988In many ways the modern cinema-scoring answer to the great John Barry, the ever-bankable James Horner is adept at bringing in film music that is lush, sweeping and romantic, yet his speciality has always been the ability to marry such grandiose orchestral richness with dynamite action cues that set the pulse racing. With a track record that includes Star Trek 2: The Wrath Of Khan, Wolfen, Aliens, Braveheart and Titanic, it is plain that Horner loves broad, ever-developing themes, dominant main titles that bleed through the entire score and intricate cues that have his signature stamped all over them. Often accused of incredible self-plagiarism - and usually by me, I might add - Horner is, nevertheless, one of the better practitioners of musical storytelling around today. His knack for twisting tears from out of even the steeliest of eyes is matched only by the afore-mentioned John Barry and the composer, as set in his ways as he often appears to be, is uniquely powerful at getting down to the emotional core of a movie and, even if his output has that undeniable ring of familiarity (usually to his last five or six scores), he provides excellently written, orchestrated and produced soundtracks that live and breathe far and away from the films that they accompanied. What I love about James Horner is his steadfast conviction to deliver lengthy tracks that match the onscreen situations marvellously yet tell their own stories, with deliberate beginnings, middles and ends, that can be lifted, wholesale, from their parent film and slapped into a concert or an album, divorced from any visuals, and still sound incredibly contextual and satisfying.
His score for Mark Waters' The Spiderwick Chronicles is no exception.
Although Horner has been off the boil of late - previous scores for All The King's Men and Apocalypto haven't exactly come up to scratch - there has been signs that he was entering a more experimental and exploratory phase. The New World attempted new and invigorating sounds, yet that key lushness that he is renowned for seemed to be lacking. Here, though, with this dark fantasy-adventure about goblins, ogres and canny survivalist kids, he seems to have found his mojo once again, with a score that is, at once, vintage Horner and yet thoroughly dramatic and exciting. No stranger to fantasy films, with Krull, Willow and Jumanji amongst others to his name, I get the feeling that James Horner positively welcomed this project. See my cinema review of the movie for more details about the story, this review is concerned purely with the score as an album.
With a style that is totally unlike Howard Shore's culturally diverse and violent approach to such a genre, Horner loves the sentiment of strings, the yearning of pipes, chimes and brass and the spreading-out of melody like a soothing blanket of sound. But with Spiderwick he uses these staples like a spoon stirring a very dark and brooding broth indeed. Right from the very first track, he mixes light and shadow, his beautifully floating sections undercut with deep bass and unsettling rhythms. Track 2, So Many New Worlds Revealed, has a wonderful throbbing taint of persistent percussion that makes the lilting violins and piano seem all the more fragile and tremulous. Track 3 begins with light and breezy notes, horn and oboe reaching in and then, heralded by a snazzy Jacobean flutter on a quaint old organ, the playful and mischievous nature of the denizens of the wood carried by Horner until a midway transition delivers ominous threat and heart-lurching danger, stabbing strings, heavy piano and thumping bass that slide into a quavering voice that sees the cue out.
Track 4, by contrast, starts out as a pure comical delight with slapstick for trombone and oboe, before a driving pace picks up and the cue morphs into one of danger, highlighted with a flighty section that seems to denote the spying of dark deeds and the unsettling development of a deeper trial to come. A sound like metal scraping against stone grates beneath the orchestra until pounding bass ushers in a wild and heavy crescendo. Horner bows out with a semi-distant clash of cymbals. More bittersweet wonder mixed with melancholy follows in the eerie Discovering Spiderwick's Secret Workshop, Track 5. Again, that thudding drum grounds Horner's tinkling piano and xylophone and chime ensemble, his spirited strings try to fly above the danger but, once more, his darker themes conspiring to haul them back. And then we reach the first standout track, Dark Armies From The Forest Attack. Horner employs that distinctive metallic clanging to add a sharp bite to his pulverising percussion - as heard effectively in Aliens, Glory, The Perfect Storm and, perhaps most memorably of all, in the perennially popular Titanic. Melody is forsaken during the short (for him, anyway) cue in favour of driving episodes of deepening bass that, in turn, are accompanied by more varied instrumentation as the overall track thunders along, gathering aggressive zeal. Whatever sweetness and cute fantasy sounds may have arisen during previous tracks, Horner eradicates here with a demented sequence of three-note bombardments that drag swirling, icy curls from synthesiser and chimes in their wake.
The tension is upped again with the next track, Burning The Book, despite Horner bringing back that delightfully spritely organ for little razzle-dazzle flourishes during early sections. Building momentum in very much the same, and quite brilliant, fashion as he did in his strong score for The Perfect Storm - great thematic development and increasingly ominous tones - the cue acts as a great bridge to the desperate and vaguely militaristic Track 8. Here you will discover some very familiar beats to Horner's previous classics. Drums from Titanic meet the rising vigour of Star Trek 2, but the awesome bass collision halfway through is more reminiscent of Basil Poledouris' Starship Troopers score. This lifting does not detract at all, however, and the cue becomes a swaggeringly ferocious tour de force, full of driving bass and horns, frantic drums and trumpet bleats, clashing cymbals and a huge Bernard Herrman-esque crescendo pleasantly reminiscent of the master composer's score for Mysterious Island (reviewed separately). Absolutely fantastic.
The tone seems to alter for Lucinda's Story as Horner weaves a plaintiff serenade of sweet nostalgia, fragile wonder and simple love with gentle woodwinds. But, before you know it, those dark foreboding undertones begin to boil away beneath whatever slight tranquillity we may have begun to enjoy. Horner is totally enmeshed in the darkness of the story and refusing to let us off the hook just yet. Listen to the terrific jabbing brass that prods into the cue around the four-minute mark, his composition like a dog with a bone, refusing to let go. Even a sombre and morose episode following this is overwhelmed by clutching, strangling brass that beat it to the ground. Is there not going to be a let-up in this relentless tension then?
Well, yes of course there is.
And it comes in Track 10, The Flight Of The Griffin, which is another standout cue. This time, Horner teases us with more shivering ominous tones at the start, before then letting rip with a gloriously uplifting passage of skydiving strings, excitable brass, high notes that defiantly leave the aggressive bass far behind and some breathtakingly angelic chimes, achingly reminiscent of those charging scenes from Glory. The cue weaves and spins, cavorting around the soundscape with sheer all-out exhilaration and this is a simply beautiful reward for surviving the darkness that has come before it. The track descends into a soft and whimsical melody for strings. Basically, this is the start of a two-piece section, with Track 11, Escape From The Glade, commencing with a similar sound to that which climaxed the previous cue and maintaining the same tone ... at least for a couple of minutes. That mischievous organ reappears and then darker motifs emerge beneath what is still a light and airy composition, before bell-chimes register and swirling strings take to the skies once again for a return trip. The same sense of freedom accelerates through the piece until that demented thumping bass leaps up and clutches the cue back down again, depositing it and us squarely in the maelstrom of Horner's tempestuous percussion once more in Track 12, The Protective Circle Is Broken. Shrill brass and sharp metallic clanging resound, the danger all around and rising in strength.
Another top track follows with Jared And Mulgarath Fight For The Chronicles. Here, Horner attempts to bring together all the elements that have gone into the score so far. Searing strings scorch across the roof of huge industrial impacts, rising crescendos develop like stormy seas ... and then we get that clown-like tumble of slapstick for oboe and trumpet to round it all off with a jolly smirk. What follows in the next two tracks is typical of Horner, his score sliding effortlessly from the darkness into soft, meandering Americana. Albeit tinged with very slight melancholy, the final cues are lilting and dreamy, the composer's gift for creating music that is so painstakingly evocative of storm-clouds parting and the rays of the sun peeping through in full evidence. Dazzling, beautiful and haunting. Horner is second to none at capturing hopeful optimism that sears with hints of slow tragedy, his orchestra's momentum coalescing into that unique bittersweet ebb and flow that he has made his own. Track 15, entitled simply Closing Credits, features a gorgeous rendition of one of the main themes for piano, but it is the scintillating use of strings and softened bass that makes this so fitting a denouement to an album that has plummeted down into some deep dark places and found the courage and strength to climb back up again.
Like the James Horner of old, Spiderwick's score is like scuttling in panic beneath a colossal rampaging tempest before finally emerging, battered and breathless, out into the light. Quite honestly, there is no-one composing film music today who can manage to inject so much heart and soul into a score as James Horner. In a way it is a great shame that his most crucially individual traits have become so well known, because when he gets it so damn right, he also makes it sound so damn familiar. I've no doubt that many will dismiss this score as being nothing more than a greatest hits compilation, but that is actually far from the truth. I feel that Horner is skilful at taking such core themes and weaving them into newer, fresher incarnations and Spiderwick is also deliriously robust with frighteningly intense action and dark demented glee. His musical voice is strong, exciting and extremely emotional, and his score for The Spiderwick Chronicles is firm testament to this.
An utter delight from start to finish. Horner still has many scores to write and I just hope that he gets back into that once so-prolific release rate that he almost rivalled Jerry Goldsmith.
Full Track Listing is as follows -
1. Writing The Chronicles 3:03
2. So Many New Worlds Revealed 5:12
3. Thimbletack And The Goblins 5:16
4. Hogsqueal's Warning Of A Bargain With Mulgarath 5:16
5. Discovering Spiderwick's Secret Workshop 3:25
6. Dark Armies From The Forest Attack 3:06
7. Burning The Book 2:44
8. A Desperate Run Through The Tunnels 4:47
9. Lucinda's Story 6:02
10. The Flight Of The Griffin 6:56
11. Escape From The Glade 4:45
12. The Protective Circle Is Broken....! 2:08
13. Jared And Mulgarath Fight For The Chronicles 4:17
14. Coming Home 6:18
15. Closing Credits 8:23
Total Album Time: 71:38
VerdictJames Horner is a hugely well-known musical commodity and his score CDs sell extremely well. The reason for this is two-fold - strong, melodic integrity coupled with overwhelming emotion, and the innate familiarity that the majority of his scores have, meaning that cinema audiences and soundtrack collectors both feel kind of at home with his compositions and safely tucked away within the textured layers of his own distinctive sound. Whilst his recent fare may have been slightly off the boil, The Spiderwick Chronicles is simply outstanding in its superb interweaving of standard Horner with slightly left-field Horner. In short it is terrific. It has that quality that can have you replaying it in its entirety the moment it has finished, and then dipping into your favourite tracks again after that.
My objective mind will not allow me to grant it more than 8 out of 10 purely because there so much within its structure that is familiar to the composer's previous works. Whilst this has always been Horner's trademark and really shouldn't go against him, it is nevertheless something of a disappointment that he still can't break his infatuation with the signature riffs from Glory, Star Trek 2 and Aliens that made his name and, perhaps, find some new melodies to weave throughout the next twenty-five years.
This score comes highly recommended. For Horner fans, it is essential, and for score-lovers, this is a great all-round musical experience that works supremely well as a stand-alone album.
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