Soundtrack Month: “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring [The Complete Recordings]” (Howard Shore

This probably appears to be an excessively obvious choice, but it’s still worth considering if you really haven’t listened to it yet.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy had some of the longest soundtracks in recent years. In an age when a 100-minute movie is considered long, only Bollywood soundtracks boast a longer average duration than those for LOTR. While the standard-length albums are a fair representation of the scores, there’s a great deal more to glean from this extended cut.

The Complete Recordings version of this soundtrack is notoriously difficult (and expensive) to obtain – not to mention the fact that it cannot be legally purchased as a download to date – but YouTube bootleggers have been universal in their belief to share a good score with the world…and they have a point. This might be the longest soundtrack you ever listen to, but it might also be one of the most worthwhile ones you find for a very long time.

One of the things that struck me about this score is how un-orchestral it can feel. Many soundtracks feel like they’re scrambling for arrangements that sound suitably sophisticated. Instead, this one just looks like music that happened to be recorded with an orchestra. Some of it would sound fantastic on a swarm of half-tuned ukuleles. It’s grand stuff but rarely grandiose. Considering the effort and scale involved to make such a soundtrack, everyone involved made it look incredibly easy in the finished product. You’re more likely to find restful moments than busy “adventure” ones. It’s sweeping but inviting. It’s exciting and awing without also being sugarcoated. It’s also 16 years old but still feels as fresh as morning dew.

If you can’t find something amid this huge landscape – foreboding choirs, thrumming double basses, noble horns – to spur on your writing and general creativity on, you might want to get your head examined.

 

Soundtrack Month: “Vikings: Season 2” (Trevor Morris)

Vikings is a fascinating, unsettling, and frequently brutal series, but it’s also bar none for strange atmospheres. The music is no exception. Trevor Morris (with more than a little help from some neopagan enthusiasts) mixed beat programming, ambient thoughts, and a variety of unique solo instruments together to get the mysterious cocktail that is Dark Age Scandinavia.

The thing that gets to me about this album isn’t so much a particular track or melody as the sheer seamlessness running through most of it. Since most of the tracks have similar or connected thoughts (not so much themes as vague framework), the shrill and jarring strains of a primitive bone horn are offset by the soothing low saw of a proto-hardinger fiddle and plenty of synthy drones.

It might or might not be for you, but it’s worth trying if you’re seeking something genuinely different.

 

 

 

 

Soundtrack Month: “Serenity” (David Newman)

Serenity was the sobering epilogue to Joss Whedon’s fun but short-lived Firefly TV series. The music is a bit more reflective than the show’s was, but it still has a decently gritty, spunky, and achingly melancholic Old West feeling. This one is perfect for those of you who want structure without excessive formality.

 

Soundtrack Month: “The Golden Compass” (Alexandre Desplat)

While The Golden Compass as a movie made some disruptive and dividing waves among viewers, the soundtrack is delightful. I don’t always understand Alexandre Desplat’s music (especially when  the moments in this score when an army of pianists play through a section at the same time – talk about organized chaos!), but the balance between classic epic excitement, tranquil afterthoughts, and evocations back to childhood is robust. You probably won’t like everything on the soundtrack (I don’t), but you ought to find at least one likeable track. For orchestra nerds, one highlight includes contributions from Skaila Kanga, a harpist of such a high caliber that her skills (and superb harp) have been used for sampling libraries around the world.

 

 

 

Soundtrack Month: “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” (Nicholas Hooper)

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince has a strange place in both the film  franchise and book series. Gone is the startled, biting darkness that Order of the Phoenix so masterfully covered. Harry and those around him are both grimly resolved to fight chaos and irrecoverably entrenched in teen angst. The movie’s overall vibe is dark meditation. The score is suitably textured and moody (it even resembles dark ambient at times), though it isn’t without a few witty bright spots. Choirs, very much in the back seat for Phoenix and even somewhat absent in Goblet of Fire, roared back with a vengeance in this score. Weeping strings pair well with angelic treble voices and tasteful percussive touches. If you want a good mope in full orchestral glory, go for this album.

Epic Trailer Album: “Magnus” (Audiomachine)

At the rate they generate new material, Audiomachine is, well, practically a machine. Their music is primarily used for advertising and movie trailers, but rumors abound that they have increasingly made more music for the sake of music since the epic trailer genre gained momentum several years ago. Their albums usually have plentiful tracks – which does, of course, mean that some are duds if you look hard enough. However, given the typical price of an album (often under $10 for 60-80 minutes of music), it’s usually worth trying out.

Magnus has a distinctly dark vibe throughout. The percussion is tight, the choral sampling is tasteful, and the countermelodies and general use of counterpoint are delicious (especially on cuts like “Momentum”). Thoughtful quieter moments (the cello solo in “Wars of Faith” and the piano introduction in “The Final Hour”) allow for a little much-needed breathing space. Some songs aren’t memorable on the first listen, but almost everything is likeable on some level. More importantly, it is my belief that every track is eventually useful in some capacity or other.

If you want tense battle music or dramatic but broody fare, this is a fine choice. My only possible complaint is the heavy use of brass and somewhat over-the-top strings in certain spots, which make some tracks feel vaguely like excerpts from a Wagner opera. Luckily, this isn’t a consistent feature from start to finish, so you can avoid the most bombastic moments fairly easily (if you want to).

Game soundtrack: “Halo 3: ODST” (Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori)

For an inexplicable reason, many soundtracks in shooter games of the last decade have either leaned into strong rock sound or thoughtful, delicate, semi-choral, rather ambient ones. ODST somehow merges the two. While not without harsh rocker moments, it’s mostly a gorgeous and meandering playlist full of excellent harmonies, sweet piano solos, and gentle but driven programmed beats.

I’m not against programming and beats, but if it does appear in my music, it better have a plan. This soundtrack does. Rather than overwhelming you with extra noise or distraction, it adds to the desired tone. Broody, dark, thoughtful, and somewhat noir thoughts abound. Above all, most of the tracks are on the quiet side or else are tastefully restrained. This music seems too organized and layered to strictly (and exclusively) be “ambient,” but the effect is rather similar. You might not remember many melodies on the first listen, but you might remember the frame of mind that formed when you heard it.

One of the most striking things about this soundtrack is its impressively light tough with the brass section. Plenty of composers (for both games and movies) seem to only understand action if it’s aided by huge swells of obnoxious, rhythmic horns. That doubtless has its place for creating mood, but when it’s the only lively feature in a score, it’s downright lazy. ODST avoids that trap nicely, instead favoring tense string phrases and pleading piano moments. To add some momentum, carefully-calculated percussion lines were interspersed (ranging from timpani and quiet hand drums to more orthodox drum kit loops, though never overpowering the rest of the music in the process).

These songs are structured as suites (so almost all of them are at least 5 minutes long). They often have separate thoughts grouped together, but with minimal editing skills and a basic audio program, you can isolate certain phrases separately if you so desire (that was a hint to people who obsessively use the infinite repeat button, myself included).

This album has enough going on for you to hover between paying attention to your music and your work. It might be too exciting to meditate to, but it could well set the mood for the whole day if you prefer slick, tense, somewhat programmed albums.

It is happily available both digitally and on physical CD (although you’ll have to scrounge a little bit to find it on disc).

Game soundtrack: Myst III – Exile (Jack Wall)

Retro game vibes with heart…

The Myst franchise, though not as earth-shattering as other series, revolutionized gaming as the industry tried to reach new heights of technology and imagination. Myst completely ignored several major trends of the day. There were very few characters to interact with (no threat of death and no violence whatsoever, at least in the first few installments). The vibe was sci-fi yet largely timeless. Today, only the graphics therein look truly dated; the story could be set in the near future or in several thousand years.  There are, in fact, so many details in the programming that the games were actually regarded as a major proponent of the CD-ROM concept. Though frequently criticized for its excessively difficult puzzles and mini-games (it does take many hours – I’ve tried!), the series was universally praised for two things: its open-world nature and its music.

Exile was somewhat bold in that it broke away from the series’ synthy, programmed, and occasionally bizarre music by hiring on Jack Wall and introducing a much more cinematic mood. Some game fans berated this choice, but I’m not one of them. This music is 16 years old and still sounds pretty darn good considering it’s a hybrid of orchestral, vocal, and electronic music. 

These tracks are often ambient (as befits the vague and alien mystery in the games), but they have tinges of acute emotions and slick instrumentations. This makes them not only more memorable but also more enjoyable. Pair this with some decent choral touches and the occasional ethnic instrument (notably the duduk or something quite similar to it) and you have an interesting and moody album on your hands.

Some songs are beat-driven (“Theme from Voltaic” and “Theme from Edanna”) while others are purely orchestrated (“He Sees Hope” and “The Tide Has Turned”). Weirdly, these differences usually make sense as a whole. Quite a lot of tracks were at least partially recorded with live instruments (this was probably noteworthy for the era), including the orchestral portions. Thank goodness, because very little music software of 2001 could make listenable sounds (I suspect but can’t prove that this was part of the reason for using catchy jingles and cues so often in early games).

Though this soundtrack has fairly diverse emotions throughout, there’s nothing truly mundane or depressing here (although I strongly recommend skipping the title song, which is a bit of a hot mess). It ought to get you focused without actually being over-critical of your work.

This album is available via download and CD.

Game Soundtracks: Fallout 4 (Inon Zur)

A thoughtful fix for the post-apocalyptic among us…

For those who don’t know, Fallout 4 is set in a futuristic, post-nuclear wasteland populated by bandits, addicts, robots, giant cockroaches, and two-headed cows. Blasted landscapes are contrasted by oddly 1950s-style buildings and signs. It is largely a combat game, and player weapon choices range from Molotov cocktails to laser rifles. But enough about that…

Inon Zur has been a titan in gaming music for many years. He’s one of the grand chameleons of scoring and can generate conventional orchestral cues as easily as more modern sounds. This soundtrack blends both without trying to sound pretentious in either direction.

If you haven’t played a Fallout game before, you’d assume (not unreasonably) that the musical soundscape for a post-nuclear combat game would be jagged, erratic, or rocker/metal in nature. Plenty of FPS (first person shooter) games are, but listeners should be pleasantly surprised at how much time in the soundtrack is instead devoted to gentle, methodical moments.

Since a lot of the time in this game (as far as I can tell from watching playthroughs) is spent on casual wandering amid ruined suburbs and crumbling cities, the music also needed to be suitably wandering. Atmospheric music (again, for those who don’t know) is all about setting a tone. It typically doesn’t have a memorable melody and sometimes doesn’t even have memorable instrumentation. In many cases, the point is only to sharpen your attention for a particular moment. Many times, this type of music is lambasted for being too submissive (i.e. background noise), but I don’t consider this a bad thing if it aids my focus and keeps me going through a long editing chunk.

This soundtrack is essentially “orchestral atmospheric.” My first impression was that half of the orchestra was wiped out by a nuclear blast and Zur was left to craft what he could with the remaining members. That being said, these sparse arrangements are still very fine. Pulsing, ominous chords pair well with delicate cello wails and tense or bittersweet piano riffs. You will also find masterful uses of silence and pauses. This last detail might baffle some of you, but silence is actually a very powerful tool in composing.

There are admittedly some discordant moments (a screeching violin here or an inexplicable blast from the brass section there). There’s a fairly sharp divide between combat music and ambient wandering music, which some people might actually appreciate since it’s easy to trim the bouncier, brasher tracks out if desired (not that they don’t have their uses, but I suspect that very few people listen to this album to remind themselves of fighting sequences in the game). If you only queue up the quieter tracks – I usually do –  you’ll still have a robust playlist to work with.

At $16, this is one of the more expensive offerings on iTunes (at least among albums not claiming to be “box sets”). Individually, the tracks are $.99 each. It’s possible that you’ll only find 14-15 songs that really take your fancy and can somehow obtain a nice helping of music without hitting the $16 mark. Having said that, if you get the point of this music at all, you’ll probably have trouble choosing which ones to pluck out because this album has a meaty 65 tracks.

To the best of my knowledge, it is only available as a full album on iTunes at this time.