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2017 Round Up Part 4

December 26, 2017

2017 Round Up – Part 4

Synchrotones presents its final round-ups for this year: a brief overview of soundtrack releases that didn’t get their own dedicated review. In this edition: Battle of the Sexes (Nicholas Britell), Down the Deep Dark Web (Frank Ilfman), Breathe (Nitin Sawhney), A Family Man (Mark Isham), Flatliners (Nathan Barr), Jane (Philip Glass), LBJ (Marc Shaiman), American Assassin (Steven Price) and Dolores (Mark Killian).
Reviews by Pete Simons.

Battle of the Sexes by Nicholas Britell is one of the year’s most pleasant surprises. Britell wasn’t really on my radar, even though Moonlight and Free State of Jones are perfectly decent scores. In Battle of the Sexes, the composer presents a handful of ideas, all equally charming. There’s an infectious “March”, which may be perfectly predictable in its chord progression, but it’s fun and addictive in the way that marches tend to be (1941, Police Academy, etcetera). There’s a lovely piano-driven melody for Billy Jean King (reprised on organ in “One Dollar”); a jazzy one for Bobby Riggs; and an exciting (almost epic) orchestral piece for “Bobby vs Margaret”. The last few cues (“Battle of the Sexes Match 1” and “… Match 2”, “Victory”, “Finale” and “Postlude”) reprise several key themes in a number of variations. The use of woodwinds gives it a baroque character at times, whilst the use of organ may remind of Interstellar. The orchestrations tend to be understated, but even where they aren’t there’s something ‘small scale’ about the whole thing. It’s rather charming! A number of period songs are scattered throughout the album and, I have to say, they complement the score quite nicely. All in all, a fabulously addictive album.

Frank Ilfman’s Big Bad Wolves was one of my favourite (horror) scores in recent years. His latest score is for the documentary/tv movie Down the Deep Dark Web in which a journalist explores the ‘darknet’ and meets tech experts, cybercrime watchmen and self-proclaimed underground freedom fighters. Seeing as the film deals with technology, it may not come as a surprise that the score is fully electronic. Lots of nice bubbly and perky sounds, very retro (which is very trendy at the moment). Synth-fans should be lapping up all the wonderful 80s-style sounds and beats. As these retro-electro scores go, Down the Deep Dark Web is one of the most convincing I’ve heard. I couldn’t really hum any melodies from it (it’s more of an arpeggio-driven score), but it sure sounds delicious.

Andy Serkis makes his directorial debut with the romantic drama Breathe, about a young couple overcoming illness and making the most of life. The music by Nitin Sawhney is unashamedly romantic and rather old-fashioned in its style and overall sound. Strings and piano dominate. A few sombre cues aside, the score is mostly about hope and keeping up the spirits. There’s an almost ‘Hollywood golden age’ swoon to the strings and winds; and the music is often jazzy in nature. I’m not sure if the music is all sampled, or whether it’s the recording technique that’s given it its slightly faded character. A lovely little score.

I miss Mark Isham. You know, the one who scored A River Runs Through It, Fly Away Home and Crash. He seems to focus on the hit TV-show Once Upon A Time, with film-work seemingly restricted to action thrillers. I’m not a big fan of his recent scores. A Family Man is about cut-throat professional ambition on the one hand, and about coming to terms with having an ill son on the other. The score is mostly, if not entirely, electronic. Piano, plucked synths sounds and strings dominate the orchestrations. The album starts off with cool synths highlighting the tense corporate world; but as it progresses it gains warmth. It’s a very listenable score, quite pleasant at times; but it never really escapes this modern minimalism, which sounds pretty enough but is never allowed to make you feel too much.

Steven Price pulls all his familiar tricks out of the bag for the action thriller American Assassin. By now, if you’ve heard Gravity, Fury and The Hunt you will roughly know what to expect from the composer. Technically it’s as good as any of those, will cool sounds and equally cool production values. It’s very rhythmic and sound-driven. There isn’t much in the way of melody, certainly not something you’ll be humming afterwards. I like Price’s style; there’s something quite fresh and unique about it. American Assassin delivers style in spades, but it does sadly miss the drama that Price’s aforementioned scores offered.

I know (and love) Mark Killian mostly from his thriller scores, so this quirky little work for the documentary Dolores comes as a pleasant surprise. The film is about Dolores Huerta an American civil rights activist, particularly active in the 1950. Though born and bred in the States, the name suggests a heritage from south of the borders. Killian’s music dominantly features acoustic guitar and a Mexican character. This gives the score an intimate sound; but when strings, cello, piano and other instruments are added, the music hints at things greater than one person. It bugs me a little that you can too easily sing ‘all by my-self’ over the first few notes of the main theme; but that little niggle aside, Dolores is a beautiful score.

So, they’ve remade Flatliners. The original had quite an interesting score by James Newton Howard. This time round it’s up to Nathan Barr to provide a musical pulse to this movie. He does this quite literally through electronic sounds. Strings add drama, whilst piano adds a touch of melancholy. It’s by no means bad; and at times it’s quite nice, but on the whole it’s just another typical mix of synth pulses with strings. It’s very atmospheric, but for me it’s too much ‘style over substance’ – the problem with so many scores today.

If you want a modern minimal score, then you best hire a modern minimal composer. In that respect, Haushka is as good a choice as any (Richter and Johannsson would also come to mind). Whether that sort of style is really appropriate for a story about labour strikes in the 1930, I’m not entirely sure. In Dubious Battle is a pleasant enough album. It’s gritty and pretty. Beautiful strings and piano are intertwined with unnerving scraping sounds. As a soundtrack, I’m not clear on what the music is trying to tell me, but as an album by Haushka I’m quite enjoying it.

And speaking of modern minimalism, let’s hear it for the ‘inventor’ of this style: Philip Glass. His score for Jane is out. Heavy on piano and strings, though winds and brass (and percussion) also make appearances. I always feel you need to be in the mood for Glass to really appreciate his music. A lot of Glass’ music does sound rather the same. When Jane is pretty, it’s lovely music; but where it tries to incorporate percussion and where it tries to be more suspenseful, it’s really not nice. Not to mention that Glass’ never-ending arpeggios don’t tell me anything, they don’t make me feel anything. I quite like Glass’ music, but I rarely understand what his music as film-music is trying to achieve.

LBJ are the initials of an American president (it’s not an acronym for the actions Marc Shaiman had to perform to get the gig). I haven’t really heard from Shaiman since the 90s when he wrote some wonderful scores for The American President and the two Adams Family movies. With LBJ it’s almost as if we’re back in those days. His style hasn’t really changed; it’s still that warm, syrupy-sweet sound, dominated by strings, piano, some winds and a bit of brass when necessary. I don’t think LBJ is hugely memorable, but it’s so nice to hear Shaiman’s musical voice again; especially (dare I say) since the passing of James Horner. I think both composers share an unashamed romantic style; something that dares to pull on the heart-strings in ways that is not often allowed these days.

Reviews by Pete Simons (C) 2017 Synchrotones

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