Score Reviews

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Assassin's Creed by Jed Kurzel (Review)

posted Jan 10, 2017, 5:08 AM by Leo Mayr

Assassin's Creed
 is yet another flawed movie based on a popular videogame. For some reason, whenever a videogame is adapted to the big screen, we end up with a mediocre film at best. And while Ubisoft's latest efforts at bringing one of their most popular franchises into cinemas sounded promising, the result is still disappointing. Australian director Justin Kurzel was even able to bring his brother and long time collaborator to compose the score. The Assassin's Creed games have always featured stunning scores by various composers, ranging from Jesper Kyd to Lorne Balfe, Brian Tyler and most recently Austin Wintory. Each composer was able to bring something new to the franchise.

Jed Kurzel was able to bring his minimalistic style into the movie, creating a mostly ambient score that rarely takes the spotlight over the visuals. There are no major themes that stand out, with the most recurring element being the main 'action cue'. The score contains one basic action cue that is used for every single action scene the film has to offer. Sure, it is mixed up a little with some different sounds thrown into the mix, but the basic structure always boils down to a very simple action motif. While it does a nice job at defining the film's musical identity, it does so through sounds and not melody. And while this works for the film, it also ends up being rather bland and unmemorable. The score does an admirable job at infusing the film with the neccessary emotions, yet it does so in a very minimalistic way.

Kurzel's score consists of mostly instrumental sounds, with some electronics that become more dominant for the final act of the movie. The soundscape is consistent throughout the film, yet the lack of practically any thematic structure or development make the experience unmemorable and even bland at times. There are a few great moments that stand out, most notably the final scene in "Future Glory" and Kurzel manages to keep the action scenes loud and engaging. The emotional moments are effective, yet there's no differentiated characters or motifs in the music. Kurzel does a great job at scoring the individual scenes, yet the overall movie ends up sounding unspecial alltogether.

The music is somewhat remniscient of some of Jesper Kyd's earlier work on the game series, yet Kyd introduced a stunning main theme for Assassin's Creed 2 and focused more on melodic storytelling as the series evolved. Going through the Assassin's Creed scores of the past years, there are so many wonderful and memorable moments and themes, so hearing Kurzel's atmospheric take is just underwhelming. Kurzel executes his score flawlessly, yet it seems he refused to let the music take the spotlight for even one moment and considering the franchise's rich musical legacy, I cannot help but feel disappointed. While the score does what it should do, it does so in the most basic way possible. Perhaps Kurzel's atmospheric style will be more appropriate for the upcoming Alien: Covenant later this year.

The Man In The High Castle: Season 2 by Dominic Lewis (Review)

posted Jan 2, 2017, 4:50 PM by Kaya Savas

What if you were given a canvas that was an alternate history, lush set design, rich characters, vivid cinematography, extremely well-structured plot and a genre that blends war-time drama and espionage. That’s what was handed over to Dominic Lewis who didn’t take the task lightly and was able to craft some of the most engrossing television scoring in recent memory. The show never saw a proper Season 1 score release (but that will change soon), and thankfully Amazon teamed up with Varѐse Sarabande to give us this fantastic Season 2 release of the score.

So a little backstory behind the music of the show. A lot of people may notice that Henry Jackman is credited for the music throughout Season 1, but in reality his involvement stopped after the pilot, and the rest of the series was left to Dominic Lewis on his own. Henry and Dom have a wonderful history of collaborating in the past, so it was great to hear them work together again on the pilot and then for Henry to step down and let Dom take the show to an incredible height with his focused voice as a storyteller. Season 2 is just a pure amplification of what made Season 1 so great. The score really comes into its own here and becomes this fantastic ever-progressing force of melodic engrossment, thematic arcs, character emotions and enveloping espionage suspense.

This album is a great taster of some of the best themes and motifs of the show, and the tracks included here do a fantastic job of representing the forward progression of the arcs in the series. The music is never overtly complicated in structure and it builds upon itself throughout the season. Plus the show makes amazing room for music while never over-saturating. Season 2 features a good 6-6.5 hours of score throughout the 10 episodes, which is a healthy amount of score for a series. And the best part is that it’s not filler. What the album is missing is of course the more atmospheric and textural side to the score, which you can experience while watching the series. But when music appears it’s never “just because”. You’ll notice some very deeply emotional tracks that tap into the characters like “Juliana’s Letter” and “Hitler Youth”. It’s in these moments that Lewis demonstrates his abilities to tap into that emotional realm that can only be communicated through melodic structure. The music does utilize a great clock-ticking build that is frequently used by Hans Zimmer in scores such as Sherlock Holmes and Interstellar. But in this case, it’s merely used as a brilliant device to build tension. The ticking is never used as a crutch or to signal that time is running out, but more as a foundation. And after Dom layers on all his amazing goodness over it, it becomes its own unique thing. By the time you reach the finale that comes to this perfect climax in tracks like “Verrater” and “Hitler Youth”, you’ll find that the album wraps up in a haunting fashion with Lewis’ chilling rendition of “Tomorrow Belongs To Me”. What makes this score so arresting and engaging is the confidence of the music, and you can feel the confidence behind Lewis' voice as a storyteller behind every note.

The Man In The High Castle is a perfect example of how to craft a resonating television series score. The music has a forward momentum that is enriched by composer Dominic Lewis’ talents of building thematic arcs and melodic structures that actually payoff in fantastic ways. Season 1 allowed Lewis to set a pretty strong groundwork for what the show was, and with Season 2 he fleshes everything out to make the score so engaging in both plot and emotion. As a narrative tool, the score does everything it needs to do. While there is lots of great television music out there, many series will usually use score as a seasoning to pepper and flavor throughout the season. Here, the score is the strong skeletal structure of the narrative, and it delivers an experience that will bring many moments of goosebumps and tears. If Dominic Lewis wasn’t on your radar before with his great scores for Free Birds, Spooks and Money Monster, he should be now. Also, the best part is that if you’re an Amazon Prime member then this score is free to listen to. Keep a lookout for a 2-CD set of Season 1 and Season 2's scores from Varѐse Sarabande.

Origin by S. Peace Nistades (Review)

posted Jan 2, 2017, 4:49 PM by Kaya Savas

Origin is a new science fiction thriller written and directed by Andreas Climent & André Hedetoft, and starring Emelia Hansson, Rikard Björk, Rafael Pettersson and Sandra Redlaff. The film hails from Sweden and follows a science student and programmer trying to find a method to slow the aging of cells. As they are about to be in the brink of something big, our protagonist’s boyfriend finds out he’s terminally ill. The two friends decide to go against ethical protocols to try and test their methods. The score comes to us from composer S. Peace Nistades whose actually based out of Los Angeles. Nistades has demonstrated his unique talents as a storyteller in films such as The Wicked, Rock Jocks and the popular web series Dragon Age: Redemption starring Felicia Day. With Origin we get to hear a more ambient and intimate score that builds a delicate foundation and then takes us down the rabbit hole as things turn darker.

Origin is one of those rare scores that is able to balance ambience and atmospheric scoring with a pretty strong central theme. The delicate piano theme that we hear in the opening is used as a grounding element throughout. It has a foreboding quality to it, yet has a tinge of hopefulness embedded in those few notes. The score sets the stage as things slowly begin to turn darker. Nistades utilizes synths and electronic textures throughout to give the score its identity. But the whole feel of it never feels artificial as the score finds a way to feel organic as the story moves along. There isn’t much room for any complex character emotions, but that main theme is definitely born from the human side of the score. The character moments that are there don't resonate as deep because of the more subtle nature of the score, but it does layer in the emotional current that the story needs. The final act introduces some great percussive elements, especially as we make our way to the climax of the narrative. The score as a whole finds its voice and is well-structured to carry the audience through the story. If you’re a fan of John Murphy & Underground’s score to Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, you’ll find much to appreciate here.

Origin is a great science fiction thriller score that is able to establish strong footing in the first act that carries the audience throughout the narrative. Nistades displays a wonderful structure of theme and variation as the score is anchored by a great central motif, and keeps spiraling downward as the story sinks into darker and more intense territory. There’s plenty to appreciate here in terms of ambient and atmospheric scoring techniques that also makes use of melodic and rhythmic structures.

The Great Wall by Ramin Djawadi (Review)

posted Dec 22, 2016, 8:31 AM by Kaya Savas

Director Zhang Yimou’s first English-language production puts actor Matt Damon alongside a cast of Chinese A-listers to battle monsters and prevent them from invading China. The Great Wall is pure popcorn entertainment, and pure popcorn entertainment needs a melodic score that can handle big swells of epic action. Ramin Djawadi has definitely become the go-to guy for fantasy action after the success of Game Of Thrones. His scores for movies like Pacific Rim and Warcraft prove he’s capable of creating that massive energetic sound, and The Great Wall further proves his talents of large-scale action.

The Great Wall has everything you’re looking for in bold thematic action writing. Ramin gives us a big theme that he weaves throughout the score, it becomes our anchor. The bold sound of strings and brass fill the space to add gravitas and weight. There is some light Chinese instrumentation implemented, but Ramin never goes overboard to make the score sound particularly Eastern nor Western. The music just thrives in its fantastical elements giving it a bit of an old world feel. Think of Game Of Thrones with extra flavor and a whole lot more action. Ramin loves his cellos, and the score utilizes that deep sounds of cellos throughout. There is the obvious attempt of infusing romanticism into the score, to give it a sense of grandeur and scale. For the most part, it’s rather successful at doing that without going overboard. The score retains its aggressiveness and excitement throughout. Ramin also has some great percussive textures that add propulsion and forward energy to the action as a whole. The whole score builds nicely towards the end where the journey wraps up in a big emotional swell.

The Great Wall is pure fantasy escapism. Like a Transformers flick, this isn’t meant to make you rethink your whole life’s existence. This is a fantasy action movie done with a big budget, and everything looks and sounds fantastic. Let the visuals and sounds take over. Ramin’s score does everything it needs to by being thrilling and engaging all the way through. The score has that old world fantasy sound, with that old-school action approach. Get ready for a big central theme infused throughout that propels the action, and in turn builds gravitas infused with a sense of romanticism. The Great Wall is pure popcorn escapism in the best sense. Sit back, relax, watch Matt Damon help China defeat some monsters while Ramin’s bold action score entertains.

Passengers by Thomas Newman (Review)

posted Dec 20, 2016, 1:42 PM by Kaya Savas

Passengers, it’s that one weirdly A-List casted studio-polished movie that opens near Christmas but really has zero appeal. Passengers tells the story of a ship transporting human passengers to a colony on another planet, but one passenger is mistakenly woken from hyper sleep 90 years early. As he wanders about alone, he becomes infatuated with one other passenger and purposefully wakes her just so he’s not alone anymore. The two must now ensure the rest of the passengers survive when crisis strikes in this science fiction romantic adventure yarn. Thomas Newman off the bat might have been a strange choice, but his ability to weave emotions into any genre while never abandoning his style works for the most part here.

Thomas Newman’s style is one of the most unmistakeable sounds in the industry, and for Passengers he embraces his sound fully. If you’re familiar with Newman’s work then nothing here will surprise you other than the fact that he was able to really make his score feel appropriate for the sci-fi setting without being overtly sci-fi with the approach. There is a sense of style over substance here as the music doesn't necessarily do a good job of creating an emotional arc for the characters. It does however do an excellent job of setting the stage, getting us immersed in the story and then entertaining us with some fun action pieces. Throughout the journey, the music’s sharp style seems to try and distract us from how void of character and emotion the whole narrative is. Sure we can map out all 3 acts of the story very clearly through the music, and it does a great job of walking us through it. But we never sense the shape of the characters, just the shape of the story. So by the time that signature Tommy Newman "End Title" track hits (which is oddly very similar to his "End Title" to Lemony Snicket), we kind of feel a little empty.

Passengers is a stylish attempt from Thomas Newman to try and infuse a sparkly and attractive sheen to a story that doesn't bring any attractive qualities on its own besides its sexy acting leads. Neman’s signature bag of tricks do the job for the most part by structuring the narrative quite firmly and clearly, we really feel the progression as we move through the 3 acts. There are some nice moments here and there where we can be marveled and dazzled thanks to how talented Newman is as a storyteller. But in the end, the music cannot create an emotional connection if it has nothing to pull from when it comes to the weakly developed characters. Passengers will remain a decent and well-polished distraction.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story by Michael Giacchino (Review)

posted Dec 20, 2016, 1:41 PM by Kaya Savas

Ever since Disney resurrected Star Wars from the dead, the idea of who would be behind the first non-John Williams Star Wars score was always swirling. And even before Rogue One was even announced, Michael Giacchino’s name was always rattling about and for good reason. Michael’s sound is a bold and effective modern orchestral style that would be perfect, and he demonstrated that with his supremely entertaining Star Trek scores. Plus he scored the Star Tours ride! Anyway lets fast forward through all the drama that we know already. Alexandre Desplat was brought on by director Gareth Edwards who worked with Desplat on Godzilla. Then the thing that many people suspected from the get go actually did happen, Desplat was let go extremely late in the game over “scheduling issues”. If you want to believe that PR mumbo jumbo go right ahead, but whatever the case they needed a score fast. The deal was finalized in a heartbeat. Giacchino literally just wrapped Doctor Strange in London and started on Rogue One immediately. He wrote this bad boy in 4.5 weeks, oh and not to mention he also did 2 LOST concerts in Los Angeles in that time as well. So yes, the inhuman super composer pulled out a Star Wars score in a magically short amount of time, and actually it’s pretty good!

Here’s what you should know about last second replacement scores. In reality, the time limit is never an issue, in fact it’s usually (“USUALLY”) a blessing. The composer is literally free to do whatever they want and no one will argue, because literally there is no time. And that right there is why Disney picked Michael, it was the trust. Giacchino’s long career in the industry actually started way back when he worked in Disney’s publicity department, and of course the countless Disney and Pixar movies he has written. So, Michael walked in knowing he had Disney’s trust and essentially a carte blanche to do whatever he wanted for the most part. Given the fact that this was a Star Wars movie, and the first one without John Williams, his approach is nothing groundbreaking but it’s wholly effective.

The score is pretty easy to breakdown, Michael found the key characters and storylines and gave them very Giacchino-esque themes. The score as a whole doesn't carry the brightness or sparkle that a John Williams Star Wars score would have, and that’s by design given the melancholic tone of the film. There is a “Star Wars” feel to the orchestrations and yes, they use the original Williams themes here and there. I feel like that was on order by Disney more than anything, because where the weakness of this score lies is in its attempt to please everyone. It’s true, there wasn't much time for Giacchino to be truly innovative or experiment. Everything you hear is his first gut reaction to the material, because also that’s how he writes normally. But again, he didn't work with director Gareth Edwards when the film was taking shape, in fact I would say he worked with Disney execs more than anyone. This was a finished film and all it needed was score. When that happens, the director, the editor and the composer can’t build a relationship to truly make the score a piece of the film’s fabric. And when you hear the music you can tell that Giacchino is literally just trying to make sure it worked and made everyone happy. Some people may say it feels like a “cheap” Star Wars score, kind of sounding like Williams but never going there. And in some cases that criticism might be valid. There is no main title crawl here, but when that Rogue One logo comes up, it’s almost jarring not to hear that fanfare we expected. And yes, this movie is trying to distance itself from the main Star Wars canon for sure, but nostalgia sells. So we have this weird low-key yet effective Giacchino sound trying to be its own thing, but then you can almost imagine the Disney execs shouting “make it sound like Star Wars!” as Williams sounding flourishes are peppered throughout. All in all there is a deep emotional undercurrent that is woven through. There is also this militaristic aspect to the music that touches back to Giacchino’s work on the Medal Of Honor games, plus you’ll notice some other elements from his signature sound. I think a few Cloverfield nuances popped up here and there. Overall, the score does shine when Giacchino is left to be Giacchino versus trying to tap into nostalgia.

Rogue One will be analyzed by many and everyone will have their opinion on it, but let’s recall that this is a film from a director on only his 3rd studio feature and one that’s being guided creatively by heavy hands from the producers and executives. Let’s not forget that this movie went through reshoots and that Giacchino’s score is a product of both an auteur composer trying to add something special, and fulfilling a checklist of requirements that I’m sure were laid out at the start of his 4 week sprint to write it all. Rogue One is a great first attempt at branching away from one of the most iconic scores ever written but that heavy John Williams hangover bogs it down from really becoming something unique. I’m sure Giacchino will be called upon again in the future to do a Star Wars score, and hopefully he’ll come into the project on the ground floor and be able to plan his attack alongside whatever director he ends up working with.

Call Of Duty: Infinite Warfare by Sarah Schachner (Review)

posted Dec 18, 2016, 10:07 AM by Leo Mayr

The Call Of Duty series continues its annual tradition with Infinite Warfare. After Warfare has been Modern and Advanced, how could the series possibly go on? In space, obviously...
Few Call Of Duty composers have scored more than one game in the series, so over the years, more than a few people have had the chance to work on the franchise. Latest in a long line of composers is Sarah Schachner, having recently scored Assassin's Creed: Unity. Schachner has been working on several of Brian Tyler's videogame scores, including the 2011 Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, so her involvement in Activision's latest action spectacle was a pleasant surprise.

Like many CoD games before, Infinite Warfare features a hybrid score, blending together electronic sounds with orchestral music to accompany the not-so-near future setting. While it may seem unoriginal at first, Schachner has found just the right balance between instrumental and electronic sounds to create an intriguing soundscape. The opening theme in "Anthropic Universe" does a great job at establishing the game's world. After a brief emotional introduction, Schachner unleashes intense action writing and a great fusion of orchestra and electronics. The use of electronics sound just like you'd expect from a futuristic shooter, yet there are some textures that stand out from the dark atmosphere. In many ways, it's a very modern sci-fi score, seamlessly fitting into the trend of hybrid scores but still finding its own identity. Schachner manages to keep a strong emotional core throughout the score that creates a nice contrast from the intense action that takes the spotlight. 

Call Of Duty: Infinite Warfare shows a great effort to stick to the basic mold of 'modern military shooter', yet also have some fun with it. While you will pretty much get what you'd expect, there are more than a few pleasant surprises along the way. While the score lacks the memorability of some of the franchise's past entries, Schachner's excellent balance between orchestral and synth sounds make the experience worthwhile.

Battlefield 1 by Johan Söderqvist & Patrik Andrén (Review)

posted Dec 18, 2016, 10:06 AM by Leo Mayr

continues its annual rivalry with Call Of Duty, and while the latter has ventured into deep space, Battlefield 1 decided to go back in time for one of the most devastating wars in human history. In stark contrast to the electronic soundscapes dominating modern military shooters, Battlefield 1 relies on a more traditional orchestral approach.

The score features an abundance of heroic anthems and bold action pieces, with a handful of emotional pieces scatterd throughout. The orchestral music is loud and heroic, almost always reminding you more of a hymn than an actual score, and while this provides a generally pleasant listening experience and emphasizes the heroism of the player characters, it takes away from the gameplay itself. The music is always heroic and light hearted, so there's rarely any sense of threat. A heroic moment means nothing, if all the moments are heroic. Having the mood lacking any intensity or threat all the time just feels wrong, considering the fact, that the game is set in World War I, literally one of the most violent conflicts known to mankind. A well structured anthem-like piece of music has no room for mistakes, it never evokes threat, never advises you to be cautious. You're the hero, and you will win in the end. The only real exception here is "Metal Frenzy", an action track that actually evokes a sense of danger. While there's nothing wrong with a war game featuring heroic music, there should always be a contrast to the loud heroic moments. A battle where things go wrong, to make the times it doesn't all the more special. The ambient tracks do their part well enough, nicely underlining the game's dark atmosphere. "Sinai Desert" even adds a few cultural influences to reflect the new location. The duo of composers did a great job at emphasizing the emotional parts of the stories presented in the game, yet ultimately, an emotional scene about war veterans and the loss of friends means nothing when the very next moment, you're shooting hundreds of enemies with glorious anthems playing in the background.

While Battlefield 1 definitely isn't a bad score, it just doesn't really fit into the dark recreation of a war the game is going for. The heroic music always suggests that you'll win anyways, so at times, it takes more away from the gameplay than it adds. While the music is a great listening experience by itself, it fails to properly support the game it was composed for.

Dishonored 2 by Daniel Licht (Review)

posted Dec 18, 2016, 10:05 AM by Leo Mayr

Dishonored 2
 is the latest stealth videogame by Arkane Studios, following the success of 2012's Dishonored. Daniel Licht created a stunning ambient score for the first game, so he was the obvious choice for the new sequel.

Licht introduces a stunning new main theme that utilizes similar instrumentation from the first game. The theme reappears in a combat piece later on, but since a vast majority of the gameplay consists of sneaking around, Licht's score focuses heavily on ambient and suspenseful music. The game is set in a dark mix between steampunk and fantasy, featuring machinery powered by whale oil, as well as magical powers, and in a lot of ways the score reflects this perfectly. Licht expertly handles the dynamic changes from ambient music to suspense, mystery or even action. The world is established nicely, with different soundscapes for the game's various locations, from luxurious palaces to dusty ruins and dark sewers. The short selection of action music featured in the game will sound very familiar and repetetive after a while, but since this is a game where most of the time you'll be avoiding fights, that really does not matter. Licht introduces themes for the three major characters, the most interesting being "Delilah's Theme". While the game doesn't have much room for emotions or character development, Licht used every chance he got, fleshing out the world and giving it a unique and recognizable sound. If you're familiar with Licht's work on the first game, you'll feel back at home immediately.

Dishonored 2 shows great effort at building the game's world through ambient music. A large portion of the music featured in the game is atmospheric, going to great lenghths to establish the different locations and characters. While it's not music you'd really listen to on its own, it's hard to imagine the game without Daniel Licht's stunning score.

Live By Night by Harry Gregson-Williams (Review)

posted Dec 16, 2016, 4:31 PM by Kaya Savas

Ben Affleck stars and directs this prohibition gangster film that follows Joe Coughlin in his rise to becoming a bootlegger and notorious gangster in the 1920’s and 1930’s. The great thing here is that this film reconnects Ben with his composer, Harry Gregson-Williams. Harry has composed all of Ben’s films minus Argo of course. For Argo it’s only speculation, but it seems Desplat was mostly likely forced onto the project by producers George Clooney and Grant Heslov to make the film "Oscar friendly". Given that Harry’s score to Spy Game ended up being used in the Argo itself, one can comfortably assume that Ben wanted Harry on Argo. But that is in the past, and here they get to reunite and Harry hits the ground running in his signature style for one fantastically melodically brooding score.

Harry is an auteur composer, and his sound will be present in every score he writes. Live By Night is no exception, and Harry’s dark and brooding side is put to the test. The music is rich with lots of deep strings and brass textures. Harry paints a nice portrait of Joe Coughlin in the opening track with that signature Harry solo trumpet piercing through brooding strings. As the score moves through the narrative, we are treated to some great atmospheric builds and engrossing suspense cues. I really loved the mood and tone established by the music, Harry has a masterful control over the tone and mood of the entire film through his score. The music fleshes out the stylish world of the narrative, and feels like it was born from it. This doesn't feel like a period piece score, but it just feels right. There’s an odd elegance and beauty that emerges on the surface of it all, making the music somewhat oozing with a hazy romance even though it’s suspenseful and dark for a majority of the running time. The film really allows Harry to work with a great and unique canvas that he hasn't had before, and he makes the most out of it. By the end, everything comes to a calming close by removing the dark clouds, and it all wraps up with that signature Harry piano sendoff.

Live By Night is Harry working within his signature style, but also exploring some moods and atmospheres he hasn’t ventured into yet. The score is dark and brooding, but also has an elegant and romantic quality to it. The score builds scenes masterfully by creating great arcs and focusing on melodic structure. There are few bursts of melodic action as well that keep a certain energy infused into the score even though the music works mostly right under the surface while never coming to a full boil. Live By Night is a rich and full-bodied score that never lays it on too thick, it’s moody and intriguing while also being very engaging. This is top-notch Harry, and it shows that he and Ben Affleck work extremely well together. Hopefully no one tries to break them apart again (HINT HINT, LET HARRY SCORE BEN’S BATMAN! JUST DO IT WB!).

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