Having seen Dario Argento’s Deep Red in Melbourne upon its initial cinema release, I would never have imagined I’d be seeing that film’s composers – the Italian prog rock band Goblin – playing live in the same city 38 years later. Deep Red was originally screened here with an augmented PA system to boost volume levels and add bass (an idea cribbed from Ken Russell’s Tommy a few years earlier).
Argento was turned on to the phenomenal spectacle of loud live rock in the mid-70s, leading him to switch his score allegiance from Morricone to Goblin. With the two films Goblin scored for Argento – Deep Red (1975) and Suspiria (1977) – the band left Italianate chisel marks in the history of film music. This was widely ignored by rock culture at the time (they weren’t a ‘real band’ – plus they were presumed Italian copyists), and proportionately derided by contemporaneous film culture (who deplored Argento’s sexing up of the Hitchcockian thriller). Yet those early scores evidence a magnificent Roman footprint which showed how rock and film could be forced together to generate a violently unfitting audiovision. In the process they re-aligned the classicism of film scoring with the cultural changes that had impacted recorded music since the Second World War.
Prog rock continues to embarrass all sorts of rock purists and hipsters, but its influence has warped the surface of various rock trends over the decades – from terse math rock and Nu-metal to the fashion for retro synth arpeggiation. When Goblin headlined Melbourne Music Week, they demonstrated how they had prophesised those trends. Their set featured key themes from all their famous scores – those mentioned plus Argento’s Tenebrae (1982) and Phenomena (1985), as well as George Romero’s Dawn of The Dead (1979). Their performance was a powerful time warp: despite a certain professional muso veneer to their sound, they nonetheless sounded contemporary and authentic in the one stroke. It was also charming. The three original members of the band (sexagenarians Claudio Simonetti and Maurizio Guarini on stacked and racked keyboards, and guitarist Massimo Morante) were studious and focused, yet clearly warmed by the mostly young audience’s embrace of their seminal giallo themes. The slightly younger rhythm section of bassist Bruno Previtali and drummer Titta Tani allowed Goblin’s sound to retain a punch which didn’t overwhelm the original aura of the tracks’ studio recordings as much as it transitioned them into a solid live performance.
When Simonetti scampered up to the 6000-plus pipe organ of Melbourne Town Hall, an almost mystical resonance was struck. Here were musicians from an era when rock progressivists dreamed of aligning the power of their tracks with the Gothic majesty and Christian pomp of church rituals. That historical reverie is long gone, but seeing and hearing Goblin realise it in 2012 prompts a reassessment of those delusions prog entertained in their anti-stuffy yet aspirational rock bacchanals. Argento heard voluminous noise in rock music and imagined cinema; Goblin heard voluminous noise in Church and imagined rock music. Each heard how one form could break away from itself in order to define itself anew. In place of seeing a postmodernist generation earnestly replicate the ideals of revolutionary precusors of modernist noise, I was watching a modernist generation fluently demonstrate how they approached models of rock from their time. As Simonetti held down those spine-tingling tones, I felt I was living in their dreamy past and inhabiting the current future which they intuitively shaped.
Two days later, Goblin performed the score to Suspiria live at the Australian Centre of the Moving Image (ACMI). Suspiria is Goblin in full reign of the score (they share Deep Red’s score with fusion artist Giorgio Gaslini). Its appeal lies in the part cynical, part celebratory appropriation of quasi-Satanic rock tropes such as pseudo-Druid vocal incantations, druggy drone beats, searing noise peaks, para-orchestral collapses and gaudy timpani flourishes. Again, the act of copying fashionable stylistics of the time may have been a liability for Goblin’s recognition as a ‘real’ rock band. But time has since framed their affectations to reveal their canny reading of those tropes’ essential qualities. While English-speaking culture insists on criteria modelled on 19th century notions of cultural purity – hence rock’s unending insistence on being ‘real’ – such issues have rarely impacted on Italian aesthetics and reproduction. Italo pop, rock, funk and disco thrives on impurity to produce sound bursting with robust artifice.
Goblin performed Suspiria with amazing acuity. For those who insist on ‘in the moment’ ideologies of live performance, the precision of their live score might not have pleased. But for the audience who gave them a standing ovation, Goblin had enacted the musical mechanics of malevolence which so empowers the film.