Monday, October 28, 2013

Hemlock Grove by Nathan Barr (2013)

Review by Travis Elder

Horror scores often contain rather disturbing and dissonant music.  However, such scores often give us heartbreaking romanticism with lyrical and flowing melodies of mystery that tantalize with their eerie beauty.  This contrast makes the horror all the more horrific when it finally comes.  Disturbing and horrific album cover aside, the eerie beauty is the direction Nathan Barr takes his score with an intimate ensemble of cellos, piano, ukulele, guitar, guitar viol, glass armonic, and Celtic harp, each often played with mesmerizing and languid dreaminess by the composer himself.  Barr, who once got a job in part on the strength of his horror DVD collection, is no stranger to the genre having scored six seasons of True Blood and several horror films such as Cabin Fever and The Last Exorcism.  Hemlock Grove tells the story of a fictional Pennsylvania town where Roman Godfrey and the newly arrived Peter Rumancek investigate some recent brutal murders.  As will be seen the score, or at least the album, spends most of its running time exploring the investigative parts of the story rather than the murders.

The first three cues get the mysterious vibe off to a great start.  The main theme heard over the titles takes its cues from the fading in and out smoke seen as the opening credits roll.  Smoky mysteriousness continues in Ice Cream Shop with its echoing and lurking cello, string plucking, and brief, haunting vocals.  Hiding behind an unassuming, humdrum title the highlight of the album, Shelly's Email, allures with its melodious and fluid cello and perfectly paired flowing piano.  Those hesitant to explore this score should at least listen to this cue.

One of this score's strengths is its variety with each piece giving a unique personality to the sequence it accompanies.  For example, the main theme is not just mechanically repeated, but instead gets a makeover almost every time we hear it.  In Carnival we get a spookish, circus-like version.  Arguably the best performance comes in the climactic Peter's Transformation where the theme gets the rock and roll treatment with a gradually increasing tempo that draws you in with its driving intensity.  My personal favorite though is the heart wrenchingly beautiful rendition from 3:05 to 3:43 in Is This A Joke.  This cue also introduces a new theme, which plays like a melancholy Chopin piano prelude with the addition of a cello and some unease-inducing orchestrations including the glass armonica.  The intriguing tip-toe like theme runs through a number of variations on piano and cello.  My favorite occurs during a lovely performance from 1:51 to 2:25 with the piano and a ponderous, Lurch-like cello playing the theme together.  Another interesting motif is the whimsical, rolling piano in Brookes Vigil that is especially good when paired with a modern percussion beat.

Killer Wolf epitomizes the album's disconcerting cover.  Jarring banging accompanied by unsettling high-pitched tapping notes opens the piece and is soon joined by spine-tingling twinklings and tension filled strings.  The cue ends with a creepy vocal jingle that trails off as if the power is cut followed by a banging drone.  Not music I will likely return to often, but certainly creates some fright.

Two other noteworthy cues bear mention.  Longing begins with an eerie poltergeist-like opening followed by a haunting cello playing the main theme pleadingly and accompanied by ukulele plucking and a twangy tapping.  The cello turns to mournful droning as the piano steps sneakily around.  In Trust Each Other the unearthly, glassy tones of the glass harmonica harmonize beautifully with a mellow guitar melody.

For those willing to look past the fearful looking cover an alluring soundscape of beautified creepiness awaits.  Others yearning for more aggressiveness, like that heard in Killer Wolf, will need to look elsewhere as the majority of the album focuses on mystery and intrigue rather than on outright horror.  In years past I would likely have never given a score like Hemlock Grove a chance, but thankfully works like Hemlock Grove and James Newton Howard's The Village have taught me it is rarely wise to judge a score by its cover.  The album is available from Varese Sarabande digitally and on disc.  iTunes | Amazon MP3 | Amazon CD

Track Listing:
1. Hemlock Grove (:52)
2. Ice Cream Shop (2:09)
3. Shelley’s Email* (3:02)
4. Crime Scene (2:59)
5. Carnival (1:48)
6. Aftermath (2:27)
7. Is This A Joke?* (4:24)
8. Killer Wolf (1:57)
9. Letha Dreams (2:36)
10. Roman and Olivia (:49)
11. Peter Dreams (3:23)
12. Land Beyond (3:02)
13. Brooke’s Vigil (1:54)
14. Longing (3:07)
15. Trust Each Other (1:57)
16. Screaming Schoolkids (3:16)
17. Peter’s Transformation* (3:04)

Total running time of score: 42:46
*ScoreCues 2013 Best Cues Nominee

Emmy Nomination for Outstanding Original Main Title Theme Music

My favorite playlist / suite: Tracks 1-3, 7, 14, 15, 17.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Last Resort by Robert Duncan (2013)

Review by Travis Elder

Last Resort is a 13-episode military drama about a the crew of a fictional United States naval submarine, the U.S.S. Colorado.  Wrongly accused as enemies of the state, Captain Marcus Chaplin (Andre Braugher) orders the crew and sub to take refuge on an island where they get sandwiched between hostile locals and the might of the United States military.  Robert Duncan, who received his third Emmy nomination for the pilot episode of Last Resort, provides a cinematic quality score with full orchestra, modern electronic embellishment, piano, acoustic guitar, and even some percussion created using a real naval submarine.

The cello has taken the limelight several times this year in scores such as Rush and Game of Thrones and it does so here in Fall of the Colorado.  The piece opens with a soft, pulsing beat and piano announcing a lamenting solo cello that takes you in with its graceful beauty.  At 1:45 a swelling and contracting string bass line slowly engulfs soprano strings like the sinking of a ship until both disappear leaving only a heartfelt solo violin that fades into the pulsing beat and piano where the piece began.  A fitting epitaph for the Captain who made the ultimate sacrifice in going down with his boat.

Duncan gives us some modern pomp and circumstance in Office on Deck.  Pomp and circumstance has long lent epic pageantry from everything to royal weddings to graduation ceremonies.  William Walton's Crown Imperial, played during the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton, is a good example (Spotify).  Duncan's entry brings a dignified, tuneful theme of strength and honor conveyed in succession by cello, strings, and then brass.  Last Resort's action theme, first introduced in the latter half of the Pilot Suite, is inserted from :53 to 1:05.  This is followed by my favorite performance of the anthem by stately brass accompanied by catchy percussion, similar in style to Mark Isham's Army Strong.  Reluctant Fight presents another satisfying variation of the strength and honor theme heard in Officer on Deck.

Another highlight is the reverent and spiritually moving, The Peacock and the Crane.  Solemn, gentle voices harmonize perfectly with the gentle strains of the strings and cello creating one of the most beautiful pieces I have heard this year.  A great companion cue is Declaration with its distinctive, rhythmic piano and string montage that subtly inspires as it gradually rises in intensity.  The album offers several other pleasant, meditative pieces such as the piano driven James Buries His Friend with its pleasing acoustic guitar strumming, a fitting nod to Marc Shaiman's Semper Fidelis from A Few Good Men in Trying Ander's piano work, and the island flavor, flowing flute and plucking pizzicato of The Waterfall.  

The short duration of most of the action cues leaves little time for satisfying development.  However, combine Twelve Hours, Pilot Suite, Manila Rescue, Battling the USS Patrick Lawrence (is the clanging metal I hear in this cue from Duncan's subterranean percussion session?), Sam Attacks Booth, James Tells the Story, Get Out People Back, and the End Credits and you end up with a ballsy suite full of brawny percussion, spirited strings, electric guitar adornments, and synth beats.

Overall, Last Resort is an enjoyable listen particularly because the album program flows so well together.  Several highlights make it well worth the time to explore.  Some of the cues are also available to stream in full on  The score is available from Madison Gate Records only on iTunes.

Track Listing:
1. Fall of the Colorado* (3:53)
2. Pilot Suite (2:12)
3. Officer On Deck* (1:52)
4. Manila Rescue (1:23)
5. The Peacock and the Crane* (3:00)
6. Sam Attacks Booth (1:03)
7. Twelve Hours (2:41)
8. James Tells the Story (0:55)
9. Marcus Sees His Son (1:29)
10. The Waterfall (0:58)
11. Battling the USS Patrick Lawrence (2:19)
12. About Your Father (1:02)
13. Reluctant Fight (1:05)
14. Get Our People Back (1:14)
15. Declaration* (2:34)
16. Sam and Christine (1:00)
17. Time to Choose (1:25)
18. Ginger Candy (1:45)
19. Trying Anders (2:57)
20. James Buries His Friend (3:16)
21. The Cortez Threat (1:11)
22. Last Resort End Credits (0:33)

Total running time of score: 39:45
*ScoreCues 2013 Best Cues Nominee

Recording Percussion on a Submarine

Interviews (Jimmy Ryan)

Friday, October 4, 2013

Scoring the Hunt

by Travis Elder

The excellence of hunting cues must be an immutable law of musical scoring.  I thought this as I recently listened for the first time to Geoff Zanelli's excellent Hunting the Buffalo and started recalling several other impressive hunting cues.  Whether its the magnificent landscapes, the furious chase, or the power of the animal, hunts often inspire the composer's best.  Here are five amazing pieces highlighting the excitement and adrenaline rush of the hunt.

Hunting the Buffalo by Geoff Zanelli from Into the West.  This piece begins with slow, low strings joined by restrained, tapping percussion that sort of lurks and stalks belying the orchestral tempest about to be unleashed.  The percussion pauses and then ramps up in intensity until like a herd of buffalo the orchestra launches into an exhilarating and rousing stampede with drums pounding in tandem.  Mystical and dreamlike, woodwind flutes rising like spirits in the wind to provide a dreamy, spiritual epilogue.  Amazon | iTunes

Elk Hunt by Trevor Jones from The Last of the Mohicans.  A pulsing, but not overbearing beat launches the flight of the elk and continues in low, rumbling propulsion throughout.  The orchestra strings play the noble theme of the Mohican with a string counterpoint dancing in and out of trees, bounding over rocks, and flying lightning fast through the air. This legendary cue awaits discovery by a new generation.  Amazon | iTunes

The Buffalo Hunt (Film Version) by John Barry from Dances With Wolves.  The hunt begins with the slow beating, clarion call of the war drums.  A noble brass fanfare announces the majesticness of the countryside.  Enchanting voices urge onward.  The brass again retorts its anthem with strings spurring them on.  A rollicking celebration of the American West begins and continues with alternating string and brass fanfares each fighting for glorious ascendency.  The hunt never sounded more excitingly glorious.  Amazon | iTunes

Foxhunt by John Corigliano from Revolution.  Set during Revolutionary War America, this piece is the most philosophical of the bunch.  Rather than a real fox hunt, this cue follows two men forced to run for their lives from British soldiers with dogs in tow.  Brass, strings, and percussion playfully and energetically bandy about one another like a classical ballet.  This lighthearted orchestral chase continues until at 3:40 the strings begin playing a mournful lament that soon overtakes the sportive-toned pursuit with the dark tones of indignity.  Amazon | iTunes

The Hunt by John Williams from The Lost World: Jurassic Park.  Of the five cues this one is the most intense.  Of course, the prey here is a herd of several thousand pound dinosaurs and the take down weapon a tranquilizer cannon.  Williams brings to bear a no holds barred jungle percussion extravaganza with hurtling brass blasts and frenetic orchestra.  By the conclusion of such boisterous playing you can imagine a pall of smoke rising from the players instruments.  Simply outstanding, uproarious fun!  Amazon | iTunes

Related Articles on the Web
The Thrill of the Hunt by John Lochner

Monday, September 30, 2013

Gravity by Steven Price (2013)

Review by Travis Elder

The cold, dark vacuum of space takes center stage in Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity in perhaps a more realistic manner than ever before.  The movie stars Sandra Bullock as Dr. Ryan Stone, a brilliant medical engineer, but first time astronaut, who gets stranded in space with veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) after their shuttle is destroyed during a routine spacewalk.  With no sound in space this is where the creativity of Steven Price's score comes in providing both music and sound design.  In a day when sometimes one blockbuster score can be swapped for another this is not the case with Gravity's thoughtfully constructed score.

This becomes clear early with the spatial ruckus, Debris.  Price literally creates a harrowing orchestral and electronic debris field.  He does this by impacting and crashing together, up, and down, left, and right, fading, and echoing in organized chaos a dizzying number of elements into a tension filled maelstrom.  Synthetic, bassy zips, zaps, and crashes, get whipped around echoing whirs, unsettling wind effects, signal buzzing and beeps, crashes and barely recognizable strings.   Some may quickly discard this cue for its discordance.  And to be honest played at high levels this cue could be grounds for disorderly conduct.  However, Price's creativity in musically simulating the mayhem of a debris field in space is undeniable, refreshing, and undoubtedly ratchets up the onscreen intensity and fear ten fold.

Several other space connections wend their way throughout the score.  Shuttle engines effects build and wind up, sometimes as if roaring up for launch, sometimes grinding and petering out, and sometimes idling.  Even the vacuum of space gets utilized with the music seemingly getting gobbled up into disquieting, sudden, and stark silence (end of Debris, for example).  Muted, untuned in terrestrial signals create a subtle eeriness such as in the opening of ISS.  Thruster bursts become soft percussion in Parachute.  The flow, echo and swish of wind often provides ambient textures.

A glass harmonica.
Glogger / Foter / GNU Free Documentation License
To give the score an otherworldly feel Price uses a glass harmonica as well as individual, water filled glasses played beautifully by Alasdair Malloy.  Malloy's crystalline tones appear throughout the score including a movingly elegant performance in ISS and and another highlight performance in the climactic final cue, Gravity.  Really a beautiful instrument and a perfect choice for underscoring Gravity's off world story.

The tranquil vastness of space is represented in minimalist style with gentle, slow tempo piano in cues such as Airlock and Aurora Borealis.  Other cues in this same vein include the ambient and textural Aningaaq (Greenlandic mythology's name for the moon), the ethereal Soyuz, and the mysterious, glassy tones of ISS. Those who enjoy minimalist and texturally ambient works such as Cliff Martinez's Solaris, Brian Eno's Prophecy Theme from Dune, the works of Arvo Pärt such as Spiegel im Spiegel, and Henyrk Gorecki's dark and weighty Symphony of Sorrowful Songs (Symphony No. 3) will enjoy Price's entries in the genre.

Gravity's main theme first appears in Don't Let Go, played from 1:06 to 2:49, and again from 9:31 to 11:04, both times pensively by violin amidst glassy tones, Lisa Hannigan's haunting vocals, and other textures.  Far and away, the highlight performances of the theme come in the magnificent eleven-minute finale, Shenzou and Gravity.  Here the determination of the human spirit shines, through heavenly and powerfully delivered vocals and with the orchestra finally letting loose in triumphant, and chill-inducing harmony.  At 2:38 in the final cue, Gravity, a strumming anthem begins, gains in intensity, and is joined this time by Katherine Ellis's exultant strains before all the music gets sucked up into space's vacuum one last time.  A stellar end to the journey!

The score does get bogged down at times in dreary murkiness such as in The Void, Atlantis, and parts of Parachute perhaps playing to feelings of hopelessness arising from the characters' maroonment in space.  Gravity excels though in its meditative passages, the distinctive space personality imbued throughout, its shimmering glassy tonality, alluring vocals, and terrific finale.  This is not the kind of space score we are used to hearing, but that just may be the reason many will find it so alluring.  The score is available on disc and digitally from WaterTower Music. Amazon CD-R | Amazon MP3 | iTunes

Track Listing:
1. Above Earth (1:50)
2. Debris* (4:24)
3. The Void (6:15)
4. Atlantis (3:43)
5. Don’t Let Go (11:11)
6. Airlock (1:57)
7. ISS* (2:53)
8. Fire (2:57)
9. Parachute (7:40)
10. In the Blind (3:07)
11. Aurora Borealis (1:43)
12. Aningaaq (5:08)
13. Soyuz (1:42)
14. Tiangong (6:28)
15. Shenzou* (6:11)
16. Gravity* (4:35)

Total running time of score: 1:11:44
*ScoreCues 2013 Best Cues Nominee

Gravity on Spotify

Film Music Magazine (Daniel Schweiger)
THR (Alexa Girkout)
Huffington Post (Christopher Rosen) (Vic Barry)

Glass harmonica example:

Arvo Pärt's Spiegel im spiegel:

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Arrow by Blake Neely (2013)

Review by Travis Elder

Arrow is a dark, very turbulent score and that is not surprising considering Oliver Queen's dark persona.  Oliver (Stephen Amell) is marooned on an island for five years after a shipwreck that claims the lives of everyone on board including his father.  Before his death, Oliver's father urges him to right wrongs and injustices and return their home, Starling City, to its former glory.  After some harrowing and hardening experiences on the island including torture, Oliver finally gets away and returns to Starling City to fulfill his father's wishes.  By day Oliver maintains a billionaire, playboy persona.  By night he dons a dark hooded disguise and enforces vigilante justice with his weapon of choice, the arrow, like a modern-day Robin Hood.

Neely's score is dark and brooding, drawing inspiration from the scores of a similar DC Comics character, Hans Zimmer's Dark Knight trilogy.  But Neely's opus is no carbon copy of Zimmer's work.  Neely takes the style and creates his own fusion of traditional orchestra with a huge variety of percussion, both organic and synthetic, and an assortment of electronic sounds.  Particularly impressive is the array of percussion used in the action material including everything from taiko drums, bongos, steel drums, rock band percussion, clanging metal, and anvil strikes, to electronic bursts, pulses, riffs, and mechanical effects.

Arrow features a number of action highlights.  My favorite is the turbulent Chasing the Hood with its vigorous string rhythms, taiko drums, and synth blasts.  Taiko drums, percussion of Japanese origin, have become increasingly popular in scores and Neely's use compares well next to other favorites such as Bear McCreary's Storming New Caprica and Jason Graves Scaling the Ziggurat.  To get a flavor for the rough, gruff, and intense vigilante sound Neely creates try playing back to back Vigilante Justice, Chasing the Hood, Damaged, Train and Hunt, and Search for Salvation.  During the course of twelve minutes you will be taken on a thrill ride exploration of percussive explosions, pulses, blasts, a little hard core grunge, and energetic strings.

Arrow also has some tender, soft moments too.  The best of these is I Forgot Who I Was.  The cue begins softly and plays somewhat somberly until suddenly contrasted with the cello playing a beautifully lyrical melody starting at 2:32.  If you are like me, by the time the cue ends a minute and half later you will be wishing it lasted longer.

A highlight of the score including for those who watched the show is the montage that plays when Queen sets up his lair, during some of Queen's training sequences, and over the end credits.  While not a hummable theme, Setting Up The Lair develops guarded heroism with its driving and repetitive percussion and string rhythms that build on one another.  A good companion cue is the subtly valorous, The Dark Archer / It Is I Who Failed This City, which shares some of the same cautiously inspiring rhythms of Setting Up The Lair.

The score concludes with an extended, five-part traditional orchestral suite.  In between bookend performances of Queen's theme/montage is an almost epic, sweeping piece from 2:33 to 4:52 with strings playing off one another in a graceful, grandiose style.  After all the gritty, rough Vigilante sounds, the Oliver Queen Suite is a welcome reprieve and great way to end the album focusing on the nobler and more intimate sides of Queen's persona.

Exploring Blake Neely's Arrow is my first experience with both the composer and the series.  I went into it not knowing what to expect, but came away particularly impressed by Neely's adept and thoughtful construction of the details in his action material.  Arrow's darkness and its intense and sometimes zany, sometimes in your face synth effects may deter some.  Arrow's main theme may also frustrate others because it can seem like a prologue that really never lets loose.  However, repeated listens bring an appreciation of the composer's skillful fusion of orchestra, percussion, and synth effects and the emergence of a number of highlights that will likely keep you coming back for more whether you have seen Arrow or not.  The score is available on disc and digitally from WaterTower Music. Amazon CD-R | Amazon MP3 | iTunes

Track Listing:
1. Five Years (1:54)
2. Returning Home / Scars (2:53)
3. City In Ruin (1:20)
4. Setting Up The Lair* (2:27)
5. Loss And Regrets (2:38)
6. On The List (1:40)
7. Vigilante Justice (2:10)
8. Honor Thy Father (1:45)
9. Inhospitable Island / Deathstroke (2:09)
10. I Forgot Who I Was* (4:00)
11. Train And Hunt (2:38)
12. Betrayed By Those You Love (1:51)
13. Chasing The Hood* (2:28)
14. Damaged (1:39)
15. The Dark Archer / It Is I Who Failed This City* (3:31)
16. Working Together But Alone (1:53)
17. The Count (2:02)
18. Friends In Arms (2:36)
19. Trust But Verify (2:37)
20. Join Us (1:55)
21. Trusting A Friend, Saving An Enemy (1:57)
22. Sins Of The Father (1:27)
23. I Can't Lose You Twice (3:17)
24. Search For Salvation (3:29)
25. Shado Sees An Emerging Hero (1:57)
26. Unfinished Business / Saving Walter (2:29)
27. A Way Off The Island (2:15)
28 Sacrifice (4:52)
29. Oliver Queen Suite* (9:47)

Total running time of score: 1:17:36
*ScoreCues 2013 Best Cues Nominee

Recording session:

Examiner Interview: Interview

Composer's website: (lots of audio)

Spotify playlist: