Friday, 14 November 2008

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

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