The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys (Marco Beltrami)

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Based on novelist Chris Fuhrman’s only completed book, 2002’s The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys is a coming-of-age tale of four friends going to Catholic school in the 1970s interspersed with a comic book that they are writing collaboratively. All the usual coming-of-age boxes are checked: bullies, first loves, nasty authority figures, and a friend that doesn’t make it to the end credits. The well-received novel helped attract a cast of up-and-comers like Emile Hirsch and veterans like Jodie Foster; veteran comic book artist Todd MacFarlane even stepped forward to turn the boys’ comic books into short animated segments. Ultimately, though, the film and its first-time director (music video veteran Peter Care) weren’t able to connect with audiences, and despite decent notices the film made back only a fraction of its indie budget.

In 2002, many of composer Marco Beltrami’s biggest hits were still ahead of him, meaning that the film composer was still affordable to indie productions like The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys. But Beltrami wouldn’t be tackling the film alone; guitarist Joshua Homme from Queens of the Stone Age wrote a number of tracks as well and contributed instrumental pieces to the score. Years later, Beltrami would recall that he had no idea how he’d been hired for the project, but that the project had been a “tough ride” fraught with difficulty understanding what the director wanted. Until the intercession of star Jodie Foster (herself an occasional director), the film had seem a lot of different musical avenues tried with a lot of (as Beltrami put it) “strangeness” along the way.

The unsettled nature of its composition definitely shows in The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys on album. It plays not so much as a cohesive score but as a series of disjointed musical moments, wildly varying in theme, instrumentation, and tone. It doesn’t have much of a thematic skeleton to hold it up, and Beltrami’s own distinctive musical voice is muted as well, leaving little to latch onto. The music is fun when it has to be (“Story of the Fish”), scary when it has to be (“Torn Apart”) and sad when it has to be (“Eulogy”) but, like the film itself, seems to be checking off boxes more than transcending them.

Homme’s music doesn’t fit in with Beltrami’s very much, but since Beltrami’s music is disjointed to begin with, it’s not as big of a problem as it might be. Homme’s contributions are exactly what you’d expect to hear from a rock guitarist: technically skillful electric six-string playing that seems to be backing for vocals that never arrive. It’s successful in capturing a hint of the youthful rebellion in the titular altar boys, but very little else. When Homme adds vocals to the mix (“All the Same” ), the result is somewhat better; the others simply feel like important parts have been snipped out. Period songs by Canned Heat and Stephen Stills round out the brief album.

Released by Milan the year after The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys limped out of theaters, the CD was enough of a curiosity to Homme fans that Amazon repressed the platter as an on-demand CD-R once Milan’s run ended. It’s difficult to see what either Homme fans or Beltrami fans will get out of the music, though; the hodgepodge on screen and on album very clearly reflects the composer’s memories of a tortured and uncertain scoring process. It’s hard to blame either man for the music’s lack of cohesion and lack of interest given the circumstances, though. Homme would continue to write popular music in the years afterward but never again dabble in film composition, while Beltrami was only a year out from his big break with Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and the one-two punch of Hellboy and I, Robot in 2004. The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys would remain a footnote for both of them.

Rating: star

Careful, He Might Hear You (Ray Cook)

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Australian cinema came into increasing worldwide prominence during the 1980s, with international hits like Gallipoli, The Road Warrior, Crocodile Dundee, and The Man From Snowy River all seeing significant success both down under and overseas. One of the lesser-known entrants in this renaissance was Careful, He Might Hear You by Hungarian-Australian director Carl Schultz. Based on a bestselling novel of the same name by Sumner Locke Elliott about an Australian orphan and his two aunts, one rich and one poor, dueling over his guardianship, the movie had been the subject of a number of failed adaptations (including an American one with Joshua Logan and Elizabeth Taylor attached) before Schultz’s 1983 release. The picture was a modest box office success in Australia and elsewhere but was a critical smash, winning a total of eight Australian Film Institute Awards, with Schultz taking home Best Director and Best Film.

Just as Australian actors and directors were gaining international prominence in the period, Australian film composers were seeing increased visibility as well, with Brian May (not to be confused with the rock star Brian May) and Peter Best (not to be confused with the rock star Pete Best) both seeing their names attached to international hits with soundtrack releases. For Careful, He Might Hear You, Carl Schultz engaged the services of another Australian composer, Ray Cook (seemingly the only Australian composer of the time not to share a name with a rock star), who had extensive musical experience working abroad as a music director in the West End of London during the creative explosion there beginning in the 1960s. With only one film credit to his name, the Australian TV movie Silent Reach, Careful, He Might Hear You was cook’s first major solo score.

For a simple drama score, Cook’s music has more in common with the lush fantasy music that was de rigueur in the post Star Wars era. His main theme is beautifully orchestrated for two lines of strings which interact and play off of each other with resounding vibrato, with one taking up the main melody while the other flits about in an extended fantasia to support it. A full orchestra with woodwinds, brass, and percussion is present, but the strings and the main theme that they play remain dominant throughout, with the other instruments primarily used to add depth and a touch of magic (primarily through the consistent application of mallet percussion) that suffuses the music from beginning to end.

Cook never abandons his theme, making sure that the full theme or deconstructed portions thereof are a constant presence, and the score never loses the subtle fantasy sheen that the orchestral colors at work bring to it. Occasionally a light choir (“The Meeting”) is added to the mix to give the music an even more magical atmosphere, and the mallet percussion, woodwinds, and brass take a larger roles from time to time (particularly in the beautiful, wistful but troubles “Vanessa’s Mansion”). The atmosphere and music also turn troubled at times (“PS Says His Prayers,” “Railway Station”) with the same themes and instruments twisted to produce the appropriate levels of turmoil, but even these moments never abandon Cook’s lush style. The biggest departure in the album is “P.S.’ Piano Practice,” a piece of quasi-source music that incorporates a ticking metronome with a waltz time signature to delightful effect.

Sadly, Careful, He Might Hear You was Ray Cook’s first and last major film score. While he contributed to the 1985 Australian film Rebel alongside Best and Chris Neal (of TV’s Farscape), Cook would pass away in 1989 before he had the chance to compose another solo score to build on his impressive debut. Around the time of the film’s American release, Varèse Sarabande released Cook’s score on LP as part of their ongoing championing of emerging, lesser-known, and international film scoring talent. The label later put the LP’s contents on a limited edition CD as part of their CD Club in 2006 (after teasing with a cue on the now-rare Varèse Sarabande 25th Anniversary Vol. 2 set) with a strict limit of 1000 copies. Thankfully, due to its obscurity, copies can still be had for reasonable prices today and the main theme is available as a digital download. In any form from LP to CD to MP3, Careful, He Might Hear You remains a hidden gem, a lush and fantastic aural journey well worth taking from a musical voice silenced too soon.

Rating: starstarstarstarstar

Franklyn (Joby Talbot)

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Franklyn was writer/director Gerald McMorrow’s attempt at a cerebral fantasy film examining the nature of faith with a parallel universe story splitting its time between a fundamentalist dystopia called Meanwhile City and contemporary London. McMorrow was able to attract a top cast including Eva Green, Ryan Phillippe, and Bernard Hill, and the movie presented a very striking aesthetic, but it had trouble connecting with moviegoers in its initial run in cinemas (perhaps due to the film’s off-putting title and lack of any actual character named Franklyn). It received generally good reviews, though, and eventually eked out an audience on home and streaming video.

For British composer Joby Talbot, Franklyn was a dream assignment, one that he actively sought out after reading Gerald McMorrow’s screenplay. Talbot had a god roster of projects for film, television, and the concert hall under his belt by 2008, but his feature film scores had been mostly low-key since his arrival on the scene The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in 2005. Projects like Arctic Tale (2005), Penelope (2006), and Son of Rambow (2007) had kept Talbot in multiplexes, but he hadn’t reached out to the same sci-fi/fantasy cult audience since Hitchhiker’s. Franklyn would prove to be that project.

For the alternate world of Meanwhile City, Talbot came up with an incredibly strong theme in the mold of his most awestruck pieces from Hitchhiker’s and Arctic Tale. Heard at the album’s outset (and the movie’s grand establishing shot) in “Gonna Kill a Man,” it’s a sweeping and romantic gem, with full-orchestra undulations against swirling piano arpeggios with subtle electronic enhancements. Wherever it appears, from the introductory “Meanwhile City” to the redemptive “Finale Part 2″ and “End Credits,” Talbot’s main theme captivates. It’s one of the strongest film music statements of 2008 by any measure.

The score is essentially monothematic, with twinkling arrangements and fragments of that main theme frequently appearing at the beginning and end of Silva’s generous 50-minute CD and download. Piano and harp are particularly foremost in the fantasy atmosphere in many places, with the former for the character of Emilia and the latter representing the character of Esser. Whenever Talbot is using his Meanwhile City theme, motifs based on it, or conjuring a dark fantasy atmosphere similar to that in the concluding parts of Hitchhiker’s or the most troubled parts of Arctic Tale, the album soars. Talbot uses a few more interesting devices in places as well: ticking clocks as rhythmic instruments and jaunty Middle Eastern pastiche in “Faith Registration Center.”

Its monothematic nature is unfortunately a bit of a two-edged sword as far as Franklyn‘s listenability is concerned, though. Whenever the music turns to action (“The Catacombs”) or suspense (“David Bursts in”), the music is discordant, textual, and colorless. It’s doubtless an excellent support for the film, but can’t do much apart from it. There’s no really satisfying mix of the powerful theme and fantasy atmosphere with the more ambient portions; in “David Bursts In” and the lengthy “Finale Part 1,” where the two styles are places side-by-side, they don’t gel and the disconnect is at times distracting.

Franklyn still merits a recommendation based on its incredible main theme and the compelling fantasy atmosphere throughout parts of the album, but it’s disappointing that the score’s action and suspense cues simply can’t live up to that standard. The highlights, though, are not to be missed. Talbot has remained more active in writing for live venues since, with no further ventures into big-screen fantasy, but has scored the occasional film like 2013’s Closed Circuit

Rating: starstarstar

Iron Man 2 (John Debney)

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2008’s Iron Man was a resounding commercial success and a critical darling, jump-starting a whole series of films based on other Marvel comic book properties. Jon Favreau’s direction, a smart script, and a winning performance by Robert Downey Jr. guaranteed that there would be subsequent films featuring Iron Man, and indeed Iron Man 2 followed The Incredible Hulk (which featured Downey in a cameo) as the third entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The 2010 film, which featured nearly all the cast and crew of the original, was perhaps the most disappointing film leading up to The Avengers; despite a healthy box-office take it was wandering and unfocused franchise maintenence, with little idea of what to do with its villains and playing up Downey’s antics to fill a bloated running time. Fans would have to wait until 2013’s Iron Man 3 for another truly satisfying solo venture for the heavy metal hero.

The original Iron Man had a disappointingly awful score from Hans Zimmer protege Ramin Djawadi that did little except accentuate the character with electric guitars. However, Director Favreau had collaborated with John Debney on a variety of other projects, from Elf to Zathura, and the veteran composer was tapped for the Iron Man 2 assignment. Ever the musical chameleon, Debney ultimately chose to maintain a semblance of continuity with Djawadi by incorporating electric guitars (played by Tom Morello of Rage Against The Machine, who had played on the previous score) while using his own thematic constructs.

Debney debuts two extremely potent thematic ideas in Iron Man 2, addressing the primary weakness of Djawadi’s score head-on. His theme for Iron Man himself is a heroic major-key march, accented by electric guitars with powerful brass, strings, hammered-metal percussion, and male choir. It’s an approach that evokes Jerry Goldsmith at his most instrumentally creative while still inhabiting the same sound world as the previous film. “I Am Iron Man” is the theme’s brief concert presentation, appearing during the film’s end credits, while Debney interpolates it triumphantly into “Monaco” for the scenes of Iron Man battling in the midst of a Formula One Race. “Monaco” alternates two strong, triumphant strains of the theme with snarling and discordant material for the villain.

Speaking of the villain, the film’s underused and oft-absent villain Ivan “Whiplash” Vanko is given an intense thematic identity of his own. Appearing over the film’s main credits in “Ivan’s Metamorphosis,” Debney unleashes a grandly Russian theme with a major role for dual male and female voices intoning lyrics in Russian. The piece is menacing and towers with Slavic personality with a strong support role for Morello’s guitars, and the dissonant electronic textures reappear frequently elsewhere (notably in “Monaco”).

Sadly, though, Debney’s themes are both the score’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. For as potent as the Iron Man and Whiplash themes are, Debney refuses to adept them consistently throughout the score. There’s no hint of either in the final confrontation cues “Iron Man Battles the Drones” or “Ivan’s Demise,” and outside of “Monaco” they are completely absent from the underscore outside the opening and ending credits. Why Debney did this is rather mystifying: he had a solid thematic base to build on, but either by accident or design he was unable or unwilling to do so.

The remainder of the music is more orchestral than Djawadi’s but is similarly a morass of guitars and synths front-and-center, reflecting little more than a moment-by-moment, blow-by-blow Mickey Mousing of the action. Cues like “House Fight MK1″ are almost as unbearable as similar cues from the original score, made all the worse by the presence of far superior themes that go basically ignored. Ultimately the disappointment is almost more keen than with Djawadi’s score, since the former showed virtually no promising ideas to go along with its textural meandering. The inclusion of the “Expo Theme” bonus track is a plus, though, with the filmmakers cannily mirroring the Sherman brothers’ “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” song for Disney by drafting Richard Sherman himself opposite Debney’s orchestrations and arrangements (though the few muted references to the song in the underscore are another missed opportunity).

John Debney was able to improve on Ramin Djawadi’s initial effort in Iron Man 2, but due to his failure to adapt his own themes throughout his own score, the music falls considerably short of what it could have been and has to be regarded as a major disappointment, especially given how extensively Debney adapted Alan Silvestri’s themes in his concurrent score for Predators in 2010. It would take Brian Tyler to finally come up with a formula to marry contemporary elements with a strong theme in Iron Man 3, while Debney would not score another film of comparable statue for several years, unfortunately moving back to the dregs of comedy scores that don’t take full advantage of his talents. Pick up a few of the individual highlights on their own via iTunes or Amazon and skip the rest of Sony’s 70-minute score album (and avoid the “Music From and Inspired By” album completely unless you’re an AC/DC fan looking for 60 minutes of their greatest hits that don’t appear in the film).

Rating: starstar

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 50¢). 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