While Cliff Martinez is no stranger to psychologically and emotionally heavy film scoring, his recent works Arbitrage and The Company You Keep have been angled more towards the withdrawn or despondent end of the musical spectrum. 2011’s Contagion and Drive remain Martinez’s most bleak and morose scores in the last ten years, favoring oppressive, almost apocalyptic themes atop the tried-and-true atmosphere for which Martinez is known. Fitting, therefore, that Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn again chose Martinez to score his next project, this year’s Only God Forgives. A dark tale of vengeance set in the harsh Bangkok underground, the narrative of Only God Forgives prompted Martinez to revert to the scathing, austere environment displayed on the score for Refn’s Drive and its sonic cousin Contagion. Along the way, Martinez introduces some interesting and uncharacteristic qualities that lend Only God Forgives its own musical identity.
Second track “Ask Him Why He Killed My Brother” begins to unveil the score’s primary musical theme, as an eerie, mysterious, and dreamy wash of keyboard receives a tonal injection of Thai influence, almost immediately granting the score a harrowing and alien vibe. “Chang and Sword” is ultimately where the theme shines, however, containing shaky feedback hearkening back to Contagion layered with Martinez’s trademark echoing guitar effects, along with a pulsing melody that reminds slightly of the less perturbing moments of Clint Mansell’s Requiem for a Dream. Later cues “Take It Off” and “Leave My Son in Peace” develop the theme further, the former layering it with heavy yet hollow ambient feedback, and the latter with quick rhythmic percussion funneling into astral, hypnotic guitar motes. Finally, on “Bride of Chang,” Martinez thrusts forward the primary motif with insistence, allowing the guitar to take the foreground with the same alien-sounding effects before being yanked back with a lush and forceful organ melody.
More tumultuous elements also present themselves on the album, at some times pushing Only God Forgives close to the horror film score realm. “Do as Thou Will” piles low, stifling and dreadful horns atop one another, bringing to mind the tactile and onerous nature of Jason Graves’s Tomb Raider and some of the droning passages of Akira Yamaoka’s Silent Hill compositions, before being drenched by the often-reappearing gothic taste of the aforementioned organ. “More Hands” offers a disturbing and discordant string/bass combination before melting into a nervous and no less affecting din. The monolithic eight-minute “Ladies Close Your Eyes” powerfully encapsulates the more malevolent nature of the score, immediately assaulting with dissonant feedback and low, disturbing bass, resembling an aural drop into a dark, deserted hell a la David Julyan’s The Descent, complete with harrowing noise effects and pummeling drums cascading over panic-stricken strings before coming to rest upon the more reserved Martinez-style mysticism of prior tracks.
The remainder of the score actually contains the most impassioned work of all. “Chang Vision” weaves a string-based tapestry with wavering volume before entering ambient keyboard territory, a soothing track illuminated by an aura of anxiety. “Sister Part I,” actually composed by M83’s Anthony Gonzalez (but performed by Martinez), is right at home and on par with Martinez’s delicate material on Arbitrage and The Company You Keep, containing simple, drifting and melancholic Tangerine Dream-style synth, a track whose pale gloom is overshadowed only by its murky beauty. “Wanna Fight,” however, takes top honors as the album’s best tune, an electronic synth track immediately recalling the magnificence of Brad Fiedel’s The Terminator and recent outings like Power Glove’s score for Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon; its loud opening foray simmers to the background twice, each time given a rest in favor of Martinez’s guitar or heavy-handed organ.
Only God Forgives is Cliff Martinez’s return to form, not in the literal sense, but in the darker thematic sense last explored with Drive and Contagion. A wading in the forlorn waters of Solaris, Arbitrage, and The Company You Keep this is not, but Only God Forgives will manage to satisfy many a Martinez fan as it meanders back and forth between those works’ brooding ambient-style passages and more disconcerting material both rancorous and ethnically-tinged. Only God Forgives is yet another confident and accomplished entry in Cliff Martinez’s musical catalog.