Score Reviews

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From Dusk Till Dawn: Season 3 by Carl Thiel (Review)

posted Feb 17, 2017, 11:35 AM by Kaya Savas

Robert Rodriguez’s television reimagining of his popular film From Dusk Till Dawn continues into its third season with Carl Thiel at the helm of the score. Carl’s close bond with Robert has made him such an integral part of the show’s sound even though Robert Rodriguez himself has his own musical aesthetic. While I love Robert Rodriguez as a musician and a composer on all his classic films, it was great that he put his trust in Carl here to give From Dusk Till Dawn its own unique sound. Don’t worry, Robert Rodriguez still contributes a few pieces here and there like the awesome track “Santanico’s Fight Club”, but the heart of the characters, genre homages and intricate storytelling talents lie in Carl’s strong third season score.

The approach for the series definitely embraces its horror roots but still gives it this western edge like the movie did. In its third season we see lots of strong moments that are created using rhythmic builds and cool textures. And before you go “Oh, so just atmospheric builds?”, the score packs a wallop on you with something like “Olmeca”. Certain tracks go really big, get the choir in there and really make you feel like you’re absorbed in the vampire world. It’s a gothic horror score that will entertain from start to finish, nothing is terribly scary per se but it can get chilling here and there. And that’s fine, because From Dusk Till Dawn isn't setting out to startle and jump scare you. This is pure pulp entertainment designed to absorb and entertain.

Carl Thiel has given From Dusk Till Dawn a fantastic new identity in the three seasons the show has been on the air. While the future of the series is still uncertain, at least we have some supremely entertaining gothic horror scoring with a western twist that will live on. Robert Rodriguez entrusted the series sound with Carl, and he was able to give From Dusk Till Dawn a fresh sound that felt of the genre but also made it feel unique to the world of the story. Season 3 has some really fun big moments, but also shows off those wonderful textural builds that Carl Thiel does so well. Plus a few Robert Rodriguez tracks for good measure make for a fun time.

The Teller And The Truth by Carl Thiel (Review)

posted Feb 17, 2017, 11:30 AM by Kaya Savas

The Teller And The Truth is a small indie film that is a fictional story “based on true stories”, presented in the style of a documentary. It’s a complicated narrative structure that benefits largely from Carl Thiel’s beautiful and haunting score.

The plot revolves around a missing woman, whose car was found submerged and it focuses on the effect of the disappearance on the townspeople. We learn more and more about the character as told in flashback reenactments as well as the modern day interviews. Carl Thiel’s score doesn't take a documentary approach, and in fact infused a lush and hauntingly beautiful overtone to the whole story. The music has a sense of romanticism but is also intriguing in the mystery it paints. There are some great moments of tension and suspense that almost makes it feel like modern noir. The score builds to some incredibly big moments that truly wash over you and leave a lasting impact. If there is a drawback it’s that the score is way more thought out than the picture is. So in the context of the film, the music can seem extremely big for this indie film’s aspirations. What keeps it all together is the great structure and approach of taking the audience on a journey.

There Teller And The Truth is such a strong effort from Carl Thiel that it’s worth experiencing in all its glory. The score is so well executed and grabs you for the entirety of the story as it tries desperately to give structure to the choppy narrative of this faux documentary. There are some surprisingly grandiose moments and emotions here, and the closing song is a wonderful cap to this seductive and haunting story. While Carl is mostly known for his work with Robert Rodriguez, this shows his talents on a different spectrum of utilizing lush orchestral textures to tell a story worth listening to.

Moonlight by Nicholas Britell (Review)

posted Feb 8, 2017, 12:24 PM by Michael Hollands

The Academy Awards are around the corner and the film Moonlight appears to be one of the top contenders with a total of eight nominations including one in the Best Picture category. Judging from what I have heard so far, this film seems to be one of the very best of 2016 and it already won the Golden Globe for Best Picture. In addition to the nominations in the categories such as Best Picture and Best Director, composer Nicholas Britell has also been added to the list of nominees. As I mentioned a short while ago, awards are by no means indicative of quality and there is simply no accounting for taste. Over the years, the Best Score category has seen many surprises. Many people have debated over and over again whether certain scores actually deserved a nomination or not. In my humble opinion, many scores in this very category were not Academy Award material and several decisions that have been made were questionable at best.

Moonlight  might just be one of those scores that have been nominated since the film itself has received high praise and to be absolutely honest, I simply don't believe this is one of the best scores of the year. There have been simply too many other worthy contenders that were completely ignored. Brilliant scores written for films which did not receive mainly positive reactions by critics. Moonlight is by no means a bad score. There is some potential for sure. Yet, the music simply feels "incoherent" and "undeveloped". The album presentation as a whole is underwhelming. In total there are twenty-one tracks on this release. Seventeen pieces written by Mr. Britell and three songs plus one classical piece of music which was conducted by Britell for this picture. The score starts off with “Little's Theme” and it is basically one of the central themes written for piano and the violin. It is a very brief cue and as a matter of fact, most cues on the album are rather short. The only "big" piece is the “End Credits Suite” which reprises the principal themes.

The mood of the entire score is pretty dark and sad, with the occasional "experimental" musical approach. Like I said before, this is not a bad score. It simply feels too short. There is clearly something missing. Bottom line: the score feels rather uninteresting. Since I have not seen the film yet, I cannot judge the score's impact when it is put up against the picture. Furthermore, I cannot determine yet whether this film might have required a different musical approach. At the moment, I am simply reviewing the album.

“The Middle Of The World” is one of those cues that are very good and impactful. The violin playing is gorgeous and the motif is one of the album's very best. If only there were more pieces of this kind. This is a very effective piece of music. Some cues rely more on moody underscoring than on melody. There must of course be a reason for this approach and I am sure Mr. Britell simply did what he was asked to do and what he thought was right for the picture. Yet, when you have to review an album and the listening experience as a whole, you get to see a very different side of a score. This might be the right approach for the film and it might support the images. However, as an album I find it rather lackluster.

A Cure For Wellness by Benjamin Wallfisch (Review)

posted Feb 7, 2017, 12:42 PM by Kaya Savas

Gore Verbinski rises from the ashes after the downfall of The Lone Ranger, a film that lost Disney $250 million and helped end the partnership between Disney and Jerry Bruckheimer. As a rare fan of The Lone Ranger (both film and score), it’s always exciting to see one of the few remaining auteur directors out there explore unique territory. It doesn't get more unique than A Cure For Wellness, a story about a young executive sent to a strange rehab center in the Swiss Alps only to discover something more sinister going on to keep patients checked in and desiring a cure for a mysterious illness.

Benjamin Wallfisch provides an absolutely rich and haunting score here anchored by a powerful central theme that is woven throughout. Many people may ask though, what happened to Hans Zimmer? It is true, this will be the first Verbinski film not scored by Hans since Gore’s first two films with Alan Silvestri. The reason being simply scheduling, and not the “Alexandre Desplat couldn’t score Rogue One because of a scheduling conflict” but a real scheduling conflict. Hans’ tour last year made it impossible for him to be a part of the film, but you don’t have to worry one bit. Wallfisch’s score here is fantastic.

Benjamin worked out much of the score before production and took the ideas communicated by Gore and turned them into a haunting lullaby that gently rocks us into a state of hypnosis. That is before turning things on their side and really giving us a good psychological shakedown. The score does mimic a sickness taking over; pleasing melodic material slowly breaks down into more suspense inducing builds before finally dissolving into hair-raising ambient shock. The structure of a waltz is used to add a sense of disorientation, making it feel like you're not sure which way is up or down. The use of lullabies in horror/thriller scores is nothing new, and successful attempts have been made with scores like Pan’s Labyrinth or The Ring. However there is a distinct difference between using a lullaby structure to connect to a character or aid the narrative versus a lullaby just to be creepy. Thankfully filmmakers like Guillermo Del Toro and Gore Verbinski actually know how to properly use a lullaby to help the story, and the way Wallfisch executes everything here musically is simply thrilling. Our waltzy main theme bookends the score for a chilling conclusion to the whole plunge into darkness. The music almost whimpers one last breath of air before falling silent.

A Cure For Wellness is a fantastic psychological thriller score from Benjamin Wallfisch who really got to flex his narrative skills here. While the horror/thriller genre is nothing new for Benjamin, this is probably his most wonderfully executed score in the genre. The calming yet chilling main theme that evolves throughout and also bookends the score helps us as listeners go on this dark journey. We are lured into the darkness and then grabbed by our shoulders suddenly as you struggle to break free. The music paints a strong narrative and keeps its shape all the way through to the end. The score's success is due to the strong voice and talents of the composer behind it, and it brings Gore Verbinski’s dark little story to vivid life.

The Lego Batman Movie by Lorne Balfe (Review)

posted Feb 7, 2017, 12:42 PM by Kaya Savas

The Lego Batman Movie arrives on the heels of the very successful The Lego Movie, which also featured our titular hero. The Lego Batman Movie is in a sense a spoofing of Batman and superhero films overall while also delivering its own fun take in the Batman franchise, and has come at a perfect time. A time where DC and Marvel films are as stale and cliched as they come. The Lego Batman Movie finds its wit, charm and soul in Lorne Balfe’s fantastic score. A wonderful and extremely entertaining score that helps the world come alive and helps the humor hit every beat. The problem with The Lego Movie was that it was sincerely sensory overload, and thankfully here that is no longer the case. Lorne’s score is bold and welcomingly over the top when it needs to be, but fills the cup perfectly to the rim without spilling overboard.

The best part about the approach here is that the score never feels goofy or ridiculous, it matches the mentality and tone of this incarnation of Batman wonderfully. The score is both a love-letter to the character/genre without resorting to too on the nose references (just a few here and there), somewhat similar to how the scores for other satires like Airplane and The Naked Gun were approached. Lorne does make it his own though and doesn’t make this Batman score sound like it was cut from the same cloth as others. In fact, this score really does a great job of standing on its own and creating its own identity. There is a bit of rock-n-roll infused in the DNA of the music that makes it energetic and fun through percussion and rhythms. While the musical narrative has no issue reaching a certain level of scope to make you really feel what’s at stake, it’s also limited in its emotional reach given what the film is. But make no mistake, Lorne makes up for that by providing some thrilling action sequences that are impressively structured. Just because this is an animated comedy doesn't mean the music lacks those chilling moments of heroism. Lorne gets to score some impressive sequences, and we get some beefy tracks to enjoy and appreciate the skill applied to structuring something like the nearly 8-minute long “Lava Attack”. In the end, you feel satisfied with your meal, never feeling like you’ve overeaten.

Lorne Balfe’s The Lego Batman Movie is pure fun from start to finish. We get a grand heaping of score that entertains, brings the characters to life, makes the world feel vivid, and thrills us with some impressive action sequences. The rock-n-roll DNA of the music’s style helps keep things energetic and propulsive, but we do get some grandiose moments of heroism as well. The music doesn't merely exist just to help the film lampoon cliches of Batman and superhero films, it actually fleshes out the characters and provides a well-structured narrative that stands on its own. It also does all this while sharing space with lots of songs. This is another solid and quality effort from the always versatile Lorne Balfe.

Westworld: Season 1 by Ramin Djawadi (Review)

posted Feb 7, 2017, 12:42 PM by Kaya Savas

Ramin Djawadi continues to dominate television with his score for HBO’s Westworld, which is a modern adaptation of the 1973 film written and directed by Michael Crichton. The original film had a sequel called Futureworld and then a short-lived TV series called Beyond Westworld. This adaptation comes to us from Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, who have given it the edge of sex and violence that seduces us so well. Ramin came onboard to score the show after Jonathan Nolan met him on Batman Begins, and Ramin’s score for Game Of Thrones only fueled Nolan’s wish to work with Ramin. Ramin delivers a wonderfully intricate, interesting and engaging score to the sci-fi series that is haunting yet resonating.

With a main title sequence like Game Of Thrones under his belt, I think people were interested to see if Ramin could replicate the magic. He does indeed. The haunting yet exquisite opening features a player piano echoing the tune played across images of hosts being created. The score fleshes out the series in interesting ways, one of them being that it never becomes a “western” score. It was easy to expect some kind of western styled approach, but it’s almost a relief that Ramin didn’t have to resort to knocking of Morricone to capture the fantasy world of the titular park where the rich come to play out their wildest dreams. A few motifs help anchor the score and make the narrative of the season easy to get lost in. The main purpose of the music is definitely to create that heightened curiosity and intrigue. Things feel kind of off-kilter and you know something is building. That was indeed an interesting aspect of the music here. It almost felt like the score already knew all the twists and turns, but it didn't want to tell you. It was more or less teasing you with the promise of reveals. That ability to pique the audiences curiosity like that via the score was very impressive. 

Another big section of the show’s music is of course all the references to classic songs. This device was used to remind the audience that this world wasn't real. The player piano in the saloon would normally be playing a rendition of a familiar tune like "House Of The Rising Sun". That familiar tune was designing to pull you immediately out of the scene, and does exactly that. You’d be lost in the dialogue between two characters and go “hey! that sounds familiar!”. Also lets not forget the amazing orchestral arrangement for “Paint It Black”, which concluded an early episode. Overall the season’s score was wonderfully unique, encapsulating and drove the narrative without being too overbearing.

If Game Of Thrones wasn’t proof enough of Ramin’s talents as a TV series composer, then Westworld should seal the deal. Westworld’s ability to hook the audience via certain motifs and take us on a mystery that slowly unravels itself is a real testament to how music was utilized in this series. The music is of Djawadi’s style, but also touches on the synthetic western setting of the park our main characters inhabit. In the end, Westworld never feels like it has been “inspired” by anything. The music feels unique in its own voice, and it's one entertaining and intriguing score that keeps calling to lure you back.

xXx: Return Of Xander Cage by Brian Tyler & Robert Lydecker (Review)

posted Feb 7, 2017, 3:27 AM by Leo Mayr

xXx: Return Of Xander Cage
 sees Brian Tyler reunite with director D. J. Caruso, having previously worked together on last year's The Disappointments Room. Tyler's long time collaborator Robert Lydecker has been given co-composing credit this time around, yet there's no way for me to tell who did what. And considering it's all one score, that's generally a good thing. The film is a collection of mindless, over the top action scenes and boring expositional dialogue, yet while the film's plot is about as dull as it can get, the action scenes did manage to entertain me enough to justify the cinema visit. Part of that is due to the entertaining action score.

The film seems to have been made to look as 'cool' as humanly possible, so Tyler utilizing his EDM alter ego for two original Madsonik songs (including the spectacular "Divebomb") makes perfect sense here. The inclusion of electronics into the score was practically guaranteed, yet you might be surprised by the amount of orchestral music in the score. The score opens with its main theme that does a nice job at setting the stage for the action that follows. While the theme does contain orchestral stylings, its core is made from electronic textures. Surprisingly enough, the film actually opens with a main title sequence, forcing unsuspecting cinemagoers to listen to the main theme in all its glory.

The very nature of the film leaves hardly any room for emotional music or even musical storytelling, so the vast majority of the score consists of varying forms of loud action. The score is loud and intense, even rivalling some of Tyler's work on the Fast And Furious series, and the main theme is used effectively throughout. The balance between electronics and orchestral music is handled perfectly, delivering a lot of fun moments. The action music works well as driving force behind the onscreen mayhem and never really repeats itself throughout the film. The electronics do their part of sounding 'cool' while the orchestral parts propel the action music. The music is covered in Tyler's handwriting throughout, yet also manages to bring something new to the table. While there really isn't a whole lot of emotional depth or musical storytelling to be found, Tyler and Lydecker managed to create an engaging and entertaining action score that greatly enhances the somewhat silly action scenes.

xXx: Return Of Xander Cage by far isn't a great film, but if you don't expect much, it might still be somewhat entertaining. What the film lacks in character development it makes up for in action. Brian Tyler and Robert Lydecker deliver an almost non-stop action score perfectly fitting the film's insane stunts. While it's not a masterpiece of musical storytelling, the relentless action should delight any Tyler fan out there.

Underworld: Blood Wars by Michael Wandmacher (Review)

posted Feb 7, 2017, 3:24 AM by Leo Mayr

The Underworld series just keeps coming back for more. Despite recieving mostly negative reviews, the films somehow managed to make enough money to warrant sequel after sequel. After some solid scores by Paul Haslinger and Marco Beltrami, Michael Wandmacher was brought on to do the fifth installment.

While the film seems to be yet another attempt at milking every last penny from the franchise, Michael Wandmacher does his best to make the film somewhat entertaining. Wandmacher's score is dark and relies mostly on orchestral sounds with a handful of electronic textures throughout. Pretty much the standard nowadays. The score spends a good amount of time with dark, almost ambient sounds that, while working as intended, fail at establishing a musical narrative. The score is rarely allowed to proceed past barely noticeable ambience, and while it's effective, it's also just unmemorable. There's nothing to stick in your head, no emotional scenes or memorable themes, instead the score seems to just focus on the individual moments. Wandmacher handles the mostly orchestral action nicely, breathing some life into the film's fight scenes. The action has just the right intensity to get you engaged in the film, yet also fails to stick with you past the very second you stop hearing it.

Underworld: Blood Wars really isn't all too special. While Michael Wandmacher shows strong efforts in creating engaging music, the lack of any memorable moments prevents the score from really getting to you. While there are some fun moments to be heard, there's nothing you'll remember after leaving the cinema.

Divide by Chris Tilton (Review)

posted Feb 3, 2017, 9:03 PM by Koray Savas

For the better part of the past 4 years, composer Chris Tilton has been hard at work starting his own studio, Exploding Tuba, and developing their first game, Divide. This isometric sci-fi action game oozes familiar themes of conspiracy, espionage, and dystopia, but grounds it firmly in an engaging narrative that keeps you involved in the gameplay. Tilton's score follows suit by utilizing strings, brass, guitar, and synth to create a dynamic score that brings the world of Divide to life.

It is not very often that subtle electronic music demands detail and focus, but Tilton does it so effortlessly here. Echoes of Vangelis' Blade Runner and Don Davis' The Matrix permeate the soundscape, but it is Tilton's signature string ostinati and blaring trumpets that really bring the action home. "Divide Main Theme" starts things off with a bang, with rousing orchestra layered over minimalistic synth. It showcases the great duality of the score and how it naturally shifts between tense underscore (hear "Searching For Hashes") and chaotic action (hear "Administrative Delay"). Regardless of instrumentation or tempo, however, Divide always manages to exude the humanity and longing that sits at the core of the story. For a score with such an important emphasis on electronics, cues such as "Marian's Case," "Adventure Dad," and "Longlasting Endeavor" do a tremendous job of translating the emotions of the characters and their journey to the audience by how the notes sustain and linger in their harmonic passages. It's heartbreak, mystery, and paranoia defined by a musical phrase, and it is these types of moments that keep the music endlessly endearing.

For those interested, there are three different presentations of the score. The first, an EP, features a small sample of the music as well as the game's original song. Then there is a standard release as well as a Deluxe Edition. The former offers a leaner 51-minute presentation while the latter, reviewed here, presents 75 minutes of music. One may prefer the other depending on tastes, but the expanded Deluxe Edition provides more of the gorgeous underscore as well as a more dynamic pacing structure, despite the extended runtime.

One listen to Divide's main theme is all it takes to be drawn into the fantastic world Chris Tilton and the team at Exploding Tuba created. From deeply textured minimalistic synth rhythms to powerful brass and string melodies, fans of science fiction adventure scoring will find much to love here, for it is the first great score of 2017.

Mars by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (Review)

posted Jan 27, 2017, 10:54 PM by Koray Savas

Mars is an original mini-series that aired on National Geographic in 2016. The docudrama combines the fictional story of the first manned mission to Mars while intercutting between filmed discussions of such prospects with today's top scientists and minds. While not the best set-up for scripted television scoring, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis deliver a powerhouse of a score while relying on their usual bag of tricks.

As listeners I feel like we tend to ignore the flaws of our favorite artists. Make no mistake, the music here is exactly what you would expect from Cave and Ellis, with their trademark coarse string rhythms and doodling piano, it sounds like it belongs in any of their previous scores. Each work feels of the same body, yet there is something about their sparse sound and style that really resonates with me. With Mars, the duo utilizes synth as a prominent sound alongside their typical orchestral elements. It feeds into the science fiction of the narrative and fleshes out this semi-fictional world of the series really well, giving the music a unique identifier that helps separate it from their other projects, no matter how similar. 

The intro song sets the pace and tone very well in just 90 seconds, with a brooding Cave bellowing in with "We're coming in too fast now, everyone is burning bright..." The mood is instantly set in terms of instrumentation, rhythm, and harmony, setting the stage for the music to follow. Cues such as "Mars," "Earth," and "Science" feature faster tempos and brighter orchestral colors which are nicely contrasted by the heavier isolated rhythms found in "Daedalus" and "Voyage." Then there are the cues like "Space Station" and "Planetarium" which sound straight from The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Ford with their melancholic use of piano. The point being that the music at large has nice interplay and variation between emotions as well as pacing. The music is forever engaging and continues to intrigue and draw you in to the soundscape, never letting go until Cave's vocals pulse back in with the finale, "Life On Mars." With all that being said, what truly marks Mars as one of the best scores of 2016 is "Symphony Of The Dead." The cue encapsulates all of the score's primary elements; and the way Cave and Ellis structure the track to build into a segue of the main theme sends chills down your spine.

Mars is a delight from start to finish. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis continue to create soulful and heart wrenching music despite their reliance on trademark motifs and instrumentation. There is a real sense of development and breathing room as the score progresses, which keeps things engrossing throughout while leaving listeners satisfied once things come to a close.

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