Secret of Evermore (Jeremy Soule)

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Secret of Evermore was Squaresoft America’s lone foray into game production. Despite top-notch production values (including use of some pre-rendered elements in the game’s backgrounds) and the same engine that powered the popular Secret of Mana game, Evermore failed to find its audience, and Squaresoft America was reabsorbed into its corporate parent not long after. Composer Jeremy Soule has since carved out a name for himself, providing stirring orchestral and ambient scores for such high profile games as Prey, Knights of the Old Republic, Guild Wars, and the Elder Scrolls series. Secret of Evermore was Soule’s first-ever foray into game music, and it would offer him the opportunity to work with the most advanced synth of the Super Nintendo generation.

On disc, Secret of Evermore is split into two halves: the first eight tracks are arranged, and feature far better synth than the subsequent eleven. They also offered Soule a larger palette for his themes, which he takes full advantage of in arranging “10 Print Hello World” and “Greek Temple.” “10 Print…” is easily an album highlight, a stirring overture for brass and strings that bears only the faintest resemblance to its SNES counterpart, while “Greek Temple” blends orchestral and electronic effects to create haunting yet busy music. Curiously, many of the remaining arranged tracks are rather dull, and do not seem to merit the attention they were given — why rearrange the dull “Merchant Theme,” or the ambient “Ocean Theme?”

The SNES-era tracks are a different matter entirely. The mood is primarily dark and moody, as opposed to the generally more upbeat arranged tracks, and this darkness makes for some excellent melancholy music. Tracks like “Puppet Song,” “Freak Show,” and “The Scientist” exude mystery while remaining highly melodic and enjoyable, while the non-arranged “Greek Temple” tracks are more subdued but equally potent (except for some unfortunate synth effects in the first one). Whether or not you can stomach their sound is entirely up to your tolerance for retro gaming sounds; while Soule’s music is perhaps the most technologically sophisticated ever to grace the SNES, its inherently 16-bit nature will doubtless give some with little patience for that era’s video game synths powerful headaches.

There are also some lighter tracks, most notably the kooky “Tinkerer” and swirling “Ending Theme,” which adhere to the score’s darkness even at their most slapstick. Unfortunately, there are also several ambient tracks, like “The Rat’s Chamber” and “Quicksand Field” that develop little more than a menacing atmosphere. Still, on the whole, the SNES-era tracks are stylistically consistent and enjoyable, despite the omission of several tracks (such as the haunting “Hector’s Camp”) from the disc entirely despite its official “Complete” monicker.

Sadly, the Secret of Evermore Complete Soundtrack is nearly impossible to come by at reasonable prices. It was only issued directly by Squaresoft America, and therefore saw a very small number of copies manufactured before the publisher’s demise left it completely out of print. As such, the relative benefits the score offers have to be weighed against the exorbitant prices the album commands (as of this writing, $200 and up). Still, if you can find a copy for a reasonable price — especially if you’re a Jeremy Soule fan — it is a highly interesting listen despite its weak points.

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To Kill A Mockingbird (Elmer Bernstein)

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Based on the Pulitzer-Prize winning novel of the same name, To Kill A Mockingbird won near-universal acclaim and several Oscars upon its 1962 release. Elmer Bernstein’s score was nominated but did not win a statuette (losing to Maurice Jarre’s Lawrence of Arabia; it would be 1967 before Bernstein won his only Oscar for Thoroughly Modern Millie). Nevertheless, it remains arguably the composer’s finest work.

Since To Kill A Mockingbird is, in essence, a child’s-eye-view of racial turmoil, Bernstein wisely chose to develop his music around this theme, which he called “the magic of a child’s world.” To this end, the ensemble is small, with just a relative handful of performers and soloists, which lends the score a deceptively simple feel and intimacy. A highlight of this methodology, and the album as a whole, is “Main Titles,” which grows from a simple, halting piano melody into a gorgeous orchestral statement of theme. By adding successive layers of instrumentation, Bernstein builds from the image of a child picking out piano notes to a complex and fully-realized, but still intimate, piece of music.

The theme returns in the score proper in a variety of arrangements, alongside a menacing four-note motif for the villainous Ewell and a theme for Boo Radley. The Ewell material, as heard in cues like “Ewell Regret It,” is the album’s darkest, conjuring up images of a child’s worst fears–darkness, danger, and the menace inherent in them. Boo’s theme is more subdued until “Boo Who?” when a fully fleshed-out arrangement is offered, intermingled with the main and Ewell themes. There are also some sprightly cues near the beginning of the album, notably “Atticus Accepts The Case/Roll In The Tire,” that foreshadow some of Bernstein’s later work in the western genre.

Complicated rights issues meant that the original film tracks were never released; instead, there are several re-recorded albums available. The most definitive is the 1997 Varése Sarabande re-recording by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under the baton of Bernstein himself; this recording, which contains music unused in the final film, is still in print and carried by most major soundtrack outlets. To Kill A Mockingbird is highly recommended; in addition to being a beautiful work in its own right, it serves as an excellent introduction to Elmer Bernstein’s writing. While the composer would go on to write many more outstanding scores in every genre, Mockingbird remains his most lyrical and emotional work, and a true gem of film scoring.

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Mercury Rising (John Barry)

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A relatively anonymous high-concept thriller, Mercury Rising concerned the plight of an autistic child who can read top-secret government codes, and the efforts of a disgraced cop to protect him. The film attracted a high level of talent despite its flaws, including Bruce Willis, Alec Baldwin, and composer John Barry of James Bond fame. Despite his retirement from the superspy franchise in 1987, Barry continued scoring genre thrillers and action movies like The Specialist, but Mercury Rising was sadly unique in that it was the composer’s last action/suspense work before his death in 2011. In fact, Barry would only finish work on two films of any kind after Mercury Rising, 1998’s Playing be Heart and 2000’s Enigma.

Barry’s work combines a number of earlier elements from his scores, but primarily has two modes: a theme for the young Simon reminiscent of Barry’s lush, orchestral style, and suspense music that builds on the composer’s Bond work. Both are familiar elements in many Barry scores, and they don’t mesh particularly well in Mercury Rising. “Simon’s Theme,” which is repeated for tender scenes and occasionally used as counterpoint throughout the score, is the album highlight, combining as it does Barry’s Dances With Wolves style with a definite Bond influence. In fact, the tune sounds like nothing more than a love theme, which is probably appropriate, given that the film features a developing bond between Simon and Willis’ character. In his last years as an active composer, Barry showed a clear preference for this sort of slow, deliberate, romantic music to the point that much of it began to run together–there is, luckily, enough inherent Bondian darkness in “Simon’s Theme” to keep it from this.

The action and suspense material that fills out the balance of the album is far weaker, and despite the inclusion of several action setpieces in the film, remains at a level of simmering tension throughout. Menacing brass strokes and percussion comprise most of the material, which features occasional sultry sax interludes but still feels like a recycling of elements from Barry’s earlier music. The material never lets the tension explode into action–the murder of Simon’s family and the climactic gun battle, for example, are scored in essentially the same way: slow, troubled, and churning. In fact, Barry’s work was so low-key that some of it wound up being replaced with cues by Carter Burwell in the finished product–the sort of score rejection that was a hallmark of Barry’s late career, which found the composer unwilling or unable to step outside of his comfort zone.

As sad as it is given its place as the last tense thriller in his filmography, the irony is that with Mercury Rising John Barry produced a thriller score that is neither thrilling nor tense. “Simon’s Theme” and its variations are enjoyable, but the rest of the material drags the album down somewhat. Mercury Rising, despite its significance as Barry’s last action music, isn’t an essential album, and would probably be best suited to fans of Barry’s earlier, similar works and the film itself. If an attractive, lyrical theme in the John Barry tradition is enough of an attraction to overlook the composer’s subpar suspense and action music, replete with borrowings from earlier efforts, though, the brief album is relatively easy to find.

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Memories (Yoko Kanno, Jun Miyake, Hiroyuki Nagashima, and Takkyu Ishino)

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Director Katsuhiro Otomo is most famous for his epochal animated film Akira, which introduced many Westerners to the conventions and stylistics of Japanese animation. Otomo’s output since then has been sparse, with few subsequent films to date of which Memories (1995) was the most immediate follow-up to Akira. Memories is an anthology film which consists of three quite different short films written by Otomo, and the film employs a different composer for each segment.

Anthology films can be tricky, especially when there is little in common among the stories presented, and using a single composer for the entire project is one way to lend it a sort of unity, much as Jerry Goldsmith did for The Twilight Zone: The Movie or The Illustrated Man. Using four different composers, one for each segment and a fourth for the opening and closing titles, Memories creates a frighteningly fragmented soundscape, where the brilliant and the banal exist side-by-side.

“Magnetic Rose,” the first segment, tells the tale of a crew of astronauts who stumble upon an opera diva impossibly living in deep space. Yoko Kanno, well-known to many Westerners for her work on several popular anime series including Cowboy Bebop, employs the only real orchestra on the album in creating her score and mixes it with a full chorus representing the opera singer. At the same time, Kanno acknowledges the deep space setting of the story by using electronics as well, and manipulating the orchestra and chorus to sound disembodied or free-floating. Fragments of the famous aria from Puccini’s Tosca drift in and out of the music as the story’s clouded narrative progresses.

It’s a relentlessly bleak musical approach that results in beautiful opera solos, some original, some from Tosca, transposed with clanking and grinding electronics. There are moments of tremendous power in the score, usually when the chorus and orchestra come together as in the middle of “Mad Butterfly” or the chaotic “End.” The orchestra performs some gentler music on its own, notably in “Memories,” and the chorus features in many opera solos sprinkled throughout Kanno’s score, as well as the lovely “Chorale” and its reprise, which features an impressive if slightly incongruous solo saxophone accompaniment.

The main problem with Kanno’s thirty minutes of score is that the tracks tend to be uneven, reflecting the bizarre scenes the score accompanies. Several tracks only reach their full potential after several minutes of grinding electronics or meandering opera lyrics; “Mad Butterfly” even features the choir altered so it appears to be filtered through a radio. Still, the music contains many beautiful melodic moments and choral interludes, and Kanno’s work is the best that Memories has to offer.

The second segment, “Stink Bomb,” is the tale of a man who emits a cloud of toxic gas after taking an experimental flu medicine and the military’s futile efforts to kill him. Its score is by Jun Miyake, an artist better known as a soloist and arranger, and is nearly the polar opposite of Kanno’s difficult and cerebral work. Miyake takes a kitchen sink approach to the music, which runs for about twenty-six minutes. The score is made up of dozens of short tracks, ranging from vocals (“Good Morning Yamanashi”) to urban funk (“Nobuo’s Groove”) to jazz (“Ants”) and every style in between. While this reflects the goofy nature of a story about a man who is an unwitting living biological weapon who accidentally kills hundreds of thousands of people while riding on a pizza delivery scooter, it suffers as a listening experience by trying to out-silly the silliness on screen.

“Stink Bomb” is the mickey-mouse approach to animation at its worst, always ready to change style abruptly to follow the action on screen. At no time does it ever come together with any sort of cohesion, and this is especially notable given the tightness with which Kanno combined disparate genres on the same disc: for all its difficulties, “Magnetic Rose” always sounds like “Magnetic Rose.” Also notable are the poor vocal performances, which give “Stink Bomb’s” songs a laughable quality. Miyake’s work is poor in almost every regard, and suffers even more greatly from comparison to the cerebral “Magnetic Rose.”

Hiroyuki Nagashima’s brief 15-minute score for the final segment, “Cannon Fodder,” is the most obviously synthesized of the three. An obscure figure compared to the Kanno and Miyaki, Nagashima’s credits are limited to a handful of Japanese feature films, most of which never had an international release. The music is generally fragmented, much like Miyake’s, though there is a stronger cohesion between the tracks. The lengthiest of these,  “The Cannon’s Fanfare” isn’t a fanfare at all, but grinding industrial music that synchronizes clanging metal and other sound effects to a militaristic drum kit, an embarrassingly literal take on the notion of mechanization so prominent in the segment. That militaristic feel is what holds the music together, even as the other elements diverge.

There is some milder music in the “Boy and a Portrait” tracks, as well as “Lunch Time” (where it’s offset by a rather horrid electronic squeal), though. Despite its greater cohesion than “Stink Bomb,” “Cannon Fodder” is too short and too fragmented to make a pleasant listening experience, and its excursion into industrial music is eardrum-splitting. “Cannon Fodder” is a too-literal tale of a society so overly militarized that every aspect of daily life now revolves around firing gigantic cannons at a distant (possibly imaginary) “enemy moving city.” Nagashima, like Miyake, seems to have tried to match or outdo the film’s industrial cacophony of loading and firing, resulting in a score that is basically unlistenable outside of its context and frequently irritating within it.

Synthesist Takkyu Ishino’s contribution is limited, amounting to about seven minutes of electronic and trance-influenced music. A member of the technopop group Denki Groove, a DJ, and an occasional scorer of films and video games, Ishino provides the brief and atonal “Prologue” and the lengthy end credits suite “In Yer Memory.” The former is too short and bland to make much of an impact, while the latter is lively but unremarkable, and is at its best when Ishino mixes in portions of Kanno’s “Chorale” which contrast nicely with the former’s aggressive electronic rhythms.

In the end, it’s Yoko Kanno’s contribution to Memories that stands out the most, but given the difficult bleakness of that score, it’s not enough to redeem the album as a whole. “Magnetic Rose” is conveniently placed on the first disc, but the soundtrack as a whole should be avoided unless you’re willing to tackle Kanno’s chillingly bleak and difficult suite for chorus and orchestra. The rest is a forgetable hodgepodge of acoustic and electric sounds, or synthesized militaristic/industrial fanfares, and all three wildly divergent styles feel like they shouldn’t be part of the same album.

Magnetic Rose: * * * *
Stink Bomb: *
Cannon Fodder: *
Prologue/In Yer Memory: * * *
Overall: * * *

Les Miserables (Basil Poledouris)

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In the flurry of attention swirling about the musical version of Les Misérables by Claude-Michel Schönberg, Victor Hugo’s original novel seems to have been lost in the fray; many who have been introduced to the tale in its musical form may not even know of the book’s existence. Nevertheless, the tale was adapted for the big screen in 1998 as a straight drama, with Bille August in the director’s chair and Basil Poledouris in the recording booth. The film would prove to be their only collaboration, and one of Poledouris’ final high-profile projects before his death in 2006.

Fans of the composer hoping for a return of the bold period stylings displayed in Conan the Barbarian and Flesh + Blood will be disappointed; Poledouris’ score takes the novel’s dark and heavy subject matter to heart and provides a restrained, tragic atmosphere. While certainly listenable, the sheer volume of unrelentingly morose music on disc can become tiresome, as Poledouris keeps the score’s volume, tone and instrument set largely consistent; this is further aggravated by the terrible situation of the album itself (see below).

Only in portions of the final two tracks does Poledouris abandon his restrained, dour, and elegiac approach. “Paris” begins with a lovely, delicate theme for Cosette, which resurfaces later in the cue but is sadly absent from the rest of the score and lacks a full concert presentation. Whirling, joyous period music makes an appearance in the same track, tied to the city of Paris; again, this lovely melody isn’t further developed. The beginning of the final track, “The Barricades,” provides a momentary outburst of full orchestra before returning to more subdued music.

In film music circles, Poledouris’ Les Misérables is infamous for its butchered contents; the track times listed on the packaging are grossly wrong, adding almost twenty minutes to the running time. Furthermore, the disc eschews individual cues in favor of four long suites that are not indexed to tracks, meaning that much of the best music is buried in the middle of suites and difficult to access at will. The individual track names appended in parentheses are worthless for determining the suites’ contents, since each features far more than the four internal divisions assigned it. As a result of this dreadful situation, a bootleg album has been seen in circulation, with the lengthy cues broken up and properly labeled and paired with additional tracks (ironically bringing the album to its advertised length of 60 minutes).

The result of this dreadful presentation, coupled with the depressing lack of variation in much of the score, makes it difficult to recommend. But patient fans of Poledouris will no doubt be drawn to the music’s livelier parts, and the album isn’t terribly difficult to find. In a poignant finale to their collaboration, Poledouris dedicated the album to orchestrator Grieg McRitchie, who died shortly after the two worked on Starship Troopers. If you’re willing to sift through a poorly-presented album and a great volume of depressingly morose score for some truly lovely Poledouris music, this Les Misérables may be for you. Otherwise, you are better off waiting for the inevitable boutique label to come along and fix Hollywood/Mandalay’s mess.

Score: * * *
Album: *
Overall: * *

Lassie (Basil Poledouris)

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There was a fever of a sort going around Hollywood in the early 1990’s: dozens of old TV shows were unearthed and turned into major motion pictures in one of the industry’s more overt displays of bankrupt creativity, not unlike the “reboot” fever of the 2010s. Lassie, produced in 1994, came as the movement was at its height, yet surprisingly failed to find much of an audience. It’s since become a curiosity that’s chiefly of interest to score fans, since Basil Poledouris provided the film with one of his most obscure scores.

With Conan and Blue Lagoon on his resume the composer may not have been the knee-jerk choice for a children’s movie, but Poledouris no doubt landed the job as a result of his involvement with the massively popular Free Willy the year before. The two scores could not be more different, though: while Willy added electronics to an orchestra, Lassie is wholly orchestral, brimming with full-force Americana rather than contemporary electronics and a much closer cousin to Poledouris’s Quigley Down Under or Lonesome Dove.

The album begins strongly with “Main Title,” a full concert presentation of the main theme. Swirling strings, noble brass, and mournful woodwinds are deftly combined; the music sounds like it could serve as the powerful opening to a nature documentary. The Lassie theme is performed boldly several other times, most notably in the latter half of the album, with a powerful performance in “Lassie Saves Matt” and a slower reprise in “Reunion/Return.”

Lassie’s other cues are equally strong, often incorporating parts of the main theme in more subdued or playful arrangements, and always remaining true to the Americana sound established in the opening. The orchestrations are especially lush, with racing strings often serving as a counterpart to the brass blasts of the main theme. The entire score is painted in very broad strokes with full long-lined melodic development and none of the mickey-mousing or self-consciously cute music that infests so many modern children’s films, an approach used with great success by composers like James Horner and Jerry Goldsmith in their finest children’s scores.

The score album, which runs a little under forty minutes, was released by the short lived Sony Wonder boutique label at the time of the film’s debut and has since become rather hard to find. Fans of Poledouris and Americana are urged to seek it out, especially if they enjoy the late composer’s other scores for children’s movies, and would enjoy a broad Americana style in that context.

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The Hunt for Red October (Basil Poledouris)

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The novel that catapulted the late Tom Clancy into the international spotlight, The Hunt for Red October was a shoo-in for a major motion picture adaptation, attracting such A-list talent as director John McTiernan of Die Hard fame and actor Sean Connery. The film became one of the first action blockbusters of the 1990’s, and went on to become a staple on TV, while spawning a loose series of Jack Ryanverse sequels that continued with multiple reboots into the 2010s The film saw the only collaboration between McTiernan and the late Basil Poledouris, the production of one of Poledouris’ signature scores, and the composer’s most financially successful project.

The album opens with a Russian-language hymn, written by Poledouris, that immediately establishes a Slavic soundscape with its energetic performance. The hymn is reprised in “Nuclear Scam,” and a similar Russian-language choral vocal appears in “Ancestral Aid.” Wordless vocals are also an important part of several other cues, notably “Red Route I,” where they lend a sense of power and majesty to the music. There are slower cues as well; some, like “Red Route I,” use the chorus to build up a sense of majesty and wonder, giving effects shots the titular sub dramatic heft. “Two Wives,” which was sadly omitted from the finished picture in favor of tracked-in music from an earlier Poledouris score, is more traditionally orchestral, with a warm, melancholy woodwind melody reminiscent of some Golden Age scores.

Aside from the choral aspect of the album, Poledouris employs a combination of electronics (mostly in the form of “pulses” or “clangs”) and orchestra that builds on his earlier experimentation on projects like Cherry 2000. The electronic accoutrements give the orchestra a hard, hi-tech edge perfect for Clancy’s techno-thriller world, and help create a sense of drive and urgency in the action set pieces. The aforementioned “Nuclear Scam” is an excellent example of this, a powerhouse action cue that combines a full orchestra and choir with synthesized pulses, and the climactic “Kaboom!” ratchets up the electronics still further, producing a pulse-pounding musical cocktail for the climactic sub fight.

These “pulse” and “clang” effects help to unify the two halves of the score as well; after Poledouris had recorded the most important cues with a full orchestra and choir, the music budget was slashed to help make late reshooting possible. This left the composer and his team with only enough funds to complete the score electronically, and forcing them to be creative with previously recorded material where that could not be done. By cannily mixing together three cues and fading the choir in and out of the mix, for instance, Poledouris was able to craft an end credit cue so convincingly that many people thought it had been newly recorded. It’s to his credit, and his team’s, that the score hangs together as well as it does.

As with Poledouris’ later Starship Troopers, for many years the biggest drawback to The Hunt for Red October score on album was its brief running time, just a hair over thirty minutes on the original MCA release. This omitted fan-favorite material like the end credits suite and the first half of “Kaboom!” as well as many shorter cues, some from the orchestral recording sessions and others from the later synthesizer-only work. Bootlegs with atrocious sound proliferated until 2013, when Intrada released a limited edition with the complete score in film order. The longer work is mostly superior, though in a few places (“Red Route I” being the most obvious) synth clangs from the film mix are included that were absent on the original disc. Luckily, the album mixes are also presented as bonus tracks.

Amazingly, considering its sometimes rushed and chaotic composition process, Red October remains the finest Ryanverse score so far, easily topping later efforts by James Horner, Jerry Goldsmith, and Patrick Doyle. It’s a tribute to the heart that the late Poledouris, an active sportsman and sailer, put into his nautical scores, though it is a little depressing to think that he would never score another film as critically or commercially successful before his death from cancer in 2006. If Basil Poledouris’ experiments in combining electronics and orchestra in projects like Robocop or Cherry 2000 have ever intrigued you, seek out Red October on either the Intrada or MCA disc to experience his most impressive and action-packed development of those ideas.

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Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (Elliot Goldenthal)

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Destined to go down as one of the largest cinematic flops in history, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was a disappointment to series fans and neophytes alike, and nearly bankrupted Squaresoft, leading to its merger with perennial rival Enix not long after. Fans of the Final Fantasy video games were dismayed by the lack of continuity between the games and the film; aside from a Cid and a vague lifestream-esqe concept, it was totally unrelated to the franchise. Even in the context of games that regularly reinvented themselves and only ever shared certain thematic details and concepts, the dark science fiction thriller Square produced seemed a tonal mismatch, as if they had taken exactly the wrong lesson from their previous games and decided to make a 90-minute Final Fantasy VIII-style cutscene. Fans hoping for a film version of Final Fantasy VII, and sci-fi fans with little to connect them to the concept, stayed away in droves.

This feeling of disconnect extended to the film’s score as well; those same fans were dismayed to see composer Nobuo Uematsu’s name missing from the marquee. Uematsu had scored every main game in the series himself with striking music rooted in the vernacular of popular songwriting with a fantasy twist, but 2001 would ultimately be the year he began to disassociate himself from Final Fantasy, collaborating with others for the first time on Final Fantasy X and foregoing The Spirits Within entirely. Yet, in retrospect, the decision makes sense; Uematsu himself will freely admit that he is not cut out for film scoring, and his muddled effort on the later Advent Children animation stands as a stark example of this. The producers instead hired American composer Elliot Goldenthal, best known for his muscular sci-fi work on blockbusters like Alien 3, Demolition Man, and Batman Forever.

Goldenthal had never played the console Final Fantasies, and made no attempt to bring any of Uematsu’s themes or styles to the big screen. In light of the nature of the film, with its tenuous connection to the franchise as a whole (there really wouldn’t be room for anything other than “The Prelude” or perhaps “Final Fantasy” in the film itself), this decision was a wise one. Instead, the composer brought an extremely varied and complex sci-fi sound to the film, building on his pedigree to produce a dark and gothic score that mixes a chorus and pounding percussion with lighter and more melodic moments. Many of Goldenthal’s trademarks, like whirling strings (as heard in the opening track), wailing bass (“Code Red”), and towering dissonance (“Toccada and Dreamscapes”) are in evidence as the composer sought to support the bleak images onscreen.

The score’s main theme is much lighter and more mystical, led by woodwinds for a much earthier sound than the rest of the score. Heard in “The Kiss” and “A Child Remembered,” this theme is largely seperate from the rest of the material until it joins the more dissonant and thunderous sound in the stunning “Adagio and Transfuguration” before forming the basis of “The Dream Within.” It is perhaps the closest that Goldenthal would ever come to writing a traditional love theme, and it shows that despite his proclivity for avant-garde symphonics, he has the capacity for immense tonal beauty when he wants to write it.

Goldenthal’s carefully-produced album pares the score down to 50 minutes of highlights, with relentless action balanced out with occasional statements of the love theme. The music is almost entirely acoustic save for an electronic pulse in “Dead Rain” which serves as counterpoint to a downbeat and minor-key version of the love theme, and Goldenthal throws a large choir into the mix often. The choral histrionics in “Dead Rain” and “Zeus Cannon,” are perhaps the closest that Uematsu and Goldenthal come to the same inspiration, with both men clearly inspired by Wagner to raise an immense wordlessly choral ruckus. The final rock song is completely out of synch with the rest of the album, but not entirely wretched.

With Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, Goldenthal produced a film score, not video game music. Anyone looking for Uematsu’s sound–or that of most other video game composers, for that matter–will be disappointed. Fans of powerful, complex music–and fans of Goldenthal himself, of course–will be delighted with the album, which stands out as the best part of the film. Not only that, but The Spirits Within also offers Elliot Goldenthal’s powerful style in a more tuneful and conventional presentation than many of his more experimental works; it completely lacks the occasionally schizophrenic nature of works like Titus and plays down the raw atonality as compared to Alien 3.

Ultimately, listeners’ appreciation of Goldenthal’s distinctive style, and how much they mind the absence of Nobuo Uematsu’s characteristic Final Fantasy sound, will color their response to the music. Taken on its own terms, it is perhaps the composer’s finest and most accessible work.

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Free Willy 2 (Basil Poledouris)

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Free Willy was a breakout success in its initial release, and a sequel was therefore inevitable. Released in 1995, Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home was a modest success, despite ditching Keiko the whale in favor of animatronics, and paved the way for a third film later in the decade. The late composer Basil Poledouris signed on for the sequel, as did pop star Michael Jackson, but the resulting album was far weaker than the original.

While each of the first two Free Willy scores were padded with pop tunes designed to sell CD’s, Free Willy 2 represents a nightmare for all film score enthusiasts: a good score barely represented on album and buried by songs. Only ten minutes of Poledouris’ score made it onto the album, sandwiched between Michael Jackson songs (once again referred to as “Theme from Free Willy 2” on the packaging) and “bonus tracks” that did not appear in the film. None of the songs fit in well with the overall spirit of the film or Poledouris’ score, and by 1995 even Jackson was not much of a draw, his “Childhood” song seeming especially awkward in light of the troubled star’s legal difficulties between the release of the original film and its sequel.

Poledouris acquits himself well with limited album space, returning to and expanding upon his approach to the first film. “Main Titles” reintroduces the main theme from the first film, punctuated by sprightly flourishes and tasteful use of electronic accents and percussion. The theme is lighter and more charming than in the first installment, and performed by an impressive-sounding orchestral ensemble. “Whale Swim” features more electronics, including the undulating electronic notes found in the first score, combined with another robust orchestral performance and solo guitar. The track also reintroduces the secondary theme from Free Willy, delightfully punctuated with woodblocks. The final track, “Reunion,” is the most subdued of the three, and features no electronics of note, just lovely orchestral writing and a triumphant fanfare at the end. As always, Poledouris’s passion for the sea in his personal life bleeds wonderfully through into his music.

So, as a score fan, should you seek out Free Willy 2, despite its wretched album situation? If you’re looking for an introduction to the series and its themes, Free Willy is certainly superior to its sequel as an album. But if you’ve heard and enjoyed the first score, Free Willy 2 serves as an enjoyable expansion, if you can find the disc in a bargain bin for 50 cents; Poledouris’ tracks would make an excellent addition to any collection CD. Ironically, even if every note of Poledouris’ music from both Free Willy albums, and the entirety of Cliff Eidelman’s Free Willy 3 were placed on a single CD, there would still be space left.

Ultimately, only buy Free Willy 2 if If you think ten minutes of outstanding Poledouris material are worth sifting an album padded with pop garbage. Hopefully, someday an enterprising label like Intrada or La La Land will give the music from these films the release they deserve.

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Free Willy (Basil Poledouris)

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Released in 1993, Free Willy proved an enormous hit, becoming firmly entombed in mid-1990’s pop culture and making an international superstar of Keiko the whale. The film’s musical personality, both on album and in the film, was split between composer Basil Poledouris and erstwhile entertainer Michael Jackson, with Poledouris contributing the score and Jackson performing a pop ballad.

The pop music padding in Free Willy is rather unfortunate; the album’s producers chose to load it with songs unrelated to and not appearing in the film (a practice that was worryingly common in the mid-1990s). These tunes really have very little to do with anything other than promoting artists signed the the record label at the time, and offer little to anyone who is not an established fan of the group in question. The album producers also recruited Michal Jackson to the project, at a time when the King of Pop was awkwardly transitioning from superstar to tabloid fodder. Jackson’s “Will You Be There” receives top billing; rather disgustingly, the song is labeled “Theme from Free Willy,” and its printed title dwarfs Poledouris’ on the album cover.

Of course, the true “Theme from Free Willy” was composed by Poledouris, and thirty minutes of his music are present on the album. The late Poledouris was always most in his element when scoring the sea, and he responded with a thoughtful and exuberant effort. Mindful of the film’s contemporary setting and the expectations of music supervisors, the composer adopted a scoring approach that seamlessly melds synthesizers and an orchestra. At times, notably in the first and last score cues, Poledouris uses an electronic pulse to underscore tense situations, reminiscent of his work on The Hunt for Red October. More often, though, the electronics serve to lend percussive rhythm to the music, or to generate a feeling of calm through the use of undulating synthesizer notes.

Poledouris’ grand main theme bookends the score portion of the album with sustained, slightly moody performances. It’s impressive music with a nautical twist, and even in its less serious incarnations, is hugely impressive. A much lighter secondary theme appears in “The Gifts,” “Friends Montage” and “Audition,” a sprightly tune performed by woodwinds with electronic rhythm instruments behind. It’s charming music, much more affecting and effective than the cloying Jackson song, and effectively underscores the light and happy scenes in the movie with a contemporary flair.

The incidental music is surprisingly effective even when it’s not tied to either theme, with an impressive variety of strong scoring in the final track alone. The aforementioned October pulse melds with menacing strings to create tension, but the real highlight may just be the finale. Poledouris builds up orchestral steam before unleashing a triumphant fanfare at the end of the “Farewell Suite,” beautifully punctuating Willy’s escape with bold brass and a synth choir.

Even though the predominance of pop material and the brief running time of the score are definite drawbacks, Free Willy remains a highly recommended purchase for all score fans. Thirty minutes of top-notch Poledouris material featuring excellent integration of electronics and orchestra is worth buying even as part of an album laden with pop songs….just be sure to program your CD player to tracks 6-11, or buy the score tracks digitally.

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