I read an interview with Cevin Key years ago where he alluded to the origins of the name “Scaremeister”. The story went that Key had been doing some sound design for the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle End of Days and had received the nickname after composing a particularly unsetlling cue for a climactic scene in the film. When Key saw the film, his well-received bit of audio scarebait had been obliterated by the overdubbing of Guns N’ Roses’ (execrable, post classic line-up) “Oh My God”.
That story should tell you a lot of what you need to know about Scaremeister’s 31 Spirits. Namely, that it’s music composed for specific, pragmatic purposes, like commericals, movie trailers, video games: basically any commercial avenue that needs short doses of sound with lots of impact. The titular 31 tracks aren’t so much songs as they are brief compositions that quickly establish a mood or idea and then end without fanfare. It’s pragmatic stuff to be sure, made to suit a specific need. And for being that, it’s a pretty fascinating listen, with Key and his collaborators doing their level best to apply their often outlandish sensibilities to a specific, saleable purpose.
Although some press materials position the project as a Ken Marshall led effort, it’s Key who shines through on most of this material. The synth maestro’s signature is all over the burbling progression of “Personal Demon” and the ghostly “She’s Possesed” where a pitch-shifted piano twists and turns before being subsumed by a mess of percussion and reversed sound effects. The ultra-brief “The Vanishing”, “The Trial”, “Soul Sale” and “Nightmares End” feel like the kind of creepy, stretched and hammered sounds Cevin would compose to bookend a song in a different era of his career. Which is not to say that Marshall’s presence isn’t obvious; the chunky guitar and super clean drum sounds on the rocking “Chamber Therapy” and “Ethology of Canines” scream out his production style, and I suspect the building feedback and orchestral elements of “Omen in Black” are his doing. The two are no strangers to one another in the studio, and I have no difficulty in believing Scaremeister is a joint project.
As program music goes, I think 31 Spirits is worthwhile, provided the listener keeps in mind what they’re listening to. It’s a tad frustrating to hear an interesting musical motif emerge (like say the heady mix of distant choral sounds and breaks on “From Within”) only to have it end in less than 90 seconds, but given the nature of the release (which it should be noted has been available to the sort of people who need it to do their jobs since 2007 or thereabouts) it can’t be faulted. If you can get past the workmanlike structure and dig into the weird underbrush that informs all of it, it has a pleasantly hypnotic quality, each song a brief sketch intended to convey one, digestible feeling in a spectrum from bleak and grey to chilling and black. The press for the release notes that these cues have been placed in films as diverse as Halloween 2, The Book of Eli, Transformers 2 and Inglorious Basterds, and it’s no real surprise why; regardless of purpose, these 31 tracks are evidence of what magic a couple of sonic magicians can conjure when set to a task with specific needs and limits.