Aaron Cooper wrote on Bearded Gentleman Music, that nostalgia has become a counter-cultural juggernaut because of the Internet. “Instead of relying on a fragmented, often romanticized memory, you have the best and the worst of history at your fingertips.” It’s true, you can indulge in nostalgia at any moment you choose; get misty-eyed over old Coke ads, find the opening theme tune for Voltron or even watch old episodes of Webster if that’s what you fancy. Time has become culturally irrelevant in this age of free-flowing knowledge and material in a digital ouroboros of influence and imitation.
There’s no dispute that a big part of the charm of the Netflix original series Stranger Things is the ’80s aesthetic. From Kyle Lambert’s poster design mimicking the work of Drew Struzan (Big Trouble in Little China, Indiana Jones, Star Wars) to the opening credits type face ITC Benguiat used on the cover of Stephen King and Choose Your Own Adventure books of the ’80s, the creators (Matt and Ross Duffer) went to great pains to ensure authenticity. But while the music for the series is also anchored in the past, it isn’t, like the visuals, a mere replicant. The score, composed by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein of the Austin TX, experimental synth quartet Survive has a life and character of its own that extends beyond ’80s nostalgia.
While sentimentality plays a big role in the success of Stranger Things it doesn’t hinge on that factor alone and neither does the soundtrack. The playlist of extant tracks exemplifies the intuitive choices of music supervisor Nora Felder and they remain, necessarily, frozen in time. Soft rock classics like Toto’s Africa counterpoint the melancholy of Echo and the Bunnymen’s Nocturnal Me and Dolly Parton’s The Bargain Store. The series’ score is however, carefully crafted from a more diverse blend of old and new. The references delve deep, ranging from a John Carpenter homage for the opening theme to the romantic, hopeful strains of Moroder and Vangelis on tracks like “Friendship” and “Papa”. Early Hans Zimmer action thrills abound on “Cops are Good at Finding Things” and “She’ll Kill You”, and even reach into the treasure chest of Hiroshi Kawaguchi’s Sega game music (Outrun and Afterburner etc) on tracks like “Nancy and Barb”, “Eleven” and “Biking to School.”
But during the darker moments of the narrative on tracks like “Hawkins Lab” and “Photos in the Woods” or “Lights Out” there’s an indication of a more current line of inspiration and technical flair. The influence of Aphex Twin, Autetechre and even Tim Hecker and The Haxan Cloak seep in. Much of Dixon and Stein’s score is as modern and accomplished as the recent scoring work of Atticus Ross and Warp’s Chris Clark. The sonic effects and compositional choices make the music of Stranger Things feel as much at home in the world of today, as it would in the ’80s.
As the quality of writing and production values raises the Netflix series above the novelty of nostalgia, the depth and diversity of the Dixon/Stein soundtrack elevates the music into a listening experience of its own. Which is probably why Lakeshore Records decided to release the original score in two volumes, Volume 1 available now, and Volume 2 on September 16th.