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