The AVForums Soundtracks of 2013

A film score is a work of art in its own right

by Chris McEneany Dec 17, 2013 at 11:15 AM

  • Movies Article


    The AVForums Soundtracks of 2013
    As is becoming customary, score-fans have had an incredible variety of new material, re-jigged old favourites and absolute Holy Grails to feast their ears upon this year.
    All the usual labels have been extremely busy delivering intriguing and unexpected delights from a rich assortment of composers and covering a wide range of genres and hailing from many different eras. Powerful new scores have arrived but, as usual, it is the wild and often eclectic array of older film music that has proved to be the most consistently engaging.

    Here, then, is my own personal take on the year’s best score releases, both new and old. They are genre titles, and I make no apology for that.

    The Wild Bunch – End of the Line Edition (Jerry Fielding/FSM)

    Another long-time Holy Grail for many collectors, Fielding’s complete score to Sam Peckinpah’s brutal revisionist Western taps directly into the complex and wistful passing of an era and the fading of a code of rugged heroism and hard-nosed morality. For a story that was about bloodshed, courage and sacrifice, you would expect a rip-roaring broadside of macho musical posturing but Fielding, Peckinpah’s long-time collaborator and spiritual muse, had different ideas. Instead of serenading the gunplay and the violence, the distinctive voice of the composer seeks to counteract the action with mournful melancholia and rambunctious Mexican mariachi. The resulting score, heard here over three splendid discs, is an incontrovertible masterpiece that defies the expectations of the genre, yet totally embraces the soul of the film and its epitaph to the Old West and its once stoic, but now outdated ethics.

    The classic moment of the Bunch’s brazen march into the heart of the Mexican camp is filled with martial snares and cymbals, and this is capped by the anguished guitars, horns and strings of the shocking moment when the friend they have come to rescue has his throat cut right before them. And yet the ferocious gun-battles remain mostly unscored, with Fielding bringing in his famous eulogy in Song From the Wild Bunch, led by William Holden’s weary, fate-pursued Pike, delicately supplying the emotional wallop to grand scale annihilation as our four antiheroes slowly fall to their deaths amid a hail of bullets and lie surrounded by a hundred bloody corpses. Heard in various guises throughout the score, this final haunting dirge, for searing strings and harmonica, is the most famous. It is hard to put into words the power and majesty of this deceptively simple hymn to the fallen. That Fielding actually fought – physically fought - with Peckinpah to keep it in the film when the director initially ranted that it was wrong for the scene, and that Peckinpah finally relented when he witnessed the strength of his composer’s conviction speaks volumes about the sincerity and cathartic justification for what is arguably one of the most affecting motifs in any Western.

    With lots of alternate and additional music and a lavish booklet of notes on the film and the score, this is surely the definitive release of a true Silver Age classic. Limited to 2000 copies.

    The Relic (John Debney/La La Land)

    One of the best modern monster movies around, Peter Hyams tale of aberrant and aggressive evolution run amok in the vast Chicago Museum of Natural History gains a dynamic, creepy and balls-to-the-wall exciting score from John Debney. Although his name is not quite synonymous with action and suspense, Debney has actually delivered some fantastic work over the years. His rollicking Cutthroat Island is a rare delight of old school swashbuckling derring-do, his End of Days (also for Hyams) is powerful, demonic and thunderous, and he brought possibly the only worthwhile ingredient to the otherwise poor Iron Man 2. With The Relic, adapted from the ace Lincoln Child novel, he sieved ingeniously through ominous dread and foreboding, bringing a large orchestra to bear down on plentiful action/attack sequences and creating a potent blend of mystery and all-out horror.

    When dignitaries and guests become locked-in and only a superstitious, dog-loving copper (Tom Sizemore) and a canny and sexy scientist (Penelope Ann Miller) have the courage and the determination to take on the huge and highly adaptable genetic mutation, the Kothoga. With clanging anvils, galvanizing bass and surging batteries of percussion, Debney aids the hellish beast’s rampaging impetus, tackling such giddy set-pieces as the doomed SWAT team assault and Miller’s incendiary final scrap with the brute with strenuous verve and explosive bursts of pure adrenaline. A haunting coda for the tricks that nature and genetics still have up their sleeves leaves you with a lingering unease. Limited to 2000 copies.

    The Wolverine (Marco Beltrami/Sony Classical)

    Beltrami has yet to produce a score that didn’t excite me, and with 2013 being a very busy year for him indeed, I was delighted to find that he was attached to this more violent, more mature take on the trials and tribulations of Logan/Wolverine/Weapon X in his second standalone adventure.

    Twisting through a Japanese odyssey of samurai honour, ninja skirmishing and Yakuza-slaying, love and redemption, Beltrami sharpens his musical claws for a blitzkrieg of pulsating action cues, yet retains the exotic qualities of a foreign culture without once resorting to cliché. I have reviewed the score comprehensively already, and the standout cues are predominantly those reserved for the hyper-kinetic fight and chase sequences, something that Beltrami has consistently proved himself to be a master at producing, and often with highly unusual instrumentation. The use of an old school jaw-iron to provide Wolverine with a Western-style drawl of a theme is a winning one that ensures the collision between the two cultures is a clever and intuitive one. The setting is sinuously evoked and there is plenty of lilting emotion in-between the blistering adamantium-gleaming action. Director James Mangold, actor Hugh Jackman and composer Marco Beltrami guarantee that this is the closest and most sincere that the films have come to getting beneath the hair of the ever-troubled Wolverine.

    High Plains Drifter (Dee Barton/Intrada)

    The first of two eccentric and supernaturally tinged Westerns directed by and starring Clint Eastwood (the other being Pale Rider, which has a very spiritual connection to High Plains Drifter), this is a film of mean and moody magnificence. Clint’s drifter rides into Largo and, finding the place rife with the weak-willed, the corrupt and the cowardly, assumes control of the furtive hamlet when it appears that his unique gun-fighting skills are required in order to protect the townsfolk from a trio of newly released outlaws. The drifter is, of course, the avenging angel in the guise of the ghost of the sheriff that the threesome murdered there whilst the townspeople looked on and did nothing.

    Fittingly, Barton’s score is a strange beast. Eerie, windblown and haunting it takes on a ghostly aura of mischief as the Drifter manipulates the townsfolk to his will and conducts his own form of subversive terrorism under the guise of helping them and training them to defend themselves. But there are also jaunty, jangling Western ditties that have it veering off into disparate new territory. Like Fielding’s The Wild Bunch, this is very atypical of the genre. A mood piece, both menacing and lyrical, it flows gently and with a slow-burning spirit of the off-kilter. The Drifter famously paints the town red and renames it Hell … and all the while Barton’s score finds beauty and slyness in the drama, supplying a symphony for the coming showdown that is melodically disquieting.

    Day of the Dead (John Harrison/La La Land)

    I have covered this score very extensively already, but to sum up its synthesized drive, addictive calypso flavor and awesome sense of both the bittersweet melancholy of the end of the world and the funky, hypnotic action that surrounds the last few beleaguered and argumentative survivors in their underground silo, I would heartily testify to its highly stylized atmosphere of dark heroism and poetic comeuppance. Again, with this being the mid-eighties and electronica being the standard-issue sound texture for bands and genre film scores, the synth plays a major part, but Harrison manages to infuse such colour and warmth to its layers that he attains a blissfully organic and highly fluid cadence. The fact that he was onboard the production right from its conceptualization onwards and witnessed the filming being done as well as being an integral part of the screenplay’s budget enforced evolution from epic to … well … much smaller in scale and intimacy, means that his music fits the story and the characters like a glove.

    With the complete score here and sounding absolutely scintillating, this limited edition release is must-have for zombie-fans and synth-lovers. Limited to 3000 copies.

    Man of Steel – Deluxe Edition (Hans Zimmer/Warner)

    Zack Snyder’s leviathan reboot caused some division amongst fans and critics, but Zimmer’s typically percussive and doom-laden wall of sound scoring provoked an even greater split. People wanted “THEMES”, they wanted “POMP” and “GRANDEUR” in the style of John Williams’ seminal work for Richard Donner and Christopher Reeve. They got something they didn’t expect, although I still say that Zimmer delivered on all counts with a score of soaring emotion, sinister depth and towering heroism.

    I reviewed the score very extensively and courted controversy on both sides of the Atlantic with my wholehearted endorsement of what Zimmer did for the reimagining of the big Boy Scout, but I still stand by all that I said. Despite huge misgivings about Zimmer’s approach and having slated quite a few of his scores in the past (Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows being a total dog-egg), I was surprised and delighted to discover that I loved his powerful, dark and often very moving music for this new incarnation of Superman. And as the year has gone over, my love for and excitement over this score has only grown.

    Arguments over what constitutes a theme are null and void because whether it is a broad, long line and hummable anthem or the simple two-note refrain that Zimmer uses here to denote the hopes, dreams and aspirations of this alien outsider struggling to find his place on Earth, it doesn’t matter. So long as it is identifiable and speaks of the core values of the story and its central character and becomes their definable signature – it is the main theme. The main motif that Zimmer uses for Superman’s journey of self-discovery and world-salvation is eloquent, shimmering and aching with vulnerability.

    The action is customarily bombastic, with enormous levels of bass hitting you in endless broadsides. Zimmer’s regular penchant for amassed percussion reaches suitable primal levels of intensity. But it is the emotional core of Kal-El’s lost and ever-searching theme that provides the most heartbreaking impact.

    The Deluxe Edition is definitely the way to go, with the enormous 28-minute work-in-progress track, Hans Zimmer’s Sketchbook providing a sort of embryonic overture for all the themes and ideas and motifs that he would bring to bear. It acts like a nonstop tour through the score and becomes a classic showcase in its own right.

    Evil Dead (Roque Banos/La La Land)

    Whilst the reboot of Sam Raimi’s classic cabin-in-the-woods horror was exceedingly poor – badly written and stuffed with totally unlikeable characters – Roque Banos created a score that was truly evocative of the gruelling terror and suspense that this reimagining just couldn’t realise. I won’t waste any time discussing the film, itself, as it is so disappointing, but there is no denying the power and intensity of the score. During the writing of the score, Banos was kept awake at night by the sound of police sirens wailing in the distance, and this insidious warbling clarion-call of danger would go on to form the nerve-shredding backbone of his music, making several hair-raising appearances throughout and really clawing through the psyche like an occult variation upon Marco Beltrami’s long-drawn alarm motif from the prequel to The Thing.

    With little elements of ghostly eloquence sprinkled here and there, the tone can suddenly shift from outright panic to stunned reverie, and then plunge you right back into chaos again. Banos worked miracles with his Bernard Herrmann-homage score to The Machinist and he instantly became a composer to look out for. Unsurprisingly, he smacks the ball right out of the park with this, giving the film the edge that its poor actors and wretched script utterly fail to do. Although there are plenty of others examples, I can’t, right now, think of a score that has been so much better than the movie it supports than this. You want terror and gut-shrivelling excitement? Then skip the film and just listen to the soundtrack instead. It is far more worthwhile of the Evil Dead tag that Fede Alvarez’s “take” wears so bogusly upon its sleeve.

    Zulu Dawn (Elmer Bernstein/BSX Records)

    One of my all-time favourite scores gets a spruced-up re-release on CD from BSX in an extremely limited run. The Oscar-winning Bernstein brings all of his rugged, sweeping outdoors breadth and stamina, heard in so many classic Westerns, to this rousing and savage depiction of the profoundly heroic British defeat at Isandhlwana at the spears of the vast Zulu army just before glory and honour were restored with the magnificent defense of Rorke’s Drift later that day (seen in the great film Zulu and scored brilliantly by John Barry). Directed with unbelievable accuracy, gritty verve and large-scale splendor by Douglas Hickox in 1979, this was a sadly overlooked masterpiece of historical authenticity that still remains one of the most faithful depictions of a real-life battle that cinema has yet produced.

    With an all-star cast and fabulous use of very near-genuine locations (the real hill of Isandhlwana couldn’t be used because of the shadow it threw, so the production moved to an incredibly similar one nearby), there is a tremendous sense of imperial folly and distinct bravery in the face of certain death. The action is fantastic and the excitement kept at a premium by Bernstein’s jabbing, full-blooded and very aggressive score. His music embodies the spirit of standing firm against an unstoppable tide of ceaselessly stabbing fury, yet he also does the Zulu culture justice with deep choral chanting and batteries of ethnic instrumentation. Although he specially wrote his own take on the doomed 24th’s Regimental March as well as stoic interpretation of the famous Men of Harlech, it is his acute delivery of sustained suspense and his pulse-pounding battle cues that make this one of the greatest war scores ever composed. I have long-harboured desires to write a monumental piece on the film, the music and the real event, and this will soon come to pass with a huge and comprehensive article combining all three. But, for now, it is worth stating that Bernstein’s musical depiction of the gallant last stand of the 24th Regiment of Foot is as exhilarating, powerful, scary and downright heroic as anything ever written for an illustration of large-scale interpersonal mayhem as I have come across.

    With rampaging themes for the Zulus and the British, vicious squalls of thunderous action for the numerous battle sequences, and an overarching musical bloodline for the barbaric military catastrophe that idiotic Victorian strategy and arrogance led to, this score has everything and becomes a towering testament to valour and sacrifice on the field of carnage. Standouts in a work that I believe is unparalleled within its genre are plentiful, but the epic River Crossing, the adrenalized Escape, the shocking might of More Zulus and the tragic impetus of Saving The Colours are simply astonishing tracks that are sure to have you donning red tunic and pith helmet and spitting in the face death alongside the ghosts of the valiant 24th.

    The track line-up remains the same as the old Cerberus disc, but with the cleaner sound and the addition of liner notes, this is the release that fans should fix bayonets and stand-to for. An absolute classic from a true maestro, and probably the score that I have played the most in my entire soundtrack collecting life! Limited to only 1000 copies.

    Salem’s Lot (Harry Sukman/Intrada)

    Tobe Hooper broke the mould with his gut-punching horror classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, really rocking the genre to its core, and he did much the same thing with this 2-part TV mini-series adapted from the great Stephen King novel about a small town consumed by vampirism. He moved the goal-posts for television horror, ably taking the baton from the imaginative and controversial Dan Curtis, whose Night Stalker teleplays and ensuing series, as well as a slew of strongly produced horror films made for the smaller screen had proved that cinema wasn’t the only province for genuine thrills and spills. The score was immediately effective, with a creepy, but catchy and ever-driving ostinato for its main theme and some outstandingly hair-raising moments of ethereal vampiric encounter. Everyone remembers the scenes when young Danny Glick, freshly turned into one of the undead, comes a-calling at the window of his brother and then his friend, floating in the air and scratching at the glass from out of a supernatural mist, and pleading with them to be allowed in. Sukman’s music here is profoundly unsettling, yet eerily beautiful. Macabre orchestration and a perpetual sense of dread become the hallmarks of what remains a superbly written exercise in whitening knuckles.

    Sukman relies on repetition of themes, but he makes many subtle alterations that continually throw you off-guard and keep the experience deeply haunting. Terrifying work for the hideous Nosferatu-like vampire lord, Barlow (Reggie Nalder) and well-crafted and melodic menace for his super-strong human slave, Mr. Straker, played by James Mason, round out a huge undertaking that has been lovingly brought back from the musical crypt. Intrada stake a claim on our attention in this lavish 2-disc package showcasing the full score, and accompany by extensive liner notes.

    Assault on Precinct 13/Dark Star (John Carpenter – remixed by Alan Howarth/BSX)

    The cult synth scores of John Carpenter surely need no introduction here. In recent years, the maverick auteur’s musical collaborator, Alan Howarth, has returned to several of these hypnotic and catchy classics and released them in complete form, albeit with remixes performed by himself on banks of modified machines and using software that, all combined together, do their best to replicate that unique sound of older synthesizers from the 70’s and 80’s. Some purists have not been totally convinced by the results, but I have found them to be mostly very enjoyable and essentially very faithful to the original recordings. His work on The Thing, Escape from New York, The Fog, Prince of Darkness, Big Trouble in Little China and They Live has been hugely rewarding, capturing that enthralling mood and senses-tingling density of mis-en-scene.

    Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13, which he composed and performed all by himself after his USC buddy Dan Wyman programmed his array of synthesizers, already has a terrific CD release from Record Makers, but this re-recording is really worthwhile, with the revamped sound which will inevitably stick in the craw of some fans, actually delivering a superb and crystalline clarity, a pulsating and energized beat and some simply delicious cue extensions that, in my opinion, definitely allow this trendsetting score to take on a new lease of life. While most of the score sounds accurate, if sharper and cleaned-up, I will admit that the fabulous Main Title theme, as heard here, does take some getting used to. But once you have adjusted to its more finitely gleaming structure, and a strangely enhanced and bellowing main bass-line, it becomes a force to be reckoned with. The minimalist beat is profoundly aggressive and driving, totally toe-tapping, rhythmical and irresistible. It would, of course, go on to inspire and influence many hip-hop and techno artists over the years, who have sampled its phenomenal opening bars.

    The standout cues of Second Wave and The Windows as the street gang lays siege to the isolated cop-shop in a steady barrage of invaders sound magnificent that the mismatched fugitives inside fend off with rifle, shotgun, revolvers and some neat karate chops, arm-snappings and groin-stomps. The main theme glistens and pounds, thudding through many of the cues in a variety of dark and sinister permutations, but it gets a deliriously extended megamix in the final track that fast becomes a major attraction. There is also the tragic theme for Nancy Loomis’ doomed Julie, which puts some humanity into this otherwise bludgeoningly macho score.

    But not only has Howarth delivered the goods with Assault, he has also reawakened Carpenter’s classic SF comedy and student film, Dark Star. Here, the music is pulsating, warped and surprisingly varied. Showcasing what would become Carpenter’s minimalist and stark approach (read cheap and on-time), this is full of sinister bass tones and pure SF quirks and tonalities in the tradition of the fifties boom-time and especially the experimental soundscape created for Forbidden Planet by Bebe and Louis Baron. That it doesn’t sound at all amateur is incredible and reveals the power of the synth with a bit of imagination behind it. The fabulous Doolittle’s Solo in which glass bottles, cans and all manner of weird and wonderful celestial percussion glitters and chimes makes for a great sidestep from the deep, dark and ominous textures that signify Pinback (a tremendous turn from screenwriter and director Dan O’Bannon) and his battles with the beach-ball alien, and the HAL 9000-inspired confrontation with the intelligent but malfunctioning bomb that argues with the crew and threatens to blow them all up.

    Once again, the sound quality here is phenomenal. Something of this vintage actually benefits quite spectacularly from the fresher dynamics and the increased detail. Recreating the sound and texture of these now defunct electronic instruments was certainly challenging, but Howarth has done a terrific job. What is especially nice for this recording is the use of sound effects replicating the alien and its hilarious squeaks, belches and fart noises. Some people won’t appreciate the inclusion of such effects – they didn’t like the eerie fog-horn heard on Howarth’s interpretation of The Fog (I thought it worked particularly well) – but as the musician/composer says, the original tracks for this lengthy set-piece were highly repetitive, and his newer mix makes for a refreshing alternative that still sounds extremely faithful.

    What I adore about this score is that it clearly points Carpenter in the musical direction that he would adopt for all of his greatest films and their corresponding soundtracks. Unusual, brooding and mesmerizing, the stretched-out suspense lines from the first three Halloween outings and The Fog have an addictive power, and an almost trance-like capacity to elevate the senses. The film, itself, is hugely funny, and there is a quirky bent to the music, but this is in-tandem with a baroque mysterioso that gets under the skin. Plus, we get the faux Country ditty of Benson, Arizona, written by Carpenter and with lyrics by Bill Taylor, as arranged and produced by Dominik Hauser, as an amusing finale. Limited to 1500 copies.
    “best scores are the ones that you don’t notice” is complete and utter rubbish
    So, looking back at this list, it reveals that La La Land has been responsible for some of the most exciting and glorious releases of the year. But 2013 has, indeed, been one of the most consistently impressive with regards to the material that has become available, and further proving that a film’s score is a work of art in its own right, and that the old adage that the “best scores are the ones that you don’t notice” is complete and utter rubbish.

    Mention should also go out to Howard Shore’s second Hobbit score (and fifth epic composition from Middle-earth) with The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and Elliot Goldenthal’s exquisite music from Pet Sematery. I never tire of the grandeur of Shore’s moving, thunderous, epic and beautiful work for Peter Jackson’s leviathan adaptations of Tolkien. This score boasts the same timeless, Celtic-infused lyricism of the Rings trilogy and even if the might and majesty they possessed is somewhat diluted this time around, the overall experience is still one of grand adventure and high emotion.

    There is a definite similarity between Goldenthal’s haunting music for the Stephen King adaptation and Lalo Schifrin’s classic unnerving score for The Amityville Horror. Both evolve from lilting children’s lullabies and twist such sweet innocence into dark depravity and terror. This is the score that put Goldenthal on the map, a beautiful combination of harmonic tragedy and skin-crawling suspense. Both of these CDs arrived too late for a proper evaluation … but, hey, it is almost impossible for me to stick to limit of just ten releases! So, what the hell… you get twelve for the price of ten!!!!

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