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Franglen rules Pandora…

December 18, 2022

Feeling blue? Perhaps Avatar: The Way of Water has the power to uplift, to inspire and to wonder. Simon Franglen takes over the reigns and does not disappoint.

We dive “Into the Water” and it instantly conjures up images of calm waters and faraway lands. There are sparkly sounds, as you’d expect from Avatar, we’ve got warm strings and vocal pads embracing you, and lots of little flourishes for woodwinds and echoeing vocals. So far it actually reminds me of James Horner’s Living in the Age of Airplanes. The cue ends with a twinkling piano motif, so familiar to Horner fans.

Beautiful rhythms, with wooden and metallic sounds, exotic woodwinds and vocals get your feet tapping in “Happiness is Simple”, before Franglen gloriously re-introduces the “I See You” theme from the first Avatar. Ooh, feeling a little emotional. I was never a fan of that theme (and certainly not the pop version of it), but Franglen uses it brilliantly throughout his score. “A New Star” is the first action cue on the album. It has a modern sound to it, but it’s primarily written for strings and brass; and that’s true for all the action cues on the album. Percussion is both live and synthetic; and if you listen closely you’ll here panpipes puffing along with the percussion. It’s little details like that that I really admire and that link The Way of Water undeniably to Avatar and James Horner’s legacy, though I think Franglen is a bit more subtle with it than Horner was. Wailing male vocals close this track. “Converging Paths” is initially lighter in tone, but morphs into something rather dramatic, with soft string lines descending and flowing over each other, similar as in Horner’s The New World. “Rescue and Loss” takes the listener on a journey, starting off as an action cue, then becoming more suspenseful before returning to the action. The use of accelerando throughout the cue reminds of Horner as does the solo trumpet. The action material again pares various layers of percussion with staccato flutes and combines it with powerful brass and fast-paced strings; but there are also synth arpeggios running along, giving it a modern tone. Throughout the cue, Franglen plays with tension and release, but I have to admit to not getting any adrenaline rushes from Franglen action material so far.

Melodically, there’s a lot of foreshadowing, but nothing has truly materialised yet. That changes when “Hometree” introduces Franglen’s main theme, that of “The Songcord”. I wonder if the album should’ve started with “The Songcord” so you could get your ear into it and pick it up throughout the score. It’s a wonderful melody (for some reason keeps making me think of Basil Poledouris, but I honestly don’t know why); though it may take a couple of listens to get your head around it. Franglen seems to use this theme in two ways. One is a lyrical, sing-song way, as heard clearly in “The Songcord”. The phrasing of the melody is a little syncopated (following the lyrics, I guess) and as such may take a couple of listens to grasp it. The other version is much slower, more straight on-the-beat, which feels noble and majestic. Not gonna lie, it took me a few listens and some careful comparisons to actually realise that they are the same theme, but differently paced and phrased giving it very different characters. Clever stuff! “Hometree” is a fantastic cue that opens with low brass teasing you with the first notes of the theme, before strings take over. From there, the cue just builds and builds, with strings and brass locked in a wonderful game of call and response.

“The Way of Water” reprises the main theme (it does now start to appear in most tracks in one of its form). It’s more soprano and less exotic this time round and a little movement within the melody made me think of The Magnificent Seven. It’s a beautiful, understated cue. A couple of reflective cues follow before “Friends” brings back the sparkling percussion and Na’Vi chanting. “Cove of the Ancestors” gently and beautifully leads us to the “I See You” theme (though if I was particularly nitpicky I’d note a slightly odd transition where, I assume, two separate cues have been mixed together). After a somewhat understated mid-section, the score becomes more playful again with “The Tulkun Return”, a toe-tapping cue for uplifting vocals, strings (some lovely lines behind the vocals) and lively percussion. It vaguely reminds me off something James Newton Howard might do (a feeling I got a few times throughout the score).

Following the return of the Tulkun, we move into the final third of the album; and this is where things get seriously serious! “The Hunt” is a full-bodied action cue with plenty of brass, heavy percussion, yet with space for dramatic strings. Yet, as with the previous action cues, I’m not getting really pumped. It does all the right things, but feels a little pedestrian. All that changes with “Na’Vi Attack”. What a killer cue! Franglen combines his main theme, Horner’s “I See You”, a nod to “War”, chanting Na’Vi, plenty of percussion and finally some triplets in the brass. After ten minutes of action, “Eclipse” comes along to pull on the heartstrings. Dense strings, wailing vocals and even the four-note motif makes an appearance. Low brass signals that all is not over yet.

Any reservation I had about Franglen’s action material is obliterated with the total bad-ass “Bad Parents”. Big percussion, both acoustic and electronic, strong arpeggios, chanting and some wicked electronic sounds. All that is banging along nicely… and then Franglen goes and drops his main theme right in there. Wow, now things are seriously, seriously epic. But wait! Franglen isn’t done yet. “Knife Fight” dials it up another notch, he throws in bits of Aliens, crashing pianos, awesome synth effects, double anvil hits, and some big motherf—ing choral chords and an ending that we may well be hearing in dozens of future trailers. These two action cue are insanely awesome.

Tension and release, right? After five minutes of the most exciting action stuff I’ve heard this year, everything stops. Time itself seems to stop. A gently pulsing piano opens “From Darkness to Light”, and then solo cello performs the main theme, while choir softly coos in the background. There are shimmering sounds all around; and when the key changes and strings take over, I struggle to hold it together. The drama here is as moving and gut-wrenching as anything Horner himself could’ve written; and it kinda feels like a “we did it” moment (be that for the Na’Vi or for Franglen and his team)… But once more, Franglen isn’t done yet. “The Spirit Tree” fades in gently with otherworldly synth pads accompanied by angelic choir. It’s pretty, but things go next-level when Franglen brings in some familiar sounding piano rolls, a string arpeggio in typical Horner style and ethnic winds, you can feel the late Maestro in the room. A wonderful crescendo and one last powerful performance of Franglen’s main theme finishes both the cue and its listener.

The album concludes with “The Songcord”, a beautiful Na’Vi song performed by Zoe Saldana. In Pandora, a songcord is kinda like a chain on which individuals collect beads, bones, leafs…anything that reminds them of certain events. As the cord grows, it’s essentially a way of remembering one’s life. It’s worth looking up the lyrics for “The Songcord”, as they’re beautiful and add deeper meaning to the song. And as I mentioned at the beginning, The Weeknd opens the album with “Nothing Is Lost”, a great song using sounds from TWoW and showcasing the singer’s considerable talent. I’m not a huge fan, to be honest, but it’s better than the pop version of “I See You” which was a bit corny. There is also a song by The Weeknd, called “Nothing is Lost (You Give Me Strength)”. It’s a great song with sonic similarities to the score; and showcasing Abel Tesfaye’s wonderful voice.

Simon Franglen’s Avatar: The Way of Water is easily one of my favourite scores of 2022, even though it’s only just come out. The wait was long, hearts were broken along the way, hopes were raised and expectations were high; and Franglen delivered in spades. The overall sound is gorgeous, the synth work is out of this world, the acoustic non-orchestral elements are gorgeous, the orchestrations are fantastic and frequently recall Horner’s style; and the orchestra’s performance is spot on. The vocals, whether choir, soloists or sampled, all take us right back to Pandora. To me The Way of Water sounds fuller and richer than Avatar, the latter actually sounding a bit dry in comparison. But for all its richness, TWoW always sounds clear and transparent. Even during the frantic action cues, you can hear everything The mixing is phenomenal!

Franglen of course quotes Horner’s “I See You” theme and frequently employs other Horner-isms. This is a score that is undoubtedly a continuation of Avatar, but there are new tales to tell, new characters to meet; and so the music too moves on. We remember the past, but we look to the future. I know I keep going on about all the Hornerisms; I’m sorry, but he is my favourite composer (and we are talking about a sequel to a Horner score; and I’m sure you’re reading this to see if I’m pointing out any. Trust me, there are many I haven’t even mentioned here – go explore!). To me, TWoW feels like a transition. For all it’s heritage, this is not a Horner score. This is a Franglen score, paying homage and moving on with the story.

On the whole I like The Way of Water more than Avatar. It sounds more polished and coherent to me; and by that I mean that the combination of orchestra, choir, non-orchestral instruments and electronics sounds even better than last time. It sounds more natural, more evenly integrated. When it comes to the overall sound and atmosphere, Franglen easily matches and even surpasses Horner’s work. As mentioned, orchestrations and mixing are stellar! The sound-world that Franglen has created for TWoW is simply and utterly gorgeous. It has all brand new themes, except for “I See You”, but that’s only logical. It has new action material, it has new and improved synth sounds, it has a different overall mix than Avatar. I’m feeling hugely excited after listening to TWoW.

I can’t fault this score, unless I’m being really picky, and in the interest of a balanced review I will briefly release my inner Craig Revel Horwood. I did hear an odd cut in the middle of a cue, and there was a fade-out somewhere (“Hometree” I think) that was a bit too rushed for my liking. Franglen’s action cues are a little hit and miss for me; or perhaps I should say that some hit harder than others. Take “A New Star” or “Rescue and Loss” for example: Franglen is doing everything right and yet I’m not getting a rush of excitement. It’s a bit too clean. It’s going through the motions, but it’s not coming to live. I can’t pinpoint why that is. That said, each action cue here surpasses the previous one. And from “Na’Vi Attack” onwards, Franglen is hitting it out of the park, left, right and centre! It just took a little while to get there.

This is a great score. I could see this appealing to a wider audience than just filmmusic fans. I can imagine world-music and new age/ambient fans to enjoy most of this. When it comes to the Na’vi sound, the exoticism, the ethereal, the otherworldliness, the drama, the emotion and overall production… Franglen has absolutely f—ing nailed it!

Avatar: The Way of Water, Simon Franglen, 22 tracks, 76m [4.5/5]

Addendum – Avatar: The Way of Water Expanded Release

The expanded album opens with “Leaving Home”, which is “Hometree” on the shorter album. It makes sense to open the album with this cue, as it introduces the main theme. The Weeknd’s song has been dropped. So we’ve got 11 additional cues, totalling around 28 minutes.

“Songcord Opening” and “Songcord Chapter”, unsurprisingly, offer variations on “The Songcord”, with Na’Vi lyrics and choir. The former of the two especially sounds deliciously exotic. “Sanctuary” offers a lush rendition of the noble version of Franglen’s main theme.

“Masks Off” is a dark and tense cue, with a clear statement of the 6-note horn theme that, I assume, represents the bad guys. “Family” is also darker than the title would have you expect. It’s dramatic, with a sense of doom or loss.

In terms of more action music, there is “Train Attack”, although it’s very similar to “Na’Vi Attack”. Fans of the infamous 4-note motif will be delighted with its appearance in “World Upside Down” which is a powerful cue that just punches its way out of your speakers.

“Training Montage” is a playful cue full of wonderful, light percussion. I’m addicted to this kind of stuff! “Where the Men Hunt” starts as a lively action cue but calms down and ends atmospherically.

“Kids in Peril” is a tense cue for Zimmeresque string arpeggios combined with Horneresque panflute rhythms and horn crescendos. The songcord melody makes an appearance on trumpet, but feels a bit forced to me. “A Farewell to Arm” again relies heavily on arpeggios for strings and synths; and features Franglen’s variation on a ‘braaam’, I guess. I just sort of rumbles on, but ends on huge choral chords (including a big bell, which I wonder if it’s Notre Dame’s).

The inclusion of these cues does change the overall sequence of the album. I quite liked how the shorter album opened with “Into the Water” and various other colourful cues, setting the tone, painting a picture of Pandora, without yet revealing all the themes. The expanded album is more upfront with its main theme, right from the opening (as the majestic “Hometree” is now the opening cue).  Also, even in the space of a couple of days, I’ve got rather attached to the sequencing of the finale (“Bad Parents”, “Knife Fight”, “From Darkness to Light”, “The Spirit Tree”); but the expanded version has three more cues within that section and for me breaks the flow… but I think that’s probably only because I already got a bit too attached to the shorter sequence.

So, is it worth getting the expanded version? Absolutely. I can see why some of these cues didn’t make the shorter cut (mainly because the material was already covered by other cues), but they’re all good if not great cues, especially “Songcord Opening”, “Sanctuary”, “Training Montage” and “World Upside Down”.

Avatar: The Way of Water, Simon Franglen, 32 tracks, 100m [4.5/5]

Article by Pete Simons (c) 2022 Synchrotones


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