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: “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.

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.