Portal 2 (Mike Morasky)

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Part of the ambitious The Organe Box package, 2007’s Portal married innovative puzzles based on a portable wormhole gun with uproarious humor to such great acclaim that a sequel was all but certain, and in 2011 the stand-alone followup Portal 2 was released. Three times as long as the original with a bevy of innovative new puzzle mechanics and a co-op mode, Portal 2 reunited players with the homicidally codependent computer GlaDOS and her array of killer puzzle tests while introducing her comically moronic foil Wheatley and delving deeply into the darkly comic history of their creator Aperture Science and its founder Cave Johnson. The game was a strong sales success and critical darling, with voice actors Ellen McLain, Stephen Merchant, and J. K. Simmons singled out for particular praise.

The original Portal had been largely scored by developer Valve’s in-house composer Kelly Bailey before his 2011 departure from the company, with the smash-hit end credits song “Still Alive” provided by indie singer-songwriter Jonathan Coulton. Bailey had provided the first game with a harsh and ambient industrial score, much like his previous work on Half-Life and Half-Life 2, though several tracks were also contributed by Mike Morasky who had begun audio work for Valve not much earlier. With Bailey’s departure, Morasky was given sole composer duties for Portal 2, bringing a diverse set of electronic and acoustic sounds to the project. An experienced indie musician, composer, audio programmer, and VFX artist, Morasky set about creating a score that would marry Bailey’s intense electronic sound with a more melodic and pop-influenced sound, with Coulton returning to provide a sequel to his cult hit song.

Morasky’s primary thematic construct for Portal 2 is a melody suggesting the wonder and potential GlaDOS’s beloved “science.” Deconstructed fragments of the theme appear as early as the mysterious “999999,” alongside electronic and vocal effects, but it isn’t until “Music of the Spheres” that the theme appears in its full glory. Almost fully (synth) orchestral, “Music of the Spheres” hands the melody off to woodwinds with flighty harp accents and deep brass to accompany the descent into the oldest areas of Aperture. Morasky then deconstructs and interprets the theme for the remainder of the game’s music: giving the melody over to solo synth pads for the upbeat “You Are Not Part of the Test Group,” layering in electronics for “Forwarding the Cause of Science,” and finally having the electronics themselves take the melody up in “The Reunion,” giving it a distorted and gritty feel. Morasky completes his deconstruction with “Incendiary Lemons” for the reveal of the game’s biggest secrets, burying the theme almost as deeply as in “999999” beneath layers of synth pads and distorted electronics. The “Music of the Spheres” theme returns one last time, fully reconstructed, in the cathartic “Caroline Deleted” before being overlaid once again by electronics by GlaDOS’s reversion to her old ways and the game’s final ascendent denouement.

The game includes a several more thematic elements as well. A motif from “Reconstructing More Science” reappears mixed with “Music of the Spheres” in “The Courtesy Call,” and again at the game’s end in “Your Precious Moon” and “Caroline Deleted,” most likely representing GlaDOS or her renewal. Wheatley gets a motif of his own as well, appearing in “Don’t Do It,” the twisted “I AM NOT A MORON!,” and the subtle “Wheatley Science.” It mirrors his progression from helpful nuisance to grave threat, culminating in the pounding electronic/orchestral hybrid action tracks “The Part Where He Kills You” and “Bombs For Throwing At You” (the latter also featuring sly and subtle references to “Music of the Spheres”).

Given that Ellen McLain, the voice of GlaDOS and her turret minions, is a trained opera singer, it’s not surprising that many of the album’s highlights involve her voice. Jonathan Coulton’s “Want You Gone,” the game’s centerpiece song, makes great use of McLain’s modulated vocals with clever lyrics and colorful support from guitars and synths. She also lends her voice to the grimly beautiful “PotatOS Lament,” modulated and distorted almost to unintelligibility at the point of GlaDOS’s darkest hour (complete with dog Latin lyrics like “potato lacrimosa”), and the finale “Cara Mi Addio” which mixes wordless turret vocals with surprisingly heartfelt faux Italian singing as it soars to a classical climax. The brief and quirky “Turret Wife Serenade” offers a lighter take on the quasi-operatic style, while Morasky uses a more traditional darkly choral approach in “You Know Her,” the menacing track accompanying GlaDOS’s initial resurrection. Other tracks also use interestingly modulated vocal samples as in “Ghost of Rattman,” which uses rambled and unhinged gibberish as a sort of bass line.

Despite its thematic strength and its frequent use of vocals and (synth) orchestral elements, Morasky’s music retains much of the harder electronic edge of Bailey’s earlier work, and this might grate the ears of traditionalists expecting a more traditional score. Tracks like “The Friendly Faith Plate” or “Die Cut Turret Dance” are extremely harsh and abrasive, if creative, in their use of electronics. Other songs, like the sequence of “FrankenTurrets,” “Excursion Funnel,” and “TEST” are extremely ambient, with little of interest for listeners who can’t stand that mode. The electronics are inextricably woven throughout the score in various guises, though it’s probably worth noting that orchestral purists are rather unlikely to seek the music out.

Morasky’s work on Portal 2 is surprisingly deep and thematic, a major improvement on the abrasive and atonal music from the first game, and a thoughtful and often funny accompaniment to the game itself. The occasional harshness of its electronics or dips into ambient sound design do better within the game than without, but there is enough music that anyone should be able to put together a highlight playlist. Not long after Portal 2’s spring 2011 release, Valve made the game’s entire score as well as Coulton’s “Want You Gone” available as free downloads (with Morasky credited tongue-in-cheek as the “Aperture Science Psychoacoustics Laboratory”). A year later, a 4-CD version called Portal 2: Songs to Test By was released at a budget price, with all the free songs as well as a disc of music from the original Portal. Either version is recommended as a generally satisfying and innovative slice of musical cake.

Rating: starstara href=”http://bestoriginalscores.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/star.png”>starstar

A Boy and His Blob (Daniel Sadowski)

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A Boy and His Blob: Trouble on Blobolonia was released for the original Nintendo Entertainment System in 1989, developed by David Crane of Pitfall fame. Despite some rough edges, the game’s massive interconnected worlds and puzzles–solved by the titular boy feeding the titular blob jellybeans to shapeshift it into useful things like ladders and umbrellas–were a hit with audiences, and the game is fondly remembered today. So much so, in fact, that after years of failed attempts to make a sequel, developer WayForward Technologies acquired the rights to remake the game in 2009. Ditching the original’s teen hero and 1960s rock aesthetic, the new A Boy and His Blob aimed for a simple, heartwarming hand-drawn style with a young protagonist and even a button dedicated to nothing but giving his squishy companion a hug. The game garnered good reviews and sales were steady, paving the way forward for WayForward to continue reinventing other classic long-dormant titles like DuckTales, Double Dragon, and its own Shantae.

Rather than turning to their in-house composer and audio director Jake Kaufman, WayForward director Sean Velasco sought out composer and producer Daniel Sadowski for A Boy and His Blob. Sadowski had film, video game, and remixing credits to his name (notably rearranging a number of classic “retro” sounds for the Best of the Best video game arrangement CD) and was a passionate fan of the original game. Despite the project calling for a “softer” sound than many of his other works, the composer joined the project without hesitation.

Sadowski’s score is a largely made up of original music, but it does include several upgraded arrangements of Mark van Hecke’s compositions for the original NES game (which was itself rather impressively engineered for 1989). “The City March” combines the first level and second level music from Trouble on Blobonia into a single track, and Sadowski gives it a bright, faithful arrangement accented by pizzicato strings and castanets while stripping the music of some of the more dodgy Indiana Jones references that bedeviled the original. The first part of the concluding “A Medley of Credits” offers an even further upgraded version of the music, and both arrangements swap out the rock ‘n’ roll feel of the original for a straightforward orchestral sound.

The all-new theme for the game is introduced in “Main Theme” in counterpoint and conversation with a remixed excerpt of van Hecke’s music; the melody’s a potent one, and it really comes into its own in the following tracks. “Home Sweet Home” places it in a piano and mallet percussion context of almost unbearable downbeat sadness and beauty, while “Forest Greens” places it in a more upbeat and optimistic context spruced up by a light synth choir and more pizzicato. It winds through nearly ever context on the album, never losing its lovely but sad edge, and is even incorporated into a nice song at the album’s end with vocals by Bethany Mosley and lyrics by producer Velasco.

A number of original melodies cop up as well, like the beautiful woodwind “Shaded Plains,” which uses the main theme as a gorgeous interlude replete with chimes. But the pick of the album’s tracks is unquestionably “Subterra,” which offers soft keyboarding and orchestral accents performing a melody that’s equal parts smooth, synth, and sad (with fragments of the main theme interpolated to boot). A satisfying acoustic guitar arrangement of “Subterra” makes up a portion of “A Medley of Credits” as well, though this only serves to make listeners want more of the theme.

Sadowski’s music does have its issues. Action tracks that were a late addition to the game’s soundtrack like “Gears of Blob” and “Into the Citadel” are rather mundane in their straightforwardness and lack the spark of the music’s earlier highlights. But by far the biggest problem with the album is one of production; none of the themes are looped as they are in the game, fading out after only a single airing. This makes for a frustrating listen, since the music is more then good enough to sustain the industry standard two loops, and the resulting 40-minute album had 30 short tracks when it could have easily sustained twice that length. There are also a few tracks that have nighttime insect sound effects smothering the music; your tolerance of ambient noise in your music will determine your reaction to them.

Even with those problems, Sadowski’s A Boy and His Blob is exceptionally engaging for most of its length, making the best of the tools available to the composer to create something that is both affecting and joyous, much like the game itself strove to be. The album is available digitally as an iTunes exclusive, and while fuller fan rips of the music exist, the music was downsampled for the Wii platform and the muddiness that comes with that makes it unacceptable. Frustrations on the album production aside, A Boy and His Blob is not to be missed.

Rating: starstarstarstar

Leaf Me Alone (David Fenn)

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The Ludum Dare is an indie video game competition that challenges participants to come up with a functioning game in an absurdly small amount of time. The “Game Jam” category allows a developer team only 72 hours to make a game, and the August 2013 Ludum Dare Jam winner was a simple browser game called Leaf Me Alone which followed the adventures of a tiny forest denizen seeking a place to rest. It was developed by a team of two, Mark Foster and David Fenn, and Fenn wrote the game’s score which was later released for sale as a standalone product.

Fenn uses a surprisingly sophisticated set of synths for his music, lending it a very organic sound despite the game’s 8-bit NES-era aesthetic. It is also strongly thematic, with a fetching pastoral melody appearing right from the outset in “Home,” one which has a feeling of Greig or Copeland about it but most strongly resembles the beautiful Viva Pinata score by fellow UK developer Grant Kirkhope. The theme returns both in whole and in fragments throughout the album, but is most gorgeously rendered in “Night,” which features stunningly synthesized woodwinds passing the theme back and forth over a bed of peaceful piano and mallet washes. “Night” is easily one of the finest video game music pieces of 2013 and worth the price of the album by itself.

The other tracks in the main score are all largely very attractive as well, with a variety of sounds and tempos all incorporating the same organic and melodic aesthetic. “Tree” and “Sky” both feature warm melodies, while “Mountain” and “Temple” are more percussive and troubled. The brief “A Place of Rest” and “A New Leaf” bring the album to a soft solo piano close, the latter giving one last interpretation of the main theme. The main score is rather brief, only 15 minutes, so the album is rounded out by a series of six remixes by various artists, and it’s there where the album stumbles somewhat. The remixes rely far too heavily on overused and trendy sounds like record scratches and generally muddy the simple and charming originals more than they offer a meaningful reinterpretation; the electronic sounds so common to modern remixery are a particularly bad match.

Leaf Me Alone is a very strong score and comes recommended, especially “Night.” However, while it is available on the composer’s Bandcamp for the low price of $3, the fact that half of the music is inferior remixes does hold the album back from a top rating. Even so, it is a musical journey well worth taking for anyone who considers themselves a fan of pastoralism or Grant Kirkhope, and “Night” is an absolutely essential purchase (the song can be had on its own for only 50ยข). Hopefully Leaf Me Alone is a sign of great things yet to come from a rising talent.

Rating: starstarstar

Aiko Island (Sean Beeson)

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A puzzler for the iOS from developer Iceflame, Aiko Island was an entry into the post-Angry Birds genre of physics puzzles. It brought a few innovations to the table, like a colorblind mode and the deep integration of cookies at every level of gameplay, and was well-reviewed by those able to locate it amid the explosion of similar iOS games in the early 2010s. Perhaps the game’s most distinctive feature, though, was a lush score by composer Sean Beeson, a veteran of similar indie and iOS projects.

For a game about fuzzballs in bright primary colors chasing down cookies, Beeson’s Aiko Island score is unusually sweeping and powerful, with a full (synthesized) orchestral sound complemented with a (synthesized) choir. It’s music that seems most suited to an epic fantasy adventure, and it is highly rewarding once listeners get past the seeming tonal mismatch between the score and the game. More than anything, the music is reminiscent of Jeremy Soule’s approach to game scoring in the 1990s during the beginning of his career: a combination of excellent synths, sweepingly ambitious melodies, all applied in a lush and slightly ambient manner that wouldn’t be out of place in a fantasy film or TV miniseries.

The album can be broadly divided into epic and more quirky tunes, though it never approaches the level of Carl Stalling parody cartoonishness that the game’s art style (and its genetic relationship to Angry Birds) might suggest. The opening “Aiko Island” sets the more epic style in motion with racing strings offset against bold brass and a distant choir, a style that’s replicated with bolder woodwinds and choral work in “Enchanted Seasons” and with a strident string presence in “Chip off the Blocks,” all of which use the game’s primary thematic construct. Other pieces, notably “Ye Olde West,” take the sound to a more triumphant and heroic mode. The same building blocks are turned to whimsy in “Blue Timbers,” which tackles the same theme with a gentle combination of voices, pizzicato strings, and malleted percussion for a flight of Elfmanesque fantasy. “Aiko Beach” brings a woodwind sound with a faint calypso vibe while the longest piece on the album, “Ice Dream Spires,” takes a more deliberate tempo with icy percussion effects to bring about a dreamy and contemplative sound. There are a variety of other styles as well, like the waltz in “Dance of the Cookie.” Throughout it all, the album maintains an ethereal and quasi-ambient tone that’s very affecting and displays many of the strengths of Soule’s musical style (though without succumbing to the bloat that occasionally mars that composer’s later works.

The Aiko Island sountrack is available on the composer’s Bandcamp page, and with over 30 minutes of music at an asking price beginning at only $3, it’s a steal. Provided listeners can distance themselves mentally from the tiny cookie monsters in the game, the album will provide an excellent companion to masterpieces like Icewind Dale or Guild Wars.

Rating: starstarstarstar

Dragon Age II (Inon Zur)

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Dragon Age: Origins was Canadian role-playing game developer BioWare’s massively successful attempt to begin an original series of fantasy role playing games, free from the licensing constraints of their previous fantasy works like Baldur’s Gate or Neverwinter Nights. Less than sixteen months later, in early 2011, the developers followed it with Dragon Age II. While financially successful, the sequel had a disastrous reception among fans, who balked at the game’s stripped-down mechanics, frequent re-use of environments, far narrower scope, and wanderingly unfocused storyline. With many of the game’s issues laid at the feet of its short development time and seeming anxiousness to ape Bioware’s hit Mass Effect 2 from the year before, the developer was forced to let the series lie fallow until 2014 in order to take a more leisurely approach to developing a follow-up that wouldn’t alienate so many of the fans they had made with the first Dragon Age.

Israeli composer Inon Zur had written a stately but dull score for the first game, albeit one with occasional flashes of color and beauty, and he was asked to return for the sequel as well. As one of the only consistent elements between the two games–which otherwise featured completely different characters, settings, plots, and themes–Zur returned to work using many of the same tools. He retained singer Olivia Orr (replacing Aubrey Ashburn) for vocal portions of the score (though there was no mention of the Northwest Sinfonia Orchestra in any of the available materials) and tackled the task of tying together the vastly disparate games and glossing over the sequel’s weaknesses.

Zur’s main theme from Origins returns, appearing in the “Main Theme” at the beginning of the album, though it is secondary to an expression of the next major theme that is introduced, the “Hawke Family Theme” that appears there and in the next track. The titular Hawkes are given music that seems like a mutation of the stunning “I Am the One” from the original game, played mostly on strings, and it’s attractive music. The vocals are somewhat lacking in “Main Theme” compared to the resounding ones in the prequel, but they suffice; at their best in “Rogue Heart,” the music approaches the heights of the best pieces of the original.

If his original themes are not as extensively employed as they might be, Zur at least keeps the building blocks of his music rather similar: a full orchestra and choir and sparing use of wordless vocals. Solo violin and guitar have a more prominent role, while, the vocals have been dialed back considerably, with the result that “Love Scene” seems like a paler version of the original with a slight Latin lit to it. Blaring but aimless brass continues to be a mainstay as in “Arishok,” with the instrumental depth and choral aspects failing to compensate for the music’s drab lack of engagement, especially during battle.

The lively “Tavern Music” provides a bright spot, as does the innovative use of string technique and vocals in “Fenris Theme.” But the feeling of drab greyness from the original is oppressively present throughout many of the tracks from “Viscount” to “Kirkwall Nights.” Once again, Zur seems content to provide music that seeks to remain firmly in the background despite its thematic strengths. The complex album history of Dragon Age II doesn’t help: while customers who bought the special edition of the game were treated to an album rivaling the length of the original E.A.R.S. release of Dragon Age: Origins, everyone else had to make do with a mere 30 minutes of music on the official album. Two supplemental 30-minute releases came later, but other than triple-dipping Dragon Age fans, there seems to be no rhyme or reason for the decision, as the subsequent albums feature the same problems (or worse) that the main release does.

Inon Zur succeeded in bridging the gap between the vastly different settings and gameplay elements of the first two Dragon Age games, but at the expense of continuing to write music that, despite some high points, is still frightfully anonymous as a listening experience on its own. Like Origins, it is a missed opportunity with all the pieces in place but the composer unable or unwilling to combine them into an engaging whole. EA and BioWare evidently felt the same way, and they parted ways with Zur for Dragon Age: Inquisition, choosing instead to employ Trevor Morris from Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control studio to bring his sound from The Tudors and The Vikings to the table. There are probably enough highlights in Zur’s work for the first two games to make a decent 30-minute compilation, but neither album is able to stand well enough on its own to go toe-to-toe with many other fantasy scores for video games, and that fact has to be regarded as a disappointment.

Rating: starstar

Dragon Age: Origins (Inon Zur)

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After leaving the licensed Dungeons and Dragons and Star Wars settings of Neverwinter Nights and Knights of the Old Republicbehind, Canadian role-playing game developer BioWare spent much of the 2000s establishing their own original universes. While they had significant success with the science fiction Mass Effect and wuxia-inspired Jade Empire, fans waited almost six years for BioWare to unveil its own straight-up fantasy IP. 2009’s Dragon Age: Origins was a smash success, a canny melding of a deep and expansive story with a memorable and diverse cast which often felt like the best parts of the old Baldur’s Gate served up for the HD generation.

The previous fantasy offerings from BioWare has been scored by Michael Hoenig and Jeremy Soule, but as both composers had parted ways with the company by 2009, Israeli musician Inon Zur was retained to pen the new score. Zur, a veteran of scoring for TV and video games witha resume stretching to the 1990s, had worked with BioWare once before, on the Throne of Bhaal expansion for Baldur’s Gate II, and he had also scored the tangentially related Icewind Dale II and a number of entries in the long-running Lineage II and Everquest II series of online role-playing expansions. In short, Zur brought a distinguished pedigree in interactive fantasy scoring to the table, and with vocalist Aubrey Ashburn and the Northwest Sinfonia Orchestra at his disposal, the composer had an opportunity to create an epic and cohesive fantasy adventure score.

The album starts in the most resounding way possible, with Zur unleashing Ashburn singing a mournful dirge (apparently in a language created for the game) before piling on layers of the symphony orchestra in a muscular rendition of his main theme for the titular track, “Dragon Age: Origins.” The same is true of the following song, “I Am the One,” which expands Ashburn’s mournful vocal theme to full length, adding uilleann pipes, dulcimer, and guitar in a truly moving piece of music. The album presents an earlier “High Fantasy Version” and a later “Dark Fantasy Version” of the song; they lyrics and delivery are essentially the same, but Zur’s orchestra has a far bolder presence in the latter at the expense of portions of the guitar and pipes. Especially compared to the embarrassing songs in BioWare’s earlier Mass Effect, the marriage of Zur’s melodies and Ashburn’s voice and lyrics are extremely impressive.

Sadly, the opening tracks establish a level of quality and engagement that Zur is unable to sustain. He maintains his theme as heard in the opening track across all of the subsequent music, preferring to sound it on deep and growly horns, but even with constant support from the Sinfonia and a choir, his later music is often drab and grey, preferring to churn in the background without the boldness that characterized the introductory songs. The music is functional enough, and there is often a resounding depth in the recordings (a clear influence from Howard Shore’s original Lord of the Rings work), but despite the continued presence of his main theme, Zur’s work is very much like Shore’s Lord of the Rings stripped of its passion and melodic complexity.

The music Zur writes for the origin stories of each type of main character–six in all–is perhaps the best example of the score’s malaise. Tracks like “The Common Dwarf,” “Mages in their Chantry,” or “The Dalish,” squander the power of the Sinfonia and its choral accompaniment with sonic wallpaper and the barest hints of the powerful themes Zur and Ashburn debuted earlier. Reviewers at the time commented on how powerful the individual origin stories were, but the music accompanying them is simply an anonymous morass of brass, percussion, and wordless vocals. It’s not clear if the extremely backgrounded nature of the music was an intentional decision on Zur’s part or that of the producers, but it makes for a tedious listen in the lengthy album.

There are exceptions, mostly in the album’s more militaristic moments. “The Ruins of Ostagar” gives the title theme a militaristic workout with full orchestral and choral backing; “The Deep Roads” is able to effectively incorporate Zur’s theme into an effective action piece, while “The Betrayal” is able to add a layer of desperate emotion atop Zur’s often cold thematic constructs. Other action music is unable to make as much of an impression: “Attack on Denerim” manages to sap tension though its extremely deliberate pace, while the atonal percussive cacophony of “The Battle of Lothering Village” undermines its more traditional and promising choral parts. And despite raising a considerable ruckus, “Challenge an Archdemon,” the final battle theme, is unable to integrate Zur’s themes and instrumentation into a rousing finale.

Zur’s music is at its most effective in moments of peace that give Ashburn’s theme pride of place. “The Party Camp” reprises the music from the opening tracks with a bittersweet choral sweep, while the warm and triumphant “Coronation” gives the narrative melodic closure. The real highlight of the album’s tedious middle sections, though, is “Leliana’s Song” which adapts the style of “I Am the One” into a stunning vocal performance with a light guitar and choral backing. One can’t help but get the feeling that Zur erred greatly by not producing more music in this vein and incorporating it more fully into his underscore, as it’s exactly the dash of strong color missing from much of his drab material.

EA Games’ E.A.R.S. division put out a 60-minute album of Zur’s score in 2009, distributed solely in a digital format. Despite the lack of time restrictions, the album nevertheless has its share of problems: none of the tracks loop, often cutting out seemingly abruptly at loop points, and many of the stronger tracks were left off entirely. Most of Zur’s engaging music for the city of Denerim failed to make the cut, the sprightly vocal tavern music was left on the cutting room floor, and much of the field and combat music from large areas of the game was omitted as well. Worst of all, a full vocal theme with Ashburn’s voice for the game’s romance segments isn’t on the album either.

The success of Dragon Age: Origins led to a franchise–as BioWare had clearly hoped, given its title–with Zur returning as composer for the disappointing Dragon Age II, though he would be replaced by Trevor Morris for the third game in the series, Dragon Age: Inquisition. Inon Zur certainly wrote material that worked well in the game, and his collaborations with Ashburn are generally outstanding, but his music ultimately doesn’t translate well to a solo listening experience on par with the best fantasy scores for video games. It has to be regarded as a missed opportunity.

Rating: starstar

The Monuments Men (Alexandre Desplat)

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With a cast that had 5 Oscars and 17 nominations, and a little-known but deeply important true World War II story about artworks being saved from Nazi looters by a ragtag team of Allied conservators pressed into military service, director-star George Clooney’s The Monuments Men had an impressive pedigree. Yet the film was unable to overcome a wandering focus and lack of narrative drive, feeling like a Cliffs Notes version of a longer film and becoming a critical disappointment despite a healthy box office take. Despite all the Oscar gold among the cast, the film wound up delayed to an undemanding late winter release date from its original statuette-friendly slot.

French composer Alexandre Desplat was one of the busiest composers in Hollywood during the early 2010s and brought his own impressive collection of Oscar nominations to the project, collecting his sixth (for Philomena) when The Monuments Men was still in theaters. Desplat had worked with Clooney once before, on the low-key political thriller The Ides of March in 2011, and they apparently hit things off so well that not only did Desplat return to score The Monuments Men, he also appeared onscreen in a cameo. Quite possibly the longest and most involved composer cameo in recent memory, Desplat’s turn as the French Resistance fighter Emile not only revealed a bit of acting talent but resulted in one of the film’s funniest lines (“You speak English? Speak English.”) while Desplat thanks Clooney in the liner notes for convincing him to “play a Frenchman in a beret.”

The music is a fascinating fusion of several distinct styles, and a lot of your appreciation for the score will hinge upon how well you can reconcile the disparate elements within it. There are echoes of classic war movies scored by the likes of Elmer Bernstein or Malcolm Arnold, white-knuckle militaristic action music very much in the mold of 1980s John Williams, and of course Alexandre Desplat’s distinctive personal style with his fondness for waltzes. It is an odd enough collection of influences that the score sometimes feels rather schizophrenic, though the composer is to be commended for how well its disparate parts hang together.

Arnold and Bernstein’s influence is felt most overtly in The Monuments Men‘s main theme, heard most prominently in the jaunty “Opening Titles,” “Basic Training,” and “End Credits.” A bouncy and upbeat march with a somewhat more serious interlude, Desplat uses the theme to great effect in the film’s lighthearted and more comic moments, and its whistled rendition at the end of the album is a direct reference to Arnold’s famous interpretation of the “Colonel Bogey March” from The Bridge on the River Kwai. The more serious interlude is inserted in many of the more dramatic tracks as well, with downbeat and solo piano versions of the main melody accompanying many scenes of struggle and strife as well.

For the villainous Nazis (and, to an extent, the rival group of Soviet treasure hunters) Desplat uses a menacing brass motif that informs the latter half of “Champagne,” “The Nero Decree,” and other scenes of artistic destruction and villainy. John Williams’ brassy Nazi fanfare from Raiders of the Lost Ark is perhaps the most apt influence and comparison, though Desplat never really sets the Monuments Men theme and Nazi/Soviet motif against one another in quite the same way. The basic parts of the motif are also twisted into a pompous and amusing waltz in “Stahl’s Chalet” for one particularly tense scene late in the picture.

Lover of waltzes that he is, Desplat sneaks another in as well, this one serving as a theme for Cate Blanchett’s underwritten character and her low-key love-hate relationship with Matt Damn’s Monuments Man. Debuted in the first half of “Champagne” and given its fullest expression in “Claire & Granger,” the waltz is lovely but sadly never seems to come into its own and lacks an entire track unto itself like the main theme and villainy motif. One wishes for a John Williams-style concert arrangement of the theme to give it more breathing room as a result.

Finally, the score does contain some wonderful all-out action music, and it’s here that Williams’ influence is the most keenly felt. In several spots, but most extensively and notably at the beginning of the lengthy “Finale,” Desplat gives himself over to brass-heavy action writing that’s thrilling in the same way as many of Williams’ early 1980s scores as well as later attempts by other composers (like Michael Giacchino in Medal of Honor: Frontline). It is a thrilling if rather brief addition to the hour-long album, and a much better marriage of Desplat and Williams’ stylistics than the earlier Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was.

Whether through his music or his acting, Alexandre Desplat proved himself essential to The Monuments Men, and if the production was disappointing or a missed opportunity, he at least can be said to have taken full advantage and produced one of his most straightforwardly enjoyable scores of the 2010s. Sony Classical put out an album with virtually every note of Desplat’s score to coincide with the film’s early 2014 release, and included Nora Sagal’s rendition of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” from one of the film’s key attempts at character drama (it’s certainly performed with old-fashioned gusto if nothing else). Even with its occasionally schizophrenic swings from mood to mood and genre to genre, The Monuments Men is still an accessible music from a period dominated by Desplat’s darker and more troubled music for Oscar bait films.

Rating: starstarstarstar

Spore Hero (Winifred Phillips)

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Developer Will Wright, the mind behind the venerable SimCity franchise, had big plans for his first game project in years. Spore (2008) promised to allow players to guide the evolution of a new species from single-celled organisms to spacefaring colonizers, providing an impressive scope and lots of pre-release hype even though reviewers found many of the individual parts to be shallow or underwhelming. Though Spore itself required a PC to run, publisher EA had its Montreal arm cook up a spinoff for the then red-hot Nintendo Wii console. The resulting Spore Hero (2009) melded some of the mechanics of the original game with bigger emphasis on plot and exploration, and attracted decent notices–especially in comparison to the horrid shovelware that would eventually undermine the Wii as a platform.

The original Spore had a much-touted “procedural music generation engine” supposedly crafted by ambient musician Brian Eno of all people, though actual set tracks were contributed by a handful of Maxis staffers including Kent Jolly and Sim series veteran Jerry Martin. Spore Hero, with its more linear and Zelda-like structure, demanded a more traditional and cohesive score, and for that EA Montreal turned to composer Winifred Phillips. Phillips had worked with a Will Wright property before to great effect in SimAnimals earlier in 2009, and Spore Hero represented a leap forward in terms of visibility and player base.

Phillips anchors her score with a main theme introduced in the first track, a delightfully quirky melody with a number of clever orchestrations and pastoral touches that, appropriately, wouldn’t sound out of place in SimAnimals. It’s a malleable idea that crops up in many places throughout the score as hints or counterpoint, even in the relatively militaristic and straightforward concluding track “Hero Theme.”

There are a number of concessions to the sci-fi theme of Spore Hero, primarily in the use of spacy synth textures throughout many of the tracks like “Critters,” which layers on ambient washes with quasi-theremin effects straight out of a 1950s drive-in, or “SporeZone,” which flits between electronic textures and more organic music highlighted by what sounds for all the world like an electric sitar or mandolin, or “Sporeexplore,” featuring electric beatboxing. They’re joined by a diverse set of much less science fiction instruments, like the mouth organ, giving the most lighthearted songs an interesting feel of the pastoral with a layer of sci-fi glitz at times and one of wholesome Americana at others. It’s a creative and often engaging blend, if slightly schizophrenic at times.

The action music tends toward relatively lighthearted romps with dashes of darker colors, often interepersed with fragments of the main theme or David Newman-esque flights of fancy. Tracks like “Monster Mayhem” and “Beast Brawl,” full of manic tonal action and specialty gag instruments aplenty wouldn’t be out of place in one of Newman’s comedy projects or an animated short. At its darkest, in “Nemesis” and “Spore War,” the action music adds choral and electric guitar textures, the latter culminating in an aggressive and distorted version of the main theme that manages to be engaging, straightforward, and yet simultaneously slightly silly.

Overall, Phillips largely succeeds in merging seeming disparate parts–quirky specialty instruments, SimAnimals pastoralism, synth textures, and moments of straightforward action–into a cohesive whole. There are some places where the synthesized instruments let her down, particularly in the brass section (a recurring problem with synthesized scores of all kinds), and some places where the various pieces don’t quite gel. But it’s still highly enjoyable music on the whole, with something to offer fans of all the genres on display in a tonal package with a consistent central musical theme.

The music from Spore was never released in any form, but Phillips was able to release an hour of highlights from her Spore Hero score as a digital download not long after the game’s release (available from iTunes here). The success of Spore Hero would lead to further assignments for Phillips, movie adaptation Legend of the Guardians and stealth series spinoff Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation among them, and if it doesn’t quite reach the same heights of innocent joy that SimAnimals scaled, it is nevertheless a highly quirky and engaging listen.

Rating: starstarstarstar

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (Hans Zimmer)

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The powers-that-be behind The Amazing Spider-Man had a problem. While their remake/reboot had done well overseas, its paltry $200 million gross in the US was by far the lowest of any film featuring the web-slinger to date. With a sequel already greenlit, the producers and director Marc Webb needed to lure back fans who had felt, correctly, that their previous film had been unnecessary even in reboot-happy Hollywood. To that end, they stuffed The Amazing Spider-Man 2 to the gills: three villains, multiple subplots, hooks upon hooks upon hooks to tie into projected Sinister Six and Venom films, and an adaptation of a legendarily dark story twist from the comics–all in a package only six minutes longer than The Amazing Spider-Man. If that film had felt like a remake of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, its sequel was a remake of the (relatively) disastrous Spider-Man 3. Once again, international audiences flocked to see their friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, but the domestic grosses were extremely disappointing (less then the contemporary Captain America 2) and critical reviews were savage.

Danny Elfman, Christopher Young, and James Horner had provided generally outstanding music for the previous Spider-Man films, combining a firm orchestral presence with strong themes and hefty helpings of electronics where appropriate. For The Amazing Spider-Man 2, though, the producers turned directly to the current superhero kings of Hollywood: Hans Zimmer and his Remote Control studio. Since Batman Begins in 2005, Zimmer had been attached to most of the successful superhero adaptations cranked out by Hollywood, from 2008’s The Dark Knight to 2012’s Man of Steel. His philosophy of acting as a producer for a vast and disparate group of collaborators and his mastery of the media had made his textural scores, largely driven by simple ostinatos and motifs rather than traditional themes, discussed and debated to an extent unrivaled by any other composer in the 2010s.

In addition to being a music production studio, Zimmer’s Remote Control studio is also a PR outfit, and in the months before The Amazing Spider-Man 2‘s release, it was in full swing. With essentially a blank check from the filmmakers to produce something hip and popular, Zimmer reached out to the upper ranks of the pop music world for collaborators, and headline after headline followed their announcement: seven-time Grammy-winning R&B artist Pharrell Williams, straight from providing songs for the Despicable Me series; Incubus guitarist and frontman Mike Einziger; English recording artist and The Smiths mastermind Johnny Marr; Dutch electronica whiz Tom Holkenborg AKA Junkie XL; and, from Zimmer’s own stable of co-composers at Remote Control, Andrew Kawczynski and Steve Mazzaro. Dubbed “The Magnificent Six” on album covers and movie posters, those collaborators joined a further five Remote Control co-composers and five Remote Control orchestrators. Even for the collaboration-minded Zimmer, it was an unprecedented number of cooks in the kitchen, with every dollar of The Amazing Spider-Man 2‘s massive music budget on glittering display.

The part of the score that seems to have elicited the most reaction, positive or negative, is Zimmer’s use of dubstep and vocals for the film’s “main” villain Electro. As heard in “I’m Electro” and expanded upon in “My Enemy,” the Electro material is, like the composer breakdown, a bizarre gumbo of influences that mixes electronics that are far harsher and more contemporary than anything attempted by Elfman or Horner with vocals spelling out the character’s emotions (“He lied to me/He shot at me/He hates on me”) combined with Zimmer’s usual string runs. It’s a bit ironic that at a time when old-fashioned scores are being derided for being manipulative and telling the audience what they should feel, that Zimmer’s Electro theme tells the audience exactly what they should feel in so many words. Your response to the theme will depend on your tolerance for the unhinged and harsh, if creative, soundscape. Putting dubstep and vocals into a film score is an unusual nod to current musical trends, but it seems a little bit like putting disco into film scores in the 1970s: it seems hip and contemporary now, but will only serve to horribly date the movie once the dubstep craze of the 2010s fades. The Electro material is better as a villain theme than James Horner’s non-theme for the Lizard, but it pales in comparison to Danny Elfman’s solid Green Goblin and Doc Ock themes, as well as Christopher Young’s mournful Sandman music from Spider-Man 3.

Spider-Man himself does get a theme, his fourth in twelve years, first heard in “I’m Spider-Man.” Commentators have compared it to Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” though Zimmer’s music is far obviously more grounded in electronics, which are far more present than even Elfman’s most contemporary music, to the extent that the theme sounds like a nightly-news fanfare, an Olympic torch relay, or Vangelis (often to the point of sounding almost laughably cheesy). There’s also a love theme of sorts as in “Ground Rules,” “You Need Me,” or “I’m Moving to England,” and it’s there that Zimmer’s approach is closest to that of Elfman and Horner, with soft piano colors over ambient electronics and soothing orchestral washes, though the electric guitar is often given by far the most prominent role and the electronics, whether as atmospheric synths or intrusive pulses, are ever-present. The mix is such that even in the cues with a heavy orchestral presence, it’s all but overwhelmed by electronics, guitars, or both.

The less said about the material for the Goblin character the better – it’s essentially warmed-over leftovers from Man of Steel and a half-dozen other Zimmer scores, relying on the usual heavy ostinatos rather than the snarling menace of Danny Elfman’s original theme (or Christopher Young’s variations thereof). The most interesting thing about Zimmer’s themes, though, is that they are not utilized nearly to the extent or with the deep integration of Elfman, Horner, or Young. Whatever your feeling on the overall quality of his Electro, Goblin, Spider-Man, and love themes, Zimmer and his collaborators do not weave them into the musical DNA of the film, and there are none of the titanic hero theme vs. villain theme struggles which characterized Elfman and Young’s work. The balance of the work is electronic and guitar music that is strongly in the Zimmer mold, sometimes highly enjoyable, sometimes not, but with only the veteran overproducer’s sound to tie it all together. And there are many times when he fails to do even that, leaving the music to degenerate into a series of sometimes attractive but often disjointed pieces, each vying with the others to sound the most important.

Ultimately, Hans Zimmer and his sixteen credited collaborators did what they were asked to do: infuse popular names in contemporary pop music into the current dominant superhero soundscape, and market them aggressively as a musical experience alongside the film. As is so often the case, listeners’ feelings about the Zimmer sound will strongly influence their reactions (much as those same fans may have reacted to all the Hornerisms in The Amazing Spider-Man). But even taking that into consideration, Zimmer’s employment of his themes leaves much to be desired independent of the themes’ quality, and the effort often feels disjointed and piecemeal despite the composer’s attempts at using his overbearing style as musical glue. Whatever their flaws, Elfman and Horner produced cohesive scores, and even Christopher Young’s patchwork combination of his own themes and Elfman’s felt more organic. The music produced by Zimmer & co. is serviceable, perhaps even crowdpleasing, but ultimately feels more like a concept album than a fully fleshed-out score. At the time of the film’s release, it was available both as a standard CD and a “deluxe” product with a second disc and flimsier packaging that doesn’t play nice with CD racks. With The Amazing Spider-Man 2‘s middling box office returns the direction for the already-scheduled third and forth movies in the series is murky, but it’s a good bet that, given the amount of media attention he was able to command as part of his scoring process, that Hans Zimmer and his collaborators will unfortunately be the musical voice of the series for some time to come.

Rating: starstar

The Amazing Spider-Man (James Horner)

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2007’s Spider-Man 3 was an overstuffed disappointment of a feature, cramming 2-3 movies’ worth of material into a single film. Faced with creative burnout on all levels, director Sam Raimi (who had been doing nothing but Spider-Man for seven years) and his crew were unable to come to terms with Columbia for a Spider-Man 4. So, following the “remake, reboot, reimagine” formula, Columbia opted to start an entirely new series of Spider-Man films less than 5 years after the last Raimi picture. While the studio lavished cash on new director Marc Webb and a cast of young stars, it was difficult to overlook the feeling that pervaded what became The Amazing Spider-Man: that it was a soulless and unnecessary corporate product designed solely to keep a merchandising engine chugging, a toxic stew of Raimi leftovers and nearly shot-for-shot remakes of the 2002 Spider-Man with greedy corporate fingerprints all over everything down to Andrew Garfield’s Edward Cullen hairdo. Domestic audiences greeted the film with a bemused shrug and the lowest grosses of the entire franchise in summer 2012, but robust overseas box-office numbers and the ever-present, overriding need for franchise maintenance made 2014’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 a foregone conclusion.

To Marc Webb’s credit, he did attempt to assemble the best cast and crew he could under the shadow of the product’s utter crassness. As The Amazing Spider-Man was only his sophomore effort after the delightfully engaging 500 Days of Summer, there was some speculation that 500 composer Mychael Danna might finally get a crack at a superhero film after being rejected from 2003’s Hulk. Instead of Danna, and instead of attempting to lure back Danny Elfman (who was as tired as Raimi of the web-slinger), Webb made the surprising choice of James Horner to score his remake/reboot. Horner needs no introduction to fans of resounding orchestral sci-fi/fantasy pictures, with a proven record of genre success from 1982’s Star Trek II to 2009’s Avatar. He had dabbled in superhero scoring of a sort with 1991’s The Rocketeer, which had produced one of the composer’s most popular scores, but he had never been called upon for a full superhero score before, and certainly not one with a desperate desire to be contemporary and hip. Webb reportedly needed to persuade Horner to accept the assignment, but the veteran composer eventually acquiesced.

Horner essentially adopts a fusion of his typical style and the contemporary electronic approach that Danny Elfman took with the original Spider-Man which the film essentially remakes. He debuts his main theme in “Main Title – Young Peter” and it’s a classic Horner melody that’s both soaring and innocent and often (as in “Main Title”) enhanced by surprisingly Elfman-like flourishes and occasional choral flourishes. You’d never confuse the two, though: while Elfman’s theme was designed to be easily deconstructed and referenced, Horner’s music is long-lined and almost always at the forefront when it appears rather than being quickly alluded to. In its most triumphant outings, as in “Saving New York” and “Spider-Man End Titles,” Horner’s new theme stands alongside the best of his fantasy-adventure work from the 1980s that won him much of his current fanbase. The composer also exhibits and uncharacteristic playfulness with the theme in “Playing Basketball” and “Becoming Spider-Man,” adapting it in a style not unlike “Foraging for Food” in The Land Before Time.

Again like Elfman, Horner also created a tender love theme, though Horner’s is primarily piano-diven and often performed with the composer himself at the keyboard. From its first appearance in “Rooftop Kiss” to its lengthy airing in “I Can’t See You Anymore,” and “Promises,” the theme is vintage romantic Horner. It’s neither more or less effective than Elfman’s more fully orchestral construct, but very soft and moving in its support of the romance angle (which reviewers agreed was the film’s strongest aspect). Its airtime is limited in comparison to Horner’s main Spider-Man theme, but it was effective enough for Hans Zimmer to adopt a similar piano-centric approach (albeit with added electric guitars) in the sequel. With the combination of his love theme and his rousing main theme, the best parts of The Amazing Spider-Man are like modernized and updated versions of Horner’s lush sci-fi/fantasy sound of the 1980s.

The score is not perfect, though. There is a complete lack of a thematic identity for the villainous Lizard, or at least one that is so subtle as to be almost beneath notice. This is a major omission; while Horner creates some attractive stand-alone Lizard material in “Metamorphosis” and the action-packed “Lizard at School!” the lack of a consistent theme for the villain prevents the kind of thrilling thematic duels present in the best parts of Elfman’s scores. The inclusion of vocalist Dhafer Youssef in some cues, who worked on Black Gold with Horner earlier in 2012, is mystifying. His wailing doesn’t seem to serve any purpose for the film or its setting, save to serve as an example of a film scoring trend from the 2000s best forgotten today. And, of course, as with any James Horner score, the issue of self-referencing and musical recycling rears its head: parts of “Becoming Spider-Man” strongly resemble Horner’s magnum opus Star Trek II, and influences from the aforementioned The Land Before Time and particularly The Rocketeer are there for keen listeners. The music is less guilty of this than much of Horner’s recent output, though, and his distinctive but derided four-note danger motif thankfully makes no appearance.

The middling domestic success of The Amazing Spider-Man sent the producers scrambling to up the ante for the sequel they had already greenlit, and in addition to packing the subsequent The Amazing Spider-Man 2 to the gills with big names on the marquee, they dumped Horner in favor of the superhero flavor du jour of the 2010s, Hans Zimmer. The Amazing Spider-Man would also be the beginning of a particularly dark period for Horner: in addition to his replacement by Zimmer, his music was rejected from Romeo and Juliet and Ender’s Game in 2013. Increasingly frustrated with the current Hollywood scoring climate, and the domination of Zimmer’s methodology within it, Horner was left without any scoring assignments of any sort save vague future plans for an Avatar sequel with James Cameron. Even so, The Amazing Spider-Man score is the one part of an otherwise wretched film to emerge unscathed, and as James Horner’s first true superhero score and last major assignment as of 2014, it has a wealth of beautiful music to offer in the spirit of his scoring achievements in the 1980s. As long as one is prepared for the Hornerisms which inevitably accompany the composer’s work and strong echoes of Danny Elfman’s approach to the web-slinger, listeners will find much to enjoy.

Rating: starstarstarstar