Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: The Game (James Hannigan)


2009’s Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince solidified director David Yates’s control over the trillion-dollar franchise. The last of the six traditional Potterverse movies, before the strange bifurcated finale, the film had major script problems that not only kept it from being as engaging as its predecessor but forced the following Deathly Hallows Part 1 to go through a series of bizarre narrative contortions in addition to its focus on camping. The film’s score was singled out for particular criticism, with Nicholas Hooper’s subtle music being partly jettisoned by Yates in favor of material from the previous film.

Needless to say, it was a sure bet that a game adaptation would be forthcoming. Sure enough, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince appeared on the release calendars opposite the film. With both the director and the composer of the previous movie returning for the first time since 2002, the game shares a similar sense of continuity, with James Hannigan returning to the series, cementing himself as Jeremy Soule’s successor as Hogwarts’ composer in residence.

It becomes clear from the outset of the album that Hannigan is interested in maintaining thematic continuity between his scores. The opening “Return to Hogwarts” features creative mutations of the composer’s original themes from Order of the Phoenix, with both the friendship theme and the darker menacing/mischief theme combined as a suite. If the new adaptations aren’t quite as soaring as the previous ones, they do an excellent job of tying the scores together in a way Soule never quite managed. The friendship theme is given a full performance at the end of the album as well, moving away from the flighty and optimistic into a quiet and downbeat arrangement that’s incredibly moving.

The themes are less prominent in Hannigan’s sequel outing, integrated more subtly into the music and with significant sections absent them entirely. The album highlight “Race Ginny,” for example, cleverly integrates a fragment of the friendship theme into its midsection while relying on a unique piece to carry its first third. Hannigan seems to be trying to find a middle ground between Williams’ theme-driven music for the films and Soule’s largely themeless work for the first four games; he takes another page from Soule in some other aspects of the score, including some lengthy sections of ambiance across the varied “Wandering” cues.

As before, the music runs the gamut from serious (“More Potions”) to silly (“Fred and George Return”), always keeping that delicate magic touch no matter the setting. The action music is once again a highlight, though perhaps not without some reservations. Tracks such as “Slytherin Combat” soar to triumphant heights unequaled in previous Potter scores, but there is also some weaker music as well, with “Bellatrix” and “Fenrir Battle” recalling some of Soule’s weaker action efforts.

As with the previous game, Hannigan was allowed to adopt some of John Williams’ themes from the original film and a few incidental Soule compositions were recycled. And, as before, all of the Williams adaptations were left off the official album. Luckily, though, Half-Blood Prince also continues the fine production evident in the previous score — the album presentation is superior, with crystal-clear sound, well-mastered tracks, and a pleasing flow with the hideous flaws from the Soule albums a distant memory. Nearly an hour of music is present as well, making this the lengthiest Potter game score to date.

Half-Blood Prince was another extremely strong entry by Hannigan. The composer repeated his previous achievement and wound up turning in music that was superior to Nicholas Hooper’s film score. If the album isn’t quite as consistently excellent as its predecessor, it was still an incredibly strong entry. Astonishingly, Hannigan’s score was released months before the movie or game appeared, the only album in the series thus far to become available so early. Perhaps this, and the incredible weakness of Hooper’s film score, were what led to the official album being pulled only a few months later, around the time that the film hit theaters. All other Potterverse game albums were yakned at the same time, leaving the narrow window of only a few months for fans to acquire the music legally.

Half-Blood Prince would also prove to be the final Potterverse game album of any sort after EA squelched the previous releases. While Hannigan would return for the final two games in the series, their emphasis on third-person action meant that the scores were not only unreleased but far inferior. Hopef

Rating: starstarstarstarstar

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: The Game (James Hannigan)


In keeping with the overall trend of the series, 2007’s film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix saw a still-darker tone, yet another person in the director’s chair, and another composer providing the music. New director David Yates made the right decision in trimming much of the overstuffed fifth Potter tome for the screen, yet in bringing he old collaborator Nicholas Hooper along to score he sharply divided fans, with many claiming that it was far weaker than John Williams’ or Patrick Doyle’s efforts for previous films in the series.

Interestingly, this situation carried over into the inevitable video game adaptation of the film, which saw a composer other than Jeremy Soule take up the baton for the first time. Soule had scored all four previous games with an inventive and magical sound that eschewed John Williams’ iconic themes. Despite being very poorly represented on album, they had been quite popular with fans. Taking over from Soule for Phoenix was veteran composer James Hannigan, who had a diverse career in game scoring but for whom the Potterverse assignment represented a real breakthrough.

For the first time in the game series, Hannigan was given leave to use John Williams’ iconic themes for the movie series in the game’s score for the first time. The game would ultimately feature Hannigan’s arrangements of Williams’ themes, his own original music and motifs, and tracked-in leftovers from Soule’s four scores. With such a mishmash, it was easy to expect Hannigan to underperform — especially as compared with Soule, one of the most popular VGM composers in the business.

Fortunately, Hannigan was able to strut his stuff in an impressive fashion, creating a work that paid homage to both Williams and Soule while retaining his own voice. Indeed, one could argue that Hannigan’s compositions and extended use of Williams themes outshone those Nicholas Hooper, who only used fragments of the Harry Potter themes and was criticized for underplaying the film’s more dramatic moments by fans.

The score unveils its primary themes in the first few tracks, beginning with “Welcome to Hogwarts.” A sweeping “friendship theme” of sorts debuts there, and is malleable enough to be reworked into a love theme (“Cho and Harry”) or action cue (“To Catch an Owl,” easily the highlight of the album). A darker theme, with shades of Williams’ troubled Prisoner of Azkaban, is heard alongside it, reappearing whenever the action turns serious as in “Dumbledore and Voldemort.” “Dolores Umbridge” introduces a third main theme, an insistent, swaggering four-note theme similar to a tag often used by James Horner.

Such thematic richness is well-matched by the very clear sound of the music; performed by a live ensemble, the depth in the recording is excellent. This is especially notable when the score turns to serious action; Hannigan’s music sounds suitably enormous in this context even when it’s not quoting a theme as in the savage “Inquisitorial Squad.” Given the weakness of Hooper’s action music for the film version of Phoenix, one could very well make the case that Hannigan drastically outperformed the film music itself.

That’s not to say that lighter music is neglected; there’s a delightful sense of magic and mischief in cues like “Courtyard Frolics,” often scored with a waltzlike swagger that may have been inspired by Patrick Doyle’s music. With the possible exception of the troubled, ambient “Encounter with Malfoy,” there really are no weak songs to be found. The sound quality is uniformly excellent; Hannigan worked with the same Philharmonia Orchestra Soule used alongside the Slovak National Symphony Orchestra and the Pinewood Singers. But while the budget had forced Soule to rely on his usual crystal-clear synths for much of his score, Hannigan’s work was almost completely acoustic.

Hannigan’s score for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was released as a digital download a few months after the game hit store shelves in 2007. None of the adaptations of Williams’ music from the game were present on the album for contractual reasons, and this was a mixed blessing: while it put Hannigan’s original music front and center, it also meant that, as with the Soule albums, the music was frustratingly incomplete. At least the clipping problems from the earlier releases was solved — Hannigan’s music was well-mastered and attractively presented with a generous 50 minutes of music. It was a well-produced album, offering stunningly clear sound, so it was a terrible shame that EA yanked the album from circulation in 2009 alongside its Potterverse holocaust. Aside from promotional snippets on Hannigan’s website, the score is totally unavailable legally.

It’s a shame, because Order of the Phoenix is a revelation. Hannigan proved his abilities in the genre and outpaced both Nicholas Hooper and Jeremy Soule to provide not only the finest Potterverse game score to date but one that tops the music present in the movie. The lack of Hannigan’s adaptations of John Williams’ themes is regrettable, but this album is still one that should be in every fan’s collection if it were still available. Until then, play the game, rip the music yourself, or listen to samples on Hannigan’s site and mourn for the unjustly obscure fate for such a terrific piece of fantasy adventure scoring.

Rating: starstarstarstarstar

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: the Game (Jeremy Soule)


In 2004, EA released another entry in its series of Harry Potter video games, tying in with the theatrical release of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. The game offered what was expected of it — an interactive take on events in the book and movie — and was as successful as any tie-in could hope to be. In theaters, the third movie saw the first real shake-up in the film franchise, with Alfonso Cuaron taking over for Chris Columbus and bringing with him a distinctly dark aesthetic and a willingness to trim or alter the source material that Columbus had never had. This led to Azkaban becoming the most acclaimed film in the film series.

The game developers, however, remained largely the same and Jeremy Soule returned for a third year as Hogwarts-composer-in residence. As he had with Chamber of Secrets, Soule ditched the title theme he had created for the previous game. This is less of a problem than it could be, since the other two themes he conjured weren’t integrated into the game scores much; they were never as thematic as John Williams’ movie compositions anyway. Soule’s choice here interestingly mirrors the choices Williams made for his final Potter movie score, which largely avoided the maestro’s established themes in favor of new ones. It goes without saying that Soule was not permitted to use any of Williams’s new themes from the film. Still, given the blisteringly strong theme Soule had composed for the previous game, a reprisal would have been welcome.

Soule’s new theme does retain a choral element but returns to the more florid classically-inspired sound from the first game, albeit in a darker form. The album as a whole has a tone closer to that of the film, especially in its presentation of soaring themes for Buckbeak in “Flying Buckbeak” and “Buckbeak Night Flight,” both of which mirror the grandiose “Buckbeak’s Flight” conjured by Williams. The music has a deeper sound to it — possibly the result of better synths — and passages of dark music offset by some incredible vocal work. It’s as if Soule was consciously driving his music in the same darker direction as the film, with less magic but more drama; when the sound works, it’s spectacular.

Sadly, the action music is once again a mixed bag. There are some utterly explosive sequences of choral action in “Dementor Patronus” and “Extreme Patronus” which easily equal or exceed the finest action writing from Soule’s career. But “Glacius Boss” and “Carpe Knight Boss,” among others, return to the ramblingly percussive music that characterized the first game. The cues in general are also very short, with only two of the 26 songs on the commercial album exceeding two minutes.

Soule’s Prisoner of Azkaban, like the others in the series, had no official release to satisfy the cravings of fans for several years. But in late 2006, portions of the score were released to iTunes as a digital download alongside Soule’s other work for the Potterverse. All four albums suffered from a seemingly rushed and muddled presentation of the music, seemingly pulled willy-nilly from Soule’s original files. As with the previous two games, there were enough hard stops and tracks with trailing (or even internal) stretches of silence to make for a frustrating listen. And although 30 minutes of music was on tap, the soundtrack was once again frustratingly incomplete. This might explain why, in late 2009, EA pulled all of Soule’s Potterverse scores from circulation.

Despite all the album problems, Prisoner of Azkaban is another strong Potter effort from Soule. It may not have as many highlights as his previous work for Chamber of Secrets, but when the music is firing on all cylinders, listeners may not even notice. It’s a shame that fans of the composer and the original Williams music have no way to legitimately purchase even the wonky commercial album; as with the other scores, the only route to enjoying Soule’s efforts is to buy the game and crank up an audio editor. Fans can only hope for a proper release someday to allow the music to truly breathe.

Rating: starstarstarstar

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: The Game (Jeremy Soule)


Despite some moviegoers’ qualms, Chris Columbus’s film version of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was a massive $300 million earner. And, as surely as summer follows autumn, it was inevitable that there would be a movie adaptation of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets to follow the success of its blockbuster predecessor. And just as surely, there would be a video game adaptation to follow. Many noted that the film was an improvement over the first, and similar feelings accompanied the game, which opened to generally warm reviews. Returning from the first game was composer Jeremy Soule, whose music for the original had had its share of highlights despite a frustrating lack of availability on album.

John Williams had already begun to tire of the Harry Potter franchise by 2002, and delegated large portions of the music to William Ross. Quite the opposite was true for the Chamber of Secrets video game, as Soule powered up the ideas he had established for the first title, incorporating his original sound alongside some startlingly good new pieces. The Grieg-inspired theme from the first game wass discarded in favor of a fantastic new “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets Title Theme,” which owes less of a debt to other composers while still conjuring the requisite magic. Soule introduced a powerful choral component as well, establishing a thread that extends throughout the official album (and in many tracks omitted from it). Soule reprises the theme in an equally elegant form at the end of the album; listed as an alternate theme, it was actually used for the game’s credits. Like the composer’s theme for the previous game, though, it barely appears in the rest of the music.

The most notable improvement of Chamber of Secrets over its predecessor is the action music. Soule successfully imparts the magical atmosphere and dark choral harmonics of the other music into whimsical tracks like “DADA Action” “Willow Boss” and “Aragog Boss.” “Flying” represents some of Soule’s finest-ever action writing, with a soaring full-bodied orchestral theme that’s equal parts action and wonder, though it’s sadly unlooped on the official album. Soule’s work combines the strength of the previous score (its whimsical character) while addressing its weaknesses, rendering it a better listening experience whether complete or on the mangled album.

Like Sorcerer’s Stone before it, Chamber of Secrets didn’t get an album when it was released. This was rectified to an extent when, in late 2006, EA released digital albums of all Soule’s Potter scores to iTunes. Chamber of Secrets fared much better than the previous album as a listening experience; the transitions aren’t as jagged (though there are still no loops) and the tracks are generally longer, with a several being self-contained. A much more generous 43 minutes of music is provided as well, though some essential music is still missing (notably the thunderous final battle cue with full choir) and a few awkward edits or songs that had 5-10 seconds of silence at the end remain distractions.

Again, this amateurish and incomplete album experience may have been the reason that Soule’s Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was withdrawn from circulation by EA in 2009. While the official album had problems and is frustratingly incomplete, it was the best presentation of Soule’s Potter music out of the four iTunes Potter albums, and the complete score as heard in-game remains Soule’s finest for the series. Therefore, fans are in a tough position: an incomplete and unavailable official release or the bother of finding a copy of the game and manually extracting and looping its audio files for listening. Even so, the effort is worthwhile: if you must acquire one of Soule’s Potter scores, get this one.


Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: The Game (Jeremy Soule)


As one of the most popular literary series in modern memory, it was always a given that Harry Potter would see a flurry of media adaptations from movies to games. And sure enough, Electronic Arts put out a game version to coincide with the 2001 release of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to cinemas worldwide. Its reviews were middling, much like the film’s, playing best to fans of the book and young children. And, like the film, it launched a series of Potterverse games that lasted to 2011’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 and beyond.

John Williams’s score for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was a late-career masterpiece, and his theme for the character is perhaps the maestro’s last great theme to embed itself firmly in pop culture. With Williams himself quickly losing interest in the franchise, there was never any question of having him create an original score for the game, but there was a strong likelihood that his music would be chopped up and repurchased. Surprisingly they bucked this expectation and EA turned to Jeremy Soule, who was in the midst of a career renaissance, for their music. After his well-received score to Icewind Dale in 2000, Soule was suddenly a hot commodity, scoring dozens of RPGs and fantasy games in the following years. Due to rights issues, Soule wasn’t allowed to use any of John Williams’ themes from the big-screen Potter; while his music tries to exist in the same world of whimsical fantasy, the melodies were all his own. The music was so highly regarded that unofficial game rips made from the PC version’s audio files were soon in circulation amongst fans.

The official album opens with a resounding rendition of Soule’s “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone Theme,” a piece that seems equally inspired by Williams and Edvard Grieg over its bombastic first half. Oddly, the theme doesn’t appear much in the rest of the album, with Soule preferring to rely on a consistent tone rather than thematic development. The same atmosphere of overbearing wonder returns in several other tracks, most notably “Story Book,” which adds a light choir to provide an undercurrent of menace, and the concluding “Happy Hogwarts.”

Tracks that accompany scenes of mystery and suspense are less engaging, with the dissonant “Dark Hogwarts” and “Devil’s Snare” falling prey to Soule’s tendency toward troubled ambience. Action cues like “Malfoy Fight” or “Troll Chase” similarly fail to convey the magic from the better pieces, with plenty of percussive hits but not much depth. The balance of music is such, though, that the weaker music is generally balanced out by the better, with strong statements of whimsy and wonder prevailing over more pedestrian action music.

Unsurprisingly, Soule’s music went unreleased when the game came out in 2001. However, in late 2006 EA unexpectedly released portions of Soule’s Potter scores as digital downloads via iTunes. Sadly, the iTunes release of Sorceror’s Stone is deeply flawed. While the sound quality is better than that of the rips, the tracks are short and unlooped, leading to jarring transitions more befitting an amateurish gamerip than an official product. The track titles were apparently pulled from Soule’s original files, leading to odd situations where a “part 2” is on the album with no corresponding “part 1”. At 21 minutes, the official product is quite short and missing a considerable portion of the music composed for the game, including some of its best tracks.

Perhaps this is why, in late 2009, Electronic Arts and its E.A.R.S. music label pulled most of their released Harry Potter video game music from circulation. This makes the downloadable soundtrack for Soule’s Sorcerer’s Stone officially unavailable once again and a collectable curiosity–if indeed such things can exist in the digital age. In the end, Soule acquitted himself well with a score that has some considerable highlights, especially in its full form as heard in-game. But in many ways it’s music that serves as a blueprint for what was to come in his later Potter scores — and, indeed, music from Sorcerer’s Stone would be tracked into all future Potter games, even those scored by James Hannigan. Soule fans should definitely seek it out, but the only official album’s drawbacks and lack of availability make it impossible to recommend. Perhaps someday the music will get the release it deserves; until then, fans will simply have to buy the PC version of the game and make their own playlist with a little elbow grease and an audio editor.


Back to the Future Part II (Alan Silvestri)

Robert Zemeckis’s science-fiction action comedy Back to the Future was, in spite of its troubled production, an unqualified success. With the President of the United States quoting the film’s script in speeches and over $300 million in the bank, the highest-grossing film of 1985 seemed like a sure thing for a sequel after its cheeky tease of an ending. But Zemeckis and his crew had larger aspirations, and they reunited for not one but two sequels filmed back-to-back in one of the earlier instances of this practice in Hollywood. The first fruit of their labors was 1989’s Back to the Future Part II which has always been regarded as a bit of a black sheep in the franchise due to both its comedic vision of the 2010s, its darker tone with an alternate 1985, and its cliffhanger conclusion with a literal advertisement for 1990’s Back to the Future Part III.

Alan Silvestri’s phenomenal orchestral score for Back to the Future had announced his arrival to the world and shown that he could handle far more than the simple electronics of Romancing the Stone. With that film and 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit strengthening their collaboration, there was never any doubt that Zemeckis and Silvestri would re-team for the sequels. Even so, Part II didn’t have the strong source music that the first film employed, with no original rock songs or period pieces to compete with the score, in theory allowing Silvestri a much larger canvas for his music.

As one might expect, the adventurous Back to the Future theme returns, given a full outing over Part II‘s opening credits unlike the silence and ticking clocks of the first film. There, and in the lengthy end credits arrangement, Silvestri gives the theme perhaps its most robust workout, adding jumpy passages for brass between some of its major phrases but otherwise leaving it largely identical in terms of instrumentation and structure. The sparkling discovery and wonder motif returns as well, peppered throughout the music, and the gentle theme for the friendship between Doc and Marty makes a few appearances.

For the futuristic world of hoverboards and flying cars that is Part II‘s 2015, Silvestri surprisingly doesn’t resort to synthesizers or attempt a futuristic rendition of any of his themes. Instead, he plays the film’s parallel scenes–wandering around the courthouse square, being chased by hoodlums–in almost an exact reprisal of music for similar moments in the original film. The same is true for later scenes which return to 1955 and show many of the first film’s scenes from a different angle, with nearly the same music altered to hit new script beats. Some material gets an extended performance compared to the first film, with the militaristic percussion mingled with optimistic thematic statements from the beginning of “Clocktower” being stretched into “Burn the Book” and the ominous action material for the Libyan terrorists adapted into “Tunnel Chase.”

In fact, the only really new material is related to the hellish alternate 1985 Marty McFly and Doc Brown inadvertently allow Biff Tannen to create, a plot twist that many reviewers at the time lambasted as confusing despite the film literally diagramming it onscreen. Dark, recoiling strings in “Alternate 1985” and skittering material in “If They Ever Did.” It’s creepily effective in the film but not the best listening on its own.

In 1989, the only music from Back to the Future that was available was the end credits suite and an arrangement of “Clocktower,” about 12 minutes out of nearly 50 Silvestri had written. Part II, on the other hand, was given a score-only album by MCA with 45 minutes of Silvestri music. This made the latter a substitute for the full Back to the Future score that would not arrive until 2009 and made its constant re-use and adaptation of enormous chunks of the original score, often basically unchanged, much more forgivable. After all, if a fan couldn’t hear “Twin Pines Mall ’85,” they could listen to basically the same material in “Burn the Book.” If they wanted “Skateboard Chase,” there was “Hoverboard Chase” hitting many of the same beats.

Intrada Records’ 2009 and 2015 releases of Back to the Future had the effect of making their sequel’s score much less interesting to listeners. Much of it seemed like a tuneful but pale retread, especially given the radical change of direction that came with Back to the Future Part III. Intrada would also release an expanded version of Part II in 2015, almost on the exact date that the film’s 2015 scenes were supposed to take place, expanding the MCA album’s 45 minutes to 65 and adding a second CD with 35 minutes of alternates. Though this expansion represents a score nearly 15 minutes longer than the original Back to the Future score, which had to tiptoe around songs, it’s still hard to escape from the feeling that the extra material, outside of the Alternate 1985 music, is more of a retread than an expansion.

Though regarded as something of a disappointment when it released, time has been kind to Back to the Future Part II. Many of the parallel and alternate timeline concepts it toyed with have become more mainstream, and its goofy vision of a 2015 with all the comforts of the 1980s but no internet or smartphones has become more hilarious as that year actually dawned. Alan Silvestri’s score for Part II has had the opposite happen; while it was a welcome antidote to the lack of a score album for the original film, that score’s release as made it seem largely redundant. Still, the potency of the original themes is undiminished, and Part II still represents the fullest expression of Silvestri’s original sound before the radical alterations he made for the third film. It was a long road for the score from stopgap replacement to expanded curio, but after all…where we’re going, we don’t need roads!

Rating: starstarstar

Melody Muncher (DDRKirby)


Ludum Dare is perhaps the best-known of all game development jams, challenging teams to create a fully-realized video game on a common theme in as little as 48 hours. Taking its name from Latin “to give a game,” the contest has run since 2002. While the games themselves have long been offered for distribution online, there has been an increasing trend of putting their music out on platforms like Bandcamp or Loudr.

One of the entrants for Ludum Dare 2015 (which had the theme “you are the monster”) was Melody Muncher, a game about a voracious plant devouring all that came before it. Super Mario Bros. from the perspective of the piranha plant, perhaps. Melody Muncher was given a score, composed within the same 48-hour time limit, by Timmie Wong (AKA DDRKirby), who had participated in the scoring of several other Ludum Dare and indie projects.

Melody Muncher takes inspiration from the classic 8-bit sound palette of Nintendo Entertainment System chiptunes, matching the similar aesthetic of the game, while jazzing up the soundscape with more channels and effects than the old grey console could possibly handle. The resulting music has a distinctly retro flair but more than a little influence from later genres of electronic music on the web.

Perhaps most importantly, Wong’s music does a generally excellent job of capturing the potent melodies that made the NES originals classics in their time. Tunes like “Solar Beam” and “Sunny Day” explode with terrific melodies and inventive electronic rhythms, at times reminiscent of Jake Kaufman’s scores in the genre or the terrific (and unreleased) effort by Naoko Mitome and Chika Sekigawa for Super Paper Mario. There’s a good amount of variety too, with tracks like “Song of the Sea” offering a more chill melody and tempo.

Some of the tracks show the rough edges of their extremely short composition times, of course. “Flower Fang” relies a bit too much on electronic dance music cliches, for example. While fun, “Undying” has a distinct,and likely subconscious, echo of many other songs (Smash Mouth’s 1997 groaner Walkin’ on the Sun being the first to come to mind). But in general, the music is highly impressive and enjoyable considering the constraints under which it was created.

A few months after Ludum Dare, Wong released a pair of Melody Muncher albums to Bandcamp: the original soundtrack as prepared for the challenge, and a second deluxe album with later remastered versions of the same songs. Both the basic album and the deluxe album offer a terrific value for the suggested donation amount, and are well worth sampling for fans of innovative NES-style soundtracks.

Rating: starstarstarstar

Inside Out (Michael Giacchino)


2015 saw Pixar, once the king of computer animated films, struggling to emerge from a creative slump that had seen it produce mostly mediocre spinoffs of existing properties like Cars 2 or Monsters University. Its summer 2015 entry, Inside Out, managed to break that streak with a dazzling return to form, positing what the inside of a preteen’s head would look like as acted out by a handful of anthropomorphized emotions. While not the most original idea (Herman’s Head had mined the same territory decades earlier, as had Disney’s own Cranium Command), Inside Out nevertheless nailed the execution, producing the potent mix of laughter and pathos that distinguished Pixar’s very best and becoming a hit with critics and audiences.

Though Pixar had seem some diversification in its use of composers with Patrick Doyle and Mychael Danna in recent years, Michael Giacchino remained one of the studio’s top names, and he reunited with director Pete Doctor for Inside Out. This meant that the shadow of their previous collaboration, 2009’s Up, would loom large over the project’s music: after all, that aerial adventure had produced one of Giacchino’s most affecting scores and rewarded him with an Oscar statuette. Inside Out also came out during an abnormally productive year for Giacchino, with three other scores out at around the same time, including Jurassic World, which went head to head with the animation and gave Giacchino the Remote Control-like achievement of scoring the number one and number two films at the box office for weeks in a row.

Unlike the fully orchestral Up, Giacchino chose to tackle Inside Out with, by and large, a smaller ensemble. Though some tracks like “Rainbow Flyer” employ the full weight of the orchestra for key moments, by and large Giacchino relies on piano, ukelele, glassy synth textures, and a handful of rhythm and brass instruments for the overall sound. One can understand his decision in terms of the film’s very intimate story, taking place in a tween girl’s head, calling for a more intimate sound.

Giacchino’s centerpiece for Inside Out is a theme for the emotion Joy, which debuts on solo piano in “Bundle of Joy” and forms the lion’s share of the albums opening and closing segments, from “Nomanisone Island/National Movers” to “The Joy of Credits.” Giacchino presents a interesting downbeat variations in places like “Tears of Joy” but for the most part the Joy melody is flitting and beautiful, instantly memorable, and lights up the album whenever it appears. It’s definitely one of the composer’s strongest themes, able to go toe-to-toe with any other melody he’s conjured in recent years.

The middle of the album–and the film–largely neglects that theme, though, in favor of a number of smaller and more fragmented motifs. There’s a bouncy theme for Bing Bong the imaginary friend in places like “Chasing the Pink Elephant” and “Imagination Land,” for instance, though it’s strangely missing from “Rainbow Flyer” in favor of a sweeping, bittersweet original piece (which one wishes there was more of, honestly, with only a brief end credits reprise!). The character of Sadness gets a downer of a motif on tuba in “Team Building” and elsewhere, though the connection between it and other tracks like “Joy Turns to Sadness” where the character is prominent is rather tenuous. There’s also a David Newman-like piece for the tween girl as she turns runaway in the film’s later reels, though its impact is minimal at best.

The real problem is that the middle portions of Giacchino’s music ignore his best melody in favor of short cues that have little narrative thrust and little to connect them aside from the composer’s style and a few glassy textures. The Elliot Goldenthal tribute “Abstract Thought,” for instance, is fun but doesn’t seem to be in the same sonic universe as the brilliant Joy material. The end result is an album that is frontloaded and rearloaded with excellent material yet hobbled by a big memory dump in the middle, which is rather disappointing given how well Giacchino was able to pull his central themes through a similar set of challenges in Up.

An album for he film was, unlike Up, issued as a CD and a digital download alongside the film; the CD includes the music from the lovely but geophysically inaccurate short Pixar short Lava as a bonus track. For Inside Out,, Giacchino produced an outstanding theme that ultimately makes for a flawed but fun experience on album. It’s nowhere near the powerhouse that his score for Up was, or even the contemporaneous Tomorrowland, but it’s worth committing to long-term memory if only for its moments of intense Joy.

Rating: starstarstar

Vacuum Tube Girls Symphony (Hiroki Kikuta)


Original music has been composed for video games, films, TV shows, slot machines, and even Dungeons and Dragons campaigns. So why not for trading card games? That’s exactly what Japanese video game industry veteran Hiroki Kikuta did when he wrote Vacuum Tube Girls Symphony. The aforementioned vacuum tube girls are the heroines of a game called Shinukan, a Kickstarter-backed project that billed itself as “The Kawaii Steampunk Android Trading Card Game” and sought to bring a Japanese fanservice sensibility to a milieu dominated by straitlaced games like Magic the Gathering. The game was able to make its $20,000 goal in August 2014 and shipped in June 2015 (Kickstarter projects being rather infamous for their slipping deadlines).

Whether Kikuta was attracted to Shinukan as a commissioned artist, as a backer, or simply as an enthusiastic fan, his Vacuum Tube Girls Symphony accompanied its release as a digital download on the Bandcamp indie music platform. After a long drought in the 2000s, the 2010s had seen the composer back in the saddle with numerous projects, from full-fledged video game soundtracks to guest tracks and arrangements to solo endeavors. Seemingly comfortable in his role as a video game music elder statesman, Kikuta began experimenting with more longform compositions that seemed influenced by the cellular and minimalist structure of musicians like Philip Glass, Michael Nyman, and Stephen Reich. Indeed, Kikuta’s the two most recent solo albums, Pulse Pico Pulse and Integral Polyphony, had been lengthy experiments in that regard, with the latter expressly dedicated to Reich. Those albums, fascinating meldings of the worlds of minimalist concert music and VGM, often strayed rather far afield from the sound that had endeared Kikuta to a generation of gamers.

The Vacuum Tube Girls Symphony represents an even more fascinating attempt to combine Kikuta’s quirky signature style with Reich-style minimalism. Like Secret of Mana +, Kikuta’s legendary experimental arrangement album based on his first video game score, Vacuum Tube Girls Symphony is arranged into a single, 42-minute track that cycles through several distinct movements. From 0:00-4:00, the music takes the form of a string and solo piano duet strained through heavy analog noise to mimic the sound of an ancient 78-RPM vinyl recording, presumably as a nod to the retro-futurism design aesthetic Shinukan embraces and mixes with its fanservice. At 4:00, a full-quality militaristic motif in Kikuta’s signature style emerges, punctuated with the sound of breaking glass as a percussion instrument among the drums and marimbas (an experiment the composer also used in Secret of Mana 2). This builds up to, at around the 7:00 mark, the full blossoming of the album’s primary theme, a glorious brassy statement backed up by a blazing orchestra hits and a full silverware drawer’s worth of unorthodox percussion. Beginning around 13:00, the music switches to a different and much more low-key melody, carried on woodwinds with pizzicato strings and pianos, and very much in the style of the composer’s post-Koudelka works. A percussion phase similar to the first one but stripped of many of the odder instruments comes in at 13:00, particularly similar in its doubled pizzicato and normal strings to Kikuta’s efforts for the Shining series beginning in 2011.

A gentle woodwind melody is cut in with the Shining percussion at 18:00, segueing to a return of the gentler style, this time with a more pronounced and quite lovely theme and veering, at times, into the mysterious and sinister–again, very much in the style of the adult games Kikuta scored between Koudelka and Shining Hearts. The percussion returns by 23:00, serving to add a militaristic edge to the continuing woodwinds before eventually bringing back the Shining Hearts doubled strings for an extended outing. By 28:00, a reprise of the low-key melody from 13:00 has subsumed the percussion and serves as an introduction to the return of the brassy primary theme and its glass-shattering backing at 30:00. Kikuta gives the theme a workout, continuing it to the 38:00 mark, where the scratchy 78 RPM music returns to close out the remaining four minutes.

The use of cellular rhythms, repeated with minor variations, is prevalent at each stage of the work, giving it at times the minimalistic feel that characterizes Glass, Nyman, and Reich, and was the overwhelming style present in Pulse Pico Pulse and Integral Polyphony. But the melodies, the use of percussion, and the employment of doubled strings and pizzicato plucking, is classic Kikuta, referencing works from Secret of Mana 2 to Shining Hearts and all points in between. There’s no denying the minimalism, but there’s also no denying the indelible fingerprints of the composer’s unique style. The only part that seems out of character is the lengthy into and outro, where the simple music is mangled by vinyl filters–truly one of the more tiresome musical devices in use today. Along the same lines, Vacuum Tube Girls Symphony‘s gigantic length does allow for remarkably fluid transitions between the various parts of such a diverse work, but it can be a bit of a bother hunting and pecking for a favorite section (a problem it shares with Secret of Mana +).

Still, the Vacuum Tube Girls Symphony represents perhaps the best merging of Kikuta’s unique rhythmic and melodic sense with his interest in minimalist experimentation to come along thus far. Whether you put it on in the background while playing a game of Shinukan or simply listen to it on its own, it’s a fascinating work. As of this writing, the full 42-minute album is available at Kikuta’s Bandcamp page for $10; his fans and those interested in the techniques with which he experiments will both appreciate what the work has to offer.

Rating: starstarstarstar

Iris (James Horner)


Novelist Iris Murdoch would have been famous enough just for her literary output, but her lingering decline and death from Alzheimer’s disease added a poignancy to her twilight years as her intellect slowly ebbed away. Her husband, long in her vivacious shadow, penned a memoir of caring for Murdoch at the end of her life and his story was brought to the big screen in 2001 by director Richard Eyre. With an all-star cast including both Kate Winslet and Judi Dench as Iris herself and both Hugh Bonneville and Jim Broadbent as her husband, Iris received a basket of acting nominations and ultimately earned Broadbent a surprise Oscar.

Director Eyre primarily worked in theater and TV before Iris, but the material’s prestige nevertheless gave him the pull to assemble a top-notch crew for his production. For music, he turned to James Horner who was in the midst of a career renaissance brought on by his massive popular and critical success with Titanic. Despite having two other major awards-caliber films on his plate for 2001, A Beautiful Mind and Enemy at the Gates, Horner committed to Iris and was able to use his clout to secure a choice soloist for the project as well: violinist Joshua Bell. Bell, internationally renowned in both the concert hall and as a player for film scores (notably John Corigliano’s The Red Violin), brought an unmistakable touch of class to the proceeings along with his Stradivarius.

The score’s reception was, at the time, rather chilly. Much like Horner’s work with Bradford Marsalis on Sneakers a decade earlier, critics complained that the relatively simple melodies given Bell were a waste of his talent, parts that could have been played equally well by a studio musician without a two million dollar instrument. Horner’s fans compared it unfavorably to his earlier works, particularly the cult favorite The Spitfire Grill, and it was ultimately overshadowed by A Beautiful Mind in the public consciousness and at awards time.

And yet, for all that, Horner and Bell’s efforts really work. Bell may not be challenged by Horner’s material, but the unique timbre of the violinist’s Stradivarius and his unmistakable technique lend the omnipresent string parts of the album a unique color. Furthermore, Horner rearranged his orchestra and the recording to put Bell front and center as a soloist, leading to a bright and summery sound suffused with subtle longing and tragedy. Much like he would with his later Pas de Deux, the emphasis for Horner was not to give his soloist a showy workout but to take advantage of Bell’s strength to construct a moving piece of music.

Throughout his career, Horner was often dinged for his use, or overuse, of a four-note “danger motif” that served as an instant musical signature. In Iris, though, there is very little danger; the motif is present, but twisted though bright orchestration and Bell’s performance into a ravishing love theme, the fundamental building block of the piece. From its debut in the first track to the last lingering strains of the last, Horner’s love theme for Iris and John, surrounded by a rich bed of fully orchestral music, is a subtle stunner. Also of note is the concluding track, which intercuts Kate Winslet’s voice singing the traditional song “A Lark in the Clear Air” with Horner’s full orchestra and Bell’s Stradivarius performing a sweeping, wistful set of variations on the love theme. It’s perhaps the most counterintuitively creative take on his own favorite musical building block that Horner ever devised.

As befits a score featuring one of the most recognizable instrumentalists in the concert hall, Sony Classical put out an album for Iris in 2001 that featured Bell’s name as prominently as Horner’s (and Branford Marsalis’s for Sneakers). But its more subtle sound wound up attracting none of the awards attention of A Beautiful Mind, with Bell’s solos nowhere near as crowdpleasing as Charlotte Church’s vocals and no one cue powerful enough to compete with “A Kaleidoscope of Mathematics.” Iris therefore remains one of Horner’s hidden gems to this day, widely available at an affordable price and due for reappraisal.

Rating: starstarstarstarstar