Who arranged it?: Dominik Hauser, Joohyun Park, and John Beal
Who released it?: BuySoundtrax Records
Who’s it for?: The most devoted X-Files completists.
What’s the Lowdown?: If you’re a soundtrack nerd, you’ve probably seen the names Dominik Hauser or Joohyun Park on the iTunes Store or Spotify. They’re everywhere. But why? I haven’t seen anything original from them, ever. It’s all cover versions and “tributes” to TV show themes or famous film cues. Why the fuck would I want to hear Toto’s main theme from David Lynch’s Dune done as a cheap imitation? Or the theme from New Moon? Or the main theme of AMC’s The Walking Dead? Hauser and Park’s bodies of work are enormous, they must never leave their studios. Their business model is to record hundreds of ersatz arrangements of TV and Movie themes and saturate the digital music vendors with them. These guys pump this stuff out like a factory, making bland arrangements on their MIDI keyboards. I have not yet gone so far as to accuse an artist of outright hackery, but this is close. Most of this album sounds similar enough to Mark Snow’s originals to fool the casual listener, but buyer beware: it’s not the real thing.
That being said, I have yet to actually review the music itself, so here you go: like most of their arrangements, a lot of this is all done with MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface), which can sound like anything. Pianos, drums, violins, clarinets, tubas, whatever. They’re synths, and some of them sound close to the real thing, which can be great for things like Jason Graves’ score for the recent Tomb Raider reboot, but Graves has personally gathered hundreds of samples to build a unique and realistic library of synthetic orchestral instruments. The trouble with most synths built on sampled instruments is that they can lack character, and their tone often lacks depth or dimensionality. They’re the artificial flavors of the musical world. They’re great when mixed in with real instruments, but in order to make MIDI sound truly human, you have to manually program minor variations in pitch, intensity, and timing. But by the time you’ve done that, you could have recorded a real instrument. That’s a lot more expensive, though. Now, Mark Snow recorded most of the music from The X-Files episodes using MIDI, and while his compositions don’t sound as good as they would have with a full orchestra at his disposal, they’re HIS compositions, and Mark Snow happens to be a fantastic composer. His orchestral scores for the X-Files films are more than enough to prove that. This album features music from the television show and both X-Files feature films, and every track lacks the charm found in the original recordings. The arrangement of the cues isn’t hideous, and John Beal’s (not to be confused with House of Cards composer Jeff Beal) Suite from The X-Files occasionally strives to do its own thing, but I recommend you purchase the albums that feature Snow’s original arrangements and recordings. They’re worth every penny.
What’s it cost?: $14.78 on Amazon.com!
- Theme from The X-Files (Guitar Demo)
Who composed it?: Alexandre Desplat
Who released it?: Sony Music Entertainment
Who’s it for?: Fans of John Williams’ score for 1941.
What’s the Lowdown?: If there’s a composer working today who works a little too much, it’s Alexandre Desplat. To say he is prolific is an understatement: since 1985, he’s scored over 150 films, and has been nominated for seven Academy Awards and six Golden Globes, not to mention the myriad of other various awards he’s won or been nominated for. His impressive filmography is likely due to the following factors: the guy works quickly, his work is consistent, and he’s probably very easy to work with. I like his music, but there’s not much in Desplat’s filmography that really grabs me. Even his work on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows doesn’t do a whole lot for me, and the Potter franchise was quite heavy with the themes composed by John Williams. I’ve thought long and hard about why I don’t seem to be able to remember his themes, but I think it’s because instead of creating many short, repeating leitmotifs, Desplat tends to favor longer, more complex, lyrical themes that develop over a repeating chord progression. But will his score for The Monuments Men break the cycle?
While I’m not sure how I’ll feel about it in a few months, I think The Monuments Men may be one of my all-time favorite Desplat scores. It’s beautifully written, and tonally spot-on. The album opens strongly with The Roosevelt Mission, featuring an instantly memorable, short, repeating leitmotif played on the horn, and reverent trumpet solo introducing the film’s main theme. We then transition into Opening Titles, which is a fun and brassy march. The themes from the previous two tracks show up again in Basic Training, but with a much more playful slant. The next track, Normandy, features another incarnation of the main theme. I’m sure you’re starting to see a pattern here, and that pattern continues throughout. We’re hearing a good amount of these themes, which I think works in the score’s favor. The other tracks don’t sound like mere filler, either. If you’re into big, playful, orchestral scores, I’m going to recommend The Monuments Men.
What’s it cost?: $11.88 on Amazon.com!
- The Roosevelt Mission
- Opening Titles
- Castle Art Hoard
Who composed it?: Bear McCreary
Who released it?: Sparks & Shadows
Who’s it for?: Fans of Black Sails, McCreary, and the finer things in life.
What’s the Lowdown?: For Pirates of the Caribbean, Hans Zimmer and Klaus Badelt created the new signature pirate sound. Disney’s mega-franchise ushered in a new trend of pirate media, a trend which is still going strong eleven years later, and that signature sound has been difficult for other composers to stay away from. Even Brian Tyler’s (excellent) music for Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag (which features some of the same characters as Black Sails) doesn’t fully escape the overhanging shadow of Zimmer and Badelt’s juggernaut collection of themes and textures. If a composer has broken free and created a new pirate sound, it’s Bear McCreary.
By incorporating jangly detuned piano, electric and acoustic guitar, fiddle, mandolin, accordion, hurdy gurdy, and other folk instruments, McCreary has crafted something that feels completely right for Starz’s gritty Treasure Island prequel, defining a new sound for all-too-familiar locations and characters. His score is one of the largest factors in how Black Sails distances itself from Disney’s pirate aesthetic. McCreary describes the score better than I ever could, as “scratchy and rustic and raw… like it’s being played on the deck of a ship by weary musicians on broken instruments.” The score still features the churning distorted guitars and pounding percussion that McCreary does so well, but there’s so much more playfulness in this score than in his music for The Walking Dead or Defiance. You’ll hear lilting, behind-the-beat imperfect rhythms, and odd time signatures. It’s the kind of thing I’ve been waiting for McCreary to do, and now it’s my favorite thing he’s ever done. Oh, and if you’re at all interested in McCreary’s composition and recording process, read his awesome blog.
What’s it cost?: $14.98 on Amazon.com!
- Nassau Shores
- L’Urca de Lima
- Wondrous Love
- The Andromache
- Black Sails Main Title
Who composed it?: Patrick Doyle
Who released it?: Varese Records
Who’s it for?: People who want an alternate soundtrack to their Call of Duty sessions.
What’s the Lowdown?: I’ve never been a huge Patrick Doyle fan. I don’t think he’s a bad composer, but I’d be hard pressed to tell you what his best score is. I think he’s at his best when he’s allowed to be unabashedly classical, like his Hamlet score. Doyle is a frequent collaborator with Branagh, having scored Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Frankenstein, Hamlet, Love’s Labour’s Lost, As You Like It, Sleuth, and Thor. I’m just gonna go out on a limb here and guess that he was Branagh’s first choice for Jack Ryan, too. At the risk of sounding gauche, Doyle’s Jack Ryan score is inoffensive, but very bland. It sounds nearly indistinguishable from many contemporary action film and video game scores in that uses driving orchestral cues, but replaces traditional orchestral percussion with busy electronic flourishes. If someone had stuck a cue from Call of Duty: Ghosts or the Robocop remake’s score into the middle of this album, I most likely wouldn’t have noticed. It’s all staccato secret agent strings over lightly chirping synths and thumping drum machines.
Except for a precious few tracks, I could hardly tell when cues ended and began. The few unique cues are used during dialogue scenes, or when Doyle does something really interesting by translating Faith of our Fathers, an English Catholic hymn, into Russian. It’s arranged powerfully for a men’s choir, and stands out like a sore thumb (in a good way) against the sixty other minutes of unremarkable action cues.
What’s it cost?: $14.58 on Amazon.com!
- Shadow Accounts
- Faith of our Fathers
- Ryan, Mr. President