Monday, 8 December 2008

Top 100 Albums - #12: The Two Towers OST (2002)

Howard Shore's second entry comes with his soundtrack to The Two Towers, the second film in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Shore's working relationship with Peter Jackson began in 1999. The two met as a result of Shore's work on Analyse This (1999), starring Robert De Niro. Jackson began shooting the three films of his trilogy (simultaneously) in October that year, and Shore was officially contracted to compose the score in August 2000. After visiting the various sets all over New Zealand, and viewing the rough cuts of both the first and last films, Shore set to work, initially in Wellington, but then moving onto Watford and then being mixed at Abbey Road. Shore composed the score for The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), which incorporated the main theme of the trilogy, in between meeting commitments for The Cell (2000) and The Score (2001), another De Niro vehicle. Following the success of The Fellowship of the Ring at the box office, expectations were high for the follow-up the following year.

'Foundations Of Stone' begins this second installment, and it's a magnificent start. The piece opens with a sweet yet melancholy French horn
section which gently guides you in before the main opening theme takes hold. Before long you're in the sweet company of the violins as you glide like an eagle over the mountains of Haethiglir. But then, just as soon as you've got comfortable, the drums begin to pound, the brass section rears its head, and you're plunged into the heart of Gandalf (Ian McKellen) battling the Balrog. The deep strings, deafening brass and chilling choir chanting drags you right down into the bowels of hell, as if the world is collapsing all around you. And only at the very brink of insanity does the music releases its grip on your neck (and ears) and you are allowed to wake from the dream. It's a breathless, blistering opening track.

After all that, we need something to calm us down, and 'The Taming Of Sméagol' attempts that very well. The clarinet solo at the start pulls the epic from grandiosity back to the relationship between Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin). It's a piece of two halves and the name is ambiguous. On the one hand, it's a 'taming' of the opener to fit within the story, an attempt to resettle us to focus on the plot. On the other hand, it heralds the arrives of Sméagol (a.k.a. Gollum, played by Andy Serkis) who arrives amid tense strings in the second half. Shore is still content to shock us about a minute before the end, but this time the heart attack is smaller and more manageable.

'The Riders Of Rohan' diverts attention from Frodo and Sam onto Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), running across the plains in pursuit of Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd). As before there is a lot of tension in this piece, in order to introduce the Riders, and in particular Eomer (Karl Urban), as an aggressive force. This is not as aggressive or as frightening as 'Foundations Of Stone'; like much of The Return Of The King OST (2003, #16), there are anticlimactic moments peppered through, designed to take you to the edge and then drag you back. It's a strange way of sustaining your interests, but it works, especially with the arrival of the signature theme on violin in the second half.

Having introduced a whole host of characters, we dash back to Frodo and Sam in 'The Passage Of The Marshes'. There's more forboding strings at the start, which weave their way through the speakers like dark vapours rising rapidly from the boggy pits through which our heroes tread. Much like on 'Shelob's Lair' in The Return Of The King, the high strings provide a descant which is enough to shred your nerves, and after that the brass sucks you down. The voices, being a lot quieter on this piece, are faintly reminiscent of those of the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and the whole result is very pleasing.

'The Uruk-Hai' is also pleasing, but in a different way. This is the first piece devoted to Merry and Pippin in the score, and begins very ordinarily with some military-style horns. But before long, the cavalry arrives in the form of the theme tune and you're flung into the heart of their plight. To be honest, it's not that distinctive from other parts of all three scores which use the theme as a base around which the other riffs are constructed. In fact it can feel like a medley of all the main themes, but it's still not a bad track when taken in context.

'The King Of The Golden Hall' is more distinctive. The violins at the start are not as rich as those we heard in 'The Riders Of Rohan'. They're more tightly strung - perhaps literally - and the mood is clouded over and subdued. It still manages to be warm, but there is a distance to its warmth, and a feeling of the best being gone - exactly what Shore and Peter Jackson were trying to achieve. About two minutes in, the mood changes again to forbidding, complete with deep bassoons and frantic horns, making this a piece that always keeps you guessing.

'The Black Gate Is Closed' takes us back to the ringbearers, confronted with the sight of Mordor for the first time. As you'd expect, Shore sets up a deep horn section with majestic, sinister long notes, so that a wall of sound is towering before us, both dangerous and impregnable. If you've seen the film, part of you can't help but wish that Shore had included some of the soldier's voices in the middle, or even some military drumming, to give a greater sense of the scene's progression. But of course, that's not his style. This is not Karl Jenkins' The Armed Man (2001) and while not every precise moment of the characters is captured, it does well with what it has.

'Evenstar' and 'The White Rider' return the focus to Aragorn and the world of men. The former is a highly ethereal piece which depicts a flashback to him and Arwen (Liv Tyler) in Rivendell. Like a lot of their scenes, this is tender and romantic, but there is a tragic side which we haven't really seen before. In the first film Arwen struggles over sacrificing her immortality; in the last film Aragorn struggles over his fate as the true king of Gondor. Here the two struggles meet and find love, amid the sweet violins and beautiful vocals of Isabel Bayrakdarian. The latter is more dramatic, chronicling the resurrection of Gandalf and his meeting with Aragorn et al in Fangorn Forest. It's not completely overblown, but neither does it commit the worse mistake of coming over all prissly and self-righteous. It's a fine piece.

'Treebeard' keeps the focus on Fangorn, but moves to be with Merry and Pippin. The bassoons return to signal danger, just as they do in Sergei Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf (1936), and as then a clarinet swims through the mix as a calming influence once it is clear whose side the eponymous Ent is on (insofar as he is on anyone's side). This has a more Celtic feel to it than anything else on here, which is fitting considering that Treebeard is representative of nature rather than man or machines. It's also a lot less obtrusive; the riffs are allowed to repeat and shuffle along without interjection or hurry. It's a very measured piece, and is thoroughly enjoyable for it.

'The Leave Taking' is also down-tempo, with the violins taking second fiddle to the flutes at first. Once again, however, the mood is more tragic, as the focus shifts back to Arwen's future, and that of the elves. Having convinced his daughter to go to the Grey Havens, Elrond (Hugo Weaving) is visited (figuratively) by Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), who convinces him that now is the time to renew the allegiance between elves and men. The woodwind section provides a distant, haunting melody as the strings create a tailored suspense.

After so much quietened-down mood music, 'Helm's Deep' is a right royal kick up the jacksy. The tempos are faster, the drums return, the voices are more stricken - everything about it is designed to make you tense. And why not? It's a battle scene after all. But even though it's a battle scene, it's not all quick brass and savage strings, like in The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe OST (2005, #15). There are moments, even before the main theme comes in at the end, of languid, prosaic phrases, some of which are necessary in chronicling the presumed death of Aragorn, the rest of which serve at best as an interesting contrast, and at worst as an odd (but not bad) choice for such a scene.

After a long while in the world of men, 'The Forbidden Pool' takes us back to the hobbits, now on their way to Minas Morgul and heading into the eastern-most reaches of Gondor. The strings sit somewhat awkwardly in this piece; they serve a purpose but they can't quite make up whether that's to set the scene or to describe the characters. At the point where Gollum enters the pool they hang suspended like Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings (1938). Eventually they get the idea and serve as mood music for the conversations between Frodo and Faramir (David Wenham). This is by no means a brilliant track, but despite its flaws it's still good when taken in the context of the whole score.

Of all the pieces in all three Lord of the Rings soundtracks, 'Breath Of Life' is by far and away the best. It features the vocal talents of Sheila Chandra, whose contributions to the Celtic folk scene are of mixed quality, especially her collaboration with Chris Wood on The Imagined Village (2007). Here, though, she is beyond perfect. Her voice comes shimmering out of the mix, and in the four long notes between 0:17 and 0:23 she takes over your heart. She resonates perfectly, not just with the music, but with every fibre of your being so that you cannot help but feel attached and connected to the events in the film. After a quiet section in the middle, as Aragorn revives, the track draws you back up to speed with his arrival at Helm's Deep, in a passage which could have easily been used for the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, had Shore been commissioned on such a project. This is an amazing track: everything works without being overwhelming, it's unique and yet a fitting part of the score. It is, quite simply, sublime.

Neither 'The Hornburg' nor 'Forth Eorlingas' can live up to such a track, but they're still cracking pieces of music in their own right. 'The Hornburg' opens with the familiar, now slightly tired theme on strings, but soon it morphs into a tragic, funereal cry as the walls of Helm's Deep are breached. Shore does give us a taste of military drumming at 1:53, as though he had heard our earlier complaints about 'The Black Gate Is Closed', and he continues it (with some compromise) through until the end. 'Forth Eorlingas', meanwhile, is all the pomp and circumstance of the last track without any of the repetitive rhythms. The early voice work captures the guilt and indecision of Théoden (Bernard Hill) beautifully, before the charge begins and victory is snatched from the jaws of defeat. Just as on 'Minas Tirith' in The Return Of The King, Ben Del Maestro gives a brilliant performance on guest vocals.

'Isenguard Unleashed' opens like a carbon copy of 'Lothlorien' from The Fellowship Of The Ring OST, with Elizabeth Fraser's vocals being almost whispered and full of mourning. Very soon, however, this departs from 'Lothlorien' and explodes with almost as much ferocity as 'Foundations Of Stone'. With the arrival of the Ents as a force on the side of men, the piece shrinks back down, capturing first the sadness of Treebeard and then the last march of the Ents to Isengard and to their doom. But things soon get brighter, with the brass gleefully resurgent with another battle scene on its hands. It's yet another fine track.

'Samwise The Brave' is rather a sentimental piece. It may not pull directly on your heartstrings like a romantic comedy score, but it's the sort of piece that suits a great speech or tender moment between the two protagonists (which is exactly what it does, albeit not romantically). We get the 'In Dreams' theme again, and the piece ends with hope as our heroes journey on towards Mordor. Except, that is, for the final minute, where Gollum's monologue is played out and his planned betrayal is revealed to the audience in a moment of bitter dramatic irony.

The closer, 'Gollum's Song', is sung by Icelandic songstress Emiliani Torrini. Indeed it has become her signature tune. Her voice takes a lot of getting used to, being nowhere near as silky or as pure as either Enya on 'May It Be' or Annie Lennox on 'Into The West'. It's husky and breathless, and yet sad, and that is why it works - it fits in with both the sounds of the score and the mood of the film. Unlike Lennox's performance, which was sentimental beyond measure, this is more brooding and forbidding. It genuinely grows on you, like a lot of Shore's music, making it the perfect way to round off the album.

As a score, The Two Towers achieves the same successes of The Return Of The King: it works as both individual pieces of music, which can be listened to in any order, and as a unified soundtrack, which can be listened to all the way through, and which reflects the film to which it is set. But unlike The Return Of The King, which was dragged down by its need to tie up all the loose ends, this will thrill you like very little else. The three interwoven story lines which chop and change between each other are flung together in such a way that you get an adrenaline rush as you dart from one encounter to the next. The number of battle scenes, particularly the skirmish at Helm's Deep, are deeply exciting and hugely powerful, and the whole album feels full of life and lustre. The anticlimactic moments may drive casual listeners up the wall a little, and it doesn't have the slightly grandiose majesty of The Fellowship Of The Ring, but it cannot be denied that, despite this, The Two Towers OST is something very special indeed.

4.11 out of 5

Friday, 28 November 2008

Top 100 Albums - #13: The Road To Hell (1989)

Chris Rea makes his third and final chart appearance with The Road To Hell, widely considered to be his masterpiece.
After first tasting success with Shamrock Diaries (1985, #91), Rea composed a series of albums which brought him success both critically and commercially. The immediate follow-up, On The Beach (1986), consolidated the chilled-out sound and added a brighter, more continental flavour. Rea's guitar playing was steadily improving, becoming smoother and silkier while retaining something in the way of its blues roots. This new style reared its head on Dancing With Strangers (1987), which produced no real hit singles but continued Rea's run of acclaim. After winding up the tour to support Dancing With Strangers, Rea was quiet through most of 1988, save for the release of a singles compilation, New Light Through Old Windows, and a Christmas single, 'Driving Home For Christmas', which peaked at #53 on the UK chart.

'The Road To Hell (Part 1)' is a complete unknown compared to its brother, but don't think that it's a bad track as a result. For the first 90 seconds or so, your head is filled with the sounds of a long, dreary motorway journey home: the rhythmic screech of the wipers on the windscreen, the pelt of the rain onto the glass and roof, the dark clouds rumbling in the distance, and the radio blaring out more bad news. The piano sat underneath it winds whimsically along, making the situation all the more frustrating. Then, all of a sudden, this mood music is replaced by dark synthesiser chords courtesy of Kevin Leach, and Rea rumbles his opening lines like a jealous God, mourning His lost people in such a manner that it sends shivers down your spine.

After such an atmospheric start, 'The Road To Hell (Part 2)' seems like pure pop. It's a lot more catchy, for certain, and the bluesy riffs tumbling out of Rea's guitar do walk the line between crass and cultured very gingerly. But in all, this is deservedly recognised as one of his finest songs. It may have be written about the M25 (which isn't exactly glamourous), but like all the best songs you can read so much more into it than that. From another angle it's a pathos-ridden, burning commentary on 1980s materialism, or an Everyman-esque religious allegory. It's presented in a language and form that is readily understandable, but which also rewards deeper study. And while it has been hopelessly overplayed since its release, it remains a snappy little charmer to get your grey cells going as much as your feet.

The religious (or at least moral) element of Rea's work is continued in 'You Must Be Evil'. If you weren't convinced of the previous song's credentials, this is more openly savage. It narrows the focus from a general indictment of modern man to a well-aimed strike against the cynical nature of television. Don't think, however, that it's a list of prudish criticisms from a member of The Mary Whitehouse League. Rea is attacking the sensationalist nature of the medium, rather than specific events. Again, it's not the most in-depth stuff at first glance, but like a lot of Rea's songs there is a hidden, bluesy depth to them that can only be discovered after a long car journey with them playing on a loop. Musically, look out for a lovelye bit of bass in the final chorus from Eoghan O'Neill.

'Texas' shifts the focus from drizzle-filled Britain to America - or at least, it seems to. The lyrics are a fond exposition of the Lone Star State from a guy longing to escape there, longing to experience the desolation and simplicity (Warm winds blowing/ Heat and blue sky/ And a road that goes forever). It's a song of dreams and frustrations at the mundane nature of life, underscored by Leach's shimering keyboards and snappy drumming from Martin Ditcham. In the second half, Rea's Fender soars into life just briefly and transports you into that laid-back dream, completely at ease. Before long you are in the Deep South, surrounded by hints of the foot-stomping blues Rea would finally produce on Dancing Down The Stony Road (2002).

'Looking For A Rainbow' is where the album starts to fall apart. It's nearly twice as long as the previous track, at 8:05, which means that the pop hooks and punchy nature of the last three songs will be difficult to sustain. Rea reverts instead to the rain and schmaltzy piano (courtesy of Max Middleton) and slowly allows you to sink into a vat of wallpaper paste. Even when the percussion comes in, it never sounds genuine or engaging enough to stir you from your slumber. In short, it's just too long.

Both the next two track fail to drag this record out of the mid-album dip. 'Your Warm And Tender Love' has such a treacly title that is almost impossible to swallow. It begins somewhere between a Simple Minds ballad and an offcut from Queen's Made In Heaven (1995), neither of which seem immediately diserable. This is cloyed and clichéd through and through, never letting itself be anything more than a humdrum, middle-of-the-road love song, and that's annoying. 'Daytona' tries harder, restoring the themes of both America (the racetrack) and cars (the Ferrari of the same name). The tempo is faster, the production crisper and the piano returns to add the melody. But it's still not brilliant, with flat lyrics and no sense of direction. Even the presence of the car at the end (which actually sounds nothing like a Daytona) can't get your pulse going.

You may be tempted to switch off now, but don't. Because 'That's What They Always Say' is an absolute belter. Perhaps that's the wrong word, because this is still a slow, and quiet song. Nevertheless, it has a hugely catchy chorus and a serious of smooth verses which wash over you and make you smile. More than that, though, you can feel the whole band playing tighter and enjoying themselves as a result. No single instrument is allowed to overstay its welcome, so that even Rea's flirtings on the guitar are perfectly balanced between satisfying your initial expections and leaving you wanting more. And for the first time in a long while, you realise what a great singer Rea is. He's unconventional, he's earthy and he pulls no punches on this brilliant song.

'I Just Wanna Be With You' could easily fall into the same trap as 'Your Warm And Tender Love'. The title doesn't do it any favours, that's for sure, but a shared fate is avoided by a series of very clever touches Rea injects into the mix. The percussion is more amusing, or at least tongue-in-cheek, including the apposite cowbell that arrives early on. The guitar riffs are more subdued, and are complimented very nicely by the Hammond Organ sound emanating from the keyboards. Even the slightly dodgy female vocals can't rock this boat.

'Tell Me There's A Heaven' is the ideal closer for the album, invoking the imagery of the title and keeping the focus on the individual. This could have been a terrible song, either by being sanctimonious and preachy, or by being so sugary that it ended up as a must-sing on weepy karaoke nights. But thanks to Rea, it's neither: it's just a heart-swelling, tear-jerking, laid-back emotional masterpiece. Even with the stock strings and overblown piano, it's very hard not to like this song, or be moved by it. The lyrics fit perfectly around the piano part, so that the two are perfectly interwined. Their content appeals to that wish in most or all of us for a better world to the one we have now, whether it be a literal, Christian heaven or an earthly one we make for ourselves. This is a splendid way to round off, and should be accorded pride of place in Rea's catalogue.

The Road To Hell has been hailed as a "modern masterpiece", and on the whole it thoroughly deserves that title.¹ It may not be the deepest or most meaningful piece of rock on first impression: Rea's reputation as a middle-of-the-road schmaltz mercant is palatable if you don't dig any deeper. If, on the other hand, you look behind the pop-ish veil, you open up an album flowing with ambiguity and playfulness, an album that gives few answers and invites you to explore. It will take a while to go from liking this album as a catchy set of songs to liking it as a political statement, but give it enough time and that change will come. And while the classic 'mid-album dip' is quite noticeably severe, deep down they are not dreadful songs, merely below-par ones. In the final analysis, The Road To Hell is without a shadow of a doubt the finest album Rea has ever made, and if ever likely to make if his recent forages into blues are anything to go buy. Shamrock Diaries and The Blue Café (1998, #50) were passable pop; this is proper album rock.

4.10 out of 5

¹ John Floyd, 'The Road To Hell', Accessed on January 16 2009.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Top 100 Albums - #14: The Wall (1979)

Pink Floyd's fifth chart entry is The Wall, a double-concept album rock opera which resulted in one of the most elaborate tours in rock history.
Following the release of Wish You Were Here (1975), Roger Waters' influence over the musical direction of Pink Floyd began to grow. Following the tour, the band invested a large amount of money in the creation of Britannia Row Studios, described by Nick Mason as a place that "could take on the grim and claustrophobic qualities of a nuclear bunker".¹ It was in these (suitably) dark surroundings that Animals (1977) emerged, with Waters writing, co-writing and/ or singing all five tracks. The tour that followed saw the band playing huge stadiums, often filled with people who came not for the music but for the drugs and the buzz of the crowd. On July 6th 1977, at the Olympic Stadium in Montreal, Waters finally lost his temper and spat in the face of a fan trying to climb up the barricade. The band returned to Britain alienated and exhausted. While David Gilmour and Rick Wright busied themselves with solo albums - David Gilmour and Wet Dream (both 1978) - and Mason turned producer for The Damned, Waters set to work on the components for a masterpiece that would revive the Floyd's fortunes.

It is in these bleak surroundings that The Wall emerges. 'In The Flesh?' kicks off the first half in unusually subdued style. After the brief and as yet inexplicable snippet of dialogue - "... we came in?", there are a few seconds of calming harmonica. But don't be fooled. After about 18 seconds, the first guitar chord slashes through this sea of tranquility, hitting you right between the eyes without any warning. The chords are punchier and harder than anything on the previous album, and the whole feel of the song is so huge and expansive. It's a brilliant way to introduce the album, even before the explanatory lyrics come in.

'The Thin Ice' is much in the same vein, with a quiet beginning which slowly but surely mutates into an horrifically loud ending. At the start, where it is just Gilmour and Wright's piano, it all feels rather tender and soft. But the mood of the music is counterbalanced by the pathos-ridden words emanating from Waters' pen and Gilmour's mouth. Waters sings the more overtly dark second half, describing the sensation of being out of depth in the world. Then Gilmour lets rip with a series of amazing chords that make you feel like you are sliding down into the depths of an ocean filling with your own blood. This is a terrifying track, one which if listened to in a dark room will transport you closer towards the true meaning of fear.

Having come through this psychotic episode, 'Another Brick In The Wall (Part 1)' is, relatively speaking, a moment of light relief. Though he may have hinted at it on The Dark Side Of The Moon (1973, #23), this is the first instance of Waters writing openly about his father, killed at Anzio in World War II. While the first two tracks were more thematic, to get us in tune with the new Floyd sound, this introduces the character of Pink. Like Waters he has lost his father in war, feels neglected, and in response is beginning to erect a wall to protect him from the world outside. Musically it's very well structured, managing to sustain a repeating riff to create tension without sounding like filler.

Before long, though, the tea break is over and 'The Happiest Days Of Our Lives' comes hovvering into view. Quite literally in fact, since this track begins with the sound of a helicopter and the teacher's familiar yell: "You! Yes, you! Stand still, laddee!". Here Waters starts to get into his stride, railing against the education system of his childhood. Through the eyes of Pink he depicts the teachers as uncaring fiends, who take their aggression out on the children while being secretely beaten by their wives (one of many sick jokes in this piece, of which Waters seems to be a fan). Waters' bass playing has always been simplistic, but this is not a bad thing. Underneath his whispering and screaming, his simple chords slowly cut into you like a chisel while Mason's hi-hat buzzes around your head like a wasp stuck in a jar.

'Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2)' is almost too famous to require much more being said. Of course, it is famous for the wrong reason, being known as the Floyd's only hit single rather than as an amazing piece of rock craftmanship. As I said in my review of Echoes (2001, #31), the true genius of this track is that it sounds more complicated that it actually is. Taken in its component parts, we have a decent (but not brilliant) set of lyrics, a nice (but not brilliant) guitar solo, a good-ish bass line and a fairly mundane drum part. But put these pieces together, and the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Like 'Money' on Dark Side, this is written and produced so that each instrument and section comes in at just the right time and for just long enough. No aspect, from the drums to the children's choir, is allowed to overstay its welcome or be cut short by the intrusion of something else. This has everything you could possibly want from a Floyd track: a powerful message, strong lyrics and amazing sound, all tied down to a hummable melody and played by brilliant musicians.

'Mother', meanwhile, is more subtle. Waters and Gilmour again share lyrics, only this time they take on the characters. Waters plays some simple but sweet acoustic on the verses, while relaying Pink's fears to Gilmour's overprotective mother. This is similar to both parts of 'Pigs On The Wing' from Animals in that the individual lines are spaced out, given room to breathe so that they stand alone as powerful statements. Gilmour is ideally suited to the part of the Mother, singing Momma's gonna make all of your nightmares come true in his usual bright, ethereal voice, thus achieving maximum irony.

'Goodbye Blue Sky' is probably one of the best anti-war songs ever written. From the childish cry at the start ("Look Mummy, there's an aeroplane up in the sky" - more irony) to the descending bass line at the end, it never fails to make your heart feel heavier. Unlike Waters' subsequent anti-war efforts, like on The Final Cut (1983, #49), this doesn't tell you directly what is wrong or what is to opposed. All we get in the lyrics are vague glimpses into human tragedy, which our minds then multiply until we picture a horror too unspeakable for words. Lines like The flames are all long gone/ But the pain lingers on are perfect for this purpose, and the images they convey is amazing, depicting war as some kind of loss of innocence. Gilmour's vocals meld beautifully with the acoustic to create a truly sensational piece of work - not just in its quality, but the way that it makes you feel.

Like 'Goodbye Blue Sky', 'Empty Spaces' only gives you glimpses. But here the glimpses come much later, and only after considerable build-up. For a song that only has four lines, it is surprising and a rare joy because it doesn't feel even remotely padded out. The repeated sound effects maintain the beat, while the distant wail of the guitar puts more pictures in your head. This song sees Pink wondering how he will fill the final places to complete the wall. The first note of the guitar is flung into the centre of the mix like a spotlight being turned on, showing the face of a demented Pink scouring his new concrete landscape. In the show this piece was much longer, incorporating a rant about humans' frenzied desire to not stand still; it was edited for the LP to make the music fit on the vinyl. But that doesn't matter, because like the edited version of 'Marooned' on Echoes, you still get plenty of majestic music that leaves you wanting more.

Having run out of bad experiences, Pink decides to become a rock star in 'Young Lust'. Gilmour takes the lead in this one, with his voice sounding rougher and his guitar playing just exuding menace. He shouts the opening line, which comes as a bit of a jump if you've had your ears pressed close to the speakers to hear what Waters is saying. But then that's appropriate, not just because Waters and Gilmour are completely different kinds of singers, but also because we are seeing a different side of Pink: the openly destructive, hedonistic side rather than the dark, self-pitying one. The simple macho chorus is punchy, as is Mason's drumming, while Wright re-emerges on the organ as a form of musical counterweight.

'One Of My Turns' sees the union of both Pinks, the old introvert and the new rockstar, in what turns out to be a lethal combination. Pink leads a groupie into his hotel room, only to take no notice of her advances and then proceeding to smash everything around him, scaring her to death. After the television flickers into the background, the keyboard enters the fray and the song begins properly. The first half is incredibly sinister: the lyrics drip from Waters' mouth like wax from a burning candle; Day after day/ My love turns grey/ Like the skin on a dying man is a fabulous opening line. Eventually, Pink explodes in a fury of drums and guitar, and Waters moves from a whisper to full-on screaming and shouting, so that it feels like he is attacking YOU.

'Don't Leave Me Now' is the first track to fall short of the mark. It finds Pink alone, having collapsed out of his fury with the news that his girlfriend has been cheating on him. He goes from angry to despairing, desperate, and even fearful. The main problem with this is that it feels lazily written. There is no sense of discipline over where the words and music join up, as if the band recorded a rather uneventful ambient track and then Waters improvised over it. While such techniques would serve him well on Amused To Death (1992), here they compromise the result.

'Another Brick In The Wall (Part 3)' refocuses the plot and the listeners, albeit a little unsubtly. Amid glass smasing, Pink completes the wall and realises his dream of perfect isolation from the rest of the world. The lyrics are more basic, and the music is familiar, but the pace feels more frenzied, as if Pink is moving a knife through his hand and then sealing his creation in his own blood. At 1:15, it's shorter than the other parts, but this doesn't matter because it successfully conveys all that needs to be said. All of which makes 'Goodbye Cruel World' pretty much superfluous. It's shorter, the title is hackneyed, the lyrics are obvious and musically it's flat, with a two-note bassline nicked from 'Careful With That Axe, Eugene'. This worked in the show, serving as a means to place the last brick. On record, this isn't needed, so it doesn't work at all.

The second half kicks off with 'Hey You', and finds the first pangs of regret beginning to take hold of Pink. Here his slow descent into madness begins with his desire for human contact, the very thing he has shut out in creating the wall. The verses chronicle this progress, with Pink first asking for feeling, then for contact, and finally for help, each time directed at a force he knows is there but that he cannot quite comprehend. In another sense, this is a song of two halves. The first half is Gilmour's, beginning with a sweet turn on vocals and a maelstrom of a guitar solo, while the second half belongs to Waters, melding together his bitterness and his empathy in one powerful cocktail.

'Is There Anybody Out There?' is a look spookier, with the mood changing drastically. Where 'Hey You' genuinely sought contact and the comfort which that brings, this is more suspicious. Waters' whispered lyrics echo across the mix like whispered yells over no-mans'-land. You feel with this song like you are a soldier crouched in a shell-hole, or perhaps a PoW dodging the searchlights in his bid for freedom. And all the while, at the centre of this suspicion and trepidation, the mood is haltingly and cleverly juxtaposed by the acoustic, faintly reminisent of John Williams' 'Cavatina' from The Deer Hunter (1973).

'Nobody Home' is quite simply astonishing. Continuing on from the previous track's sampling of film audio clips, we are taken back to the hotel room where a washed-up, burned-out Pink is listing his earthly possessions. It doesn't sound thrilling, but the execution of this 'list song' is superb. This in indicative of Waters' later solo work, like 'It's A Miracle' from Amused To Death. He starts with simple background music, and then the lyrics tumble forth in a sequence which, though random in real life, seems to flow perfectly and compliment everything. Everything about this little gem is wonderful. Waters sings/ speaks the lyrics with gravitas, leaving room for every impressive syllable. The strings and brass that are added later on create a wonderful mood that is tragic and nostalgic, with a military touch to it. And the inclusion of odd clips ("Surprise, surprise, surprise!") add humour in order to bring out the darkness. This is Waters at his finest.

Both 'Vera' and 'Bring The Boys Back Home' are too short and one-dimensional to serve any great purpose. They are at heart segues, designed to carry the plot rather than stand as songs 'Vera' is a mini-ode to Dame Vera Lynn, the famed wartime singer who was all but forgotten after 1945. Waters seems to be using this as a metaphor for how the ideals of 'the post-war dream' have slipped from memory, but he doesn't develop this in nearly enough detail. 'Bring The Boys Back Home' is just bizarre; the grouping of the screechy Waters with a deep male voice choir never really works. This does have one plus point, however. After the singing ends, a sound montage is slowly built up, which serves as a very good lead-in to 'Comfortably Numb'. Like 'Speak To Me' on Dark Side, it combines little motifs and snippets from most of the other songs, finally culminating in the echoey "Is there anybody out there?".

'Comfortably Numb' itself is one of the album's centrepieces. It is indeed one of the centrepieces of the band's repertoir, solidified by its performance on both the Pulse tour in 1994 and at Live 8 in 2005. So far all the songs of the second half have hinted at Pink's descent into madness, but this is the starting point for that actual descent. Rather than demonise Pink straight away, the band are very clever, presenting him as being pleasantly aware of the events going on around him. His body and brain are 'comfortably numb', swimming in drugs designed to keep him going through the show. The lyrics switch between the doctor (Waters) assisting the patient, and Pink (Gilmour) describing this new-found numbness in graphic and beautiful detail. Gilmour sings dreamily, guiding the audience into Pink's head so that they feel an organic part of the mix. Thus, when that award-winning guitar solo rears its head at the end, it feels like the soul of Pink himself is singing and thrashing around, taking the listeners with it. What a rock masterpiece this is.

'The Show Must Go On' is more segue, and therefore deserves little attention from us. Its purpose is to link the hotel room to Pink's arrival at the concert, something achieved without music in the film but difficult to do on an album. It's not completely superfluous, but it's hardly essential either. 'In The Flesh', meanwhile, is completely essential. Not simply a reprise of the first track, it is the unveiling of the new Pink. The rockstar has died a violent death, and in his place, amongst the organ and guitars, strides a blackshirted fascist dictator, ready to unleash himself upon an unsuspecting crowd, brimming with admiration. By employing female voices and selective echoes, the Floyd succeed in turning the rock concert into a gigantic rally in which no-one is safe and the adrenaline levels begin to rise.

'Run Like Hell' takes things ever further, both in consolidating the fascist landscape and raising the bar for Floyd songs to a whole new level. This is undoubtedly the best song on the entire album. Where previously you could be but a spectator, idly looking in, on 'Run Like Hell' you are thrust right into the mêlée with no means of escape. The mass experience dominates everything, with the heavy drums and loud bass taking you to the front row of a eardrum-bursting arena. The narrative is sustained magically, with Waters doubletracking and pushing his range to its uppermost limits. His voice is absolutely hypnotic as he snarls through the verses and screams magnificent lines like If they catch you in the back seat, trying to pick her locks/ They're gonna send ya back to Mother in a cardboard box. This is a frenzied and psychotic piece, which truly demonstrates the power of the Floyd's music. Not only will this send shivers down your spine, it will openly scare you, and yet thrill you at the same time.

'Waiting For The Worms' is just as good, although its role is very different. Pink is now in the grip of madness, and enjoying every minute of it. With the aid of a well-recorded megaphone, he barks out orders to his minions, directing them to follow the worms and bring about their destruction. A lot of this is an allegory of the Nazis' genocide, hence the references to Jews and the line (Waiting)/ To turn on the showers/ And fire the ovens. These must be taken with a pinch of salt, for Waters is clearly being ironic, setting up Pink as being an accurate but extreme representation of evil, so that people may not repeat it. The best part of this truly frightening track is the final speech. As it plays you can picture Pink smiling, then the smile turning to a forced grin, then a rictus, then gaping horror and finally the epic scream of 'STOP!'.

The actual song 'Stop' is the shortest on the album, at only 30 seconds long. It's the last so-called segue, being extremely brief and not especially deep; its only purpose is to start Pink's process of self-trial and coming to terms with what he has done. This is dealt with much better in 'The Trial'. Even if you haven't seen the film, which features the nightmarish animations of Gerald Scarfe, you can't help but be terrified by this track. Waters takes on all the voices, playing the various characters who are called to testify against Pink - the schoolmaster, his girlfriend, and his mother. While the lyrics are characteristically dark and sinister, their structure is unusual for a Pink Floyd song. It's less of a rigid pop song than a dark take on a libretto by Gilbert and Sullivan: the characters sing as they speak, and the song sounds more staged as a result. This is not a problem, however, since the content and production are still enough to make you jump out of your skin. The climax, where judgement is passed and Pink has to tear down his wall, is one of the finest conclusions to any rock song. If you listen to this in the dark first time round, be sure to have a defibrillator close to hand - because this is heart-stoppingly good.

As the dust settles, we end pretty much where we began. 'Outside The Wall' trundles merrily along on its harmonica and children's choir, appearing to neatly wrap up any loose ends so that we can all go home. But in fact, very little is left answered. Is Pink still alive, or did the process of destroying the wall kill him? If the latter, who is singing at the end? And is this really the end? The final question is addressed with the closing words, "Isn't this where...": the continuation of the opening words, "... we came in?" hint that this may be a continual process, to which Pink and ourselves are irreparably bound. It's certainly enough to get the little grey cells going.

The Wall may not be the finest album the Floyd ever made, but it still contains everything that made this band so great. From the dark, ambiguous lyrics to the complex yet hummable melodies, and all the conceptual touches, this extend and build on the previous three albums. Where Dark Side dealt with the human condition as an expression of empathy, Wish You Were Here looked at absence and the feeling of loss, and Animals explored the notion of class and the powers that be, The Wall is a deep and involving journey into the darkest reaches of the human subconscious, albeit a journey skewed by Waters' own experiences. It's not perfect: the jazzy touches of Dark Side have all but disappeared, and the second half can seem inconsistent. But when listened to as a whole, you will struggle to notice this, because the whole is so overpoweringly brilliant. This album will shock you, scare you, terrify you and thrill you in ways that you cannot possibly imagine. It will take you to the very brink of insanity and then blow your mind. It is essential listening for anyone who loves Pink Floyd, or anyone who wishes to go a little deeper into the darkest corners of the human mind.

4.04 out of 5

¹ Nick Mason, Inside Out: A Personal History of Pink Floyd, ed. Philip Dodd (London: Phoenix, 2005), p. 218.

Friday, 14 November 2008

Top 100 Albums - #15: The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe OST (2005)

At number 15 is Harry Gregson-Williams' soundtrack to The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe.
Harry Gregson-Williams was born in 1961 and began his career as a music teacher. He taught in the UK throughout the 1980s, in particular at Amesbury School in Surry, and spent a number of months teaching in Egypt before taking a post at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. In 1994 he scored his first film, the little-known thriller White Angel. His subsequent work on films like The Borrowers (1997) introduced him to John Powell, with whom he collaborated on the scores for the highly successful Antz (1998) and Chicken Run (2000). The critical acclaim accorded to these productions brought him to the attention of New Zealand filmaker Andrew Adamson, who contracted Gregson-Williams to write the score for Shrek (2001) and its subsequent sequels. This made him the ideal choice for Adamson's next major project.

We open with 'The Blitz, 1940', which finds our four heroes in wartime London, in the middle of a German air raid. This starts very well, with its spooky ambient touches which soon give way to the loud and fear-ridden strings. By incorporating the sounds of jets into the music, Gregson-Williams puts us right at the centre of the action, so that it is clear from the off where we are. The crests of the music, especially after the first minute, are very well-timed, so that we conjure up images in our minds of Edmund (Skandar Keynes) running back into the burning house, not conscious of the danger he faces.

Having started with something original, 'Evacuating London' inadvertently reminds listeners of past adaptations. There are hints and motifs contained in the themes which hark back to the acclaimed BBC miniseries of 1988, which opened with the Pevensie children leaving London on the train. The situation is the same here, and so it is apt that the composer casts a shroud of bittersweet piano over proceedings. The piano can first be heard at 0:39; being Gregson-Williams' primary instrument for composing, it's naturally very well-written and blends beautifully with the clarinets. Add in the female vocals in the second half and you have a beautiful track which could accompany any train journey.

'The Wardrobe' has a very important role, being the track which accompanies the first journey of Lucy (Georgie Henley) into Narnia. It starts well, with an opening minute which is tentative and intriguing. It draws you invitingly into its folds until you are immersed in childlike wonder, like you are making the journey with Lucy. Once there, however, it goes a little stale, being too standardised to make it a successful track. It's not specific enough for its surroundings: you wonder less about where you are and more about how long it will last.

No matter, because the next track more than compensates. 'Lucy Meets Mr. Tumnus' does what it says on the tin, and serves as a most charming introduction to one of the book's most-loved characters. Mr. Tumnus (James McAvoy) is painted by the violin solo as a quiet, sensitive, well-meaning soul. Although this is nearly twice as long as the last track, there is little to drag the piece down or hold it back. After hearing this you will struggle to be distracted from the rest of the score, as the magic begins to take hold.

Well, almost. 'A Narnia Lullaby' is an obstacle. Played on a duduk, it is essentially the piece played by Mr. Tumnus to send Lucy to sleep. But despite only being 1:13 long, it's not good enough even as a passing sensation. Even if you don't find the sound of a duduk all that pleasant, it opens okay. But then Gregson-Williams gets carried away, trying to incorporating loads of different sounds in a desperate bid to describe Lucy's dream. The result sounds confusing, like a sample track of the whole album in no particular order, and the brass ending is completely overblown.

It's a good thing, then, that the next track is a return to form. 'The White Witch' is another challenge for the composer, introducing the film's main villain as played by Tilda Swinton. Where a lot of songwriters would go over-the-top, creating riffs and motifs to simply frighten the viewer, Gregson-Williams is more subtle. Like Howard Shore, he prefers to use strings and deep woodwind to slowly build up the tension (see my review of The Return Of The King OST (2003, #16). This means that the audience creates its own fears based upon what little they can see and hear. This is befitting considering we are dealing with what is essentially an allegory of the Devil, a character that has to be subtle, falsely pleasant and befriending into order to entice Edmund away. This is a piece that plays with your senses, so you are constantly on tentahooks but don't want the sensation to end.

'From Western Woods To Beaversdam' introduces us to two other much-loved characters, as voiced by Ray Winstone and Dawn French. Before that, however, we are greeted with an intriguing opening minute as finally all four children set foot into Narnia together. The trick that Gregson-Williams has pulled off is not just improving on 'The Wardrobe', but he has avoided simply repeating himself in the process. It's so beautiful that you can almost feel the snowflakes falling onto your fingers. When the Beavers do enter, they are accompanied by a lovely flute solo, the rough nature of which suits the mood down to the ground.

'Father Christmas' is more overtly ethereal and emotional in its music. But although he cannot resist adding in some chiming bells (23 seconds in), Gregson-Williams manages to avoid being cheesy or sentimental. The eponymous character, like Tumnus before him, is introduced as completely harmless and filled with joy at the prospect of meeting the Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve. Compared to the music that accompanied the TV series, this feels more serious, more grown-up, but that is more a reflection of the changing times and bigger budget. This is definitely one of the more listenable, and distinctive tracks on here.

So far, the mood of the album and the film has been a relatively mellow one. 'To Aslan's Camp' drives a sledgehammer through that. Immediately we are met by high strings and crashing cymbals, which catapult us straight into the journey of our heroes to the Stone Table, with the evil Maugrim (Michael Madsen) hot on their heels. The first half of the track is very stricken and feisty, while the second brings us to Aslan's camp with suitable pomp and reverence. 'Knighting Peter' is more mellow, but there are still underscores of darkness contained in the brass section. Then, after the first 50 seconds or so, the whole orchestra goes quiet as Maugrim pounces, and the (brief) fight between him and Peter (William Moseley) begins. This part ends rather abruptly, but all is well in the resolution of the track.

'The Stone Table' is the longest track, at an almighty 8:07. But then it does have a lot to cover. Beginning with some soft and tender violin, it draws a veil over the characters as Lucy and Susan (Anna Popplewell) encounter Aslan (Liam Neeson) slain upon the table. The deep male voices and didgeridoo at the start create a mood similar to that conveyed in Passion (1989), Peter Gabriel's soundtrack to The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), The world influences create a sense of pathos and impending danger which more Western orchestras often fail to do. For the most part though, the track is dominated by The White Witch. The deep and rapid percussion, counterpointed with the startled horn section, slowly build up tension to the point where madness begins to take a hold.

'The Battle' is the first of four tracks on here which rise above all the rest. What we have seen so far has been very good, or even excellent - but this is something else. Like 'The Stone Table', it has a lot to cram in, and like many of the tracks it begins with some pretty standard brass and horn work to set the scene. But from thereon in, the whole orchestra swells like an army, rising alongside the forces of Peter and Edmund. The voices, the trumpets, the percussion and the strings all gel together perfectly, and move with the action, so that the various highs and lows of the battle are played out. Listeners will struggle not to have images of The White Witch and Aslan in their heads, as these two great protagonists lock horns in the archetypal battle of good and evil. This track twists and turns while always pulling on your heartstrings and making your imagination run riot. It's splendid.

'Only The Beginning Of The Adventure' opens with an agonisingly long period of silence (a flaw in production which afflicts all of the last four tracks). When it does finally begin, however, our recently ravaged ears are greeted with beautiful flutes and a wonderful passage on bells. Once again all the different instruments come together and are married perfectly, with each getting exactly the right amount of time and space they need. The cymbals and voices swell together at just the right time; the violins provide the soft undermelody at just the right time; the woodwind and percussion come together at just the right time. Everything is beautifully measured, and yet this doesn't feel calcuted or cold. On the contrary, it will warm the depths of your heart, with every listener finding a different part which they enjoy.

'Can't Take It In' is Imogen Heap's contribution. This song, co-written by Heap, was a last minute replacement after a song by Dido was rejected - and so, on paper, it shouldn't be good. In fact it's the complete opposite. The beauty of Heap's voice, coupled with the euphoric lyrics and sensational combination of instruments makes this one of the greatest songs of the last five years. From its soft, gentle opening, to the jazz touches on the ride cymbal and the multi-tracked vocals, everything on here is so immaculate and so well-thought out that it is almost impossible not to fall in love with it. Heap's voice is always amazing to behold - as shown on Speak For Yourself (2005) - but she has never sounded better on record than she does here. This song will move you to tears, it is that beautiful.

'Wunderkind', meanwhile, is just as good. Being the work of Alanis Morisette, it's quicker, and slightly more edgy, but it is still a million miles from Jagged Little Pill (1995). Building from a drum beat and simple piano chords, Morissette's voice (very much in its prime) swells slowly as the song develops. Unlike 'Can't Take It In', which is relentlessly beautiful, this takes more time for you to warm up to it. But once you get it, you'll be hooked, because the lyrics are still magical and Morissette's delivery is fabulous. The best thing about this song, however, is that her voice is very much at the centre - there is nothing in the way of flashy percussion or jazzy piano to spoil the mood. It's brilliant.

What a great shame it is then that the final two tracks are both bum notes. 'Winter Light', performed by Tim Finn, is a sub-standard effort from yet another singer-songwriter. The lyrics are not rich enough to make up for the more stark sound, which comes as an unpleasant surprise after all the rich orchestral worke. It's not terrible, but it's not especially compelling either. 'Where', on the other hand, just comes across as twee. It's certainly not helped by Lisbeth Scott, whose voice is shrill and squeaky. In many of the higher registers, she is shrieking the notes rather than singing them, which makes it hard to sit through. It's a disappointment, because this could have been a good song with a little more work.

For all the controversy surrounding the film, there can be little argument that the soundtrack to The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe is something rather special. Compared to more successful scores, like The Return Of The King, it may come across as a bit soft and light-hearted on first listen. But it achieves what all scores should do, both reflecting the film to which it is set and standing alone as music in its own right. And it is not just the credit songs which accomplish this. For while things take a while to get going, and there are slip-ups along the way, most of the tracks on here are treats for the ears just as the film is for the eyes. But perhaps the greatest strength of Gregson-Williams' score is in its subtlety. It would have been easy to turn this adaptation into a straightforward action film, scored with bombastic brass and over-the-top production. Instead, like the end result on screen, he has provided the audience with little hooks and riffs which will let their imagination take them places where, like Narnia, they never expected to go.

4.00 out of 5

Top 100 Albums - #16: The Return Of The King OST (2003)

Composer Howard Shore's first chart entry is his soundtrack to The Return Of The King, the third film in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
The late-1990s were a busy time for Howard Shore. Having made his name in Hollywood earlier in the decade, through scores for The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), he found himself in strong demand. As the 20th century drew to a close, he found success with the comedy fantasy Dogma (1999) and the Robert De Niro vehicle Analyse This in the same year. The latter brought him to the attention of New Zealand filmaker Peter Jackson. The two became friends and Shore was commissioned to write the score to The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which began filming in October 1999. Due to the unique nature of filming - Jackson chose to shoot the three films simultaneously over a two-year period - Shore was required to balance his commitment to these scores with other projects, most notably the critically acclaimed Martin Scorsese epic Gangs of New York (2002).

The score opens with 'A Storm Is Coming' - an appropriate title, considering what lurks further in. Being the opener, it has to set the scene both for the film and the motifs which will bubble to the surface throughout. This track is set to the prequel scene between the young Sméagol (played by Andy Serkis) and his brother Déagol (Thomas Robins), ending in the latter finding the ring and being killed by the former. It works very well, beginning as a more mythical take on a Kenneth Grahame story, before the deep, brooding brass interupts and the darkness begins to take hold.

'Hope And Memory' changes tack and emphasis, shifting our focus from dark brass to bustling woodwind. There is a sweet bit of clarinet in the middle of this short track, which contains a familar riff to that first heard in The Fellowship Of The Ring (2001). One of Shore's strengths is taking riffs from a previous film in this sequence and placing a new light on it without actually changing the instrument. We see a similar thing at the end, with a stricken string riff straight out of The Two Towers (2002), twisted to bring new life to Pippin's departure from Edoras.

'Minas Tirith' is another splendid mood track, beginning again with brooding, minor chords from the violins and French horns. Here the brass and strings combine beautifully again, creeping up on the audience in the first third, then blasting them with all speed in the footsteps of Shadowfax in the middle section, before finally culminating with the brass coming out on top to convey the military pomp and splendour of the White City. This is a great track, aided along by a smashing solo from vocalist Ben Del Maestro.

'The White Tree' and 'The Steward Of Gondor' both return us to a darker, more sombre frame of mind. The former is a track of two parts. On the one hand, it's very similar to the scene between Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Galladriel (Cate Blanchett) in the first film; there is a dreamlike quality to it, like reality is being slowed down by the music. On the other hand, it has a playful, emphatic feel, especially after the first minute or so, which is fitting for the scene where the beacons are lit along the mountain peaks. The ending of this track is especially good, with the brass taking the broad melody while the violins squeak away, tackling the complicated countermelodies very nicely.

The latter is simpler and more overtly sorrowful. Incorporating the Uillean pipes is a really good idea, considering how much they have lit up tracks throughout art rock (see my review of Peter Gabriel 4 (1982, #80)). But the best part of the track is the solo from Pippin (Billy Boyd). At 2:33 the orchestra goes quiet, the production goes more echoey, and the whole track shrinks down so that Boyd's clear Glaswegian tones are allowed to shiver straight into our soul without any real impediment. He's a surprisingly good singer, and the scene in the film is a poignant one, his sad song intercut with images of the failed charge of Faramir (David Wenham) and the demented, gluttinous Denathor (John Noble).

There is, however, only one real stand-out track on here. 'Minas Morgul' explodes back into the journey of Frodo and Sam (Sean Astin) to Mordor, taking us to the gates of the Dead City with sinister and shrill minor chords, the shock of which can make one shiver. With the suspenseful music being created all around you, your mind conjures up images of pale green beams of light, the black and dismal towers, like Gormenghast but darker still, and the thin tornado spiralling upwards into the heavens. Like a lot of what we have seen before, this is a duel between brass and strings, but in the end neither comes out victor. Instead you are left, much like our heroes, hanging on the edge of a precipice, not knowing what will happen next. It's a very short track - less than 2 minutes in length - but it is so much more spine-tingling than anything else on the album. It's brilliant stuff from Howard Shore.

'The Ride Of The Rohirrim' returns us to relative calm, transporting us from the world of orcs and nazgûl, back into the world of men. Once again it's a case of Shore pleasantly retreading old ground. The strings in the first 30 seconds are straight out of The Two Towers, but this is fitting since this scene is dominated by Théoden (Bernard Hill). There's plenty of new stuff too, with sweeping phrases of soft strings, on which the dialogue sits, and of horns, where the action takes place.

'Twilight And Shadow' again turns the mood to one of sorrow. This music, which accompanies the premonition of Arwen (Liv Tyler), sees the first appeareance of vocalist Renée Fleming, and it's very beautiful indeed. There is an innately bittersweet quality to her voice; it's not the purest voice, nor the most resounding, but somehow it manages to tap into the mood of that scene extremely well, climaxing at just the right point, until you are right there beside Arwen, watching the tears roll down her cheeks.

'Cirith Ungol' is the shortest track on here, clocking in at just 1:44. You might expect, therefore, that there isn't much it can offer. But it is sustained and guided by a very well-written part for oboe, which oscillates its way through the mix to perfectly convey the sense of decaying evil surrounding the tower. If nothing else, it serves as a nice, climactic little bridge into which 'Andúril' can slot. This piece depicts the pivotal meeting between Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and Elrond (Hugo Weaving), who presents him with the sword of the same name. As you would expect, it's pretty emphatic in a standardised way towards the end, but this does not detract from the more significant and ethereal passages before. The ending is also good, as once again the chords go minor and Shore leaves the fate of the characters decidedly open.

With 'Shelob's Lair', on the other hand, no such ambiguity can be afforded. This is far more cluastrophobic, and the fear is explicit rather than any kind of self-nurtured psychological exaggeration. The deep bassoons, though rather reminiscent of 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice' (from Fantasia (1940)), set the mood very well, while the violins provide the descant to shred your nerves. After the first, anticlimactic part, the cellos become scratchier, making it sound like the character is drowning, and then the chase begins, with your heart remaining in your mouth throughout.

'Ash And Smoke' is somewhat compromised by its need to serve as light relief to the previous track. But this does not tarnish it completely, if at all, because this is no slowcoach. The notes may be easier to bear, but none of the brooding, deep spirit of the previous song has evaporated into thin air. It is just that the stricken strings have been replaced by bouncy tubas and thunderous timpanis, with (unnamed) female vocals providing the soprano part for the duo's entrance into Mordor.

'The Field Of The Pelannor' takes us back to Gondor, and to the arrival of Rohan's forces at the battle. The music is a little flat to start with, perhaps to allow greater space for Théoden's speech. And certain sequences are a little too reminiscent of 'Hymn To The Fallen', John Williams' great closer to Saving Private Ryan (1998). But otherwise, this is all pure Shore, with its operatic, hysterical female vocals, hummable brass riffs and - if you listen carefully - cleverly thought out percussion. It's another good track, albeit a little too grandiose.

'Hope Fails', on the other hand, is not grandiose. It sees the return of the dark, abyss-like woodwind we heard on 'Shelob's Lair'. It has the air of a death sequence, or some other sepulchral encounter. But musically it's not all doom and gloom, with the mood being counterpointed by the horn section which is brighter than you might expect. It does go a bit brash towards the end, but that's okay, because the resolution is very good.

We are rapidly moving towards the film's climax, which is ideally conveyed in 'The Black Gate Opens'. Featuring the talents of acclaimed flautist Sir James Galway, this begins, like many of the other tracks, as a relatively up-tempo, brassed-up battle cry. But then the flute comes in, and as with Boyd's solo on 'The Steward Of Gondor', we shrink down from the big - the final battle between orcs and men - to the small: Frodo and Sam slowly crawling up the side of Mount Doom. It is a wonderful piece, which teeters delicately between these two worlds, paralleled and yet so completely divided. At the end we get the first hints of the closing theme, which we shall return to later.

No sooner have you finished basking in this, than you are flung head first into 'The End Of All Things'. This has the hardest job of all in a way, having to capture Frodo's final temptation by the ring, his being attacked by Gollum, the destruction of the ring, the fall of Barad-Dur and the eruption of Mount Doom. Tall order. But aside from a few rather overwhelming sections, this does it superbly. The female vocals at the beginning perfectly capture Frodo's temporary descent into madness and the panic of both Sam and Sauron, while Fleming's solo is magnificent, breaking into events as Gollom regains the ring and everything is held in the balance. The male voices that follow sound like the wails surrounding the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). It is a little too overwheming and weighty to be a true five-star track, but it's borderline, simply because there is so much brilliant stuff going on.

The title track begins with Frodo waking up in Rivendell with Gandalf (Ian McKellen) at his feet. It's the longest track by far, at 10:14, but then there is a lot to cram in. Having negotiated the first 2 minutes, which are in essence a cheesy, American-style reunion, we arrive at the important stuff, namely the coronation of Aragorn and his reunion with Arwen. Fleming and Galway are both here, the forming providing a sweet solo as Arwen is unveiled and presented by her father, the latter forming the accompaniment to Mortensen, another surprisingly natural singer. Don't be put off by the length, or the quantity of plot, because once again Shore pulls it off.

'The Grey Havens' is for some the saddest piece, being the song which marks Frodo's departure from the Shire and his friends forever. Having set up the characters safely back at home - sampling the Hobbiton theme from the first film - we are greeted by sad, Celtic sounds and open strings. There are familiar touches, but here they are garnish rather than motif to link the events of opposite ends of a film. The main theme - known as 'In Dreams' - is altered to reflect the scene, rather than vice versa, as perhaps was the case in the other two films. In between is more lovely oboe, which sings its minor song with grace as Frodo and Bilbo (Ian Holm) depart with the Elves.

It's just a shame that we have to finish on a low note. 'Into The West' is Annie Lennox's contribution, which plays over the end credits. It may have won an Oscar for Best Original Song, but this is less a reflection of its quality and more of Hollywood's inexhaustable desire for the sentimental. The simple guitar at the start and the Enya-esque backing set up a song which is to all purposes twee and self-absorbed. It's not Lennox's best performance, by any stretch of the imagination.

Of the three soundtracks within The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Return Of The King is the least successful. This is in many ways reflective of the role of the third film; there is only so much new material that can be introduced, because all the loose ends have to be tied up at its conclusion. Despite the near-constant re-use and re-working of themes, this is still a great set of songs or pieces which manages to stand on its own two feat. Symphony afficionados, who wish to listen all the way through, can easily manage it, with the total running time reaching just over an hour. More casual fans, who link certain sections to sequences in the film, will use it more as a reference point, listening to individual tracks as and when they please. This is therefore a soundtrack that manages to be a collection of great songs and a holistic product at the same time, which is a rare feat. In all, The Return Of The King is beautifully written, well-orchestrated and very well-produced. It may be heavy-going, but when you have so much quality in such a small space, that is perhaps the only way to do things.

4.00 out of 5

Friday, 17 October 2008

Top 100 Albums - #17: Fragments Of Freedom (2000)

Morcheeba's third and final entry is Fragments Of Freedom, the follow-up to the highly successful and critically acclaimed Big Calm (1998, #54).
Add ImageAfter the tentative release of two EPs in the second half of 1995 (Trigger Hippie and Music We Can Hear respectively), Skye Edwards & the Godfrey Brothers set out their trip-hop stall with their debut album, Who Can You Trust? (1996). The album received little real airplay but attracted the praise of critics, with calling it "a hauntingly atmospheric - and quite terrific - debut."¹ After spending much of 1997 on tour, the band returned to the studio to record the follow-up. The resulting album, Big Calm, saw more poppy elements introduced to compliment their roots, a reflection perhaps of the declining fortunes of bands like Portishead and Massive Attack. The more successful tours and reviews for this album convinced the band to continue moving in a pop direction.

'World Looking In' is an enticing opener, beginning with Skye slowly whispering her way into the mix. The departure from the previous album is marked: the production is glossier and Skye is more syrupy in her tones. But we still get a decent, albeit spartan set of lyrics, delivered with a whistful feeling of abandon. The more light-hearted, whimsical mood is underscored in the final minute by the acoustic guitar, hinting at its widespread use on Charango (2002, #18). In all, this is a good start to the album, setting out the new sound without being overbearing.

'Rome Wasn't Built In A Day' has a lot more to live up to. Being the first single, it has to secure your attention so that the rest of the album becomes desirable. It doesn't disappoint. As on the previous track (the second single), we get a relatively simple set of lyrics, but these are made up for and counterpointed beautifully by both Skye and the brass section. With its multi-tracked female vocals, this has a gospel feel to it which helps to distinguish it from other featherweight singles of the day. It's a very catchy little number, which sung by anyone else would have been forgettable, but in the hands of Skye it is very, very good.

Having got our full attention, 'Love Is Rare' takes things up a notch, drawing us slowly into the rest of the album. It builds on the previous track, keeping the brassy, flashy feel but bringing the drums further forward. The lyrics remain simplistic and teasing, as in the first verse:

You've got a rocket in your pocket
Why can't you just let me be?
Have you no eyes in your sockets
Or are you just pleased to see me?

Beneath this rather cosmetic veneer, however, there is a proper song underneath. The vocals may be relatively anodyne, but they have a feistiness, at least in the first half, which drives them forwards and prevents the track from becoming boring. Meanwhile, the bombastic drums and heavy, funky bass will keep your head bobbing long after this has finished.

As good as 'Love Is Rare' is, it can't hold a candle to the next track. 'Let It Go' sees Skye relaxing back into a more silky mode of singing, neatly juxtaposed against the heavy sounds emanating from behind her. The verses are very well-written, ridigly structured like a lot of Morcheeba tracks but still capable of titillating you. But it's the choruses that properly impress. The trumpets sing out between lines as Skye pushes the limits of her voice, achieving something wonderful along the way. In the bridge we get a great 1970s synthesiser solo from Ross Godfrey, and in spite of the inexplicable sampling in the fade-out, this is a properly brilliant track, not least because it makes you feel happy without feeling guility at the same time.

'A Well-Deserved Break' is as hard a track to like as it is to dislike. On one level, it's a pleasant, chilled-out workout on acoustic and steel drums. It's a loop at heart, like most Morcheeba instrumentals, but it feels like it is going somewhere. In the end however, this goes on for far too long, as if the band had inserted it to meet the length requirements of their label.

'Love Sweet Love', meanwhile, is a million miles from filler. It's a lot dancier than 'Let It Go', but Paul Godfrey's scratching and quicker tempo are beautifully matched by Ross's bubbly electric guitar, while percolates through the foreground like a Joe Satriani solo played at double speed. In the verse, the tempo is taken down with some soft jazz drumming, giving Skye all the room she needs - and she doesn't let you down, producing a dance track with a personality as well as a kick. And when the male vocal part comes in - courtesy of Mr. Complex - it doesn't ruin the track as Pace Won's work did on Charango. It's a stonker of a track.

Unfortunately, the next track is less of a stonker and more of a stinker. 'In The Hands Of The Gods' features Biz Markie on vocals and is quite simply the most atrocious song this band has ever produced. Not only does this have the worst intro ever written for any song, but Markie is an appalling lyricist, producing rhymes so embarrassingly poor that they might have come from a white man trying it in the 1980s. It's insanely terrible, bad enough to make you cringe and spill your guts, that such a thing should end up on a Morcheeba album.

If, however, you have patience and guts still left over, you are rewarded with two amazing tracks. The first, 'Shallow End', is in many ways indicative of the new direction of the band. While the previous two albums were dark, heavy and serious, now this band is all about having fun and being relaxed. Skye sums this up as she sings I'm through with feeling deeply. But there is more to this song than self-referencing and reflection. It's a love song at heart, about two people in a relationship looking to take things a little easier. As before, we get some great guitar from R. Godfrey, and the whole thing has a bright, summery feel which makes you want to fling the windows wide open and share your joy with the world.

The other masterpiece, 'Be Yourself', is a little more subtle and a lot more downbeat. At 3:16 it would have been a better choice for a second single than 'World Looking In', largely because it feels more compact and amenable. It's not a lightweight though, by any means; it may have lyrics which are easy on the ears, but there's plenty of stuff going on behind Skye to hold your attention. We get more lovely acoustic, and a fair bit of synthesiser work passed off as brass. It's hardly the most intellectual, thought-provoking song on the planet, but Morcheeba's substance and success as a band has always been built upon their knack for finding a groove. Here they have taken a great groove, shrouded it in great musicianship, and the result is amazing.

'Coming Down Gently' rather lives up to its name: it's not quite as good as the previous tracks, but it's not a massive drop in quality in the way that 'A Well-Deserved Break' would seem. It is slower-paced, and a looped track, but interestingly it still feels like it's going somewhere. You learn to spot the different phrases as they dance backwards and forwards, but the band have left in little touches like the flute solo and the mellotron-esque keyboard at the end, to sustain you in your relaxing trek.

'Good Girl Down' is another amazing track from a band truly at its peak. Skye has often been criticised for not being able to convey a range of emotions in her voice, but once you hear this you will leap at the chance to disagree.² Where before she was merely sultry, or alluring, or teasing, or even just plain sexy, here she sounds feisty, and more aggressive. In fact, this track could almost be described as a light-hearted feminist anthem; the vocals are still sung with beauty, but there is a sting in the tale because they reflect a desire to stand up and be recognised. The presence of Bahamadia on this track helps to bolster this image, as do the elegant but stricken strings and snazzy production. This feels delicate and tight, and yet wild and uncaged, making it something very rare indeed.

The title track, which closes the album, is in true Morcheeba tradition a looping instrumental-of-sorts. While not as bad overall as its counterpart on Big Calm, it's hardly a stand-out. The hi-hat at the start is ugly, the guitar meanders aimlessly and the drums sound as unoriginal and as badly produced as they do on a Beatles track (i.e. very poor). It's a tragic way to finish what is otherwise a promising album.

There are, in many ways, a lot of things wrong with Fragments Of Freedom. The production is a little too glossy; the lyrics are not always up to scratch; and it contains one of the worst songs ever written. As I said in my review of Charango, if you view albums more as an experience than as a collection of songs, then the follow-up to this will be more your sort of thing. Even so, there is so much good music on offer here that it seems a shame not to recognise what an achievement this album is. The few let-downs aside, it is a hugely consistent body of work, and because each of the great tracks stand so well by themselves, you can listen to the songs in any order you choose - surely a boon in the playlist generation. Above all, though, this is the peak of Morcheeba's output simply because it is so much fun - you can dance to this album to your heart's content, or play it on a long drive without once getting bored. It is difficult to find music that can be both fun and substantial at the same time, making Fragments Of Freedom a rare thing indeed.

4.00 out of 5

¹ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, 'Who Can You Trust?', Accessed on December 8 2008.
² Nina Pearlmann, 'Morcheeba', Accessed on December 8 2008.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Top 100 Albums - #18: Charango (2002)

Morcheeba's penultimate chart entry is Charango, their fourth album and the last to feature Skye Edwards on vocals.
After the warm reception accorded to Big Calm (1998, #54), Morcheeba began to experiment with sounds outside of their trip-hop roots. The resulting album, Fragments Of Freedom (2000), was much more poppy in tone, meeting with poor reviews but the best sales of the band's career, along with a hit single, 'Rome Wasn't Built In A Day'. Following the tour to promote both album and single, the band signed to Warner Bros. Records - departing from Sire - and began to work on new material. To whet the fans' appetite, the group released Back To Mine (2001), a compilation album of artists that inspired the Godfrey Brothers. All the tracks were remixed and the album also featured 'On The Rhodes Again', an off-cut from Who Can You Trust? (1996).

Things couldn't start more perfectly. 'Slow Down' is a chilled-out classic, featuring all the ingredients that made Big Calm so compelling: rich production, smooth lyrics and a sultry performance from Skye. The track opens with a sweet duet between a cello and a guitar, the former subtlely rasping in the bass lines while the later whines sweetly through its highest registers. Skye's voice is as smoky and as teasing as it was on Big Calm, but all the tragedy present on that record has been replaced by a relaxed state of contentment. There is nothing logically wrong with this song - the production is flawless, the musicianship is brilliantly balanced, and nothing is allowed to drag or dominate unduly. It's an absolute treat of an opening track.

'Otherwise' can't really compete, but don't think that it's a bad song because of this. We get more strings (violins this time), but the feel is very different. Where 'Slow Down' was a laid-back chillout classic, this is a cool three-minute single. Well, three-and-a-bit. The lyrics are a lot more simply structured, but this just makes them catchier; the chorus in particular manages to be easily memorable while hanging on to some substance. Skye is given more room on this track, and responds by letting herself go just a little.

'Aqualung' is more fun, with funkier touches on the production and in the choice of instruments. The bass especially is given more room, coupling with the dance-y drums to drive the track forward. We get more strings too, serving up some sweet harmonies in between the multi-tracked vocals. Finally, we get a very nice flute solo in the middle, which keeps you on your toes. So often flutes can sound horrible on record, but once again the Godfrey Brothers prove themselves to be masters of the art.

'São Paulo' is probably the saddest track on this album. Being pop, there is only so much emotion that can be conveyed before it becomes overbearing and esoteric. Here Skye returns to singing his tears, lamenting that her life is one big cliché and regretting a past love. Her sultry tones blend beautifully with the harmonica, so that we are truly taken to the Brazilian shanty towns that surround the city. Everything about this track is marvellous, as once again we are confronted with perfect production: immaculate enough so that you can sit back and relax, but tantalising enough to let your ears wander.

The title track is the first glimpse we get on here on Morcheeba dropping the ball. Both title tracks on Big Calm and Fragments Of Freedom were empty and below-par instrumentals, with occasional lyrics shoved on in a vague attempt to sustain your interest. And this is no different. By the time Pace Won comes in with any lyrics, you're bored with the riffs and scratches, and so will struggle to notice.

Happily, however, we get our money's worth on the next track. 'What New York Couples Fight About' sees Skye dueting with Kurt Wagner, who half-whispers, half-croons his lyrics in a manner which is completely captivating. The two sets of vocals gel very nicely, so that you quickly ignore any weak links in the actual lyrics (of which there are few). This track is a little too long - at 6:16 it's the longest on the album - but as with 'Slow Down' there isn't much to drag this down or hold the duo back. Listen hard for the gorgeous lap steel in the second chorus.

'Undress Me Now' is the second single to be culled from the album, and kicks off the second half in some style. The strings are still there, as is the prominent dance-influenced bass, but we get some acoustic guitar added to the mix at the start. Perhaps this is an indication of Skye's differing styles, present on her first solo effort, Mind How You Go (2006, #24). It's not the most substancial song ever recorded, but it sits charmingly and comfortably amid the other tracks.

'Way Beyond' is the last truly great track on here, if not the last truly great track Morcheeba have produced to date. Skye is probably the only female singer who can take an opening line like Driving with your handbrake on/ But you can't smell the burning and turn it into a believable romance ode. This is clearly her song; not only is her performance more connected and more personal, but the instruments surrounding her have been arranged to compliment it perfectly. The casual, jazzy trumpet in the chorus, for instance, feels made for her voice, rather than just another backing part shoved on in the control room. It's a beautiful song, perfectly written and wonderfully served up.

Having gone all serious on us, Morcheeba bring back the fun factor with 'Women Lose Weight'. Guest vocalist Slick Rick takes the limelight in this tale about a man killing his wife, delivering in a macabre but surprisingly playful manner. It's very tongue-in-cheek, but it manages to carry itself off on the strength of its lyrics. The storyline isn't exactly as hard as Ulysses to follow, but it's well thought out, fits snugly into the rhythm and it doesn't try to be too clever, leaving most of the imagery to the listeners.

We then segue into 'Get Along', Pace Won's second guest spot on vocals. It's very different to the title track, but it still comes up short on content. Skye gives her all but the vocals are lazy and repetitive, and things don't improve when the male part comes in (fast as your pasta, anyone?). This is possibly redeemed by the guitar workout at the end, but even this isn't good enough. 'Public Displays Of Affection' is better, with Skye back on form and in a complaining mood. She bemoans kissing lovers, welded orally, turning it inwards as a statement to her perceived insignificance (I can't wait for my next rejection/ I'm always the first in the queue). The verse and chorus structure is still quite rigid, but there is enough going on to keep things moving.

As on the previous two albums, we close with an instrumental, and not an especially good one. 'The Great London Traffic Warden Massacre' may have a title lifted from psychedelic rock, but it feels like nothing of the sort. Instead it's a bouncy hotch potch of a number, borrowing little snippets from all over the place but never bringing them together into anything that feels like a coalesced whole. In essence it's a loop, in the same way that Pink Floyd's 'Terminal Frost' is a loop (see my review of A Momentary Lapse Of Reason (1987, #62). But where that grows slowly, and sustains your interest throughout, this will see you sink slowly into sleep, wishing that it would stop.

Certain editions of the album feature a second disc, containing instrumental versions of all tracks. As a general rule they do not differ in quality from the standard versions, and as a result will not be of much interest to anyone who doesn't have a pressing interest in either sound engineering or karaoke. They do however serve a useful purpose as a passing contrast to the finished products, if only to remind us how integral Skye really is in the Morcheeba sound.

One complaint that could be made about Charango is that it is too complete, too serious. It is more grown-up and more refined than its predecessor, and some of the fun has gone. But something else has replaced the fun: a sense of contentment and purpose. If Fragments Of Freedom was like a white mural with pots of paint thrown over it - lots of fun but hardly the prettiest thing to behold - then this is Constable's The Hay Wain (1821) - a meticulous, perfectly crafted work of beauty, whose quality breeds a snobbish attitude. It is the culmination of all that made Morcheeba technically great, with production that is a million miles from their smoky, static-filled beginnings. It is not their finest album, because of the inconsistent vocal contributions and lack of brevity in parts of the lyrics, but there is no denying that the band have never sounded cleaner and brighter. As a collection of individual songs, all jostling for position, Fragments beats this hands down - but as an experience, Charango is by far the band's best album.

4.00 out of 5