblin were again drafted by Argento, this time to record music for George A. Romero’s classic Dawn of the Dead (1978). More thunderous and even more synth-heavy than before, the soundtrack sounded like the movie looked—bleak, violent, exciting, unnatural and sometimes hilarious—and gave them their highest international profile, despite its occasional forays into 70s cop movie territory (these things happen).
Most at home when brooding in the background or shrieking in the foreground, mainstream success eluded Goblin after 1982’s Tenebre. They dissipated amid a string of lineup changes and have only seen a handful of short-lived reunions since. Their legacy is one of unmatched atmosphere and soundtracks that evoke slightly better—and more terrifying—films than they were actually set to.
The Goblin Collection, 1975-1989 is out on DRG and the Suspiria soundtrack is out on King Japan.