Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: The Game (James Hannigan)

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2009’s Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince solidified director David Yates’s control over the trillion-dollar franchise. The last of the six traditional Potterverse movies, before the strange bifurcated finale, the film had major script problems that not only kept it from being as engaging as its predecessor but forced the following Deathly Hallows Part 1 to go through a series of bizarre narrative contortions in addition to its focus on camping. The film’s score was singled out for particular criticism, with Nicholas Hooper’s subtle music being partly jettisoned by Yates in favor of material from the previous film.

Needless to say, it was a sure bet that a game adaptation would be forthcoming. Sure enough, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince appeared on the release calendars opposite the film. With both the director and the composer of the previous movie returning for the first time since 2002, the game shares a similar sense of continuity, with James Hannigan returning to the series, cementing himself as Jeremy Soule’s successor as Hogwarts’ composer in residence.

It becomes clear from the outset of the album that Hannigan is interested in maintaining thematic continuity between his scores. The opening “Return to Hogwarts” features creative mutations of the composer’s original themes from Order of the Phoenix, with both the friendship theme and the darker menacing/mischief theme combined as a suite. If the new adaptations aren’t quite as soaring as the previous ones, they do an excellent job of tying the scores together in a way Soule never quite managed. The friendship theme is given a full performance at the end of the album as well, moving away from the flighty and optimistic into a quiet and downbeat arrangement that’s incredibly moving.

The themes are less prominent in Hannigan’s sequel outing, integrated more subtly into the music and with significant sections absent them entirely. The album highlight “Race Ginny,” for example, cleverly integrates a fragment of the friendship theme into its midsection while relying on a unique piece to carry its first third. Hannigan seems to be trying to find a middle ground between Williams’ theme-driven music for the films and Soule’s largely themeless work for the first four games; he takes another page from Soule in some other aspects of the score, including some lengthy sections of ambiance across the varied “Wandering” cues.

As before, the music runs the gamut from serious (“More Potions”) to silly (“Fred and George Return”), always keeping that delicate magic touch no matter the setting. The action music is once again a highlight, though perhaps not without some reservations. Tracks such as “Slytherin Combat” soar to triumphant heights unequaled in previous Potter scores, but there is also some weaker music as well, with “Bellatrix” and “Fenrir Battle” recalling some of Soule’s weaker action efforts.

As with the previous game, Hannigan was allowed to adopt some of John Williams’ themes from the original film and a few incidental Soule compositions were recycled. And, as before, all of the Williams adaptations were left off the official album. Luckily, though, Half-Blood Prince also continues the fine production evident in the previous score — the album presentation is superior, with crystal-clear sound, well-mastered tracks, and a pleasing flow with the hideous flaws from the Soule albums a distant memory. Nearly an hour of music is present as well, making this the lengthiest Potter game score to date.

Half-Blood Prince was another extremely strong entry by Hannigan. The composer repeated his previous achievement and wound up turning in music that was superior to Nicholas Hooper’s film score. If the album isn’t quite as consistently excellent as its predecessor, it was still an incredibly strong entry. Astonishingly, Hannigan’s score was released months before the movie or game appeared, the only album in the series thus far to become available so early. Perhaps this, and the incredible weakness of Hooper’s film score, were what led to the official album being pulled only a few months later, around the time that the film hit theaters. All other Potterverse game albums were yakned at the same time, leaving the narrow window of only a few months for fans to acquire the music legally.

Half-Blood Prince would also prove to be the final Potterverse game album of any sort after EA squelched the previous releases. While Hannigan would return for the final two games in the series, their emphasis on third-person action meant that the scores were not only unreleased but far inferior. Hopef

Rating: starstarstarstarstar

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Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: The Game (James Hannigan)

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In keeping with the overall trend of the series, 2007’s film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix saw a still-darker tone, yet another person in the director’s chair, and another composer providing the music. New director David Yates made the right decision in trimming much of the overstuffed fifth Potter tome for the screen, yet in bringing he old collaborator Nicholas Hooper along to score he sharply divided fans, with many claiming that it was far weaker than John Williams’ or Patrick Doyle’s efforts for previous films in the series.

Interestingly, this situation carried over into the inevitable video game adaptation of the film, which saw a composer other than Jeremy Soule take up the baton for the first time. Soule had scored all four previous games with an inventive and magical sound that eschewed John Williams’ iconic themes. Despite being very poorly represented on album, they had been quite popular with fans. Taking over from Soule for Phoenix was veteran composer James Hannigan, who had a diverse career in game scoring but for whom the Potterverse assignment represented a real breakthrough.

For the first time in the game series, Hannigan was given leave to use John Williams’ iconic themes for the movie series in the game’s score for the first time. The game would ultimately feature Hannigan’s arrangements of Williams’ themes, his own original music and motifs, and tracked-in leftovers from Soule’s four scores. With such a mishmash, it was easy to expect Hannigan to underperform — especially as compared with Soule, one of the most popular VGM composers in the business.

Fortunately, Hannigan was able to strut his stuff in an impressive fashion, creating a work that paid homage to both Williams and Soule while retaining his own voice. Indeed, one could argue that Hannigan’s compositions and extended use of Williams themes outshone those Nicholas Hooper, who only used fragments of the Harry Potter themes and was criticized for underplaying the film’s more dramatic moments by fans.

The score unveils its primary themes in the first few tracks, beginning with “Welcome to Hogwarts.” A sweeping “friendship theme” of sorts debuts there, and is malleable enough to be reworked into a love theme (“Cho and Harry”) or action cue (“To Catch an Owl,” easily the highlight of the album). A darker theme, with shades of Williams’ troubled Prisoner of Azkaban, is heard alongside it, reappearing whenever the action turns serious as in “Dumbledore and Voldemort.” “Dolores Umbridge” introduces a third main theme, an insistent, swaggering four-note theme similar to a tag often used by James Horner.

Such thematic richness is well-matched by the very clear sound of the music; performed by a live ensemble, the depth in the recording is excellent. This is especially notable when the score turns to serious action; Hannigan’s music sounds suitably enormous in this context even when it’s not quoting a theme as in the savage “Inquisitorial Squad.” Given the weakness of Hooper’s action music for the film version of Phoenix, one could very well make the case that Hannigan drastically outperformed the film music itself.

That’s not to say that lighter music is neglected; there’s a delightful sense of magic and mischief in cues like “Courtyard Frolics,” often scored with a waltzlike swagger that may have been inspired by Patrick Doyle’s music. With the possible exception of the troubled, ambient “Encounter with Malfoy,” there really are no weak songs to be found. The sound quality is uniformly excellent; Hannigan worked with the same Philharmonia Orchestra Soule used alongside the Slovak National Symphony Orchestra and the Pinewood Singers. But while the budget had forced Soule to rely on his usual crystal-clear synths for much of his score, Hannigan’s work was almost completely acoustic.

Hannigan’s score for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was released as a digital download a few months after the game hit store shelves in 2007. None of the adaptations of Williams’ music from the game were present on the album for contractual reasons, and this was a mixed blessing: while it put Hannigan’s original music front and center, it also meant that, as with the Soule albums, the music was frustratingly incomplete. At least the clipping problems from the earlier releases was solved — Hannigan’s music was well-mastered and attractively presented with a generous 50 minutes of music. It was a well-produced album, offering stunningly clear sound, so it was a terrible shame that EA yanked the album from circulation in 2009 alongside its Potterverse holocaust. Aside from promotional snippets on Hannigan’s website, the score is totally unavailable legally.

It’s a shame, because Order of the Phoenix is a revelation. Hannigan proved his abilities in the genre and outpaced both Nicholas Hooper and Jeremy Soule to provide not only the finest Potterverse game score to date but one that tops the music present in the movie. The lack of Hannigan’s adaptations of John Williams’ themes is regrettable, but this album is still one that should be in every fan’s collection if it were still available. Until then, play the game, rip the music yourself, or listen to samples on Hannigan’s site and mourn for the unjustly obscure fate for such a terrific piece of fantasy adventure scoring.

Rating: starstarstarstarstar

Iris (James Horner)

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Novelist Iris Murdoch would have been famous enough just for her literary output, but her lingering decline and death from Alzheimer’s disease added a poignancy to her twilight years as her intellect slowly ebbed away. Her husband, long in her vivacious shadow, penned a memoir of caring for Murdoch at the end of her life and his story was brought to the big screen in 2001 by director Richard Eyre. With an all-star cast including both Kate Winslet and Judi Dench as Iris herself and both Hugh Bonneville and Jim Broadbent as her husband, Iris received a basket of acting nominations and ultimately earned Broadbent a surprise Oscar.

Director Eyre primarily worked in theater and TV before Iris, but the material’s prestige nevertheless gave him the pull to assemble a top-notch crew for his production. For music, he turned to James Horner who was in the midst of a career renaissance brought on by his massive popular and critical success with Titanic. Despite having two other major awards-caliber films on his plate for 2001, A Beautiful Mind and Enemy at the Gates, Horner committed to Iris and was able to use his clout to secure a choice soloist for the project as well: violinist Joshua Bell. Bell, internationally renowned in both the concert hall and as a player for film scores (notably John Corigliano’s The Red Violin), brought an unmistakable touch of class to the proceeings along with his Stradivarius.

The score’s reception was, at the time, rather chilly. Much like Horner’s work with Bradford Marsalis on Sneakers a decade earlier, critics complained that the relatively simple melodies given Bell were a waste of his talent, parts that could have been played equally well by a studio musician without a two million dollar instrument. Horner’s fans compared it unfavorably to his earlier works, particularly the cult favorite The Spitfire Grill, and it was ultimately overshadowed by A Beautiful Mind in the public consciousness and at awards time.

And yet, for all that, Horner and Bell’s efforts really work. Bell may not be challenged by Horner’s material, but the unique timbre of the violinist’s Stradivarius and his unmistakable technique lend the omnipresent string parts of the album a unique color. Furthermore, Horner rearranged his orchestra and the recording to put Bell front and center as a soloist, leading to a bright and summery sound suffused with subtle longing and tragedy. Much like he would with his later Pas de Deux, the emphasis for Horner was not to give his soloist a showy workout but to take advantage of Bell’s strength to construct a moving piece of music.

Throughout his career, Horner was often dinged for his use, or overuse, of a four-note “danger motif” that served as an instant musical signature. In Iris, though, there is very little danger; the motif is present, but twisted though bright orchestration and Bell’s performance into a ravishing love theme, the fundamental building block of the piece. From its debut in the first track to the last lingering strains of the last, Horner’s love theme for Iris and John, surrounded by a rich bed of fully orchestral music, is a subtle stunner. Also of note is the concluding track, which intercuts Kate Winslet’s voice singing the traditional song “A Lark in the Clear Air” with Horner’s full orchestra and Bell’s Stradivarius performing a sweeping, wistful set of variations on the love theme. It’s perhaps the most counterintuitively creative take on his own favorite musical building block that Horner ever devised.

As befits a score featuring one of the most recognizable instrumentalists in the concert hall, Sony Classical put out an album for Iris in 2001 that featured Bell’s name as prominently as Horner’s (and Branford Marsalis’s for Sneakers). But its more subtle sound wound up attracting none of the awards attention of A Beautiful Mind, with Bell’s solos nowhere near as crowdpleasing as Charlotte Church’s vocals and no one cue powerful enough to compete with “A Kaleidoscope of Mathematics.” Iris therefore remains one of Horner’s hidden gems to this day, widely available at an affordable price and due for reappraisal.

Rating: starstarstarstarstar

Final Fantasy VI (Nobuo Uematsu)

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On the heels of their wildly successful RPG Final Fantasy V in 1992, developer Square immediately began production of a sequel for the same platform, the Super Nintendo. Over a year of brisk development, a complex tale emerged with fourteen playable characters, more than any game before or since, larger and more detailed sprites and field graphics, and extensive use of Mode 7 graphics. In many ways it was the ultimate evolution of Final Fantasy V‘s style, with a straightforward first half and an open-world second. But above and beyond that, the resultant Final Fantasy VI features more pathos than all its predecessors combined, tackling weighty issues like suicide, teenage pregnancy, war crimes, and more. Its heroes actually fail to save their world and have to spend half of the game dealing with the consequences of their failure–tempered with plenty of lighthearted character moments, of course. The game was a fantastic success and has since been ported to a variety of post-SNES systems; more crucially, unlike Final Fantasy V, it was given a lovable Ted Woolsey translation and a release in the USA under the title Final Fantasy III. As a result, it influenced a whole generation of US game developers and echoes of its themes and steampunk aesthetic resonate to this day.

Nobuo Uematsu was no longer Square’s sole resident composer by 1994, giving him the freedom to devote all of 1993 to music for Final Fantasy VI while leaving other projects to fellow staffers. He tackled the project enthusiastically, writing a much longer score than any he’d penned for previous games and responding to the game’s steampunk/1800s look with a score that includes several rich classical influences. Richard Wagner’s Teutonic operas were a natural fit for the game’s story of godlike creatures interfering in mortal life and the ascent of characters to godhood (if not quite draining the gods’ power to run machines and having an insane jester be the one to so ascend), but Uematsu also looked to his beloved prog-rock groups–many of whom had themselves been influenced by Wagner and his contemporaries–for inspiration as well. Thus one can hear echoes of Queen and the rock operas of the 1970s and 1980s as well, resulting in a score that’s a fascinating melange of influences and instruments, with (synth) orchestral elements alongside guitar, synths, and the closest the SNES was able to come to human voices in 1993. Uematsu himself would later say that after finishing the score he could retire from game music with no regrets.

With fourteen player characters, and two villains to boot, Uematsu responded by adapting the Wagnerian leitmotif in a John Willams vein, giving every character their own theme and often one or two variations thereon. This thematic diversity is unprecedented, with very few games past or present attempting anything like it; Uematsu himself never attempted the same level of theme and variations even in his later leitmotivic Final Fantasy scores. There is no main theme as such, but “Terra’s Theme” serves as the closest equivalent, with the largest number of variations dominating the first part of the game where the amnesic magic-user Terra serves as a player analog. “Terra’s Theme” serves as the first world map theme, presenting a hauntingly sad melody on panpipes with synth orchestral accompaniment, but the melody is introduced in a more subdued oboe version with militaristic snare at 2:32 in “Opening Theme.” A gentle piano rendition in “Awakening” is closer to a true theme for Terra based on its usage in the game, and listeners are treated to a bittersweet full synth orchestral reprise at 7:46 in “Ending Theme” and again on solo flute at 16:46 as the character manages to survive the end of all magic in her world. Uematsu also gives “Terra’s Theme” interesting twists in “Save Them!” with the theme in counterpoint to brassy action music at :32, and twisted into an anguished form at :12 in “Metamorphosis.”

The gambling airship pilot Setzer has a surprisingly heroic theme in C major that, interestingly, is reprised extremely frequently throughout Uematsu’s score. In addition to “Setzer’s Theme, which takes up the melody on brass, there is a heartbreaking version in A major for solo piano with acoustic guitar accents in “Epitaph,” representing the character’s lost love. The first airship theme, “Blackjack,” returns the theme to brass with an optimistic, opulent air for the flying pleasure palace, while a tender reprise in C major can be found at 1:28 in “Ending Theme.” Bold and triumphant strains of Setzer’s theme dominate the latter half of “Ending Theme” during the game’s credits, providing resounding accompaniment to his airship’s triumphant sendoff. Similarly, “Locke’s Theme” presents a heroic theme for an antihero, giving the thief/treasure hunter a heroic string melody with rambunctious percussion accompaniment, a reprise in tragic mode for the character’s own lost love in “Forever Rachel,” and a reprise in the “Ending Theme” at 6:36. The latter represents some of the most complex counterpoint Uematsu ever attempted, cannily blending Locke’s theme with that of his new love, Celes, as the music deftly switches from one theme to the other. Reams more could be written on each theme and its reprises, especially in the astonishing 21 minutes of “Ending Theme” which runs through every one of them in sequence; from the Morricone-esque whistles of “Shadow’s Theme” to the resounding cello of “Gau’s Theme” there’s nary a weak link to be found.

Celes’ theme is the centerpiece of the game’s trademark opera, a 16 minute stretch that employs synthesized (wordless but synched to Japanese lyrics) vocals for a sequence in which a character takes the place of a prima donna. There is a definite influence of Wagner and Verdi in the portentous “Overture,” the tender variation on Celes’ theme in “Aria de Mezzo Carattere” (“Aria of Half Character,” presumably a reference to the character impersonating an opera singer) the overwrought “The Wedding” and the goofy “Grand Finale?” battle track. There’s no denying that the synth opera voices sound a little tinny and silly to latter-day ears–it was 1993 after all–but they do an excellent job in spite of their limitations. Taken together, the opera excerpts represent Uematsu’s music at its most comic but also its most classical, and presages the increading use of live voices in the series, in both as choral or classical and ribald pop modes.

Final Fantasy VI‘s insane jester villain Kefka and the Empire he works for (and later kicks to death) get a theme each. Kefka’s is a prancing and deceptively lighthearted comic dance that shows up in fragments in “Last Dungeon,” and “Dancing Mad” while the Empire receives the polar opposite, a dour and serious motif that ranges from martial (“Troops March On”) to ominous (“Under Martial Law,” “The Empire Gestahl”). The pick of the villains’ music, though, is the game’s battle themes; while both the electric guitar of “The Decisive Battle” and the aggressive tympani and orchestral fury of “The Fierce Battle” are notable, the “Dancing Mad” final boss suite towers over them all. Tipping the scales at over 17 minutes, “Dancing Mad” is divided into four distinct movements that each loop twice, corresponding to a different tier of the final boss and running the gamut of styles from classical opera to prog rock. The first tier reprises earlier material from “Opening” and “Catastrophe” into a fully orchestral mode with breathing noise accents and operatic voices for the most aggressive music in the game, while the second lets loose with synth opera vocals, percussion, and organ. The third tier is, of all things, an extended fantasia for organ with interpolations of “Kefka’s Theme,” not really menacing at all but impressive and abstract all the same; the final tier unleashes progressive rock with interludes of mournful voices and laughter and more fragments of the villain’s theme. It all flows together wonderfully despite the diversity of styles, and serves as an excellent lead-in to the 20 minutes of glorious thematic reprises that bring the score to a close with “Ending Theme.”

The major impediment to enjoying Uematsu’s work is, as with virtually all his pre-Final Fantasy VIII scores, the sound quality. The SPC 700 sound chip in the SNES was among the strongest synthesizers of its console generation, and sound programmer Minoru Akao and sound engineer Eiji Nakamura worked with Uematsu to wring everything they could out of it. For the time, the sound is excellent, in places even stronger than the MIDI Final Fantasy VII, and the music uses an impressive variety of specialty instruments from bagpipes to mouth harps to the aformentioned synth vocals. Final Fantasy VI‘s synths also have a rich reverb like Final Fantasy IV, eschewing the dry sound of Final Fantasy V. But the fact remains that the music is synthesized, obviously synthesized, and this will be a fatal blow for many listeners regardless of the quality of the underlying melodies. There have been rearrangements, of course, but none of them has ever matched the mix of the original: orchestral remixes give short shrift to Uematsu’s electronic and prog-rock influences, synth remixes neglect the fine orchestral lines, and even the most faithful live arrangements aren’t able to get the volume balance quite right, with some instruments drowning others out. The technical complexity of re-recording the score–which would involve recording and mixing every section of the orchestra and every line of synths separately and mixing them together–is probably too daunting, though. A few other irritating quirks–mostly brief sound effects–also mar a few tracks.

Upon release, Final Fantasy VI was a big hit for Square, and so was its score. Several arrangement albums were released before the year was out, including an orchestral album, a piano arrangement, and a full 23-minute live recording of the opera scene. This acclaim extended to the USA as well, where Square put out a deluxe 3-CD set identical in content to the Japanese release under the title Kefka’s Domain. Though available only via mail order, it was one of only three CDs released by Square during the 16-bit era (alongside Secret of Mana and Secret of Evermore) and both it and the Japanese pressing remain readily available domestically or through importers. Uematsu’s score is, in strict musical terms, probably the most creative and complex of his entire career; it’s certainly the most thematic. And for all its crazy-quilt of musical influences from Queen to Wagner to Morricone, Final Fantasy VI is able to craft disparate elements into a unique and compelling whole. It was, and remains, Uemastu’s career high and the finest score of the 16-bit era and the Final Fantasy series as a whole.

Rating: starstarstarstarstar

Secret of Mana (Hiroki Kikuta)

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1991’s Final Fantasy Adventure, released in Japan under the title Seiken Densetsu: Final Fantasy Gaiden, had been one of developer Squaresoft’s first forays into real-time action RPGs instead of their turn-based bread and butter. Very much in the style of Nintendo’s own Legend of Zelda series, Final Fantasy Adventure had been a successful Game Boy release but director Koichi Ishii had seen potential in the design for a much more ambitious product, leading to Seiken Densetsu 2 for the Super Nintendo, released in 1993. Originally meant for the SNES’s abandoned CD add-on, and downsized accordingly to fit on a standard cartridge, the game was bright, colorful, action-packed, and featured groundbreaking drop-in, drop-out local multiplayer–all in the context of an expansive and slightly goofy high fantasy adventure. Ultimately released as Secret of Mana rather than Final Fantasy Adventure 2 outside Japan, the game was and remains well-reviewed and popular despite–or perhaps because of–a rushed, barebones translation that localizer Ted Woolsey claimed nearly killed him.

Squaresoft veteran Kenji Ito had scored Final Fantasy Adventure and was initially attached to Secret of Mana as well. But in the explosion of creativity at Squaresoft in the 16-bit generation (which saw 22 games released in less than 5 years for the SNES alone), Ito was badly needed for the Romancing SaGa series, and instead the assignment went to a new and untested hire: Hiroki Kukuta. A self-trained musician like many on Squaresoft’s staff, Kikuta had an eclectic career before joining the company, with scores for anime and artwork for manga among his many projects. After being rejected by his first choice in the game industry, Falcom, Kikuta was able to impress Squaresoft’s musical majordomo Nobuo Uematso with his enthusiasm for progressive rock (a genre near and dear to Uematu’s heart) to land work as a debugger and sound effects designer. In the AAA development environment of today it seems almost unthinkable for someone so new and untested to be given such a major project to score solo, but the atmosphere within Square at the time was such that Kikuta got the gig after Ito bowed out in much the same way that Yasunori Mitsuda would be handed Chrono Trigger two years later.

Kikuta approached the project in a very hands-on manner, creating his own sound samples rather than relying on those fashioned by Square’s synth programmers in order to maximize the potential of the SNES’s SPC700 sound chip. this resulted in a soundscape that was considerably more lush than that of many contemporary games, at Squaresoft or otherwise, at the expense of having to surrender parts of the sound channels to sound effects from time to time. The composer also explicitly sought to reflect the game’s duality between silly and serious–it does, after all, feature a soul-destroying lich, a visit to Santa Claus, a floating techno-fortress of death, and long-distance travel by cannon–through the use of two different musical styles that both mixed the sensibilities of 16-bit game music with the pop tunes that had gotten Kikuta hired in the first place. That duality between the weird and the wistful would wind up being the defining trait of Secret of Mana‘s score.

The wistful half of Kikuta’s compositions are led by the game’s most prominent theme and certainly its most popular: “Fear of the Heavens” (also translated as “Angels’ Fear”). Inspired by Balinese music as well as natural ambient noise, the track opens with what can be interpreted either as whistling wind or whalesong before moving into a simple echoing piano melody. It’s gradually joined by other instruments as the soundscape–and the title screen it accompanies–opens up. The effect is arresting–especially to players in 1993–and goes a long way toward explaining the score’s enduring popularity. This most popular track is a bit of an oddity in that it lacks most of Kikuta’s contemporary touches; the field theme “Into the Thick of It” is probably more representative of the score as a whole, combining an acoustic guitar with a melody for doubled woodwinds and synth voices. The later “A Curious Happening” is a similar potpourri mix of a contemporary bass and hi-hat with rhythm guitar and doubled woodwinds and accordion (!) with synth voices in support.

Those wackier compositions that make up the other half of Kikuta’s score use many of the same instruments and techniques with a somewhat greater emphasis on pop backbeats. For instance, the game’s primary town theme “The Color of the Summer Sky” is all prominent backbeats against peppy, poppy woodwinds and synth accordians with prominent keyboard and mallet accents, all of which would become Kikuta’s trademarks in future projects. “Dancing Animals” and especially “The Little Sprite” are some of the best examples of this same mix of quirky melody, contemporary instrumental choice, and overall affable wackiness that’s especially notable for its complexity of rhythm and percussion. The conclusive and joyously upbeat “The Second Truth From the Left” is probably the ultimate enjoyable exemplar of this style. For all the same inspirations that he and Uematsu drew on, the two men’s styles are immediately distinguishable; in fact, Kikuta’s use of percussion and rhythm is so distinctive that even in his later and more obscure projects it’s typically immediately distinguishable.

There are often times when the Kikuta’s twin styles, the wistful and the weird, commingle as one might expect, and most of these are related to the most important moments of the game’s lengthy plot. The game’s joyous first flight theme, “Flight into the Unknown,” swirls together backbeats and bass guitar with a moving string melody, while its second flight theme, “Prophecy,” mixes the same elements but replaces the backbeats with a cascading flute melody and the bass guitar with staccato mallet percussion and synth voices to quirky yet chilling effect. A percussion-heavy remix of “Into the Thick of It” in “Can You See the Ocean” is notable as well, as is the chillingly off-kilter chiming and chanting of “Ceremony” where the Balinese influence on the score is at its most evident.

As there is no distinction between field and battle, Secret of Mana has somewhat fewer battle themes than its contemporaries. The primary theme, “Danger,” has an ultra-serious and percussive first half that has its only melody in string slashes and bass, before moving over in its second half to a surprisingly upbeat and quirky melody–Kikuta’s wistful/weird in a nutshell. The final battle theme, “Meridian Dance” is much the same, offering a melody that’s like a twisted if surprisingly optimistic version of the “Fear of the Heavens” theme over urgent percussion and bright synthy brass. the penultimate boss, the Dark Lich, gets its own battle theme in “The Oracle,” a beefed up and synthetically enhanced version of “Ceremony” that uses sped-up chanting voices and the original’s music-box melody alongside electric pulses for an utterly compelling–and unsettling–mix. While Kikuta’s work is always very melodic, these rearrangements are the closest he gets to Uematsu’s more traditionally thematic and leitmotivic structure from the Final Fantasy series.

Interestingly, Kikuta’s work was singled out to the extent that it enjoyed one of the very first releases of a Japanese game soundtrack–and indeed, a game soundtrack of any kind!–in North America. A reprint of the Japanese release was made available to American buyers in December 1994, alongside Uematsu’s Final Fantasy VI, through Squaresoft of America’s catalog as one of only three soundtrack discs released in that format (the third was Secret of Evermore). The American disc is identical to the Japanese Seiken Densetsu 2 Original Sound Version released a year earlier, and they both suffer from the same problem: as single platters, both are overstuffed with 44 tracks of Kikuta’s music, meaning that his compositions only loop a single time. This doesn’t effect “Fear of the Heavens,” as it never looped in-game anyway as such, but does hobble many of the other tracks that badly need room to breathe. A 2011 box set re-release in the vein of the Kingdom Hearts Complete Box simply reissued the same single disc without expansion. Short of playing the original game or seeking out its emulated SPC700 music files, the only source of fully looped music from Secret of Mana is the controversial 2012 re-release/remastering Secret of Mana Genesis, and that’s a shame–even if you approve of Kikuta’s rather limited changes to the music, it represents less than a third of the original tracks. And, of course, it goes without saying that anyone who can’t stand the 16-bit synth quality of the SNES era need not bother listening, though to be fair Kikuta’s work is among the best and clearest that generation has to offer.

Despite those problems on disc, Secret of Mana remains a refreshingly spirited and creative work, one that even 20 years later is instantly recognizable for Hiroki Kikuta’s unique sound and highly recommended as such. Thanks to the success of the project, Kikuta would go on to score two more games for Squaresoft, Secret of Mana 2/Seiken Densetsu 3 in 1995 and Soukaigi in 1998. Frustrated with the lack of direct control he had over projects at Squaresoft, though, Kikuta would leave in favor of work on his own project, Koudelka, the failure of which led to long years in the wilderness for the composer and a lack of major assignments. Even if he had retired completely from scoring after 1993, though, Kikuta’s musical legacy was secure–there hasn’t been a game in the Mana series since that hasn’t referenced his work overtly or indirectly, and he continues to have a cult following among lovers of video game music to this day.

Rating: starstarstarstarstar

Final Fantasy VII (Nobuo Uematsu)

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Developer Squaresoft had earned a following with their Final Fantasy series of role-playing games for the Nintendo and Super Nintendo systems, but it took their defection to Nintendo rival Sony to take them into the stratosphere. The company’s first Playstation effort, Final Fantasy VII, was like nothing gamers had ever seen: movie-style FMV cutscenes, pre-rendered backgrounds, and fully 3D character models and battles. The game’s plot, an epic spread over three CDs and stuffed with endearingly goofy characters alongside dark and mature themes, earned it an instant following. Virtually every plot-driven RPG to follow owes something to the title, and it was a massive sales success both in Japan and abroad, fondly remembered today even as its presentation and aesthetic seem increasingly quaint. As later entries in the series became increasingly cinematic and driven by the need for spectacle over character, Final Fantasy VII is arguable the pinnacle of what the late developer had to offer.

Even as several key members of the Final Fantasy team swapped out for the project–Tetsuya Nomura’s leather and belt-crazy character designs supplanting Yoshitaka Amano’s wispy ukiyo-e ones, for instance–director Yoshinori Kitase and producer Hironobu Sakaguchi brought composer Nobuo Uematsu back to the franchise. The self-taught musician Uematsu had been with Squaresoft since 1985, and had written the scores for every one of the previous six Final Fantasies as well as contributing to side projects like Chrono Trigger. His previous score for the series, Final Fantasy VI, had been extremely well received for its integration of elements as diverse as classical opera, Wagnerian leitmotif, and progressive rock, and Uematsu was to build on this sequel score using many of the same pieces. Indeed, Uematsu’s approach is very similar in terms of construction, with the score built around a main theme with individual themes and variations for each major playable character (aside from, oddly, the main one) and prominent villains. He built on the operatic elements of the previous title by utilizing live voices for the first time in the series in one pivotal sequence, though overall the Wagnerian rock-opera sound that distinguished Final Fantasy VI is toned down in favor of a more eclectic approach.

Uematsu’s main theme, not associated with any one character, appears in the eponymous track as the world map music, and is surprisingly lengthy and ambitious: unlike his map themes past and present, with a loop of 1-2 minutes, a single loop of Uematsu’s main theme takes six and a half minutes (!). Its opening phrase, especially the first five notes, are reused and referenced across many other tracks, while the extensive variations in the map theme itself run the gamut from pastoral to triumphant to darkly troubled. It’s a very symphonic and ambitious piece, something Uematsu would not attempt again for future main or map themes. He adapts his “Main Theme” into a number of other tracks befitting its place: the beautiful “Holding My Thoughts into my Heart” gives the melody to an oboe set against scintillating harps and mallet percussion, while the game’s airship theme “Highwind Takes to the Skies” gives the theme a resounding, triumphant, yet bittersweet outing. It’s a sign of the theme’s strength that nearly all its adaptations are album highlights.

For the game’s characters, Uematsu returns to the leitmotif structure that he first used in Final Fantasy VI, giving the major characters and major villains each a theme and variations thereof (aside from the main character, who might be more associated with the “Main Theme”). The busty heroine and possible love interest Tifa is given a surprisingly sensitive theme that belies her status as a bruiser, a tune based on one of Uematsu’s lovliest early compositions, “Town of Alm” from Final Fantasy III. Oddly, the theme isn’t adapted until it forms a resounding part of the final cutscene track, “World Crisis.” Barret, the hotheaded Mr. T wannabe rebel leader with a robotic gun-arm, gets a delightfully pompous but optimistic military march in “Barret’s Theme,” one that is interpreted in a far more morose vein for “Mining Town” and “Mark of the Traitor” for scenes detailing the character’s tragic backstory. The Final Fantasy VII incarnation of Cid gets a soaring march of his own in “Cid’s Theme,” with elements thereof appearing in “Highwind Takes to the Skies” and “Stealing the Tiny Bronco” with a full-on morose adaptation for the character’s dashed dreams of spaceflight in “Launching a Dream into Space.” The bizarre and mysterious Red XII’s theme is an arrangement of “Cosmo Canyon” set against quizzical synths; both tracks have a very energetic tribal feel to them, reflecting the location’s status as close to nature and a nexus for hippies. The optional character Yuffie gets a surprisingly sunny theme that’s twisted into the mischievous “Stolen Materia” and subtly into the pan-Asian “Wutai.” The other optional character, Vincent, gets a baroque nightmare of a theme in the aptly-named “The Nightmare Begins” while the bizarre Cait Sith is given an upbeat leitmotif full of finger-snapping, toe-tapping, Hammond organ fun; neither theme gets any variations at all. And, of course, much ink has been spilled over the character Aeris’s theme, both in its original warm and uplifting form in “Flowers Blooming in the Church” and in its tragic, heartbreaking outing as “Aeris’s Theme.”

Uematsu’s approach to the game’s villains is more subtle than the rock-opera theatrics of the previous game. The game’s primary villain, Sephiroth, is given a dirge-like motif in “Those Chosen by the Planet” full of moaning synth voices, roiling percussion, and tolling bells. It’s a menacing piece primarily played for atmosphere in some of the game’s most pivotal and disturbing moments, and Uematsu occasionally breaks the piece apart into solo drums and chimes in-game (though not on the soundtrack). For the secondary antagonist, the ineptly brutal megacorporation Shinra, Uematsu uses many of the same pieces–heavy percussion and synth choir–hinting at the deep connection between the two villains. “Shinra Company” has more layers and more synth, though, with its shuffling two-step and moaning voices deftly capturing both its evil and its ineptitude. The theme gets a Muzak interpolation in “Infiltrating Shinra” for their corporate headquarters and its own delightfully pompous and quirky military march in “Shinra’s Full-Scale Assault” with further references in the dire “Mako Reactor.”

The battle themes on display in Final Fantasy VII also have important differences from those in Final Fantasy VI. Uematsu’s normal battle theme, “Let the Battles Begin!,” abandons his usual battle ostinato with its characteristic ascending arpeggios for a much more modernistic sound driven by synth brass and strings with pounded tambourine and metal hits to provide rhythm and a whirling woodwind interlude. Notably, Uematsu also abandons all but the opening notes of his 6-game-old victory fanfare, replacing it with a driving percussive piece (though the full fanfare is heard during the game’s chocobo races elsewhere). The boss battle theme, “Fight On,” combines the electric guitar from the previous game with the same metallic percussion as “Let the Battles Begin!” with a healthy dose of Hammond organ (Uematsu’s first use of the instrument, which would come to dominate his battle themes for the game’s sequel) and only a modest synth orchestra presence. The music for the game’s special event battles is among its most notable innovations: the synthy and pulse-pounding “J-E-N-O-V-A” uses descending electronic pulses set against brass and off-kilter melodies to suggest science gone horribly awry, while the later “JENOVA Absolute” rearranges “Let the Battles Begin!” into an even more percussive and hard-edged form, with a desperate piano and brass interlude that’s not to be missed. Uematsu arranges the villain’s theme into the final two battles; for the penultimate “Birth of a God” he returns to his usual battle ostinato with Hammond organ and a powerful interlude consisting of “Those Chosen by the Planet” over a bed of synths. The game’s final battle takes that even further, rearranging “Those Chosen” into a slashing percussive aria set against Latin lyrics sung by a live choir of Squaresoft employees (including future Dirge of Cerberus composer Masashi Hamauzu) in both an echo and expansion of “Dancing Mad” from the previous game.

Aside from one or two dud tracks (“Trail of Blood,” “The North Cave”), the score’s overriding weakness in the face of all its melodic strength and instrumental creativity is its use of MIDI. The Playstation platform offered the opportunity for a greatly improved, even CD-quality sound or even a greatly enhanced synthesizer sound–as would be shown by Uematsu’s own later efforts. Other Square projects that came out the same year, like Sakimoto and Iwata’s Final Fantasy Tactics (which came out less than six months after Final Fantasy VII) showed the possibilities inherent in evolving synthesizer technology, making Uematsu’s decision to use MIDI seem even worse in retrospect. The MIDI sounds are competent for electronic effects and percussion, but wind up making Uematsu’s brass sound incredibly tinny–at times, the music’s sound quality is audibly inferior even to that of Final Fantasy VI‘s SPC hardware-based sound despite the quantum leap in technology between the two titles. This primitive MIDI sound will serve as an insurmountable barrier to many listeners, and it’s unfortunate that Uematsu’s brilliant melodies and groundbreaking fusion of disparate elements often winds up sounding so muffled and tinny. Some key tracks wound up being arranged and upgraded later, but sound quality remains the single greatest bugaboo for Final Fantasy VII.

Squaresoft, through its ill-fated DigiCube subsidiary, gave Final Fantasy VII a full 4-disc soundtrack release a month after the game bowed in 1997. While the physical version was a Japanese exclusive, its ubiquity makes it relatively affordable for Western fans; a later iTunes release made it digitally accessible to American audiences for a first time (albeit at a premium price). While several tracks from Final Fantasy VII would be arranged by Uematsu and others for future projects, the composer had no hand in the game’s sequel titles, which received better-synthesized but extremely disappointing scores from Masashi Hamauzu and Takeharu Ishimoto. Uematsu’s own follow-up, the animated Advent Children, was also a disappointment, squandering its resources on a lazy combination of reused music from other albums and limp new music with very few of the original’s themes adapted or expanded in a satisfying way. The lack of a proper full arrangement, recreating Uematsu’s innovating combination of orchestra, electronic, and progressive rock elements in crystal-clear and (where appropriate) acoustic elements still galls even after almost two decades. Still, the music’s creative and melodic strength and its undeniable influence on later composers and compositions make it an essential listen for fans of the medium and a key part of the game’s astonishing success.

Rating: starstarstarstarstar

Cloud (Vincent Diamante)

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One of the most acclaimed developers exclusive to the Sony Playstation ecosystem, Thatgamecompany is famous for producing games that stretch the visual, narrative, and artistic boundaries of the medium. Its titles, including Flow, Flower, and Journey. Thatgamecompany had its genesis as a student project in the Interactive Media master’s degree program at the USC School of Cinematic Arts with Cloud, a game about the flying dreams of a bedridden child. Released for free, the title swept a number of indie game awards and downloads crashed the school’s server, paving the way for Thatgamecompany to form around the seven members of the original student dev team.

One of the seven was composer Vincent Diamante, who was at the time a second year Master of Fine Arts student in the Interactive Media Division. With a diverse background including stints as a radio show host, games journalist, photographer, and artist, Diamante would go on to become the audio director for Thatgamecompany and an instructor at USC in his own right. Cloud, though, was his first stab at video game music and sound design to see release.

A purely synthesized score made with Cakewalk Sonar and Miroslav Mini, Cloud nevertheless has a crystal clear sound, bright and resonant, that’s a testament to both composer’s skill in composition and design. The music, even as variable bitrate MP3 files, often sound better than that produced by mega-studios with ten times the budget and a live ensemble at their disposal. And, most importantly, the music beautifully captures the sense of joyousness and serenity that’s so much a part of the game through frequent use of rambling piano lines, litling woodwinds, and powerful strings. When, as in “Fluffy Sweet,” the album’s highlight, the pieces lock together, the effect is breathtaking.

In addition to the overall atmosphere, Diamante uses a central theme that winds throughout most of his Cloud. Debuting in “Title,” the woodwind theme is, like the rest of the music, lilting and gossamer-thin like the cloudscape it seeks to evoke. It’s not dominant in the score, but the theme provides a second thread to tie the work together in addition to Diamante’s distinctive stylistics. Whether presented as counterpoint (“Just About Ready”) or in a more tortured minor key (in the concluding “Reflection”) Diamante’s theme is always a welcome presence.

The album isn’t all smiles and sunshine. “Reflection” plays like an introvert on a rainy day, its strings beautiful but vaguely tragic, and the optimistic main theme is contrasted with troubled piano, harp and woodwinds in “Cycling” to good effect. “Reflection” does make a rather dour ending to the album, which might have been better served by a return to joyful soaring instead. A few shorter tracks in the mix don’t break up the album’s flow much, but there is one outright dud: “Passing By,” a 22-second track of ambient noise. Luckily, true to its name, it passes by quickly.

With both the game and the 30-minute original soundtrack available as free downloads, there’s simply no reason not to experience Cloud for yourself, especially as the music was specifically mastered for its VBR bitrate rather than being compressed. Five years later, Diamante would follow up his effort with Flower, a much lengthier and more ambitious game score cut from the same cloth, albeit at greater length and with a less overt thematic strand running through it. Still, for your money, there’s no better Thatgamecompany-related soundtrack investment than Cloud.

Rating: starstarstarstarstar

Cutthroat Island (John Debney)

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There have been cinematic shipwrecks since the first films set sail for the commercial waters, but few have run aground as sharply or as deadly as Cutthroat Island. It seemed like a surefire treasure cruise at the time: Renny Harlin, who had helmed the profitable galleons Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger was directing, his then-wife Geena Davis of Thelma & Louise and A League of Their Own was in the wheelhouse, and they sailed under the banner of Carolco Pictures, a studio that had underwritten such voyages as Rambo and Terminator 2. But an old-fashioned swashbuckling pirate tale was out of fashion in 1995, and the film’s marketing push failed to sell it to audiences. The movie cost up to $150 million doubloons to make but returned less than $20 million pieces of eight worldwide, a flop the likes of which would not be seen again until the wreck of the good ship Pluto Nash in 2002. Among the drowned: director Harlin’s blockbuster career, star Davis’s career as a leading lady, and studio Carolco’s very existence.

Renny Harlin had originally sought to engage rising young British corsair David Arnold to score his pirate extravaganza. Arnold was a sound choice, with his Stargate score from the year before having plenty of buckle and swash. Scheduling conflicts forced Arnold to back out of the voyage, though, and on the strength of a swashbucking synthesizer suite, Harlin brought Cap’n John Debney aboard as scoremaster. Debney’s career was, like Arnold’s, on the upswing in the early 1990s, having done yeoman’s work on modest hits like Hocus Pocus as a late replacement for James Horner. Cap’n Debney threw himself into the score for Cutthroat Island with a singular destination in his spyglass: to make the most of his scurvy crew from the London Symphony Orchestra and the London Voices to craft a modern homage to Admiral Erich Wolfgang Korngold, whose scores for classic swashbucklers like The Sea Hwak and The Adventures of Robin Hood.

While Admiral Korngold is the one given a 21-gun salute by Cap’n Debney, he happily plunders the very best of modern orchestral scoring for Cutthroat Island, taking inspiration for some of the orchestrations from the flourishes used by David Arnold and Nicholas Dodd in Stargate, John Williams in Hook, and James Horner in The Rocketeer. That’s not to say that the score is a cut and paste job, but rather that Cap’n Debney is able to load his guns with the best powder that modern film music has to offer, powering up Korngold’s piratey ideas with flourishes both orchestral and choral that the old admiral would never have had the budget or the equipment to match.

The themes and motifs Debney blasts out with a double-powder charge are almost too numerous to name, with a soaring main theme for the piratess heroine (“Morgan’s Ride”), a tender love theme (“Discovery of the Treasure”), and supporting musical ideas for the evil Uncle Dawg and the Morning Star pirate ship. The music is anchored by towering and rambunctious statements of these themes, with the “Carriage Chase” cue being perhaps the finest example of piratey swashbuckling ever recorded, a 7-minute tour-de-force of rollicking, thematic brass and percussion that builds a ferocious head of steam as is progresses. “Setting Sail” is one big rousing love letter to The Sea Hawk, while the massive concluding suite of “Dawg’s Demise” and “It’s Only Gold” is almost breathless in its intensity.

Cap’n Debney brings all of his Golden Age influences squarely into the modern era, with a crisp recording and none of the Hollywood treacle that Korngold was occasionally forced to write in between his magnificent statements of theme. The only real drawback to any listener looking for a piratey good time is the film’s breakneck (or cutthroat) pace: the moments of softer music are few and far between, making the lengthy score at times a bit of an endurance test in its unflaggingly adventurous pace. Pirate scores of the 2000s often suffered from the same problems, but the clarity and sheer overwhelming piratey spirit of Debney’s work makes this more forgivable than in some of his fellow Cap’n Zimmer’s less-inspired voyages.

The foundering of Cutthroat Island put an end to pirate movies, whatever flag they sailed under, for over a decade until the genre was refloated and salvaged by Pirates of the Caribbean. But Cap’n Debney was the last scoremaster to attempt to bring aboard the classic Golden Age Erich Wolfgang Korngold sound in a modern guise; future pirate movies would sail under the flag of Cap’n Zimmer and his Remote Control crew, whose very different ideas of piratey music would come to dominate the genre. Debney, though, was perhaps the only crewmember of the doomed vessel to escape unharmed: his score continued to be respected as a modern swashbuckling classic independent of the disastrous foundering of the film to which it was chained. A very generous album 70-minute album bubbled to the surface from the hold of the wreck in 1995, while the complete 150-minute score was brought into port 10 years later by Prometheus Records. Either release is highly recommended to all scurvy dogs that ply the seven seas; while Cap’n Debney has had many successful voyages since then, many still wait for his opportunity to sail under the Jolly Roger once more.

Rating: starstarstarstarstar

Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas (Harry Gregson-Williams)

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The character of Sinbad the Sailor has his origins in a group of Arabic tales, but is probably most familiar to Western audiences through the massive cinematic spectacles of 1958’s The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and 1974’s The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, famous for their Ray Harryhausen stop-motion effects. It was perhaps this spectacle that Dreamworks Animation sought to capture with their 2003 film Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, though the film mistakenly places the Islamic tale in a Mediterranean world of Greeks and their gods. Despite being helmed by a capable captain, Tim Johnson of Antz, and Dreamworks’ usual crew of celebrity voices, including Brad Pitt, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Joseph Fiennes, audiences were in no hurry to board. The Sinbad brand had been in drydock too long, and the harbor that summer was crowded with other vessels, but the Dreamworks rear admirals blamed the film’s sinking on its 2D animation (much as their enemy admiralty at Disney had done with Treasure Planet the previous summer), and they dedicated themselves anew to 3D films with quickly dated pop culture references and flavor-of-the-month voice actors.

Dreamworks Animation had tried to outgun the enemy Disney fleet by bringing on many veterans of that armada for their animated division, and that meant bringing Cap’n Hans Zimmer and his scurvy crew of proteges aboard. Zimmer himself had taken the helm on many of the projects, but his mates Harry Gregson-Williams and John Powell had been responsible for many as well, including such hits as Antz,, Chicken Run, and Shrek, all of them energetic and creative voyages that had little in common with Cap’n Zimmer’s evolving “wall of sound” approach. By 2003, Powell had sailed for warmer ports and would go on to become the primary musical voice for rival Blue Sky studios; it therefore fell to Gregson-Williams to helm Sinbad solo as a scoremaster cap’n of his own. Newly promoted Cap’n Gragson-Williams responded enthusiastically, with a swashbucklery that hadn’t been seen since Cutthroat Island nearly a decade ago, creating in the process a sound that would serve his other efforts for fantasy/adventure blockbusters for the rest of the 2000s.

Cap’n Gregson-William’s primary idea for Sinbad is a piece of rousing orchestral swashbuckling derring-do, soaring to life in “Let the Games Begin” and “The Sea Monster.” While the theme is a rousing bit of seafaring excitement when it’s in full-on heroic mode, the real treat is to see how skillfully Cap’n Gregson-Williams steers it into other waters. Sinbad’s theme is present in a dizzying variety of guises, from playful romance as in “Chipped Paint” to melancholy contemplation as in “Is It the Shore or the Sea?” and even a vague Latin lit in “Rescue!” It’s mixed into nearly ever track as a primary idea or counterpoint, and the sheer number of ways that the composer twists and manipulates the theme keeps it from becoming played out or seeming repetitive–an extraordinary fit of seamanship that would make any other scoremaster on the high seas proud.

As incongruous as it was to see Sinbad and Greek myth sailing in formation, it was almost as odd for Cap’n Gregson-Williams to take much of his inspiration from the piratey scores of Erich Wolfgang Korngold (perhaps filtered through Cap’n Debney’s Cutthroat Island), as Bernard Herrmann, Miklos Rosza, and Roy Budd had left their own distinctive stamps on Sinbads past. And it’s true that Gregson-Williams’ primary idea for the heroic sailor is as piratey and swashbuckling as they come, but much more so than Debney he put his own stamp on the music through his incorporation of female voices and light electronic enhancements. The electronics are generally subtle; pulses and synth tambourines in “Rescue!” and an electric violin that directly prefigures the sound Cap’n Gregson-Williams would use in his Narnia scores.

But it’s the vocals where Gregson-Williams really turns the swashbuckling formula on its ear and steers the sound into his own waters. Frequent collaborator Lisbeth Scott is behind the solo vocals in Sinbad, and they are a delight, pure and simple: used to represent the film’s villainess, Eris the goddess of chaos, the snarky and staccato vocals give the music a playfully dangerous edge that is excellent counterpoint to the more straightforward heroics of Sinbad’s own malleable theme. Cap’n Gregson-Williams combines the theme with oboe and woodwinds for Eris’s mischief in places like “Let the Games Begin” and “Eris Steals the Book” to great effect, but when combined with the full power of the orchestra and the London Metro Voices, the effect is electric. “Sirens” is undoubtedly the score’s high point, combining Scott’s cooing Eris vocals with sharp statements of Sinbad’s theme across a sea of sound both alluring and dangerous. As with Cap’n Debney’s own Cutthroat Island, the only real drawback is the sometimes overwhelming volume and length of the music, but Cap’n Gregson-Williams is able to break things up with some gentler music to the extent that it’s even less of a problem here than in Debney’s piratey classic.

With the failure of Sinbad,, the Dreamworks admiralty pulled back sharply from any movie, and any score, that might make waves, with a succession of mostly safe and bland 3D blockbusters to follow. For his part, Gregson-Williams would serve as scoremaster for many of these subsequent voyages, sequels to Shrek that sailed with depressing regularity and without much of the spark that had animated Sinbad’s swashbucklery. But he would have the opporunity to use many of the skills he’d honed on the project with scores like Kingdom of Heaven, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and Prince Caspian; while none of these later scores matched Sinbad,, its stylistic fingerprints are easy to see. Still, as with his shipmate Cap’n John Debney, many of Gregson-Williams’ fans wait anxiously for the day when he will abandon the textual scores that have become his recent bread-and-butter for a return to swashbuckling adventure on the high seas.

Rating: starstarstarstarstar

Spider-Man (Danny Elfman)

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Few comic book properties went though as tortuous a route from pulp to screen as Spider-Man. Dozens of directors, screenwriters, and stars were attached to various cinematic incarnations of the popular superhero following his 1962 debut, including such industry luminaries as Roger Corman and James Cameron, before cult director Sam Raimi was given the reins and a substantial budget for a 2002 release. Raimi’s slick direction, some clever scripting, and an appealing cast turned out to be the perfect recipe for audiences looking for a feel-good hero in the wake of 9/11, and his Spider-Man was a smash hit with both moviegoers and critics. Its $400 million haul at the US box office ($500 million adjusted for inflation) set the benchmark for cinematic superheroes until overturned by The Dark Knight, and it remains the highest-grossing Spider-Man film by any metric.

In 2002, Danny Elfman was at the undisputed pinnacle of the superhero genre. His toweringly gothic Batman (1989) had redefined the expected sound for comic book films, shattering the John Williams mode of major-key heroics that had previously prevailed, and Elfman had followed it up with a string of comic book/superhero successes from Batman Returns to Dick Tracy to Men in Black. Elfman also enjoyed a previous relationship with Raimi, having scored the director’s indie faux-comic-book hit Darkman in 1990, portions of the riotous undead caper Army of Darkness, and the grim A Simple Plan. With his past pulpy success on the big screen and a solid foundation with the director, it was no surprise that Elfman was attached to the 2002 Spider-Man almost from its inception.

Since Mission Impossible in 1996, Elfman’s style and his choice of scoring assignments had been undergoing an evolution of sorts. He had sharply turned away from grand symphonic works like Batman or Edward Scissorhands and begun experimenting with a much more contemporary, electronic, and fragmented sound. Projects like A Civil Action, Proof of Life, or Planet of the Apes were innovative but alienated many of the composer’s fans with their distinctly different sound. Though Elfman occasionally returned to his melodic or hugely orchestral roots with projects like The Family Man or Sleepy Hollow, the tension between the two styles was palpable. It wasn’t until Spider-Man that the composer was able to merge his experiments with hip, contemporary electronics and his older style of immense orchestral power, and it was the resulting fusion that would define his style for the next decade.

Elfman’s “Main Title” opens the film with a propulsive, electronics-enhanced performance of his primary thematic idea. As with the earlier Batman, Elfman constructs a malleable theme for the hero, one that can play out at length or be quickly referenced by a few notes. Listeners at the time complained that they couldn’t hear a theme, which is a testament to how skillfully Elfman works it into his overall musical tapestry and the fact that the theme isn’t presented as a grand gothic march as it was for the Caped Crusader. Nevertheless, it’s a bold and clever idea, one that is at home among the quirky contemporary stylings of “Costume Montage” as it is in the desperate “Final Confrontation” or rousing “Finale.”

Elfman introduces a strong villain theme as a counterpoint to his Spider-Man theme by cutting it in as an interlude in “Main Title,” and his growling idea for the Green Goblin is likewise easily deconstructed so that it can be referenced in full or with just a few notes and often includes synths and other modern effects for emphasis. The Goblin theme is given full outings in “Something’s Different” and “Specter of the Goblin,” but it is at its most effective when doing sonic battle with Elfman’s theme for the hero. Both “Parade Attack” and “Final Confrontation” intermingle the Spidey and Goblin themes to great effect, the latter especially being a masterclass in setting two very distinct but equally malleable themes against one another (with a few bars of “Itsy Bitsy Spider” mixed in for laughs).

The score’s tender side for the nerdy Peter Parker’s interactions with his impossible flame-headed dream girl provide the basis for Elfman’s third and theme, a tender love melody informed by Edward Scissorhands and, to an extent, Batman. “Revelation” and the penultimate “Farewell” both feature the theme extensively, the latter beginning with a particularly lovely and tragic rendition led by woodwinds before segueing into a powerful statement of the main Spider-Man theme. The love theme is often intertwined with a troubled brass motif that often serves as a sort of transition between Spider-Man’s heroics and Peter Parker’s human concerns or vice versa.

Spider-Man stands as one of Danny Elfman’s most accomplished scores because it creatively combines all the best parts of a big thematic superhero score–multiple themes that are developed and woven throughout the music–with the composer’s expertise in electronics, rhythm, and other elements from his other career as a band leader. Perfectly supporting the spectacle of the film, it remains the best and most satisfying score of the entire series. As was the practice at the time, Spider-Man‘s score was released on a separate album with 45 minutes of highlights some time after the “music from and inspired by” disc which contained only two tracks of score. Elfman would return for the first sequel, but a sour experience led him to abandon the franchise; later installments would be scored by Christopher Young, James Horner, and Hans Zimmer, who differed greatly in how much of Elfman’s approach they emulated.

Rating: starstarstarstarstar