Koudelka (Hiroki Kikuta)

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An ambitious late-era Playstation 1 game, Koudelka was the first title from developer Sacnoth. With Squaresoft-style production values, the game featured highly detailed 3D models, fully rendered backgrounds and FMV cutscenes, and a highly unusual Gothic setting in Wales circa 1898. During a troubled development cycle, the developers reportedly clashed over whether the game should be real-time or turn-based, and gameplay wound up a curious hybrid of Resident Evil horror outside combat and Final Fantasy within. Worse, the game’s reach exceeded its grasp, leading to relatively little gameplay over four discs largely stuffed with cutscenes and battles that took place in a dark void with pop-in models and long loading times. Combine this with some truly baffling development decisions–like the entire game hinging on recovering an otherwise unremarkable item to avoid instant death, or the best ending requiring actually losing to the final boss–and it’s not hard to see why, for all its strengths, Koudelka was not a success and doomed to relative obscurity, though it did serve as a starting point for the later cult Shadow Hearts series.

The overall Squaresoft style of the game was no accident, for Sacnoth was founded by Hiroki Kikuta, an ex-Squaresoft employee who had worked primarily as a composer. Reportedly wanting to tackle weightier and darker subjects than many of the RPGs at the time, Kikuta wound up serving as designer, director, and composer for Koudelka, an unprecedented level of involvement for a onetime composer comparable to John Ottman’s work on Urban Legends: Final Cut. Of course, Kikuta had worked in anime and manga before joining Squaresoft as a composer, so he had the requisite experience, and the large budget that distributor SNK gave Sacnoth to work with meant that for the first time he was able to work at least in part with a live ensemble. At the same time, Kikuta’s involvement as writer/director meant that the intense musical focus he’d had on Secret of Mana and its sequel, sometimes nearly 24 hours a day, was no longer possible.

Perhaps as a consequence of this, there is virtually no field music of any sort in Koudelka. Only battles and cutscenes are scored, leading to a drastic cutback in the amount of material the score has to offer. With the brevity of all but the very longest cutscenes, this guarantees that Kikuta’s battle music absolutely dominates the game at the expense of the normal battle theme being virtually the only music heard for massive swathes of the game. Each of the four main battle themes is built on a foundation of tambourine taps and roiling percussion, a rhythmic base that’s immediately identifiable as Kikuta’s style and most similar to his most percussive efforts from Secret of Mana 2. “Waterfall,” the aforementioned main battle theme, is 8 minutes of that rhythmic foundation with staccato overlays of dulcimer, panpipes, and synths with one interlude of woodwinds and chimes and another that scales back to dulcimer. Its structure is essentially one loop without the panpipes, the first interlude, a second loop with panpipes, the second interlude, and then repeating once again. It’s a clever idea to try and wring the maximum amount of variation from the basic structure of the song, but the repetitious nature of the music means that it will wear out its welcome on album long before its halfway point–and in-game even sooner than that.

The main boss theme, “Incantation Again,” modifies that basic structure by adding blasts of panpipes from the very beginning and adding in thumb piano accents–an interesting texture not heard often in video game music. Despite being considerably shorter than “Waterfall,” the greater variation of its length means it holds up better–but again the relatively spare sound causes it to lose steam as a listening experience relatively quickly. The final two battle themes are for the bizarre final boss in her two forms; the first, “Patience,” powers up the thumb piano from “Incantation Again” while using the same bass line with a much more defined melody on woodwinds and occasional strings. The final battle–the one you have to lose to get the best ending!–is accompanied by “Kiss Twice,” the highlight of the lot and the album as a whole. While maintaining the same drum and tambourine percussive backing as “Waterfall,” and the rampant thumb pianos from “Patience,” “Kiss Twice” adds a strong and truly distinctive melody in classic Kikuta style, doubled on flute and chimes, with affecting interludes on solo chimes against thumb piano runs so fast they could never be performed in real life. One gets the sense that Kikuta started with “Kiss Twice” and stripped it down progressively to concoct the other battle themes; it’s a clever idea that doesn’t quite work out in practice, as that means that the most basic and repetitive version of the music is the one that goes on the longest and dominates the album.

Kikuta’s cutscene music is included on album, but these tracks (drily labeled by scene number) are extremely short, less than 16 minutes of music across all 24 scenes, and this keeps them from being developed as anything other than bursts of dark ambiance. Choral effects are quite prominent, often manipulated or processed, as are creepy whispers and other tricks. The longest have some promise, with “#scene7c” offering an ambient but affecting woodwind melody, “#scene18″ presenting some very avant-garde choral work in the vein of Eric Whitacre, and the concluding “#scene20″ with the best melody on the album heard fleetingly. The lengthier cutscenes that open the album offer some interesting material as well; Kikuta’s “Requiem,” performed by soprano Catherine Bott, is another fascinating if all-to-brief bit of choral writing in the Whitacre vein. “Dead,” the lengthiest non-battle Kikuta track on the album, is played by a live string trio, and is quite affecting if rather dour and with few of Kikuta’s trademarks. Curiously, the lengthy a capella “Ubi caritas et amor” (“where charity and love”) is actually a 1960 piece by French composer Maurice Duruflé from his Quatre motets sur des thèmes grégoriens, augmented by some creepy Poltergeist-style giggling by the children’s chorus.

If Secret of Mana 2 sometimes gave the impression that Kikuta was outside his comfort zone writing more serious music, Koudelka seems to confirm that. There’s plenty of promise evident in scattered spots throughout the brief score (less than 50 minutes excluding three lengthy “live” remixes at album’s end), but ultimately it feels like Kikuta is uncomforable writing in this ultra-serious mode, suppressing his natural composing instincts with their heavy influence from pop and progressive rock in favor of something dull and beige and “serious.” Naturally, the development struggles and multiple hats Kikuta was wearing didn’t help; it’s possible that with more time and more creative control he could have developed a better marriage of his distinctive sound and the seriousness the material demanded. It’s worth noting, though, that he would never attempt to write anything so straitlaced again.

A 70-minute album of Koudelka‘s score was released between the game’s American ship date and its Japanese one (in a sign of Kikuta and Sacnoth’s ambition to appeal to international gamers, the game actually dropped in time for Black Friday and only 16 days later in Japan). With the failure of the game, it’s not terribly common, but is an interesting curiosity nonetheless and worth having if only for “Kiss Twice,” “Dead,” and “#scene20.” Sadly, Koudelka would be the last game scored by Kikuta to see international release; after the game’s failure, the composer left Sacnoth, had no involvement with Shadow Hearts, and spent several years in the wilderness without an assignment of any kind. Obscure music for even more obscure dating sims and hentai games were all he worked on between 1999 and 2006, when he released his first major solo album, and 2008, when he had his next major game assignment. One can’t help but feel for Kikuta over the failure of such an ambitious project that the dent that it seemingly put in his career afterwards, especially since the music and released game wound up so underachieving.

Rating: starstar

Secret of Mana 2 (Hiroki Kikuta)

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1993’s Secret of Mana had been a hit for Squaresoft, moving the company into action RPGs in a big an innovative way. So the appearance of a sequel two years later was little surprise; what was surprising was how much the development team was able to do with the concept. Designed for cartridges from the beginning, the game–known as Seiken Densetsu 3 or “Legend of the Holy Sword 3″–used many of the ideas the team had been forced to scrap when converting Secret of Mana from CD to cartridge. The game had 6 possible protagonists, each with a branching upgrade tree, and three completely different final dungeons and bosses–to say nothing of a second half that is totally nonlinear. The resulting title, while missing much of the original’s goofiness, was highly praised for its replayability and its expert use of the SNES hardware near the end of that console’s lifespan. However, despite previews and notices that the game would be released outside Japan in late 1996 as Secret of Mana 2, the game never saw an overseas release of any kind. There have been myriad explanations for this, from technical glitches that made translation and certification difficult to the expectation that overseas gamers were finished with 2D games after the debut of the Playstation and Nintendo 64. Whatever the reason, Secret of Mana 2 was part of a sad trend: of the 10 games Squaresoft produced in Japan after Final Fantasy VI/III as part of their creative explosion in the 16-bit generation, only two(Super Mario RPG and Chrono Trigger) saw a foreign release. The only international availability that Seiken Densetsu 3/Secret of Mana 2 would ever know was at the hands of hobbyists who released homemade translation patches for the game.

One of the key facets of Secret of Mana’s success had been its innovative score by newcomer Hiroki Kikuta. His quirky combination of contemporary pop elements and game music stalwarts had been a perfect fit for the game’s variable tone, and his usage of distinct musical styles within his chosen instrument set for the wacky and wistful portions of gameplay remains distinctive to this day. His assignment to Secret of Mana 2 was therefore a no-brainer, and it was the second of thee project he’s complete as a Square staffer. As with the original game, Kikuta programmed his own sound samples rather than relying on synths from a sound programmer; this bore particular fruit in the area of percussion, with rhythmic samples that are among the best, if not the best, that the SPC700 chip could provide. On the other hand, Kikuta worked under a bit of a disadvantage for the sequel: while the previous game had used all 8 channels of sound the SPC700 provided while cutting out musical lines for sound effects periodically, with Secret of Mana 2 one of the channels was given wholly over to sound effects, leaving the composer with only 7/8 of the musical resources he’d had before. He also, for whatever reason, chose to have a much drier sound with less reverb–comparable to the difference between Uematsu’s Final Fantasy IV and Final Fantasy V–which sapped away some of the overriding fantasy atmosphere from the project.

“Angel’s Fear/Fear of the Heavens,” Kikuta’s major theme from Secret of Mana and by far its most remembered element, returns in the sequel. In fact, Kikuta–perhaps responding to the theme’s popularity–integrates it in many more places, albeit never in quite the same vein of wistful wonder that made the original such a knockout. The introduction, “Where Angels Fear To Tread,” opens with rambling pianos before cutting to a high-energy version of the original theme against urgent snare drums–a nifty inversion of the original. “And Other,” the game’s fanfare, uses the theme as sung by synth voices as a stinger to a triumphant outburst. It’s in “Angel’s Fear” that Kikuta really gives the theme a workout, changing the shimmering mallets of the original’s opening for gently rolling pianos before bringing in the main melody on an acoustic guitar. Interestingly, he delays the fourth note of the theme and strings the final three together as a descending triplet, giving the theme a terrific sense of improvisation and intangible “difference” compared to the original. The same arrangement of notes, this time on chimes with acoustic guitar backing, appears in “Breezin’,” one of the concluding suite of tracks. It’s a very low-key and lovely statement that breaks up longer sections of Mitsuda-esque guitar noodling and synth voices, if totally lacking the exuberant energy of the original’s “The Last Truth from the Left.”

Kikuta also makes the intriguing choice to take the final boss theme from the previous game, “Meridan Dance,” and twist it into a dour and militaristic track for the end of each character’s unique prologue as “Meridian Child.” This same mutation of “Meridian Dance” appears throughout several of the more high-energy battle tracks, like “Nuclear Fusion” and “The Sacrifice Part Three” and winds up serving as a thread of its own to hold the score together. Kikuta’s battle themes in general are a much more varied lot for Secret of Mana 2 and are especially notable in their use of synthesized percussion. “Rolling Cradle” features unparalleled (for the SNES) drum rolls and rhythms, while “The Sacrifice Part One” uses the sound of shattering glass as a percussive element and the following “The Sacrifice Part Two” is an all-percussion frenzy combined with fragments of a twisted mallet melody. The pick of the bunch is undoubtedly “Hightension Wire” which exceeds the joyous exuberance of “Danger” in the previous game through the use of backbeats, prominent bass, woodwind accents, and a delightful synth melody. The final battle theme, the previously mentioned “The Sacrifice Part Three,” is another highlight; it’s far more serious than “Meridian Dance” but employs fragments of that theme and aspects of “Angel’s Fear” into a whirling, and lengthy, whole.

“Far more serious” is probably an apt descriptor of Kikuta’s entire score for Secret of Mana 2, in fact, and he uses less of several elements that made the original so goofy: prominent backbeats, quirky melodies, doubled mallets, and so on are in shorter supply. It’s possible that Kikuta wasn’t as comfortable with the level of seriousness the new game demanded, as the music uniformly lacks the same amount of wistfulness and exuberance that the original displayed. In fact, outside of statements of “Angel’s Fear,” there’s little wistfulness to be had at all, and much of the field music that was the source for that or the wackier tracks in the previous game sounds thin and rather uninspired by comparison (the missing eighth sound channel certainly not helping). This weakeness is compounded by the strange arrangement of the album, which clusters the duller field themes on the first disc while stuffing the final platter with the more rewarding battle themes and reprises of “Angel’s Fear.”

Despite this weakness, there’s no shortage of relative gems throughout the score. Each of the six characters gets a motif of sorts, albeit only one and never reprised or varied, and some of these are quite terrific: “Lefthanded Wolf,” for instance, uses growling bass guitar to great effect, and “Raven” is a fun romp with marimba and synth voices. Some of the field themes do a better job than others, with the jaunty bongos of “Damn Damn Drum,” the bizarre ambience of “Weird Counterpoint,” and the delightful marimba and chime dance of “Don’t Hunt the Fairy” as some of the best. The game’s flight theme, “Can You Fly, Sister?” is also a resounding highlight, a soaring piece that builds on, and exceeds, the backbeats and melodic strength of “Flight into the Unknown.” It’s also worth noting that, for better or for worse, all of Secret of Mana 2‘s songs are given plenty of room to breathe: the three-disc album loops each twice, the good and the mediocre, in the sort of expansive album release that Secret of Mana demanded but was never given. It’s also, curiously, available at a reasonable price even from importers, possibly due to overprinting on Square’s part.

Secret of Mana 2 is a curious happening, a mix of material that builds nicely on Kikuta’s elements and flat songs that seem to belie the composer being a bit unfomfortable with the more serious direction the series had taken. For all that, it’s still recommended to anyone that’s a fan of late-era 16-bit music, the original Secret of Mana, or Kikuta himself–just don’t expect it hit the same lofty highs. Secret of Mana 2 represented a career high for Hiroki Kikuta as well, briefly cementing him as the Mana series composer of choice, but it was not to last: after one final project for Square in 1998, Kikuta left the company to helm the ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful Koudelka. The obscurity into which the latter project threw him is one of the bigger tragedies of game music as a whole, but as shown by the continued influence of his Mana songs and themes, and their continual rearrangement and reuse in later games and by fans, his legacy is still secure.

Rating: starstarstarstar

Secret of Mana (Hiroki Kikuta)

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1991’s Final Fantasy Adventure, released in Japan under the title Seiken Densetsu: Final Fantasy Gaiden, had been one of developer Squaresoft’s first forays into real-time action RPGs instead of their turn-based bread and butter. Very much in the style of Nintendo’s own Legend of Zelda series, Final Fantasy Adventure had been a successful Game Boy release but director Koichi Ishii had seen potential in the design for a much more ambitious product, leading to Seiken Densetsu 2 for the Super Nintendo, released in 1993. Originally meant for the SNES’s abandoned CD add-on, and downsized accordingly to fit on a standard cartridge, the game was bright, colorful, action-packed, and featured groundbreaking drop-in, drop-out local multiplayer–all in the context of an expansive and slightly goofy high fantasy adventure. Ultimately released as Secret of Mana rather than Final Fantasy Adventure 2 outside Japan, the game was and remains well-reviewed and popular despite–or perhaps because of–a rushed, barebones translation that localizer Ted Woolsey claimed nearly killed him.

Squaresoft veteran Kenji Ito had scored Final Fantasy Adventure and was initially attached to Secret of Mana as well. But in the explosion of creativity at Squaresoft in the 16-bit generation (which saw 22 games released in less than 5 years for the SNES alone), Ito was badly needed for the Romancing SaGa series, and instead the assignment went to a new and untested hire: Hiroki Kukuta. A self-trained musician like many on Squaresoft’s staff, Kikuta had an eclectic career before joining the company, with scores for anime and artwork for manga among his many projects. After being rejected by his first choice in the game industry, Falcom, Kikuta was able to impress Squaresoft’s musical majordomo Nobuo Uematso with his enthusiasm for progressive rock (a genre near and dear to Uematu’s heart) to land work as a debugger and sound effects designer. In the AAA development environment of today it seems almost unthinkable for someone so new and untested to be given such a major project to score solo, but the atmosphere within Square at the time was such that Kikuta got the gig after Ito bowed out in much the same way that Yasunori Mitsuda would be handed Chrono Trigger two years later.

Kikuta approached the project in a very hands-on manner, creating his own sound samples rather than relying on those fashioned by Square’s synth programmers in order to maximize the potential of the SNES’s SPC700 sound chip. this resulted in a soundscape that was considerably more lush than that of many contemporary games, at Squaresoft or otherwise, at the expense of having to surrender parts of the sound channels to sound effects from time to time. The composer also explicitly sought to reflect the game’s duality between silly and serious–it does, after all, feature a soul-destroying lich, a visit to Santa Claus, a floating techno-fortress of death, and long-distance travel by cannon–through the use of two different musical styles that both mixed the sensibilities of 16-bit game music with the pop tunes that had gotten Kikuta hired in the first place. That duality between the weird and the wistful would wind up being the defining trait of Secret of Mana‘s score.

The wistful half of Kikuta’s compositions are led by the game’s most prominent theme and certainly its most popular: “Fear of the Heavens” (also translated as “Angels’ Fear”). Inspired by Balinese music as well as natural ambient noise, the track opens with what can be interpreted either as whistling wind or whalesong before moving into a simple echoing piano melody. It’s gradually joined by other instruments as the soundscape–and the title screen it accompanies–opens up. The effect is arresting–especially to players in 1993–and goes a long way toward explaining the score’s enduring popularity. This most popular track is a bit of an oddity in that it lacks most of Kikuta’s contemporary touches; the field theme “Into the Thick of It” is probably more representative of the score as a whole, combining an acoustic guitar with a melody for doubled woodwinds and synth voices. The later “A Curious Happening” is a similar potpourri mix of a contemporary bass and hi-hat with rhythm guitar and doubled woodwinds and accordion (!) with synth voices in support.

Those wackier compositions that make up the other half of Kikuta’s score use many of the same instruments and techniques with a somewhat greater emphasis on pop backbeats. For instance, the game’s primary town theme “The Color of the Summer Sky” is all prominent backbeats against peppy, poppy woodwinds and synth accordians with prominent keyboard and mallet accents, all of which would become Kikuta’s trademarks in future projects. “Dancing Animals” and especially “The Little Sprite” are some of the best examples of this same mix of quirky melody, contemporary instrumental choice, and overall affable wackiness that’s especially notable for its complexity of rhythm and percussion. The conclusive and joyously upbeat “The Second Truth From the Left” is probably the ultimate enjoyable exemplar of this style. For all the same inspirations that he and Uematsu drew on, the two men’s styles are immediately distinguishable; in fact, Kikuta’s use of percussion and rhythm is so distinctive that even in his later and more obscure projects it’s typically immediately distinguishable.

There are often times when the Kikuta’s twin styles, the wistful and the weird, commingle as one might expect, and most of these are related to the most important moments of the game’s lengthy plot. The game’s joyous first flight theme, “Flight into the Unknown,” swirls together backbeats and bass guitar with a moving string melody, while its second flight theme, “Prophecy,” mixes the same elements but replaces the backbeats with a cascading flute melody and the bass guitar with staccato mallet percussion and synth voices to quirky yet chilling effect. A percussion-heavy remix of “Into the Thick of It” in “Can You See the Ocean” is notable as well, as is the chillingly off-kilter chiming and chanting of “Ceremony” where the Balinese influence on the score is at its most evident.

As there is no distinction between field and battle, Secret of Mana has somewhat fewer battle themes than its contemporaries. The primary theme, “Danger,” has an ultra-serious and percussive first half that has its only melody in string slashes and bass, before moving over in its second half to a surprisingly upbeat and quirky melody–Kikuta’s wistful/weird in a nutshell. The final battle theme, “Meridian Dance” is much the same, offering a melody that’s like a twisted if surprisingly optimistic version of the “Fear of the Heavens” theme over urgent percussion and bright synthy brass. the penultimate boss, the Dark Lich, gets its own battle theme in “The Oracle,” a beefed up and synthetically enhanced version of “Ceremony” that uses sped-up chanting voices and the original’s music-box melody alongside electric pulses for an utterly compelling–and unsettling–mix. While Kikuta’s work is always very melodic, these rearrangements are the closest he gets to Uematsu’s more traditionally thematic and leitmotivic structure from the Final Fantasy series.

Interestingly, Kikuta’s work was singled out to the extent that it enjoyed one of the very first releases of a Japanese game soundtrack–and indeed, a game soundtrack of any kind!–in North America. A reprint of the Japanese release was made available to American buyers in December 1994, alongside Uematsu’s Final Fantasy VI, through Squaresoft of America’s catalog as one of only three soundtrack discs released in that format (the third was Secret of Evermore). The American disc is identical to the Japanese Seiken Densetsu 2 Original Sound Version released a year earlier, and they both suffer from the same problem: as single platters, both are overstuffed with 44 tracks of Kikuta’s music, meaning that his compositions only loop a single time. This doesn’t effect “Fear of the Heavens,” as it never looped in-game anyway as such, but does hobble many of the other tracks that badly need room to breathe. A 2011 box set re-release in the vein of the Kingdom Hearts Complete Box simply reissued the same single disc without expansion. Short of playing the original game or seeking out its emulated SPC700 music files, the only source of fully looped music from Secret of Mana is the controversial 2012 re-release/remastering Secret of Mana Genesis, and that’s a shame–even if you approve of Kikuta’s rather limited changes to the music, it represents less than a third of the original tracks. And, of course, it goes without saying that anyone who can’t stand the 16-bit synth quality of the SNES era need not bother listening, though to be fair Kikuta’s work is among the best and clearest that generation has to offer.

Despite those problems on disc, Secret of Mana remains a refreshingly spirited and creative work, one that even 20 years later is instantly recognizable for Hiroki Kikuta’s unique sound and highly recommended as such. Thanks to the success of the project, Kikuta would go on to score two more games for Squaresoft, Secret of Mana 2/Seiken Densetsu 3 in 1995 and Soukaigi in 1998. Frustrated with the lack of direct control he had over projects at Squaresoft, though, Kikuta would leave in favor of work on his own project, Koudelka, the failure of which led to long years in the wilderness for the composer and a lack of major assignments. Even if he had retired completely from scoring after 1993, though, Kikuta’s musical legacy was secure–there hasn’t been a game in the Mana series since that hasn’t referenced his work overtly or indirectly, and he continues to have a cult following among lovers of video game music to this day.

Rating: starstarstarstarstar

Guardians of the Galaxy (Tyler Bates)

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By 2014, every movie in the Marvel cinematic universe had been a financial success, whether unremarkable(The Incredible Hulk), respectable (Thor), or incredible (The Avengers). As a result, parent Disney took a chance on a film version of one of the more obscure comics in the Marvel back catalog: Guardians of the Galaxy. With a rotating ensemble that included, among others, a green space Amazon warrior, a hyperintelligent talking racoon, a motile tree that could only speak its own name, and a human from Earth abducted by aliens, the film was regarded as something of a gamble in Hollywood. No one knew the characters, the connection to the other Marvel films was tenuous at best, and conventional wisdom was that moviegoers wouldn’t accept the lightness of tone the material demanded in a major blockbuster. Writer/director James Gunn, a veteran of the Troma Pictures grindhouse of all places, put the lie to these fears by creating a movie critics compared to a post-Star Wars space opera, filled with humor, action, and memorable characters. The film stood out so much in the dearly blockbuster season of 2014 that it became the biggest hit of the summer and was second only to the bloated Mockingjay: Episode I in domestic box office receipts–barely.

James Gunn had only worked with one composer during his career as a filmmaker: Tyler Bates. They’d first worked together on Zack Snyder’s debut, the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead, which Gunn wrote. The director’s solo debut, the indie horror film Silther, was similarly scored by Bates in 2006, as was Gunn’s 2010 sophomore effort, the violent and nihilistic superhero parody Super which probably got him the Guardians gig. Bates himself had worked steadily in film since the 1990s, with several high-profile superhero and fantasy/action films in the 2000s and 2010s, often with Snyder for whom he was composer of choice before being replaced by Hans Zimmer and his Remote Control studio for Man of Steel. Watchmen in 2009 was his most prominent superhero flick prior to Guardians, though Bates had done work on the 2011 remake of Conan the Barbarian, the 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, and of course the comic book adaptation 300 in 2006. It’s safe to say that Bates enjoyed a somewhat negative view among film score fans thanks to his work on many of those remakes, which followed extremely popular scores by the likes of Bernard Herrmann and Basil Poledouris, and the controversy over 300‘s score, which incorporated near-verbatim quotes from Elliot Goldenthal’s Titus and proved to be a legal embarrassment for Warner Bros. Much like Guardians itself, the score was viewed with trepidation from fans.

Few of Bates’ earlier scores could be described as thematic, so it’s a pleasant surprise when he unveils a theme for the titular guardians, teasing it in “Quill’s Big Retreat” before letting it rip in “The Kyln Escape.” It’s a fun idea, and despite appearing in a fair number of tracks one wished Bates would use it more often: the theme, often with accompanying choir, soars in a way that none of the other music does. With its oft-prominent brass, the Guardians theme is probably closest to, of all things in the Marvel universe, Alan Silvestri’s Captain America theme–though it’s part of a distinctly un-Silvestri-like whole and certainly not in the ballpark of Bates’ controversial use of Goldenthal in 300. It gets some variations, as in the slightly more elegiac “Black Tears” and “The Great Companion.” There’s a secondary theme of sorts in “The Ballad of the Nova Corps” (complete with electric guitar accents) that appears here and there, though it’s not as boldly presented. “Ronan’s Theme,” for its part, is less a theme than a darker orchestral color with some electronic manipulations.

The music has a distinct Remote Control feel in some of its parts, with string ostinatos and choral crescendos straight out of the Zimmer playbook. It is probably a situation where, like Patrick Doyle, Bates was asked to emulate a certain sound, though several Zimmer associates are listen in the album’s credits. Regardless, the Remote Control elements are on the high end of that scale rather than the Battleship dregs, and Bates uses them alongside his themes to present a generally decent, if occasionally somewhat generic, sound. It’s worth noting that he plays the score absolutely 100% straight, with no hint at all of the film’s occasional goofiness, which is left to pop music. That’s not a criticism; it’s been known for years, ever since Airplane, that serious music can make funny moments all the funnier (and it’s worth noting that Star Wars, to which Guardians was often compared at release, didn’t have much “funny” music either despite its share of funny moments). The shimmering synths and children’s choir of “Groot Spores” and “Groot Cocoon” is probably the closest the score gets to any genuine silliness.

Bates writes diverse music, ranging from the harsh synths of “Ronan’s Theme” to the wonder of “To the Stars” and the Groot material. It’s a bit like Watchmen in that regard, the earlier score ranging from awe and wonder to grungy rock, and at times the Guardians score, again like Watchmen, seems to lack cohesion for all its diversity, mickey-mousing rather than offering a narrative arc. The presence of Bates’ surprisingly-good themes, something which was sorely absent in the earlier superhero film, and the occasional Remote Control walls of sound help the score hang together much better, though. Like most Bates scores one gets the feeling that there’s untapped potential in Guardians to let rip in a truly exceptional album; nevertheless, it’s a promising improvement from many of his earlier scores.

There were three albums pressed for Guardians: a song collection called Awesome Mix Vol. 1, a score album, and a 2-CD combination. Unlike most frisbee “music from and inspired by” discs, the retro tunes on Awesome Mix were an important and cheeky part of the film rather than generic tunes the record company was trying to move through association with a popular IP. Thus the 2-CD set might actually be the best buy for fans; it certainly has the best cover art of any Marvel album thus far, perfectly capturing the retro-futuristic aesthetic of the film. Whatever the album, Bates’ music is the best of his career: solid stuff, with a decent theme, that’s miles better than the muck he conjured for projects like The Day the Earth Stood Still. It stands as a more or less evolved version of Bates’ promising but disappointingly generic scores for Watchmen and Conan 2011, and if it doesn’t come close to the Marvel cinematic universe highlights of Brian Tyler (whose similar-sounding name led to no end of confusion during summer 2014) and Alan Silvestri, it at least avoids the doldrums of Ramin Djawadi and Henry Jackman. The best musical comparison to Guardians in the Marvel universe is probably Doyle’s Thor, and like Thor it’s a solid buy, and one hopes that Bates will build on this foundation for the inevitable sequel.

Rating: starstarstar

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Henry Jackman)

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Captain America: The First Avenger had been a modest hit for Marvel in 2011, and the character had been further spotlighted in The Avengers a year later, helping to undo some of his long-term neglect in other media and bringing him new fans. As part of Marvel’s “Phase 2″ lead-up to The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Cap got a sequel in Captain America: The Winter Soldier which traded in Joe Johnston for the Russo brothers and straightforward 1940s heroics for the paranoia and conspiracies of the 1970s. The Russo brothers–best-known for Community of all things–managed to combine the existing film mythos, explosive action sequences, and a timely question-the-power attitude into a film that resounded surprisingly well with critics. For their part, audiences took the film nearly $100 million north of its predecessor, outgrossing even rival Sony’s terrible big-budget The Amazing Spider-Man 2.

The Russo brothers claimed that they wanted a more “modern” sound for their outing, and in the film parlance of the 2010s, “modern” means Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control studios. Therefore, Alan Silvestri was not invited to return and instead longtime Zimmer associate Henry Jackman got the job. By 2014, Jackman was in the process of solidifying his mainstream breakout, with a series of scores with ever-escalating budgets that had brought him from Remote Control’s back benches to the A-list. His superhero score for X-Men: First Class had been serviceable with some highlights, and he had even replaced Silvestri in a franchise before, with his Remote Control style G. I. Joe: Retaliation succeeding the Silvestri’s more traditional Rise of Cobra.

As one might expect from the Russo brothers’ instructions to Jackman, the composer makes no reference whatsoever to Silvestri’s original Captain America theme. It was tracked in from the original score on a few occasions (most notably the introductory jogging scene) but Jackman never arranged the theme himself and none of the tracked portions of the theme appear on the album. It’s not surprising that Jackman doesn’t use the theme, as none of the composers in the Marvel cinematic universe has ever adapted another’s theme (outside of Brian Tyler’s momentary reference to Silvestri’s Cap in Thor: The Dark World) but it’s more disappointing because it was the best and most iconic theme the series had produced thus far. Jackman does fashion a replacement, heard first in “Project Insight” and “The Smithsonian” with its most prominent appearances in “Time to Suit Up” and “Captain America.” While it is essentially orchestral in character and has the requisite drums and brass, Jackman’s theme is never performed with the boldness of Silvestri’s, and it virtually disappears from the score for large chunks of time, either due to genuine absence or being buried so much under layers of synths and sound design that it’s simply not audible.

Action music is the order of the day, by and large, with The Winter Soldier filled to bursting with white-knuckle action that’s perhaps the most urgent and brutal of any movie in the Marvel universe thus far. With “Lemurian Star” and especially “Fury,” Jackman provides his version of the serviceable and thematic, if not necessarily exceptional, combat cues from the first film, and one can immediately see where the Russo brothers’ inspiration came from. There are titanic brass bursts straight out of Hans Zimmer’s once-innovative but now-tired Inception, synth loops and snarling electronics from John Powell’s once-innovative but now-tired The Bourne Identity, and constant aurally-unpleasant music-as-sound-effects from Steve Jablonsky’s Battleship. It works on an okay level, a basic level, on screen surrounded by taut explosions, but by “The Winter Soldier” and “Countdown” listeners will be wishing for even John Debney’s most underperforming orchestral mush from Iron Man 2. In doing what he was asked, Jackman created what is, on album, the most irritating collection of modern action film scoring cliches since the aforementioned Battleship and Captain Phillips.

The titular Winter Soldier often seemed lost in “his” own film, more of a pawn than anything, and the same goes for his thematic representation. If Jackman did in fact pen a theme for him, it’s lost under so many layers of synths that he needn’t have bothered; none of the Marvel films have had a strong musical identity for their villains, and the Winter Soldier’s thematic material is about as prominent and memorable as Ramin Djawadi’s Iron Monger material from the very first film in the series. The film’s true villain is represented by soft and murky music in “Alexander Pierce,” while the motif developed in The Avengers for the Black Widow hasn’t even an echo in the similarly turgid “Natasha.” The resurgent HYDRA organization is represented by still more vague churning when it’s not underscored by still more action music like the self-titled “HYDRA.” In fact, by the end of the lengthy Intrada album (which is the same as a digital download or a physical platter in all but cost) one senses that the directors’ instructions to Jackman were to avoid any overt themes or motifs at all outside of tracked-in Silvestri excerpts and the few instances where an equivalent was needed.

Jackman’s score thus stands out as the weakest link in the film, and unfortunately its success and the Russo brothers’ return for the upcoming Captain America: Civil War makes it likely that neither Silvestri’s theme nor any approximation of it will appear in Cap’s future adventures (and it remains to be seen if Brian Tyler, who referenced it in Thor: The Dark World, will do so again in Age of Ultron). Jackman is a capable composer with several creative scores under his belt, but in this case he met the Russo brothers’ request for “modern” with what is, in the film, essentially violent sound effects and what is, on album, a laundry list of the worst characteristics of the kind of Remote Control style textual and electronic scoring that dominates the blockbuster scene in the 2010s. It’s not the worst offender by any means, but the experience it offers on album is probably the worst of any Marvel film so far, even Ramin Djawadi’s underachieving Iron Man. And it goes without saying that seeing Silvestri’s traditional theme-based score that largely avoided the scoring cliches of its day succeeded by a score that embraces every last one of them is disheartening.

Rating: star

Captain America: The First Avenger (Alan Silvestri)

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The final puzzle piece to fall into place for the Marvel cinematic universe before 2012’s The Avengers was Captain America. Though he’d been around since World War II, indeed before Marvel Comics was Marvel Comics, Captain America–like his stablemate Thor–had a very weak presence in other media. A few TV appearances, a 1940s series, and a disastrously bad 1990 theatrical film that was barely released…all of them seemed to suggest that audiences were uninterested in a character whose patriotism was passe in a cynical age. Marvel bet otherwise in 2011, putting accomplished filmmaker Joe Johnston at the helm of Captain America: The First Avenger, a tale that essentially took all the beats of the 1990 version but did them much better, ending with the titular super-soldier being brought forward to the present day. The film attracted good notices and more or less tied Thor in box-office receipts, but laid the groundwork for a sequel that would double those numbers.

Director Johnston had worked with a diverse stable of composers throughout his career, with an early partnership with James Horner for his first four films and later collaborations with Mark Isham, Don Davis, James Newton Howard, and Danny Elfman. Surprisingly, he chose someone he’d never worked with before instead: Alan Silvestri. Silvestri is probably still best-known to audiences for his work on 80s sci-fi classics Back to the Future and Predator, but he had been working steadily since, and had produced a series of old-fashioned action scores including The Mummy Returns and Van Helsing since the turn of the millennium. Called in with only seven weeks to score, Silvestri was asked to write a similarly old-fashioned score for Captain America.

Right away, in “Main Titles,” Silvestri teases a theme that he develops across the score, appropriately bold and noble and full of brassy patriotism. “We Did It,” “Triumphant Return,” and (for some listeners) the “Captain America March” present the theme in all its glory, although it is worked into a satisfying amount of the action music as well. While it won’t unseat the composer’s themes from the 1980s anytime soon, it is a breath of fresh thematic air in the Marvel cinematic universe which until then had largely had relatively milquetoast themes with even the best ones undercut either by their lack of use (Iron Man 2) or the uncomfortable inclusion of studio-mandated “modern” elements (Thor). The theme is perhaps closest to Michael Giacchino’s early music for the Medal of Honor video games (though the recent entries in that series have also suffered under dreadful “modern” scores) and the comparison is an apt one, with a sense of grand orchestral nostalgia amid all the derring-do.

The villainous Red Skull and his so-evil-even-the-Nazis-are-uncomfortable HYDRA organization get a motif of their own, though it’s muted in comparison to Cap’s theme which precludes any real theme vs. theme pyrotechics of the Danny Elfman style. Consisting of a series of sinister, ascending notes, it debuts in “Frozen Wasteland” for the film’s tie-in to Thor before being aired in “Schmidt’s Treasure” and “HYDRA Lab.” What the HYDRA motif lacks in punch and ability to go toe-to-toe with the main Cap theme, it makes up for in its consistent employment; in “Fight on the Flight Deck” it’s such a pleasure to hear a noticeable theme for a villain and a noticeable theme for a hero in an action cue at the same time. After all, if the heroes in the Marvel universe had been shortchanged by their thematic representation thus far, the villains had it even worse.

Though the lack of any facets of the post-Batman Begins superhero scoring doldrums is refreshing, Captain America doesn’t approach the level of Silvestri’s best action works and at times–particularly when the main theme is absent–seems more like the composer spinning his orchestral wheels than anything. A similar problem affected The Avengers, though the constant used of Cap’s theme does give this earlier score more structure. Still, it’s a little disappointing, and probably a function of the short time in which the score was written, that Silvestri’s action music is often merely functional. The lighter cues for conversation and introspection also lack the snap of a Rocketeer and contribute somewhat toward the album’s leaden opening.

A generous album was released along with the movie, though irritatingly its very best track–the “Captain America March” from the end credits, the best and boldest statement of the film’s main theme–was exclusive to the digital version despite the CD having more than enough room. More importantly, Silvestri impressed the producers at Marvel enough that he was chosen to score The Avengers the next year. With references to his Captain America theme in that film, Thor: The Dark World by Brian Tyler, and tracked in at times around Henry Jackman’s score for Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it is arguably the most enduring theme to come out of the Marvel cinematic universe thus far. For that, and for avoiding many of the pitfalls that bedeviled superhero scores throughout the Marvel cinematic universe and the 2010s, Captain America: The First Avenger earns itself a solid recommendation.

Rating: starstarstarstar

The Avengers (Alan Silvestri)

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Five years and five movies in the making, “Phase One” of the Marvel cinematic universe culminated in 2012’s The Avengers, the first true big-screen superhero team-up in the vein of a comic book crossover. With a cast of stars drawn from every movie in the series thus far (except the ever-troublesome Hulk, who was recast for the third time and debuted with barely a mention of his previous film), Marvel took the gutsy step of handing the production over to geek god Joss Whedon. Whedon was well-known for his TV work from Buffy the Vampire Slayer through Firefly, but The Avengers was only his second film. Still, acting as both director and collaborating screenwriter, Whedon was able to create a film so deft and balanced that The Avengers became the third-highest-grossing film of all time on its release and received better critical notices than any other Marvel film since Iron Man.

In constructing a score for The Avengers, director Whedon had plenty of options open to him, as each of the five setup movies had been scored by a different composer: Ramin Djawadi, Craig Armstrong, John Debney, Patrick Doyle, and Alan Silvestri. Whedon’s only previous film, the 2005 Firefly-concluding Serenity, had been scored by industry veteran and perpetual underdog David Newman, who had plenty of superhero experience of his own though his output had been tapering off through the 2010s with an increasing emphasis on the concert hall. In the end, though, it was all about theme: Marvel and Whedon wanted a grand old-fashioned theme to tie their film together, and only one of the previous Marvel composers had provided such a theme and used it in their film consistently: Alan Silvestri. On the strength of his Captain America theme and an enthusiastic recommendation from The First Avenger director Joe Johnston, Silvestri got the gig.

In discussions with the producers, Silvestri was instructed to stick with a theme for the Avengers and only a theme for the Avengers. Post-Batman Begins concerns about music being “intrusive” led to the producers’ dismissal of a leitmotivic score in the John Williams vein in favor of a score that had an “old-fashioned” theme in a more contemporary and “less intrusive” framework. Silvestri was allowed to pen a motif for Loki, the main villian, and to make sparing use of the theme that got him the job from Captain America, but mostly in fragments or short bursts to avoid being “intrusive” or competing with the main Avengers theme.

And, to be fair, the Avengers theme that Silvestri wrote fits the bill: it’s brassy and bold in a way that not many superhero themes are post-Batman Begins, and almost completely devoid of synths and other electronic accoutrements (though with a very large and very contemporary percussion section at times). Teased in “Tunnel Chase,” the theme explodes to the forefront in the “old-fashioned” way that Whedon and the producers wanted in “Assemble” before being sent off with a bang in the end credit suite “The Avengers.” The theme is an excellent one, but it is not used as often as it might be: it is frequently teased but only appears in full muscular form in a handful of key moments. The feeling that one gets from this, especially after the much more integrated theme for Captain America in Silvestri’s previous Marvel assignment, is that Silvestri is holding back from full-on action a la The Mummy Returns or Van Helsing–exactly what the producers wanted.

Speaking of Captain America, his theme is heard in some of the titular superhero’s most superheroic moments, though never in anything resembling the punchy “Captain America March;” true to the producers’ demands, the theme never competes with the Avengers theme. Though Silvestri was explicitly allowed to write a motif for the villainous Loki, it is a complete non-entity in the film and on album, mirroring the disappointing lack of thematic identity for the character in Patrick Doyle’s Thor (the character would need to wait until Brian Tyler’s Thor: The Dark World for an even somewhat memorable motif). Oddly, the only other bit of overtly thematic scoring goes to the Black Widow character, who gets a Slavic-tinged idea in the CD-exclusive “Interrogation,” the lengthy “Red Ledger,” and (briefly) “I Got a Ride.” While it’s nice that the only female hero on the team was given a theme of sorts–something John Debney had failed to do in her Iron Man 2 debut–once again the feeling one gets is of a composer holding back, scoring with the parking brake on.

It goes without saying that, given Marvel’s desire not to have Silvestri use themes for each hero, that none of the previous films’ themes by other composers are used in any way whatsoever. While this makes sense in some cases–especially since Iron Man had already been given two different sets of thematic material–it’s disappointing that Silvestri couldn’t have at least tipped his hat to one of the themes in much the same way that his own Captain America theme was given a brief shoutout in The Dark World. It also means that Silvestri’s fully-orchestral and skillful music for the remainder of the film, despite some highlights, feels oddly anonymous and neutered. It’s leagues better than a lot of the sound design and sonic wallpaper that has become de rigueur post-Batman Begins, but the scoring pales in comparison not only to Silvestri’s aforementioned fantasy action music but superhero scoring from the post-Superman and post-Batman 89 eras.

The Avengers was also the start of a relationship between Marvel, Disney, and Intrada Records: on all future Marvel releases, Intrada would provide a deluxe CD product at a premium price for collectors, while a digital album filled the iPods of everyone else. In this case, Intrada’s physical album features substantially more music, and some lengthened cues, compared to the digital download; it therefore stands as the preferred version of the music despite a $10 price difference. Be sure to avoid the “Avengers Assemble” coaster, which doesn’t feature a note of Silvestri alongside a group of pop songs which, if they appeared in the film at all, did so for three seconds on a jukebox blaring behind an alien space battle whale.

The Avengers winds up being a difficult score to characterize. On the one hand, it features perhaps the best theme of any Marvel movie to date. On the other, the theme’s sparing use and the relative anonymity of much of the supporting material–out of fear of being “intrusive”–makes the score feel like a missed opportunity. One wonders what Silvestri might have produced if he’d been fully unleashed on the project, or if the film had been during a different paradigm of superhero scoring. As is, it’s recommended for that glorious theme but a bit underwhelming elsewhere. Silvestri, despite scoring such a successful film, did not seem to get much of a career boost from The Avengers; he would be passed over for Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Avengers: Age of Ultron, with only a few mediocre scores for regular collaborators to fill out the remainder of the decade. As with James Horner and Avatar, the success of Silvestri’s thematic approach made little headway against the current Hollywood scoring trends.

Rating: starstarstar

Thor: The Dark World (Brian Tyler)

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Bowing the Thanksgiving after Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World was the second post-Avengers Marvel cinematic universe sequel, and compared to its immediate predecessor it had a very difficult development. Original director Branagh passed on the project, and two more would-be helmers briefly warmed his chair before the studio settled on relative newcomer Alan Taylor, a veteran of several highly-regarded TV series but with a thin film resume. Casting was still another headache, as was writing, and the project turned into something of a revolving door for high-profile comings and goings. It’s a miracle that the final product is as enjoyable as it is, mashing up Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Portal 2, and the original Thor for another tale that is never afraid to let its ponderousness be deflated by its tongue in its cheek. It was successful to the tune of a bit more than its predecessor, but wound up getting lost in the scuffle between the popular Iron Man 3 and the acclaimed Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

The second Thor suffered its share of development problems on the scoring stage as well. Patrick Doyle bowed out with Kenneth Branagh to work on the latter’s disastrous Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit after some early talks, and director Taylor then settled on an unconventional choice: Carter Burwell. The cerebral Burwell was in the midst of his greatest period of box-office success due to his overachieving scores for three of the five risible Twilight films, but it was clear from the beginning that Marvel was nervous about his ability to carry a holiday superhero blockbuster. Indeed, Burwell was unceremoniously rejected from the project as it entered post-production and replaced with the composer who had been the producers’ choice all along: Brian Tyler. Tyler, fresh off his well-received score for Iron Man 3, thus accomplished the Hans Zimmer-like feat of scoring two superhero movies in the same calendar year.

Despite–or perhaps because of–the relatively short timespan in which he had to write it, Thor: The Dark World has many of the same building blocks as Iron Man 3. It combines a resounding theme for the hero with a scoring approach that seeks to merge the Remote Control “wall of sound” characteristics expected of all post-Batman Begins superhero scores with more traditional orchestral modes. Essentially, Tyler does his best to subvert the dominant Hans Zimmer superhero scoring paradigm while remaining outwardly loyal to it, an approach that worked so well for Iron Man 3 that it led to Tyler almost single-handedly taking over the Marvel cinematic universe. As such, the sound is “bigger” in almost every way compared to the original Thor: greater use of choir, a bigger-sounding ensemble beefed up with more synths, and hyperbolic actions sequences that out-rowdy the rowdiest parts of Thor–and, unlike Doyle, Tyler seems completely at home writing in this mode.

Many fans of Patrick Doyle were disappointed that his noble brass theme for Thor was not used by Tyler; stories vary, but either Tyler or the producers were unwilling to pay the re-use fees associated with the theme (and, to be fair, it’s doubtful that Burwell’s rejected score used it either). Tyler’s new theme often gives the primary ascending melody to a gigantic choir set against brass. One can hear some echoes or influences of the original theme within it, and if it’s perhaps not as strong as Doyle’s, Tyler uses it much more consistently and weaves it more deeply into his underscore. A rising secondary phrase within the theme is used almost as much as an accent, again almost always either taken up by or supported by a full chorus.

One of the major problems with the original Thor was its lack of thematic attention to the villains of the piece. With the slightly ridiculous addition of Dark Elves into The Dark World, Tyler does make some basic attempts to portray their depredations. Cues like “Lokasenna” and “Origins” combine a vague motif of snarling menace with a world music approach reminiscent of Tyler’s own Children of Dune with strong echoes of Howard Shore’s epochal scores for his own elves. Loki’s thematic representation is sneaky and subtle with harp accents (“The Trial of Loki,” “Shadows of Loki”), and while it’s certainly more recognizable than Doyle’s efforts at the same, one wishes that Tyler could have developed it into a fuller theme.

Much of the lengthy album is given over to muscular action cues that feature Thor’s theme, or variations thereof, in straightforwardly crowdpleasing fashion. There are no musical winks to the audience for some of the more goofy moments of the film, and no equivalent to the glorious “Can You Dig It?” from Iron Man 3, but it’s always tuneful music crafted with consummate skill. Tyler’s one concession to goofiness is in “An Unlikely Alliance,” where he inserts a brief blast of Alan Silvestri’s theme from Captain America for one of the film’s funniest moments–interestingly, the actual score for Cap’s own sequel has none of the theme, making Tyler’s use of it, in retrospect, a bit of a last hurrah. The album also concludes with one last piece proving Tyler’s increasing grip on the Marvel universe: a whirling, James Horner-esque fanfare for the Marvel logo that combines beats from Tyler’s two Marvel scores.

Much like The Avengers before it, Thor: The Dark World was primarily a digital release, with a physical CD pressing from boutique label Intrada intended primarily for collectors at a slightly higher price point. Unlike The Avengers, though, Intrada’s platter has no extra music; the digital-vs.-physical issue being solely a personal preference in this case. Tyler did fine yeoman’s work on Thor: The Dark World, especially considering the short time period he had to write it and the pre-production teething problems the film had. If his theme for Thor himself is a tad weaker than Patrick Doyle’s, the composer makes up for it with excellent integration of the motif into a score that’s comfortable in its own skin and has a set of stronger–if still somewhat underdeveloped–secondary themes. With 2015’s The Avengers: Age of Ultron next on his docket, Tyler proved with Thor: The Dark World that his ability to please producers and score collectors alike with Iron Man 3 wasn’t a fluke.

Rating: starstarstarstar

Thor (Patrick Doyle)

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In many ways, the Norse superhero Thor was the wildcard in the “first wave” of films set in the Marvel cinematic universe. He had never had the pop culture stature of the others and his presence in other media had been thin, an issue compounded by a silly-looking costume and connection to a mythology that was at best little known and at worst associated with wackos. In seeking to bring him to the big screen, therefore, Marvel spared no gravitas. They enlisted respected Shakespearean director Kenneth Branagh to helm the picture, lined up a supporting cast of Oscar winners led by Anthony Hopkins as Odin, and put $150 million at the filmmakers’ disposal. To nearly everyone’s surprise, the resultant film was a hit: Branagh and his screenwriters found an excellent balance of tongue-in-cheek humor to lighten the occasionally leaden mythology, and the film sported a crowdpleasing performance by Tom Hiddleston is the villainous Loki. Not only did the resultant Thor light up the 2011 box office, it arguably had more impact than any other on the Marvel cinematic universe, with several of its characters and themes becoming crossover hits and mainstays across the wider franchise.

Branagh had collaborated with Scottish composer Patrick Doyle from Henry V in 1989, when Doyle was still working as an actor as well as a composer, and their collaboration had remained strong ever since. Doyle had scored virtually every Branagh movie since 1989, but was also in the midst of a renaissance of fantasy scoring brought on by his impressive music for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire in 2005. As a result, his recent resume was littered with titles like Eragon and The Last Legion which seemed to dovetail nicely with Thor‘s expected melding of high mythic fantasy and superheroics. As such, Doyle’s inevitable assignment was met with both anticipation and trepidation by fans: many were hoping for a work which would meet or exceed Goblet of Fire, while others feared that he would be rejected and replaced like Mychael Danna on Hulk for failing to write music to the producers’ post-Batman Begins expectations.

In fact, Doyle did both: he attempted to meld the melodic strength of his prior fantasy (and non-fantasy) scores with something that listeners and producers would feel was “cool.” In the post-Batman Begins world of mega-budget superhero scores, “cool” meant taking on many cues from the textual and often synth-based scores of Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control studio. So the finished score for Thor includes both a strong central theme for the superhero and liberal doses of percussion fronted in the sound mix, synth accents and pulses, and hyperbolic choral outbursts very different from those of Doyle’s earlier works. As such, the introduction of Doyle’s potent theme for Thor in “A New King” features not only a malleable 5-note theme on noble heroic brass, but also copious electronic squeaks and a capably orchestrated version of the Remote Control “wall of sound.”

The same is true throughout the major action cues, from “Frost Giant Battle” to “The Compound” to “Thor Kills the Destroyer:” Doyle’s theme, well-orchestrated, surrounded by what seems to be imitation of a completely different scoring methodology and coexisting uneasily with it. It’s hard not to get the feeling, listening to Thor, that Doyle was writing far outside his comfort zone in his attempts to write in the mold of Hans Zimmer and Remote Control. It’s unclear whether it was studio interference or the specter of Mychael Danna’s 11th-hour rejection from Hulk for writing music outside the current superhero paradigm, but this incongruity hangs over the entire album. For every thrilling action beat, there’s a moment of lifeless wall-of-sound churning, and for every redemptive fantasy cue like “Earth to Asgard” there’s the dull churning of “Loki’s Lie.” Speaking of Loki, the lack of a unifying musical thread for such a compelling villain is a further misstep, as is the general lack of a love theme.

About 70 minutes of Doyle’s music is available on the commercial score album, thankfully free of any incongruous songs or a vapid “music from and inspired by” platter. On album, the key to enjoying Thor on its own merits is probably tempering expectations; while the work can’t hold a candle to the composer’s brilliant Goblet of Fire, it does blow the weaker Marvel cinematic universe scores like Iron Man and Captain America: The Winter Soldier out of the water. While Thor: The Dark World would follow in 2013, Patrick Doyle followed director Kenneth Branagh to Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, an ill-fated project that wound up as one of both men’s greatest career disappointments, leaving Brian Tyler to extend his growing dominance over the Marvel universe instead.

Rating: starstarstar

Hulk (Danny Elfman)

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Despite being one of the most recognizable superheroes in the Marvel stable, and headlining a popular and highly visible 1978-1982 cult TV show that puttered on with sequel movies until 1990, the Incredible Hulk took until 2003 to come to the big screen. Going through a similar development hell to the one that bedeviled Spider-Man in the same time frame, the project bounced from director to director, producer to producer, before landing in the lap of Chinese filmmaker Ang Lee. Lee had just shepherded Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to the big screen and boatloads of awards, and clearly the producers at Universal and Marvel felt that if Lee could get American audiences excited about outwardly ridiculous wuxia, he could do the same for the outwardly ridiculous Hulk. Instead, Lee turned in a soggy movie that clumsily tinkered with the character’s origins, had no clear villain, a dearth of action setpieces, and a very unconvincing CGI Hulk. Though it launched star Eric Bana into a profitable Hollywood career, and some critics lauded the movie’s thoughtful pacing and use of split-screen “comic book panels,” audiences deserted Hulk in droves after a promising opening. The concept was therefore given the Hollywood “reboot” treatment a mere five years later with The Incredible Hulk, with no better results. The big green guy would have to wait until The Avengers for a creative team that truly understood him.

Among the agonies of Hulk‘s protracted development and production schedule was its score. Lee originally hired his friend Mychael Danna to score the film; they had been collaborators as far back as 1997’s The Ice Storm and 1999’s Ride With the Devil. From the standpoint of producers and fans, there could scarcely have been a more incongruous pairing if Lee had hired Tan Dun to return from Crouching Tiger; Danna was principally known for intimate dramas like Ararat and exotic scores for projects like Monsoon Wedding. When Danna’s complete score was played to picture, the music was tinged with an Arabic sensibility, full of Armenian duduk, and featured wailing solos by world music star Natacha Atlas. Panicked at this bizarre sound in their big-budget superhero flick, the producers dumped Danna over Lee’s protests and hired the kind of pre-Batman Begins superhero scores: Danny Elfman. A fan of Lee, Elfman accepted the assignment with less than 40 days to write and record a new score.

In composing a new score for Hulk, Lee and Elfman clashed constantly; the director had been happy with his friend Danna’s score, and continually asserted that the sketches and demos being written were “too Elfman.” The end result was quite curious: in the process of replacing a Mychael Danna score with an Arabic sensibility, Armenian duduk, and wailing solos by Natacha Atlas, Hulk received a Danny Elfman score with an Arabic sensibility, Armenian duduk, and wailing solos by Natacha Atlas. Though there were a few places, such as the presence of electric guitars, where Elfman prevailed, and of course some distinct echoes of his highly recognizable style, Lee essentially browbeat Elfman into rewriting Mychael Danna’s rejected score.

From the opening bars of the album, Elfman’s Hulk is suffused with percussive rhythm and a desert feel, both at the expense of the composer’s typically strong themes. A six-note motif appearing in “Main Titles” is the closest the film gets to a full-on theme, but while its descending notes do suggest the mad science at work there and otherwise, it’s the sort of thing that would normally be a support beam in one of Elfman’s musical structures being asked to bear the full load. The muddled washes of electronics into which the lengthy “Main Titles” and “Prologue” descend into are further weaknesses of the score, acting as Bondo to hold together a score that took eight orchestrators to stitch together, triple Elfman’s usual amount (and including such industry veterans as Hans Zimmer’s Bruce Fowler and Mark McKenzie). The omnipresent duduk and Atlas’s vocals lend a bit of coherence to the music, but they are never given any really compelling thematic material to perform and as such seem like flashes of color that, again, are asked to bear more than their share of the musical load. Needless to say, neither Jennifer Connelly’s love interest, nor Sam Elliott’s military goons, nor Nick Nolte’s bizarre Oedipal “villain” have much in the way of a thematic identity at all.

There are some highlights. “The Truth Revealed” is probably the album’s best merging of the Danna sound with the kind of orchestral tragedy that the film needs, and there are some part of other cues like “Bruce’s Memories” where bits of the tender writing Elfman did on projects like Spider-Man shine through. The album’s gem is undoubtedly “Hulk’s Freedom,” which thunders with a brassy melody that is sadly never heard again with Atlas’s voice as a capable supporter, before winding down to a soulful duduk that, again, is playing a melody that would have been wonderful in other places. The cue serves as the best idea of what Elfman might have provided for the project under less onerous time constrains and with more freedom from Lee to write to his strengths.

Like the film it was written for, Hulk‘s score is a mess, albeit a mess of the best intentions that were not fully followed through. In the aftermath of its relative failure (it made about $130 million domestically against a budget of about $130 million), all of the parties involved promptly forgot about Hulk with Elfman and Lee both moving onto personal highlights immediately thereafter as Elfman’s Big Fish was nominated for an Oscar and Lee’s Brokeback Mountain won a boatload of them. Lee eventually reunited with the erstwhile Danna for Life of Pi, which won them both statuettes, and more surprisingly he even would work with Elfman again despite their professional friction with the quirky Taking Woodstock. The 2003 soundtrack CD, with an hour of Elfman’s score and a risible end credits rock song is available practically for free now for the curious, but it’s probably for the best to simply forget about the mess that is Hulk, as all the major participants clearly want.

Rating: starstar