ali helnwein - pterodactyl

Ali Helnwein: Pterodactyl (2017)

My first cassette review!  Supposedly this $25 Wikoo portable cassette player has Mega Bass™ and that weird warping noise I heard five minutes into “Side A” of Pterodactyl, the odds and ends compilation from composer Ali Helnwein was part of the charm!  I’m kidding (a little bit); I know there are much better cassette players out there that probably do this tape a lot more justice than my rinky-dink player is, but I can still see the nostalgic charm of the wonderful uniformity of the cassettes, and the music – regardless of media type or file size – is fantastic, a collection of unused film cues and smaller pieces that highlight the whimsical and intimate genius of Helnwein’s music. 

Simply divided into two tracks, “Side A” is comprised of small, haunting themes spelled out over violins and pianos, with weird ambient sounds mixed in, such as a creaking of a rocking chair that accompanies a solo piano piece toward the end of “Side A.”  But “haunting” has a varied meaning here – there are instances where there is definitely a spook factor, but there’s also a vibrant haunting of youth, of innocence, a sense that’s perfectly captured on the opening segment.

“Side B” opens a bit more classical in nature, a violin rising and falling in arpeggios as the background drones in washed out tones.  But the nature of all the pieces is really cinematic, and listening to it continuously over the course of a day as I went about my daily routines imbued everything with a cautious, halting dream vibe.  Some segments take on the life of a cartoon, others a melodrama from the 50s.  But everything is washed in a spectral glow I can’t get enough of.


Music has been a part of my life as far back as I can remember, as have movies.  Specifically the movies of the 30s, 40s, and 50s.  When my father came to America from Germany in the early 50s he learned English watching those movies, and as I grew up they were the one real connection my father and I shared together.  So much of what I loved about those films was how the score would influence and inform the action on screen, and the way a melody would resolve, or suddenly modulate to indicate rising or falling drama would spark directly in my brain.  I get those same feelings from Helnwein’s music, and it’s one of the reasons when I saw I could own a physical copy of something from him I jumped at it.  But the honest reality is format is meaningless when the sound hits you this way.  It could be playing on a scratched and crackling record player connected to the shittiest pair of buzzing speakers you ever heard; when those notes come together in that singular way your response is primal.  It taps a piece of you deeper than any technology can reach.

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