I’ve never been wholly convinced that film soundtracks work outside their celluloid existence. Broadcast’s soundtrack to Peter Strickland’s art-house psycho-thriller, Berberian Sound Studio, though intriguing enough to challenge that perception, is a case in point. The film plot concerns Gilderoy, a shy British sound effects man with an unlikely assignment to work on an Italian Giallo horror flick, curiously titled The Equestrian Vortex. Though usually versed in nature documentaries, Gilderoy finds himself mixing ear-splitting screams and chainsaw effects and hacking up fruit and vegetables to approximate the body. Unsurprisingly he soon becomes lost in his own film-within-a-film, reality blurred nightmare.
Now if you didn’t know any of that, Broadcast’s music would still leave its mark but as with all soundtracks a context certainly helps. Berberian Sound Studio consists of 39 individually-titled tracks spread over slightly fewer minutes. Over half of them act as link pieces, lasting half a minute or less. It opens with the ambient sound of vintage recording equipment over which a simple descending 4-note sequence draws you in before “The Equestrian Vortex” theme ushers in blood-tinged titles illustrated by a circular piano riff spurred on by urgent percussion. The soundtrack continues in this episodic fashion, alternating from haunting beauty to moments of abject horror.
Serene woodwind, elegiac harpsichord and music box chimes juxtapose with sepulchral organ, a gibbering Goblin rant, intermittent screams, and what sounds like an Italian woman making a pact with the Devil – she certainly isn’t ordering a pizza. The album is largely instrumental and is built on a series of recurring themes interspersed with chilling sound effects. The melodies created by multi-instrumentalist James Cargill and his partner in Broadcast, the late Trish Keenan, are strong and resonant. Keenan also adds some beautiful vocal effects, which are framed with added poignancy given her untimely death in 2011.
Inspired by similar Italian Giallo themes from the 70’s, the record is a clever amalgam of old and new. It particularly reflects how electronic treatment can make everyday sounds disturbingly alien. It works as a sound tapestry so that no single track stands out but all are stronger by being part of the whole. This is an album worth hearing, not least because it will make you want to see the film.
Essential Tracks: N/A