Starship Troopers (Basil Poledouris)

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Dutch director Paul Verhoven’s 1997 film Starship Troopers, very loosely based on the Robert Heinlein novel of the same name, combined the director’s trademark satirical wit with a massive budget and marketing campaign, with mixed results. The tongue-in-cheek aspects of the movie flew over many theatergoers’ heads, leading them to mistake its overblown jingoism and ludicrous fascist overtones to be completely sincere,  and Starship Troopers had to settle for cult success, eventually spawning two low-budget direct-to-video sequels. For the film’s score, Verhoven reunited one last time with his perennial collaborator, the late Basil Poledouris, with whom he’d worked on 1985’s Flesh + Blood and 1987’s Robocop.

In general, rather than playing to Starship Troopers‘ sly humor, Poledouris chose to follow his own precedent from Robocop and play things straight, reserving openly parodic music for the periodic over-the-top propaganda broadcasts in the film (much as he had done for the satirical commercials in Robocop). The light parody from those broadcasts is represented on album with the overblown “Fed Net March” at the beginning of the disc and the Elfmanesque coda in “They Will Win.”

In fact, Poledouris was inspired to create his most massive and thematically complex score in over a decade. The centerpiece of the album and of the score is “Klendathu Drop,” a bold, brassy martial piece that’s truly electrifying. The Mobile Infantry theme introduced therein is the theme that Poledouris develops the most in the score, and highly satisfying reprises exist in “The Destruction Of The Roger Young” and “Brainbug.” A charming, optimistic theme for the character of Carmen is introduced in “Asteroid Grazing” and sadly absent from the rest of the score. Finally, the malevolent (or misunderstood) bugs get their own theme as well, a brutal, percussive ostinato that snakes through “Tango Urilla” and is given a full airing in “Bugs!!” Throughout the score, Poledouris weaves his themes into a robust action set pieces, with “Tango Urilla” as perhaps the outstanding example, weaving the bug theme together with layers of brass and strings for one of the most breathless and exciting action cues of the 1990s. It’s really a pity that the similar “Evacuation” cue was left off the Varése album.

The real tragedy of Starship Troopers is that the album release, by Varése Sarabande, is so pitifully short. Due to the labyrinthine studio music system in the late 1990’s before the AFM renegotiated its musical re-use fees, the only legitimate release for the music was one of Varése’s patented “thirty-minute specials,” with a pop song performed by Poledouris’ daughter Zoë tacked on the end (presumably, acquiring the rights to Zoë’s music was not difficult for her father). “Into It” is a dreadful end to the album—Zoë Poledouris’s composition doesn’t fit in with her father’s music at all, and would be better suited to a “music from and inspired by” compilation. A second pop song performed by the younger Poledouris, a cover of David Bowie’s “I Have Not Been To Oxford Town,” remains unreleased.

Thirty minutes is simply not enough for the full breadth of Basil Poledouris’ work. Themes that are woven throughout the score appear only once on album, making the entire effort seem less complex and more fragmented. The spectacular theme for Carmen, for example, is only given a brief cameo in “Asteroid Grazing,” and the motif for Razcek’s Roughnecks isn’t fully aired, appearing for only a few seconds in “Tango Urilla.” Thankfully, the DVD release of the film features a full isolated score with commentary from Poledouris (who doesn’t talk over the music), allowing the score to be heard in its entirety; this DVD, and the many score bootlegs it spawned, are reportedly the primary reason that Starship Troopers hasn’t been reissued as a deluxe limited edition, unlike many of Poledouris’s works.

Both the Varése Sarabande “thirty-minute special” and the DVD release of Starship Troopers are still widely available. Taken together, they comprise Basil Poledouris’ best work for Verhoven and some the most exhilarating sci-fi music ever composed. It’s a real shame that Poledouris never had the chance to write anything in a similar vein again, leaving Starship Troopers as his final magnum opus in the genre. A sequel album for the direct-to-video Starship Troopers 2 is also available from Varése, which includes references to some of Poledouris’ material and, in an ultimate irony, is twice the length of the original release despite having far less interesting material. Starship Troopers 3: Marauder, shot on a shoestring budget, was scored entirely with synths and make no allusions to Poledouris’s themes.

Still, if a thirty-minute sampler of highlights from Basil Poledouris’ most ambitious and thematically complex sci-fi score is enough to sate you, despite the vast number of excellent cues and thematic development missing from the release, the Varése product will suffice. Otherwise, buy the DVD and watch the score streamed to picture with Poledouris’s comments and feel a fresh pang of sadness at a talented musical voice silenced too soon,

In film: * * * * *
On album: * * *
Overall: * * * *

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Serenity (David Newman)

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When Joss Whedon revealed that a movie based on his brilliant but short-lived TV series Firefly was in the works, most fans expected that Firefly composer Greg Edmonson, or perhaps Carter Burwell (who had collaborated with Whedon on 1992’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer), to score it. Instead, Whedon, on the advice of Universal music executives, turned to David Newman, who seemed a very odd choice given his background in comedy scoring. On closer inspection, Whedon’s choice makes a lot of sense: Newman had continually proven himself to be an able and creative composer even when working on risible comedies, and had experience in the sci-fi genre, having scored 1999’s popular GalaxyQuest. Furthermore, David Newman was the son of the legendary Alfred Newman, a composer renowned for his score to How the West Was Won, one of the finest westerns ever put to film.

Newman crafts a strong, folksy string tune that serves as the main theme for Serenity, appropriately enough first heard in the track “Serenity.” This western sound predominates at the beginning and end of the album, but Newman returns to it throughout, handing it off to the brass for use as a heroic fanfare, or to an array of ethnic and percussion instruments for a twisted rendition in “Mal Decides.” It’s much more thematic than Edmonson’s Firefly material, but draws from the same inspiration and uses similar instrumentation. Newman also creates an ethereal piano work for the character of River, which is attractive but frustratingly never given a full, concert-style performance.

The middle sections of Serenity are comprised largely of loud action sequences that incorporate electronics and aggressive orchestral writing. While there is  a grinding/squealing motif for the villainous Reavers, this music is largely themeless, aside from statements of the main theme or River’s theme. This does not mean that the tracks are dull, however: Newman adds a variety of ethnic instruments to the work, taking a cue from his brother and the ethnically diverse world of the film. The ferocious “Space Battle” cue is a rousing example of this, filled with booming brass and thunderous percussion offset against more intimate fiddles and ethnic strings.

The action material in the middle is more dissonant, more challenging, and less of a crowd-pleaser, which led to many negative reactions from film and score fans. While some of the more chaotic tracks can drag a bit, Newman is generally skillful at keeping the material listenable and interesting. Overall, the solid thematic material that opens and closes Serenity, and the better action cues like “Space Battle” more than maks up for the more atonal action music. The album’s great shortcoming, if it can be said to have one, is the lack of a few short but engaging cues from the film’s midsection: more folksy cues like “Going to See Inara” and “Flash Bomb Escape” could have helped break up the heavier action music somewhat.

Sadly, Serenity would be the only collaboration between Newman and Whedon; the director’s next film, the mega-hit The Avengers, came at a time when Newman was semi-retired from film scoring in favor of his work with youth orchestras, and The Avengers received a serviceable Alan Silvestri score instead. Nevertheless, anyone looking for a tuneful extension of Greg Edmonson’s soundscape for the Firefly TV series, and a score that successfully combines Western and sci-fi musical elements, need look no further.

* * * *

Serenada Schizophrana (Danny Elfman)

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Film music has often been compared unfavorably (and unfairly) to concert hall music; over the years, this has led many film composers to dabble in writing concert works. John Williams wrote several such pieces, as did Elmer Bernstein, and Elliot Goldenthal’s concert output threatens to outpace his film scoring of late. Danny Elfman isn’t a composer one would readily associate with the concert hall–his status as a self-taught musician has always cast him as a sort of outsider in the musical community. Nevertheless, the American Composers Orchestra chose to commission Elfman to write an original symphonic piece (the only film composer so honored), and Serenada Schizophrana debuted at Carnegie Hall in early 2005, earning rave reviews and paving the way for additional concert, art installation, and ballet pieces from Elfman in the decade to follow.

As Elfman attested in several interviews, Serenada was created in a strange manner–the composer forced himself to write short pieces every day for a period of several weeks, and then began to develop those musical fragments into longer pieces. Eventually, six distinct movements emerged, augmented on disc by a brief end stinger and bonus track. The “schizophrana” in the title is well-earned, as the movements share no consistent themes or motifs. Rather, Danny Elfman’s unique personal style is what ties them together, and it’s a telling sign of Eflman’s maturity as a composer that his style is up to the task.

The album begins with “Pianos,” a series of complex and jagged figures for piano (obviously) and orchestra which recalls some of Elfman’s strongest film work. It’s driving and propulsive music, and a strong opening. Unfortunately, the next movement, “Blue Strings,” is the longest and also weakest. It’s low-key music that’s heavily reminiscent of Red Dragon, rumbling through troubled string figures and occasionally hinting at Hermannesque stabbing motions. Yet the movement never really goes anywhere; it’s content to malinger and hint at its potential.

“A Brass Thing,” the third movement, is far brassier then the previous two, with copious church bells and sections of jazzy instrumentation. There are even a few rambling piano figures that recall Beetlejuice, though never reaching the wild and wacky heights of that score. “The Quadruped Patrol,” which Elfman described as a contest between a big dog and a little dog, returns to the jagged style of the first movement, but far more string-led and percussive. “Quadruped” also features some of Elfman’s trademark choral work, its first appearance in the Serenada.

It’s in the fifth track, “I Forget,” that the choir comes into its own. In a rare move for Elfman, the singing isn’t wordless (it’s Spanish), and it mixes perfectly with the sprightly, dark orchestral ruckus Elfman whips up. “I Forget” is Serenada’s highlight, and shows that Elfman probably has an opera or two in him, if he ever decides to write one. “Bells and Whistles” is another subdued track, though far more interesting in its development than “Blue Strings.” “End Tag” is too short and underdeveloped to have much of an impact, but the jazzy “Improv for Alto Sax” brings the CD to a strong close.

While Serenada Schizophrana isn’t as cohesive or enjoyable as Elfman’s best film works, it is still a very strong piece of music on its own merits, and represents a bold move in the composer’s career. Still, the album is classic Elfman, and highly recommended to fans as well as naysayers. Elfman’s later non-film work includes, a shorter second concert work (The Overeager Overture) for conductor John Mauceri’s farewell concert, a ballet with Twyla Tharp (Rabbit and Rogue), and music to accompany the Tim Burton art installation at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. One can only hope that more opportunities to hear Danny Elfman’s distinctive musical style in its purest form, albeit unhindered by the need to match images or maintain consistent themes, will follow.

* * * *

Being Julia (Mychael Danna)

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An obscure but well-received 2004 feature starring Annette Benning, Being Julia played out the tale of an aging actress during the golden age of cinema and nabbed its leading actress an Oscar nomination. Hungarian director István Szabó dabbled extensively in both European and Hollywood cinema before and after the film, and with the semi-retirement of Maurice Jarre, who gave the director’s previous English-language feature Sunshine one of his final (and finest) scores, Mychael Danna was hired for the project. One of a pair of stately period pieces (Vanity Fair being the other) the Canadian scored back-to back after the disappointment of his 2003 Hulk rejection, the talky picture had relatively little room for a traditional dramatic score.

Varèse Sarabande can’t be accused of holding anything back; Danna’s entire score is on the album down to the last track. It’s an incredibly short score, a mere 22:28 when stripped of the songs padding out the album, and with 22 score tracks that means that the average song is scarcely over a minute long. In fact, none of the score tops three minutes, 14 of the score tracks are less than a minute long (with three clocking in at under 30 seconds), and the shortest lasts a mere 13 seconds! It’s no wonder the album was padded a bit, as even with 13:34 of period songs it barely tops 36 minutes, nearly the exact length of Varèse’s “30-minute specials” from the 80s and 90s before the AFM musical re-use rule changes.

Ordinarily–at least when the artist is not Thomas Newman–the presence of so many short tracks means that the music will inevitably be highly fragmented, content to Mickey Mouse along with the action and little else. To his credit, Danna sidesteps this through the clever use of a wonderful theme. First heard in the opening track, “Curtain Up,” the theme is a delight, with sweeping neo-classical movements and a rapturous full-orchestral sound that is malleable enough to be adapted into forms both sprightly and dark. Hardly a track on the album goes by where Danna is not referencing his theme, whether in quirky pizzicato mode (“Birthday Presents”) or arranged for heartbreak and tragedy (“It Will Only End in Tears”). The score has only the one theme, and it is repeated early and often, but such is not always a problem–Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings certainly has 22 minutes of various themes kicking around all told.

The album is rather poorly produced, though: a recurring problem in period movies that use older songs to pad out the score CD (to bring up Thomas Newman again, his The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile are key examples of this). The songs break up the score, being completely different in tone and style, and they also suffer from muffled and archival sound which is inconsistent with not only the score but also each other. Nothing jars one out of experiencing Danna’s pristine new recording of variations on his theme than a song which was recorded on 1930s technology and sounds like is has spent the intervening 80 years in a hot barn surrounded by steel wool. A much more logical decision would have been to program Danna’s score as a whole, with the songs clustered at the beginning or end of the album.

While Being Julia remains a relatively obscure film on its own merits and in Mychael Danna’s filmography, the composer was able to transcend many limitations that hamstring short-tracked albums though the consistent application of his theme. While the music’s bittiness does remain a concern, and it’s too bad that the score was broken up by songs, the CD is well worth seeking out at the right price. One of the titles in Varèse Sarabande’s infamous “Family Dollar Housecleaning,” the album can often be found new for as little as $3 or $4 at the discount chain.

* * *

Starcraft (Glenn Stafford, Derek Duke, and Jason Hayes)

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Blizzard Entertainment’s 1997 follow-up to their smash-hit real-time strategy game Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness was not a sequel but an expansive re-imagining of the entire video game genre. With its three sides with different play styles and different strengths and weaknesses, it offered a compelling and deep level of strategy that had been aped by most RTS games since. Its online popularity, especially in South Korea, means that tournament style online play continues to this day, over a decade after the initial release.

For the game’s music, Blizzard turned to its in-house composers Glenn Stafford, Derek Duke, and Jason Hayes, who over the years had worked on everything from Warcraft to Diablo, generally composing  music that was functional but with few outstanding tracks that were listenable on their own. Starcraft, with its expansive canvas and distinct music requirements for each of the three playable races, inspired them to some of the finest music to grace a Blizzard product or an RTS in general.

The Terrans and their music feature a surprising and brilliant innovation—the insubordinate space rednecks on screen are supported by tunes which pull significant inspiration from country western music. Steel guitars, electric guitars, and all manner of hillbilly instruments, suitably modernized, lend each of the Terran songs a distinct Mason-Dixon flair. The fact that Starcraft is science fiction isn’t forgotten; generous amounts of spacey brass and electronic embellishments—even a choir!—are added to the mix, often splitting the melody with the guitars while the country aspects play backup and bass.

“Terran One” is the best mixture of these elements, a note-prefect and creative five minutes. “Terran Two” emphasizes the sci-fi aspects of the game much more in its first half, with a more electronic approach overall and most of the country aspects shifted to the latter half. “Terran Three” is more strident, with a greater country influence and less sci-fi. All three are excellent throughout. The “Terran Victory” on the official disc is an alternate, only used in a cinematic, and that’s unfortunate; the ingame version is a heroic anthem, the most straitlaced human song. “Terran Ready Room” is the sole weakness of the humans; it’s industrial ambiance that’s unsettling but little else—perhaps better suited to the Zerg.

In stark contrast (and out of order, since they are the final campaign in the game) come the Protoss. As one might imagine, their music is more subtle and electronic with a definite new age vibe running through it. With a light choir, soaring harps and electronics, and distorted electronics (often sounding like they were recorded through a pool of water) the Protoss music is soothing and ambient without being dull. The music is both melodic and new-age, highlighted by the best briefing music in the game, though the victory theme is strangely missing.

The Zerg are the album’s weak spot. While one wouldn’t expect alien bugs to merit a symphonic approach, their music unfortunately consists of a mélange of grinding electronic and industrial noise, with little continuity and even less musicality. It’s certainly unsettling—even alien—but listening to the dreary Zerg music is about as fun as listening to the Zerg themselves (who are even deprived of the funny quotes Blizzard traditionally gives their RTS units in the game). Listening to “Zerg1,” “Zerg 2,” and “Zerg 3,” one is tempted to skip right over all fifteen minutes of their dreary tuneless music.

There are a few bright spots to be found in the Zerg broods, however. “Zerg Ready Room” offers a menacing and spooky sound through its use of a descending series of notes and an eerie theremin. This approach, which hearkens back to space monsters from 1950’s B-flicks without sacrificing mood or intensity, would have been intriguing if it had been extended to the whole species. Likewise, “Zerg Victory” twists the aliens’ chosen soundscape into something fierce and melodic. That balls-to-the-wall approach could have worked very well if it had been extended, but it remains a lone highlight. “Zerg 1” also features a section, starting about a minute in, that hints at what could have been if the hive had embraced a more melodic sound; it’s unfortunately brief.

The 2007 iTunes release of the Starcraft score, the easiest way to obtain the music legitimately, includes music from the game’s Brood War expansion as well, mostly from its cutscenes. The mostly short snippets do offer some noteworthy departures from the rest of the music, though, like the “Brood War Aria,” which reaches heights of Russian choral magnificence unheard anywhere else on the album. An additional in-game track was composed for each race in the expansion but is not featured on the 2007 album; this is not a crippling omission. The dark, Russian-influenced track for the Terrans doesn’t fit in at all with the rest of their music, and the Protoss/Zerg tracks are so similar to what already exists on album that they blend in seamlessly and aren’t missed.

In short, there is much to enjoy about the music of Starcraft, especially given Blizzard’s tendency, before and after, to produce bland functional music without much heart for their games. Only the fact that the Zerg material is completely ambient with no listening value outside of the game keeps it from receiving the highest recommendation.

* * * *

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: The Game (Jeremy Soule)

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By 2005, the Harry Potter feature films were becoming darker, soapier, and more critically lauded. A fourth film in the series was never in doubt, nor was a video game to accompany it. For the first time in the series, someone other than John Williams composed the music, and one might have expected game series composer Jeremy Soule to bow out as well. But Soule had never used Williams’ themes, preferring to develop his own, and he returned for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, providing a sense of musical continuity absent from the big-screen version of the story.

Soule’s score doesn’t have much in common with Patrick Doyle’s music for the film, and he continued his practice of coining an all-new title theme for the game and then ignoring it in the subsequent underscore. The “Goblet of Fire Theme” is cut from the same cloth as the others, with a shade of the twinkling personality and chorus of the second and third games. It’s easily the highlight of the music, as well as one of only two pieces that exceeds two minutes in length.

The remainder of the music, as with Soule’s other series scores, is linked by his distinctive personal style. Far more than any of the others, in album or fan-made game rip form, Soule’s Goblet of Fire is an ambient score. Soule can work very well in this style; the beautiful “Greenhouse” and “Greenhouse 2” cues work a subtle kind of magic and are highlights. But there is also copious filler, such as “Ambient” or the twin “Spooky” tracks near the end, which are curious choices given what was left off of the brief album yet appears in-game and in the aforementioned fan rips.

Much of the rest is wildly inconsistent, ranging from the light Celtic beat of “Irish Campsite” to the bizarre creaky vocals of  “Erk Voice Piano.” The action music, as heard in “Erk Creature” and “Dragon Challenge” is serviceable but often underwhelming especially considering the thunderous action music Soule provided for the other Potter games he scored. Part of the problem is the short length of most of the songs: most are under a minute in length, and none are looped as they often were in the game itself.

Initially there was no album for Soule’s Goblet of Fire work, although fan gamerips soon abounded. A year after the game’s debut, EA released an album of score as an iTunes exclusive digital download, alongside Soule’s music for the first three Potterverse games and his Quiddich World Cup. Poor production values plague these releases, which were seemingly thrown together with little quality control. While Goblet is missing the jarring hard stops found in earlier albums, many of the suites are still badly assembled and padded with silence. Worse, the short running time (only 25 minutes) leaves out some of the very best music from the game, such as the Death Eater attack.

That is not the most perverse fact about this score, either. In late 2009, Electronic Arts and its E.A.R.S. music label pulled most of their released Harry Potter video game music from circulation for reasons which are still unclear. Soule’s work for Sorcerer’s Stone, Chamber of Secrets, Prisoner of Azkaban, and Quiddich World Cup were all removed from Amazon and iTunes. While flawed, and assembled with the same seeming lack of care and considerable musical omissions as Goblet of Fire, the removed digital albums were the only legitimate source of music from the games aside from fan-made game rips or purchasing the PC games to assemble such a rip oneself. Worse, James Hannigan’s astonishing, well-produced score albums for Order of the Phoenix and Half-Blood Prince, both infinitely superior to Nicholas Hooper’s work on the films, were removed from circulation at the same time. Of the six Harry Potter game scores released (Hannigan’s Deathly Hallows scores were released after the takedown and never had an album release), only Goblet of Fire remains available to purchase at Amazon. As with the takedown of the rest of the music, no explanation for this bizarre circumstance is forthcoming.

Goblet of Fire is ultimately among Soule’s weakest work in the franchise, a curiously muddled effort made worse by the poor album presentation. Without a consistent style, and with such short tracks, it ultimately fails as a listening experience. Fans should know that they will need to supplement the music with fan-made rips and make some edits, but even in complete form the music largely fails to impress. As Goblet is also Soule’s last Potter score before handing off the baton to James Hannigan, and it’s unfortunate that the album couldn’t provide a better sendoff to his involvement in the series. But its strange status as the last remaining legitimate album of Harry Potter game music means that it is worth sampling, if only to get a glimpse of the wider sonic world of which customers who failed to buy in time were deprived.

* *

Dawn of Mana (Kenji Ito, Tsuyoshi Sekito, Masayoshi Soken, and Ryuichi Sakamoto)

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Dawn of Mana, known in Japan as Seiken Densetsu 4, was been a long time coming; despite a variety of other games in Square-Enix’s long-running series (known as the Mana series stateside), none have come close to the popular and critical acclaim that Secret of Mana (Seiken Densetsu 2 in Japan) or Legend of Mana received in the 1990’s. While reactions to the game were decidedly mixed, there was been considerable interest in the new game’s score among video game music enthusiasts. After all, the list of composers attached to the project in one way or another is extremely impressive. The album clocks in at an impressive four discs, longer than any of the previous series sets, with Disc 4 given entirely over to new remixes of thematic material from previous games in the series, including music by fan favorites Hiroki Kikuta from Secret of Mana and Yoko Shimomura from Legend of Mana.

Chief among the exciting factors in Dawn of Mana was the involvement of noted concert and film composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, an Oscar winner for The Last Emperor, though his work turned out to be limited to the game’s introductory theme. Sakamoto’s four-minute title track is fairly subdued, piano-driven, and mostly effective. It introduces a few melodic fragments that are taken up later by the game’s main composers, but does stick out a bit, as it’s the only piano track on the album and one performed in a far more classical style than the rest, to say nothing of being acoustic rather than synthesized.

Kenji Ito, who has been the most prolific composer in the Mana series, with scores to the original Seiken Densetsu, its remake, and side games like Children of Mana under his belt, returns for Seiken Densetsu 4. Ito’s work has never resonated with the VGM community the way Hiroki Kikuta and Yoko Shimomura’s series contributions have, but Ito’s music has been consistently pleasant and professional. Ito obligingly dusts off his old theme from the original Seiken Densetsu, and offers performances of it in “Rising Sun” and again near the end of the album. Ito’s tracks are generally soft and pleasant, but many are unremarkable as well, with few strong melodies and even fewer consistent melodic ideas shared between tracks. It’s also very curious that the older Ito material on Disc 4 isn’t arranged by Ito himself, since he clearly was involved with the project and rearranging his existing themes to an extent.

In many ways, Tsuyoshi Sekito was the most exciting name attached to Dawn of Mana. Sekito’s previous arrangements of Nobuo Uematsu’s work for various Final Fantasy remakes has met with fan approval, and a high-profile series entry seemed the next logical step in his career. It’s unfortunate, then, that Sekito’s work is the weakest on the album, and generally subpar in every way. The composer leaned heavily on a sound that’s dominated by synthesized beats and ambiance. While this produces a few good tracks like “Emerald Shine” and “The Beast God’s Labyrinth,” they are by and large dull and meandering, and don’t share any themes or instrumentation with Ito’s portion. The rock tracks that Sekito brings to the table again produce a few positive results (such as “Burning Spirits”) but are most often extremely limp and uninteresting, especially when compared with the rock arrangements on Disc 4. It’s telling that Sekito’s best tracks are actually rearrangements of Hiroki Kikuta’s work (“Guardian Holy Beast Flammie”).

While early indications were that Junya Nakano, Masayoshi Soken, and Hirosato Noda would be functioning as co-composers in their own right, they are essentially arrangers in the album as presented. Nakano and Noda don’t have any original compositions, while Soken has a handful of generally pleasant original tunes at the tail end of the set. Their real work, though, was to arrange work from earlier in the Seiken Densetsu series. The rearrangements are generally strong and very involving, especially the music by Kikuta. “Don’t Hunt the Fairy,” “Weird Counterpoint,” and “Splash Hop” from Seiken Densetsu 3 (a game unreleased in the US and therefore without a Western title) and “Meridian Child” and “Child of the Sprite Tribe” from Secret of Mana get not one but two arrangements apiece. One is close in instrumentation to the original, serving as a sort of upgrade to the 16-bit Super Nintendo sound of the original, and the other is a sped-up rock version that takes severe liberties with the original.

Kikuta’s music is far more involving and interesting than the majority of Ito’s and Sekito’s, and the rock arrangements of Kikuta’s themes easily outshine the original rock pieces on the preceding discs. Shimomura’s original music from Legend of Mana isn’t as well represented, with only two arranged tracks, but Ito’s music for Seiken Densetsu gets a splendid treatment. Comparing Ito’s rearranged tracks, given delightful new life by Square Enix’s resident chiptune expert Hirosato Noda in particular, to his original Seiken Densetsu 4 compositions is almost an embarrassment.

One wonders why Kikuta or Shimomura weren’t hired outright, since their music so easily dominates the new material; from the limited material available, it seems as if Nakano or Soken could also have provided superior musical accompaniment to Ito and Sekito. As a result, Dawn of Mana is, despite the big names and bloated length, a disappointment, with largely mundane new material alongside fine rearrangements of older songs. Worst of all, the multi-composer approach destroys the album’s coherence, with wild variations in style and tone the norm. Though the album is to be commended for respecting the series’ musical roots in the rearrangements, none of the new material comes close in tone, instrumentation, melody, or memorability to Kikuta and Shimomura’s earlier, seminal work in the series. You are better off buying Kikuta’s Secret of Mana, its Genesis remix, and Shimomura’s Legend of Mana directly.

Ito: * *
Sekito: *
Others: * * *
Overall: * *

Saturn 3 (Elmer Bernstein)

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Saturn 3 was a troubled film from the post-Star Wars sci-fi boom. Beset with problems from day one, the film vanished without a trace at the box-office despite a high profile cast including Kirk Douglas, Farrah Fawcett (!), and Harvey Keitel; unlike many sci-fi films of the period, it failed to even garner much of a cult following since. In fact, Elmer Bernstein’s score and behind-the-scenes drama are virtually the only reasons the film is remembered today.

In many ways, Saturn 3 was a blast from the past for Bernstein, whose very earliest works had included science fiction B-flicks like Robot Monster during his blacklisting and exile from Hollywood. Unlike his contemporaries John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith, Bernstein was never able to produce a wildly popular sci-fi score with a big, bold title march: his latter-day sci-fi scores were either chained to Star Wars clone framework like Spacehunter or a offbeat eclectic cult experience like Heavy Metal. To Bernstein’s credit, he doesn’t attempt to ape the Star Wars space opera sound with this score–rather, he uses the awful film as a musical testing ground.

“Space Murder,” the nearly 10-minute-long first track, is a good representation of Saturn 3 in a nutshell. The cue opens with brassy, dramatic music that seems ready to explode into a statement of theme…and then promptly metamorphoses into a disco track to accompany the bizarre onscreen visuals of choreographed astronauts. The disco was left out of the final print, and for good reason–it’s jarring and completely out of sync with the rest of the score, just as the scene was out of sync with the rest of the movie. Even though Bernstein employs the novel technique of placing a deep male chant underneath the disco, the music is still extremely odd. The disco beat returns in track 5, “Blue Dreamers,” this time matched with female vocals, and the effect is just as bizarre.

At the end of “Space Murder,” though, is the album’s real strength: a tender, soaring love theme, complete with wordless female vocals. The theme was dialed out of the finished picture completely, and Bernstein went on to use it as “Taarna’s Theme” in his 1981 score for Heavy Metal, where he was able to give it far more power and development. On the Saturn 3 album, the love theme is heard far too infrequently, which only increases its contrast with the remainder of the score to the point that it’s almost as jarring as the disco music.

The rest of the score has Bernstein trying a multitude of techniques: male chants and whispers, brooding suspense music, percussive action cues, electronics, and more. It’s to the composer’s credit that these ideas work as well as they do, but the various experiments and clashing styles also prevent Saturn 3 from gelling into a cohesive score. The best parts of the music are often buried deep in lengthy cues, often only after several style changes. Part of this is due to the album’s structure (many of the cues were sewn together form shorter pieces of music during the mastering process) but even taking that into account, the music often seems fragmented and incoherent.

Saturn 3 is more interesting than enjoyable, a musical experiment that flies in the face of most post-Star Wars science fiction scoring. It’s a fantastic indicator of Bernstein’s range even as it’s not the most listenable album. So, while many of the ideas presented are interesting, and there is some good suspense/action music to be heard, Saturn 3 is probably of most interest to Bernstein completists and collectors–a fitting appraisal, as it was released as part of the limited-edition Intrada Special Collection. Only seek it out if you’ve got an open mind and are willing to embrace one of Elmer Bernstein’s most experimental and bizarre efforts in the sci-fi (or any other) genre.

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Passport to the Universe (Stephen Endelman)

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Film composers often find themselves creating scores for attractions and theme park rides; their experience with matching music to images makes this an ideal choice. This has led to attraction scores from Alan Silvestri (Back to the Future: The Ride), John Debney (The Phantom Manor), Basil Poledouris (Conan: A Sword and Sorcery Spectacular), and even James Horner (Captain EO). Stephen Endelman, while nowhere near as well known as many of the professionals in his field, built himself a solid resume with projects like The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain, Evelyn, and overachieving music for the risible reboot Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li. When the Hayden Planetarium in the American Museum of Natural History began work on a new show, Endelman was commissioned to write an original score to accompany it, a score that, unlike many of the aforementioned ones, received a full CD release..

Passport to the Universe consisted entirely of deep-space images and narration by Tom Hanks, allowing Endelman almost unlimited freedom to compose as he saw fit. As the composer writes in the liner notes, this seemed the perfect opportunity to “create a piece of music that would fuse both acoustic instrumentation and ambient soundscapes,” an idea that he had toyed with for some time. Due to this decision, the show’s sound effects are included directly into the score, at times given equal prominence with the orchestra, despite the oft-repeated fact that there is no sound in outer space for lack of a medium to travel through.

Endelman’s work skews strongly toward the ambient soundscape end of the musical spectrum he describes in the notes–while there is an orchestra, it is used as a sound effect in the show’s overall audio design. Aside from brief outbursts, most notably in “Cosmic Address,” the score is largely atonal, shying away from melody in favor of dense layers of background noise. At times, such as in “Black Hole Plunge,” the combination of orchestra and sound effects becomes so brutal and atonal that the music is difficult to listen to–seemingly random brass outbursts, church bell peals, and a low choir compete with wind sound effects to overwhelm the listener with noise.

Many of the other tracks, while admittedly less intense, suffer from a similar problem: since there is little melodic material, the lengthy passages of sound effects and low-key music are dull and plodding. One has to imagine that Endelman embraced the commission as an opportunity to write non-melodic music and experiment with aleatoric, atonal, musique concrète. As exciting a possibility as that may have been in the abstract, it results in something that only fans of John Cage or Krzysztof Penderecki at their most atonal could enjoy. Appreciate, perhaps, given the proper academic background and vocabulary, but not enjoy.

Therefore, as a piece of sound design and accompaniment to the planetarium show, Passport to the Universe is a success. But as a listenable piece of music, especially when divorced from the powerful on-screen images that accompanied the planetarium show, it fails utterly. One can’t help but feel that an approach that divided the sound design and music, isolating the effects from the score, would have been better. The album represents a wasted opportunity–rather than providing a powerful accompaniment to the cosmos, Endelman’s Passport underwhelms. A missed opportunity, recommendable only if forty minutes of minimalistic, ambient music complimented by sound effects is a listening experience you could appreciate.

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Once Upon A Forest (James Horner)

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James Horner has worked on some truly dreadful films during his career, and Once Upon A Forest is near the bottom. The 1993 film was a poorly-animated, preachy, and dull environmentalist treatise that was ignored at the box office; unlike the similarly preachy FernGully the year before, it doesn’t even have the consolation of a cult following (likely due to the lack of any performances with the gusto of Robin Williams or Tim Curry). Even to the devoted animation or children’s film enthusiast, Once Upon A Forest has little to recommend it aside from James Horner’s fine music.

As with many of his animated endeavours, stretching all the way back to An American Tail in 1986, Horner was asked to pen songs for the film. However, his contributions were not limited to a mere end credit ballad: Once Upon A Forest was a semi-musical with three songs. This allowed Horner to work with such noted vocalists as Michael Crawford (of Phantom of the Opera fame) and Ben Vereen, and the results were generally good. Crawford’s song, based on the film’s secondary theme, is underdeveloped but features a wonderful performance by the singer. Florence Warner Jones and the New London Children’s Choir bring a warm glow to “Once Upon A Time With Me” that makes the song compelling despite its nonsensical lyrics (oddly, identical versions of the song both open and close the album). “He’s Back,” a gospel song, has no relation to the rest of the score, but is performed with gusto and passes quickly.

Horner’s score uses the melody from “Once Upon A Time With Me” as its main theme, while weaving in aspects of “Please Wake Up” as circumstances demand. The opening tracks harken back to the composer’s work on The Land Before Time with long, flowing suites of music, most notably in “The Forest,” the album’s highlight. There’s some sprightly music in “The Journey Begins” as well–Horner takes a tiny motif from Willow, hardly developed at all in the former score, and works it into a rousing march. The composer’s infamous four-note danger motif makes an appearance during the album’s latter half, where it’s mostly used as counterpoint. Those are most egregious cases of Horner borrowing from himself in the score, though anyone who is enough of a fan of the composer to actually seek the obscure album out has likely made their peace with his continued Hornerisms.

Despite being chained to such a banal film, Once Upon A Forest is an engaging listen on album, full of melody and heart. The disc has become something of a rarity, thanks to the demise of Fox Records and the obscurity of the many Fox animated pictures of the 1990s; it commands a healthy price on the secondary market, but is well worth seeking out. For those interested, it offers one of James Horner’s above-average animation scores, as well as a return to writing songs for an animated musical of sorts, so long as you are not deterred by the scarcity of the album or the banality of the film.

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