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The Abyss (Alan Silvestri)

June 1, 2014


Alan Silvestri, 2014, Varese Sarabande
2CD, 38 tracks, 1:53:54

On the eve of its 25th anniversary, “The Abyss” receives Varese’s deluxe treatment. When stretched to nearly two hours, spread over 2 CDs, how will Alan Silvestri’s score fare?
Review by Pete Simons

What is it?

High on the success of “Aliens” and “The Terminator” James Cameron combined his passions for both film and deep-sea diving to make the underwater thriller “The Abyss”. It was a rough ride for the stars involved, particularly Ed Harris (as Bud) and Mary-Elizabeth Mastrantonio (as Lindsey). The production was riddled with problems and when the film was released it didn’t perform all that well, with critical and popular opinions being mixed. However, the film did leave a lasting, positive mark on cinema’s history, courtesy of ILM’s spectacular visual effects. The pseudopod (more popularly known as the ‘water tentacle’) proved to be the precursor to the liquid metal protagonist (T-1000) from “Terminator 2: Judgement Day”. The film has gathered quite a fan base over time and, though generally considered to be a decent film, still divides opinions today, with nay-sayers claiming it’s nothing more than “Close Encounters” under water.

The film, in case you’re not familiar with it, opens with the mysterious crash of a nuclear submarine, the USS Montana. The motley and loveable crew of a near-by underwater oil-drilling rig is drafted in by the Navy to help locate the submarine and search for survivors. There is a storm brewing overhead and there is not enough time for the Navy to send their own ships. In fact, during the storm the rig gets disconnected from the mothership at sea; leaving the crew stranded on the edge of an abyss. The Navy do manage to send down a team of SEALs, led by Lt Coffey (Michael Biehn), who slowly but surely succumbs to high pressure nervous syndrome. After a trip to the sunken Montana, the SEALs bring back a nuclear warhead, much to the dismay of the rig crew. When Lindsey reports having seen extra terrestrials flying across the ocean floor (and certainly after they actually infiltrate the rig), Lt Coffey (who believes the aliens are Russians; this is after all an 80s film) decides to throw the a-bomb down the abyss. Bud and Lindsey, ex-partners who are rekindling a spark they thought had gone out, try to stop Lt Coffey; and an exciting battle of mini-subs ensues. Bud and Lindsey end up stranded away from the rig, with only one diver’s suit between them to make it back. The bomb has slipped down into the ‘bottomless pit’, so Bud takes on a one-way mission to dismantle the bomb before it goes boom.

James Cameron, notoriously tough to work with, even when it comes to music, turned to Alan Silvestri for the score. By 1989 Silvestri was hot property. Through various high and low profile films, the composer had proven to be quite adept at a variety of styles. From the rousing adventure themes of “Back to the Future” to the inventive and percussive action music of “Predator” and the synthesized textures of “Mac and Me“, amongst numerous others. Silvestri got to combine all of those styles on “The Abyss” and then threw in a large choir to boot. It’s an ambitious score for an even more ambitious film.

“The Abyss”, both film and score, holds a special place in my heart. It would not be fair to continue this review without making that clear. We all have that one film, that one defining moment that made us a fan of films and film music. For me it was this one. The film itself captured my imagination through its dark and claustrophobic settings; its strong characters; its magnificent visual effects; and the presence of aliens. The music is big and muscular at times, lyrical at others, and culminates in a grand choir-driven finale. Heck, it was the poster that first peaked my interest; and I remember walking over to the local video shop to rent it (on VHS). To this very day “The Abyss” remains one of my favorite films. Having said that, I am not blind to its flaws – both the picture and the soundtrack do have some. Still, when Varese Sarabande announced this 2CD Deluxe Edition, and when it finally arrived in the post… I felt that same rush of excitement as I did nearly a quarter of a decade ago.

What does it sound like?

The deluxe edition contains 38 tracks, split over 2 discs. The first 28 cues represent the score as heard in the film, in chronological order. The remaining ten cues are bonus tracks, often showcasing the composer’s initial ideas (sometimes synth demos), before they were rewritten. This immediately highlights a difference between this release and the original one. Various cues on the single disc edition were edited; either to cut them short, or to fuse several together. And that actually worked really, really well. This deluxe edition doesn’t do that and, for better or worse, presents the music as it was recorded, unedited.

The album opens with “Opening Titles”; a short cue for female choir as the film’s title appears on-screen. It ends with a fanfare-like 4-note motif that does recur in other cues. Disc two offers a synth demo (which sounds surprisingly good, actually). What follows is a score that combines orchestral cues with synthesised ones. “Montana/Crash/Flood” offers some typical Silvestri dramatic motifs and chords, without being particularly melodic. “Let Me Drown Your Rat/Search the Montana” offers ten minutes of mysterious synth pads, choir and timpani rolls. “Jammer Freaks” follows in the same style and sound. It works well in the film, and manages to create a recognisable sound-scape, but like most of these type of cues is not all that engaging on album.

“He’s Convulsing” is an exciting orchestral cue; clearly from the composer who just did “Predator”. It presents a rhythmic motif (very colorfully orchestrated for full orchestra) that is to return several times later. “Crashing Crane” is one of the film’s most exciting scenes and is scored with a driving rhythm offset against brass quintets and ‘old fashioned’-sounding string flourishes. The action continues in “What a Drag” and “The Draggiest Man” (repeating that driving rhythm).

“Lyndsey’s Close Encounter” starts off being a mysterious little cue; though for orchestra rather than synthesizer. Soft strings and brass are eventually accompanied by eerie (but never jarring) synth pads. Silvestri employs little flute and string runs to hint at the presence of aliens, before (soft) choir takes over. Tracks like these firmly cement “The Abyss” in the fantasy genre, as the various flourishes for flute, strings and harp have a slight cartoonish/comical side to them. The second half of “The Pseudopod” also contains some ‘micky mousing’ as the strings and tuba ‘dance’ along as a water-tentacle finds it way into the rig. The first half offers some suitably eerie synth sounds.

“Freeze” is mostly a mysterious cue, though towards the end Silvestri presents a neat militaristic ostinato. There is more percussion, of the “Predator 2” variety in “The Fight”. It’s a cue that works quite well in the film, but on CD I’ve never been a fan of it, since it’s not much more than some programmed drums and a few moody chords. Disc One concludes with the original version of “What a Drag”. It is much longer and a lot slower than the final version; as it focuses more on drama than on action. Interestingly, it also contains a hint of the score’s love theme (never titled as such, I’m just calling it that).

Disc Two continues with “Coffey Implodes”, a brief cue that will be of little interest to anyone but hardcore fans of the film or its composer. There are plenty of other cues that, whilst interesting from a completist point of view, offer little extra. Amongst these are cues like “Marker Buoy/They’re Coming”, “MIRV Recovery/SEALs Return”, “Here’s MIRV/Some Huevos”, “Have to Take Steps”, “Coffey Break”, “Bud and Cat Dive/Click”,

“The Only Way” underscores one of the film’s most dramatic scenes as Bud and his ex-wife Lindsey are stranded in a flooding mini-submarine, far away from the main rig, with only one working diver’s suit between them. Bud takes the suit and swims back to the rig as fast as possible, with Lindsey dying in his arms. Dramatic string chords and solemn, but powerful timpani hits accompany his journey. Later the timpani is combined with, and ultimately replaced by, a synthesised hit. For me, this sound is synonymous to “The Abyss”. It is powerful, it is ominous. Though to be fair, it does go on and on a bit too long on album. The cue comes to an end with a strings-and-piano rendition of the love theme. It is a little bit cheesy and it’s easy to see why it didn’t make the final cut; though it’s nice to hear Silvestri’s thought-process at work.

“Resurrection” surely is the film’s dramatic highlight, with Ed Harris acting his socks off and crying his eyes out… to a camera mere inches away from his face. The cue is heartfelt and noble; Silvestri at his finest. “Bud’s Big Dive” is a lengthy cue, but doesn’t offer much beyond a series of eerie synthesiser sounds. These sounds continue through “Defusing the Bomb”, though Silvestri does add some orchestral layers. What everyone will be waiting for though is “Bud on the Ledge”, the score’s spine-tingler, the bone-chiller. This is ‘your tears of joy’ that James Cameron was undoubtedly referring to in his liner notes. Angelic choir, rising chords for strings and brass leading up to a majestic fanfare and an ominous finale. Without a shadow of a doubt, and even after twenty-five years, this is Alan Silvestri at his very best. Play it loud, because… you know you want to.

The choir theme from “Bud on the Ledge” returns softly for solo choir (male and female) in “Bud Reborn/Blinky Bows”, before the track concludes with the film’s signature 4-note motif. Two further cues, “Back on the Air” and “Finale and End Credits” provide the film with a grand yet emotional finale. Various themes are reprised from the angelic choir theme to the love theme, the signature motif and more. Aside from Silvestri’s phenomenal writing, credits should also go to James B Campbell for his, equally phenomenal, orchestrations.

And this, ladies and gentlemen, this finale is what got me into the film music. It is this collection of cues that is ultimately responsible for my passion for filmscores and ultimately the very existence of this website. From “Resurrection” through to “Finale and End Credits” is the reason you are reading this review.

You’d almost want the album to stop right there; but there are ten more bonus cues to come; mostly variations on previous cues. “Flood and Sinking” is an unused synth cue, that offers little beyond several spooky chords. “Crashing Crane (Alternate)” is an exciting variation which sees Silvestri incorporating the love theme into the action material. “What a Drag (Alternate)” and “Some Huevos (Alternate)” offer some robust action material; whilst the first half of “The Pseudopod (Alternate)” seems a little darker than the final version. “The Fight (Alternate)” is barely any different; though “The Only Way” couldn’t be more different if it tried! It takes a melodic and dramatic approach (sans timpani hits, but with lush strings and piano ostinato), where the final version was more aggressive. “Lyndsey Dies” offers a string version of the love theme, with a counterpoint melody on piano. It’s a little cheesy and, again, I can see why this didn’t make the final cut. The album comes to a close with a solo choir performance of the aliens’ angelic theme. All in all a beautiful and fitting end; though its final open-ended chord leaves you wanting the orchestra to swell up once more.

Is it any good?

Whilst this score is very dear to me, and I am over the moon with this Deluxe Edition, I cannot turn a blind eye to its weaknesses. The original release was a bit short and an expansion was definitively ‘necessary’, however a 2-hours complete release may be a tad much for most listeners. A lot of the music isn’t really all that interesting. There is a lot of moody synth stuff, old-fashioned synth stuff, that doesn’t do much away from the images. That deep bassy clanging sound is repeated ad nauseam, adding nothing to the listening experience. Similar criticism applies to the military percussion that seems to go on forever before finally being resolved. This works against the picture, but is not particularly interesting away from it. There are lot of 5-star cues on this album; but equally there are plenty of two-star tracks here. Whilst this score may have triggered a passion for film music in me, I have to regretfully admit that it is mostly a mediocre score with several stand-out cues.

Presenting the music as it was written and intended by the composer has its pros and cons, and is sure to divide opinions. For ‘archival’ purposes it is great that the score is presented the way it is. However, this doesn’t necessarily make for the greatest listening experience. Music on CD as a standalone experience is perceived entirely different from when that same music sits on screen. As such I actually prefer it when album releases are treated separately, and when the music is optimised (edited) for a better listening episode.

If I’d nitpick a little further I’d say that, if you’re going to do a complete release of the music, it would have been nice to have Robert Garrett’s additional music for the director’s cut available. Not that it was anything special, but for the sake of completeness it would’ve been nice. Just as it would’ve been nice to have a different album cover (the image that accompanied the film’s special edition would’ve been appropriate). But you know you’re clutching at straws when you’re criticising the album’s cover…

Of course it is great to have some additional music from this ‘classic’ score; and some of those cues are absolutely fantastic. Of course it’s great to hear some of the composer’s unused variations, and gain a better insight into the composing process. Of course it’s great to have the music cleaned-up and remastered (great job, well done). And of course it’s great to read those extensive liner notes by Julie Kirgo and Mike Matessino. This is a most welcome release, celebrating the film’s 25th anniversary. For most people the old single disc will suffice, but for those who are a fan of the movie, the score and the composer this is a great treat.

Rating [3.5/5]


Disc One (56:50)
1. Opening Title (:42)
2. Montana / Crash / Flood (2:01)
3. Marker Buoy / They’re Coming (1:17)
4. Let Me Drown Your Rat / Search The Montana (10:09)
5. Jammer Freaks (3:30)
6. He’s Convulsing (1:14)
7. MIRV Recovery / SEALs Return (2:03)
8. Crashing Crane (2:08)
9. What A Drag (2:01)
10. The Draggiest Man (1:22)
11. Lindsey’s Close Encounter (6:23)
12. Here’s MIRV / Some Huevos (2:27)
13. Have To Take Steps / Jarhead Is Watching (1:13)
14. The Pseudopod (5:35)
15. Coffey Break (1:56)
16. Freeze (3:40)
17. Bud And Cat Dive / Click (:59)
18. The Fight (1:52)
19. What A Drag (Original) (6:05)

Disc Two (57:28)
1. Coffey Implodes (1:09)
2. The Only Way (7:49)
3. Resurrection (2:00)
4. Bud’s Big Dive (6:40)
5. Defusing The Bomb (2:17)
6. Bud On The Ledge (3:12)
7. Bud Reborn / Blinky Bows (3:22)
8. Back On The Air (1:47)
9. Finale And End Credits (4:47)

Bonus Tracks:
10. Opening Title (Demo) (:43)
11. Flood And Sinking (Alternate) / Unused Synth Cue (1:01)
12. Crashing Crane (Alternate) (2:08)
13. What A Drag (Wild Original) (4:33)
14. Some Huevos (Alternate) (1:19)
15. The Pseudopod (Alternate) (5:33)
16. The Fight (Alternate) (1:51)
17. The Only Way (Alternate) (4:54)
18. Lindsey Dies (Alternate) (1:05)
19. Vocal Insert (:56)


Visit the Varese Sarabande website for more information.

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