DuckTales: Remastered (Jake Kaufman)

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Intimately familiar to many children of the late 80s, Disney’s DuckTales brought the classic Carl Barks Scrooge McDuck adventure tales to life as an after-school cartoon. Combining cartoon hijinks with Barks’ well-researched tales of mythology and high adventure, the series was a smash hit for Disney, producing 100 episodes over four seasons, a feature film (1990’s Treasure of the Lost Lamp) and, of course, a video game adaptation. As with most popular children’s properties at the time, DuckTales received a video game adaptation for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Released by Capcom in late 1989 and produced by many staff members from the contemporaneous Mega Man series of platformers, DuckTales the game was every bit the success DuckTales the series was, winning praise for its tight controls, high difficulty, and evocative 8-bit soundtrack. The game was so popular, in fact, that in 2013 it was remade for modern consoles with the addition of animated cutscenes and voiceovers by the original cartoon cast as DuckTales: Remastered.

Musically, DuckTales has always been defined by its catchy 80s theme song, written by Mark Mueller and belted out with gusto by Jeff Pescetto. It’s the only piece of music present across all iterations of the franchise, from TV to film to game, and it was adapted by Capcom veteran composer Hiroshige Tonomura into DuckTales the game. Tonomura also composed original music for the game, relying more heavily on Capcom’s defining 8-bit sound of the time than Ron Jones’ music for the TV episodes, and his compositions proved to be enduringly popular among video game music fans–frequently remixed and arranged by enthusiasts (particularly that of the “Moon” level, often cited by fans as a highlight of 8-bit music in general). When DuckTales: Remastered was in production, the developers turned to Jake Kaufman, one of their most frequent collaborators, to remaster Tonomura’s music and compose new tunes as needed. Known by his handle “virt” to many in the game music community, Kaufman was an experienced composer and remixer with a strong record of working on 8-bit hardware (Shantae) and remixing or adapting classic 8-bit music for updated remakes (Contra 4, Double Dragon Neon).

Kaufman’s approach was similar to that of many of his other projects: using the original 8-bit song as a template, he beefed up the arrangement considerably with more modern synths and, often, layers of faux orchestra and choir. The remixed versions of Tonomura’s compositions, as well as Kaufman’s own original creations, nevertheless retain a strong 8-bit influence, and retro electronic tones (albeit rarely as harsh as the original NES sine waves) are often given the lead melody line or a strong supporting role. Many arrangements in the past have taken too many liberties with the tempo and structure of the original music but Kaufman is generally very loyal to Tomamura’s melodies, enhancing them with dovetailing ideas like chants in “Himalayas” or mariachi guitar in “Amazon.” The rearrangement of “Moon” seems to have been done with particular care, keeping the driving tempo of the original while adding an array of shimmering synths to the mix. In fact, Kaufman uses fragments of Tonomura’s “Moon” theme throughout most of the score both in his original compositions and the originals–giving it, rather than the Mueller/Pescetto theme song, pride of place.

The original compositions prepared by Kaufman mostly revolve around cutscenes and the final levels which are exclusive to the Remastered version. Sharp-eared listeners will hear many nods in this material to the original songs; “Money Bin,” for example, provides a lively and bright synth melody alongside driving snare hits, accordian, and jazz piano (complete with hints of “Moon”). “Mount Vesuvius” pits synth leads against a mock orchestra and deep male chorus, perfectly balancing the carefree attitude of earlier levels with snarling synthy menace. And unlike the original NES game, which simply reused the normal boss battle theme for its final confrontation, Remastered gets a final confrontation in “Dracula Duck” that serves up fragments of the “Transylvania” theme alongside even more frenzied synths and faux orchestra for a thrilling conclusion the original game lacked. Not everything is overtly harsh synths; the arrangement of “Scrooge’s Office” provides gentle synth pads while fleshing out the original melody with fragments of “Moon” and the DuckTales theme, while a lovely solo piano arrangement of “Moon” is included as a bonus track.

Purists will also be delighted to see that Hiroshige Tonomura’s original 8-bit tracks (along with 8-bit versions of Kaufman’s original songs) are included on the Remastered album release; despite being composed in 1989, this is the 8-bit soundtrack’s first official release in any form. The sounds are very harsh for modern ears, and listeners without experience or affinity for harsh sine wave tones may very well end the album after Kaufman’s arrangements end. But the original DuckTales tracks are a welcome inclusion, both for nostalgia purposes and as a study in how Tonomura cannily uses the NES’s limited sound capabilities alongside strong, driving melodies to maximize the palatability of the game’s sound while minimizing its drawbacks. Kaufman also includes the Mueller/Pescetto theme song on the album, giving the beloved tune a lengthy and joyous synth stinger that meshes surprisingly well with the 80s original.

The digital album, available from iTunes and Amazon, has a generous 90 minutes of score. There are some oddities, like some of the longer tracks looping one-and-a-half times instead of the industry standard two times (and cutting off at odd places within the loop). Listeners with no patience for 8-bit sounds or Kaufman’s modern electronics may bemoan the absence of Ron Jones’ fully orchestral approach. But fans of the cartoon and of the original NES game will be delighted at what Kaufman has accomplished with Ducktales: Remastered, and the inclusion of full looped versions of Tonomura’s original songs means that even purists will get something from the experience. Recommended.

Rating: starstarstarstar

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Congo (Jerry Coldsmith)

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Always the bridesmaid, never the bride. That has been a sore spot for many of film score composer Jerry Goldsmith’s fans for years, the fact that the he often seemed to get also-rans and warmed-over leftovers of major films while those films themselves went to other people (often Goldsmith’s contemporary John Williams). Williams scored Superman, Goldsmith got Supergirl; Williams scored Home Alone, Goldsmith got Dennis the Menace; Williams scored Raiders of the Lost Ark, Goldsmith got King Solomon’s Mines. And, of course, Williams scored Jurassic Park and Goldsmith got Congo.

While author Michael Crichton’s novels had been made into films before–The Andromeda Strain, Westworld, Runaway–the massive success of Steven Spielberg’s 1993 adaptation of Jurassic Park started a scramble to film Crichton’s remaining properties. John Williams, as Spielberg’s regular collaborator, was never in doubt for the dinosaur movie, but the process was murkier for the author’s most similar novel, Congo. Rising star James Newton Howard was originally attached to the project, but scheduling conflicts led to him departing in favor of Goldsmith, who already had a history of scoring Crichton projects with 1979’s The Great Train Robbery. The resulting adaptation of Congo was a modest box office success; it was no Jurassic Park, but it had a certain campy guilty-pleasure appeal, which is more than can be said for many such piggybacking films.

Stepping into the breach, Goldsmith continued a collaboration begun by Howard with African musician and arranger Lebo M, who had catapulted to international notice the previous year with his contributions to The Lion King. With Lebo M as an arranger and lyricist, Goldsmith created “Spirit of Africa,” which would serve as his main theme for Congo and bookend the film. While the singer and lyrics courtesy of Lebo M aren’t exactly high points in his career, Goldsmith provided an attractive melody that he wove into the rest of the score (thankfully without the rather banal lyrics). It’s surprisingly gentle for a movie about explosions and lasers and murderous apes, but the composer integrates it wonderfully as counterpoint into a number of his action setpieces.

Among film score fans, Jerry Goldsmith is most famous as an action composer, though he sometimes chafed under that label. To his credit, he provides a strong suite of pule-pounding music for Congo, led by the album’s highlight, “Bail Out.” For that sequence of the main characters parachuting out of a plane under missile attack, the composer provides a ferocious action piece offset with grand major-key heroics and statements of his “Spirit of Africa” theme. There’s also a fair bit of red-meat action as the film approaches the Lost City of Zinj, with the back-to-back pair of “Amy’s Nightmare” and “Kahega” as a particular highlight.

A large portion of Congo takes place, as one might expect, in the jungles of the Congo, and to that end Goldsmith composed a fair bit of minimalistic jungle music. Led by embarrassingly synthetic panpipes, this music serves the picture well but is far from enjoyable on its own. Several of the tracks that were unreleased until 2013 feature stronger material and this rambling jungle ambience in the same track, which can at times make it a bit of a chore to listen to. These songs also serve to break up the highlights of the score, which will leave many listeners scrambling for their fast-forward buttons.

Jerry Goldsmith often had a prickly relationship with his fans, and the album edits the composer prepared for his scores were no exception. At the time of Congo‘s release he arranged a 30-minute suite of highlights which minimized the duller and ambient jungle music but also trimmed a few shorter action pieces; when asked, Goldsmith snapped that if his fans wanted more action music they should go listen to Rambo again. In 2013, Intrada released a complete version of Congo that added 20 minutes of score and copious extras (including the sole piece of score that Howard recorded before departing the project). For all that his fans complained, though, time has proven Goldsmith right: the absolute best parts of his score are all on the original album, and the best parts of what remains are substantially similar to the album cuts. As such, Intrada’s lovingly crafted release is a much flabbier listen than Goldsmith’s lean-beef 1995 arrangement.

Whether because he simply wrote what he was asked to write, or because (as so often happened) he found Congo to be underwhelming as a film, Jerry Goldsmith ultimately turned in a middle-of-the-road score for a middle-of-the-road movie. His excellent “Sprit of Africa” melody and punchy action music are offset by dull ambient jungle noise and some rather questionable lyrical choices by his collaborator Lebo M. Still, it’s a worthwhile addition to any Goldsmith fancier’s collection, though most will probably be satisfied with the cheap 1995 CD unless they specifically crave the detailed liner notes and deluxe presentation of the 2013 Intrada product.

Rating: starstarstar

Game Music Bundle 4 (Various Artists)

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The Game Music Bundle folks are dedicated to releasing discount selections of (often obscure) video game soundtracks for the enthusiast market. Largely hailing from indie games outside the scope of anything that would get a major album release or CD pressing, and often by newer composers eager to make their mark on the industry, the Bundle offers digital downloads of multiple albums across two price tiers, often with unlockable bonus albums. Donating a minimum of $1 unlocks one tier, while a minimum of $10 unlocks the other, with a suggested donation of, fittingly, $13.37; bonus albums are unlocked as the donations become more generous over time.

These capsule reviews are provided to help anyone who might be wavering in their decision to purchase and support the musicians and projects involved. The window to buy is very limited and while many of the soundtracks are available on iTunes, Bandcamp, and elsewhere…some are exclusives that will never be available again!

This particular Game Music Bundle is no longer available, but many of the individual albums are; I have provided purchase links where appropriate. Go here to be notified of future releases!

Albums

Horn Original Soundtrack (Austin Wintory)
Wintory is probably best known for his thatgamecompany work alongside Vincent Diamante. Given how neat Journey was, this seemed like an easy home run. Sadly, it’s kind of a whiff: lots of very sparse, dark, medieval stuff without a lot of melody; the more atmospheric tracks are vaguely Journey-like but not nearly as good. It might appeal to fans of dark medieval moods, but isn’t my cup of tea as a stand-alone listen.
Rating: * *
Purchase

Squids Wild West (Romain Gauthier)
I really enjoyed the last Squids, which had a bubbly melodic charm that was utterly infectious. This sequel has an odd wild west feel compared to the more genre-neutral first game, but with lots of great melodies the juxstaposition somehow works. While there are quirky and fun tracks, a lot of the music (nearly three times as long as the original) is surprisingly, and deliciously, dark.
Rating: * * * * *
Purchase

Puzzlejuice Original Soundtrack (Big Giant Circles)
I already listened to this on Bandcamp prior to the bundle, and probably would have bought it full price before. It’s bright melodic synth poppy stuff from the guy who did some of the best parts of Mass Effect 2 (and whose absence from its sequel was keenly felt). Short and sweet highlight of the bundle.
Rating: * * * * *
Purchase

Globulous Original Soundtrack (zircon and Jeff Ball)
Andrew Aversa, AKA zircon, is one of my favorite indie game composers (though with some of his tracks in Soul Calibur V, one has to wonder how well the indie label sticks these days!). The three tracks where he and Jeff Ball, who I’m not familiar with, directly collaborated are fantastic highlights, especially “Dawn Oblique,” even if the rest of the album and their solo tunes are occasionally a bit lacking in comparison.
Rating: * * * *
Purchase

Organ Trail Director’s Cut OST (Ben Crossbones)
A version of Oregon Trail that replaces oxen with zombies? I was sold on the game’s concept instantly. To its credit the music mostly sounds like something that your old 2nd grade class’s Apple IIgs could spit out, but the music is really dour and really sparse, and kind of hard to sit through unless you’re a fanatic for C64-style synths.
Rating: * *
Purchase

Aliens Incursion Original Soundtrack (elmobo)
el mobo has been at it since the earliest days of VGM, and his Bandcamp page is equal parts treasure and trip down memory lane, and even the newer titles are an exercise in great music for obscure and sometimes awful games. I wouldn’t say this is his best stuff, but there’s synthy techno and some of his gift for melody to be had.
Rating: * * *
Purchase

Wyv and Keep Original Soundtrack (Luke Thomas)
This was one of those “soundtrack’s done but game isn’t” things you sometimes see on Bandcamp at the time of its release, though the game has since been completed. Most of it is percussive synthy jungle music that probably does well as background but translates into a pretty blasé listen. A few tracks like “Mysterious Hat Seller” do lift it up somewhat though.
Rating: * *
Purchase

Flight of Angels: Splice OST (Dain Saint)
A game about splicing DNA with angel track names? Okay, sure. This takes the flOw/echochrome route of having quiet vaguely classical vaguely ambient music for a puzzler. Sounds kind of like Philip Glass, which means most will probably love it or hate it. I loved it; the heavenly, ambient sound is able to overcome the limits of its synths to be a wonderful, relaxing listen.
Rating: * * * *
Purchase

Mecho Wars HD Original Soundtrack (Sean Beeson)
I stumbled on Sean’s website a while back and I’m now a big fan. He reminds me of a younger, hungrier Jeremy Soule who writes moving, wistful stuff without resting on his laurels quite so much. This is exactly that: fans of Soule will eat it up.
Rating: * * * *
Purchase

Polymer Original Soundtrack (Whitaker Trebella)
What’s up with so many indie games being named after material types? Regardless, there are some nice sounds and beats here but the music falls into the trap of too much repetition without much variation, so when the music if over you feel like you’ve heard it 50 times instead of just once.
Rating: * *
Purchase

iBlast Moki 2 Original Soundtrack (Romain Gauthier)
Another fine Gauthier songtrack. It’s solid stuff, mostly pastoral and relaxing with some quirk here and there, but pound for pound I prefer Squids (in musical terms if not at the dinner table).
Rating: * * *
Purchase

Super Hexagon EP (Chipzel)
The first “bonus album” unlocked by people buying stuff. Probably closer to the actual kind of techno you’d hear in clubs than anything I offhandedly label “techno” in passing despite (or perhaps because of) that 8-bit sheen. Each of the three tracks starts out kind of uninvolving but gets better later on as more layers are added, but it’s probably really only for big fans of this sort of thing.
Rating: * * *
Purchase

Young Sherlock Holmes (Bruce Broughton)

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Barry Levinson’s 1985 film Young Sherlock Holmes is uncomfortably wedged in his filmography between hits like The Natural and Good Morning Vietnam. Sherlockian purists were horrified by the notion that Holmes, Watson, and Moriarty had met in an 1860s boarding school rather than as adults. Audiences were turned off by a bizarre plot (involving Egyptian cults, hidden temples, and mind-altering poisons) that seemed more Temple of Doom than Red-Headed League. As a result, the film was a major box office disappointment, barely recouping its budget, and it is primarily remembered today for a brief sequence involving a hallucinated stained glass knight that was created by John Lasseter and what would eventually become Pixar.

Levinson has regularly swapped composers throughout his career, and for Young Sherlock Holmes he approached Bruce Broughton, who was at the time finishing work on his breakout score, the Oscar-nominated Silverado. Broughton had worked in television scoring early in his career, but the well-received scores for his twin 1985 projects would usher in his most prolific period of scoring for major feature films. Armed with an impressive musical budget, Broughton was able to assemble the Sinfonia of London and a large choir for the endeavor.

Broughton’s signature from the film is, of course, his theme for Holmes. It’s an innocent woodwind-led and flighty piece of music, suggesting the detective’s youth and analytical mind. If anything, it sounds like a more youthful version of the same Sherlockian sound Henry Mancini would unleash a year later in The Great Mouse Detective. After its introduction in “Main Title,” Holmes’ theme is hinted in “Fencing With Rathe” before receiving a proper variation in “Solving the Crime,” but oddly the theme is not employed as often as one would think. Broughton chooses to give his love theme a much more prominent place in the score than Holmes’ own; the latter doesn’t take flight until the closing parts of the score when it’s given a furious adaptation into the Williams-esque “Ehtar’s Escape” and “Duel.”

It was for the character of Elizabeth, Holmes’ love interest, that Broughton fashioned his classically-inclined love theme. First heard (somewhat oddly) in “Watson’s Arrival,” the theme is heard in places like “Library Love” and “Fencing With Rathe” before being given a brief concert performance in “Holmes And Elizabeth – Love Theme.” A few final performances litter the second disc, generally fragmented and tragic. The relative shortchanging of Holmes’ theme is a bit of a mystery: it’s a wonderful thematic idea and has influenced its share of other composers, but for whatever reason Broughton prefers his love theme. The latter is simply not as memorable or intricate, and yet it occupies a much more prominent place in the score.

The most powerful theme Broughton created for the film was associated with its most ridiculous aspect: the scenes involving a hidden Egyptian cult in London. For these scenes and the villainous character of Eh-Tar, the composer wrote an impressive choral theme that is equal parts Carmina Burana and Temple of Doom, thundering through “Rame Tep” and “Waxing Elizabeth.” Broughton also gives the theme instrumental outings with the full symphony in “Pastries And Crypts” and the latter part of “Waxing Elizabeth” among other places; whether associated with the ludicrous temple or the only slightly less ludicrous figure of Eh-Tar, it is by far the strongest material written for the film and has been rerecorded numerous times by other ensembles.

It’s clear that, whether due to temp track influence or the producer, John Williams was a large influence on Broughton’s work on Young Sherlock Holmes; many of the cues employ quirk of orchestration that are highly reminiscent of the maestro, with Broughton adapting them with gusto. But one area in which he fails is in the mass of underscore devoted to mystery and suspense. These tracks, from the opening “The First Victim” to the later “Cold Revenge” or “Craigwich Goes Again” simply aren’t terribly interesting: they tend to be dour (and almost atonal at times of violence and murder) and are precisely the sort of filler that was often cut from albums at the time. And Broughton, for whatever reason, generally fails to adapt his basket of good-to-great themes into the underscore proper in many places, leaving dry stretches with little other than dry, Williams-esque 1980s suspense and horror to sustain listeners.

Young Sherlock Holmes became something of a cause célèbre among film music fans for many years due to its lack of availability on CD. Broughton arranged 40 minutes of highlights for an album that appeared on LP and cassette in 1985 but, perhaps due to the film’s failure, the only digital source for many years were rare promotional albums issued by the composer himself through the Intrada label. In 2014, the label finally released the complete 90-minute score, plus alternates, in an unlimited-quantity 2-CD set. Somewhat ironically, though, the original LP/cassette program contains nearly all the highlights from the complete score; by presenting them together, absent the much less interesting suspense tracks, that album proves much more satisfying than the complete set (though it can easily be reassembled from the content’s of Intrada’s loving presentation).

Alongside that stained glass knight, Bruce Broughton’s score for Young Sherlock Holmes has been one of the only anchors to keep that forgotten film in memory. Listeners’ reactions to it will ultimately be colored by how they respond to the lengthy periods of quieter, less ambitious music between its highlights, and whether the score’s hyperbolic praise from collectors is something that this (or any) music can live up to. Even so, despite its weaknesses, the album is an essential purchase for fans of Broughton and loopy 1980s fantasy films.

Rating: starstarstar

Vibes (James Horner)

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One has to wonder what the producers of Vibes were thinking: a tale of two psychics, compete with a disembodied spirit guide, searching the Andes for a mystical pyramid that is the “source of all psychic energy” in the world? It sounds like Ghostbusters and Raiders of the Lost Ark were combined in a boardroom kitchen blender, and the results were about as palatable; even an affable cast headlined by Jeff Goldblum and Peter Falk couldn’t help. Ignored by 1988 moviegoers and trashed by 1988 critics, Vibes is notable today for only two reasons: it was the first of only a few scattered starring roles for 80s pop sensation Cyndi Lauper, and it featured an original score by rising Hollywood composer James Horner.

By 1988, James Horner was fast becoming an A-list composer in Hollywood, with an impressive succession of hits to his name. Following his breakout score to Star Trek II in 1982, he had successfully branched out across multiple genres, from cult drama hits like The Journey of Natty Gann to animations like An American Tail, with a strong foothold in science fiction in pictures like Aliens (nominated, along with Tail, for an Oscar in 1986). 1988 would prove to be one of his most fruitful years yet, with the animated Land Before Time, the fantasy adventure Willow, the sci-fi sequel Cocoon: The Return, and the gritty urban Red Heat. Almost lost among this impressive filmography is Vibes, which Horner was assigned largely on the strength of his existing relationship with Ron Howard, co-owner of the production company behind the ill-fated film.

Horner chose to tackle Vibes with a synthesizer score composed to picture, a Vangelis-like approach that he had adopted for a few films in the 1980s and one which he completely abandoned after Another 48 Hrs. in 1990. As a result, there are no grand themes or soaring melodies as in the best of the composer’s 1980s work; instead, his music is all about ambient New Age atmosphere. In some cases, as in “Andes Arrival” and “The Journey Begins,” Horner’s music is affable and lively, led by Andean panpipes in such a way that it’s almost indistinguishable from dozens of mood music CDs released around the same time for the same instrument.

To service the darker and more sinister aspects of Vibes, in “Opening the Pyramid” and “Sylvia’s Vision,” Horner creates a chaotic but even less melodic sound. It sounds like nothing Horner has written before or since, though it is perhaps closest to the kettle-drum parts of 48 Hrs. or Commando. One can argue about how effective it is in the film (provided you can find a copy!), but on album it is a dour experience, like a darkly inverted version of a New Age CD or perhaps one of Vangelis’s most troubled score cues.

Given the pervasive ambient atmosphere of the score, and the fact that its best parts are almost indistinguishable from cheap New Age panpipe albums, it’s hard to imagine that, for most of the 2000s, Vibes was the “holy grail” for collectors of James Horner’s music. This is wholly attributable to its scarcity on album: the movie’s dismal failure meant that no commercial album was forthcoming, so Varèse Sarabande issued it as part of their CD Club’s first iteration. Only 1000 copies were pressed, and only people who followed the invitation to write to the label included in some Varèse CD booklets even knew of the product’s existence; Cyndi Lauper fans were left out entirely, though her song contribution to the film was available as a single. So while Vibes was technically available for some time, only the most diehard collectors of the late 1980s and early 1990s even knew of the album’s existence.

None of the James Horner fans attracted by his later scores like Braveheart or Titanic had a chance to buy Vibes before it fell out of print, leaving a gaping hole in their collections. As a result, for some time, used copies of the score sold for astronomical prices as high as $500 and bootlegs of varying quality proliferated to help fill the gap. Varèse Sarabande eventually reissued the original 1988 album in 2013 as part of their “Varèse Encore” series, making an additional 2000 copies available and, at least temporarily, putting the album back in the $20 price range.

One should only seek out Vibes if building a complete James Horner collection or to hear a sound strikingly different from most of the composer’s other output–his best impression of cheap New Age panpipe CDs and Vangelis. To anyone else, the score is a curiosity, and a rare one at that–with only 3000 copies in existence, it is almost certainly cheaper to buy a genuine New Age panpipe CD and a Vangelis album.

Rating: starstar

Skyfall (Thomas Newman)

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James Bond has had a rough 21st century. After three enjoyable outings with Pierce Brosnan, the series imploded in on itself with the ludicrous Die Another Day in 2002 to the extent that the producers decided to give the franchise the full Batman Begins treatment. The resulting 2006 Casino Royale, which dumped Brosnan for Daniel Craig, was a critical and commercial success (provided one could overlook its casual discarding of 45 years of Bond heritage). But its risible followup, Quantum of Solace, was a nearly-incoherent return to the histrionics of Die Another Day that was not only a box office and critical disappointment but also diminished Casino (to which it served as an extended, and unnecessary, epilogue). Into this breach stepped filmmaker Sam Mendes, best known to audiences for brooding hits like American Beauty and Road to Perdition. While some feared that his arty style would have the same negative impact as Ang Lee on Hulk, Mendes rose to the challenge, picking and choosing elements from the Bond novels, the pre- and post- “reboot” films, and his own personal playbook to produce a dark, action-packed, and tense thriller. His Skyfall managed to please nearly everyone, becoming the top-grossing Bond film of all time (dropping only to third place if inflation-adjusted) with five Oscar nominations and two wins to its name–the first Bond nominations since For Your Eyes Only in 1981 and the first Bond wins since Thunderball in 1965.

British composer David Arnold had been the musical voice of James Bond since 1997, writing more scores in the franchise than anyone save the beloved John Barry, and initial media reports suggested that he would return for Skyfall at the producers’ request. However, Mendes had insisted on his usual collaborator Thomas Newman as a condition of his hire, and the American composer was ultimately the one to land the job–the first Yank to tackle Bond since Bill Conti in 1981. Fans were concerned: Newman was a critical darling known for his unconventional instrumental choices and bizarrely propulsive sense of rhythm, with no real blockbuster action scores to his credit. The closest analogues in his filmography were misfires like Red Corner and The Debt–did Newman have the chops to write an action score, much less a James Bond score? Or would he be another Nicholas Hooper, a composer competent in the softer aspects of the music but completely out of his element when it came to large-scale action? The world wondered.

In retrospect, it seems like a silly concern. Thomas Newman provided an excellent score for Skyfall, and like Mendes he did so by expertly merging his own unique style with the best that Bond had to offer. As James Southall noted, the most considerable achievement that Newman brings to the table is that the music always sounds like James Bond and yet always sounds like Thomas Newman while still providing all the requisite action, adventure, and romance beats the picture required. Unlike Arnold, Newman did not write his own main theme for the score: instead, he uses the original Norman/Barry James Bond Theme as the connective tissue that (along with his personal style) holds the score together. The great strength of Newman’s Skyfall score is that the James Bond theme is so expertly broken down and integrated on almost the molecular level into the music. So deeply, in fact, that the album producers couldn’t point out specific tracks featuring the theme in the insert, opting instead for a blanket disclaimer.

Thomas Newman expertly deconstructs the entire James Bond Theme into its basic parts and spreads it liberally through the score. For instance, starting at 0:14 in the propulsive and climactic “She’s Mine,” the string section plays two notes of the Bond theme, with a third note added at 0:32. It’s deeply woven into the overall track, subtly enough that listeners aren’t slammed over the head with it (at least not until 3:05) but enough to constantly keep the theme in mind. Newman repeats this trick across many of the album highlights, twisting the Bond theme into stunning action crescendos in “The Bloody Shot” and “Deep Water” while integrating its more jazzy aspects into places like “Brave New World.” Newman follows Arnold’s methodology of saving the full unadulterated theme for pivotal moments, unleashing it in full at the end of “She’s Mine” and giving it a full swinging outing in “Breadcrumbs,” but due to his canny deconstruction of the tune and its deep integration into the music, the James Bond Theme never seems far away.

The composer does provide some supplementary themes and motifs as well. A dark, mournful brass figure for the character of M, far more tragic and three-dimensional in this film than in any other, is heard prominently in “Voluntary Retirement” and “Mother.” It’s also broken up and integrated alongside the Bond theme in several action cues, notably the intense, volcanic “Enquiry.” The film’s closest analogue to a Bond girl, the mysterious and tragic Severine, is given a lovely and lush Barry-esque theme in “Modigliani” and “Severine,” though it never approaches the presence of Bond love themes from movies past. And while the film’s magnetic villain Silva is given a motif of sorts in the snarling “The Chimera,” it never really returns elsewhere in the score save perhaps for extremely minor, subtle hints elsewhere.

Despite the above, the score abounds with Newmanisms as well. His trademark quirky rhythms, albeit suffused with fragments of the Bond theme, are in evidence in “New Digs,” and “Health & Safety” has his trademark nervous string and dulcimer rhythms straight out of A Series of Unfortunate Events. Newman also gets to bring the electronic and guitar rhythms he’s sometimes been known to use along for the ride too; “Shanghai Drive,” “The Moors,” and the concluding “Adrenaline” are suffused with them. He also takes the opportunity, in “Komodo Dragon,” to deliver his own lush, if brief, take on the Skyfall theme song by Adele.

That Oscar-winning song highlights the problems with the existing Skyfall album–in fact, virtually all the problems the score demonstrates are album production and music rights problems rather than flaws in Newman’s music. As was the case with Casino Royale, the Skyfall album from Sony Classical doesn’t have the movie’s theme song on it, which is a shame: Adele’s sultry delivery and the song’s frequent interpolation of Bond elements not only make it mesh well with Newman’s score (despite his total lack of involvement in its production aside from adapting it into “Komodo Dragon”) but help make up for some of the awful Bond songs to curse listeners over the last decades. It’s too bad that the song’s production timeline didn’t allow Newman to be involved with it, or even to integrate it better into his score, but the fact that “Skyfall” the song is only available as a separate album single is inexcusable. The Skyfall album also ends on an extremely weak note with “Adrenaline,” essentially an extended version of the earlier “Shanghai Drive.” In the film, David Arnold’s stylish rerecording of the James Bond Theme from Casino Royale closed out the picture, and that would have been an ideal way to close out the album as well, either by licensing Arnold’s music or placing Newman’s own “Breadcrumbs” in its place (replacing “Shanghai Drive” with “Adrenaline” while they were at it). Bond fans will probably find themselves assembling their own album cut, perhaps resorting the songs to their original film order to boot.

Still, even with those negatives, Thomas Newman’s score for Skyfall is a success, and proves once and for all that his style is versatile enough to handle large-scale action scoring and to integrate themes written by others in an incredibly detailed, intelligent way. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the composer adding a few more such movies to his future docket, given the commercial and critical success: Newman was nominated for his 11th Oscar for Skyfall, losing to Mychael Danna’s Life of Pi in the 2013 ceremony. Even if there are no more large-scale action scores in his future, Newman is still set to score the Mendes-directed Bond 24, becoming the third composer alongside Barry and Arnold to score more than one Bond. Like the superspy himself, Thomas Newman will return.

Rating: starstarstarstar

Violett (Michał Wasilewski)

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Violett is Polish game developer Forever Entertainment’s attempt at a point-and-click adventure tale in the mold of classic LucasArts titles like Loom or Grim Fandango. With an aesthetic clearly influenced by Salvador Dali, Tim Burton, and the Henry Selick/Neil Gaiman film version of Coraline, Violett received mostly positive reviews from the gaming press and from a public hungry for the sort of adventure games which haven’t been a major market focus for nearly two decades. Perhaps the current, if limited, renaissance in LucasArts-style adventure games spearheaded by Telltale Games has had a bearing on this: it has shown that smaller and independently developed niche games like Violett can still find their audience internationally and online.

For the score to Violett, Forever retained the services of Polish composer Michał Wasilewski. Wasilewski has written for film, television, and other outlets in his native land, but Violett represents his first real exposure to a larger international audience and his only soundtrack release that is widely available. And it’s a really lovely effort that largely belies its (apparently) synthetic origins with vibrant melodies, bold tonality, and many delightfully dark touches.

But first: the elephant in the room. One would expect that a game which draws much of its aesthetic inspiration from Burton and Gaiman might have some temp track problems, places where Wasilewski was asked to closely emulate the quirky and creepy music of Danny Elfman and Bruno Coulais. And it’s true, there are some definite influences: the mechanical, cyclical, occasionally cell-based rhythms underlying many of the tracks are highly Elfmanesque, as is the occasional hint of off-kilter circus music, and the odd way in which voices (or their analogues) are used in places is reminiscent of Coulais (Coulaisian?). But, like the game itself, these influences are a jumping-off point rather than a slavish imitation, and there’s much to enjoy about Wasilewski’s work on Violett that inhabits a similar sonic universe as Elfman and Coulais but manages to sound completely unlike either man.

“Full of Wonders” is the album highlight, combining an attractive melody with mechanical, repeating background cells that continually refresh and change, accented at times by odd, quasi-vocal effects or call-and-response synths and flute. “The Puzzle Called Life” adds a piano to the mix along with twinkling synths and a more downbeat mood, while subtly using fragmented parts of the same melodies (which are largely spread throughout the work, helping to unify it), while “Where Are We Heading” adds a delightfully morose oboe and trades in some of the synths in the background for strings. It’s occasionally dour music but nevertheless very busy and tonal.

The most obvious Elfman influence is felt in the tracks which adopt a “carnival of the bizarre” feel. “A Mystery Laying Ahead,” the album opener, does just that, with a twinkling music box feel before opening up with a synthesized and sinister calliope-style figure accentuated by slurred electronics and other interesting, spooky features. “The Struggle” takes this the furthest, with its overtly circus-like music, though at times the atmosphere gets a little too thick and the instrumental performances seem to be slightly beyond the capabilities of Wasilewski’s synths.

Finally, several songs combine the same basic ingredients as above into moody and ambient tracks that seem the least like Elfman and Coulais as above. “The Miracle” sets off warm synth washes with a cold and sparkling rhythm of the same, resulting in music that’s at once relaxing and unsettling. “Marvel at Me” is more piano driven but still maintains the same atmosphere with the addition of vocal and synth effects, while the concluding “Rhetorical Question” is perhaps the album’s most subtle, ambient cut. It gradually layers on more sounds and more tones to transform a simple ambient drone into an attractive, gentle, Ligeti-like soundscape.

Ultimately, there’s a lot to like about Wasilewski’s work on Violett. While the music has its moments of harshness and the synths are occasionally unable to keep up with the demands of what has been written for them, on the whole it is a diverse and enjoyable album that is sure to appeal to fans of Elfman and Coulais. A soundtrack with 40 minutes of arranged highlights was released on iTunes at the same time as the came itself, and as of this writing is still available for purchase for only $6. Even if you never get around to playing the game, Violett is a rewarding video game listening experience, and one that is at the very least worth sampling.

Rating: starstarstarstar

Game Music Bundle 7 (Various Artists)

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Once again, the good folks at the Game Music Bundle have released a selection of video game soundtracks for the perusal of enthusiasts. Largely hailing from indie games outside the scope of the contemporary industry, and often by young and hungry composers eager to make their mark on the industry, the Game Music Bundle offers digital downloads of multiple albums across two price tiers. Donating a minimum of $1 unlocks one tier, while a minimum of $10 unlocks the other, with a minimum suggested donation of, fittingly, $13.37.

These capsule reviews are provided to help anyone who might be wavering in their decision to purchase and support the musicians and projects involved. The window to buy is very limited, and while many of the soundtracks are available on iTunes, Bandcamp, and elsewhere…some are exclusives that will never be available again!

This particular Game Music Bundle is no longer available, but many of the individual albums are; purchase links have been provided where appropriate. Go here to be notified of future releases!

$1 Minimum Albums

The Banner Saga (Austin Wintory)
The Banner Saga is one of the most famous Kickstarter success stories, a game funded by 20,000 backers with just the promise of what was to come. Girded with that cash, the developers were able to hire rising star Austin Wintory and a live ensemble, The Dallas Winds, replete with soloists and singers. The percussion and string-heavy score is a relatively close cousin to Skyrim, with the same sense of Nordic-ness about it and singers bringing the full force of ancient languages to bear. There are times when Wintory’s music outstrips the sonic abilities of his limited group of performers, primarily in the large action cues; anyone annoyed by singing in what sounds like Old Norse will be turned off as well. Still, the album is overall a very sparse and finely crafted work.
Rating: * * * *
Purchase

Device 6 (David Olsén & Jonathan Eng)
Device 6 presents the sound of swinging 60s spies as filtered through the lens of swinging 60s acid trips. It features a core of well-done, off kilter spy sounds and tropes and then passes them through odd audio filters, adds bizarre sound effects in places, and generally does its best to create a blindsiding reversal of expectations. It’s an interesting effort when the pieces lock together (as in “An Elaborate Study,” which offsets a cool 60s melody with towering brass hits) but the techniques fail or distract as often as they succeed.
Rating: * * *
Purchase

The Broken Age: Act 1 (Peter McConnell)
Another Kickstarter game development success story, The Broken Age reunited the lead developer and composer of Grim Fandango, Tim Schafer and Peter McConnell, to attempt another adventure game in the grand old tradition of Lucasarts. Financial difficulties with the project led to it being released as two separate “acts;” this is the first, and thanks to Kickstarter McConnell was able to work with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and a San Francisco ensemble to record the music live. The result is a touchingly melodic score that often incorporates a very innocent sound, often on malleted percussion, to echo the “childhood’s end” theme expressed through the game’s twin protagonists. McConnell proves as adapt at managing an orchestra as he was with a jazz ensemble for Grim, and the music winds up as more a unifying force than anything, bringing together two two disparate environments and characters. Highly recommended.
Rating: * * * * *
Purchase

The Floor is Jelly (Disasterpeace & Ian Snyder)
A really bizarre album, part affable indie guitar strumming, part white noise relaxation CD, with a 20-minute track of synthesized ambient music as its stinger. People who know Disasterpeace from works like FEZ will probably be disappointed by the sound here, and while individual tracks by he and Ian Snyder are highlights, the album as a whole is a bit of a discordant mess (though that may have been exactly what the composers were aiming for).
Rating: * *
Purchase

Luftrausers (KOZILEK)
This aerial shooter has a soundtrack made up of three disparate elements fused together: heroic major-key music modeled on that of shmup soundtracks of yore, aggressive techno/trance beats, and the sound effect of boots stomping in unison. Nearly ever track has all three elements present, each taking their turn onstage with interesting and sometimes uneasy transitions between them. The music would have been stronger without any sound effects at all, but it presents enough of an interesting fusion of diverse styles to be worth a look.
Rating: * * *
Purchase

$10 Minimum Albums

Transfiguration (Austin Wintory)
Journey was in many ways Austin Wintory’s breakout score, highly regarded and well-received. For the Game Music Bundle 7, Wintory unveils an arrangement of highlights from Journey for solo piano. Stripped to the bare minimum, the sparse solos are quietly involving and the lively “Road of Trials” in particular is a virtuoso performance. The final song, “I Was Born For This,” marries the vocals of the original to a new piano arrangement for an entirely new spin on it. Piano lovers and Journey fans will find much to like here.
Rating: * * * *
Purchase

Starbound Orchestral OST (Curtis Schweitzer)
The score to a still-in-development, massive game incorporating facets of popular titles like Minecraft and Terraria, the Starbound Orchestral OST offers an equally massive amount of music: over three-and-a-half hours. The majority of the music is gentle, classically inclined, and surprisingly acoustic for a science fiction score. It’s music that is more about tone than theme, but it is always melodic even at its most classical; the best tracks are those that feature the piano (“Eridanus Supervoid”) or allow lightheartedness to creep into the equation (the delightful, album-highlight “Stellar Formation”). It’s worth noting that the concluding 45 minutes, the “Experimental OST,” are quite different, offering up a Hans-Zimmer-inspired cocktail of electronics and occasional ostinatos that’s much closer to the “stereotypical” sci-fi game sounds of exploration and combat, but no less compelling for it. A long, occasionally somewhat draggy journey, but a delightful one.
Rating: * * * *
Purchase

The Yawhg EP (Halina Heron & Ryan Roth)
This quirky and visually arresting indie RPG is all about preparing for doomsday, and its soundtrack reflects that bleak, navelgazing mood (if not the vibrantly quirky art of the game itself). Seemingly mastered from vinyl, it features analog white noise throughout and most of the tracks feature singing that seems to be coming from a room or two over. More than anything the album, even the instrumental tracks, seems like a self-distributed indie concept album with appropriately dour and spartan, well, everything. If you’re a sucker for this sound, you may find this album a revelation; otherwise, it’s best enjoyed in the context of its unique game.
Rating: * *
Purchase

Magnetic By Nature (Lance Montgomery)
Magnetic by Nature is, as one might intuit from the title, an entire;y electronic album. But save for a few moments of harshness near the end, it is almost entirely gentle, flowing synths. Made up of long, meaty tracks of electronic ambience, Magnetic by Nature will probably play best to lovers of Brian Eno and Michael Nyman.
Rating: * * *
No purchase link available

Escape Goat 2 Original Soundtrack (MagicalTimeBean)
With a name like “Escape Goat,” one must hope for some kind of all-redeeming wackiness, and the soundtrack, at least, delivers. It’s bright, self-consciously synthy with bubbly melody and intense motion, all with a light, light dusting of 1980s synth flavor which some might call cheese. Aficionados of that sound, and of winsomely catchy synthesized music, will call it delightful.
Rating: * * * * *
Purchase

Curious Merchandise (Ben Prunty)
Perhaps the most aptly-named album in the bundle, Curious Merchandise mixes low-key electronics in a diverse set of styles with occasional intrusive sound effects and filters. When the music is allowed to breathe on its own it’s quite interesting, if often content to meander in the background. One has to wonder why the melodic, astounding “Ashur the Sky God” at the end of the album is so much of a one-off; if that sound were more prevalent over the affable but occasionally anonymous electronics and sound effects elsewhere in the album, it would be a sure winner.
Rating: * * *
Purchase

Winnose: Original Soundtrack (Calum Bowen & Todd Luke)
Bizarre. There is no better or more apt descriptor for this aggressive cocktail of high-pitched synth, scratchy guitars, and the occasional indie vocals than that. It’s an assault on the senses, creative to be sure but also headache-inducing. If anything, it’s like the scores to The Yahwg, The Floor Is Jelly, and Into the Box stuck in a blender set to “frappé.”
Rating: * *
Purchase

Eldritch Original Soundtrack (David Pittman)
A game best described as “Minecraft meets Cthulhu,” Eldritch took the roguelike aspects of the world’s best-selling cube simulator and married them to H.P. Lovecraft. The music, though, seems to take the most inspiration from Matt Uelmen’s score to Diablo, with acoustic guitar hits and squealing electrics amid dark sound design. Watery burbles and whispers certainly add a layer of uneasiness to the music, but with little or no tonality or melody in the ambient sound design, ultimately this is a score to appreciate in the context of the game, not as a standalone listen.
Rating: *
Purchase

Bardbarian OST (Maximum Satan)
With a picture of a barbarian literally and figuratively playing his axe on the cover, and an entity named “Maximum Satan” in the artist field, no one should be surprised at the hard rock sound that comes through. This single-track album is single-minded in its pursuit of an authentic instrumental heavy metal sound; people who don’t like that particular sound or prefer a different variation thereof should prepare for ten minutes of headache.
Rating: *
Purchase

Tribes: Ascend (Chris Rickwood)
A revival of the decade-old Tribes franchise (itself a somewhat confusing (but popular) spin-off of the Starsiege games) Tribes: Ascend sought to recapture the fun of that old multiplayer jetpack shooter. One area in which the authenticity shines through is in its score: the music sounds very much like that of a Western video game from the early 2000s when a sort of generic techno-rock sound with echoes of the Hans Zimmer blockbuster sound was completely dominant. Western games’ music has undergone a revolution since then, influenced by Japanese VGM on the one hand and classic film scores on the other. As such, workmanlike music like this is well enough in-game, but aside from the occasional highlight (like the choral-inflected “Arx Novena III”) there’s not much to recommend it.
Rating: * *
Purchase

Into The Box Soundtrack (Talha Kaya & Doğaç Yavuz)
Probably the most “authentic” sounding chiptunes in the bundle, Into the Box is clearly inspired by the SID chip music of the Commodore 64 demoscene and game composers like the Follin Bros. In fact, overall it seems to be an attempt to meld that decades-old style with the structure of modern trance music more than anything else. It certainly nails the overall sound, but to many people unfamiliar with the unique sound of the SID chip, or to anyone who finds the sound to be chalkboard-nails irritating, won’t find much to like in this brief album.
Rating: * *
Purchase

Soul Fjord (Austin Wintory)
The third and final Wintory album in the bundle is one that seeks to combine, of all things, 1970s blaxploitation funk with 970s Norse myth and warriors. Wintory hews much more strongly to the former, adding the occasional Nordic grunt or other background element to bring in the “fjord” aspect along with the “soul.” Your tolerance for the music will be strictly proportional to how much you enjoy music that is true to the funky-fresh blaxploitation styles of old.
Rating: * * *
No purchase link available

Bonus Albums

Dragon Fantasy Book II Original Soundtrack (Dale North)
Many artists, both indie and mainstream, have attempted to capture the sound and feel of classic 1990s RPG scores, and that is what this album attempts. Its clearest influence is Noriyuki Iwadare’s often goofy music for the Grandia series, but references to VGM majordomo Nobuo Uematsu are thick on the ground as well. These artists were successful because they had a pop songwriter’s ear for melody, no fear about crossing genres in search of the right sound, and worked skillfully with the synths at their disposal. Many imitators fail at one or all of the parts of that formula, but this is generally quite pleasant and successful, even if it fails to approach the genre’s high points.
Rating: * * * *
Purchase

Ether One Original Soundtrack (N.J.Apostol)
One might expect, given the title, for Ether One to have an ethereal sound, and at times it certainly does. But the album is, all in all, heavy and repetitive (if often good-natured and occasionally attractive) ambience, good at establishing a mood but less successful at maintaining interest with the best of such sounds.
Rating: * * *
Purchase

The Music of Junk Jack X (James Primate)
This album presents a very spare sound, like an early and raw SNES or Genesis game, occasionally recalling the most ambient and hard-edged moments of Earthbound. The music is affable enough but is so thin and occasionally harsh in its employment of sound effects and bleeps that only the most devoted fans of this sort of sound and approach are likely to get much out of it separated from the game.
Rating: * *
Purchase

The Sender (Trevor Jones)

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Released in 1982, The Sender was a paranormal fantasy that had the misfortune of opening in perhaps the best year for fantasy cinema of all time. With heavyweights like Star Trek II, E.T., Poltergeist, and Conan the Barbarian siphoning off moviegoers, and opening in direct competition with Halloween III, The Sender never really found its audience. It does have some passionate defenders to this day, most notably Quentin Tarantino, but The Sender was never able to attain anything beyond minor cult status.

1982 was also a breakout year for South African composer Trevor Jones. Fresh off his well-received score for 1981’s Excalibur, Jones also wrote a lush, gigantic fantasy score for another fantasy picture in a year stuffed to the gills with them, Jim Henson’s puppet fantasia The Dark Crystal. Hired for The Sender due to his previous association with the director, Jones turned in a score that was very much in the same sonic universe as the fan-favorite Crystal.

The main thematic construct, as heard most prominently in “Gail and the Sender” and “End Credits,” is a mysterious melody for orchestra, soloists, and light electronics that will instantly remind listeners of some of the most mystical fantasy tracks on Jones’ resume (“The Mystic Master Dies” and “The Gelfling Ruins” from The Dark Crystal in particular). The music is lush and haunting, especially when a female vocalist joins in, and its appearances throughout the album are its outstanding highlights.

Unfortunately, perhaps due to The Sender‘s status as a tense, character driven piece of cinematic horror, most of the rest of Jones’ underscore for the picture is not terribly effective away from it. Eerie synths fade in and out of an orchestral recording highlighted by its broodiness, and a mood of unease is the most defining characteristic of the remainder of the work. Devotees of The Dark Crystal will recognize many of the synthetic textures from the composer’s other 1982 score, but this is if anything a downside: anyone hoping for the same lush fantasy sound is bound to be disappointed.

Ultimately, The Sender is an album best for devotees of the film and fans of Trevor Jones. The former will get La-La Land Records’ outstanding presentation of what is essentially an LP album assemble from 1982, while the latter will get a few blasts of a fantastic and otherwise little-known theme from Jones. The balance of the material, though, is tough to sit through for anyone without a strong and abiding affinity for the film or the composer.

Rating: starstar

Starhawk (Christopher Lennertz)

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A Playstation 3 exclusive title, Starhawk (2012) was a spiritual successor to the earlier Warhawk (1995) and its one-step-forward two-steps-back remake Warhawk (2007). Unlike the 2007 game, Starhawk actually featured a single-player campaign mode for people who didn’t want anonymous 14-year-olds screaming obscenities in their ears, and it attracted decent notices and sales numbers despite being released relatively late in the lifespan of its console.

Composer Christopher Lennertz had co-scored the remade Warhawk in 2007, with his music attracting strong praise despite being shackled to a multiplayer-only game. Lennertz was an old hand at game scoring by that point, with dozens of triple-A titles under his belt from the Medal of Honor series and beyond; unlike Michael Giacchino, Lennertz has kept a firmer foot in the game industry despite branching out into feature scoring. For Starhawk, Lennertz assembled an impressive ensemble in the Skywalker Symphony Orchestra and an array of soloists on instruments like slide guitar and harmonica.

And therein is the central conceit of the score: Starhawk adapts a Firefly/Serenity-like “wild west in space” approach, and Lennertz embraces that sound with his soloists layered over top of a full symphony orchestra. It’s also reflected in the two main thematic constructs of the score: the noble, rollicking Bernstein-esque “Emmett’s Theme” and the much darker Morricone-style theme for the game’s villainous Outcasts (first heard, appropriately, in “Outcasts”), which is driven by percussion and electric guitars.

With these two themes and a variety of western soloists, Lennertz is able to build an action score at least as effective as Greg Edmonson or David Newman. The majority of songs on the album are, as one might expect from a shooter, massive action pieces. The freedom inherent in video game scoring enables the composer to sidestep many of the action cliches in film today and instead write complex and tonal music. When the music is firing on all cylinders, it’s breathtaking: the prime example of this is “The Rift,” which alternates Emmett’s theme and the Outcast theme against one another in a terrific example of leitmotif scoring.

One thing to note about this score: there are two separate releases of Starhawk that may be confusing to the casual listener. The version available at iTunes runs 45 minutes while La-La Land Records’ deluxe limited edition CD is a full 57 minutes. Most of the missing songs on the shorter, digital release are, unfortunately, the album’s greatest highlights like beautiful choral “The Source.” The cut tracks are also, generally speaking, the least action-packed, which compounds the album’s only stylistic flaw: its emphasis on constant gigantic action with very little breathing room. As such, the La-La Land CD is the preferred purchase option.

Christopher Lennertz is a talented composer, but it’s ironic that most of his feature assignments have been in comedy and romance, leaving it to the world of video games to show his most effective and most filmic work. While listeners who aren’t fond of western sounds or relentless action may find the album exhausting, Starhawk nevertheless comes highly recommended.

Rating: starstarstarstar