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Divergent (Junkie XL)

April 18, 2014


Junkie XL, 2014, Lionsgate
21 tracks, 1:29:31

Of all Dutch composers, I wasn’t expecting Junkie XL to be the one to make it big in Hollywood. But you know what… He’s doing alright! “Divergent” is a cracking little score.
Review by Pete Simons

What is it?

Directed by Neil Burger (“The Illusionists”, “The Lucky Ones”) “Divergent” tells the story of a dystopian future in which the world is split into factions, based on five virtues. Tris (Shailene Woodley) learns that she is ‘divergent’, i.e. doesn’t fit in any group. It would mean sudden death. She discovers a plot to destroy all divergents, which leaves her fighting for her life. Neil Burger has worked with Philip Glass and Rolfe Kent on past films and turns to electronica-specialist Tom Holkenborg (aka Junkie XL) for his latest film. Holkenborg has a strong reputation as a dance and electronica musician and is rapidly making a name for himself in Hollywood; having worked with Hans Zimmer on scores such as “The Dark Knight Rises” and “Man of Steel“. He currently works out of the Remote Control studios. He has recently scored “300: Rise of an Empire” and is currently said to be working on “Mad Max: Fury Road”.

What does it sound like?

The album opens with an instant highlight: “Tris” is a 7-minute anthem for the film’s lead character. Its melody is rooted in ‘pop’, but it is lyrical and lengthy enough to make a great cinematic cue. Soft strings and piano lend it a very personal touch, whilst the driving percussion and plucked guitars (maybe even cimbalom) give it an epic edge. Wordless vocals by pop star Ellie Goulding complete this little gem. The vocals lift this cue to ‘that next level’, though I’m not too sure it really needed someone of Goulding’s calibre. She has a very peculiar voice, but it only really shines when she’s singing words. Her musical accent, and thus what makes her voice so unique, is a little lost on oohs and aahs; great though they do sound.

The theme recurs several times throughout the album. Those worried that someone like Junkie XL would merely deliver a plethora of synths and drums will be pleasantly surprised by the score’s melodic coherency. “Choosing Dauntless” repeats the theme, replete with Goulding’s vocals, great bass and guitar work, and some magnificent percussion. On this track in particular it’s almost as if Holkenborg treats his (electronic) percussion as if it’s a marching band. It’s fun, exciting and colourful. When you listen to this cue, it’s easy to imagine why Hans Zimmer invited Holkenborg along to compose a new anthem for dance-festival Tomorrowland. It simply manages to put a grin on your face.

The feel-good atmosphere continues with “Capture the Flag” which sees Holkenborg rearranging his main theme for strings, augmented with a clean electric guitar. Purist will claim that it’s a poor attempt at writing a pseudo-classical piece; but I can’t help but really enjoy the skittish nature of this cue. On a technical level I do have some slight concerns about the harmonies (especially towards the end), but typically I find myself happily bobbing along to the rhythm of the violins.

“Ferris Wheel” is just plain cool with its stylish synth arpeggios; whilst “Erudite Plan” is an intriguing cue for cimbalom (and as such reminded me of Orbital’s “The Box”, only one of my favorite electronic songs of all time). The cimbalom returns in a few cues, such as the warm “A Friend” and the cool “Conspiracy”. Fans of trailer music will love “Final Test” with its fast-paced string ostinato and epic chord progressions; whilst fans of John Carpenter will probably enjoy the pulsing synths of “The March”. The album climaxes with “Fight the Dauntless”, an exhilarating piece for ostinato strings, big drums and a power-anthem. It’s the best ‘guilty pleasure’ emerging from the Remote Control studios for some time; and it’s definitely music to get speeding tickets by!

There are a number of slower, elegiac cues for strings and soft synths. “Sacrifice” is a stand-out cue courtesy of Goulding’s mournful performance of the main theme. “I am Divergent”, “Faction Before Blood” and “Everywhere And Nowhere” offer some respite from the synths, though I find these cues to be the least interesting ones. The remaining cues contain either synthesised filler or ear-shattering percussion. Holkenborg co-composed parts of “Man of Steel” and his “Divergent” clearly derives from it. “The Test”, “Fear”, “Dauntless Attack” and the 14-minute “You’re Not Gonna Like This” seem to borrow from the same percussion recordings. But where I thought it was an unnecessary gimmick on “Man of Steel”, here I’m enjoying these action cues a lot more. Perhaps because it’s an entirely different musical soundscape for a very different film; and it just seems to make a lot more sense here.

Is it any good?

Would it be fair to call this ‘a guilty pleasure’? Or ‘better than expected’? I don’t want to damn my fellow Dutch citizen with faint praise. He is after all classically trained (plays piano, guitar and drums), just chose to make money with dance music. To be fair, there is probably more money to be made in that genre; and he is really good at it! “Divergent” combines a strong anthemic theme with cool ambient textures and driving percussion. Not too mention there’s a cimbalom! There are orchestral elements, strings mostly, but still this score won’t be everyone. An affinity for electronics is a prerequisite for enjoying this album. I think it’s a lot of good fun and great energy. It’s one of those score that by no means is amongst the greats, and yet it’s been finding its way to my music player very regularly.

Rating [3.5/5]


1. Tris (feat: Ellie Goulding) 7:48
2. The Test 3:17
3. Choosing Dauntless (feat: Ellie Goulding) 3:44
4. Capture the Flag (feat: Ellie Goulding) 3:07
5. This Isn’t Real 1:38
6. Ferris Wheel 3:32
7. Erudite Plan 3:21
8. Fear 3:36
9. I Am Divergent 1:39
10. A Friend 2:48
11. Conspiracy 5:27
12. Watertank 1:50
13. Faction Before Blood 6:48
14. Human Nature 3:12
15. Final Test 1:38
16. The March 5:17
17. Dauntless Attack 5:55
18. Sacrifice (feat: Ellie Goulding) 4:21
19. You’re Not Gonna Like This 14:00
20. Fight the Dauntless 4:14
21. Everywhere and Nowhere 2:28


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