Iris (James Horner)

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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

James Horner, 1953-2015: A Tribute

Though there has been no official word yet, multiple unofficial sources have confirmed that film composer James Horner was killed this morning in a plane crash. Mr. Horner was a well-known aviation buff, having written a soaring piece for the Four Horsemen aerobatics team not long ago; truly, save for passing away at his piano or podium, there is no other way Mr. Horner could have died doing something he loved more.

James Horner in 2009 at the premiere of Avatar, standing in front of the film's title wearing his trademark scarf.

James Horner in 2009. Image courtesy of Cinemusica via Wikimedia Commons.

I have no words; James Horner was my favorite composer and musician of all time. I knew his intensely beautiful long-lined melodies as a tot watching Don Bluth films, fell in love with his groundbreaking science fiction and fantasy scores as a teen, and even as an impoverished college student I always scraped together the money to buy each of his albums as they came out. The news is especially devastating given that Mr. Horner was in the midst of renewed vigor, with a full slate of scores after a few lean years when his style seemed to be decidedly out of favor. His new classical CD, Pas De Deux, promised through samples to be a ravishing return to the concert hall after over thirty years.

There can be no doubt: we have lost one of the greats, on par with his peers Williams and Goldsmith and on par with any instrumental voice the 20th century can muster from Prokofiev to Corigliano. Hopefully, we will still be able to experience the few pieces of music that he left completed before his death and those yet to be made available from the past. Hopefully, we will see the continued emergence of talented young composers inspired by melody and passion who refuse to be cogs in a machine but instead uplift other art forms through their music. That’s the best memorial to Mr. Horner that any can hope for.

Friends, do yourself a favor and re-listen to Star Trek II, An American Tail, The Land Before Time, Braveheart, Titanic, A Beautiful Mind, Avatar, or any of the other beautiful music from an illustrious career now cut short.

Here is a list of all the James Horner reviews here at Best Original Scores:

Aliens (James Horner)
All the King’s Men (James Horner)
The Amazing Spider-Man (James Horner)
Bopha! (James Horner)
Casper (James Horner)
Flightplan (James Horner)
Freedom Song (James Horner)
The Land Before Time (James Horner)
Once Upon A Forest (James Horner)
Vibes (James Horner)
Willow (James Horner)

Donnie Darko (Michael Andrews)

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A low-budget but high-concept feature that combined teenage angst with low-key but disturbing sci-fi and horror, Donnie Darko was not a major hit in theaters. But once it came to home video, audiences responded favorably enough to writer-director Richard Kelly’s strange story of tangent universes and quasi-malevolent bunny rabbits that it received both a director’s cut and a terrible cash-in sequel. The Donnie Darko‘s cult success ultimately proved a boon to its cast and the genre of suburban angst in general, and continued to spawn imitators and homages in the decade after its 2001 release.

LA musician Michael Andrews became attached to Donnie Darko after reading Kelly’s script; for his part, Kelly knew Andrews through the latter’s association with a jazz group called The Greyboy Allstars. Through his work with the Allstars, Andrews had some feature scoring experience, having contributed music to Zero Effect and Freaks and Geeks, but such was his enthusiasm for Kelly’s script that he taught himself how to play the piano when the director decided to make that instrument the centerpiece of Donnie Darko‘s score. In their consultations, Kelly and Andrews spoke at length about electronic music from the 1970s and 1980s, naming Isao Tomita and Vangelis as key influences for the atmosphere they hoped to capture with Andrews’ score. Due to an extremely limited music budget, Andrews wound up performing virtually the entire score himself on vocoder, piano, synthesizer, mallet percussion, ukulele, organ; for wordless vocals, he retained singers Sam Shelton and Tori Haberman.

Despite the tone of their conversations, Andrews’ score does not sound anything like Tomita or Vangelis, and especially nothing like their works Snowflakes are Dancing or Blade Runner which Kelly cited in the soundtrack’s liner notes. Instead, Andrews’ score favors a very simple mix favoring piano and the voices of Shelton and Haberman in its most memorable and melodic moments, creating an ambient atmosphere of considerable airy beauty at times while remaining aloof and cold. It’s not a thematic score, but Andrews does provide a recurring motif, explored most thoroughly in “Waltz in the 4th Dimension,” that appears throughout a number of other cues.

There are many other places, including the first couple of album cues, where the piano and voices are absent or minimized in favor of a harsh, desolate soundscape for the film’s most disturbing moments. These cues add little to the album and fulfill only basic sonic wallpaper duties in Donnie Darko as a film. While they do serve to break up the melodic and airy vocal/piano tracks, the kind of industrial ambience found in the weaker tracks is simply not a compelling listen and it makes up a meaty chunk of the brief album and score. It’s particularly modern ambience as well, one that is often at odds with the film’s 1988 period setting.

But it’s not the score that everybody remembers from Donnie Darko but rather the end title song, a cover of the Tears for Fears song “Mad World” arranged for piano and string accompaniment by Andrews and sung by his old friend Gary Jules. This “Mad World” takes the relatively peppy and new wave original from 1983 and twists it into a powerfully sorrowful and bleak paean to suburban malaise, and its impact was such that the original was all but forgotten. The cover charted in the UK and has since become something of an anthem to depressive detachment, widely played and widely known. It’s a shame that rights issues precluded Andrews from using the song’s melody in his underscore, because it easily overshadows his main waltz melody, his wordless vocals, and the grindingly unpleasant ambient portions of the score. A second version of the song ends the album, throwing percussion and synths into the simple piano and string mix and utterly destroying it, a testament to just how finely tuned the original cover by Andrews and Jules is.

Donnie Darko‘s early failure at the box office meant that Andrews’ score waited a year for release in 2002 when the film had risen to cult status. The brief platter offered all 30 minutes of Andrews’ score and the aforementioned dual versions of “Mad World;” a later issue would add a first disc with the 1980s songs used as source. In both cases, it’s worth picking up the disc for “Mad World” alone, and with the lovelier parts of Andrews’ score there are about 15 minutes of solid highlights to be had. While Kelly would experiment with several other composers for his troubled future filmography, Donnie Darko launched Andrews into a profitable sideline in film score composition, producing roughly a score a year for the next decade. While overshadowed by its primary song, his Donnie Darko score still serves as an interesting souvenir from an interesting film.

Rating: starstarstar

Arthur and the Invisibles (Eric Serra)

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French director Luc Besson is nothing if not ambitious, as any quick glance at his filmography will show. But his 2006 feature Arthur and the Invisibles (given the equally off-putting title Arthur and the Minimoys in most foriegn markets) was perhaps his most ambitious yet. Based on a series of children’s books that Besson himself had written, the film was a lavish animated fantasy (about warring factions of tiny fairylike creatures) from a director who had little experience with either animation or fantasy. With a budget of 65 million euros, the most costly French film of all time up to that point, Besson attracted a voice cast glittering with stars in every language dub, from Madonna to Nena and Bavid Bowie to Gackt. Critics, especially those who viewed the film’s US cut, were generally savage to the quality of Arthur’s animation and its seeming resemblence to The Dark Crystal and The Ant Bully, among many others. But the film was a financial success despite this, leading to at least two Besson-helmed sequels thus far.

A Luc Besson film almost inevitably means an Eric Serra score, the two men being longtime friends and collaborators since their early days. With Serra scoring all but a few of Besson’s films, his employment for Arthur and the Invisibles was probably the least surprising feature of the production. Serra himself has often a divisive figure for film score fans, with his background in pop and electronic music often being at odds with what many listeners expect. The controversial score for Goldeneye is of course well-known, but some reviewers also felt that Serra’s lack of orchestral experience hamstrung his attempts to do more traditional scoring in films like The Messenger. On the other hand, Serra’s scores for Nikita, Leon the Professional, and (perhaps the closest film to Arthur in terms of tone) The Fifth Element remain highy regarded.

Interestingly, Serra opted for an almost entirely traditional score for Arthur and the Invisibles, eschewing the sort of jaunty acoustic/electric fusion that had characterized his Fifth Element score. Instead, the composer opted for a traditional orchestral children’s score, complete with the London Session Orchestra and the Metro Voices, both conducted at least in part by Serra himself. While his electronic tools were used, they were strictly relegated to a supporting role in a large-scale acoustic, choral, and thematic whole.

There’s a distinct sense of Danny Elfman’s early fantasy scores about Arthur and the Invisibles,, largely because of the way that Serra (who shares a similar musical background) uses his wordless choir as a potent orchestral color, with cooing children’s voices for the heroes and ominously deep male vocals for the villains. More importantly, Arthur is a very strongly thematic score, with an ebullient theme for the heroic Minimoys in evidence from the very first cue, “The Minimoys Overture.” Presented boldly across a number of cues and in flighty fragments across others, the theme is quite tuneful and attractive, and is integrated into some of the most complex orchestral writing of Serra’s career. The villains of the piece are given a percussive theme of their own, again often with choral accompaniment, and it too is used very robustly across Serra’s score.

In short, the composer is able to provide a surprisingly potent dose of old-fashioned thematic fantasy, with flighty variations on his themes and a near-constant supply or orchestral and choral colors. It’s not innovative by any means, following in the footsteps of past children’s fantasy scores much in the same way that Arthur and the Invisibles itself draws on earlier films. But Serra’s music is presented very robustly and attractively, and his themes are memorable enough, that it’s still a pleasant package regardless. The real difficulty with the score is its structure: 39 tracks for the 68 minutes of Serra’s music on album. With no tracks longer than 5 minutes and many shorter than two minutes, the music winds up feeling rather bitty and stutterstop at times. This is especially true when similar material appears several times in the music, making the lengthy work at times a bit of a slog. There’s no doubt that virtually every note of the score is present on disc; a little judiciousness in combining or rearranging cues might have gone a long way.

Still, it’s hard not to like Serra’s Arthur music. It’s clear that the composer has grown in his orchestral skills since his early career, and he offers a pleasant thematic base for the broad childrens’ fantasy music on display. The commercial album, readily available for a very low price due to the film’s relative obscurity, includes three throwaway songs in addition to Serra’s score. It’s well worth checking out for enthusiasts of fantasy scores, and provides an interesting counterpoint to Serra’s earlier and much more electronic music.

Rating: starstarstarstar

Mr. Peabody & Sherman (Danny Elfman)

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One of the better-remembered segments from Jay Ward’s Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends, the time-hopping and pun-laden adventures of the world’s smartest dog and his adopten son have remained lodged firmly in the American popular consciousness for over 40 years to the extent of even having the monicker of their Wayback Machine borrowed by the Internet Archive. As with many nostalgia properties from that era, Mr. Peabody was not immune to plundering for big-screen remakes by a creatively bankrupt Hollywood, and a motion picture version of his adventures with Sherman were in development hell for many years before the 2014 release of Mr. Peabody & Sherman. The film itself turned out rather well, despite the usual Dreamworks stunt casting, but its spring release date coupled with unexpectedly fierce box office competition served to mute its impact.

As a Dreamworks film, a score from Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control studio seemed as inevitable as a voice cast packed with flavor-of-the-month vocals for Peabody & Sherman. But, surprisingly, the filmmakers turned to Danny Elfman instead. Elfman has surprisingly extensive credits for children’s movies, going back as far as his breakout hit Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, but for many years seemed to be moving away from the weird and wacky music that was at one point his bread and butter. For Peabody & Sherman, though, that sound was back with a vengeance.

One suspects that Elfman got the job because of another movie he scores a few years earlier, also about a young boy and a time machine: Disney’s Meet the Robinsons. And, to be fair, there are parallels between the two works, especially in the energy and saturation of Elfmanisms. But while Meet the Robinsons eventually turned to adventure and had some serious and tragic undertones, Peabody & Sherman remains firmly in fun and wacky territory throughout its entire running time. It’s easily the wackiest thing that Elfman has done since Flubber in 1997, and is perhaps the closest the composer has come to the original Pee Wee‘s manic energy thus far.

The album contains a main theme that appears throughout starting with “Mr. Peabody’s Prologue,” and it gets put through an impressive number of guises, from the playful Nino Rota energy of that first track to a full-on Alfred Newman Egyptian treatment later on. The composer Elfman seems to be looking to for the most inspiration, though, is Carl Stalling: like the late leader of the Looney Tunes, Elfman incorporates fragments of popular public domain tunes into his most energetic pieces, from anachronistic blasts of “La Marseillaise” for Marie Antoinette to blasts of Beethoven for, well, Beethoven himself.

Though the main theme is present throughout, the constant stutterstop Stalling energy of the music might be irritating to listeners looking for a more through-composed and straitlaced style. For Elfman fans, though, the music represents a family reunion of sorts, a gumbo of the most fun and wacky elements from Pee Wee, Flubber the original Men in Black and Meet the Robinsons without its spacy or weighty elements. Compared to Epic or Frankenweenie from the previous two years, both scores full of theme and motion, the silly slapsticky tack that Elfman took is even more notable. It’s enjoyable on a rather different level.

The Peabody & Sherman album by Sony Classical provides a good 40 minutes of Elfman score, alongside a few source songs and tangos as well as a piece in which a stunt-cast Stephen Colbert mocks Mr. Peabody’s musicology skills. It’s a solid product, though American purchasers should beware its incredibly flimsy packaging, which offers nothing to hold the CD in place. For those with a tolerance for vibrantly thematic mickey-mousey music in the Stalling or David Newman vein, Peabody & Sherman is quite the treat.

Rating: starstarstarstar

Fifty Shades of Grey (Danny Elfman)

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It’s enough to make one choke with surprise; only in the current media age could a book like Fifty Shades of Grey have bound itself so tightly and so quickly to the popular consciousness, without a safe word in sight. Author E. L. James was somehow able to dominate a heretofore unknown market when she filed the serial numbers off her BDSM Twilight fanfiction and saw the abusive relationship between her ersatz Edward and imitation Isabella climb the sales charts and beat a whole new genre of softcore “mommy porn” into shape. It was a given that films would follow–it had worked for Twilight!–and auteur director Sam Taylor-Johnson was tied to the project along with a pair of young starlets. The resulting film was awful in a very interesting way, the director and stars barely able to gag their contempt for the material–and, in the case of the stars, each other! Needless to say, this didn’t keep the film from whipping up substantial profits, and two equally risible sequels are sure to torture reviewers for years to come.

Taylor-Johnson’s only prior film, Nowhere Boy, had been a John Lennon biopic with minimal score. She therefore roped a composer for Fifty Shades of Grey who also had a background in popular music as well as a noted appetite for the twisted: Danny Elfman. Elfman was no stranger to movies with the sort of erotic charge that Fifty Shades aspired to, notably To Die For, but he still seemed an odd fit for the assignment. Then again, the Twilight series had reined in such film score luminaries as Carter Burwell, Alexandre Desplat, and Howard Shore; Elfman was in many ways a much more appropriate choice to write a film score fans bought in unmarked paper bags.

Elfman commands a small orchestral ensemble with contemporary drum beatings and bass guitar for the score, augmenting both from time to time with a small chorus. The overall feel of his music, surprisingly, is cold, clinical, and detached: it’s music that is contemporary, uneasy, and above all aloof. In short, Elfman’s music seems to mirror the detachment that the actors and director felt for the project, keeping it at arm’s length. In fact, the score’s closest sonic bonds seem to be the Errol Morris scores that Elfman has done, Standard Operating Procedure and The Unknown Known; the Philip Glass style string “cells” in particular, repeating themselves as other instruments churn above and below, are very reminiscent of those documentaries.

A basic thematic idea strikes in the titular “Shades of Grey,” and recurs in a low-key fashion throughout (particularly in “Variations on a Shade”) but never truly asserts dominance over the rest of the music. Another motif, “Ana’s Theme,” is similarly rather backgrounded. There is also absolutely no music that could be described as traditionally romantic or mirroring the kinkier aspects tied up the subject at hand. Perhaps the subtle theme and unsettled soundscape are Elfman’s response to the creepy stalker vibe and abusive power dynamics that suffuse the film. In any case, don’t expect to be struck by Elfman’s use of thematic material or whipped into a frenzy by lush romanticism.

The score’s real highlight is the short choral piece, “Bliss,” that was at least co-composed if not entirely written by Elfman’s “additional music” hand for the project, David Buckley. As is often the case in film music it’s not entirely clear if Buckley simply arranged Elfman’s ideas for the choir or wrote the entire piece from whole cloth while incorporating some Elfmanisms. Either way, the piece is coldly rapturous, a stiff if subtle punch, and a very unique sound that the score could have used more of. The following two tracks, “Show Me” and “Counting to Six,” also deviate from the generally uneasy and cold material that comes before. But rather than offer romance, they are string-led laments, devastatingly sad and beautiful. Not the wah-wah cheese many expected, but those tracks plus “Bliss” are the furthest afield Elfman whips from his Errol Morris style and the closest to outright romance listeners are going to get.

A short 45-minute score album was released alongside the inevitable collection of terrible songs that included two score cuts (“Bliss” and “Variations on a Shade”); the movie’s high profile meant that the score even appeared in some brick-and-mortar stores. It’s not top-drawer Elfman however you slice it, but one has to respect that the composer hit the film with his best shot, writing music that was an order of magnitude better than the drek it accompanied. Listeners who are unfamiliar with Standard Operating Procedure and The Unknown Known will probably get the most out of the album, provided that they are not too embarrassed to add it to their shopping cart. For Elfman, Fifty Shades saw him beginning a period of engagement with the Hollywood machine for several enormous projects. From bowing out of (or being rejected from) The Hunger Games in 2012 and having few of his scores make a major splash in the interim, by the summer of 2015 Elfman was slugging it out at the top of the box office with half the score of Avengers: Age of Ultron to his credit. It’s not a binding opinion, but the twin hits of Fifty Shades and Ultron may just be the beginning of a new period of Elfman domination.

Rating: starstarstar

Confession (Ryan Shore)

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Confession was a 2005 project about murder and coverups at a prestigious all-male Catholic prep school that wasn’t able to secure theatrical distribution, winding up instead as a direct-to-video offering. A longtime project of its writer/director, Jonathan Meyers, and based on a spec script he penned in high school, the film is primarily remembered today as the first starring role of Chris Pine, who less than four years later would be cast as Kirk in 2009’s Star Trek. An avowed film score fan, with a letter of encouragement from Carter Burwell to prove it, Meyers ultimately retained Ryan Shore to score his film. Shore, the nephew of Oscar-winner Howard, had a resume of similarly low-budget but ambitious films to his credit in 2005. He was therefore able to tackle Confession with a live orchestra, albeit a reduced one of 22 players, and live choral aspects as well.

Confession opens with its greatest highlight: a stunning choral piece in “Philosophy” that evokes liturgical music in its use of a solo female voice with supporting male choir. A lengthier performance in a similar vein bookends the album with “Sacred,” with snatches of choral music appearing in places throughout the rest of the album, taken up either by male or female voices. These passages are so effective in an Erich Whitacre/John Tavener manner that they overshadow much of the rest of Shore’s music–enough so that one almost wishes the entire score had been performed a capella.

Shore’s main theme is low-key and rather drab compared to his terrific choral music; when it appears in “Requiem” and “Confession,” it is primarily to tie together lengthier passages of dark, churning music. The film’s oft-grim tone and talky nature perhaps precluded more intrusively melodic writing, but one couldn’t help but feel that an approach like the one Shore would later use in Shadows might have been a better listening experience on album. “Bennet’s Confession” “Priest Interrogation” include the theme as well, but it is backgrounded or not present in most of the album’s meatier cues, leaving the music to create an unsettled atmosphere without any of the panache that characterizes the sections for voices. “Bicycle” and “Rain” provide the only respite from the generally oppressive atmosphere prevalent outside the vocal cues, with lighter Thomas Newman style riffs.

Though Ryan Shore had primarily been represented on the Moviescore Media boutique label, ever the champion of high-quality film music written for lesser-known projects, he was instead able to team with La-La Land Records five years after Confession was released, in 2010, to put out an album of his music. At 42 minutes, it is a short score on album but virtually every note recorded for the film is present (along with detailed notes from Shore and Meyers about their collaboration); however, unlike the MSM albums, Confession is only available as a physical product in a limited 1000-copy print run. Due to the film’s obscurity, though, it is available extremely cheaply both direct from the label and on the secondary market. The beautiful solo choral parts of the album will resonate most strongly for most listeners, though devotees of Shore’s more action-packed style of Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer or active thriller soundscape of Shadows may find themselves disappointed.

Rating: starstar

Elite: Dangerous (Erasmus Talbot)

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Elite was an epochal game for many players on home computer systems, using basic wireframe graphics to place players as starship pilots in an expansive universe. Like many more sophisticated sandbox games, there was no set objective and no endpoint, other than raising one’s rank in combat to that of “Elite.” Countless hours of space combat and trading gave the game unrivaled cult appeal for a whole generation of gamers, to say nothing of inspiring titles like Privateer or Escape Velocity. But the actual Elite sequels were disappointments, with Frontier: Elite II and First Encounters: Elite III both being plagued with technical problems and stiff competition from imitators. The series lay dormant for nearly 20 years after Elite III before a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign successfully raised the money to make a direct sequel on modern systems. Elite: Dangerous has been well-recieved since its debut, though its always-online play (even in single-player) means that those without access to high-speed internet are still left out in the cold.

The development cycle of Elite: Dangerous was such that the project’s audio lead had time to carefully solicit composers for the game through a series of pitches and demos. Ultimately, newcomer Erasmus Talbot was commissioned to pen the score; while he had worked on some iOS games, shorts, and commercials before joining Elite in 2013, it was by far his most prominent credit to date. Talbot brought experience in sound design and implementation to the table, a benefit in working with a game that procedurally changed its music in response to player input, and he was instructed to create a hybrid score that utilized traditional symphonic and choral colors alongside synthesizers and electronic textures. The commission was complicated by the fact that what had initially been planned as a fully orchestral recording for its acoustic components wound up as a largely synth endeavor with live soloists: singers, percussion, some woodwinds, solo horn, violin, and oud were the sum total of live music recorded for the project.

One might have expected overtly synthetic elements to dominate a score about spaceships in space, but Talbot’s music is far less harshly electronic than comparable efforts like Jon Hallur Haraldsson’s EVE Online. Influences from that work can be felt in some of the pulsing and shimmering synths, and the use of world music elements like oud and singer Mia Salazar harkens most strongly back to Paul Ruskay’s Homeworld score. The overall use of ambient texture combined with a number of common motifs is perhaps most reminiscent of Jeremy Soule’s scores in the Elder Scrolls series, but Talbot’s score works these influences together in a way that rarely feels derivative.

Most prominent and surprising to someone expecting the harshness of EVE Online is its thorough use of both synth and live choral elements–“like distant calls weaving in and out
through the vastness of space,” as Talbot says in his liner notes. Singers Salazar and Hannah Holgersson are joined by synth male voices and a synth children’s chorus in a series of the music’s most prominent thematic building blocks based on the various factions encountered in the game. Near and Far Eastern choral textures, African and Middle Eastern tones (though thankfully never to the “wailing woman” level of early 2000s cliche), masculine chanting, and classical European voice elements all make appearances–often in their most wistful and ambient mode.

The game’s battle tracks are its most traditionally symphonic, with rippling percussion and brass added over elements of the more ambient tracks. It’s interesting that the battle music is presented in pieces rather than in suites as is the typical practice with video game music. Rather than slapping together the various parts as they might have been procedurally combined by the game’s music engine, listeners are presented with 30 short songs that represent different combat scenarios at varying levels of intensity (low, medium, and high). It’s a refreshing approach, if slightly bitty in a Thomas Newman way, and it of course means that listeners are free to string together whatever parts they like rather than being chained to a single “frozen playthrough.” But the combat music is also where the limits of Talbot’s budget show the most clearly: he is forced to work with a mostly synth orchestra, and parts of it (especially the prominent brass) sounds terribly fake.

Arguably, the highlight of the effort is the Frameshift Suite, music for high-speed travel and starport landings in Elite: Dangerous. It brings together the vocal, ambient electronic, and acoustic soloist elements of the broader score into a single, tonal, and cohesive whole. It’s the best showing-off of the game’s broader music style to those who may be bored by the Soule-inflected ambience of the exploration music and irritated by the phony brass blasts of the more traditional battle tracks.

Listeners’ response to Elite: Dangerous will likely be predicated on how much weight they give to its various elements. Lovers of ambient but tuneful music, subtle choral effects, and scoring that reflects diverse video game ane cinema influences will probably enjoy it; those looking for a traditional symphonic experience, harsh EVE Online atmospherics, or Hans Zimmer power anthems will probably be much less interested. If nothing else, the game’s commercial download album (a CD is mentioned in the liner notes that apparently never came to fruition) is an extremely generous 140 minutes and 86 tracks for less than $10, meaning that listeners who like only the exploration, Frameshift, or combat music will still have a wide selection. It’s a shame that Elite: Dangerous can’t be played without an internet connection, but its music certainly can, and it makes for a fine experience on its own.

Rating: starstarstarstar

Halo 4 (Neil Davidge)

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Even though developer Bungie had departed from the Halo series with 2010’s rather tired prequel Halo: Reach, Microsoft was unable to put its killer app cash cow franchise to rest. Forming 343 Studios as a subsidiary–and thereby assuring that, unlike Bungie, it could not leave for greener pastures–Microsoft had Halo 4 in development as soon as Reach shipped. Returning to the only real dangling plot thread from the third game and the massive character origin retcon from Reach, Halo 4 attempted to build a more emotional story around the series’ characters in addition to a threatening race of conveniently undiscovered aliens. The story’s attempts at emotional resonance were undercut by the emotionlessness of the main character, who has never cared a whit for the massive and detailed background mythology built up around him (being more concerned with where and when to give out free bullet samples when ordered to), but Halo 4 was a predictable sales success, and sequels will probably follow on a biennial basis until the heat-death of the universe.

Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori had scored the first five Halo titles with a distinctive blend of choral voices, dance-influenced electronica, and orchestral music. But they had departed with Bungie to work on the disappointing Destiny–an assignment that would ultimately be the end of their tenure at that developer. 343 Studios brought on an interesting replacement in their stead: Neil Davidge, a songwriter, producer, and musician, though Halo 4 would be his first video game score. While Davidge’s name might be unfamiliar to listeners, the name of the group with which he is most associated, Massive Attack, is most likely not. As part of the group, Davidge had been involved with several bestselling albums as well as Massive Attack’s first forays into film scoring, Unleashed (AKA Danny the Dog) and Bullet Boy. As a solo artist, Davidge’s most high-profile score was probably the psychic actioner Push; it was therefore an open question how he would respond to a high-profile assignment like Halo 4 with its own preexisting fanbase and sonic world. Perhaps as a response to this, 343 Studios paired Davidge with additional music composer Kazuma Jinnouchi, an experienced video game musician with a track record in the Metal Gear Solid series.

First, and perhaps most controversially, Davidge completely dismissed all of O’Donnell and Salvatori’s themes for the Halo series in favor of his own original compositions. The decision wasn’t as unprecedented as it seemed, with O’Donnell and Salvatori themselves largely avoiding any references to iconic Halo themes in their scores for ODST and Reach. But while the overall style of those scores was still suffused with O’Donnell and Salvatori’s musical personalities, Davidge didn’t attempt to outright ape his predecessors. His score was built from similar building blocks–the Chamber Orchestra of London, the RSVP Voices and London Bulgarian Choir, as well as an array of synthesizers and electronics. The overall bent of the score, interestingly, is far more organic than what O’Donnell and Salvatori come up with despite Davidge’s own background, with far subtler synths and relatively few instances of them taking center stage. When tracks like “Awakening” do bring electronics to the forefront, the pulses and tones used are quite distinct from the dance-inflected beats for which the series was known.

Obviously, Halo 4 should be judged on its own merits in addition to its place within the wider series. So what does Davidge come up with of his own in terms of thematic material to replace O’Donnell and Salvatori’s themes? The answer is, sadly, not much: Davidge’s score has very little in the way of themes, and certainly nothing approaching the memorability of the previous scores. To borrow a metaphor from a concurrent media property, the composer had the opportunity to do a Patrick Doyle, whose Goblet of Fire also largely discarded series themes but came up with blisteringly good new ones that inhabited a similar sonic world. Instead, with Halo 4, Davidge and his team pulled a Nicholas Hooper, a score with definite strengths produced by someone with real talent but which fails to weave highlights into a cohesive and thematic whole. A villainous theme of sorts does appear in “Nemesis” with a reprise in part in “Revival,” but it doesn’t make much of an impact. “117” is the closest the score comes to the broad heroics of the previous games in the series, albeit again not at the same level of prominence or memorability, but that track was actually written by co-composer Kazuma Jinnouchi, not Davidge.

As with the other Halo soundtracks, album production is a sore spot as well. The most common complaint leveled against the disc was that several of the most prominent cues in the game did not appear on it, despite a 77-minute length and six downloadable tracks. Fans particularly coveted the opening menu music, “Atonement,” which offered a mournful Arabic vocal as a replacement for the earlier Gregorian chant, and the end credits music, “Never Forget (Midnight Version),” the only remix of a O’Donnell/Salvatori theme in the game. With the later release of Halo 4 Volume 2, it was revealed that these were also Kazuma Jinnouchi compositions, explaining but not excusing their absence from the physical disc. It’s a bit disingenuous, to say the least, to omit the best-loved music from a game simply because it wasn’t written by the primary credited composer, and the original album suffers for its lack of Jinnouchi’s music, which is generally more thematic, more memorable, and a better sonic fit for Halo. The same “frozen playthrough” philosophy that dogged earlier albums returns as well, with some of the album’s better material buried in suites. Worse, the six downloadable tracks are all nauseatingly bad “remixes” instead of music that might have been composed too late in production to meet the CD’s street date.

A 77-minute disc was pressed for the game’s 2012 debut, with the aforementioned remixes as downloadable “bonuses.” Perhaps as a response to customer complaints, a additional download-only album would follow in 2013, featuring more music from Davidge and especially Jinnouchi, whose single track on the initial album is joined by nine others including the O’Donnell/Salvatori remix. It’s clear that the powers-that-be felt the same way about Davidge and Jinnouchi as listeners did; the inevitable Halo 5 follow-up has Jinnouchi listed as sole composer in early reports. One has to agree with the decision, as Davidge’s music, while serviceable and with an impressive orchestral/electronic pedigree, simply did not live up to the spirit of the games in the way that Jinnouchi’s compositions did. The available Halo 4 album suffers as a result, sinking into blandness with a few flashes of color thanks to Davidge’s inability to provide something to replace the dismissed O’Donnell/Salvatori themes and the marginalization on album of Jinnouchi’s attempts to fill that gap. One wonders what the latter will do with a solo Halo to his credit, or if 343 studios will simply hire the now-available O’Donnell for their future efforts. Halo 4 may be worth a bargain purchase, but is sure to disappoint in many areas all the same.

Rating: starstar

Final Fantasy VI (Nobuo Uematsu)

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On the heels of their wildly successful RPG Final Fantasy V in 1992, developer Square immediately began production of a sequel for the same platform, the Super Nintendo. Over a year of brisk development, a complex tale emerged with fourteen playable characters, more than any game before or since, larger and more detailed sprites and field graphics, and extensive use of Mode 7 graphics. In many ways it was the ultimate evolution of Final Fantasy V‘s style, with a straightforward first half and an open-world second. But above and beyond that, the resultant Final Fantasy VI features more pathos than all its predecessors combined, tackling weighty issues like suicide, teenage pregnancy, war crimes, and more. Its heroes actually fail to save their world and have to spend half of the game dealing with the consequences of their failure–tempered with plenty of lighthearted character moments, of course. The game was a fantastic success and has since been ported to a variety of post-SNES systems; more crucially, unlike Final Fantasy V, it was given a lovable Ted Woolsey translation and a release in the USA under the title Final Fantasy III. As a result, it influenced a whole generation of US game developers and echoes of its themes and steampunk aesthetic resonate to this day.

Nobuo Uematsu was no longer Square’s sole resident composer by 1994, giving him the freedom to devote all of 1993 to music for Final Fantasy VI while leaving other projects to fellow staffers. He tackled the project enthusiastically, writing a much longer score than any he’d penned for previous games and responding to the game’s steampunk/1800s look with a score that includes several rich classical influences. Richard Wagner’s Teutonic operas were a natural fit for the game’s story of godlike creatures interfering in mortal life and the ascent of characters to godhood (if not quite draining the gods’ power to run machines and having an insane jester be the one to so ascend), but Uematsu also looked to his beloved prog-rock groups–many of whom had themselves been influenced by Wagner and his contemporaries–for inspiration as well. Thus one can hear echoes of Queen and the rock operas of the 1970s and 1980s as well, resulting in a score that’s a fascinating melange of influences and instruments, with (synth) orchestral elements alongside guitar, synths, and the closest the SNES was able to come to human voices in 1993. Uematsu himself would later say that after finishing the score he could retire from game music with no regrets.

With fourteen player characters, and two villains to boot, Uematsu responded by adapting the Wagnerian leitmotif in a John Willams vein, giving every character their own theme and often one or two variations thereon. This thematic diversity is unprecedented, with very few games past or present attempting anything like it; Uematsu himself never attempted the same level of theme and variations even in his later leitmotivic Final Fantasy scores. There is no main theme as such, but “Terra’s Theme” serves as the closest equivalent, with the largest number of variations dominating the first part of the game where the amnesic magic-user Terra serves as a player analog. “Terra’s Theme” serves as the first world map theme, presenting a hauntingly sad melody on panpipes with synth orchestral accompaniment, but the melody is introduced in a more subdued oboe version with militaristic snare at 2:32 in “Opening Theme.” A gentle piano rendition in “Awakening” is closer to a true theme for Terra based on its usage in the game, and listeners are treated to a bittersweet full synth orchestral reprise at 7:46 in “Ending Theme” and again on solo flute at 16:46 as the character manages to survive the end of all magic in her world. Uematsu also gives “Terra’s Theme” interesting twists in “Save Them!” with the theme in counterpoint to brassy action music at :32, and twisted into an anguished form at :12 in “Metamorphosis.”

The gambling airship pilot Setzer has a surprisingly heroic theme in C major that, interestingly, is reprised extremely frequently throughout Uematsu’s score. In addition to “Setzer’s Theme, which takes up the melody on brass, there is a heartbreaking version in A major for solo piano with acoustic guitar accents in “Epitaph,” representing the character’s lost love. The first airship theme, “Blackjack,” returns the theme to brass with an optimistic, opulent air for the flying pleasure palace, while a tender reprise in C major can be found at 1:28 in “Ending Theme.” Bold and triumphant strains of Setzer’s theme dominate the latter half of “Ending Theme” during the game’s credits, providing resounding accompaniment to his airship’s triumphant sendoff. Similarly, “Locke’s Theme” presents a heroic theme for an antihero, giving the thief/treasure hunter a heroic string melody with rambunctious percussion accompaniment, a reprise in tragic mode for the character’s own lost love in “Forever Rachel,” and a reprise in the “Ending Theme” at 6:36. The latter represents some of the most complex counterpoint Uematsu ever attempted, cannily blending Locke’s theme with that of his new love, Celes, as the music deftly switches from one theme to the other. Reams more could be written on each theme and its reprises, especially in the astonishing 21 minutes of “Ending Theme” which runs through every one of them in sequence; from the Morricone-esque whistles of “Shadow’s Theme” to the resounding cello of “Gau’s Theme” there’s nary a weak link to be found.

Celes’ theme is the centerpiece of the game’s trademark opera, a 16 minute stretch that employs synthesized (wordless but synched to Japanese lyrics) vocals for a sequence in which a character takes the place of a prima donna. There is a definite influence of Wagner and Verdi in the portentous “Overture,” the tender variation on Celes’ theme in “Aria de Mezzo Carattere” (“Aria of Half Character,” presumably a reference to the character impersonating an opera singer) the overwrought “The Wedding” and the goofy “Grand Finale?” battle track. There’s no denying that the synth opera voices sound a little tinny and silly to latter-day ears–it was 1993 after all–but they do an excellent job in spite of their limitations. Taken together, the opera excerpts represent Uematsu’s music at its most comic but also its most classical, and presages the increading use of live voices in the series, in both as choral or classical and ribald pop modes.

Final Fantasy VI‘s insane jester villain Kefka and the Empire he works for (and later kicks to death) get a theme each. Kefka’s is a prancing and deceptively lighthearted comic dance that shows up in fragments in “Last Dungeon,” and “Dancing Mad” while the Empire receives the polar opposite, a dour and serious motif that ranges from martial (“Troops March On”) to ominous (“Under Martial Law,” “The Empire Gestahl”). The pick of the villains’ music, though, is the game’s battle themes; while both the electric guitar of “The Decisive Battle” and the aggressive tympani and orchestral fury of “The Fierce Battle” are notable, the “Dancing Mad” final boss suite towers over them all. Tipping the scales at over 17 minutes, “Dancing Mad” is divided into four distinct movements that each loop twice, corresponding to a different tier of the final boss and running the gamut of styles from classical opera to prog rock. The first tier reprises earlier material from “Opening” and “Catastrophe” into a fully orchestral mode with breathing noise accents and operatic voices for the most aggressive music in the game, while the second lets loose with synth opera vocals, percussion, and organ. The third tier is, of all things, an extended fantasia for organ with interpolations of “Kefka’s Theme,” not really menacing at all but impressive and abstract all the same; the final tier unleashes progressive rock with interludes of mournful voices and laughter and more fragments of the villain’s theme. It all flows together wonderfully despite the diversity of styles, and serves as an excellent lead-in to the 20 minutes of glorious thematic reprises that bring the score to a close with “Ending Theme.”

The major impediment to enjoying Uematsu’s work is, as with virtually all his pre-Final Fantasy VIII scores, the sound quality. The SPC 700 sound chip in the SNES was among the strongest synthesizers of its console generation, and sound programmer Minoru Akao and sound engineer Eiji Nakamura worked with Uematsu to wring everything they could out of it. For the time, the sound is excellent, in places even stronger than the MIDI Final Fantasy VII, and the music uses an impressive variety of specialty instruments from bagpipes to mouth harps to the aformentioned synth vocals. Final Fantasy VI‘s synths also have a rich reverb like Final Fantasy IV, eschewing the dry sound of Final Fantasy V. But the fact remains that the music is synthesized, obviously synthesized, and this will be a fatal blow for many listeners regardless of the quality of the underlying melodies. There have been rearrangements, of course, but none of them has ever matched the mix of the original: orchestral remixes give short shrift to Uematsu’s electronic and prog-rock influences, synth remixes neglect the fine orchestral lines, and even the most faithful live arrangements aren’t able to get the volume balance quite right, with some instruments drowning others out. The technical complexity of re-recording the score–which would involve recording and mixing every section of the orchestra and every line of synths separately and mixing them together–is probably too daunting, though. A few other irritating quirks–mostly brief sound effects–also mar a few tracks.

Upon release, Final Fantasy VI was a big hit for Square, and so was its score. Several arrangement albums were released before the year was out, including an orchestral album, a piano arrangement, and a full 23-minute live recording of the opera scene. This acclaim extended to the USA as well, where Square put out a deluxe 3-CD set identical in content to the Japanese release under the title Kefka’s Domain. Though available only via mail order, it was one of only three CDs released by Square during the 16-bit era (alongside Secret of Mana and Secret of Evermore) and both it and the Japanese pressing remain readily available domestically or through importers. Uematsu’s score is, in strict musical terms, probably the most creative and complex of his entire career; it’s certainly the most thematic. And for all its crazy-quilt of musical influences from Queen to Wagner to Morricone, Final Fantasy VI is able to craft disparate elements into a unique and compelling whole. It was, and remains, Uemastu’s career high and the finest score of the 16-bit era and the Final Fantasy series as a whole.

Rating: starstarstarstarstar