Mr. Peabody & Sherman (Danny Elfman)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: starstarstarstar

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Fifty Shades of Grey (Danny Elfman)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: starstarstar

Confession (Ryan Shore)

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

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

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

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

Rating: starstar

Elite: Dangerous (Erasmus Talbot)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: starstarstarstar

Halo 4 (Neil Davidge)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: starstar