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2014 – The Unreviewed (2/3)

January 4, 2015

UnreviewedAs Synchrotones continues to review those scores that were left unreviewed in 2014, read about Newton Howard’s “Nightcrawler”, the animated “Lego Ninajago”, Beltrami’s “November Man”, another animated “Penguins of Madagascar”, Shapiro’s “St Vincent”, Debney’s “Stonehearst Asylum” and a few more.

Related: “2014 – The Unreviewed (1/3)
Related: “2014 – The Unreviewed (3/3)”

Synchrotones is grateful for the many promos or advance copies it has received throughout 2014. A special Thank You goes out to the composers, publicists and labels who make this possible. It is genuinely unfortunate that some scores have been left unreviewed. But unreviewed does not mean unheard however. So let’s focus, if only briefly, on those scores that got away.

Nightcrawler” (James Newton Howard, 28 tracks, 51:04, Lakeshore Records 2014). Arguably JNH’s least interesting (and least popular) score of the year. It’s not at all an unpleasant listen. In fact, it makes for fairly decent background music. The trouble is that it’s so nondescript. It’s got plenty of ambient synth pads, guitar sounds and percussive loops. At best, it’s cool and stylish, in a Jeff Rona sort-of way. It utilises some wonderful synth sounds, if you’re into that kinda thing. But it’s low on thematic material. There are fragments of ‘could-be’ melodies, but nothing that really blossoms. It’s also void of emotion; it’s just there, but doesn’t really seem to do anything. As said, very nondescript.

Lego Ninjago Master of Spinjitzu” (Jay Vincent & Michael Kramer, 19 tracks, 55:13, Varese Sarabande 2014). This is the score for a cartoon series about four Lego ninjas who battle an evil warlord. And you know what? This is one score that really deserves a full review (hm, who writes these things around here?). It’s a lively, fun score, with shedloads of Japanese influences. Wind instruments represent the good guys, whilst strings represent the bad guys. There’s a clear distinction in instrumentation, to see if the viewers (kids) will pick up on this. There are also plenty of synths and electric guitar sounds. At times it comes across as “Kung Fu Panda”-meets-“Black Hawk Down”. It relies heavily on familiar clichés and it’s all quite silly really; though production values are top-notch. One of those scores that could get on your nerves if you’re not in the mood for it; but it’s good fun after a few shots.

No Good Deed” (Paul Haslinger, 15 tracks, 26:29, Screen Gems 2014). Thriller about a family being terrorised by an escaped convict. As listeners, we’re treated to ostinato strings, plenty of percussion (both soft and loud), a wide range of moody drones and several key changes. And at 26 minutes, the score stops short of outstaying its welcome. No doubt this aural creepfest will work great against the picture, but as a standalone listening experience it’s quite boring. Great production values, and hey… I have heard worse things this year, but that’s about as much praise as I can give it, I’m afraid.

November Man” (Marco Beltrami, 18 tracks, 61:23, Varese Sarabande 2014). Thriller about an ex-CIA agent who is protecting a key witness to an old conspiracy. This makes him a target of his former employer. Beltrami delivers what you’d expect for this type of film: a moody score with plenty of cool (often low-key) percussion, synths, the occasional guitar and plenty of strings. He does this quite expertly and manages to do a few interesting things (with regards to orchestrations), which provide this score with some merit. At times it reminds me of Craig Armstrong’s “The Bone Collector”, a superior work. However, at 61 minutes “November Man” drags on a bit. There’s a better, shorter album in there. Technicalities aside, it’s not really an engaging listening experience.

Penguins of Madagascar” (Lorne Balfe, 19 tracks, 52:48, Relativity Music Group 2014). At first I was quite excited about this score. During the opening cue Balfe introduces his lively, big band-ish main theme and puts it through its paces. What follows is a hyperactive score with plenty of caper/heist influences. It’s got plenty of brass (31 players credited) and bongos! Swirling strings and electric guitar riffs are also present. But what starts as a pleasant surprise, soon turns into an exhausting score. It tries to be cool and funny, but it only occasionally is. It tries to be John Powell, which… yeah, not even in the same league. At its very best it’s a bit like “Antz”. It’s also odd (and distracting) that some sections sound sampled, whilst others sound live. It’s got a great theme, and some of the large orchestral cues are impressive; but (…wait for it…) the whole does not equal the sum of its parts – a bit like this review.

Regarding Susan Sontag” (Laura Karpman & Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum, 24 tracks, 60:06, Lakeshore Records 2014). Written predominantly for string quartet and saxophone quartet, this feels like a composer’s score. It’s heavily influenced by cool bop, free jazz and mid-20th century concert music; and it seems to rely on (what appears as) improvised music. The liner notes from the two composers are excellent in describing what the music aims to do. It’s an interesting album, and the juxtaposition of string- and sax quartet offers an intriguing soundscape. It’s very intellectual. I feel smarter just for listening to it – not a bloody clue what’s going on though, mind you! There are also some ‘electronic’ things going on, such as artificial reverb and echo, as well as sampling. It really is very interesting, very creative and at times really beautiful. It keeps you on your toes, as it’s impossible to predict what’s going to happen next. But I struggle to connect with most of it. It is what it is for a reason, and I appreciate that. I’ve enjoyed listening to it and I might return to it to study it a little closer; but I can’t see myself coming back to it often (partly because I simply don’t like saxophones, never have).

Repentance” (Mark Kilian, 27 tracks, 56:14, Lakeshore Records 2014). An earnest life-coach is mysteriously abducted by a deranged client. The album opens with a genuinely beautiful lament for piano, violin and strings. Kilian applies all the usual tricks we expect to hear in a thriller score: bubbly electronic percussion, dense string chords, moody synths, etcetera. In that regard, it’s a typical thriller score. What elevates this score above its peers is that Kilian manages to emphasise the personal drama that the lead character is experiencing. Large parts of the score are really quite beautiful with violin, piano and even duduk taking centre stage. The whole thing does move at a snail’s pace, so the 56 minutes ‘running’ time do feel quite long. Trim it down to about 30 and you got yourself a (surprisingly) wonderful, melancholy thriller score.

St Vincent” (Theodore Shapiro, 20 tracks, 35:44, Sony Music 2014). An innocent little score. Sweet and fun, if largely too low-key to leave a lasting impression. Soft piano and strings underscore any drama this film offers; and it does so expertly, but it’s unremarkable. However, the score really comes to live through its guitar-driven, song-like cues. Light percussion includes anything from sticks to shakers and hand claps. These upbeat tracks can’t fail to put a smile on your face. A quirky theme recurs throughout, holding everything together. You might be forgiven for thinking this was a Rolfe Kent score; it’s got that sort of playfulness, whilst still feeling like it’s got a genuine story to tell.

Stonehearst Asylum” (John Debney, 31 tracks, 78:57, Lakeshore Records 2014). Thriller set in a mental institution, directed by Brad Anderson of “Session 9” and “The Machinist” and you hear that – in that this is (another) very classical, slickly produced score. Anderson does have a great taste in music; and here he asked for a romantic and sweeping score. Debney delivers just that. Lush strings with emphasis on solo violin make this score feel very classy; almost like a scary version of “Downton Abbey”. Superficially it reminds me of James Newton Howard’s “The Village”. I find Debney a bit hit-and-miss, but here he really delivers. The writing is beautiful, the orchestrations are gorgeous. There are lots of interesting details to be heard. The romantic cues are truly wonderful; and it’s also got some powerful action sequences. That said, I’m not so sure we really need 78 minutes of it; there is a fair amount of suspense music that’s not all that engaging on album. And despite its beauty it’s not a score that really lingers in your memory.

Switch” (Brian Satterwhite, 28 tracks, 50:12, Lakeshore Records 2014). Documentary about various energy resources from across the world. The director wanted characteristics of these sources (e.g. water, wind, coal) to be reflected in the music. I’m not sure how that is audible in the score, though it does seem to draw inspiration from various locales. There isn’t really a central melody that stands out, but what does bind the score together is a continuous ‘bubbly’ undercurrent. Rhythmic marimbas, echoing guitars and synth arpeggios are ever-present. It’s quite a pleasant sound, if you’re into that sort of thing, though it does get tiresome after a while. Production values are high, though occasionally it does sound like old-fashioned corporate video music; perhaps deliberate.

 To be continued…

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