Much has been written about the causes behind Stranger Things’ status as a new cult favorite, including the Steven Spielberg and Stephen King references, the excellently wrought ‘80s nostalgia, and the stellar casting (especially its child actors). Equally important, however, to the show’s success — narratively and critically — has been its music. (Once I heard the pulsing, ominous tones of its opening theme, I knew Stranger Things was going to be something special.)
Of course, using the likes of Joy Division, New Order, and Echo & the Bunnymen (and Toto) goes a long way towards boosting the show’s nostalgic appeal. But I’m referring to the show’s original score, composed by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein (who are also part of the Dallas-based synthwave outfit S U R V I V E). Bringing to mind the synth-centric works of John Carpenter, Tangerine Dream, and Vangelis, Dixon and Stein have composed a truly rich, evocative, and excellent score that brings the world of Stranger Things to life all on its own.
As you might expect given the show’s plot elements — a kidnapped child, government experiments, otherworldly monsters, psychic powers — much of the score is strange (npi), murky, and eerie. “The Upside Down” is all booming synths and percussion that grow more sinister as the song progresses, which perfectly conveys the alienness and dread of the show’s shadowy, extra-dimensional realm. Same goes for “Walking Through the Upside Down” and “Hazmat Suits” with their serpentine synth melodies and menacing drones.
“Photos in the Woods” drones and buzzes for four minutes, fitting accompaniment for one of the show’s tensest scenes, in which an unintentional voyeur glimpses something much darker than teenage shenanigans in the woods of Hawkins, Indiana. Stranger Things, Volume One finally closes with one of its creepiest tracks in “Hawkins Lab”; what sounds like decrepit machinery run in the background while distorted synth notes creep along before giving way to rapid arpeggios and ghostly vocals — a combination of dread and urgency that’s appropriate to a secret government laboratory tapping into unknown realms of existence.
But it’s not all darkness and gloom. Just as Stranger Things adeptly balances horror and suspenseful sci-fi with nerdy humor, coming-of-age sweetness, and bucolic visions of youthful freedom, Dixon and Stein ably balance the darkness in their music with lightness, beauty, and melancholy.
“Nancy and Barb” is a sparkling little tune that evokes feelings of young, innocent friendship. Fluttering analog synth tones and gentle melodic shifts make “This Isn’t You” one of the score’s most beautiful and emotional tracks — you want it to last ten times longer even as its brevity is precisely what makes it so haunting. “Eleven” is another standout, its fragile, pensive arrangements eliciting new levels of sympathy for the young psychic girl (played so wonderfully by Millie Bobby Brown) who escapes the government’s clutches and begins to experience friendship and camaraderie for the first time in her young life.
Arguably, though, the first volume’s finest composition is “Hawkins.” The Advisory Circle’s Jon Brooks once described his aesthetic as “Everything’s fine, but there is something not quite right about it,” which perfectly describes this track. Dixon and Stein weave together disparate strands of sound — some are beautiful and nostalgic while others are eerie and foreboding. “Hawkins” occupies a shadowy area between dreamlike and nightmarish, which strikes me as absolutely perfect for a song named for the show’s setting — a little, picture-perfect Midwest town with immaculate suburbs that happens to exist on the edge of something terrifying.
I could probably write something for each of this volume’s 36 tracks — each one seems to have something interesting (or reminds me of some great moment from the show). Fans of Stranger Things will no doubt love what they hear — even if they know nothing about synthwave — because it’ll take them back to Hawkins, Indiana and those beloved characters. Meanwhile, fans of classic cinematic synthesizer music — even those who’ve never watched a single second of Stranger Things — will find a vivid musical world that’s totally worth exploring.