Album Review: Kyle Dixon & Michael Stein – Stranger Things (Volume 1)

The brilliant score to Netflix's surprise summer hit is a world unto itself.

Stranger Things isn’t so much a new series on Netflix about a lost boy and the supernatural circumstances surrounding his disappearance, but rather a full-blown cultural phenomenon. Like Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad before it, Stranger Things is a show that people want to talk about, critique, and dissect. Part of the allure is assuredly the nostalgia: a small town in the 1980s, E.T., GooniesAlienThe Thing. Another key to the ascension of Stranger Things to critical darling status is the analog synth score of Survive members Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein.

The duo have repeatedly said in recent interviews that they have no idea how the Duffer Brothers, creators of Stranger Things, came to call on them to create the score.  It’s fitting in a way that a mystery would be the catalyst for Dixon and Stein’s involvement, as much of the mood they masterfully create is one of brooding secrecy and the tension of children constantly on the precipice of great peril. Fan reaction to the music has been so strong that Lakeshore Records is now releasing the score as two stand-alone albums, the first of which was digitally released today.

Watching Stranger Things, the score is in many ways a character unto itself, a menacing presence in moments of mounting darkness and a warmer company to lighter rays of adolescent love and friendship. Trying to pinpoint the inspirations present in the 36 tracks of Stranger Things: Volume 1 is a journey through the work of groups like Goblin, who scored much of horror maestro Dario Argento’s work, and Tangerine Dream, who provided the score for a number of films, including SorcererFirestarter, and The Keep.

Speaking with Rolling Stone last month, Stein also pointed to Giorgio Moroder’s soundtrack collaborations with Harold Faltermeyer and, of course, John Carpenter, describing the latter’s use of dissonance to propel scenes as “awesome.” Certainly Stein and Dixon’s score for Stranger Things would be right at home in this company, but it would be foolish to take any credit away from the originality of what they’ve accomplished. In an ensemble cast series with a myriad of storylines and emotions, their score never overpowers the moment but elevates it.

In a scene from one of the show’s first episodes, the young Mike gives Eleven (a runaway girl with limited speaking skills and majorly impressive powers) a tour of his suburban home. The score adopts a cautiously exploratory tone, with Eleven skeptical and scared but also starting little by little to trust the boy who happily walks around showing her the mundane treasures of his living room. These aren’t the sweeping orchestral gestures of E.T. composer John Williams, but something much more subtle, a voice in the walls whose words you can’t make out but whose message is nonetheless clear.

As Mike demonstrates the recliner position on his father’s La-Z-Boy with Eleven seated, the synths seem to bubble, a brief burst of glee that says everything the near-mute Eleven cannot. Also of note are the reoccurring notes in this moment that carry-over from the theme Stein and Dixon earlier establish for the three boys that serve as the story’s central protagonists. In a way this serves to subtly inform the viewer that Eleven is now one of the gang.

Of course, what fans of the show may love most are the scarier, more haunting passages of the score that accompany the slow reveal of who … or what … has taken Will Byers, the boy who goes missing in the show’s first episode. On the track “Castle Byers”, a shimmering foreboding pulses heavy until it suddenly gives way to something far more hushed, ultimately evolving into a celestial sound blemished by an almost insect-like buzz. “The Upside Down”, named for an other-worldly space not to be elaborated on, is punctuated by synthetic wolf howls, the percussive shock of distant thunder, and the unease of a rapidly quickening pace. “One Blink for Yes” incorporates the hope and dread Joyce Byers experiences when she attempts to communicate with her missing son through light fixtures, moving from a warm harp to the truly disquieting sound of an unintelligible voice.

There seems to be an arbitrary distinction for scores that separates them into three categories: those that serve no purpose when played without their visual accompaniment, those that can stand on their own but bring with them strong connotations of the film in question (think Star Wars, Lord of the Rings), and those that are their own self-sustained creation entirely. The score for Stranger Things, like the work of Jon Brion, Yann Tiersen, and Thomas Newman, is of that rare third breed. While certainly many will picture the ordeals of Mike, Nancy, and Chief Hopper while listening, this is music that also stands on its own, a work by turns eerie and sparse, but also tinged in the warm nostalgia of bike rides at dusk and the loyalty of friends. The score is ultimately more than a mood. It’s a world unto itself.

Essential Tracks: “She’ll Kill You”, “Lay-Z-Boy”, and “The Upside Down”


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