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

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