Invincible Czars to perform live score for classic horror film Nosferatu at Alamo Drafthouse

Attendees of the Tuesday, Oct. 4 concert-slash-screening can expect an immersive experience that balances a love of tradition with a modern musical sensibility.

click to enlarge If you want to know the essence of what the Czars do, there you have it: geek culture refracted through classical motifs. - Courtesy Photo / Invincible Czars
Courtesy Photo / Invincible Czars
If you want to know the essence of what the Czars do, there you have it: geek culture refracted through classical motifs.
These days, you go to a movie expecting loud, high-quality sound to boom from the speakers. But that wasn't always the case. Until the late 1920s, most films were silent.

For movie enthusiasts who want a taste of that era, Austin band Invincible Czars will perform its soundtrack for the legendary silent vampire film Nosferatu while it plays onscreen at Alamo Drafthouse Park North.

Attendees of the Tuesday, Oct. 4 concert-slash-screening can expect an immersive experience that balances a love of tradition with a modern musical sensibility. Yes, the band has features drums and guitar, not to mention violin and flute.

Invincible Czars' instrumentation might be described as traditional, but in an orchestral sense. It's ostensibly a band, but it doesn't hurt for the audience to have a grounding in post-rock and eclectic rock-adjacent acts such as the Mike Patton-fronted Fantômas, which incorporates horror, film noir and cartoon musical tropes into its compositions.

Nosferatu is the Czars' seventh film score, preceded by The Nutcracker Suite, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Aelita: Queen of Mars.

Even though the group has performed shows with underground mainstays including Melt-Banana and NoMeansNo, it's since shifted much of its attention to alternative film scores. With that change, it began performing in theaters, including the cinephile-catering Alamo Drafthouse.

"Once we started doing silent film, we realized no one else is doing this," Invincible Czars frontman Josh Robins said. "And then Alamo Drafthouse is right here, so as they expanded, we expanded. 'Oh, they opened on in Virginia? Let's go there.'"

Robins, who handles guitar and sound effects, and Skunk Manhattan, the band's keyboardist and vocalist, spoke to the Current via Zoom as they rehearsed for an upcoming tour. Flautist and vocalist KatieO Radio also popped in for part of the interview.

Tellingly, a Fantômas flyer hung on the wall behind Manhattan, who wore a beanie adorned with what appeared to be a mash-up of the anarchy symbol and the tri-force logo from the Legend of Zelda video game series. If you want to know the essence of what the Czars do, there you have it: geek culture refracted through classical motifs.

Rocking Bartók

To be sure, Nosferatu has no shortage of significance for movie geeks. Especially since this year marks the 100th anniversary of the film — revered both as a seminal horror flick and a prime example of German expressionism.

The black-and-white adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula premiered in 1922 with music written by Hans Erdmann and performed by an orchestra. Since then, much of the original score has been lost. That's led to a tradition of composers writing their own music to accompany the film.

Invincible Czars' take on the score evolved over a hundred performances.

"We would choose classical music that we know, that we think will work," Robins said. "Then we either incorporate that music — which is usually what we've done — or use it as a leaping point for tone, modality or tempo. Then we develop music based on that."

The Czars' ultimate take on Nosferatu is inspired by the composer Béla Bartók, who had an interest in Romanian folk dances.

"We kept the same feel but changed up the melodies, changed up the chords," Robins added.

The band's score also incorporates modern sound effects, such as a heartbeat that surfaces when the titular vampire sinks his teeth into a victim.

Cinematic precision

Monsters are no strangers to Robins and Manhattan, who first met when they played in a heavy metal band together.

While good metal requires a certain precision, a live film score performance takes things to an even higher level. That's particularly true since the Czars don't use a click track, a form of audio cue that arena-sized bands use to keep music and video in sync.

In particular, the band members cited the importance of matching certain musical moments with the jump scares playing out onscreen.

"The number one reason that it's tough is not that we are somehow deficient in this music," Robins said. "The standard that we now have for ourselves, by having gotten that precise, is unrealistic."

As a recent addition to the Invincible Czars, flautist-vocalist KatieO Radio brought a perspective of both a band member and former audience member. Even though the performance is in a cinema rather than a club, there's a similar symbiosis.

"The energy and relationship that the band has with the audience is what creates the tone," she said. "Seeing a live band play to a movie is an experience."

$20, 7 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 4, Alamo Drafthouse Park North, 618 NW Loop 410, (210) 677-8500, drafthouse.com.

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