Giorgio Gaslini’s bad luck was the best thing that ever happened to the Italian band Goblin. In 1975, the band, then calling itself Cherry Five, was hired by movie director Dario Argento to perform Gaslini’s score for the now-classic giallo horror flick Profondo Rosso (known in the United States as Deep Red). Argento and Gaslini, a popular Italian jazz pianist and composer, eventually clashed over the direction of the project, and Cherry Five was selected to finish writing Gaslini’s score. The group changed its name to Goblin for the soundtrack, to avoid confusion about the pending release of the debut Cherry Five album, and set out on one of the most unlikely careers in international rock, helping to reinvent horror soundtracks and briefly turning jazzy, funky, and spaced-out instrumental prog rock into an electrifying and essential element of low-budget cinema. Like Argento and his giallo colleagues—not to mention an entire generation of pulp auteurs from the same era, like John Carpenter, George Romero, and Monte Hellman—Goblin never let its limited resources hinder its imagination or style.
That unlikely career is now documented in the comprehensive six-disc box set The Awakening (Cherry Red Records), which includes four complete classic Goblin soundtracks and the band’s two studio albums from the 1970s, filled out by alternate tracks and two previously uncollected singles. It’s a lot of Goblin, but it goes down smooth, and offers a thorough introduction to the band for the curious. The set even makes a solid case for Goblin as one of the most important independent film-music forces of the late 20th century, alongside Ennio Morricone, Carpenter, and Popol Vuh.
The Awakening is also as comprehensive an overview of the group’s short but productive career as most fans will ever need. Like a lot of box sets, the appeal of The Awakening is as much archival as aesthetic. The evolution from Profondo Rosso through Suspiria (1977), Zombi (the Italian version of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, from 1978), and Tenebre (credited to Goblin mainstays Claudio Simonetti, Fabio Pignatelli, and Massimo Morante, from 1982) is probably the great revelation offered here; the growth of the band’s sound mirrors the development of electronic music over the same period. The synth-and-guitar jams and slinky rhythms on Profondo Rosso and the 1976 studio disc Roller reflect the influence of British prog, krautrock and early disco, as well as Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, from the soundtrack to The Exorcist. By the time of Tenebre, the latest disc in this set, recorded two years after Goblin had officially broken up, Simonetti and company had absorbed considerable influence from postpunk, new wave, and even the embryonic forms of modern electronic dance music rising in Detroit and Chicago. (All of the percussion on Tenebre is, not incidentally, electronic.)
The middle third of The Awakening—Suspiria, the non-soundtrack Il Fantastico Viaggio del Bagarozzo Mark (1978), and Zombi—presents Goblin at its peak. The main theme from Suspiria is the band’s best-known work, the credit-sequence set-up for Argento’s masterpiece and a clear influence on Carpenter’s theme for Halloween. The song’s eerie nursery-rhyme melody and creepy atmospheric effects swell to a crescendo of menacing power; it’s the culmination of the band’s work up to that time and a template for the two albums to follow. Of the three mid-period discs, this is the most accomplished.
Il Fantistico Viaggio is an undistilled portrait of the band on its own terms. The disc allowed Goblin to focus on songs rather than the mood pieces required for film work, but only Morante’s vocals (and maybe the Queen-inspired “Opera Magnifica”) distinguish this electronic psych album from the band’s soundtracks. Zombi shows the band at its most eclectic and weird—a synthesis of shredding rock guitar, electronic keyboards, and dance-floor rhythms that also incorporates jazz and cosmic country for a peculiar and distorted European perspective on American music and culture. Its oddest moments, especially the piano boogie on “Torte in Faccia,” are distracting, but Goblin’s encompassing ambition is inspiring.
Throughout its career, Goblin maintained a commitment to simplicity: repetition over dynamics, atmosphere over complicated arrangements. But the particular confluence of genres that fueled the group’s music give it a wholly original place in the history of pop music. Goblin seems to have discovered a common space where electronic disco, ambient music, experimental music, and rock cross over and commingle and feed each other. Other artists found similar creative terrain—Can, Neu!, the Fall, Public Image Ltd—and newcomers like Zombi and Maserati have dedicated their entire careers to slavishly replicating the Goblin sound, but the exact spot that Goblin carved out for itself remains unique.