Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (Hans Zimmer)

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History is littered with trilogies that have spectacularly imploded with their third entry; Walt Disney’s gold galleon Pirates of the Caribbean franchise took the Matrix Revolutions route when it floundered, with a disappointing cliffhanger second entry followed by a terrible typhoon of a third. It’s never been more clear that a movie had begun without a finished shooting script than with At World’s End; characters’ motivations and natures changed between the films, many were killed off seemingly for no other reason than the writers had no idea what to do with them, and the ending was ludicrous enough to make one wish for the previous film’s unresolved cliffhanger back. Despite being a load of bilge, the film made the corsair trio of Bruckheimer, Verbinski, and Depp more doubloons than the Spanish Main–perhaps the truest act of real piracy in the series’ history thus far.

With Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End filmed gangplank-to-gangplank, it was no surprise to see the flag of Remote Control fluttering from the latter film’s yardarm and Captain Hans Zimmer at the helm of his usual crew of scurvy composers. Manning the guns again were Lorne Balfe, Nick Glennie-Smith, Henry Jackman, John Sponsler, and Tom Gire; the Icelandic corsair Atli Örvarsson joined the merry band as well. Interestingly, the list of orchestrators included both Zimmer stalwarts like Bruce Fowler but also Steve Bartek, former Oingo Boingo member and Danny Elfman’s usual orchestrator. Their fleet of dozens of soloists, conductors, and other assistants made At World’s End perhaps Zimmer’s most collaborative effort thus far in his captaincy.

As with Dead Man’s Chest, Zimmer’s crew brings a few new themes to the manifest while importing a boatload of old ones as well. The most prominent new shanty debuts in “Hoist the Colors,” and is a theme vaguely reminiscent of “He’s a Pirate” to represent the titular swashbucklers complete with lyrics. A boy soprano and chorus take up the tune to start with, but it gets some variations in the comical “The Brethren Court” and a building, rousing rendition in “What Shall We Die For?” Joining it is a love theme (though Cap’n Zimmer denied that’s what it was, one has to call a cutlass a cutlass) for the laughable romance in the film; though the love itself may fall flat, the theme is a fun if simplistic bit of sweeping romance and the only time Zimmer and his scurvy crew invoke Erich Wolfgang Korngold in either name or spirit. Together, these themes are by far the most nautical and piratey in the Pirates series.

Old themes return too. Jack Sparrow’s shanty, resembling its arrangements in Dead Man’s Chest moreso than Black Pearl, gets quirky and tortured airings in “Multiple Jacks” and “The Brethren Court.” Davy Jones’ powerful music box and organ theme reappears in a more tragic and orchestral guise in “At Wit’s End” and elsewhere, though with his Kraken killed offscreen for no reason its unpleasant waterlogged music thankfully stays on the bottom. And the defining theme of the franchise, “He’s a Pirate,” appears here and there as well, with its biggest moment saved for the start of the end credits suite in “Drink Up Me Hearties.”

At its best, Cap’n Zimmer and his mates put the old and new themes together with an organic flow that, while still clearly part of the Remote Control sound world, is much more nautical and orchestral than anything that has come before. The album’s crowning moment is “Up is Down,” which accompanies a particularly nonsensical sequence of the film with a lively pirate jig which freely mixes fragments of nearly every theme from the series up to that point. The massive 10-minute cues of “I Don’t Think Now Is the Best Time” and “Drink Up Me Hearties” offer more of this surprisingly thoughtful thematic mixing from Cap’n Zimmer.

It’s not all smooth sailing. “Calypso” is a weak recapitulation of some of the muddiest parts of Dead Man’s Chest, while “Singapore” has little to offer but rather stereotypical Chinese progressions. There are bits of “Drink Up Me Hearties” and especially “I Don’t Think Now Is the Best Time” are occasionally overwhelmed by the typhoon of Cap’n Zimmer’s trademark “wall of sound” to an extent that mitigates the newly christened swashbucklery and pleasing sailor’s knot of themes, though admittedly without plumbing the worst depths of Black Pearl or Dead Man’s Chest.

On the final manifest, with At World’s End Cap’n Zimmer and his crew of hearties probably got as close to a truly piratey sound as they could with the Remote Control method of composition. If it’s not quite a shot across Admiral Korngold’s bow, it is at least the best presentation of the best themes from the franchise with the “wall of sound,” electronics, and borrowing from past Cap’n Zimmer classics present but safely in the brig. As usual, the music on the hour-long album is extensively rearranged from that which appeared in the film, but even that is somewhat less egregious than its shipmates in the series. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End was a dreadful film, but it somehow inspired the best score of the series. Cap’n Zimmer would sail with the old crew once again for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, but it tacked against the wind and was nowhere near as much piratey fun.

Rating: starstarstarstar

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: starstarstar

Kameo: Elements of Power (Steve Burke)

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Thanks to the Sumthing Else label, western game music has been undergoing a mini-renaissance, with many soundtracks pressed to commercial discs in recent months (at least for Xbox games). Even if you have never played (or heard of) Kameo: Elements of Power, you’ll find the score to be a pleasant surprise, full of symphonic and choral power.

Steve Burke’s compositions are clearly influenced by Howard Shore’s genre-defining fantasy effort in The Lord of the Rings, especially where the chorus is concerned. It’s almost omnipresent, even at low registers, and really shines in tracks like “Hero’s Theme” and “Ice Mountain Onslaught,” lending the ensemble power. The presence of veteran composer and orchestrator Nic Raine is certainly a plus, as is the always-reliable City of Prague Philharmonic. Selected highlights are fully orchestral, while the remainder of the music is synthesized with high-quality samples.

Burke’s own voice, rather than Shore’s influence, is most clearly heard in the quirky, smaller scale tracks. This results in tracks that are slightly off-kilter, but (especially when combined with a female solo voice) uniformly impressive and beautiful. “Enchanted Kingdom,” an album highlight, combines the vocal with a minimal ensemble to produce a stunning lullaby, while “Crystal Cavern” uses that same vocalist to convey a chaotic and quirky feeling, like a maze of reflections in crystal. “The Snow Tribe” continues the quirky sound, without vocal accompaniment, and remains highly enjoyable.

If one had to fault the album, it would be for the lack of strong recurring thematic material, and the tendency (especially in the latter half of the album) for cues to run together and begin to sound alike. “Hero’s Theme” is the closest the album has to unifying thematic material, as it’s referenced several times, but it is never boldly presented other than in its titular track. The music is strongly melodic, though (one of its greatest strengths); it’s just a shame that the gorgeous melodies aren’t generally carried over after their first appearance.

The tail of the album is jam-packed with action cues, but these tend to be very similar: the chorus as backup and color, strong percussion hits, and a large volume of brass. But many of these tracks don’t differentiate themselves well enough to be individually memorable, leaving less of an impression than the smaller-scale compositions. They are, however, most likely to appeal to lovers of orchestral music who may be turned off by the more synth-heavy tracks.

On the whole, Burke’s score is highly enjoyable, and well worth searching out. The album may have some shortcomings, but it is still very impressive, and I hope to see future efforts from the composer find their way to disc. While a generous selection is presented on the CD, fans should note that additional tracks are available as free downloads from the composer’s official website. This includes three long suites and an outstanding “Complete Composer Edition” that features all music not otherwise on the official CD that was composed for the game, along with demos, presentation tracks, and unused content.

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Additional Review of Free Downloadable Tracks

While the 2005 soundtrack release for Kameo: Elements of Power contained an hour of Steve Burke’s music, it wasn’t enough to satisfy fans. Typically, at this point, nothing more would be done by official companies, but Rare has always been generous with its fans. Rather than forcing them to extract the music themselves, or releasing a second album of music, Burke and Rare instead released the music for free.

Gradually updated and expanded over the course of several years, the website tracks represent several additional hours of Kameo material. Some of these tracks expand on the heavy battle themes present on the CD; “Water Temple Battle,” “Final Showdown,” “Castle Fight” and others are solid tracks, though they repeat some of what’s on the commercial disc. It’s easy to see why they were left off, but the music is still worth having.

The website tracks really expand on the moody and quirky aspects of Kameo, though. The warm, sad vocals make a return in “Peace in the Kingdom,” one of the collection’s standout tracks. But the quirky themes prove to be the most delightful, from the wonderfully off-kilter tribal percussion of “Trainer Cave” to the Elfmanesque whistles and chirps of “Mystic Theme.” These songs are by far the most interesting additions, and one has to wonder why they weren’t squeezed onto the commercial disc.

The three suites, each over twenty minutes long, deserve special attention. Consisting of unreleased music from the game as well as alternate themes and demos, they represent a significant investment in listening time but a good payoff: all three are consistently high quality. The first medley expands on the gentle ethereal sound, with both wordless vocals and original songs in the mix. The second layers on the quirk with everything from troll chants to faux-Celtic dances, while the third is a bit of a grab bag that tends toward cacophonous battle music. Some listeners might be upset with the suite format, but the songs are easily pried apart in free audio editors and many of the tracks are too short to stand on their own.

Burke’s “Everything except the Soundtrack CD tracks” download, a whopping half a gigabyte, represents a fascinating glimpse into the production of a video game score. Demos, alternate versions, and unused tracks from Kameo‘s tortured development cycle across three platforms are included. There is perhaps more music here than even the most devoted fan would need, and the tracks are largely unlabeled aside from Burke’s sly commentary. But the thematic development remains strong, and some pieces are fully orchestral or feature live vocal effects. In fact, the dozen or so vocals tracks in the package, most with wordless but live singers, are compelling listens and evidence of Burke’s ability as a choral composer.

The Kameo: Elements of Power website tracks uphold and expand on the terrific sound of the original album, with plenty of goodies for fans who enjoyed any of its facets. Though none of the new music is from the orchestral, Raine-conducted Prague sessions, synth quality remains high throughout. Since the music is free., there’s no reason not to add it to one’s collection post haste.

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