Halo 3: ODST (Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori)

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Halo 3, one of the earlier games on Microsoft’s Xbox 360 console, took the Halo series into a world of greater online connectivity and HD video. It had been a massive hit, comparable in scope to a major blockbuster, and there was no doubt that Microsoft and developer Bungie would continue the series. But rather than seizing on Halo 3‘s deliberately ambiguous ending, the quasi-expansion pack Halo 3: ODST was released instead. Set during the events of Halo 2 in the besieged Earth city of New Mombasa, the game is a quieter and more thoughtful affair (at least by Halo standards) made up of character-based vignettes involving a squadron of the titular Orbital Drop Shock Troopers. Critics and gamers responded favorably, making the experimental, story-based ODST yet another success for Bungie.

By 2009, Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori were well-established as Bungie’s house composers, with their genre-defying fusion of orchestral and choral colors with dance-influenced electronica winning admiration and imitation across the industry. Their return was a given in the years before Bungie and O’Donnell’s bitter 2014 split, but like the rest of the game’s development team, O’Donnell and Salvatori chose to take a more experimental approach to their music by incorporating a variety of more intimate instrumental colors and techniques. In particular, the game’s hub levels, which took place at night and in the rain as a character looked for clues to his teammates’ wherebouts, had a deliberately neo-noir look to them–a look that O’Donnell and Salvatori matched by adding a strong film noir fusion element to their score for the game.

The primary means by which O’Donnell and Salvatori add flashes of film noir color to the score is through smokey saxophone performances by Steve Griggs and Dewey Marler. From the first mournful pulls of the sax set against the sound of rain in “Overture,” the instrument comes to define the best and most unique parts of the ODST score. In “Rain,” the saxophone mingles with traditional strings and piano with only the barest hint of the Halo sound in a cue that could have almost come from a neo-noir film like Body Heat or Chinatown. Other pieces take a more experimental jazz fusion approach, marrying thumping off-kilter percussion and bass with sax blasts and soft keyboarding in “Something Like Sorrow,” and a mix of synth percussion and piano in “Hardoiled” that is perhaps the score’s most brilliantly original two minutes of detective music. All told, O’Donnell and Salvatori assemble about 30 minutes of similar material.

Unfortunately, like Halo 3 and Halo 2: Volume 2 before it, though, Halo 3: ODST suffers from significant album production problems. Once again, the album consists of a “frozen playthrough” in which O’Donnell and Salvatori’s tracks are mixed into lengthy 5-10 minute suites, and there is simply no way to skip to the album’s most original parts without wading through less-inspired material that is more typical of the “Halo sound” one might expect (though the game never actually quotes any themes from the original or its sequels). For instance, the gentle “Rain” is chained to the much more aggressive and electronic “Trailhead” and “Guiding Hand” to form the “Deference for Darkness” suite.

Without gameplay and the game’s audio engine to blend the songs smoothly into one another, the transition simply doesn’t work. Indexing each part of each suite to a separate track would have fit on the same album, but instead listeners are forced to break out an audio editor if they want to pick and choose their tracks. That’s not to say that the remaining 90 minutes of music is bad; O’Donnell and Salvatori’s fusions of orchestral and electronica, its the organic parts performed with the full backing of the Northwest Sinfonia, are often as fun as ever. They just don’t fit well with the new and most interesting film noir material save for a few places, most notably “Overture” and “Finale.”

O’Donnell and Salvatori were able to match the creativity of Halo 3: ODST (within the constraints of its genre) with creativity of their own (within the constraints of what was expected of a Halo score), even if their best material has a sometimes uneasy relationship with the rest on album. Sumthing Else Music Works released a 2-CD set alongside the game’s debut in late 2009 that was readily available in major retailers; with the declining interest in ODST since, the set it easy to find at a reasonable price. Even with the stylistic clash and terrible suite-based production, it remains a worthy listen. O’Donnell and Salvatori would go on to pen music for Bungie’s next two games, Halo: Reach and Destiny, though O’Donnell would part ways with the company after that in a bitter lawsuit.

Rating: starstarstar

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Titan A.E. (Graeme Revell)

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After boldly leaving Disney during the latter’s late-70s doldrums, animator Don Bluth and his compatriots made a series of well-regarded films in the 1980s, from The Secret of NIMH to An American Tail to The Land Before Time. But Bluth was unable to capitalize on the films’ success, and his output in the 1990s was a series of box office bombs and creative compromises that eventually led to the bankruptcy of his studio. Hired by Fox to head its new Fox Animation Studios, Bluth’s Anastasia was a Disney-size hit in 1997, with a bevy of Oscar nominations to boot, but Bluth’s second feature for Fox, 2000’s Titan A.E., was not. Despite an innovative visual style combining cel and 3D animation, the talents of a diverse group of collaborators including Joss Whedon and Matt Damon, and an eye-popping trailer before The Phantom Menace, the ambitious science fiction animation never found an audience. Perhaps parents were put off by the violent destruction of Earth in the film’s trailer and opening; in any case, the film was the first in a series of high-profile cel animation adventures to underperform in the 2000s which led studios to move toward 3D as “the format people wanted to see.” Bluth never made another movie, and Fox Animation was dissolved.

Bluth had collaborated with a diverse array of composers in his earlier animation work, from Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner in his 1980s salad days to Robert Folk and David Newman in the 1990s. For Titan A.E., though, New Zelander Graeme Revell was signed to score. Revell had an incredibly diverse career since making his mark with Child’s Play 2 in 1990, dabbling in everything from popcorn fantasy (Power Rangers) to horror (From Dusk Till Dawn) to superheroes (The Crow). In 2000, though, Revell was primarily known as an action composer on the back of efforts like The Negotiator, and it’s likely for that reason Bluth chose him for Titan A.E.. Unlike Bluth’s earlier efforts, though, there was a definite attempt to appeal to a youth demographic from Fox, so Revell’s score was forced to jostle for screen time with an array of banal late-90s rock songs. To help add an electronic edge to the work, Revell also brought on former Tangerine Dream member (and future film composer in his own right) Paul Haslinger as an arranger and synthesizer performer.

With a palette including Haslinger’s electronics and a full orchestra with choir, Revell’s approach to the score is grounded in an overarching theme that he holds to through much of the music. First heard on gentle piano in “Prologue/Drej Attack” and wistful Star Trek brass in “Wow,” Revell puts his Titan theme through plenty of variations similar to the way Jerry Goldsmith often played with his main themes at the time, but none is more satisfying than its massive statements for the film’s biggest triumphs. The first hint of choral majesty in “The Broken Moon” gives way to the film and score’s stunning finale in “Creation/Bob” when Revell lets his theme rip in all its glory with full brassy orchestra, chorus, and Haslinger’s electronic pulses. It’s a stunning statement of sci-fi awe, and one of the finest and most satisfying moments of the composer’s career, finishing out with a tender love-theme rendition of the primary motif for the film’s denouement (and its funniest Whedon-scripted line).

There’s solid orchestral writing throughout the score even when Revell isn’t developing his primary theme as well, like the mournful vocals of “Recovery” or the sci-fi wonder of “Don’t Lose ‘Em.” But, unfortunately, there is also material that’s much less compelling: for many of the movie’s big action setpieces, Revell and Haslinger resort to a pounding series of repetitive and simplistic drum beats (“Hydrogen Forest Chase,” “The Dreaded Drej”) that’s deeply out of sync with the more orchestral parts of the score; perhaps a need to make room and/or fit in with the dreadful 90s-style rock songs led to that approach. Worse still is the music for the alien Drej antagonists and their queen; beings of pure energy, they are represented by Haslinger’s electronics at their harshest and most unrestrained (“Start Running, Keep Running,” “Mother Drej,” parts of “Power Struggle”). The simplistic action and temple-pounding Drej synths simply don’t play nice with the rest of what is otherwise a superior score, dragging significant portions of it down to near-unlistenable levels.

Titan A.E.‘s failure has made it, to date, Graeme Revell’s only animated feature. But his career prospered in the 2000s with a number of science fiction and horror films from Pitch Black to Daredevil before gradually petering out in the 2010s. Thanks to Fox’s ill-fated marketing attempts there was a Titan soundtrack, but it was strictly composed of songs without a note of Revell’s score. Good-quality bootlegs abounded but it wasn’t until 2014 that La-La Land Records put out the complete score as part of a limited edition. While the music isn’t perfect, with an overreliance on harsh electronic textures and being forced to tiptoe around songs, Revell’s grand main theme and especially its outings in the first and last cues make the album worth the effort. Like the film it accompanies, the music isn’t Oscar caliber but remains sorely underrated.

Rating: starstarstar

Gravity Rush (Kohei Tanaka)

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Japanese developer Keiichiro Toyama was behind the first Silent Hill for Konami and its spiritual successor the Siren series for Sony; in 2012, he was asked to tackle a much different project: an open-world game based around the manipulation of gravity. Originally developed for the Playstation 3 and entitled Gravité, it was moved to the portable Playstation Vita during development as a launch title, making use of the handheld’s built-in gyroscope to allow players to manipulate gravity simply by tilting the system. Though its plot of an amnesiac girl given gravity-shifting powers by a mysterious cat to save the floating city of Hekseville wasn’t shortlisted for any writing awards, Gravity Rush (known as Gravity Daze in Japan, a much cleverer title) was among the best-reviewed PS Vita launch titles. Only the portable system’s spectacular marketplace failure kept it from reaching a wider audience.

Toyama had collaborated with a diverse stable of composers for his previous games; Silent Hill fans remember Akira Yamaoka’s fan-favorite industrial-ambient music, while the Siren series saw Toyama switching between Hitomi Shimizu and Kuniaki Haishima. For Gravity Rush, though, Toyama went for a more tonal and melodic approach to the music and retained the experienced Kohei Tanaka. With a long resume in film, anime, and video game composition stretching back to the 1980s, Tanaka’s lush style is well-known among enthusiasts but the composer is probably most familiar to mainstream audiences for his score for the Enix SNES RPG Paladin’s Quest (Lennus in Japan), the PS1 Alundra series, and the PS3/Xbox 360 Resonance of Fate (End of Eternity in Japan) co-composed with Motoi Sakuraba.

Tanaka’s approach to Gravity Rush is eclectic; while his lush personal style is often in evidence and performed with gusto by a (partially) live ensemble, he also throws in entirely synthesized tracks, rock instrumentals, and textural dissonance. That is the biggest issue with the album up front: it lacks stylistic cohesion in many places, and while Tanaka does compose a main theme, its applications are relatively limited in the music that differs from the composer’s usual orchestral or synth palette.

Tanaka had experimented with jazzy saxophone interludes in Resonance of Fate, but his finest work for Gravity Rush takes that sound to a whole new level. Inspired by the jazz age aesthetic of Hekseville, he composed a number of excellent orchestral tracks around his lively sound. “Pleasure Quarter” is the standout track of the whole album, blasting with lively muted brass and honky-tonk keyboarding; almost as potent is the end credits song “Douse Shinundakara” (“You’re Dying Anyway”) which features lively lyrics delivered in a spot-on imitation of a speakeasy swing singer. The more straightforwardly orchestral tracks often include an infusion of smokey Parisian jazz as well; many also feature variations of the main (and only recurring theme) first heard in “Discovery of Gravitation.” The more synthesized tracks had a few highlights as well, like the delightful piano/synth “Ruined Paths.”

The music is at its weakest when Tanaka is outside his usual wheelhouse, and meaty portions of the album are given over to rather mediocre attempts at rock or dissonant ambience. The lengthy, grinding “The Lowest Quarter” is the low point of this approach, sounding more like a second-rate Yamaoka imitation than Tanaka. The relatively few attempts to fit the superior jazz age sound of the highlights with rock instrumentals winds up sounding incoherent and ridiculous in places like “Assault Cnida.” And a few of Tanaka’s orchestral tracks fall flat as well; critics were often unimpressed by the combat in Gravity Rush, and tracks like “Evil Shadow” and “Decisive Battle” back up that assertion with limp organ and orchestral meandering.

Gravity Rush winds up being a little frustrating, with some of Kohei Tanaka’s very best work mixed in with failed attempts at a more diverse set of styles and a general overall lack of cohesion. It still merits a recommendation for those delightful jazz age highlights like “Pleasure Quarter” and “Douse Shinundakara,” though, and with the creators promising a sequel despite the PS Vita’s continuing struggles, Tanaka may very well return to expand upon the best parts of his sound. As with many Japanese video game soundtracks, Gravity Rush received a full album release overseas and is available as a (pricy) import.

Rating: starstarstar

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (Hans Zimmer)

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The completely unexpected success of the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie with audiences and critics made it inevitable that Captain Jack Sparrow and his hangers-on would sail again; $600 million in worldwide box-office gold and five nominations’ worth of Oscar gold was just too much plunder for the producers to ignore. So virtually the entire cast and crew, from star Depp to director Verbinski to overproducer Bruckheimer, was shanghaied back for not one but two sequels to be filmed back-to-back and released a year apart. This sort of filming had undergone a resurgence in the 2000s following the success of The Lord of the Rings, with The Matrix sequels taking the same route. Therefore, production began without a finished script, leaving the film feeling soggy and underwritten in many places, despite some memorable moments, and it concluded with a particularly poorly-done cliffhanger.

Despite its hasty genesis, the soundtrack to Curse of the Black Pearl had sold well for Walt Disney Records, and had helped cement Hans Zimmer and his scurvy Remote Control crew as the kings of summer blockbusters. No one was surprised when they reboarded the franchise for the second movie, Dead Man’s Chest, though some eyebrows were raised that despite the presence of “his” themes, Klaus Badelt wasn’t credited at all. With no contractual obligations and plenty of time to pen the score, Zimmer struck the false colors and took primary credit for the music, although as always the collaboration-minded German was assisted by his Remote Control hearties. Lorne Balfe, who would become Zimmer’s primary collaborator for the latter 2000s and 2010s, joined old Remote Control sea dogs Nick Glennie-Smith and Geoff Zanelli from the first film along with up-and-coming midshipmen Henry Jackman, Trevor Morris, Tom Gire, and John Sponsler.

The most memorable themes from the original Pirates sail into port along with them, with the dual silly/serious themes for Jack Sparrow reappearing right out of the gate in, appropriately, “Jack Sparrow.” The flighty and jaunty cello is punched up a notch for a much more satisfyingly piratey sound this time around, though it’s periodically shot across the bow by the usual massive orchestra with synth doubles that Zimmer adds to his provisions for every voyage. The Cthulloid villain of the film, Davy Jones, is given an affecting music box theme that builds to a satistfying, massive organ-led crescendo in “Davy Jones,” while the “He’s a Pirate” theme crops up in the rousing, if often eardrum-shattering, “Wheel of Fortune.” It’s all very rousingly piratey stuff, though “Two Hornpipes (Tortuga)” is the true delightful pirate leader of the album.

But for all that resurgent nautical lit to Cap’n Zimmer’s tunes, the music still has some sargassum-fouled doldrums. Chief among these is “The Kraken” which, despite some token nautical “heave, ho!” chants in the far background, is a crushingly powered-up power anthem scraped from the bilge of earlier and better-realized power anthems. In addition to his usual unison playing and synth doubling, Zimmer feeds the entire orchestra through an electric guitar amp, an idea that sounds swashbuckling in theory but in practice just seems to add an anemic faux electric guitar to the titular giant gastropod and its attacks. Add to that some painfully anonymous music in other places–“I’ve Got My Eye on You,” “A Family Affair,” “You Look Good Jack”–and you’ve got some of Cap’n Zimmer’s lowest soundings next to some of his highest shoals.

It goes without saying, too, that the 50-minute patchwork of the album leaves yards of mainsail left in the hold, with plenty of rearrangement into lengthy suites that often only vaguely resemble the musical block and tackle heard in the movie–to say nothing with ending on a truly dire remix of “He’s a Pirate.” It’s an improvement over the first Pirates, with a more genuine nautical spirit and better themes alongside better interpretations of old themes. But there are still a lot of places where Cap’n Zimmer and his scurvy crew couldn’t resist recycling or swabbing the decks with banal music. It wouldn’t be until their third voyage that the crew got their topsail and mainmast sorted out.

Rating: starstarstar

Spider-Man 2 (Danny Elfman)

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After the stunning success of 2002’s Spider-Man, the question confronting director Sam Raimi wasn’t if but when a sequel would be made. Spider-Man 2 duly followed in 2004, and it broke the mold of many contemporary superhero sequels by refusing to add additional superfluous villains to the mix, instead focusing on a single adversary for the web-slinger while painting a stark portrait of how difficult the life of a superhero could be. The mood of the country had changed somewhat since 2002, and Spider-Man 2 didn’t meet or exceed its predecessor’s box-office take, but it remains the best-reviewed Spider-Man movie to date, even earning an admirer in as unlikely a figure as Roger Ebert.

As most of the behind-the-scenes talent from Spider-Man returned for the sequel, here was no reason to expect that Danny Elfman would not return as well. His score for the first movie had been an exhilarating and highly thematic merger of the two different styles in which the composer had been dabbling for years, expertly balancing acoustic and electronic elements. All was not smooth sailing, though: Spider-Man 2 somewhat notoriously became the subject of a rift between Elfman and Raimi after the director insisted on an unusually close following of the film’s temporary music (a melange of cues from the original Spider-Man and Hellraiser II, among others). Calling Raimi a “pod person,” Elfman bitterly split from the director and saw substantial portions of his music removed from the film, with contributions from John Debney and Christopher Young (who had written Hellraiser II and collaborated with Raimi on The Gift) replacing them.

The Spider-Man 2 album contains only Danny Elfman’s material originally composed for the film. Debney’s contributions, most notably for the pizza-delivery scene, and Young’s substantial rewrites, for the Doc Ock origin scene and the climactic train battle, have never been released despite featuring prominently in the film. It’s also quite evident that Raimi clashed with Elfman early on in the production, as substantial parts of Spider-Man are re-used, almost verbatim, by Elfman in his sequel score (“I couldn’t even adapt my own music,” the composer said at the time. “I couldn’t get close enough to me”). So, while Elfman’s powerful theme for Spider-Man, his love theme, and a host of smaller motifs return for the sequel, they are often sapped of their power by being essentially rerecords of earlier material.

And that is the most glaring weakness of Elfman’s Spider-Man 2: its note-for-note repetition of passages of music from the original film. “Spider-Man 2 Main Title” is, aside from a few additional electronic swooshes, identical to the main title from the original film. The menacing Green Goblin theme from the prequel is inelegantly replaced with the pounding Doc Ock motif, but the change is awkward and the seams are almost literally visible (a similar problem would beset Christopher Young in transitioning between adapted Elfman material and his own music in Spider-Man 3). “At Long Last, Love,” the final score cue, also cribs heavily from Spider-Man‘s “Finale,” and smaller fragments of regurgitation are scattered throughout the album. While Elfman was under intense pressure to do this, obviously, that can’t alter the fact that this reuse is extremely noticeable and distracting when it appears. Also missing from most of Elfman’s new score material is the contemporary electronic mix that helped make the original Spider-Man such a fun melding of Elfman old and new.

That said, Elfman does provide a major and highly satisfying new theme for the Doc Ock character, an eight-note (naturally) melody that slashes violently up and down the scale in a way that perfectly encapsulates the villain’s powerful, herky-jerky movement. Its awkward shoehorning into “Spider-Man 2 Main Title” aside, the theme is tremendous fun and, when Elfman gives it interplay with his existing theme for Spidey in action set-pieces like “The Bank” or “Armageddon.” It’s especially effective in the unused “Train,” which was replaced wholesale by a Christopher Young piece of comparable complexity and quality but which featured only a muted reference to the Ock theme; the piece as Elfman intended is a first-rate piece of action scoring much like “Final Confrontation” from the first album, the composer letting his themes battle even as the characters on screen do the same.

The composer is able to do some interesting things with his themes in places. Elfman’s love theme has plenty of mileage and development throughout cues like the first part of “Spidus Interruptus” and “A Really Big Web!” and it is, if anything, more lovely when it’s allowed to breathe away from the director’s influence. Also, somewhat surprisingly, the menacing Green Goblin villain theme from the first movie is given a dark reprise in “The Goblin Returns,” foreshadowing Christopher Young’s extensive use and adaptation of that theme in the third and final film of the Raimi trilogy.

Raimi and Elfman’s acrimonious split, with the composer declaring that he’d rather wait tables than have another Spider-Man 2 experience, meant that Spider-Man 3 was composed entirely by Christopher Young with substantial adaptations of Elfman’s themes. Young himself saw much of his work tinkered with or replaced by material written by Deborah Lurie or tracked in from the first two films, and it was never released in any form. The (relative) disaster of Spider-Man 3 in 2007 soured virtually the entire cast and crew on the series, leading to a risible series of remakes a few years later. Elfman and Raimi, much like Elfman and Burton in the mid-90s, eventually made amends and would work together again on Oz the Great and Powerful in 2013. As for Elfman’s Spider-Man 2, the strong original material and some clever adaptations of material from the previous film are enough to recommend it on album, but it’s hard to escape the feeling of repetition and needledropping that so frustrated the composer during the scoring process. One can sense the score Elfman wanted to write struggling to escape from the one he was allowed to write.

Rating: starstarstar

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

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

Kingdom Hearts II (Yoko Shimomura)

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When Yoko Shimomura left Square Enix and went freelance during Kingdom Hearts II‘s development period, many feared that the composer would choose not to return to the series as had happened with Nobuo Uematsu and Final Fantasy that same year. Such was not the case, of course, and fans got their wish when Shimomura was hired to score the sequel. One could be forgiven for thinking this automatically guaranteed a home run–after all, the original Kingdom Hearts is one of the finest game scores of Shimomura’s–or anyone’s–career. Unfortunately, the end result was decidedly mixed.

The resulting album has a number of strengths. It introduces a theme for the character Sora, something missing from the original, and the resultant track (creatively named “Sora”) is a heroic and upbeat anthem that, while brief, is a highlight. The Gummi Ship music has gotten an overhaul as well; a whole suite of driving, quirky, and often beautiful tracks (such as “Shipmeisters’ Rhapsody” and “Cloudchasers”) with the lovely counterpoint of “Shipmeisters’ Shanty” leading the way.

In addition, many of the best tracks from Shimomura’s score to the Game Boy Chain of Memories title have been carried over and upgraded, most notably the jazzy “Lazy Afternoons” and off-kilter “Sinister Sundown” tracks from Twilight town, and the “13th Struggle” battle theme for the mysterious Organization XII. Shimomura builds on this darkness , as well as themes she introduced on the Final Mix album, to conjure up a suite of intense battle music on disc 2 (“The Encounter,” “The 13th Dilemma,” “Sinister Shadows,” “Fight to the Death”), though the final battle (“Darkness of the Unknown) is sadly limp, lacking the choral majesty that made its predecessor so impressive.

On the other hand, much of the material from the original Kingdom Hearts is reprised, often without much modification. The worlds of Agrabah (“A Day in Agrabah,” “Arabian Dream”) and Halloween Town (“This is Halloween,” “Spooks of Halloween Town”) in particular feature music that is almost identical to the original tracks. Others, like “Rebuilding Hollow Bastion” feature new material added to tunes from the previous game, which often is a jarring contrast–half of “Rebuilding” is the ominous music that was a fan favorite, while the other half is upbeat and joyous! Fans and detractors of the Pirates of the Caribbean score will note with some amusement that the single cue from that score, “He’s a Pirate,” results in no less than three composer credits, including one for Hans Zimmer himself, but none for the score’s credited composer Klaus Badelt.

Some of the tracks are live recordings–the finale march (which features a lovely orchestral rendition of Sora’s theme) and reprises of “Hand in Hand” and “Destiny Islands” are spectacularly moving. On the other hand, the less said about the songs that begin Disc 2, the better: Howard Ashman is spinning in his grave. The obligatory title pop song is also disappointing, even when compared with its underachieving teenybopper predecessor.

One more thing of note is Takeharu Ishimoto’s synth programming; it’s very inconsistent, and occasionally downright poor. The result of this is that many of the returning songs from Kingdom Hearts are inferior to their predecessors (compare the Kingdom Hearts Final Mix version of “Disappeared” to the Kingdom Hearts II version for a good example). In addition, due to being squeezed onto two discs, many of the best songs loop only once instead of the industry-standard twice. One would think that, after its success, Kingdom Hearts II would be allowed the coveted three- or four-disc treatment, but this isn’t the case. Many songs are missing as well, most notably the flying carpet minigame theme (later released as “Arabian Daydream” in the Complete Box) and the lightcycle race theme (later released as “Byte Striking” in the Complete Box).

In the end, there’s enough good material to justify an album purchase, though the music is not anywhere near the home run that its prequel was. It’s not clear if this was a case of Shimomura being content to rest on her laurels, or if the development team insisted on the current sound. Either way, remarkable though the game itself is, on balance the music does leave something to be desired. The later Kingdom Hearts Complete Box expanded the soundtrack to four discs, with full loops and unreleased tracks, but it is harder to locate and far more expensive than the original release, and has the same problems with regurgitation, occasionally dodgy synth, and dreadful singing performances. Buy it if a solid extension of Shimomura’s Kingdom Hearts style is enough to convince you to ignore subpar album presenation and synth, as well as considerable recycling from the first album, but don’t expect the same excellence as the earlier title.

Rating: starstarstar

27 Dresses (Randy Edelman)

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The 2008 romantic comedy 27 Dresses wound up following every cliché in the rom-com handbook with its tale of someone who is literally always the bridesmaid and never the bride. It nevertheless did decent business during its release, though it was certainly a step down for the film’s writer (who had adapted the much sharper The Devil Wears Prada two years earlier). More than anything it showed once again that, by filming a film cheaply and using the rom-com stars du jour at the time, there was profit to be had in even the most inane formula.

Veteran composer Randy Edelman was tapped for the film’s score. Edelman has a solid track record in the genre, with scores like While You Were Sleeping, and Head over Heels on his resume, but by 2008 the composer had not written anything in the genre for several years, with most rom-com assignments going instead to younger composers like Theodore Shapiro or Rolfe Kent. Edelman’s output in general had declined in the 2000s with relatively few assignments compared to his salad days of the mid-1990s, with 2008 being the last year to date the composer had more than one major assignment.

Much like the movie itself, you know exactly what you’re going to get with the score. Edelman’s music is gentle and melodic, the sort of “sensitive piano music” with an ensemble backup that has become de rigueur for romantic comedies. It’s sunny when it needs to be, twinkling and introverted when it needs to be, and contains absolutely no surprises. It’s the sort of thing Rachel Portman or the aforementioned Shapiro or Kent could pull off in their sleep. Save for a few passages that adopt a more percussive quirky sound akin to watered-down Thomas Newman, the entire album is a highly consistent listen.

If this seems like damning with faint praise, keep in mind that Edelman is always professional about the sound and that he has a songwriter’s natural gift for attractive melody and harmony. The music may not be the most complex, and it may adhere to almost as many romantic comedy clichés as the film itself, but it is always highly pleasant and highly listenable. Just don’t expect themes as strong as Edelman’s defining work in Gettysburg or Dragonheart, which were strong enough to overcome a sound that was at times almost unbearably cheap. 27 Dresses never sounds cheap, but it never ascends the same melodic heights as those other scores.

While Edelman would have another rom-com hit two years later with the very similar Leap Year, the next few years would see him diminish his output even further, with only three scores in the subsequent five years. The 27 Dresses album suffered from low demand thanks to its score-only nature, with none of the needledropped rom-com songs found in the movie, and was eventually remaindered to Family Dollar stores in the 2010s, with copies often only $3-$4 each.

Rating: * * *

Freddy vs. Jason (Graeme Revell)

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After their final cinematic outings in 1993 and 1994 respectively, it seemed that the 1980s Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street franchises were completely out of gas. The slasher genre of the 1990s would be defined by movies like Scream, much more subversive and self-aware than its 1980s forebears even at their campiest. Enter directer Ronny Yu, fresh from revitalizing another 1980s horror staple with Bride of Chucky to give the aging horror icons one last hurrah by combining them in the vein of Alien vs. Predator. The resultant Freddy vs. Jason attracted decent notices and box office receipts, but it was not enough to prevent remake-happy Hollywood from “rebooting” both franchises later in the decade.

New Zealand film score composer Graeme Revell had a history in the horror genre with titles like From Dusk till Dawn on his resume, and he had also worked with director Yu on the earlier Bride of Chucky. Revell was faced with the daunting musical history of the two series to inform his attempt to score the crossover; the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise in particular had never used the same composer twice, with scores from Charles Bernstein, Christopher Young, Angelo Badalamenti, Craig Safan, Jay Ferguson, Brian May (the Australian composer, not the rocker), and J. Peter Robinson–a veritable who’s who of horror composers for film and TV–each bringing their own distinct style and themes to the wildly varying tone and quality of the films. The much schlockier Friday the 13th films had been much more consistent in their (low) level of quality and their generally overachieving scores by composer Harry Manfredini (save for Fred Mollin’s score and tracked-in Manfredini needledrops for parts 7 and 8 of the series).

Revell chose to tackle the film with a straight-up classical horror score in the vein of many films of the old slasher era, a mostly orchestral and mostly atonal cocktail of effective, rambunctious, and noisy tracks with an occasional role for electronics and electric guitar. There was a time when that sort of score might have been called a cliche, but by 2003 horror and slasher films were increasingly bearing overprocessed scores in the vein of Hans Zimmer’s Media Ventures/Remote Control studios, textual efforts that were more sound design than traditional scoring. In that context, Revell’s music is an impressively entertaining thowback even as it breaks no new ground for either series or orchestral horror scores in general.

Most impressively, the composer pays significant tribute to the earlier films in both series. The orchestral, occasionally gothic sound of his score isn’t a million miles from some of the finer cuts from the Nightmare on Elm Street series, for instance, and Revell incorporates singsong children’s voices uttering the doggerel rhyme from Nightmare directly into his score on occasion. He also pays tribute to Manfredini’s Friday scores by using, with full credit, the latter composer’s original (and iconic) echoing “kill, kill, kill, kill, die, die, die, die” samples. These homages are only present in a minority of the cues, Revell being generally content to rely on his own ideas, but they form a very pleasing tip of the hat to the film’s forebears. Compared to Steve Jablonsky’s dire efforts for the “rebooted” Friday and Nightmare scores in 2009 and 2010, though, Revell’s effort is a breath of fresh air.

In 2003, a score like Freddy vs. Jason with occasional references to classic motifs from the schlocky earlier films was easy to dismiss as a weak, paint-by-numbers effort; a decade of awful scores for similar films wound up putting it in context as a much stronger effort than people give it credit for. Graeme Revell would get a few more horror assignments in the 2000s and 2010s, but none of the later efforts (mostly vile “reboots” themselves) approached the same level of satisfying cliche as Freddy vs. Jason, and indeed the composer took on far fewer assignments in the 2010s in general. Due perhaps to weak demand for the orchestral score as opposed to the irrelevant “songs from and inspired by” album, Revell’s music was later remaindered by Varèse Sarabande to the Family Dollar discount chain and can occasionally be acquired for as little as $3.

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