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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