THIS REALLY WAS off the planet. I’ve been a Goblin fan since the late ‘70s, when I discovered the Italian group through their glorious 1976 prog-disco album Roller, but the profile for what a fellow Italian progressive rock fan calls “heaven and hell” music hasn’t exactly been at marketable proportions in New Zealand.
The thing is, prog never stood a chance in here. First of all, when prog ruled the world in the early ‘70s, we were too much of a backwater to justify the expense of hauling out the equipment – huge banks of synthesisers and huge PAs and technicians to go with them – that went with the territory. So we never got to see the likes of ELP or King Crimson, and the European branch of prog, which continued to be fertile well after punk had killed it off in England and America, was never even on our radar down here on these tiny, distant islands.
But we did end up hearing Goblin on the soundtracks to Dario Argento’s sensual exploitation-horrors when they were released on video in the 1980s, and I guess over time, as Argento has become more of a celebrated cult figure, the aroma around the music that was such a signature sound to his movies has become that much richer.
Anyway, this is all a long-winded way of saying that my critical hat was rather askew tonight, because I was just too excited to hear and see a group I never expected to witness in the live arena – or movie theatre, come to that. So don’t expect my usual rigorous (!) objectivity in this brief observational account of a 21st century musical-cultural phenomenon.
It was great to see such a large and enthusiastic turnout for the movie/gig combo, although it was clear from some of the braying audience comments at the beginning that there were those in attendance who expected it to be a complete piss-take – that is, an opportunity to replicate the experience of Ant Timpson’s much missed Incredibly Strange Film Festival. I couldn’t help tittering when just prior to the first note of music, someone shouted “Play some Slayer!”, and someone retorted with “Play some Leo Sayer!”
Like an idiot, I had expected the film to run silently with subtitles while the group played, but of course, this was not the case. We got the English language dub of the film (apparently each actor spoke in their own language during the shooting, and the whole film was dubbed later for each specific market), and it was definitely a strange experience, from an audio point of view, combining the film’s dialogue with Goblin’s sound effects and music. It was hugely different to the typical movie surround sound effect: there was nothing particularly hi-fidelity about either the sound of the dialogue or the music, but the live music transformed the film, turning it into a genuinely scary and psychedelic experience. In fact, it reminded me all over again just how important and powerful sound design is in a film, and how often it’s done poorly. Goblin’s sections in Suspiria can be called crass, obvious, and even predictable, because you know that whenever a scary section arrives, here’s the cue for some scary pseudo-prog, but the point is that it works, and it’s terrifically powerful in context.
But yes, there’s no escaping the fact that it is film music, and apart from the demonic whisperings, it’s really just a restatement of one theme throughout, so anybody expecting a ‘concert’ or a real demonstration of the Goblin’s skill on a variety of compositions would be disappointed. What was revolutionary about Goblin’s music for Argento movies was the rock band format. Back then, it was still rare for anything but cheese-laden orchestras to be used in films, although the Italians were definitely ahead of the game in that regard… there’s so much cool ‘library’ music for Italian movies form the ‘60s and ‘70s that an archivist could be kept busy for a lifetime.
Goblin’s film music is distinctive without being totally original. Their repetitive keyboard/guitar arpeggiations betray the influence of 1960s minimalist composers like Glass and Riley, and (don’t laugh) there’s definitely more than a smidgen of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells in there as well. It’s obvious – Oldfield’s queasy listening masterpiece was used as the theme for The Exorcist, after all. But Goblin added real firepower and Italian drama and flair, and therefore, were the perfect match for Argento’s movies.
In a way, Goblin’s music has dated less than Argento’s films. Suspiria has some horrendous acting, some dire lines, and some gore scenes that just look silly – the scene where the blind guy gets mauled in the throat by his guide dog is excruciatingly awful or tummy-achingly funny, depending on your mood. But it’s also packed with incredible set design, outrageous set pieces, it’s imaginative and the cinematography is a trip – so very over the top.
Goblin’s music, on the other hand, still sounds utterly fresh. It’s just a pity they couldn’t have played a couple of encore pieces after the movie, just to show what they’re really made of. A lot of their film music features dramatic cascading lines on what sound like huge church organs, and I couldn’t stop imagining how they would have manhandled that Auckland Town Hall pipe organ to their own prog-grandiose ends. GARY STEEL
* Goblin/Suspiria featured in the 2013 NZ International Film Festival. Gary Steel paid for his ticket.