At First Spin: Firewall (2006)

Composer: Alexandre Desplat

Label: Varese Sarabande

Catalogue Nr.: 6715

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When you heard his music for the Bruce Willis thriller Hostage (2005) you will already know that french composer Alexandre Desplat is one of those fresh talents to keep an ear on. Desplat's music for the troubled Bruce Willis thriller would proof his talents for razor sharp suspense music that shined with creativity and diversity. That being said, I personally was still disappionted when I heard that my favourite composer Alan Silvestri had to pass on the newest Harrison Ford thriller Firewall (2006) due to a scheduling conflict with The Wild (2006) but at the same time I was aware that the gifted Alexandre Desplat would be able to provide a fitting score at the very least. It's obvious that both movies, Firewall and Hostage, share some strong similarities with each other (despite the rather mixed reviews) and therefore a comparison between the two scores is almost inevitable but Desplat perfectly managed to create a score that is a tad different from his previous work. The first cue of the CD, "Firewall", is probably the most striking one with razor sharp strings and driving synths creating a high level of suspense and thrill. And the strings are really the element that make this score so different as they keep up the adrenaline throughout the CD, wether their are frenetically playing on the edge or lurking around in menacing tremolo mood combined with electronics. There are some good action cues like "The Fight", "The Epi-Pen" or "Exchanging The Files" but the real highlight is certainly the warm theme for the family as established in "The Family Theme" and during the conclusion in "Together Again". Some will probably crinche at the absence of melody during the lengthy suspense and action tracks but the lovely family theme is a noteworthy compensation for that. All in all, the suspense and action is okay whereas the few emotional parts are very good. The album from Varese Sarabande comes as unusally lengthy with a wealth of over 50 minutes of score.

FIRST IMPRESSION: GOOD

 

At First Spin: Freedomland (2006)

Composer: James Newton Howard

Label: Varese Sarabande

Catalogue Nr.: 6717

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It is understandable that James Newton Howard went on for a break after the scoring marathon that was King Kong (2005). The thriller Freedomland was a welcome change and familiar terrain for the composer who is well-known for his rich output on this particular genre and therefore, scoring the film was a routine job. Maybe that is the reason why his latest score is a generally uninteresting affair that comes as a slow-paced thriller score by the numbers. Howard apparently attempted to produce a hip (hop)/suspense mixture with the obvious subtle piano improvisation plus some hip e-guitars, beats and drums that are most likely reflecting the urban setting of the story. That combination is rather uninspired and completely fails to involve the listener. It is that kind of minimalism that we are used to hear from the likes of Trevor Rabin and Harry Gregson-Williams when they are on electronic autopilot like in Enemy Of The State (1998), Light It Up (1999) or Spy Game (2001). Cue titles like "The Lie", "Did They Arrest Anyone", "Rafik Is Arrested", "You're Inside The Wrong Park" or "Riot" promise more than they can actually offer: some neutral backgrounds and athmos with occasional electronic percussion crashes - exchangeable at best and bare of accentuation for most of the time. "Unrest" as well as "Burning" offer some heavily nerving electronic experimentation and beats. Basically the only material of note comes with the more emotional cues like "Inside Freedomland" with its solid emotional music for strings and woodwinds or "Brenda's Appartment" which is introducing some sort of depressive theme for piano and woodwinds that receives a more prominent statement during the last two cues but is actually far away from the emotionally and rich resolutions that we are used from James Newton Howard. If you have a hard time financing your score collection then you can put Freedomland near the end of your priority list without hesitation since you won't miss much anyways. The back cover says 'score mixed at Remote Control Studios' (formerly known as Media Ventures) which leaves a slightly bitter taste.

FIRST IMPRESSION: MEDIOCRE

 

At First Spin: The Wild (2006)

Composer: Alan Silvestri

Label: Walt Disney Records

Catalogue Nr.: 61151-7

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Animation with Alan Silvestri has always been the perfect marriage from the very beginning when the composer made first mickey-mousing experiences with Robert Zemeckis' life action/animation crossover Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1989) until he delivered a score near perfection for Robert Zemeckis' The Polar Express (2004). Silvestri's string of assignments temporarily ended after The Polar Express (2004) and the composer took some time off but now, after nearly one and a half year of absence, he is finally back with a score that carries all ingredients for pure entertainment: lots of full-blown orchestral action music that mainly resembles The Mummy Returns (2001) with some darker rhythmic ideas, big fanfares, a rousing heroic main theme that oddly receives only one full workout in "You Can't Roar", some wicket mickey-mousing and tender emotional parts. The opening of the score comes with a horn line that resembles his music for the Disney commercial Coming Home (2005). For the even wilder passages that come later in the film, the composer integrates some short techno outbursts to accompany the action music as he did in Van Helsing (2004). For the finale, he delivers yet another victorious set of fanfares that resembles portions of his heroic music for Forrest Gump (1994). Did I mention already that the score contains a whole bag of exciting Silvestri-isms? While it certainly does not break with basic rules in animation scoring, it is still wildly entertaining score, mainly due to the action music where Silvestri just never fails to impress anyone. Really amazing what a great composer can fit into only 31 minutes of score as presented on the soundtrack CD which is quite okay if you consider that Disney is notorious for shorter score portions on their CDs. The songs that come with it range from the usual boring pop stuff in "Real Wild Child" and "Good Enough" over entertaining rock 'n' roll in "Big Time Boppin' (Go Man Go)" to african exotics with rather repetitive vocals in "Really Nice Day" from Monty Python veterans Eric Idle and John Du Prez. The disc still comes wildly recommended due to the score. Expanded review and complete cue breakdown to follow soon!

FIRST IMPRESSION: WILD

At First Spin: X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)

Composer: John Powell

Label: Varese Sarabande Records

Catalogue Nr.: VSD 6732

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The latest string of Varese Sarabande releases almost makes it seem like there are no other composers working out there except John Powell, who clearly dominates 2006 so far with his music for Ice Age 2: The Meltdown (2006), United 93 (2006) and most recently the latest entrace in the mutant soap opera X-Men: The Last Stand. With the score for the third X-film, Powell continues where John Ottman stopped but without maintaining much musical consistency between the three films. Where John Ottman still incorporated Michael Kamen's x-men theme to a certain degree for the first sequel's score, Powell starts off entirely from the scratch with a new love theme for Jean forming the core of the score. Overall, the score reaches out more, takes its time to develop ideas and often has an operatic power. Some action passages like "Cure Wars", "Fight In The Woods" or "Shock And No Oars" are almost reminicent of something by Danny Elfman or Don Davis with edgy, high played brass races. Powell always goes right to the core especially during the action and mostly avoids the crash-bang action-fizzling that Ottman created for the previous film. Now it should become clear: Powell has left his media ventures times far behind since there is not one sign of media ventures laziness in this score. You have to love Powell for that fact alone. From the delicate use of flutes, most notably in "20 Years Ago", over his powerful main theme as introduced in "Bathroom Titles" to the various variations of the love theme from glorious in "Angel's Cure" to operatic and heavenly in "Phoenix Rises", Powell just hits the right notes and keeps them coming until the emotional and glorious end in "The Last Stand". If John Ottman can't pull a Williams out of his hat for Superman Returns (2006), Powell could easily get away with X-Men: The Last Stand as the best comic book score of 2006. Powell even outgunned his former teacher Hans Zimmer who only produced a less than mediocre work on Batman Begins (2005) while Powell's phoenix of a superhero score rises above any Zimmer-bats. Listen carefully people, because Powell's score for X-Men: The Last Stand is what the music for Batman Begins (2005) should have been: exciting, involving, powerful and well-orchestrated. Recommended!

FIRST IMPRESSION: Very Good

At First Spin: Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Men's Chest (2006)

Composer: Hans Zimmer, Lorne Balfe, Tom Gire, Nick Glennie-Smith & many more

Label: Walt Disney Records

Catalogue Nr.: 861447

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Here we are again. The sequel to 2003's summer blockbuster from the Disney-Bruckheimer factory has arrived with another remote control score in baggage, although this time helmed by Hans Zimmer himself. Does that make it any better than the hack job that was the first score? No. The score basically follows along the same lines and continues with the same problems. Scores like this just serve as a perfect opportunity for any responsible reviewer to unleash a firework of criticism but this would just cost too much of precious webspace for a score that isn't even worth it, so I will keep things short and defer to my review of the first score instead. The first few seconds of "Jack Sparrow" are in fact quite promising with a chello performance that sounds as if the player was drunk and that fits the Sparrow character quite good. Sadly, the rest continues with the usual remote control noise, pointless synths and sound samples that bury any orchestral finetuning and are overall an insult to the achievements by the likes of Korngold & Co. when it comes to swashbuckling music. Zimmer wanted to create a biker gang feeling for "Davy Jones", which is ridiculous in and of itself and results in yet more assembly line action cues with blarring e-guitars that is absolutely out of place in the given context. The celesta lullaby with organ accompaniment at the beginning of the cue or the out-of-tune waltz in "Dinner Is Served" can't really cloak the frugalness that Zimmer and his 7 dwarfs are showing here. Something that is really fun to listen to and actually creates the appropriate mood is the source cue "Two Hornpipes (Tortuga)" but this is just not enough and even there you can hear synths banging in the background. There is a fine line between creating fresh-sounding Pirate music that actually succeeds and Pirate music that comes off just bad. Remote Control repeatedly showed how you do it wrong. They don't even think of taking any of the previous successful achievements made by others to build upon them but just keep going down a road with a dead end. Declaredly, Bruckheimer is also responsible for that to a certain degree but he is not the one who is composing the music in the end. The Techno Remix at the end only adds insult to injury. Of course, Hans Zimmer fans are already jumping in excitement at this music and the horde of fans of the first score will love it. Sadly, that does not make it better swashbuckling music. A good moment to stop writing and listen to Debney's Cutthroat Island (1995) instead.

FIRST IMPRESSION: Bad

At First Spin: Casino Royale (2006)

Composer: David Arnold

Label: Sony Classical

Catalogue Nr.: 1SK702369

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Brosnan left, Craig came and composer David Arnold remained with the most well-known and long-running movie franchises in film history. After Arnold delivered a score for the terrible previous Bond-flick Die Another Day (2002) that suffered from a synth-wall hiding all interesting orchestral elements, a general over-use of the main theme and a real disgusting Madonna title song on top of it (though the latter being not Arnold's fault), he literally turned 180 degress into the opposite direction for Casino Royale. One of the changes that will be most obvious to listeners of Arnold's other Bond scores is the sparse usage of Monthy Norman's classic Bond Main Theme. It's never really stated entirely and only bits of it's striking orchestration are hinted very careful throughout the score such as in the track "Blunt Instrument" but the only full statement comes at the end of the album in "The Name's Bond... James Bond". While there are a couple of quite lengthy action cues such as "African Rundown" or "Miami International", the core sound of the score is more on the depressive side with subtle orchestrations and an approach that can only be described as 'noir'. Whenever there is action music bursting out, Arnold does hardly go overboard with the electronics. Their integration in the overall composition along with the orchestra is much more elegant and convincing than in it's predecessor's score. Of course there is also a title song called "You Know My Name" (performed by Chris Cornell) and this time it's melody was actually integrated very sparsely into the underscore, most prominently in "I'm The Money", while the song itself was strangely left off the album. On the other hand, the CD shines with a fully packed running time of 74 minutes of score which suggests that executives finally realized the value of good Bond underscore compared to pop-diva-songs. Even though it is all very well executed and much better than what we heard before from Arnold, the score seems to be just lacking something... just that very special 'something' to make the overall experience really cool. Maybe it's because Arnold decided to stirre his music instead of shaking it this time? It's clearly noticeable that we have a pretty unusual Bond score here and especially an unusual one from David Arnold where he leaves off his autopilot-mode he was using during the last two Bond films. As far as I am concerned, I have to get used to stirred Bond scores but I am sure it will start to really shake soon!

FIRST IMPRESSION: Stirred, Not Shaken

At First Spin: Blood Diamond (2006)

Composer: James Newton Howard

Label: Varese Sarabande

Catalogue Nr.: 302 066 780 2

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Instead of Hans Zimmer, who was apparently busy scoring Nancy Meyers latest chick-flick, director Edward Zwick has choosen Zimmer's friend James Newton Howard to score his latest action thriller Blood Diamond. The film takes place in west africa and Howard responds to the ethnicity of the people and location with a strong ethnic flavour. A couple of soloists for duduk, violin, cello and african singers as well as the African Children's Choir plus extensive exotic percussion set-ups are used to guide us musically through the jungles of sierra leone. Let me tell you, it is a quite colourful journey that Howard has send us on, with cool combinations of orchestra and modern pulsating electronic outbursts in the action cues like "Village Attack", "Fall Of Freetown", "Your Son Is Gone", "Diamond Mine Bombed" where the use of e-guitars is often just as prominent as the use of ethnic colours in the remaining material. But it is not so much the action moments that makes Blood Diamond a good score and most of them are pretty random Howard stuff anyways. It's cues like "Crossing The Bridge", which has Howard's noble main theme for strings being guided by exotic percussion and pan flute, or "Ruf Kidnaps Dia", which is a montage-like cue that goes through various gears from exotic Thomas Newman-esque marimba playing to percussive action right into a surprising piano-marimba combination that is as welcome as it is unexpected. There are a handful of such cues featuring some ingenius combinations of instruments such as the highlight "Archer Sells Diamond" where Howard provides another montage-like musical moment for the African Children's Choir plus some very interesting violin playing backed up by exotic percussion in his rhythmic trademark style. Quieter cues play from warm Howard-piano and string stuff in "Maddy & Archer", "Goodbyes", "Thought I'd Never Call?" or the string and choral drama depicted in "Your Mother Loves You" to deeply-moving cellos plus moaning soloist singer in "Solomon Finds Family" while there is also a bit of somber ambient stuff like "G8 Conference". Howard is moving close to Zimmer territory at times especially with some anthem-like statements of the theme or throughout the action explosions, so it becomes a bit too obvious what the temp-track of this one was, but at the same time he is providing enough own creative and refreshing moments to make up for that. He completely avoids the Lebo M. autopilot and creates his own musical interpretation of the african setting. Another highlight is the ending, where the African Children's Choir and a soloist are climbing on some percussive stairs to a wonderful string resolution. The three songs range from enjoyable ("Ankala") to unnecessary ("Baai") to utter noise ("When Da Dawgs Come Out To Play").

FIRST IMPRESSION: Very Good

At First Spin: Night At The Museum (2006)

Composer: Alan Silvestri

Label: Varese Sarabande

Catalogue Nr.: 302 066 778 2

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Right in time for Christmas comes Alan Silvestri to unleash his skills on a fantasy/comedy film by director Shawn Levy. Originally, Night At The Museum was planned as a Stephen Sommers picture but Sommers got too busy developing When Worlds Collide (2008) and handed over the project to Levy who originally wanted John Ottman for the scoring duties. However, due to the former involvement of Sommers it was no surprise that Silvestri stepped in when Ottman dropped out of the film. Certainly it is better this way around since the score clearly benefits from Silvestri's sense for emotion and melody (skills that Ottman still needs to finetune) which becomes evident already after listening to the first track called "Night At The Museum". This cue adds another ingeniusly catchy main theme composition to the long list of ingeniously catchy Silvestri main theme compositions. It's a gentle, slowly building and lyrical theme primarily for horns and strings that evokes a sense of mystery and majesty. And there are of course more themes and motifs embedded in the whole score. Especially of note is the theme for the film's main character Larry Daley as introduced in "One Of Those Days" which is a slightly Thomas Newman inspired modern-sounding tune for pizzicato strings, bass and a thin rhythm section. Wax figure Teddy Roosevelt received a theme as well, most prominently contained in "Teddy To The Rescue" as a nicely heroic Silvestri-fanfare moment. Apart from the themes, the rest of the underscore carries itself surprisingly well over the course of 53 minutes (which is by far no standart with this kind of scores) and is a very fluent listening experience even though it's 35 mainly short tracks of less than a minute. The reason for this is that Silvestri made the music very colourful while avoiding to overuse his very good thematic material. There is a good amount of action music in tracks like "Civil War Soldiers", "Out Of Africa", "This Is Your Moment" or, the highlight of them all, "Stage Coach". Furthermore, there is some quietly mysterious and evocative material as in tracks "Tour Of The Museum", "Where's Rexy?" or "Show You What I Do" plus a couple of Stalling-esque cues... since this is a comedy of course you can't do without them but Silvestri is certainly not going too far into mickey-mousing territory and also provided some more emotional cues like "Teddy Likes Sacagawega", Big Fan" or "A Great Man" to contrast the light-hearted ones. The happy-ending-cue "Heores Return" is the festive cymbal crashing fest of the year. Although it's overall rather standart material from Silvestri, Night At The Museum can most likely offer something entertaining for every soul. Full Review to come soon!

FIRST IMPRESSION: Very Good