Game Music Bundle 7 (Various Artists)

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Once again, the good folks at the Game Music Bundle have released a selection of video game soundtracks for the perusal of enthusiasts. Largely hailing from indie games outside the scope of the contemporary industry, and often by young and hungry composers eager to make their mark on the industry, the Game Music Bundle offers digital downloads of multiple albums across two price tiers. Donating a minimum of $1 unlocks one tier, while a minimum of $10 unlocks the other, with a minimum suggested donation of, fittingly, $13.37.

These capsule reviews are provided to help anyone who might be wavering in their decision to purchase and support the musicians and projects involved. The window to buy is very limited, expiring May 1, 2014, and while many of the soundtracks are available on iTunes, Bandcamp, and elsewhere…some are exclusives that will never be available again!

Go here to purchase the Game Music Bundle 7.

$1 Minimum Albums

The Banner Saga (Austin Wintory)
The Banner Saga is one of the most famous Kickstarter success stories, a game funded by 20,000 backers with just the promise of what was to come. Girded with that cash, the developers were able to hire rising star Austin Wintory and a live ensemble, The Dallas Winds, replete with soloists and singers. The percussion and string-heavy score is a relatively close cousin to Skyrim, with the same sense of Nordic-ness about it and singers bringing the full force of ancient languages to bear. There are times when Wintory’s music outstrips the sonic abilities of his limited group of performers, primarily in the large action cues; anyone annoyed by singing in what sounds like Old Norse will be turned off as well. Still, the album is overall a very sparse and finely crafted work. * * * *

Device 6 (David Olsén & Jonathan Eng)
Device 6 presents the sound of swinging 60s spies as filtered through the lens of swinging 60s acid trips. It features a core of well-done, off kilter spy sounds and tropes and then passes them through odd audio filters, adds bizarre sound effects in places, and generally does its best to create a blindsiding reversal of expectations. It’s an interesting effort when the pieces lock together (as in “An Elaborate Study,” which offsets a cool 60s melody with towering brass hits) but the techniques fail or distract as often as they succeed. * * *

The Broken Age: Act 1 (Peter McConnell)
Another Kickstarter game development success story, The Broken Age reunited the lead developer and composer of Grim Fandango, Tim Schafer and Peter McConnell, to attempt another adventure game in the grand old tradition of Lucasarts. Financial difficulties with the project led to it being released as two separate “acts;” this is the first, and thanks to Kickstarter McConnell was able to work with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and a San Francisco ensemble to record the music live. The result is a touchingly melodic score that often incorporates a very innocent sound, often on malleted percussion, to echo the “childhood’s end” theme expressed through the game’s twin protagonists. McConnell proves as adapt at managing an orchestra as he was with a jazz ensemble for Grim, and the music winds up as more a unifying force than anything, bringing together two two disparate environments and characters. Highly recommended. * * * * *

The Floor is Jelly (Disasterpeace & Ian Snyder)
A really bizarre album, part affable indie guitar strumming, part white noise relaxation CD, with a 20-minute track of synthesized ambient music as its stinger. People who know Disasterpeace from works like FEZ will probably be disappointed by the sound here, and while individual tracks by he and Ian Snyder are highlights, the album as a whole is a bit of a discordant mess (though that may have been exactly what the composers were aiming for). * *

Luftrausers (KOZILEK)
This aerial shooter has a soundtrack made up of three disparate elements fused together: heroic major-key music modeled on that of shmup soundtracks of yore, aggressive techno/trance beats, and the sound effect of boots stomping in unison. Nearly ever track has all three elements present, each taking their turn onstage with interesting and sometimes uneasy transitions between them. The music would have been stronger without any sound effects at all, but it presents enough of an interesting fusion of diverse styles to be worth a look. * * *

$10 Minimum Albums

Transfiguration (Austin Wintory)
Journey was in many ways Austin Wintory’s breakout score, highly regarded and well-received. For the Game Music Bundle 7, Wintory unveils an arrangement of highlights from Journey for solo piano. Stripped to the bare minimum, the sparse solos are quietly involving and the lively “Road of Trials” in particular is a virtuoso performance. The final song, “I Was Born For This,” marries the vocals of the original to a new piano arrangement for an entirely new spin on it. Piano lovers and Journey fans will find much to like here. * * * *

Starbound Orchestral OST (Curtis Schweitzer)
The score to a still-in-development, massive game incorporating facets of popular titles like Minecraft and Terraria, the Starbound Orchestral OST offers an equally massive amount of music: over three-and-a-half hours. The majority of the music is gentle, classically inclined, and surprisingly acoustic for a science fiction score. It’s music that is more about tone than theme, but it is always melodic even at its most classical; the best tracks are those that feature the piano (“Eridanus Supervoid”) or allow lightheartedness to creep into the equation (the delightful, album-highlight “Stellar Formation”). It’s worth noting that the concluding 45 minutes, the “Experimental OST,” are quite different, offering up a Hans-Zimmer-inspired cocktail of electronics and occasional ostinatos that’s much closer to the “stereotypical” sci-fi game sounds of exploration and combat, but no less compelling for it. A long, occasionally somewhat draggy journey, but a delightful one. * * * *

The Yawhg EP (Halina Heron & Ryan Roth)
This quirky and visually arresting indie RPG is all about preparing for doomsday, and its soundtrack reflects that bleak, navelgazing mood (if not the vibrantly quirky art of the game itself). Seemingly mastered from vinyl, it features analog white noise throughout and most of the tracks feature singing that seems to be coming from a room or two over. More than anything the album, even the instrumental tracks, seems like a self-distributed indie concept album with appropriately dour and spartan, well, everything. If you’re a sucker for this sound, you may find this album a revelation; otherwise, it’s best enjoyed in the context of its unique game. * *

Magnetic By Nature (Lance Montgomery)
Magnetic by Nature is, as one might intuit from the title, an entire;y electronic album. But save for a few moments of harshness near the end, it is almost entirely gentle, flowing synths. Made up of long, meaty tracks of electronic ambience, Magnetic by Nature will probably play best to lovers of Brian Eno and Michael Nyman. * * *

Escape Goat 2 Original Soundtrack (MagicalTimeBean)
With a name like “Escape Goat,” one must hope for some kind of all-redeeming wackiness, and the soundtrack, at least, delivers. It’s bright, self-consciously synthy with bubbly melody and intense motion, all with a light, light dusting of 1980s synth flavor which some might call cheese. Aficionados of that sound, and of winsomely catchy synthesized music, will call it delightful. * * * * *

Curious Merchandise (Ben Prunty)
Perhaps the most aptly-named album in the bundle, Curious Merchandise mixes low-key electronics in a diverse set of styles with occasional intrusive sound effects and filters. When the music is allowed to breath on its own it’s quite interesting, if often content to meander in the background. One has to wonder why the melodic, astounding “Ashur the Sky God” at the end of the album is so much of a one-off; if that sound were more prevalent over the affable but occasionally anonymous electronics and sound effects elsewhere in the album, it would be a sure winner. * * *

Winnose: Original Soundtrack (Calum Bowen & Todd Luke)
Bizarre. There is no better or more apt descriptor for this aggressive cocktail of high-pitched synth, scratchy guitars, and the occasional indie vocals than that. It’s an assault on the senses, creative to be sure but also headache-inducing. If anything, it’s like the scores to The Yahwg, The Floor Is Jelly, and Into the Box stuck in a blender set to “frappé.” * *

Eldritch Original Soundtrack (David Pittman)
A game best described as “Minecraft meets Cthulhu,” Eldritch took the roguelike aspects of the world’s best-selling cube simulator and married them to H.P. Lovecraft. The music, though, seems to take the most inspiration from Matt Uelmen’s score to Diablo, with acoustic guitar hits and squealing electrics amid dark sound design. Watery burbles and whispers certainly add a layer of uneasiness to the music, but with little or no tonality or melody in the ambient sound design, ultimately this is a score to appreciate in the context of the game, not as a standalone listen . *

Bardbarian OST (Maximum Satan)
With a picture of a barbarian literally and figuratively playing his axe on the cover, and an entity named “Maximum Satan” in the artist field, no one should be surprised at the hard rock sound that comes through. This single-track album is single-minded in its pursuit of an authentic instrumental heavy metal sound; people who don’t like that particular sound or prefer a different variation thereof should prepare for ten minutes of headache. *

Tribes: Ascend (Chris Rickwood)
A revival of the decade-old Tribes franchise (itself a somewhat confusing (but popular) spin-off of the Starsiege games) Tribes: Ascend sought to recapture the fun of that old multiplayer jetpack shooter. One area in which the authenticity shines through is in its score: the music sounds very much like that of a Western video game from the early 2000s when a sort of generic techno-rock sound with echoes of the Hans Zimmer blockbuster sound was completely dominant. Western games’ music has undergone a revolution since then, influenced by Japanese VGM on the one hand and classic film scores on the other. As such, workmanlike music like this is well enough in-game, but aside from the occasional highlight (like the choral-inflected “Arx Novena III”) there’s not much to recommend it. * *

Into The Box Soundtrack (Talha Kaya & Doğaç Yavuz)
Probably the most “authentic” sounding chiptunes in the bundle, Into the Box is clearly inspired by the SID chip music of the Commodore 64 demoscene and game composers like the Follin Bros. In fact, overall it seems to be an attempt to meld that decades-old style with the structure of modern trance music more than anything else. It certainly nails the overall sound, but to many people unfamiliar with the unique sound of the SID chip, or to anyone who finds the sound to be chalkboard-nails irritating, won’t find much to like in this brief album. * *

Soul Fjord (Austin Wintory)
The third and final Wintory album in the bundle is one that seeks to combine, of all things, 1970s blaxploitation funk with 970s Norse myth and warriors. Wintory hews much more strongly to the former, adding the occasional Nordic grunt or other background element to bring in the “fjord” aspect along with the “soul.” Your tolerence for the music will be strictly proportional to how much you enjoy music that is true to the funky-fresh blaxploitation styles of old. * * *

The Sender (Trevor Jones)

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Released in 1982, The Sender was a paranormal fantasy that had the misfortune of opening in perhaps the best year for fantasy cinema of all time. With heavyweights like Star Trek II, E.T., Poltergeist, and Conan the Barbarian siphoning off moviegoers, and opening in direct competition with Halloween III, The Sender never really found its audience. It does have some passionate defenders to this day, most notably Quentin Tarantino, but The Sender was never able to attain anything beyond minor cult status.

1982 was also a breakout year for South African composer Trevor Jones. Fresh off his well-received score for 1981′s Excalibur, Jones also wrote a lush, gigantic fantasy score for another fantasy picture in a year stuffed to the gills with them, Jim Henson’s puppet fantasia The Dark Crystal. Hired for The Sender due to his previous association with the director, Jones turned in a score that was very much in the same sonic universe as the fan-favorite Crystal.

The main thematic construct, as heard most prominently in “Gail and the Sender” and “End Credits,” is a mysterious melody for orchestra, soloists, and light electronics that will instantly remind listeners of some of the most mystical fantasy tracks on Jones’ resume (“The Mystic Master Dies” and “The Gelfling Ruins” from The Dark Crystal in particular). The music is lush and haunting, especially when a female vocalist joins in, and its appearances throughout the album are its outstanding highlights.

Unfortunately, perhaps due to The Sender‘s status as a tense, character driven piece of cinematic horror, most of the rest of Jones’ underscore for the picture is not terribly effective away from it. Eerie synths fade in and out of an orchestral recording highlighted by its broodiness, and a mood of unease is the most defining characteristic of the remainder of the work. Devotees of The Dark Crystal will recognize many of the synthetic textures from the composer’s other 1982 score, but this is if anything a downside: anyone hoping for the same lush fantasy sound is bound to be disappointed.

Ultimately, The Sender is an album best for devotees of the film and fans of Trevor Jones. The former will get La-La Land Records’ outstanding presentation of what is essentially an LP album assemble from 1982, while the latter will get a few blasts of a fantastic and otherwise little-known theme from Jones. The balance of the material, though, is tough to sit through for anyone without a strong and abiding affinity for the film or the composer.

Rating: starstar

Starhawk (Christopher Lennertz)

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A Playstation 3 exclusive title, Starhawk (2012) was a spiritual successor to the earlier Warhawk (1995) and its one-step-forward two-steps-back remake Warhawk (2007). Unlike the 2007 game, Starhawk actually featured a single-player campaign mode for people who didn’t want anonymous 14-year-olds screaming obscenities in their ears, and it attracted decent notices and sales numbers despite being released relatively late in the lifespan of its console.

Composer Christopher Lennertz had co-scored the remade Warhawk in 2007, with his music attracting strong praise despite being shackled to a multiplayer-only game. Lennertz was an old hand at game scoring by that point, with dozens of triple-A titles under his belt from the Medal of Honor series and beyond; unlike Michael Giacchino, Lennertz has kept a firmer foot in the game industry despite branching out into feature scoring. For Starhawk, Lennertz assembled an impressive ensemble in the Skywalker Symphony Orchestra and an array of soloists on instruments like slide guitar and harmonica.

And therein is the central conceit of the score: Starhawk adapts a Firefly/Serenity-like “wild west in space” approach, and Lennertz embraces that sound with his soloists layered over top of a full symphony orchestra. It’s also reflected in the two main thematic constructs of the score: the noble, rollicking Bernstein-esque “Emmett’s Theme” and the much darker Morricone-style theme for the game’s villainous Outcasts (first heard, appropriately, in “Outcasts”), which is driven by percussion and electric guitars.

With these two themes and a variety of western soloists, Lennertz is able to build an action score at least as effective as Greg Edmonson or David Newman. The majority of songs on the album are, as one might expect from a shooter, massive action pieces. The freedom inherent in video game scoring enables the composer to sidestep many of the action cliches in film today and instead write complex and tonal music. When the music is firing on all cylinders, it’s breathtaking: the prime example of this is “The Rift,” which alternates Emmett’s theme and the Outcast theme against one another in a terrific example of leitmotif scoring.

One thing to note about this score: there are two separate releases of Starhawk that may be confusing to the casual listener. The version available at iTunes runs 45 minutes while La-La Land Records’ deluxe limited edition CD is a full 57 minutes. Most of the missing songs on the shorter, digital release are, unfortunately, the album’s greatest highlights like beautiful choral “The Source.” The cut tracks are also, generally speaking, the least action-packed, which compounds the album’s only stylistic flaw: its emphasis on constant gigantic action with very little breathing room. As such, the La-La Land CD is the preferred purchase option.

Christopher Lennertz is a talented composer, but it’s ironic that most of his feature assignments have been in comedy and romance, leaving it to the world of video games to show his most effective and most filmic work. While listeners who aren’t fond of western sounds or relentless action may find the album exhausting, Starhawk nevertheless comes highly recommended.

Rating: starstarstarstar

The Lego Movie (Mark Mothersbaugh)

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Who would have thought that an idea which seemed as crass and commercial as Battleship could have been such a joy? Directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller took a basic concept and turned it into box office and critical gold with The Lego Movie, providing a heavy mix of rapid-fire gags, pop culture references, and genuine heart – so much so that the studio immediately greenlit a sequel, always a sign of success in franchise-happy Hollywood.

Lord and Miller brought along their regular musical collaborator Mark Mothersbaugh, who had scored their previous films Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and 21 Jump Street. Despite being an experienced scorer of TV, films, and video games since the 1980s, Mothersbaugh is still best-known for his role as the lead singer and co-founder of the new wave rock band Devo. The composer had taken on similar projects before, from The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle to Rugrats, and he brought along his full set of acoustic and electronic sounds for the assignment.

Naturally, though, the piece of music everyone will remember–and quite possibly be unable to get out of their brains–is The Lego Movie‘s satirical ode to conformity and optimism, “Everything is Awesome.” Written by Shawn Patterson with a large team of collaborators and produced by Mothersbaugh, the song is insanely catchy pop brilliance: in satirizing bubbly upbeat cookie-cutter songs, the songwriters created one of the best yet. The album features no less than four versions of the tune: the opening (and best, though it could have done without the rap interludes) version by Tegan and Sara, a shorter version by Jo-Li, an acoustic version belted out by songwriter Patterson himself, and a karaoke rendition of the Tegan And Sara opener. Mothersbaugh incorporates the song into his underscore at several key points as well.

Outside of the song melody, the composer provides a theme of his own that’s first heard in counterpoint to “Everything is Awesome.” First appearing in full during the quirky “Emmet’s Morning,” the theme is thereafter heard in almost every cue, providing the musical thread that holds score and film together (much like the approach Mothersbaugh took in Cloudy). It’s catchy, and the theme is put through a dizzying variety of paces: from joyously anarchic spaghetti western in “Saloons and Wagons” to unmitigated tragedy in “Wyldstyle Leads” to dazzling triumph in “I Am A Master Builder.”

Mothersbaugh uses a few other brief motifs here and there: a menacing four-note electronic tag for the dastardly Lord Business and his men, a bouncy laughing vocal for Ben the Spaceman, and an ascending victory motif heard whenever things are going the heroes’ way. For the balance of the album, though, the composer writes in the David Newman vein of frenetic, tuneful mayhem, rolling with the film’s punches and nonstop sequence of gags. There’s surprising breadth there, though, as exemplified in the album’s most straightforwardly dramatic cue, the lovely “My Secret Weapon,” which blends light electronics with piano for the most touching moment in the film–and score.

One thing that’s worth noting for prospective listeners, is Mothersbaugh’s use of electronics, especially compared with his much more acoustic approach to the earlier Cloudy. He has a considerable orchestra at his disposal but blends it with synths in nearly every cue, adjusting them to be bubbly or harsh as demanded by the onscreen action. They are generally used deftly, but their sometimes-harsh quality, combined with the music’s mile-a-minute pace, can be off-putting. In general, listeners’ response to Mothersbaugh’s synths will color their appreciation of the whole album, and it will perhaps be a bigger hit with fans of electronic/acoustic mixes or those familiar with the composer’s many video game works.

Whether you come for the songs or the score, The Lego Movie offers an eclectic sound that’s sure to have something for everyone. Depending on your preferences, that could mean picking out a few choice cuts to download or relishing the whole of Watertower Music’s generous 60-minute album. Mothersbaugh definitely gave the film the score it needed, and it comes with a solid recommendation.

Rating: starstarstarstar

Doom (Clint Mansell)

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It has become something of a running trope that Hollywood has never been able to make a good movie from a video game and Silicon Valley has never been able to make a good video game out of a movie. There’s certainly something to this: games and the stories they tell are shaped by the interactivity of the medium, and inexpertly stripping that away to make a film (or inexpertly adding it to make a game) often winds up losing whatever appeal the original had. Such was the case with the 2005 film Doom, adapting the epochal 1993 first-person shooter which helped make that genre the behemoth that it is today. Despite the presence of heavyweights like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Karl “Lord of the Rings” Urban, the film fared poorly at the box office.

For film score fans, Doom represented British composer Clint Mansell’s first mainstream score after he burst onto their radars earlier that summer with his excellent score to the similarly (and unfairly) reviled Sahara. Mansell had, of course, been involved with music and scoring far earlier: as the lead singer of Pop Will Eat Itself to 1996 and filmmaker Darren Aronofsky’s regular collaborator with cult-hit scores to Pi (1998) and Requiem for a Dream (2000). Doom seemed like a prime opportunity to merge the newly-minted orchestral and thematic strength of Sahara with the more hard-edged pop/electronic sound of Pi and Requiem into a guilty pleasure of a score.

On paper, the ingredients are all there: a sizable orchestra with veteran orchestrator Bruce Fowler, Mansell’s own array of synthesizers and rock instruments, and even a choir to reflect the fire-and-brimstone demons from hell that the space marines do battle with. And yet Mansell turned out a score that is ultimately, and surprisingly, boring. Far from being an enjoyable ruckus, most of the album is given over to very quiet, at times almost inaudible, music for suspense and conversation with only occasional brief blasts of rock music to offer anything to keep listeners awake.

Worse, when the later portions of the album use Mansell’s rock sound more extensively (in and around the film’s much-derided “first person shooter” segment), it sounds extremely mundane, even generic, without any of Mansell’s grungy flair as demonstrated in Pi or Requiem. It is as if Mansell was told to replicate the sound of original Doom game composer Bobby Prince’s sparse MIDI music with a larger ensemble. Prince at least had the excuse of embryonic (and often inconsistent) PC sound card hardware for his stripped-down and occasionally simplistic sound; Mansell, either of his own accord or at the behest of the producers, was content to simply phone in the sound.

The orchestra and choir are such minor presences as compared to Doom‘s electronics that they may as well not even be present at all. In particular, the orchestra is mixed extremely low in comparison to the other elements, often inaudible even when the score is at its loudest. And while the choral parts of the finale track “Go To Hell” represent the best part of the experience, they are still very dim and difficult to pick out. Certainly, there is nothing approaching the clarity and creativity of Nicholas Dodd’s orchestrations for Mansell on Sahara.

Other composers have produced interesting scores fusing electronics, rock, and an orchestra for risible video game movies–Jeff Danna’s overachieving guilty pleasure score for Resident Evil: Apocalypse being perhaps the preeminent example of this. But whether by accident or design, or perhaps as a sly recognition of the very low quality of Doom as a motion picture even in its genre, Mansell offers nothing compelling for fans of the film, fans of the game, score fans, or rock fans. Small wonder, then, that the Doom score album was a prominent sight in remaindered Varèse Sarabande discount bins at Family Dollar stores.

Rating: star

The Tree of Life (Alexandre Desplat)

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Terrence Malick is one of the most respected and most divisive directors working in film today, and his works have aroused strong feelings, pro or con, in everyone who has viewed them. His 2011 film The Tree of Life was no less so, earning nominations in several Academy Award categories while simultaneously being savaged by many viewers and critics. Despite (or perhaps because of) his reputation, Malick had attracted a variety of top-flight musical talent to score his projects, from Ennio Morricone on Days of Heaven to Hans Zimmer and co. on The Thin Red Line to James Horner on The New World.

For The Tree of Life, Malick recruited French composer Alexandre Desplat, who was in the midst of an extremely busy year. 2011 saw seven movies scored in whole or in part by Desplat, including his Oscar-nominated score for Best Picture winner The King’s Speech and a score for Best Picture nominee Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Desplat is often strongest in his contemplative mode, featured in scores such as Birth and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, than his disappointing attempts at epic fantasy writing as in The Golden Compass and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The Tree of Life represents in some ways the ultimate evolution of the former style, with his usual waltzes and melody supplemented by Philip Glass influenced minimalism.

Fans of Glass will probably enjoy what they find here, especially in “Circles,” the album’s longest and most impressive track. Cellular composition, repeated motifs, and a cyclical and evolving feel make the 11-minute centerpiece cue a true tour-de-force without losing Desplat’s distinctive voice. Echoes of Benjamin Button and Birth are to be had elsewhere, often in the most melodic and piano-led cues like the desolate “Childhood” and warm “Awakening,” although it’s by and large a score of textures more than melody or theme. Those expecting the empty bombast of Desplat’s Compass or Potter will be disappointed, though the composer does include his signature waltzes in the pair of “Motherhood” and “Fatherhood.”

Desplat also blesses the score with an air of impressionistic darkness in many cues. The aforementioned “Awakening,” for instance, includes a sinister full string section under its gentle piano melody, skillfully intermixing optimism and unease in a similar way to the deep electronic pulses from Birth, before building to an unnerving crescendo at the end. He uses other innovative techniques, like a solo and vaguely out-of-tune leading string in “Good and Evil” or discordant, Elliot Goldenthal style shrieking strings in “Temptation” (perhaps the score’s darkest cue).

From the minimalistic opening piano of “Childhood” to the inviting cyclic minimalism of “Circles” through the darkness of “Awakening” and “Temptation,” to the final innocent and childlike “Skies,” Desplat’s album truly feels like a musical journey. With only his signature musical voice to bind the score together, the composer nevertheless manages to create a cohesive musical narrative that can stand well on its own. This was perhaps the wisest decision Desplat made, given Malick’s history of tinkering with his films’ soundtracks: creating an album that can exist completely independently of its film, a contemplative masterpiece perfect for engaged listening or as a backdrop to writing or other creative endeavors.

There is one downside to the album: anyone looking for the classical pieces that were inserted into the film to replace the majority of Desplat’s original music will be disappointed. Malick, despite working with the very best original composers that Hollywood has to offer, often uses very little of the score they prepare, with what is used often chopped up and redistributed. This led to many angry viewers upset with the album from Lakeshore records, which includes only Desplat’s original score instead of the many classical pieces by John Tavener, Arsenije Jovanovic, and many others. This led to many reviews roundly trashing Desplat’s album for what it is not, rather than what it is.

Still, as long as listeners know exactly what they are getting into (and the available sound samples represent an excellent cross-section of Desplat’s music) they won’t be disappointed. It may be closer to a quasi-rejected score, or an instrumental “music inspired by” album, but The Tree of Life is still a musical journey well worth taking by one of Hollywood’s strongest musical voices. Lakeshore Records’ score album has become rather scarce the film’s release, commanding slightly inflated prices, but it is still readily available in digital form.

Rating: starstarstarstarstar

Kingdom Hearts II (Yoko Shimomura)

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When Yoko Shimomura left Square Enix and went freelance during Kingdom Hearts II‘s development period, many feared that the composer would choose not to return to the series as had happened with Nobuo Uematsu and Final Fantasy that same year. Such was not the case, of course, and fans got their wish when Shimomura was hired to score the sequel. One could be forgiven for thinking this automatically guaranteed a home run–after all, the original Kingdom Hearts is one of the finest game scores of Shimomura’s–or anyone’s–career. Unfortunately, the end result was decidedly mixed.

The resulting album has a number of strengths. It introduces a theme for the character Sora, something missing from the original, and the resultant track (creatively named “Sora”) is a heroic and upbeat anthem that, while brief, is a highlight. The Gummi Ship music has gotten an overhaul as well; a whole suite of driving, quirky, and often beautiful tracks (such as “Shipmeisters’ Rhapsody” and “Cloudchasers”) with the lovely counterpoint of “Shipmeisters’ Shanty” leading the way.

In addition, many of the best tracks from Shimomura’s score to the Game Boy Chain of Memories title have been carried over and upgraded, most notably the jazzy “Lazy Afternoons” and off-kilter “Sinister Sundown” tracks from Twilight town, and the “13th Struggle” battle theme for the mysterious Organization XII. Shimomura builds on this darkness , as well as themes she introduced on the Final Mix album, to conjure up a suite of intense battle music on disc 2 (“The Encounter,” “The 13th Dilemma,” “Sinister Shadows,” “Fight to the Death”), though the final battle (“Darkness of the Unknown) is sadly limp, lacking the choral majesty that made its predecessor so impressive.

On the other hand, much of the material from the original Kingdom Hearts is reprised, often without much modification. The worlds of Agrabah (“A Day in Agrabah,” “Arabian Dream”) and Halloween Town (“This is Halloween,” “Spooks of Halloween Town”) in particular feature music that is almost identical to the original tracks. Others, like “Rebuilding Hollow Bastion” feature new material added to tunes from the previous game, which often is a jarring contrast–half of “Rebuilding” is the ominous music that was a fan favorite, while the other half is upbeat and joyous! Fans and detractors of the Pirates of the Caribbean score will note with some amusement that the single cue from that score, “He’s a Pirate,” results in no less than three composer credits, including one for Hans Zimmer himself, but none for the score’s credited composer Klaus Badelt.

Some of the tracks are live recordings–the finale march (which features a lovely orchestral rendition of Sora’s theme) and reprises of “Hand in Hand” and “Destiny Islands” are spectacularly moving. On the other hand, the less said about the songs that begin Disc 2, the better: Howard Ashman is spinning in his grave. The obligatory title pop song is also disappointing, even when compared with its underachieving teenybopper predecessor.

One more thing of note is Takeharu Ishimoto’s synth programming; it’s very inconsistent, and occasionally downright poor. The result of this is that many of the returning songs from Kingdom Hearts are inferior to their predecessors (compare the Kingdom Hearts Final Mix version of “Disappeared” to the Kingdom Hearts II version for a good example). In addition, due to being squeezed onto two discs, many of the best songs loop only once instead of the industry-standard twice. One would think that, after its success, Kingdom Hearts II would be allowed the coveted three- or four-disc treatment, but this isn’t the case. Many songs are missing as well, most notably the flying carpet minigame theme (later released as “Arabian Daydream” in the Complete Box) and the lightcycle race theme (later released as “Byte Striking” in the Complete Box).

In the end, there’s enough good material to justify an album purchase, though the music is not anywhere near the home run that its prequel was. It’s not clear if this was a case of Shimomura being content to rest on her laurels, or if the development team insisted on the current sound. Either way, remarkable though the game itself is, on balance the music does leave something to be desired. The later Kingdom Hearts Complete Box expanded the soundtrack to four discs, with full loops and unreleased tracks, but it is harder to locate and far more expensive than the original release, and has the same problems with regurgitation, occasionally dodgy synth, and dreadful singing performances. Buy it if a solid extension of Shimomura’s Kingdom Hearts style is enough to convince you to ignore subpar album presenation and synth, as well as considerable recycling from the first album, but don’t expect the same excellence as the earlier title.

Rating: starstarstar

27 Dresses (Randy Edelman)

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The 2008 romantic comedy 27 Dresses wound up following every cliché in the rom-com handbook with its tale of someone who is literally always the bridesmaid and never the bride. It nevertheless did decent business during its release, though it was certainly a step down for the film’s writer (who had adapted the much sharper The Devil Wears Prada two years earlier). More than anything it showed once again that, by filming a film cheaply and using the rom-com stars du jour at the time, there was profit to be had in even the most inane formula.

Veteran composer Randy Edelman was tapped for the film’s score. Edelman has a solid track record in the genre, with scores like While You Were Sleeping, and Head over Heels on his resume, but by 2008 the composer had not written anything in the genre for several years, with most rom-com assignments going instead to younger composers like Theodore Shapiro or Rolfe Kent. Edelman’s output in general had declined in the 2000s with relatively few assignments compared to his salad days of the mid-1990s, with 2008 being the last year to date the composer had more than one major assignment.

Much like the movie itself, you know exactly what you’re going to get with the score. Edelman’s music is gentle and melodic, the sort of “sensitive piano music” with an ensemble backup that has become de rigueur for romantic comedies. It’s sunny when it needs to be, twinkling and introverted when it needs to be, and contains absolutely no surprises. It’s the sort of thing Rachel Portman or the aforementioned Shapiro or Kent could pull off in their sleep. Save for a few passages that adopt a more percussive quirky sound akin to watered-down Thomas Newman, the entire album is a highly consistent listen.

If this seems like damning with faint praise, keep in mind that Edelman is always professional about the sound and that he has a songwriter’s natural gift for attractive melody and harmony. The music may not be the most complex, and it may adhere to almost as many romantic comedy clichés as the film itself, but it is always highly pleasant and highly listenable. Just don’t expect themes as strong as Edelman’s defining work in Gettysburg or Dragonheart, which were strong enough to overcome a sound that was at times almost unbearably cheap. 27 Dresses never sounds cheap, but it never ascends the same melodic heights as those other scores.

While Edelman would have another rom-com hit two years later with the very similar Leap Year, the next few years would see him diminish his output even further, with only three scores in the subsequent five years. The 27 Dresses album suffered from low demand thanks to its score-only nature, with none of the needledropped rom-com songs found in the movie, and was eventually remaindered to Family Dollar stores in the 2010s, with copies often only $3-$4 each.

Rating: * * *

Freddy vs. Jason (Graeme Revell)

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After their final cinematic outings in 1993 and 1994 respectively, it seemed that the 1980s Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street franchises were completely out of gas. The slasher genre of the 1990s would be defined by movies like Scream, much more subversive and self-aware than its 1980s forebears even at their campiest. Enter directer Ronny Yu, fresh from revitalizing another 1980s horror staple with Bride of Chucky to give the aging horror icons one last hurrah by combining them in the vein of Alien vs. Predator. The resultant Freddy vs. Jason attracted decent notices and box office receipts, but it was not enough to prevent remake-happy Hollywood from “rebooting” both franchises later in the decade.

New Zealand film score composer Graeme Revell had a history in the horror genre with titles like From Dusk till Dawn on his resume, and he had also worked with director Yu on the earlier Bride of Chucky. Revell was faced with the daunting musical history of the two series to inform his attempt to score the crossover; the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise in particular had never used the same composer twice, with scores from Charles Bernstein, Christopher Young, Angelo Badalamenti, Craig Safan, Jay Ferguson, Brian May (the Australian composer, not the rocker), and J. Peter Robinson–a veritable who’s who of horror composers for film and TV–each bringing their own distinct style and themes to the wildly varying tone and quality of the films. The much schlockier Friday the 13th films had been much more consistent in their (low) level of quality and their generally overachieving scores by composer Harry Manfredini (save for Fred Mollin’s score and tracked-in Manfredini needledrops for parts 7 and 8 of the series).

Revell chose to tackle the film with a straight-up classical horror score in the vein of many films of the old slasher era, a mostly orchestral and mostly atonal cocktail of effective, rambunctious, and noisy tracks with an occasional role for electronics and electric guitar. There was a time when that sort of score might have been called a cliche, but by 2003 horror and slasher films were increasingly bearing overprocessed scores in the vein of Hans Zimmer’s Media Ventures/Remote Control studios, textual efforts that were more sound design than traditional scoring. In that context, Revell’s music is an impressively entertaining thowback even as it breaks no new ground for either series or orchestral horror scores in general.

Most impressively, the composer pays significant tribute to the earlier films in both series. The orchestral, occasionally gothic sound of his score isn’t a million miles from some of the finer cuts from the Nightmare on Elm Street series, for instance, and Revell incorporates singsong children’s voices uttering the doggerel rhyme from Nightmare directly into his score on occasion. He also pays tribute to Manfredini’s Friday scores by using, with full credit, the latter composer’s original (and iconic) echoing “kill, kill, kill, kill, die, die, die, die” samples. These homages are only present in a minority of the cues, Revell being generally content to rely on his own ideas, but they form a very pleasing tip of the hat to the film’s forebears. Compared to Steve Jablonsky’s dire efforts for the “rebooted” Friday and Nightmare scores in 2009 and 2010, though, Revell’s effort is a breath of fresh air.

In 2003, a score like Freddy vs. Jason with occasional references to classic motifs from the schlocky earlier films was easy to dismiss as a weak, paint-by-numbers effort; a decade of awful scores for similar films wound up putting it in context as a much stronger effort than people give it credit for. Graeme Revell would get a few more horror assignments in the 2000s and 2010s, but none of the later efforts (mostly vile “reboots” themselves) approached the same level of satisfying cliche as Freddy vs. Jason, and indeed the composer took on far fewer assignments in the 2010s in general. Due perhaps to weak demand for the orchestral score as opposed to the irrelevant “songs from and inspired by” album, Revell’s music was later remaindered by Varèse Sarabande to the Family Dollar discount chain and can occasionally be acquired for as little as $3.

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Gridiron Gang (Trevor Rabin)

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Gridiron Gang was a 2006 sports film which depicted, with considerable dramatic license, the story of the Kilpatrick Mustangs–an American football team made up of teens convicts from a juvenile hall. Though it’s doubtful that the actual 1990 Kilpatrick Mustangs came close to resembling the ones in the film, and their coach certainly had little in common with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, the film was a solid performer in the “inspirational sports story” genre.

The 1990s Trevor Rabin presents a contrast to the composer in 2006 as well. The former member of Yes had transitioned to writing film scores in the mid to late 1990s and had exploded onto the scene with multiple high-grossing blockbusters like Armageddon and Enemy of the State, often working in collaboration with members of fellow former rocker Hans Zimmer’s Media Ventures (and later Remote Control) studio. But by 2006, Rabin’s biggest Hollywood collaborators, Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer, had largely moved on to using Zimmer and his associates for their films. Rabin responded by taking his distinctive sound into new genres; his success with the 2002 film Remember the Titans in particular leading to a profitable sideline for sports stories like Gridiron Gang.

Rabin provides an effective sound for the film that mixes his action style of the 1990s, the same one that had a significant influence on the development of the MV/RC “blockbuster sound,” with more relaxed and acoustic material more reminiscent of Thomas Newman than anyone. Much of the meaty 55-minute album is taken up with very sincere and functional, if unspectacular Americana in the vein of The Shawshank Redemption, albeit simplified and streamlined to fit Rabin’s compositional style and instrumental choices. It’s the sort of soft inspirational music which is very easy to do adequately but very difficult to do well.

There are, of course, definite moments when Rabin’s 90s action style comes rip-snorting to the front–most notably in the three lengthy “We’re Better Than This” cues that punctuate the album. Rabin moves, not always gracefully, from his Americana sound to his Wall of Sound–orchestral players blaring in unison and managing to sound like cheap synthesizers
in the process (another element that was developed by Rabin’s former MV/RC collaborators). While this music is noisy and satisfies the dramatic requirements of the film, it has some baggage: it sounds very dated, with Rabin’s techniques on display here little different from those he used in the 90s, and thanks to the ubiquity of the MV/RC sound it manages to appear almost like a knockoff (despite the fact that Rabin has been practicing his own blend of masculine music as long as Zimmer and company have).

Ultimately, Gridiron Gang is an adequate, if somewhat underachieving, score that plays it safe. It provides exactly what the film requires, no more and no less, and does so with Trevor Rabin’s distinct style. Given the unavailability of many of his best sports scores on album (like the aforementioned Remember the Titans and Coach Carter), Gridiron Gang also serves as the most easily obtainable representative of the composer’s sports score style. Thanks to copies of the score being remaindered by Varèse Sarabande to the Family Dollar chain, in fact, Gridiron Gang is often available for as little as three dollars.

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