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Watchmen - Original Motion Picture Score Soundtrack Review

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by Chris McEneany Mar 5, 2009

  • Movies review

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    Watchmen - Original Motion Picture Score Soundtrack Review

    Please note that this review was written before I actually saw the film. Being a fan of the book, I just couldn't wait to hear the score and get some first impressions down to whet the appetite.

    Well, before Watchmen-mania takes over - and by all accounts so far, Zack (300) Snyder has done a marvellous job of bringing Alan Moore's “unfilmable” (his typically bitter words, not mine) superhero-deconstruction opus to the screen and, despite its overtly adult tone and serious nature, I expect it to be highly popular. Personally, although I've read the original epic tome several times over the years and enjoyed it immensely every time, it never really struck me as being particularly worthy of being listed in Time Magazine's Top 100 Books of All Time, the veritable War And Peace of comic-books. But then, it is great to have a superhero comic-book gain such lavish critical acclaim, and the prestigious place that Moore's tome holds within its genre is a golden standard. Now, I'm not going to go too much into the apocalyptic, alternate-universe saga, as I'm positive that we will be giving the movie extensive coverage in its own right. So this review will concentrate purely on what Tyler Bates has done with the music for such bizarre, complex and mightily troubled characters as The Comedian, Silk Spectre, Dr. Manhattan, Nite Owl, Ozymandias and, of course, the awesome Rorschach.

    Bates, already having collaborated twice with Synder, on his remake of Dawn Of The Dead and on another graphic novel adaptation, Frank Miller's 300 - awesome both in film and score - and delivered the searing grunge-blast for Neil Marshall's, otherwise, inept Doomsday, is one of today's most adrenalised and aggressive action-composers. With his background founded in the hard-rock band, Pet, his trademark style favours rock-influenced percussive dynamics that pummel the senses and get the pulse racing. Yet he is equally adept at generating massive orchestral depth and strong emotional themes. This sort of marriage is a unique and rarely successful one, but Bates has proved that he can tame and control it. There is a world of difference between him and, say, Hans Zimmer, for example. Both employ vast banks of electronics, samples and weird and wonderful percussion instruments. Both also love the sizzle and rip of electric guitars and revel in thrusting them into their rhythms, enabling their scores and heroic themes a perennially hip appeal. But Bates has a much more grandiose intention than Zimmer, who much prefers to manufacture dense layers of sound for his urban bravado - to wit, both of his recent Batman scores. Bates, on the other hand, is like the rock-version of Don (The Matrix) Davis - there is heart and soul to his music, there is a pumping hi-tech feel and there is an elegant texture of revelation - all things that, undoubtedly, serve this particular soundtrack well. For sure, this is not your typical superhero/comic-book score by any stretch of the imagination. Long, borderline-morbid stretches conjoin cues into rhapsodising melancholy. Vintage synthesisers blend with 80's industrial grunge, creating a machine-like undercurrent of remorseless, churning guilt and rage. A large choir stands poised on the brink of the abyss, Bates resisting the temptation to indulge in Danny Elfman-style waves of fluttering, angelic voices, but rather flirting with anarchy and obliteration. Brooding despair may not quite dominate the score, but it certainly plays a large part in it.

    The album opens brilliantly with a track called Rescue Mission. Driving forward with a militaristic surge, this cue comes across as a dark superhero main theme, an encapsulating body of percussive impetus that hits the gas pedal with a suitably doom-laden, grand-scale directive. Strings stab energetically and an electric guitar rips through the fabric of this charging set-piece. Topped-off with a soaring burst of massed vocals from the Hollywood Film Chorale, that rise somewhere in the distance and render an epic quality to the track, this would be a terrific scene-setter for any costumed crusader event. But the thunder doesn't last. At least, not on the surprisingly short score-album that Warner has released so far. What seems to be the case is that Bates and Snyder have opted to stay within the sphere of the moving, the lyrical and the eloquent. Perhaps the other Watchmen album that has come out - the, ahem, Music From And Inspired By pap that so grates on score-lovers' nerves (and, in reality, almost always has nothing to do with the film in question at all) - is the one that was picked to kick ass, with wall-to-wall rock and thrash running rampant through it. What follows this thumping, heroic opening gambit, is a cue, Don't Get Too Misty-Eyed, that sweeps us up into the emotionally dislocated dynamic of the retired group of costumed crime-fighters. It is achingly beautiful and full of gasping strings - violins, cello and viola weep together - and reveals Bates' strongly spiritual side. The main motif is John Barry-esque, lushly romantic and pregnant with heavy chords and, coming straight after the initial action-blast, gives you an idea of the diversity that Bates is aiming for.

    Track 3, the pivotal Tonight The Comedian Died, is textured with dark ambience. Effects swirl and sampled steam-jets hiss. A droning pulse hammers away in the sunken depths of the cue, the overall impression one of desperate acts committed in the still of night. A sound rather like Marco Beltrami's favourite electric jaw-harp appears briefly, but is soon lost amid discordance and grave sensations of dread. Track 4, Silk Spectre, gives the character a suitably lavish treatment in the form of a fanfare that builds up and up, percussion giving it vigour and strength whilst the cue is still decorated with glistening harp and celli. Sadly, the track is all too short and is over just when it seems to find its rhythm. The next two tracks are also over before you know it, leaving hardly any impression, other than a quick snippet on moody guitars that evoke Michael Kamen's theme for Martin Riggs in his score for the first Lethal Weapon.

    Only Two Names Remain is one of those underscoring cues that weaves pulses, muted bass and odd samples to no great effect. This is John Powell's Jason Bourne-style and, although initially quite interesting and serious, actually goes nowhere. Track 8, The American Dream, definitely recalls the new Batman's tonal density, incorporating both Watchmen's opening track in a slower, deeper rendition and a dirge-like passage that signifies broken ideals and terrible new trajectories. The second half of the track falls back into synthesised loops, echoing bells and distant Taiko drums. The mood has shifted into something that is peculiarly sci-fi, but one that is also Michael Mann's blue-filtered LA night-montage. And this neo-esoteric flavour is carried on throughout Edward Blake - The Comedian, which is a track of entirely synthesised snares and ambient loops. Vangelis' shimmering, sultry orientalism from Blade Runner is the clear influence here. You can easily shut your eyes and imagine that neon and fire-lit cityscape through which Harrison Ford's replicant-hunting Deckard runs. The poison of the Comedian is coldly distilled through this trance-like fugue of glistening electro-barbs and sampled trumpets, but his persona is treated with an abstract tone that flies in the face of his genuinely chaos-loving attitude. Something of Jan Hammer also creeps into this track and, given Bates' love of 80's synthetic “block-sound”, surely this can be no coincidence.

    Track 10, The Last Laugh, once more nudges the prevailing sense of doom our way. But this is just a minute or so of slowly stinging strings that are gone before we get any sort of emotional pay-off. Disappointingly brief. Things get considerably better with the next cue, though. Prison Fight, Track 11, could so easily have been this score's answer to 300's senses-trouncing opener To Victory - one of my all-time favourite, heart-pounding action cues - but it falls short in a number of ways. Firstly, after grabbing your ears and dragging your brain through a perfectly punishing cerebral skirmish, it is allowed to lose momentum for a diffusing spell of muscular cool-down. Secondly, it sounds a little too derivative of Graeme Revell's similarly themed and composed action material from his score for Daredevil, a lot of insistent techno-beatings coalesced with a searing electric guitar that screams through the whole rave-onslaught. Orchestral back-up is lost within the factory-floor droning and some sizzling “wobble-lightning” effects. It is a good, meaty track, though. I just wish that it went on for longer and that there were a few more like it.

    Track 12 meanders through the smoke of impending annihilation, panning out with smoothly tragic themes for Bates' massive violin section. If you listen closely to Just Look Around You, you may hear a slight nod to Philip Glass before the track reaches a gut-punching crescendo in what is one of the score's longest pieces. The choir is brought in quite marvellously - never over-played, never typically cloud-piercing, but just enough to enforce an air of the sweetly morose. Track 13, Dan's Apocalyptic Dream, just lapses back into ambience and tonal layers, albeit spiked with various effects. The whole album now seems to be slipping into a depressive state, despite tiny pockets of shining hope and optimism trying their damnedest to break through. Darkness fizzes thickly in Track 14, with far-off industrial clanging before a quickly truncated swirling finale for strings. And, following this, What About Janie Slater, meshes large orchestral passion with choral poignancy - yet, once again, is over just when it begins to get interesting. Just what is Bates handing us here - sound-bites and tasters?

    Track 16, I'll Tell You About Rorschach, is determinedly discordant. Full of clangs and clunks, Taiko drums teasing the perimeter of a soundscape that feels like it could belong to Freddy Krueger's boiler-room lair, and laced with synthesised whispers, this is like Tyler Bates' reply to Christopher Young's divisively experimental score for Invaders From Mars. Great background music for a Halloween party, but one of those cues that sets many a listener's teeth on edge. Personally, I like this kind of darkly abstract weirdness. The effects gradually recede into the distance as the track fades out.

    You could be forgiven for thinking that you are going to be in for a treat with Track 17, Countdown. Though this is one of the few action cues in the score, it is far from exhilarating. Reminiscent of both Michael Kamen's score for X-Men and John Ottman's for X2, this keeps commencing vignettes of pacey, bombastic stuff but never manages to sustain them. This start-then-quit style doesn't make for a good aggressive track, which is something that this album sorely needs right about now. And Track 18, the rather crucial It Was Me, is just the same. A swift, light beat sucks you in and then a terrific piano refrain accompanies it, the notes gleaming in Bates' dark symphony, but then ... it's all over again. Why is he not carrying out these ideas to any sensible or satisfying conclusion?

    Not even the excerpt of Mozart's Requiem, Track 20, arranged by Tim Williams and mixed by Gustavo Borner, can lift this score from the doldrums that Bates has hauled it into. Shortened again, you see, and refused the chance to attain its full swagger. The score then ends with a light, breezy, slow-transcendental cue that is, in fact, quite pleasant to listen to. It brings to mind John Murphy's ambient music for 28 Days Later, but this is yet another reference in a score that seems to have had so many influences to work from, yet barely managed to create anything properly haunting or memorable out of them. Such a shame.

    Tonally, Watchmen's music is ninety percent tragic, ten percent euphoric. The echoing and sonorous use of synths and bells, chimes and even the hammered dulcimer lends the score a sci-fi ambience that is very reminiscent of what Cliff Martinez did with the Clooney remake of Solaris. This, of course, is perfectly fitting for a plot that takes in God-like powers, galactic sojourns and trans-dimensional soul-searching. But what about the fighting? What about the global threat and grim, inter-personal scheming, skulduggery and treachery that take place? Little of the clever, enthralling or more involving elements of what makes Watchmen so intricate and fascinating have been brought to this canvas. More and more as the score goes on, we are buoyed along upon a cloud of the pensive and the severely depressing. Someone like Craig Armstrong, would possibly have been much better at this game. His oft-imitated and frequently heard music for Plunkett And Macleane - a fave of TV documentaries and reality shows - has all of the things that Bates has brought into play here, but with infinitely more style and memorability. His score was also uniquely dark and tragic, but its moments of passion and excitement were tremendously pulse-pounding and he was able to brilliantly capture a sense of wild euphoria, too. The full score for Watchmen, as heard in the film, may well prove to have all these elements. But this representation does not seem to do the story justice.

    All of Bates' style and thematic density is prevalent, here, in one mighty conglomeration of ominous power, brief-but-riotous action, orchestral grandeur and heartbreaking emotion. His ribald and raucous, characteristically heavy signature is not always the most subtle or intuitive, but it has a beautiful ambient quality when required and a crushingly anarchic sense of doom that, as with the battle-conscious sensibility of 300, packs a punch that is as colourful as it is devastating. There is a lot in this score that sounds very reminiscent of past genre glories, but whilst such frequent familiarity is cause for concern, I would hesitate to call any of it a cheat, or a cop-out and certainly wouldn't accuse Bates of hijacking ideas. In this scoring mission it is probably unavoidable to tread upon familiar ground, but Watchmen's haphazard blessing is that Bates manages to sift through such echoes and stir them into something that is occasionally refreshing and unique. The whole superhero genre is riddled with identikit crusaders and villains and Moore's graphic novel totally accepts this whilst loosening some of the conventions and twisting things around a bit. Thus, it makes sense that Bates' aural landscape may evoke deja-vu whilst injecting enough that is sufficiently unusual and different to create a design that is often reflective, partly exciting, and unexpectedly moving all at once. But, in his efforts to not only capture the wildness of these bizarre and messed-up individuals, but also the vast over-reaching saga that struggles to contain them, his themes become mushy with a sentimentality that comes at the expense of true orchestral resonance or spectacle. Ultimately, the score becomes somewhat boring because it is never allowed to fully breathe, each cue after the midway point just becoming an extension of the previous one, the short running time of the majority of tracks leaving a lot of dissatisfaction. This caveat is compounded by the fact that, for a modern score to an epic movie lasting over two-and-a-half hours, we are only treated to forty minutes of music, meaning that a great deal more material has been omitted.

    Thus, Tyler Bates' score for Watchmen is an infuriating one. The composer has great talent for combining a wonderfully rich orchestral palette with a harder, leaner, more rock-orientated attitude - but this release is not the best showcase for it.

    Neatly keeping the title emblazoned down the side of the cover, the CD offers a fairly typical fold-out sleeve with one side decorated with character images, and the other taken up with orchestra credits, thank-yous and a brief note on the score from Zack Snyder.

    Full Track Listing -

    1. Rescue Mission

    2. Don't Get Too Misty Eyed

    3. Tonight The Comedian Died

    4. Silk Spectre

    5. We'll Live Longer

    6. You Quit!

    7. Only Two Names Remain

    8. The American Dream

    9. Edward Blake - The Comedian

    10. The Last Laugh

    11. Prison Fight

    12. Just Look Around You

    13. Dan's Apocalyptic Dream

    14. Who Murdered Hollis Mason?

    15. What About Janie Slater?

    16. I'll Tell You About Rorschach

    17. Countdown

    18. It Was Me

    19. All That Is Good

    20. Requiem (Mozart)

    21. I Love You Mom


    Verdict

    Starting off with typical superhero aplomb, Tyler Bates' score for Watchmen soon picks up on the myriad tangents that the story is filled with and deviates down paths of darkness, mystery, awe and sorrow, becoming a beast that is never as unwieldy as the the source material, but is certainly as unorthodox. Suffused with ambience and ethereal moments that sparkle ominously, and a sinuous thread of devout melancholy, this can't help but be a disappointment as an album on its own. It may not possess many action cues - which is certainly a disappointment for me - but the gravity of the score, as a whole, is not up for question. Yet the concept is unbalanced. Bates' track selection for this score paints a very sombre picture, indeed. After a few listens now, the score's once spectral pleasures have seemingly worn off, revealing a piece of work whose tonal plateaus ultimately end up flat-lining it. I can't recall a soundtrack album that has had this “one extreme to the other” effect on me before now. There is definitely much to like, and even admire, about this score. Strong heroic themes and esoteric, transcendental whimsy are unusual bedfellows at any time and if the score had struck the right amount of each, then this would be a clear winner. But, as it stands, this is not a great listening experience for score lovers or for fans of Tyler Bates.


    The Rundown

    Movie

    6

    Overall

    6

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