Saturday, 28 July 2012

John Carter by Michael Giacchino

There's no doubt that Edgar Rice Burroughs' enduring sword and planet classic, John Carter of Mars, has influenced an incredible amount of science fiction tales since, including the Star Wars series, so one would have thought that a film adaptation would have been primed to set the screens alight and the cash counters chiming. What actually happened was 'John Carter', a bewildering truncated title that carries little inspiration, tanked at the box office and created a small tear in Disney's wallet.

Mix this with varied critical reviews and a mere scraping of marketing and you have one very unsuccessful film, even if by rights it should have done very well. However much the critics think the movie failed, there's one thing that's certain: the soundtrack is very good.

Michael Giacchino, who valiantly showed off his composing chops on J.J. Abrams' 'Star Trek' and has had a long history of contributing to the famed director's work including 'Lost' and 'Super 8', brings his A-game to 'John Carter'. Giacchino re-invigorates the essence of 80s adventure flicks, hearkening back to John Williams without outright copying him. You can hear a tinge of Lawrence of Arabia here, especially in 'Get Carter', a dramatic cue with layers of thundering horns, sweeping melody and subdued vocals towards the end. It's an exciting cue with a beginning, middle and end and a theme that's lightly echoed with violin and piano in 'Gravity of the Situation' where the danger inherent in 'Get Carter' makes way for a sense of wonderment.

This is pure fantastical space opera, filled with over-the-top excitement ('The Prize is Barsoom'), dazzling romance ('A Change of Heart') and the mystery of a new world ('Thark Side of Barsoom'). Giacchino does a great job of blending the film's themes together, conjuring the feeling of a great pulp adventure - which is exactly what this film needed. This is a melodic and sweeping affair that does feels like John Williams, but that really isn't a bad thing.

5 stars

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Conan the Barbarian 3D by Tyler Bates

This one was always going to be controversial. The original Conan the Barbarian score by Basil Poledouris is considered by collectors to be one of the greatest cinema soundtracks ever, so composer Tyler Bates has some big shoes to fill. That is, if Bates had tried at all.

Ok, that may not be fair, because there are a few good moments in this 70 minute bloatfest, but as it stands, this is not a particularly good score. It seems bizarre that Bates would be a name tied to this movie at all, when there are composers out there with much more experience in the fantasy genre, but let's give him the benefit of the doubt.

The main theme, and a rather dull one at that, pipes up in 'His Name is Conan' which meanders nonchalantly with its strings and choral parts, but never feels solid enough to warrant the larger than life character of Conan. The third cue, 'Egg Race', shows us everything that's wrong with this score, including screeching electronics, a cacophony of disparate sounds and the lack of any real structure. Conversely, 'Fire and Ice' shows us a beautiful piece full of feathery strings and delicate harp notes that eventually make way for a choir and a more sinister theme. 'Cimmerian Battle' brings us into the realm of choppy strings and obnoxious horns, forming a dull-as-dishwater cue. The album continues with a loose quality, as if it's not able to find its feet. The occasional Snyder-esque electric guitar lends a hand in cues like 'Freeing Slaves' in order to project some meat onto these bones, but it doesn't quite cut the mustard and end up feeling wasted.

For one, this is too long and so feels bloated. The themes feel lazy and the layered tones aren't used to good effect. While there are some pretty good tracks on here, the album lacks a cohesive narrative and relies too heavily of tired blockbuster conventions rather than injecting any intelligence into the music. Even a few nods to the Poledouris score wouldn't have gone amiss, but to outright ignore its existence seems to have done more harm than good. Bates is a capable composer, but this time he has let himself down.

1 star

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

The Dark Knight Rises by Hans Zimmer

On Friday we will finally see what we've been aching to experience ever since the last credit floated off the screen in The Dark Knight - the conclusion to Christopher Nolan's epic Batman series. Hans Zimmer is back in the conducting chair, but this time without the help of James Newton Howard. This is probably the most anticipated score of the year, but how does it hold up?

It's Zimmer alright, with his furious strings, booming french horns and minimalist style. It's also an incredibly brooding score, one that envelopes you in a black cloud of angst and depression, only treating you to a refreshing glimmer of light every now and again. It's also an angry and brazen affair in some parts - there is very little happiness here. To be fair, this is how it should be. Batman isn't a happy character - he's not Spider-Man or Thor, who boast more inspirational themes. Batman lurks in the shadows of the Gotham nightscape and watches the streets below, like a cold, dark sentinel of justice. In essence, Zimmer gets this part bang on target, creating a growing sense of dread and fear, from the heavy thuds at the outset of "A Storm is Coming" and through "Gotham's Reckoning" and beyond.

However, there is a definite lack of anything near complex on this album. Batman's main theme, which erupts in "Depair" and cumulates in "Rise" is just two-notes in length. It always feels as if it's starting but never really goes anywhere, leaving the listener wanting more. Another character cue, Bane's "Gotham's Reckoning", has a good drum rhythm but the chants feel too restrained. It's certainly forbidding, but fails to highlight what a complex character Bane really is, how intelligent he is and what he has in store for Batman. Catwoman's theme "Mind if I Cut In?" offers some respite from the deep horns and angst of the previous tracks with delicate piano and haunting strings, but it feels like Catwoman has been short-changed by a cue that doesn't do much.

The highlight comes halfway through in the form of "The Fire Rises", with its hammering beginning, blistering strings and more complex structure. "Imagine the Fire", too, is a stand-out track that weaves a tapestry of themes and sounds, from orchestral bombast to a subtle electronic beat that screams action. The final track, "Rise" is also a winner, but it's disappointing that these three are the only ones out of the fifteen that really make their mark.

This really could have been better. While it's not bad by any stretch of the imagination, there aren't enough moments that inspire emotion, as most tracks are too simplistic and brooding in a very plain way to evoke anything special. Characters aren't treated like the three-dimensional entities, instead either characterised or cast to the side. This lack of texture really lets the album down as a whole and collectors may only find a few listens before sacking it in.

2 stars

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Avengers Assemble by Alan Silvestri

Cross-posted from

It's been over two months since The Avengers took to the big screen in one of the greatest superhero movies of all time and many are now eagerly awaiting the DVD release which is set for September over here in the UK.

Alan Silvestri, notable for his work on last year's Captain America: The First Avenger, takes the helm for The Avengers' score. While Captain America had an admirable soundtrack, it still felt relatively subdued, especially in comparison to Patrick Doyle's efforts with Thor, which is one of the best superhero scores in recent times. Avengers Assemble feels like a safe middle ground between the two, delivering some great cues and themes but without being risky.

The main theme is smattered throughout, reaching its zenith in A Promise, and while it's good it feels very standard as far as superhero themes go. Silvestri does a great job in creating a grand orchestral feel with a subtle electronic undertone in-keeping with the sci-fi fantasy genre. However, there are only a handful of stand-out tracks including the frantic strings of Helicarrier and the bombast of The Avengers. There is a lack of cues from previous movies, such as the amazing Thor theme or even Iron Man, which seems like a really big missed opportunity. However, there does seem to have been some effort to explore Natasha Romanoff's character in Red Ledger and Interrogation, but with such big characters to work with it's surprising we don't get more.

The score plays it safe and delivers some audible gems amidst a sea of relatively standard tracks. I can't but feel that Silvestri could have done more with it but it's an enjoyable ride nonetheless.

Rating: 3 stars