Matthew Arkell and Aaron David Ross
Matthew Arkell and Aaron David Ross Credit: Saverio Truglia

Gatekeeper‘s new Optimus Maximus sounds like murder. That’s not to say it’s bad, or even that it’s the kind of aggressive, testosterone-heavy music that seems to actually want to kill you. But all the flavors of synthesizer on the EP—minor-key arpeggios of emulated strings, analog sine-wave groans, washes of white noise—evoke the heyday of the slasher flick in the late 70s and early 80s, when masked maniacs roamed shadowy streets, Ouija boards not only worked but inevitably summoned nameless evils, and vividly red fake blood was spilled by the gallon.

“It’s like a memory palette, almost,” says Matthew Arkell, half of the local electronic duo and a 25-year-old grad student in sociology and urban planning at DePaul. “You just like the feel of somebody jumping through a window into a forest, running, and there are, you know, dark synthesizer swells. It’s a very core level you can relate to. It just reminds me of being terrified as a kid. It’s awesome.” As a devotee of the modern classics of horror, I have to agree.

Surprisingly, neither Arkell nor his musical partner, Aaron David Ross, considers himself an obsessive fan of the genre. “We’re not approaching it at all from the horror-geek angle,” says Ross, a 24-year-old grad student in the School of the Art Institute’s sound program. “I’m approaching it from the classical-music/film-score-geek angle. We’ve kind of been characterized as a horror band. Obviously that’s a huge aesthetic influence, but for us the nostalgia for the horror movie is less than the nostalgia for the horror-movie soundtrack.”

“We have a decent knowledge of horror movies for sure,” says Arkell. “We haven’t gotten singled out by any total horror-movie buffs, like, ‘Wait, what do you mean you don’t know about that soundtrack Fabio Frizzi did for . . . ‘ In conversation we can usually hold our own.”

They ended up pursuing a style intimately tied to horror movies because they’d been looking for common ground and it was the first sound they found mutually inspiring. “Before,” says Arkell, “it’d always be like, I’d go over to his house, and he’d play me all of this weird experimental stuff and I’d be like, ‘Yeah yeah yeah, cool,’ and he’d come over to my house and I’d play all of this classic house music and he’d be like, ‘Yeah yeah yeah, cool.'” They initially bonded over YouTube videos of Mark Shreeve, a British composer of quintessentially 80s electronic music, replete with cheesy orchestra stabs, popping synthetic slap bass, and artificial hand claps—and though that was hardly enough real estate to build a band on, it led them in short order to their present aesthetic.

At first they tried to make what Ross calls “dark new age industrial,” but once they noticed its similarities to the classic soundtrack work of Goblin and John Carpenter—who’s composed music for many of his own movies, including the instantly recognizable theme to Halloween—they began consciously folding in those influences. Ross’s enthusiasm for film scores doesn’t depend on the genre or quality of the movie (“I have way more soundtracks than I’ve seen movies,” he says), and lots of nonhorror material makes its way into Gatekeeper as well—he calls the Tango & Cash soundtrack a particular favorite. The band also draws on 80s Italo disco, vintage industrial, electronic body music, and the work of tolerable new age artists like Vangelis.

“We’re definitely happy existing between genres,” says Arkell, “having kids who are into more out-there noise stuff being like, ‘Oh I like this,’ and having guys that are DJing dubstep say, ‘This is cool.'”

“Or 40-year-olds who remember Wax Trax in Chicago and now they’re working sound at whatever club we’re playing at,” Ross says. Arkell adds, “We always end up bonding with older sound guys.”

They may fall between genres, but they have kindred spirits on the local and national scenes. In Chicago the likes of Fashion Dictator and Beau Wanzer are already revisiting the sounds of the industrial-music and EBM subcultures that thrived here in the 80s, and according to Arkell and Ross horror-music scenes have arisen more or less simultaneously in places as disparate as Toronto and Texas. Fright Records, an imprint of the respected German electronic label Kompakt, is not only making Optimus Maximus its inaugural release but plans to put out nothing but horror music. It’s hard to say yet whether the genre will outgrow its niche, but Ross says the fact that it seems “commercially viable to some techno masters in Germany” is a sign of its potential.

Gatekeeper are also among the first wave of artists to bring the ongoing revival of early digital synths and drum machines out of the rarefied realm of the gear obsessive and into the popular consciousness—it looks poised to become the next new thing in dance music after the chiptune fad, which was inspired by nostalgia for eight-bit gaming consoles like the Nintendo Entertainment System. Ross says that Gatekeeper gets a lot of its distinctive sound from his “major synthesizer fetish,” and he’s especially fond of mid- to late-80s instruments, whose flexibility and technological advantages (like MIDI programming) endeared them to Mark Shreeve types even as their cheap-sounding samples, ungainly digital emulation of analog sounds, and perceived “unrockness” made them objects of scorn. Those limitations make old instruments seem quaintly charming, though, compared to modern synths—and however terrible some people consider their sounds, they’re intimately associated with an era when serious, classically informed electronic music—Vangelis, Jean Michel Jarre, Tangerine Dream—was strangely popular.

“Analog is great for sweet fills and bass lines,” says Ross, “but for leads and pads we love early digital, like low-resolution samples of vocal scat and all that Jean Michel Jarre kind of synthesis.” Gatekeeper record in Apple’s Logic Pro software suite, and though they admit to using digital synth emulators, they also rely on real-deal vintage gear like the Ensoniq SQ1, the Oberheim Matrix 6, and the Yamaha DX7—probably the best known of the bunch, featured in Harold Faltermeyer’s “Axel F” and Jan Hammer’s Miami Vice score as well as on albums by Front 242 and Sparks.

Ross describes the music Gatekeeper is working on now as “dark synth wizardry” and says it’s spacier than the tracks on the EP—the band wanted Optimus Maximus to sound relatively dance oriented because of Fright Records’ association with Kompakt. The EP, he says, “has a beat. It’s four on the floor pretty much the whole time.”

“They’re not proper club tracks,” Arkell says, “but if you wanted to, you could try, maybe . . . ” And then we all can’t help but laugh at the idea of a dance floor full of people trying to get down to something that makes them think of demons and dismemberment.