There’s an argument to be made that Colin Stetson has been making perfect scary movie fodder for his whole career. The prodigious saxophone player works in an ungoldly version of brass, with a bass saxophone which is the size of a human and makes sounds that would make a bull elephant blush. His New History Warfare series focused on this beastly instrument, with Stetson using various forbidden techniques (circular breathing, contact mics and the ability to produce multiple notes through his throat) to create utterly singular music. He even turned Justin Vernon into a metal barker on Vol. 3, cementing his transfiguring brutality. So teaming up with director Ari Aster was a match made south of heaven.
Though Stetson borrows some motifs from the traditional horror OST, Hereditary is its own confounding monster. No longer bound to one-take songs, Stetson has layered overdubs and chilling effects onto his brass and woodwinds. His instruments morph from a deep bellow, a chorus of seemingly human tones to a full string section by his hand. Opener “Funeral” (just so you know what you’re getting into) has long pauses of near silence but is occasionally punctuated by low groans that could match a blue whale’s abyssal notes. He focuses that rumble into a more undulating presence on “Brother & Sister,” creating a pumping motion that propels the music forward as more mad sounds descend. To say he builds tension is an understatement. Aster apparently asked Stetson to “embody a spectre of evil” for the soundtrack, and he matched the demand with glee.
With Hereditary, Stetson has met a fantastic muse in terror. One of the movie’s main characters has a tongue click as a nervous tick that later turns into a horrid warning, like Jaws’ two-note violin. And, whaddaya know, those contact mics on his sax pick up the clattering of the instrument in such a way that it sounds exactly like that aural specter of doom. Charlie, the aforementioned character, gets a shuddering, pulsating theme of her own that pops in from time to time, but Stetson makes sure that no big sonic hooks appear. The music purposely avoids anything of that sort, so the listener/watcher has no safe anchor point. Instead, Stetson just makes each new section impossible and jarring.
“Party, Crash,” which scores the film’s descent into madness, is a thrashing piece on par with his avant-garde metal project EX EYE. The ending has his sax sounding like a didgeridoo but cluttered alongside gnashing percussion and a flutter of unknowable, birdlike sounds, all before a great, brass-fed scream burst to the forefront. Then it’s gone. Just when the music should climax it cuts out, giving way to the Richter-scale bass wobble of “Mourning.” Another nifty con Stetson pulls throughout the soundtrack is conjuring up great bass notes that never seem to reach their bottom. He lets them linger, and then turns the screw, morphing them down a semitone, and another, and another. It feels like he’s pulling us down a never-ending staircase as his notes sink to impossible lows. And Stetson’s ability to stretch out tension even creates some beautiful moments. The graceful procession of “Reborn” is a glossy, near-waltz that takes its time breaking down into utter chaos, but, of course, must rip the façade away with closer “Hail, Paemon!,” which jam-packs every horrid sound into one 55-second burst.
Though the music of power-electronics providers like Pharmakon might give more in the pure sledgehammer department, Hereditary has few equals this decade for sheer brutality. The maximalist beatdown of Ben Frost and Tim Hecker’s suffocating synths come to mind. But when your peers are best known for albums called Steel Wound and Ravedeath, you’re in blistering company. He also makes a song titled “Steve” spine-tingling. What more do you want? So, happy nightmares.