The Fourth Kind (Atli Örvarsson)

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Many films use the term “based on a true story” very loosely, but few have ever taken advantage of the term as much as the 2009 feature The Fourth Kind. By co-opting real disappearances in and around Nome in Alaska, circulating fake stories from real newspapers, and presenting “real” and “staged” versions of the same scenes to try and build interest, the filmmakers were only able to get themselves sued. Audiences largely responded with a yawn.

Despite the faux verisimilitude in The Fourth Kind, the filmmakers still commissioned an original score by Icelandic composer Atli Örvarsson from Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control music studio. After serving as an assistant, orchestrator, and additional music composer for Remote Control, Örvarsson began taking on smaller solo scoring projects in the late 2000s. Following the path of many of Zimmer’s proteges, these assignments like The Fourth Kind and Babylon A.D. gave listeners a chance to hear the composer’s musical voice without being saddled with the added duty of trying to sound like Zimmer himself.

The Fourth Kind album begins very promisingly, with beautiful wordless vocals from Thórhildur Örvarsdóttir (presumably one of the composer’s close relatives) setting an icy, mournful tone in “Flight to Nome.” It’s an incredibly effective and beautiful theme, and its reprises later in the album (the lengthy “Northern Lights” in particular) form the definite highlights of Örvarsson’s score. The composer also provides a string fugue of similar tone that often bleeds into and out of the vocal theme.

And after such a promising beginning there is…nothing. Other than a few dark ostinatos that are de rigueur for students of the Remote Control school, virtually all the rest of the music in the film and on album is sound design. Dark, completely devoid of melody, and serving more as a sound effect than any kind of coherent musical score, Örvarsson is unable to (or, more likely, was directed not to) incorporate even the slightest fragments of his earlier theme into the bulk of the underscore. There’s instrumental creativity there to be sure, with instruments from duduk to double bass, tabla drums to slide guitar, but it doesn’t translate into anything meaningfully listenable.

Perhaps the faux-documentary nature of the film makes a more traditional score inappropriate, but given the beauty of Örvarsson’s vocal theme the rest of the album has to be regarded as a disappointment. Download the vocal songs, “Flight to Nome” and “Northern Lights” in particular, and leave the rest in the film. Despite the The Fourth Kind‘s tepid response, Örvarsson’s career has seen a steady increase in high-profile assignments–including a reunion with the latter’s director–and one can hope that he will eventually be able to craft the outstanding vocal writing on display in the best parts of the album into a more fully enjoyable score. The Varèse Sarabande score CD was one of many remaindered to Family Dollar stores beginning in 2012, and can be had new for as little as three dollars in the right location.

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Stealth (BT)

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Director Rob Cohen isn’t known for his cerebral cinema, yet his would-be summer 2005 blockbuster Stealth makes the rest of his oeuvre look like Citizen Kane. A bizarre mashup combining, of all things, Short Circuit and Top Gun, the film’s story of a suddenly-sentient drone aircraft and its human wingmen was shunned by audiences. It was one of two large-scale action movie flops that summer (alongside Michael Bay’s The Island) which were seemingly part of the impetus to put more money behind safer remakes and sequels, rather than original fare, that resulted in Cohen and Bay’s The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor and Transformers over the next few years.

Rather than his usual collaborator Randy Edelman, Cohen reunited with Brian Transeau, known to his fans as BT, who had scored Cohen’s earlier hit The Fast and the Furious (though neither man would have anything to do with its innumerable sequels). Transeau, best known as a composer of electronic music, a remixer, and a DJ, moved into film scores in the early-to-mid 2000s and composed for several high-profile films (even attempting a serious drama score with Catch and Release in 2007) before largely returning to his roots in popular music.

On The Fast and the Furious, Transeau had been assisted by composer Randy Miller, who orchestrated and conducted the score. For Stealth, though, which included a much larger 100-piece orchestra, the composer was taken under the wing of Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control studios, with several Zimmer pupils responsible for orchestration, conducting, and additional music. Chief among them was Trevor Morris, perhaps best known for Immortals and The Tudors who not only helped arrange the work but also composed or co-composed nine cues (nearly 20 minutes of the album’s 63-minute runtime). Fellow arranger and Remote Control associate Michael DiMattia contributed or co-contributed six more cues totaling another 15 minutes, meaning that Transeau was solely responsible for only about half of the music.

BT’s portion of the music includes some interesting ideas. In addition to the composer’s trademark aggressive and hard-edged electronics, he provides a descending piano-led theme with harp accents that debuts in “Stealth Main Title” and presumably represents the computerized hero/villain of the film. Parts resurface in “I’ll Tell You Back At The Boat” and much more aggressively in “Henry’s Death” among other places. BT also attempts to give the music an international flavor with vocals in “Thailand” and “Tin Man Will Prosecute,” but relying as it does on the stereotypical mid-2000s “wailing woman,” the effect is limited at best. The rest of BT’s tracks primarily rely on his abrasive electronics, often presented alongside surprisingly ballsy brass, to unify their sound.

Morris’s music is rooted in electronics in much the same way, but his synths lack the harshness of BT’s, making the difference immediately clear to anyone with an ear for it. His primary contribution is a heroic theme for the human pilots, appearing first in “The Pilots’ Theme” and incorporated in many of his other tracks as well. The theme is very much in the heroic/masculine/patriotic Remote Control scoring mold, and could easily be dropped into Transformers or Battleship without anyone noticing the substitution. Morris’s use of the “wailing woman,” in “EDI’s Sacrifice” and elsewhere, is scarcely better than BT’s.

DiMattia does a much better job of integrating his music with BT’s, with his electronics bending in much more smoothly. He also makes use of harp arpeggios in fragments throughout his portion of the score to match up somewhat with the “EDI Theme” from BT. However, his music often lacks the clever production of the former DJ’s, and the electronics often become completely overbearing, especially when paired with an orchestra for many of the album’s centerpiece action cues.

In the end, Stealth sounds surprisingly like many of the other action scores in contemporary American cinema. And therein lies the problem. While there’s nothing wrong with collaboration, the Remote Control artists are experts at integrating disparate voices into a single, watered-down whole. When their skills are used to smooth over a neophyte scorer’s inexperience, though, whatever distinct voice that person brings to the table is often lost. This leaves a score that, despite the names on the credits, sounds like it was an everyday product of the Remote Control studios, begging the question of why the assignment wasn’t simply given to them in the first place. M83’s Oblivion is a prime example, and BT’s Stealth is another.

While there are some interesting ideas, and many of the electronic textures will be pleasing to fans of that particular sound, it’s hard to imagine a BT fan being satisfied with the album–the sound is just too watered-down. Therefore, the album can only be recommended to people who enjoy the overall sound of Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control studio and would like to hear it livened up a bit with some interesting electronics and textures.

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