Mishima (Philip Glass)

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Japanese writer Yukio Mishima lived a complex and controversial life, nearly winning a Nobel Prize for his fiction but also being deeply committed to Japan’s pre-war philosophy and government–so much so that, after a failed attempt at a military coup, he committed ritual suicide. The complex tale inspired an equally complex 1985 film from Paul Schrader, writer of Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, whose Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters mixed archival footage, reenactments, and adaptations from Mishima’s fiction. Schrader is on record as considering the effort his finest as a filmmaker, and Mishima was a major critical success despite its minimal budget and occasional oddities.

Mishima would boast a score from the legendary classical composer Philip Glass. At the time, Glass had only one major film score to his credit: Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 opus Koyaanisqatsi. Glass’s minimalist, textural, but still tonal score had proven very popular, leading director Schrader to seek him out for his project. Intrigued, Glass accepted the commission despite the production’s low budget on the condition that he be allowed to rework his contribution into a symphony. Collaborating with the Kronos Quartet for some of the score’s more intimate moments, Glass eventually came to regard Mishima as one of his favorite compositions, and a “turning point” in his musical development.

Glass is a composer with a definite style, and his score for Mishima bears all his trademarks like repeating cellular rhythms and string figures and augmentation by some non-traditional orchestral elements. Indeed, the cyclical figures used by glass from the very first track are so strongly identifiable with Glass that fans can probably point to them in other compositions from Koyaanisqatsi to The Hours. The key differentiator between Mishima and Glass’s other scores is its relative brightness and accessibility. From the opening notes of “Mishima/Opening” there is a brightness about the music, enhanced by prominently mixed synthesizer accents alongside the organic elements and bold hits on triangle, timpani, and chimes. This brightness pervades most of the music and keeps Mishima from becoming too dour, a fate that too often befalls the work of Glass and the Quartet.

Instrumental choices help to add additional lively color to complement Glass’s indominable style. “Osamu’s Theme/Kyoko’s House,” for instance, uses an electric guitar offset against the solo strings of the Kronos Quartet in a bizarre, but creative, melding of Glass’s cellular minimalism and 1960s pop music. The prominent synthesizers mentioned above play a part as well, as does a surprisingly active percussion section, which is mixed in a much bolder way than the usually brass or string- centric Glass compositions. When all the elements come together, as in “November 25: The Last Day” the effect is astonishing.

Mishima is in many ways a shorter, kinder, and gentler Koyaanisqatsi: it is full of Philip Glass’s trademark ideas, but by presenting them in a bold, attractive, and efficient package, first-time listeners are less likely to be alienated. Glass’s shorter, concert version of his music is the only one available on album, running a lean and mean LP-optimized 45 minutes compared to Koyaanisqatsi‘s 70+. The relative brevity of the tracks on album also favors the Glass novice; with only one track (“Runaway Horses”) nearing the composer’s usual epic cue length, each bite-sized morsel is over before it has a chance to wear out its welcome. As such, Mishima is heartily recommended not only as a score in its own right but as an easily accessible point of entry into Philip Glass’s lengthy and often difficult oeuvre.

Rating: starstarstarstarstar

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Final Fantasy VIII (Nobuo Uematsu)

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Final Fantasy VIII was Squaresoft’s followup to its breakout hit Final Fantasy VII, which had been a tremendous success in its native Japan and and even bigger smash abroad, bringing countless new gamers to the RPG format. As a result, no expense was spared on the new game, which featured the most advanced CGI cutscenes of its day, impressive, fully-textured ingame graphics, and a massive marketing push. The game also took exactly the wrong lessons from its predecessor by amping up those same animated cutscenes without providing a coherent world for them to occupy or likable characters to inhabit it. As a result the game has aged badly, with the lack of effort put into streamlining the confusing battle system or fleshing out the paper-thin characters and plot painfully apparent as once-dazzling visuals now seem trite and faded. It’s a stark contrast to the simple graphics and endearing characters that had been hallmarks of the Final Fantasy series up to that point, and sadly the developer would make the same mistakes again in the future. For all Final Fantasy VIII‘s failures as a game and as a followup to Final Fantasy VII, though, the game was nonetheless successful though it fell far short of its predecessor’s widespread appeal.

There was never any real doubt that Nobuo Uematsu would return to the franchise; Final Fantasy VII had made him legions of new fans worldwide, and the new game’s higher budget meant that his efforts would be far more realistic, devoid of the tinny synth that dogged that game, at times making it sound worse than Final Fantasy VI a whole console generation earlier. Working directly with a Roland SC88 synthesizer and programmer Keiji Kawamori, Uematsu created a clear and high-quality synth sound for the game that stands up to other high-quality efforts like Legend of Mana or Vagrant Story released for the Sony PlayStation shortly thereafter.

At the same time, Uematsu would abandon the leitmotif-based structure that had been the cornerstone of his two previous Final Fantasy scores, instead opting for a smaller number of overarching themes and strong incidental scoring. Implicitly recognizing the banal shallowness of Final Fantasy VIII‘s cast, Uematsu swapped his John Williams approach of individual character themes and variations for a Jerry Goldsmith methodology of fewer themes to represent story concepts. He develops three major themes throughout the work: a snarling theme for the game’s villainous (if ludicrous) sorceress villains, a lush love theme for the juvenile romance between the two main characters (such as they are), and an upbeat friendship theme to represent the main cast as a whole (lazily identical backstories and all). In many ways–and again, much like Jerry Goldsmith–Uematsu’s score is forced to do much of the heavy emotional living where the game itself cannot.

Building on the success of his “One-Winged Angel” from Final Fantasy VII, Uematsu often gives his prominent and powerful sorceress theme a resounding choral backing with Latin lyrics, based around the nonsense words “Fithos Lusec Wecos Vinosec.” It opens the powerful “Liberi Fatali,” anchors the menacing “Succession of Witches,” and appears in full in the track “Fithos Lusec Vecos Vinosec.” This choral sensibility is one of the album’s great strength, and the live singers’ voices enliven the otherwise synthesized tracks they appear in. The sorceress theme is given plenty of airtime in instrumental tracks as well, snaking through some of the game’s most pulse-pounding battle sequences before being sent off with a solo piano in the contemplative and gorgeous “The Successor.”

Uematsu’s prominent love theme is based on the pop song “Eyes On Me” which he wrote with lyricist Kako Someya for Japanese pop sensation Faye Wong (with English lyrics in all its incarnations in game and on disc). One of the more unfortunate side effects of Final Fantasy’s explosion of popularity was the inclusion of pop songs, which first appeared in this installment of the series and have since been present in most major releases since. They have never really fit in, despite being penned by Uematsu, and the banal “Eyes On Me” interrupts the otherwise lovely (and fully orchestral) “Ending Theme” in addition to its solo outing. The love theme is far more effective when interpreted as an instrumental, and it serves as a main theme of sorts. The attractive solo piano “Julia” first introduces it, reflecting the conceit that the song was composed in-universe about one of the characters. Uematsu references it in music-box form in the soft “My Mind,” twists it into a triumphant fanfare in “Blue Sky,” and otherwise has a field day with the strong melody separate from the unnecessary pop song that is its raison d’etre.

Finally, the game’s band of hollow but attractively rendered characters is given a friendship theme to provide warm pathos where their antics cannot. The early “Balamb Garden” features the first outing of this theme, alternating with a melody specific to that track; its later appearance on a mournful guitar in “Where I Belong” is a direct reference. “Tell Me” puts the theme through a more melancholy but equally lovely variation, while the theme gets its longest and most complete outing in the beautiful “Ami” which begins as another piano piece on an album stuffed with them before adding additional layers of orchestral synths. While it is often the most low-key of Uematsu’t themes, the friendship theme is perhaps the most satisfying and sunny overall.

The incidental scoring independent of the album’s main themes is quite strong, and Uematsu’s style is prominent enough to tie the pieces together without explicit thematic references. He goes about his task with aplomb, creating tracks as diverse as the gentle, melodic “Fisherman’s Horizon,” the acrostic “Breezy,” and the delightful, string-based “The Mission.” Even though the game lacks a proper airship, Uematsu even turns in a rousing airship theme in the form of “Ride On.”

Final Fantasy VIII’s battle and action themes are particularly noteworthy, especially the standard battle theme, “Don’t Be Afraid.” Normal battle themes have long been Uematsu’s weakest tracks, often much more bland and modernistic than the surrounding music, but “Afraid” takes an effective classical approach, underscoring the brass with racing staccato strings and strong percussion. The boss battle theme “Force Your Way” is more modernand innovative, setting a Hammond organ, synths, and electric guitars against an orchestral backing to great effect. The larger-scale battles are album highlights, particularly “Premonition” and the climactic “The Extreme,” both of which interpolate the sorceress theme and build from soft beginnings to explosive action statements. The final sequence of the game, an unbroken series of “Premonition,” “The Legendary Beast,” “Maybe I’m A Lion,” and “The Extreme,” rivals “Dancing Mad as Uematsu’s finest moment in action scoring, giving the nonsensical battles the music accompanies a strong set of gravitas.

For anyone looking for a variety of strongly thematic and innovative music in Nobuo Uematsu’s distinctive style, and doesn’t mind the composer’s total abandonment of the leitmotif structure he used in the two previous Final Fantasy games, Final Fantasy VIII is a must-have irrespective of the weak game it accompanies. It is Uematsu at his best, refusing to rest on his laurels and crafting engaging new music that in many ways takes his previous achievements to the next level–it is, in many ways, the composer’s finest all-around Final Fantasy score. The superior synth is a great boon to sensitive listeners as well, making the music much more palatable and accessible and a good choice for series novices looking to sample it. Though Uematsu would contribute to further games in the series in whole or in part, he was never quite able to equal or top his musical efforts in this game or its two predecessors.

Rating: starstarstarstarstar

Final Fantasy XII (Hitoshi Sakimoto)

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Final Fantasy XII‘s release came in the middle of a drought of sorts: aside from the online-only Final Fantasy XI and the stopgap Final Fantasy X-2 and a host of other inferior spin-offs, it was the only all-new iteration of the venerable Square-Enix role-playing series between 2001 and 2010. The game was created by much of the team behind the Final Fantasy Tactics series, and its mature and labyrinthine political plot was a welcome departure from the histrionics that occasionally marred the series. Despite a protracted development period and some controversy over its Tri-Ace-like battle system, Final Fantasy XII was a well-reviewed late-lifespan title for the Playstation 2.

Final Fantasy XII would also see a torch passing of sorts; it was the first all-new Final Fantasy title to have no major input from the series’ longtime composer Nobuo Uematsu, who wrote only the brief ending song “Kiss Me Good-Bye” which was not adapted into any other facet of the game’s score. His replacement: Hitoshi Sakimoto, best known for his work on Vagrant Story and Final Fantasy Tactics and head of the Basiscape music production studio. Sakimoto had been a staff composer at Square from 1997 to 2002, and his close association with the Final Fantasy Tactics team meant that no one else had been seriously considered for the job.

Final Fantasy XII was trapped in development hell for several years, leading to numerous delayed release dates–but it also gave Hitoshi Sakimoto ample time to work the bugs out of his score. Comparing the final tracks to their pre-release counterparts, given out as downloadable promotions, it’s clear that Sakimoto was refining his compositions continually throughout, and it shows in the final product. The synthesized instruments, while still slightly tinny in some places, are greatly improved over not only the demo tracks but most of the previous games as well. Only the use of a live orchestra for all tracks in Final Fantasy XIII could improve on the lush sound of its prequel, though a full orchestra was used for the opening and closing portions of Final Fantasy XII as well.

On the whole, Sakimoto’s score is bold, bright, and brassy; perhaps the most upbeat and optimistic music he’s ever penned and often lightyears away from the darkness of Vagrant Story while very much sharing its sound palette. He employs parts of Uematsu’s leitmotif structure, though, with his “Main Theme” incorporated subtly in many places, and a handful of character or faction themes like the grandiose “Theme of the Empire” or the dreamy, aggressive “Ashe’s Theme.” Sakimoto also unifies his music through consistent instrumentation and orchestration, giving it a distinct color and tone in his personal style.

Sakimoto’s music for towns and events is impressive; “Royal Capital Rabanastre” combines light brass with bright string work and rhythmic tambourine, while the delightful “Secret Practice” features whirling woodwinds, strings, mallet percussion accents, and militaristic percussion into a wonderfully quirky mix. “Little Villain” is in the same vein, with lighthearted strings giving way to a combination of tambourine, plucked strings, and woodwinds. There is also downbeat, more mystical music, like the slow, contemplative “The Princess’ Vision” and “Dark Night,” both of which feature drawn-out string playing set to harp and concert bells. While there are weaker tracks like the dull “Battle Drum” and “Jahara,” they are isolated islands in a generally engaging soundscape.

It’s in his battle and dungeon themes where Sakimoto has perhaps his greatest success: they”re some of the most rousing tracks he’s ever composed. “The Phon Coast” features stellar choral work that recalls the best moments of James Horner’s Krull set against large-scale percussion, while “The Dalmasca Eastersand” features driving brass that begins as a rhythm line but quickly soars to incredible melodic heights. “Esper Battle” is almost entirely brutal percussion and choir, an awesome if repetitive aural assault, as is the later variation in “Esper.” The combat material goes from strength to strength: “Giving Chase,” which adds growling brass and whirling strings to the mix, “Decisive Battle,” with its Holst-like brass spikes, and the final “Struggle for Freedom,” which sets the “Theme of the Empire” against soaring statements of the “Main Theme.” It’s breathless, exciting stuff, lightyears beyond the uninspired battle themes of the previous several Final Fantasy games, if admittedly not at all in line with Nobuo Uematsu’s progressive-rock style.

Uematsu’s contributions to the album are extremely limited, Sakimoto adapts some of the composer’s older work, which gives the music a strong Final Fantasy connection while remaining true to the instrumentation and feel of the album–a smart approach keenly missed in the later Final Fantasy XIII. Uematsu’s “Final Fantasy” theme returns for the first time since Final Fantasy IX, as does the unaltered “Victory Fanfare.” The “Chocobo Theme” gets no less than two renditions, once bouncy and driving, the other more subdued and elegant, and “Battle With Gilgamesh” from Final Fantasy V is dusted off and given a rousing makeover. The only curious omission is the “Moogle Theme,” which is absent despite the clear presence of moogles throughout the game.

In keeping with his role as lead composer and producer at Basiscape, Sakimoto was not the only composer to write music for Final Fantasy XII: his fellow Square-Enix veterans Hayato Matsuo and Masaharu Iwata join him for a handful of tracks. Matsuo, best known for previous collaborations with Sakimoto like Ogre Battle and contributions to various Front Mission titles, takes on some of the darker and more atmospheric tracks, generally with disappointing results. His music is quite bland, with comparatively poor synth, but worst of all, it is completely out of sync with Sakimoto’s. Since Final Fantasy XII often relies on Sakimoto’s style to hold it together, and Matsuo’s tracks are unable to fit in, it represents a key weakness of the score; luckily, Matsuo’s contribution is limited to just seven tracks out of one hundred. Masaharu Iwata, another old collaborator of Sakimoto’s, wrote two deliciously dark tracks that do a far better job of blending in with Sakimoto’s material, much as in their old collaboration on Final Fantasy Tactics. Classical composer Taro Hakase, along with Yuji Toriyama, contribute a single closing track which, although “inspired by” Sakimoto’s main theme, also clashes with the majority of the album and robs the main composer of the opportunity to write an end credits track. These non-Sakimoto tracks represent the album’s biggest weakness, and the reason for bringing in additional composers remains truly mystifying.

It’s also worth noting that, although he does adapt Nobuo Uematsu’s Final Fantasy themes, Hitoshi Sakimoto makes no attempt to sound like the older composer. The style and instrumental color of the work is strictly within Sakimoto’s established sound; it overflows with his trademark harp arpeggios, pizzicato strings, and rising brass notes. Like Masashi Hamauzu on Final Fantasy XIII, Sakimoto does not compromise his style at all to attempt to fit in with earlier Final Fantasy titles. As such, if listeners do not like Sakimoto’s style as heard in previous efforts like Final Fantasy Tactics or Vagrant Story, there is little to recommend Final Fantasy XII. Similarly, if listeners insist on Uematsu’s unique fusion sound for the series, they are bound to be disappointed: Sakimoto’s work has virtually no modern trappings, no electric guitars, no progressive rock (or any rock) influence, and no overt electronics (beyond the synthetic nature of the game’s faux-orchestral instruments).

Nevertheless, Final Fantasy XII is an easy recommendation for anyone looking for thematic consistency in their Final Fantasy scores and who would appreciate some of the series’ most rousing, optimistic, and hugely orchestral music (despite the near-total absence of Nobuo Uematsu). Fans of Hitoshi Sakimoto’s style in particular will be delighted with the work; even if Sakimoto’s work is somewhat diminished by the presence of other composers in minor roles, his work is an excellent contribution to the Final Fantasy discography as a whole. A CD with a few highlights was released in the US by Tofu Records in 2006, but to get the full flavor one must either import the full 4-CD set from Japan or purchase the iTunes version. And, despite his stellar work on Final Fantasy XII, Hitoshi Sakimoto would have relatively few assignments from Square-Enix in the future, with only the few original tracks in Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings and Final Fantasy Tactics A2 to his name.

Sakimoto: starstarstarstarstar
Matsuo: starstarstar
Iwata: starstarstarstar
Hakase/Toriyama: starstarstar
Overall: starstarstarstarstar

Arctic Tale (Joby Talbot)

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2005’s March of the Penguins opened up a new world of opportunities for big screen nature documentaries. While the BBC had been producing episodic and feature length docs at a high standard of quality for many years, March oudid the Beeb by grafting a warm, if anthropomorphic, storyline onto the documentary footage and connecting with audiences bored by the more accurate, procedural attitudes of other documentaries. When it came time to cut 15 years of similar footage of polar bears into a motion picture, National Geographic fashioned it into an even more overtly feel-good and anthropomorphized tale. With animal “composite characters” given names and motivations and eco-warrior narration co-written by Al Gore’s daughter, no one could accuse 2007’s Arctic Tale of being subtle in either its message or its attempts to connect with audiences (though disappointing box office returns and a healthy life in reruns on TV were the project’s ultimate fate).

Classically trained British composer Joby Talbot had worked mostly in television, most notably The League of Gentlemen for the Beeb Two, before his first major feature scoring assignment in 2005, the Douglas Adams comedy adaptation The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It was an odd choice, giving a relatively inexperienced composer a scoring assignment of this nature with only a few features under his belt, but Talbot responded with a pleasant surprise and one of 2007’s most obscure film score treasures.

For Arctic Tale, Talbot penned a grand, thematic score in the tradition of the best nature documentaries and dramatic films. From the first moments of “Kingdom of Ice,” when he introduces his sweepingly majestic main theme, the composer layers on expansive music with an optimistic sound, strong tonal melodies, and an overall pastoral feel despite the chilly subject matter. Talbot evokes the icy Arctic setting in subtle ways, mostly with chimes and mallet percussion, but it’s never overwhelming and the balance between warmth and icy majesty is one of the album’s great strengths.

A few moments of cellular writing (as in “A Small Miracle”) recall Philip Glass, and there are some stylistic nods to George Fenton’s famously lush BBC documentary music as well; the most soaring parts of the work like “The Arrival of Spring” also recall Elmer Bernstein’s rollicking music for National Geographic projects of yore. This is merely a case of inhabiting the same sonic universe, in most cases, rather than temp track influence or direct homages. Even the more troubled music, like the sinister “The Storm” and tragic opening of “Strange Encounters” have the same expansive scope and lush orchestration (the latter building into perhaps the most joyful statement of theme and motion on the album).

Film score fans only familiar with Talbot through The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy will be mightily impressed by what he accomplished with Arctic Tale. The composer essentially took the most creative, positive, and hugely orchestral sound from that film, the duo of “Planet Factory Floor” and “Earth Mark II,” and crafted it into a full-bodied 45-minute score of beautiful, uplifting, and pastoral music.

Arctic Tale came in the midst of a purple patch of feature scoring for Joby Talbot, including the aforementioned Hitchhiker’s Guide (2005), The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse (2005), Son of Rambow (2008), Penelope (2008), and Franklyn (2009). The mixed success those films suffered in the marketplace unfortunately meant that Talbot received relatively few film assignments mixed with a few classical commissions in the years since, which is a shame. All of the scores share the same lush orchestral sound, and Arctic Tale is perhaps the pick of the lot as the ultimate expression of Talbot’s harmonic, thematic, and enjoyable music. Highly recommended (though beware the song compilation from the film with none of Talbot’s score), and as of this writing available for as little as one cent for the CD and $7 for a digital download.

Rating: starstarstarstarstar

The Tree of Life (Alexandre Desplat)

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Terrence Malick is one of the most respected and most divisive directors working in film today, and his works have aroused strong feelings, pro or con, in everyone who has viewed them. His 2011 film The Tree of Life was no less so, earning nominations in several Academy Award categories while simultaneously being savaged by many viewers and critics. Despite (or perhaps because of) his reputation, Malick had attracted a variety of top-flight musical talent to score his projects, from Ennio Morricone on Days of Heaven to Hans Zimmer and co. on The Thin Red Line to James Horner on The New World.

For The Tree of Life, Malick recruited French composer Alexandre Desplat, who was in the midst of an extremely busy year. 2011 saw seven movies scored in whole or in part by Desplat, including his Oscar-nominated score for Best Picture winner The King’s Speech and a score for Best Picture nominee Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Desplat is often strongest in his contemplative mode, featured in scores such as Birth and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, than his disappointing attempts at epic fantasy writing as in The Golden Compass and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The Tree of Life represents in some ways the ultimate evolution of the former style, with his usual waltzes and melody supplemented by Philip Glass influenced minimalism.

Fans of Glass will probably enjoy what they find here, especially in “Circles,” the album’s longest and most impressive track. Cellular composition, repeated motifs, and a cyclical and evolving feel make the 11-minute centerpiece cue a true tour-de-force without losing Desplat’s distinctive voice. Echoes of Benjamin Button and Birth are to be had elsewhere, often in the most melodic and piano-led cues like the desolate “Childhood” and warm “Awakening,” although it’s by and large a score of textures more than melody or theme. Those expecting the empty bombast of Desplat’s Compass or Potter will be disappointed, though the composer does include his signature waltzes in the pair of “Motherhood” and “Fatherhood.”

Desplat also blesses the score with an air of impressionistic darkness in many cues. The aforementioned “Awakening,” for instance, includes a sinister full string section under its gentle piano melody, skillfully intermixing optimism and unease in a similar way to the deep electronic pulses from Birth, before building to an unnerving crescendo at the end. He uses other innovative techniques, like a solo and vaguely out-of-tune leading string in “Good and Evil” or discordant, Elliot Goldenthal style shrieking strings in “Temptation” (perhaps the score’s darkest cue).

From the minimalistic opening piano of “Childhood” to the inviting cyclic minimalism of “Circles” through the darkness of “Awakening” and “Temptation,” to the final innocent and childlike “Skies,” Desplat’s album truly feels like a musical journey. With only his signature musical voice to bind the score together, the composer nevertheless manages to create a cohesive musical narrative that can stand well on its own. This was perhaps the wisest decision Desplat made, given Malick’s history of tinkering with his films’ soundtracks: creating an album that can exist completely independently of its film, a contemplative masterpiece perfect for engaged listening or as a backdrop to writing or other creative endeavors.

There is one downside to the album: anyone looking for the classical pieces that were inserted into the film to replace the majority of Desplat’s original music will be disappointed. Malick, despite working with the very best original composers that Hollywood has to offer, often uses very little of the score they prepare, with what is used often chopped up and redistributed. This led to many angry viewers upset with the album from Lakeshore records, which includes only Desplat’s original score instead of the many classical pieces by John Tavener, Arsenije Jovanovic, and many others. This led to many reviews roundly trashing Desplat’s album for what it is not, rather than what it is.

Still, as long as listeners know exactly what they are getting into (and the available sound samples represent an excellent cross-section of Desplat’s music) they won’t be disappointed. It may be closer to a quasi-rejected score, or an instrumental “music inspired by” album, but The Tree of Life is still a musical journey well worth taking by one of Hollywood’s strongest musical voices. Lakeshore Records’ score album has become rather scarce the film’s release, commanding slightly inflated prices, but it is still readily available in digital form.

Rating: starstarstarstarstar

Kingdom Hearts (Yoko Shimomura)

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When Kingdom Hearts was announced out of the blue in 2001, the idea of a Squaresoft/Disney collaboration that would blend Final Fantasy with Mickey Mouse was met by disbelief, uncertainty, and bemusement. But against all odds, the action RPG turned out to be a superior product and a smash hit on release in 2002–not only reaching platinum status itself, but spawning a franchise that continues to this day. Not bad for a project that started as an elevator pitch, only possible because Squaresoft and Disney shared the same office building in Japan!

When fans first heard that Squaresoft composer Yoko Shimomura had been assigned to score the project, reactions were mixed. While Shimomura had had success bringing new life and creativity to established worlds through her work on Super Mario RPG and Legend of Mana, many feared that the album would be overrun with the poor-quality arrangements of Disney themes that many Disney-only titles suffered from. Luckily, this was not the case, and Shimomura developed Kingdom Hearts into her greatest score to date both on album and in game.

Anyone who was afraid that the entire score would be terminally cute has only to listen to the complex and dark tracks that begin and end the two-disc collection. Built around heavy choral use and the Italian word “Destati” (literally “Awaken”), tracks such as “Dive Into the Heart -Destati-,” “Fragments of Sorrow” and the climactic “Guardando nel buio” are filled with gothic atmosphere and powerful instrumentation. That same gothic feeling is present to a lesser extent in several other fine tracks, like the organ-dominated “Forze del Male” and the fan-favorite “Hollow Bastion,” which features stunning harp work.

Of course, being a Disney game as well, not everything is gloom and doom. Surprisingly, the arrangements of Disney tunes are both sparse and well-done. In fact, it’s quite nice to hear some familiar tunes (like Danny Elfman’s “This is Halloween” from The Nightmare Before Christmas or the Sherman brothers’ bucolic Winnie-the-Pooh) in-game, and the borrowed tunes are all arranged to fit in nicely with Shimomura’s originals.

The original, lighthearted tracks are generally excellent, from the Russian-sounding “Monstrous Monstro” to the kooky “Merlin’s Magical House” and the jazzy, laid-back “Traverse Town.” The Traverse Town battle theme, “Hand in Hand,” is easily an album highlight, action-packed but sad and hopeful at the same time, and has been extensively arranged in this and the sequel album. Also of note is the lovely, understated piano title theme, “Dearly Beloved,” which went on to be a series staple, and the wonderful orchestrated tracks at the beginning and end of the album.

In fact, there are almost too many highlights to list, and nearly every track is looped twice for maximum enjoyment. On the other hand, the synth programming (by Ryo Yamazaki) is sometimes inconsistent. Sometimes it’s stellar, the equal of any other PS2-era game, but it falters at other times, especially where brass is concerned. The album, like its sequel (with the regrettable Takeharu Ishimoto operating the synths) but to a lesser extent, could have used a better synth programming.

There are also a few duds, generally repetitive pieces like “No Time To Think.” The “Kairi” tracks are also somewhat weak; as the only character theme per se, one would expect more varied performances, but the three such tracks are largely identical. Another annoyance is the fact that several tracks were left off the release, particularly the dark, brutal “Another Side, Another Story” and “Disappeared.” With a little creative rearrangement, there would have been room on the album for these and the remixes of Uematsu’s “One-Winged Angel” and Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” as well–instead, fans have to seek out the rare Final Mix or expensive Complete Box albums for these songs. And the pop songs that open and close the album are forgettable fluff, notable only for their skillful arrangement into instrumental themes elsewhere.

Still, when all is said and done, Shimomura’s work on Kingdom Hearts is truly remarkable, and easily a career highlight. The album is everything video game music fans could hope for, and brings a level of maturity to the wonderful game itself. And while Shimomura would return for all subsequent sequels to some degree, the original Kingdom Hearts remains her best work for the franchise. It’s a highly recommended purchase For anyone willing to give a strange hybrid of Disney and Japanese styles a chance, and the resulting music is enchanting and among the strongest of Yoko Shimomura’s career.

* * * * *

To Kill A Mockingbird (Elmer Bernstein)

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

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

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

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

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The Hunt for Red October (Basil Poledouris)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (Elliot Goldenthal)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Brave Little Toaster (David Newman and Van Dyke Parks)

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Featuring a stellar voice cast, an excellent script, a team of ex-Disney animators, and many crew mambers (including John Lasseter) who would go on to impressive careers with Pixar, The Brave Little Toaster was a delightful animated film that fell through the cracks during its initial release, but found its audience and a comfortable cult following on cable TV. In many ways a prototype for the Pixar and Disney Renaissance films that followed, it presented a winning voice cast, humor accessible to multiple generations, and a quasi-musical format with several songs.

Composer David Newman had just begun his scoring career by 1987, entering the profession several years after his brother Thomas and cousin Randy after a career as a conductor and session musician, but quickly amassed an impressive resume for low-budget films like Critters and The Kindred. Newman would be asked to compose the film’s original score as well as orchestrate veteran songwriter Van Dyke Park’s contributions, and he went on to produce an impressively varied work.

The Brave Little Toaster is not a thematic score, although Newman does occasionally reference the refrain to Parks’ “City of Light” in the underscore. Rather, the score is far more impressionistic, converying emotions through complex and layered harmonies. The music is surprisingly dark and tragic at times, with swirling piano and strings lending power to some of the more tragic cues (such as “Toaster’s Dream”), but is also bight and energetic when need be, with whirlwind action cues such as “They All Wake Up,” and the rousing “End Title.”

In fact, several cues run the full gamut of emotions, from joyous and liting to dark and moody. Chief among these are “The Pond,” which builds from an inventive use of sound effects as instruments to a level of magnificent orchestral tragedy, and the penultimate “Finale,” which moves from pounding menace to upbeat catharsis in a seven-minute powerhouse of a cue. The delightful “End Credits” offer a much-needed dose of joy to end the album, with Newman using the orchestral colors of the previous tracks to compose a delightful new theme in conversation with Parks’ “City of Light.”

Van Dyke Parks’ songs are treats, hold up well compared to many dated ballads from around the same time period, and are performed with gusto by the movie’s cast. Parks was no stranger to film music himself, having arranged music for films as varied as The Jungle Book and Popeye and composed the occasional original score like Follow that Bird and worked closely with Newman to orchestrate his songs. The upbeat “City of Light” is the film’s centerpiece melody, while the impressively twisted villain ballads “It’s a B-Movie” (including Phil Hartman doing his best Peter Lorre) and “Cutting Edge” impress as much through their witty lyrics as their melodies. But the downbeat ballad “Worthless” is perhaps the most impressive, laid out as an impassioned song by junked cars in their last moments of life and with strong echoes of themes that Pixar would later tackle in their Toy Story series, films which owe more than a little to Toaster.

But there is one major drawback to the album: two cues, including the magnificently melancholy “Blanket’s Dream” are interrupted by sound effects. Apparently, those portions of the master tapes were too badly damaged to be of any use, and record label Percepto placed the effects-laden tracks in as a substitute for completeness’ sake. Those tracks do sadly break up the album’s flow, and it’s unfortunate that “Blanket’s Dream” in particular is essentially unlistenable. Percepto, never more than a very small boutique to begin with, eventually folded quietly several years after the limited edition pressing of The Brave Little Toaster, meaning that copies can be difficult and costly to find.

Still, despite all that, The Brave Little Toaster is a magnificent album, and one of the very finest works from the underrated David Newman and Van Dyke Parks. If you’re interested in hearing a score full of boundless energy and inventiveness, one of the forgotten gems of animation scoring, and can overlook the fact that several tracks are distorted by sound effects, buy with confidence. The film, easily available on DVD and on-demand, comes with the highest recommendation as well.

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