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

Age of Conan: Hyperborean Adventures (Knut Avenstroup Haugen)

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2008’s MMORPG Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures was scored by a relative newcomer, Norwegian Knut Avenstroup Haugen, who found himself with big shoes to fill — artists as diverse and respected as Basil Poledouris and Ennio Morricone have tackled Robert E. Howard’s barbarian milieu with highly-acclaimed music. The composer researched music from all over the world in preparation, and the resulting score heavily features the human voice, that most ancient of instruments. This double disc stand-alone soundtrack is commercially available and there is also a single disc soundtrack available with the Collector’s Edition version of the game.

Haugen skillfully uses his ensemble to create an intimate but suitable ancient sound for the more subtle tracks. Pieces like “Sands of Forgetfulness” and “Damp Barachan Nights” exemplify this more restrained style, which has a restrained, melodramatic beauty. Singer Helene Bøksle lends her voice to several more songs in this vein, including the powerful “Nighttime Journey” which rumbles forward in a style reminiscent of Jerry Goldsmith.  Bøksle, who is one of the album’s definite highlights, anchors many of the finest pieces with haunting, wordless vocals.

Not all the quieter music is up to this high standard, however. The latter parts of the album are dominated by a duduk-led Egyptian style, which isn’t as enjoyable as what preceded it. It can be shrill, even stereotypical, at times, and is generally lacking Bøksle’s voice and the earlier themes’ subtle touch.

As music for barbarians, the album contains its share of powerhouse action pieces, many of which seem to be inspired by Poledouris’ music for the 1982’s Conan film. Haugen unleashes massive, triumphant fanfares in “Vista from Mount Crom” and “Echoes of Atlantis,” the latter of which features stunning choral work much like Alan Silvestri’s The Abyss. These pieces, likely composed for cinematics, are some of Haugen’s strongest.

The battle music is suitably apocalyptic with prominent percussion and choral accompaniment. From “Awakening” to the back to back “Stygia – Cimmeria – Aquilonia” run at the end of the album, the action music is rarely anything other than thunderous. While a strength, this is also something of a drawback; the music can be literally overbearing and exhausting at times.

The bonus disc exclusive to the commercially available soundtrack is a mix of styles. Much of the disc is dedicated to the epic combat suites most would expect from such a game. However, the first three tracks are actually rock performances by heavy metal band Turbonegro and are therefore a jarring stylistic shift. Some audiences are likely to enjoy these themes, but they are not compatible with Haugen’s own scores.

Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures is a rewarding listen for people who enjoy massive orchestral and choral works, and it is liberally sprinkled with references to masters of symphonic barbarianism. But it can be a bit of a slog at times, when the relentless battle themes or Egyptian atmosphere become too overbearing. Still, the music is an impressive debut for Haugen, who assembled a crystal-clear recording of live players. Hopefully he will have more opportunities within the industry with such a massive effort behind him.

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