Saturday, August 16, 2014

How to Train Your Dragon 2 by John Powell (2014)

Review by Travis Elder

Purchase on Amazon CD | MP3 | iTunes

With out a doubt my favorite score of 2010 was John Powell's How to Train Your Dragon.  The first film is about a young boy, Hiccup, who lives in a Viking village beset by dragon attacks.  The leader of the town and Hiccup's father is bent on destroying the dragons once and for all.  In a twist of fate, Hiccup ends up befriending a dragon, Toothless, and along the way helps his father and his people to turn dragons from foes to friends.  John Powell's score is one of the first film's most memorable characters with its adventurous main theme, rousing action sequences, and tender romantic passages that make your heart melt.  How to Train Your Dragon 2 is no mere rehash.  While all the familiar themes from the first film are present they come with fresh twists and turns, but we also get two new strong themes: one for Hiccup’s mother, Valka, and another for the menacing foe, Drago.

Valka’s Theme is introduced ever so gently in Together We Map the World with plucking harp followed by tender orchestra and flute performances.  By the end of the cue the new theme is beautifully paired with the marimba and xylophone motif used in Forbidden Friendship from the original score.  Herein lies one of the score’s strengths because Powell takes the new themes and places them with orchestrations applied to his original themes creating a pleasing fusion that reminds of the old while giving variety to the new.  Part of the fun of the score is also hearing how masterfully Valka’s Theme and the other themes are varied and adapted throughout the score to fit different contexts.  For example, we get a spiritually moving performance of Valka’s Theme in Losing Mom/Meet the Good Alpha with angelic, booming chorus followed by tender piano.  This performance is reprised wonderfully in Two New Alphas from 2:55 to 3:53.   Next, in Flying With Mother we hear a whimsical flight of fancy, this time with the chorus singing the theme in a delightful and celebratory tone.  This excellent concert-worthy piece finds good company with highlights from the first score such as Forbidden Friendship and Test Drive.

Drago's theme is highlighted in Meet Drago and often features a male choir that lends a larger than life feel to Drago.  Like Valka's theme Drago's theme goes through several different variations.  As Meet Drago begins the theme conveys an eerie sneakiness, but by the end of the piece becomes more foreboding with its militaristic marching and booming chorus.  Without a doubt, however, the best performance of the the theme occurs in Battle of the Bewilderbeast.  From 4:22 to 4:44, the ears are awestruck by a crescendo of thundering male chorus answered by a retorting female chorus, clanging metal, emphatic percussion, and swelling orchestra.  The closest comparison I could make here is an epic sound similar to some of the thunderous passages of choral excellence in Jerry Goldsmith's Omen.  My only complaint is this short tease longs for a more extended performance.

As with the last score we are treated to lots of action music, but none is more cohesive or more satisfying than the previously mentioned, Battle of the Bewilderbeast.  In fact, this cue represents one of the best action pieces of John Powell's career.  Not only does it contain the best performance of Drago's theme, but features a whirlwind of satisfying variations of the original themes woven together in seamless perfection.  Starting at 5:05 the piece also concludes with one of my favorite performances of Hiccup's theme with a rousing and triumphant marching fanfare.

The sequel album benefits by a more balanced presentation of action verses more gentle and quiet moments.  The highlight of the latter include the touching and reverent duo, Stoick Saves Hiccup and Stoick's Ship.  Stoick Saves Hiccup features a gentle performance of Valka's Theme, before becoming more noble with soul stirring female choir at 1:33.  Stoick's Ship begins with quiet harp and soft female chorus that escalates to triumphant chorus backed by bagpipes.  The last third of the cue features a beautiful flute playing Valka's Theme and concludes with a reverent trumpet playing Hiccup's Theme.  

The score for How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a resounding delight.  More could be written about the excellence of this score, but if you have read this far, stop now and go listen to and appreciate for yourself one of the finest scores to come out this year or any year.

1. Dragon Racing (4:34) *
2. Together We Map The World (2:19)
3. Hiccup The Chief – Drago’s Coming (4:44)
4. Toothless Lost (3:28)
5. Should I Know You (1:56)
6. Valka’s Dragon Sanctuary (3:19)
7. Losing Mom – Meet The Good Alpha (3:24)
8. Meet Drago (4:26)
9. Stoick Finds Beauty (2:33)
10. Flying With Mother (2:49) *
11. For The Dancing And The Dreaming – Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson & Mary Jane Wells (3:06)
12. Battle Of The Bewilderbeast (6:26) *
13. Hiccup Confronts Drago (4:06)
14. Stoick Saves Hiccup (2:23) *
15. Stoick’s Ship (3:48) *
16. Alpha Comes To Berk (2:20)
17. Toothless Found (3:46)
18. Two New Alphas (6:06)
19. Where No One Goes РJónsi (2:44)

Total Running Time: 68 minutes
*ScoreCues 2014 Best Cues Nominee

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Railway Man by David Hirschfelder (2014)

Review by Travis Elder

The Railway Man soundtrack album cover
Purchase on Amazon CD | Amazon MP3 | iTunes
Best Cues of 2014 Nominees:
19. Maybe We Both Lived For This Day - Amazon MP3 | iTunes
20. The Railway Man – Closing Suite  - Amazon MP3 | iTunes

David Hirschfelder’s score for the World War II biopic, The Railway Man, takes us on a spiritual, sometimes emotionally traumatic journey with Lt. Eric Lomax, his suffering as a POW and ultimate catharsis in confronting his Japanese torturer years later.  Lomax, along with about 80,000 others, became POWs after the devastating surrender of the British to the Japanese at the Battle of Singapore in 1942.  Forced to work on the Siam-Burma Railway, also known as the death railway because thousands died in its construction, Lomax sought hope in the news stories of the war’s progress over a radio he secretly built.  When his Japanese captor discovered the radio he brutalized and tortured Lomax.  After his release from captivity Lomax continued to suffer emotional trauma from his terrorizing experiences resulting in disruption to his personal relationships.  Years later when he unexpectedly gets to meet with his former tormentor face to face at the site of his ordeal Lomax discovers forgiveness in his heart where he expected only hate to continue.

Although I have not seen the movie, I feel like I have experienced Lt. Lomax’s journey because Hirschfelder pairs his music so carefully to Lomax's experiences giving each cue a distinctive personality.  For example, Japanese flavor is infused throughout the score through the use of various Japanese percussion instruments such as the booming taiko drums in the Fall of the British Empire.  The train itself gets a musical interpretation with fast-paced, chugging drums in His Whole Life Has Been Trains.  A brief, sinister sounding theme played by solo cello, introduced in the Opening Titles (1:05-1:54) and appearing in What Do You Think, Eric? and The Home Coming perhaps symbolizes the horrors of war.

The most dominant personality of the score is the music associated with Lomax's torture and suffering as a POW.  Approaching the task of providing musical accompaniment to scenes of gross inhumanity no doubt presented a daunting task.  Torture is so completely foreign to most everyone's sense of humanity, decency, and experience.  Appropriately then Hirschfelder creates a very foreign, primitive, and primordial sounding mixture of various chimes, gongs, unsettling tones, and a dark and dissonant orchestra that sounds just as foreign to the ear as it is to see one person treat another so brutally.  What Do You Think, Eric?, The Death Railway, and The Bad Things We Do are among the cues highlighting this sound.  At times the music becomes frightening such as the chilling music in The Drowning Room, which accompanies a terrifying water boarding torture scene.  This music is not easy listening, but then it was not meant to be.  Torture is harsh and brutal and the score reflects that reality.

The heart of the story, Lt. Lomax's journey to make peace with the past that has tormented his days ever since, is given a bittersweet theme, first introduced in Opening Titles (:21-1:00).  The theme appears sparingly until the end of the film when Lt. Lomax unexpectedly gets to confront his former Japanese torturer in Maybe We Both Lived For This Day.  The theme represents Lt. Lomax's cathartic release of hate and bitterness, but given the tragedy of his experiences the theme never swells with sappy romanticism.  Instead it appropriately remains poignant in its melancholy restraint.  The best performance of Lomax's theme occurs in the album's highlight, The Railway Man Closing Suite.  The suite is a compilation of several earlier cues including a plaintive, but beautiful shakuhachi flute treatment of the main theme in The War Graves alternated with full performances of the theme by the orchestra, a mournful adagio performed by the Liberis children's choir in The Bravest Thing I've Ever Seen,  and the moving first half of The Home Coming.  It is truly unfortunate that more scores these days do not offer a suite like this that so perfectly sums up some of the most memorable parts of the score.

The strength of The Railway Man is its strong, dynamic narrative and its moving main theme, both of which are appreciated even more with repeated listens.  It is obvious the composer put a lot of thought into each cue.  I really like how well Japanese elements are integrated into the score and I appreciated Hirschfelder's attention to detail such as his musical interpretation of a moving train.  While I may not return often to the parts of the score dealing with Lt. Lomax's torture, it is because of those passages that I will savor the score's emotional finale even more.  With all its horrors and triumphs, World War II is something the world must continue to remember and understand.  David Hirschfelder's score for The Railway Man helps us to do just that and for that reason among others is well worth the time and effort to explore and appreciate.

Track Listing:
1. The Railway Man — Opening Titles (2:41)
2. Brief Encounter (3:52)
3. The General Idea (2:40)
4. Fall Of The British Empire (2:12)
5. What Do You Think, Eric? (4:18)
6. His Whole Life Has Been Trains (3:41)
7. Building The Radio (1:57)
8. Discovering The Radio (1:19)
9. Axis Forces In Full Retreat (2:30)
10. The Bravest Thing I’ve Ever Seen (3:05)
11. The Death Railway (5:24)
12. I’m Going To Send Him A Message (2:31)
13. Bamboo Cages (1:27)
14. At The Beginning Of Time (2:19)
15. The War Graves (:47)
16. The Bad Things We Did (2:17)
17. The Drowning Room (2:24)
18. The Home Coming (4:32)
19. Maybe We Both Lived For This Day (6:55)*
20. The Railway Man — Closing Suite (9:22)*

Total running time of score: 1:06:08
*ScoreCues 2014 Best Cues Nominee

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

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