Apr 27, 2011


Better late than never. In my defense, some of professional and respected score reviewers just posted their lists in the past few weeks.

Without further ado:

10. CLINT MANSELL (and Pyotr Tchaikovsky) / BLACK SWAN

A fascinating mixture of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake masterpiece stirred into Clint Mansell's distorted and unsettling sonic manipulations.
Not for everyone but without a doubt one of the most innovative and ballsy scores to be produced in a long time.


A quirky little gem that is both off-kilter waltzes and Beatles-esque intimacy. It never fails to bring a smile to my face with it's humor and warmth. Shapiro's nailed the comedy genre with his resume of quality scores in the genre.


Desplat turns on the Herrmann-esque scoring for this twist-filled thriller. Frantic and nerve-wracking at times, Desplat's The Ghost Writer digs deep into a paranoid world that leaves the listener very unsettled.


A grim and emotionally heavy score that layers on the tonal textures and sonic wallpapers with a subtle grace that never takes the listener out of the era and the world displayed on screen.
While it may not stand up against Michael Kamen's Band Of Brothers masterpiece it certainly gives it a run for it's money.


French-Israeli-Moroccan composer Armand Amar borrows from cultures all over the world to produce a powerful dramatic score for the "caveman" film, AO.
With the difficult task of having to compose music for a film with virtually no dialogue, while having to remain in the background yet push the emotions forward, Amar excels in this.


Relatively unknown Spanish composer Oscar Araujo reinvents the Castlevania scores with a choir heavy gothic orchestral score that is simply astounding.
Araujo sets the bar on video game scoring genre a whole lot higher, rivaling Giacchino's Medal Of Honor and John Debney's Lair scores.


Another heavy hitter in the "Iberian Revolution" in film scoring, Arnau Bataller sweeps me off my feet with the gothic choral masterpiece. It stands along side Chris Young's best work for horror scoring. A true gem buried underneath a truly horrible film.


A divine mixture of tonal ambient terror and stark beauty, Garry Schymann steps it up a notch with his second score in the BioShock video game series.
It's a chilling and haunting score that lingers with you long after it's done playing.


John Powell's perfect score is the best of his entire career. A smooth blend of thematic progression and exciting action pieces, Dragon is perfect coming from all angles.
It will be difficult to top this one...but I suspect he has it in him.


This score came out of nowhere and knocked me off my feet.
Naoki Sato's "western" action score is simply breathtaking. Throwing in orchestated variations of Hiroshi Miyagawa's original themes with some of his makes for one of 2010's most pleasant surprises.

Apr 23, 2011

CLINT MANSELL (and Pyotr Tchaikovsky) / BLACK SWAN

If you went anywhere near a magazine stand, the television or the cinema last year, director Darren Aronofsky’s psychological thriller Black Swan needs no introduction whatsoever.
One of the most anticipated films of 2010, Swan was one of the few films to actually live up to the buzz it generated before it’s release. The film graced us with wonderfully disturbing performances, beautifully shot and choreographed dance scenes, a strong sense of storytelling & direction and of course the much talked about psycho-sexual scene involving co-stars Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis.
Black Swan tells the story of a ballet dancer, Nina (played by Natalie Portman) who is so obsessed with being the best at what she does, she seems to lose focus of who exactly it is she’s trying to impress. With nearly every single scene shadowed with some sort of reflective surface, it gives off a feeling like eyes are always on her, whether it’s her own or an unseen audience only Nina knows. The few scenes that don’t feature a reflective surface are the sparse moments Nina seems to be at peace with herself. Each character in this tale are terrifyingly intimidating in their own way and most scenes are shot in a claustrophobic style, the entire film seems to suffocate you in such an unsettling and effective way, you’re almost glad it’s over, just so you can catch your breath and give some thought to what you’ve just seen.
Aronofsky’s disturbing style of storytelling has always been wonderfully complimented with the music of the former frontman of the alternative/industrial act “Pop Will Eat Itself”, Clint Mansell. After working with Aronofsky on all of his films starting with Pi in 1998, followed by Requiem For A Dream, The Wrestler and many more, Mansell’s made a name for himself in the film scoring business and to a certain degree the pop score industry too, along with John Murphy, Steve Jablonsky and Hans Zimmer. Showcasing his orchestral talents has been something Mansell has never really been able to do, apart from the impressive action score Sahara in 2005. Beyond that, he’s been mostly known to score with a prog-rock, minimalist method that seems to be quite favorable to the average music listener, thus setting him into the pop-score category. Using those same orchestral talents from Sahara, Mansell puts them to good use with Black Swan.
You couldn’t make a film with ‘Swan Lake’ serving as a backdrop and not include Tchaikovsky’s iconic music. What Mansell does here is he cleverly adapts and violently distorts it when the action onscreen deems it necessary. What is unclear for a great deal of the film (and very unsettling) is whether or not the score is what we the viewers are hearing as underscore or what Nina is constantly hearing in her head. The score seems to blur the lines of reality and storytelling with wonderful results. It’s actually very well done and thus Mansell receives top credit for using it in such manner.
By hardly changing a note in the actual "Swan Lake" moments in the score, Mansell manages to orchestrate it in such a way that it retains it’s beauty and easy flow but hints at discomfort and neurosis with some bizarre, yet small changes in the orchestration.
Like Nina, we get lost in the beauty of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and soon forget that we aren’t listening to it, until Mansell attacks us with threatening electronic slashes and crashes, immediately snapping us back into the cruel world that is depicted into the film. The very first thing we hear is “Nina’s Dream” which is a note for note adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s “Introduction” from the first act of his ballet. It doesn’t take long for Mansell to insert some unsettling effects to distract us from the beauty of the music and remind us of it’s not just about "Swan Lake". This cue just touches the edge of the different methods and techniques Mansell uses over the course of the film to engulf us into the insanity of the narrative.
While “Mother Me” doesn’t quote anything directly written by Tchaikovsky, Mansell manages to emulate his compositional style so well it’s almost as if the classical composer is haunting Nina even in the moments of her life that aren’t showcasing the ballet. Mansell uses this in a few cues later on and it works so well blending in with "Swan Lake", most reviewers and listeners didn’t even realize it was Mansell’s original work.
“A New Season” cleverly quotes only the first three notes of the 'Swan Theme' with a brass instrumentation and repeats it like a broken record, sounding somewhat incomplete but works quite well simultaneously.
My favorite cue throughout the entire album is “A New Swan Queen” because of the way Mansell adapted Tchaikovsky’s work and turned into something almost unrecognizable. For the first half he uses a portion of the fourth act in an uplifting manner but quickly changes things over into a rather sinister bit that is incredibly clever. While he does use Tchaikovsky’s music, he only uses the brass section from the first scene of the first act. While in it’s original context it’s quite delightful, here without the fluttery string and woodwinds it comes off as very scary in this version. A haunting descending piano motif comes into play as the percussion lightly taps away like something gnawing into your head. And on film “something” is gnawing into Nina’s head….Mansell uses this as Mother’s theme. Very creepsome.
The terrifyingly erotic “Lose Yourself” and “Opposites Attract” are the only two cues that are pure Mansell compositions, that instantly remind me of his scores for Smokin’ Aces and L’affaire Farewell. Making use of erratic electronic withering and synthetic textures, they serve as the only two scenes in the film where Nina completely forgets about her career and lets loose, only to face horrible consequences.
Mansell showcases his unique ability to shift from the inspirationally stimulating to downright creepy and discordant with ease in just flashes of second in “Night Of Terror”. This cue is what I believe defines Mansell’s score as a schizophrenic musical character in the film. It never really breaks but gives off a steam-rolling tension of ‘ready to snap’ at any given moment and that’s the general terrifying feeling the entire film seems to emit.
The beauty of "Swan Lake" and the grinding madness of Mansell’s Black Swan begin to meld together even more as we come closer to the end with “Stumbled Beginnings”, “It’s My Time” and “A Swan Is Born”. The lines begin to blur and everything becomes so insanely unpredictable that you keep waiting for it to let go and allow you to lose everything.
It all comes to a soaring, sweeping climax with the aptly titled “Perfection”. It’s perhaps the longest passage Mansell uses from the original "Swan Lake". Here he makes a bold, dominating statement with the Swan Theme that’s so magnificent and powerful you can’t wait to stand up and cheer before it’s over and the curtain closes.
While “Perfection” is the high point of the album it just doesn’t feel complete without “A Swan Song (For Nina)”. It sort of withers away and feels like a requiem for your sanity. It’s almost like one final exhale from all the tension that’s built up and slowly let loose as you watch the world fade away. Making use of some beautiful piano playing, it slowly becomes more morbid as Mansell adds in layers of unsettling dissonance, breaking glass (reflective surfaces, perhaps?), scattered cello chords and a very small hint of a dying heartbeat. It eventually envelops into a dark and very depressing closing that fades away in a cello hell that reminds me of Angelo Badalamenti’s darker scores for David Lynch.
In the end it is very apparent that Tchaikovsky’s "Swan Lake" takes center stage with this film but Mansell comes in every now and then and shatters the flow with such precision and violence it becomes a whole new monster of it’s own name.
It’s a shame, because of the use of non-original material, Black Swan was not eligible for awards and therefore Mansell remained empty-handed for one of his most innovative works to date. Of course, working in the business for so long, he would have realized that before he started and he still poured his heart and soul into this and that is good enough. It proves he’s not in it for the business but the music.
Clint Mansell created one of the most effective scores of 2010 and possibly one of the most controversial as well. Classical enthusiasts shunned it for messing with a classic and score enthusiasts shunned it for being too much like Tchaikovsky….I reward it with praise for having the balls to approach such a project.

4 **** out of 5

Apr 20, 2011

YOUR HIGHNESS - composed by Steve Jablonsky

I should start off this review by stating this is not the original album I was going to scrutinize as my next review. In fact I was planning on ripping apart Steve Jablonsky's uninspired Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen score from 2009. I was planning on treating it to a very poor rating and bury it in my cat's litter box to see if the cat shit improves the quality anymore. That was until I heard Jablonsky's score to Your Highness...and with that my mind took another direction.

Your Highness is a 2011 stoner-comedy, taking elements of adventure and fantasy then rolling them into a medieval time period. With the intent of being a comedic tribute to '80's fantasy actions films, such as Conan The Barbarian, Krull and Beastmaster, Your Highness was beginning to sound as if it was going to be a fun way to waste 2 hours at the cinema. Starring Danny McBride, from television's hilarious Eastbound & Down and James Franco, as two not so bright prince brothers that embark on a dangerous mission to rescue Franco's bride-to-be (Zooey Deschanel) from an evil wizard, played by writer/actor Justin Theroux. Along the way they team up with a female warrior, far more skilled than the both of them combined, played by Natalie Portman (who seems a little embarrassed to be seen in such a film) and encounter many dangerous creatures and 'colorful' characters, both human and...well...not human.
The film is silly and inane, not to say that 'silly' is bad when it comes to comedy. You can be silly and still be good, as Monty Python and Ghostbusters proved or you can be silly and just be really bad, as Austin Powers and all the Date/Epic/Scary Movies proved. Mel Brooks tends to teeter back and forth between the two, just for the record. Sadly, Your Highness falls into that 'bad silly' category.
However, what came as a very pleasant surprise to me was Steve Jablonsky's highly entertaining straight-up adventure score.
Here he seems to be channeling Michael Kamen's Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves, Miklós Rózsa's The Knights Of The Roundtable and even goes as far back as the late 1930's swashbuckling stylings of Erich Wolfgang Korngold and his score for the Errol Flynn classic The Adventures Of Robin Hood. While he does manage to capture a lot of that feel, he does resort back to the tired MV/RC style and mucks it up a bit with some electronic textures and synths that seem so ridiculously out of place in this "period piece".
Beyond that minor criticism, Jablonsky's Your Highness is by far his best work since the 2004 Katsuhiro Ôtomo anime Steamboy. While it's nowhere near as good as Steamboy it's as equally entertaining as his score for the first Transformers film. After so many years of scoring aimless synthetic slop for shitty Hollywood blockbuster Slasher flick remakes and TV's Desperate Housewives, Your Highness must have been a welcome breath of fresh air for Jablonsky.
Here he is able to develop and layer multiple themes that seem to be constantly taking turns as the main focal point. To be frank, that's what I believe a good film score should do.
Jablonsky takes the film score seriously for the most part and hands in a solid action score with a few elements of a period piece as well, instead of a goofy comedy score most would expect. This writing is much like what Theodore Shapiro did for Tropic Thunder, Christopher Lennertz did for Vampires Suck and Debbie Wiseman did for Lesbian Vampire Killers.
Right off of the bat, Jablonsky almost lost me with an electronic loop and ambient synth textures that seemed nothing like what one would expect for such a film. Instead it came off as sounding like something no different than any other action score today. It may as well serve as the opening notes for a movie about Shia LeBeouf saving the U.S.A. from an Alien nuclear bomb. That was until 40 seconds in and the string section began. It immediately started to give off a medieval folk like feel with somewhat of a modern twist. Joined by a beautiful solo violin and a muted choir, Jablonsky builds upon that while creating a feel of heroism and grandeur. It seems the orchestra is ready to explode and then Jablonsky drops everything and speeds things up a bit with an upbeat single mandolin strumming with all it's heart, that's quickly joined by a strong percussion and brass stings and a swashbuckling styled fiddle racing up and down the scales. It begins to sound like something not much different from Hans Zimmer's entertaining Pirates scores and there's nothing wrong with that. Soon enough an oboe comes into the mix and plays as if it's dueling against the fiddle which proves to be quite effective and suiting to the the sword-fighting in the film.
Immediately toning things down and playing at the other end of the thematic spectrum is "Isabel The Strong". A gorgeous woodwind led theme, backed up by a delicately placed harp is nothing short of impressive. Jablonsky brings in film score regular, Lisbeth Scott for some beautiful vocalizations that seem to act as the romantic and melancholy voice of Natalie Portman's Isabel character. Once he allows the orchestra and vocals fully flourish, Jablonsky proves he is fully capable of writing for not just electronic hogwash, like he's been known for in the past few years but able to compose organically as well. This beautifully penned cue reminds me of the more tender moments in Harry Gregson-Williams & John Powell's scores for the Shrek series, once again establishing that the MV/RC guys don't stray too far from the nest.
"Goodbye Mr. Tinys" is an album high point and serves as Danny McBride's character, Thadeous' theme. Highlighted with some plucky harpsichord playing and a delightful pennywhistle, this cue seems to be written for a cheeky, mischievous type of anti-hero, much like Jack Sparrow or Robert Downey Jr.'s Sherlock Holmes. Unfortunately, that is not the case for McBride's portrayal of the character and instead he comes off as just an idiotic stoner that calls for a much different style of them played by a tuba. Whether or not Jablonsky was instructed to write such a theme or didn't quite get the character is not certain. On screen, it's a little misplaced, on album is nothing short of highly entertaining and can be forgiven.
"Best Man" is more of slower thoughtful heroic piece, backed by a string and brass section, concluding with a harpsichord tapping in a few final notes. It almost makes you forget this is for a stoner comedy...almost, until the next track that is.
"The Greatest Most Beautifullest Love Song In All The Land" reminds us that this score is indeed for an incredibly ridiculous film. With half-decent vocals performed by Zooey Deschanel and absolutely horrendous vocals by James Franco, I can't help but enjoying this terrible song for what it is. Although it is a little out of place and immediately snaps you out of the mood set up so far with the first 4 cues, it couldn't be better timed on the album.
"The Virgin Is Plucked" is a rather stirring and intimidating action cue that makes wonderful use of that Transformers type of choir chants. It wouldn't be out of place approaching the Realms of Mordor, with it's threatening low end cello stirs and taunting high end string section, joined by a blaring brass section and synthetic, pulsating textures
We are reminded of Vangelis' work in Alexander and 1492: Conquest of Paradise, with the rousing "Not In My Castle". Making use of the cliche MV/RC string crescendos, it raises the bar with an inspiring brass section and percussive marching.
"Playful Secrets!" tick-tock's it's way with wonder and the majestic that takes me back to an old SNES game called ActRaiser or some of John Williams' work on the Harry Potter series.
While the cue "Leezar’s Date, Belladonna’s Hate" reminded me too much of the Fallen's theme from the Transformers' sequel, "Here Come The Marteetee" and "A Fistful Of Snakes" are the tracks that really degrades the score into the boring and mundane. They could be written for any run of the mill action score, from biker cyber punk attacks to Will Smith fistfighting with aliens or monsters and in the end, that lack of creativity just can't go unnoticed. A middle-eastern style flute is what grounds these cues in it's time period a little but not enough to keep one from rolling their eyes, unless you're merely into what sounds "epic" to you.
Jablonksy enters 'horror' scoring territory with "Labyrinths And Humps". It's riddled with orchestrated anarchy and well placed stings that would make Marco Beltrami smile.
Jablonsky stirs the emotions with excitement and suspense on the climatic and wonderfully titled "Orgy Of Violence" cue. One of the finest details I have to point out is a well placed chime hitting the same notes as the choir chanting, which requires a good sound system to really get feel of the impact and intimacy of such a huge piece and it's many finer specifics. I can't help but wonder why Jablonsky didn't go with this sort of action writing for the rest of the score. It's almost entirely orchestral hardly relying on any electronics or synthesizers and is one of the most pleasurable cues he's written in his career.
Concluding the album presentation is the rallying concert cue "Thadeous" reprising the theme with much more heroism and bravery than it's initial performance.
As delightfully enjoyable Your Highness is, I can't help but feel mildly disappointed with Steve Jablonsky's use of out of place electronics and synthetic textures. I don't mind electronics and synths in scores at all, I just feel there's a time and place for them...a medieval set film is not one of them.
Had Jablonsky stuck to the purely organic and orchestral composing I would have awarded it an extra star. He proved he could do it with Steamboy and many cues on this album, why didn't he stay with it?
When it all comes down to it, Your Highness is nothing short of pure fun and keeps Jablonsky on my list of composers to keep an eye on.

3 out of 5