Saturday, March 28, 2009

Stargate (David Arnold)

Late again! Sorry. Things... came up.

Anyways, now we're on to David Arnold. By rights, if I was strictly following my updated library spreadsheet, I'd be reviewing Craig Armstrong's World Trade Center today instead, but 1) it's actually owned by my younger sister and I just ripped it from CD to iTunes without her knowledge, and 2) I'm dying to review something a bit more stylishly romantic and rip-roaringly FUN than Armstrong's work tends to be. Let's be honest, as powerful and dramatic and moving as The Incredible Hulk and Elizabeth: The Golden Age are (and they are!), they're not exactly FUN. Driving? Inspirational? Invigorating? Pulse-pounding? Oh my yes.

But... "fun?"

I think I'm trying to say that there's a difference between "enjoyable/impressive/admirable" and "fun." Exactly how they are different is of course a topic for you English majors out there (more power to you, I would have likely been one had I attended college), but for now I think it's safe to say that Stargate, David Arnold's bold and brash explosion onto the film score scene, is a heck of a lot more fun in a lighthearted and accessible way than the more heavy-handed Armstrong dirges and elegies we've been discussing hitherto. You know, the same way Hans Zimmer is more "fun" than Michael Kamen. Oh, wait... Yeah, never mind. Disregard that simile.

Anyways, Stargate. This is really one which, like a good many Arnold scores, I needn't even discuss. Any proper, old-fashioned score collector will have learned to love it eons ago, and the only way this obscure blog entry is going to shape anyone's opinion is if they're so new to the hobby that they're just discovering (for whatever insufficient reason) the many merits of John Williams' original Star Wars, or, worse yet, Jaws.

Not that Stargate is very close to those undisputed masterpieces (in a purely technical sense), but it's pretty nearly as classic, wonderful and old-fashioned by the standards of this waning age of the early 2000's. Stargate is an early '90s score, and if you know anything about the 1990s as far as film music is concerned, you know it was a darn fine time to be interested in that field. From Williams' own early-decade masterpieces such as Home Alone, Hook, Jurassic Park, Far and Away and Schindler's List, to James Horner's astounding maturation (and some would say eventual descent into self-plagiarism) with such fantastic classics as Legends of the Fall, Casper, Balto, Apollo 13, Braveheart, and of course Titanic, there were also the newly emerging, immense talents of Elliot Goldenthal, Danny Elfman, Hans Zimmer, and of course, David Arnold.

Granted, it was a ten-year period, but to cast an eye over the many now-classic scores that came out in that decade is to invite amazement and struggle for self-control. And Stargate, for its sheer audacity and scope, is one of the finest large-scale debuts in film score history by any composer (for my money). Up there with Doyle's Henry V, easily.

So what of the music? It'd be a stretch to call it similar to the Hollywood-filtered classical style of John Williams (boy, his name will pop up in this post, won't it??), but it's certainly no stretch to say it's definitely that brassy, purely orchestral strain of sci-fi adventure music which is firmly rooted in the oldest, grandest Hollywood style. This is Korngold-style heroics at it's finest! Think of Debney's CutThroat Island... that stylish throwback vein mixed with a thoroughly modern sonic depth and dramatic flourish. Stargate is to sci-fi and fantasy what CutThroat is to pirate scores. Old-fashioned, swashbuckling and romantic in just the right ways, without sounding a bit out of place. And it's just modern enough to be permitted an incredibly bombastic construction.

The album I have (the original, not the coveted Deluxe Edition) begins with the grand "Overture," which is really just a terrific way to introduce the score. The themes are swelling, the chorus is massive, and the tone transforms from awe-inspiring and massively triumphant to dark and uber-ominous so seamlessly that it never, NEVER fails to impress me. It sets the stage perfectly for the rest of the wonderfully strong album.

Loud chants, blaring brass, thundering timpanis, and surging string washes are delightfully complimented by lighter cues with tingling percussion and swirling woodwinds. It's got a little bit of everything, and it never slows down or grows dull. It's a remarkably mature album for such an early David Arnold venture, and it has clear prototypes for musical ideas which he would later crystallize and perfect in his (even more famous) scores for Independence Day and Godzilla (and, to some extent, his biggest, baddest James Bond scores).

A track-by-track or even semi-track-specific review of the album (beyond that overture) is a bit of a silly notion: there are 30 tracks, and every one is dynamite. The best way to sum it all up is to say that it's a dern fine bit of adventure music, and it was the obvious watershed in Arnold's amazingly successful career. This is where it started, folks! And, if you're like me, you'll find this a terrific score to revisit every once in a while. Every *frequent* once in a while. It's fabulous. And, in this bland-as-oatmeal season where most new film score albums fail to muster anything more than a cursory glance and an unenthusiastic "Oh, ah..." from me, these classics are welcome tools for refreshing the mind and soul with some truly splashy and FUN orchestral mayhem.

If you don't have it, you can listen to the entire thing in my imeem playlist. Enjoy!

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Elizabeth: The Golden Age (Armstrong/Rahman)

I really do realize that anyone paying the slightest attention to this blog is probably expecting me to get into some juicy David Arnold material by this time. But my necessarily rigid system is to go through my CDs in the order they present on my shelf: and right now Elizabeth: The Golden Age is the next score on my shelf. My CDs are arranged alphabetically by composer, and chronologically within each composer's section.

This is a recent score: 2007, I believe, is when it was released. My buying habits are of the wait-until-I-can-snag-it-for-cheap-as-free species, so I didn't pick this one up until a few weeks ago, when it leapt out from the Discland soundtrack section with an enticingly manageable $7.00 price label.

Hence this review, which is far too late for a relatively new score, and not quite late enough to match up with reviews for the likes of A Bridge Too Far, not to mention all those other golden oldies I plan to review: Breakfast at Tiffany's, The Sea Hawk, Rocky, Star Wars: A New Hope, and those syrupy-sweet John Barry albums. Gosh, if there's one thing that really discourages me in the writing of this blog, it's staring at my CD shelves and seeing all those favourites sitting despairingly towards the end, all those John Williams and Debbie Wisemans, those Howard Shores and Shirley Walkers, and even (whoa!) a Zimmer album or twain. I must content myself for now with early winners like Arnold, Barry, Elfman, Desplat, & etc. That's the consoling thing about all this: my collection consists almost solely of albums I really like, if not outright love. So this shouldn't get too boring.

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Two unanswered questions strike me as I listen to E:TGA again: first, why have so few people noticed and talked about it? (Or am I not paying much attention?) Second, why do most of the few people who have mentioned it seem to regard it as merely functional?

A functional score, I submit to you, is one which is technically competent and does an adequate job of musically interpreting the action and emotion of the screen. Typically 2- or 3-star material.

A great score is one which not only supports its film to excellence, but also stands away from its visual context with remarkable strength and independence. 4- and 5- star stuff. The stuff of repeated playback. It helps if the score is somewhat novel, stylistically. And my point is, Elizabeth: The Golden Age is an extremely solid manifestation of all these characteristics. Hence I consider it a great score, even an excellent one, and I am in wonder that fewer people have not shouted its praises from the rooftops.

Of course, I may be blind or silly enough to be overlooking some glaring faults, and I may be even naive enough in this hobby to not realize that this score is utterly unoriginal and that there are better incarnations of the same concept elsewhere, but right now that is all by the way. Let us examine the album, and listen to it, and you may decide for your own self: my mind is already made up.

As the eye glances over the simplistic but bold cover art, it notes not one but two composers named: Craig Armstrong, whom we know well from World Trade Center and The Incredible Hulk, and A. R. Rahman, whom almost no one in the western hemisphere knew about until the functional and occasionally enamoring song-score to Slumdog Millionaire. The two composers are wildly different career- and style-wise, and their merging here is an instantly intriguing concept. I'm interested without even having heard the music, and here's why:

Armstrong's music, at least from what I've heard of it (only World Trade Center and Hulk prior to E:TGA), makes constant use of large orchestra, large, deep choir, and subtle (sometimes not-so-subtle) electronics in support. As a classical composer as well as a film composer, he is a talented, extremely capable composer who perfectly embodies in his music the styles and constructs of the WEST. His is elegant and respectful music, supported in its thematic solidity with engagingly complex technical mastery.

Rahman, on the other hand, is India's best-known film composer and Bollywood tunesmith extraordinaire. His music is pulsing, highly ethnic, deeply emotional and admirably wholehearted. In other words, he's everything to Indian film music that Armstrong is to Western orchestral music. The men approach their music with the same love, care, devotion and intensity, but from different cultural, religious, and technical worldviews.

So what interests me as I stare at the CD insert is whether two such consummate but different artists can create a cohesive score. I'm excited to say that they can, and that they did.

If there's any complaint to be made about the collaboration, in fact, it really has to do with the fact that you almost can't tell it was written by two men. They seem to have meshed so perfectly that one practically wonders why two composers were needed. But then all doubt is swept away with the realization that the score likely wouldn't have been nearly as rich and savory as it has indeed ended up being, had these two fine composers not worked together.

And a rich, savory score it is! (I've gone an awful long ways here without actually describing the music... got to remedy that...) All the elements in this score shine out bright and strong, yet no one element is inordinately dominant, or frustratingly underused. A perfect example is the aptly titled "Opening" (guess which track THAT is), which marches forth with an an appriately regal, powerful, and authoritative, yet exquisitely beautiful violin solo, supported by full string orchestra and percussion, and even an amazingly stirring male chorus, chanting massive dirges with giant bells gonging and clanging about. (And I'll have you know for whatever record you're keeping that I am a GIANT sucker for bells and gongs as percussion.) For a track only one and a half minutes long, it certainly makes its mark.

Those very conflicting airs of beauty and strength, of delicacy and tenderness matched off with militant, awe-inspiring majesty, are what I think defines this score for me, in the end. Ethereal female choir and massively warlike male choirs trade off, and deep, soothing washes of strings with rapturous violin solos give way to thudding statements of electronic percussion. Passionate, despairing, even aching themes of longing resolve into magnificently determined anthems. The idea of Elizabeth the First as the virgin Queen, and as the sole leader of a tiny island against the Giants of Europe, is communicated amazingly thoroughly.

This score is not very period-sounding, I should mention. This is disctinctly modern film music. There are no attempts at historic instrumental accuracy or anything of that sort. It is the emotion and ideals of the film that are scored, and not the era and locale. With that admission, the score is very definitely suited to its film.

The score is even allowed a hint of far-off fantasy: the deep and resounding reverberation evident in the recording and mix gives the music a distant, but forceful, quality. It is this aspect of the score, among a few others, that helps the music retain its credibility despite its entirely modern nature.

All of the CD is solid: there's really no dull moment on the entire thing, although some moments do manage stand out: the infectious chanting male choir and towering bells from the opening get further treatment in the following track, "Phillip," and the militant nature of the score is best heard in "Battle" and "Horseback Address." The tenderness of the score is displayed quite lovingly in "Now You Grow Dull," "Possible Suitors," "Destiny Theme," "Love Theme" and "Divinity Theme" (which alone of all the cues betrays some of Rahman's Indian background). The power of the monarchy and the beauty of the female who holds that power are combined in the stunning "Storm," a choral work of immense size and inspirational value.

As I already mentioned, no one element is underused, and neither does any one element overstay its welcome. The violin solos are tastefully distributed, the electronics are restrained but impressive, the choirs employed at only the right moments. Each element is used where it will make the maximum impact. Just when you're thinking, "Gosh I love this choir piece, but what ever happened to that lovely guitar and violin idea?", it pops up again, and by the time it's over you're thinking, "That was so great! Now where was that percussion?" only to hear that percussion rear its militant head. In other words, as a listening experience, the album is incredibly well constructed, to such a fantastic degree that it may very well have been a deciding factor in my deciding to proclaim this score a true winner. It flows so well.

Of course, hearing it yourself will do a much better job of convincing you of this score's wonderful strengths than I can with type, but hopefully I've at least sparked your curiousity, and if you've heard it yourself already then you hopefully agree with me. If there's any weaknesses to be noted, the only one I can think of is that the score functions so well as a whole that it's actually quite hard to pick out more specific strengths and highlights. And since highlights are what everyone looks for in a great score, the difficulty in doing so with E:TGA could make it a functional score for less attentive and less perceptive types.

Every track here is a solid four-star cue: it's well-structured, stylish, eminently suitable for the subject matter, thematically innovative, masterfully orchestrated and innovative. It's not a typical blockbuster score by most standards, but it is wonderfully epic; huge; massive; romantic; sweeping; tender; thrilling. Everything I look for in film scores. It's not a score of undeniable perfection, but it's rare for me to find a score that grabs me so well right from the outset, and which I can so readily enjoy all the way through. Hence I love it. It might be a sign of laziness in me, but there you have it. Hear it for yourself and let me know your thoughts.

Listen to it here.