Kyle Dixon & Michael Stein - Stranger Things, Vol. 1 & 2

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  • Stranger Things isn't just a show about plucky, inquisitive kids, small-town teen romance, sinister government projects, a telepathic orphan and a faceless monster from another dimension—it's also about our memories. The heartwarming paranormal adventure series, released by Netflix this summer to widespread acclaim, is set in the fictional Hawkins, Indiana, in autumn of 1983. And more so than any other aspect of the setting, Stranger Things wants you to remember when it takes place. The latest resurgence of '80s cultural tropes probably didn't start with the release of Drive (and its Johnny Jewel-assisted soundtrack), but that was the year it went mainstream. Since 2011, also when M83's "Midnight City" turned him into an international sensation and J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg set Super 8 in the summer of '79, this particular aesthetic—bright, romantic, fantastical, simple, edgy, retro-futuristic—has become increasingly popular. And that popularity has in turn helped artists already working with complementary styles to emerge from their niches. Dev Hynes now lends his taste for New Jack Swing to major pop stars, indie game composer Disasterpeace now scores multi-million dollar films with the flair of Vangelis, and Austin, Texas, quartet S U R V I V E might now be the best-known synth group under the age of 40. Band members Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein have launched their eight-year-old project into the international spotlight on the back of a distinctive, charismatic soundtrack for Stranger Things, music that always reminds you of the decade that inspired it. Comparisons to the work of Tangerine Dream and John Carpenter have been tossed around since Stranger Things premiered. But while those influences are of course inherent to the gear Dixon and Stein use, they're far less prevalent in their arrangements and motifs, which can resemble everything from Suzanne Ciani and Jean-Michel Jarre to Aphex Twin. Maybe that's because—despite two S U R V I V E songs appearing in 2014's The Guest, a throwback to '80s-era romantic thrillers—the two musicians weren't previously interested in traditional soundtracks. "We definitely became more aware of other scores [after we were hired]. It was our job, so we had to do some research," Dixon told The Independent. It could be why the Stranger Things soundtrack has resonated so strongly with viewers. Even with sounds inextricably linked to the late '70s and early '80s, this music tells its story with character, poise and a fresh perspective. There is so much packed into this two-volume soundtrack that you have to wonder if any of the recordings didn't make it in. The glut can feel unwieldy and insurmountable. Thankfully, a few melodic and timbral threads keep the 75 selections cohesive, and better still, both volumes follow a smooth, dynamic narrative. Most of the pretty material comes at the start of Vol. 1, as we meet our characters with the uplifting "Kids" and introduce love interests with the precious "A Kiss." The first turn comes with "Hawkins," where the mood is unsettled and cryptic, and things grow darker on the following "The Upside Down," the first sign of a sinister presence in this world. But the story still has plenty of brighter, even beautiful, moments to come, and Dixon and Stein serve them well. "First Kiss" has the makings of a proper ballad, with its pillowy pads and tender chords. "Tribulations" takes a celestial path through pathos, which, if it hadn't been written for the screen, should have stretched well past its 74 seconds. It's impressive how much Dixon and Stein accomplish with just synth-based arrangements. Drums and guitar appear on the stirring "She'll Kill You," a piano gives "Flashback" an ominous tint and that's about it. Some of the darkest pieces—"Lights Out," "Hawkins Lab," "Something In The House"—rely more on noise and atonal sound design, which actually provide some startling moments and contrast sharply with the more tuneful fare. But no matter the sounds being used, they smartly drape the setting and action. "One Blink For Yes" features in a memorable scene, where a frantic mother (played by Winona Ryder) discovers she can communicate with her missing son through electricity and lights. Though the cue is only a minute and a half long, it seamlessly conveys elusive mystery and the relief of understanding in its lush composition. The dramatic set piece and its music feel indelibly connected. With all the strong selections from this two-plus hours of music, Stranger Things's crown jewel has to be its theme song. It's a simple, one-minute piece that uses little more than four or five tones to paint a noirish yet colorful mood, the bassline pulsing heavily under flourishes of melody and wispy harmonic ambience. Dixon and Stein's song is transportive in the way it recalls a vaguely familiar milieu—a scary VHS tape handed down by an older sibling, a cheesy B movie half watched on cable at 1 AM—even as it feels present, alive and strangely contemporary. For all the memories Stranger Things and its soundtrack evoke, they've also given us something new worth remembering.
  • Tracklist
      Vol. 1: 01. Stranger Things 02. Kids 03. Nancy And Barb 04. This Isn't You 05. Lay-Z-Boy 06. Friendship 07. Eleven 08. A Kiss 09. Castle Beyers 10. Hawkins 11. The Upside Down 12. After Sarah 13. One Blink For Yes 14. Photos In The Woods 15. Fresh Blood 16. Lamps 17. Hallucinations 18. Hanging Lights 19. Biking To School 20. Are You Sure? 21. Agents 22. Papa 23. Cops Are Good At Finding 24. No Weapons 25. Walking Through The Nether 26. She'll Kill You 27. Run Away 28. No Autopsy 29. Dispatch 30. Joyce And Lonnie Fighting 31. Lights Out 32. Hazmat Suits 33. Theoretically 34. You Can Talk To Me 35. What Else Is There To Do? 36. Hawkins Lab Vol. 2: 01. Hopper Sneaks In 02. I Know What I Saw 03. Rolling Out the Pool 04. Over 05. Gearing Up 06. Flickering 07. First Kiss 08. Crying 09. Walking Down The Tracks 10. Where's Barb? 11. Speak Of The Devil 12. Danger Danger 13. Tribulations 14. Flashback 15. Kids Two 16. Talking To Australia 17. Night Of The Seventh 18. See Any Rain? 19. Coffee & Contemplation 20. Inside The Black Room 21. Starts To Rain 22. Eleven Is Gone 23. Time For A 187 24. Something In The House 25. Still Pretty 26. Abilities 27. Tendril 28. They Found Us 29. Bad Men 30. Spiked Bat 31. Making Contact 32. What Do You Know? 33. It's Not My Boy 34. Something In The Wall 35. Let's Go 36. Leap Of Faith 37. In Pursuit 38. Breaking And Entering 39. Stranger Things (Extended)