Soundtrack Month: “Breach” (Mychael Danna)

Breach is an understated gem, both as a movie and a score. While the film can be quite tense at times, its soundtrack mostly reflects the plotting, devious side of a spy gone awry. Mychael Danna is a master of methodical, swelling orchestral arrangements, foreboding harp introductions, and angsty piano solos (quite a lot in this case). A few pinches of tasteful programming keep the momentum going. What more do you really need for setting a sad mood?

 

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: “Dragon Age: Inquisition” (Trevor Morris)

Fantasy RPG games always run the risk of being too abstract or too dense to be approachable. Yet some well-wrought character development and a knockout soundtrack kept the world of Thedas grounded and more than a little palatable in this third installment. Trevor Morris (yes, his second appearance on this blog this month) managed to keep a balance between intrigue, excitement, and melancholy.  Too many “let’s go save the world with swords” stories go straight for the jugular and try to make every musical cue heavy and loud – in short, “action” music. That’s fine for combat sessions, but the calmer moments of landscape exploration or cinematic cutscenes need something a bit different. There are plenty of haunted but rational moments to mine from this lengthy album, to which I give a hearty bravo.

 

Soundtrack Month – “Skyrim Atmospheres” (Jeremy Soule)

How does one easily sum up a fantasy game world as expansive as The Elder Scrolls? You don’t. While the franchise was always known for a staggering (and occasionally unmanageable) amount of objectives, quests, and hidden surprises, Skyrim was especially praised for its landscapes and especially free-form world. Seven years after its initial release, it still garners praise, even with its amusing and often morbid bugs (including this one). Some people even turned to modern gaming specifically for the charms of this title, which allows your character to be anything from a stealthy assassin to a hopeless kleptomaniac to a noble fighter of dragons – or just an outdoorsy type on a hunting trip or alpine hike.

Jeremy Soule, the composer wiz behind several TES installments, went out with a bang on this one. The Skyrim soundtrack contains enough material to warrant 4 discs for its physical CD release. Why so many, you ask? I must assume that the developers expected – nay, demanded – that players wander and explore as much as quest. If you’re going to spend that much time in a game, you might as well have a healthy variety of music.

While the overall score’s sound is honestly a matter of taste (there are as many brassy or monotonous moments as there are heartfelt and melancholic ones), the Atmospheres portion is deliciously meandering and does indeed set the atmosphere. Numerous fans have used this 40-minute treat as a sleep, study, or meditation aid for years (I highly recommend playing some nature or rain sounds over it for that extra lulling touch). While the rest of the soundtrack needs whittling down for first-time listeners, every minute of Atmospheres is approachable without having a context first.

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.

John Williams – “Ollivander’s Wand Shop (Harry Gets His Wand)”

One of the most charming, exhilarating, and important moments in this classic movie was inexplicably shunned from the soundtrack release. In some ways, the mysteriousness oozing from this 2-minute track is better than the rest of the album combined. Just see for yourself…

Joseph Trapanese and M83 – “Waking Up”

While the growling brass at the beginning is irksome, this song unfolds into a fine, rhythmic meditation with plenty of driving strings but no jarring “adrenaline buzz” moments. Sometimes, you need a song that literally pushes you forward, and this one might just do the trick.

 

 

 

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).

Junkie XL – “Erudite Plan”

I think people are still a little puzzled why someone who can write a song like this would choose to go by a name as generic as Junkie XL. Nevertheless, the Divergent score has a number of solid ambient/atmospheric tracks with tight arrangements and graceful mixing, including this one.