Wolf Totem – Score Review

Release Date: 24th February 2015 (PHYSICAL RELEASE)
26th February 2015 (DIGITAL RELASE)
Composer(s): James Horner
Length: 58:57
Recorded At: recorded and mixed by Simon Rhodes
Label: Milan Records


Why You Should…
The resurgence of Horner brings with him a swooning, nostalgic soundtrack, with a powerful theme and soothing highlights.

Why You Shouldn’t…
For Horner, as ever is never free from inclusions of his own works in the score at hand.

Cross-cultural films have a flair for captivating the audience in some format or the other. Anthropological protagonists (wolves, believe it or not) serves as the primary focus of the film WOLF TOTEM, or LE DERNIER LOUP in some countries. Directed by Jean-Jacques Arnaud, the film faced proverbial development hell as it struggled to find a home, and owner, with potential suitors including famed New Zealander Peter Jackson. Despite contrasting history with Arnaud’s prior offering, Seven Years In Tibet (unsurprisingly banned in China), Arnaud filled the role of director for the film. Based in turn upon a semi-autobiographical novel synonymously titled and released in 2004 by Lu Jiamin, the core of Wolf Totem’s narrative stems from the peak period within China’s Cultural Revolution in 1967 (two years prior to the film’s setting of the novel’s events). The student protagonist leaves home from Peking to work in Inner Mongolia, in an attempt to educate shepherds. There, however, the narrative’s focus veers off course, when he becomes fascinated by the wolves of the shepherds. The deep, empathic, mutual connection between the two touches him greatly, and becomes a form of plight when a government apparatchik is sent to threaten the co-habitual harmony. The novel’s storyline itself is based deeply on Jiamin’s own personal, rather somewhat frightening encounter with wolves in the wilderness.  An inadvertent decision, Jiamin found himself mesmerized by the fluid lifestyle of the wolves, and began to reflect more on them, amidst the persuasive calls of the local clan he was staying with.  Arnaud’s bleak, raw drama film was released in Chinese, even though the director had enjoyed the novel better in French. The film opened in limited release to mixed reviews.

One of the more positive mentions included James Horner’s score. The veteran, whose last release was the stellar The Amazing Spider Man, had retracted from Hollywood after personally becoming dissatisfied with the technical approach to film scoring. The harsher, minimal tendencies of modern-day interactions between the studio and the composer left Horner uncomfortable, and he reluctantly produced no work for three solid years. Wolf Totem serves as a more than satisfying return to the foray for him, but simultaneously carries with it the weight of his prior scores in tow. The composer’s output for this project will remind the more learned listener of John Barry’s Dancing With Wolves. Horner’s key advantage is the differentiation in ethnic focus, and as such, offers strong thematic material. This is the sort of output that would have graced The Karate Kid better, back in 2010.

 The album begins with “Leaving For The Country”, in which Horner introduces the main theme on horns with unrestrained majesty and grandeur in such a short time period, siphoning ethnic variations of the theme on different instruments. A wailing voice introduces the solemn, cold strings in A minor, before the horns resound in glorious fashion. The main theme itself sounds as an odd merging of his Amazing Spiderman theme and his other previous works, perhaps Wrath of Khan in some territories, and Braveheart in others. The sheer power that the theme evokes, however, is more than enough to overshadow the underlining similarities, and can be safely classed as one of the more fluid, evocative themes in films. Horner uses this theme in every opportunity awarded to him, an element that Barry’s Dancing With Wolves suffered in. An erhu/cello and mandolin accentuate the theme’s progression’s further, and wistful oboe and sparkling piano writing add beauty to the piece. The focus on the wolves is primarily exposed in “Wolves Stalking Gazelles”, Horner providing the necessary ambiguous tension on the shakuhachi flute to signify the cunning methods that wolves use to hunt their prey. The cold strings fade and reappear with precision, and tension starts to grow near the two minute mark. A steady percussion riff gives way to unclear string writing, and brute rhythmic force is unleashed at 2:26, a wild frenzy of strings prevalent in the crescendos. The dooming horns and fast sliding strings collide further in, and a melancholy, subtle soundscape is reached. One of the most admirable distinguishable traits about Horner is his uncanny ability to write for extended periods, his lengthier suites more rewarding over the years. The same can be said about “An Offering To Tengger/ Chen Saves The Last Wolf Pup”, with tinkling piano and eerie woodwinds. The varying in meter of his piano writing harnesses emotional depth and tranquillity, perfectly appropriate for this assignment. Interestingly enough, the flowing of water is evoked well within the piece, perhaps an indirect call to the motif of nature. Thematic references are welcome. Oddly enough, at the 2:26 mark, the same rhythm reappears from the prior track. Horner showcases growing tension well, and a mild flute at the 3 minute mark is a gorgeous contrast. Those high strings of his are in the field, but he opts for a more serenading approach towards the end of the third minute, fragmenting the theme in serendipitous fashion.This motif is carried well into the fifth minute, and the nostalgic identity of the film returns in the sixth, wonderfully conveying animosity and the innocence of the wolf pups. The later half toys with the theme further, and an ethnic flute is complemented beautifully by Horner’s glistening strings, closing out with a coy horn.
Horner’s subthemes aren’t enormously memorable, but induce a powerful air of animalistic rawness. In “Wolves Attack The Horses,” a careful, uneasy series of strings villainously provoke danger in the scene set. A cunning cello reminds one of Hans Zimmer-like technique, an odd element to hear in Horner’s scores. A second wolf motif is crafted early on in the piece, with sinister horns and tapping snares giving way to a series of rising and falling strings. Crashing piano is a brilliant change of pace, with vicious strings and cymbalic flourishes to marvel while listening to. One would be forgiven if the latter half of the piece reminded them of Danny Elfman’s Batman to an extent. The infamous four-note motif is prevalent here too, and screeching violins in a higher range are present throughout. “A Red Ribbon” starts off softer, with harp and weightless strings. Thematic variations are poignant on the woodwinds and horns, and nostalgia is well and truly evoked. The mandolin is picked lightly, and the more intimate approach is refreshing.

Restless strings open “The Frozen Lake”, giving one the feeling of treading on thin ice. Growing horns and muffled timpani work very well here too.  The majestic horns sound out against the fluid flute, but the repetition of the ostinato heard at the beginning becomes irritant. Thankfully, Horner changes key and pace with a sequencing of the main theme and frantic strings.  Weighted strikes on the anvil add terror effectively, and the louder portion draws to a close. The villainous motif from Avatar is also here; sadly, Horner is unable to escape the attraction of his own works. “Discovering Hidden Dangers” is a steady tension cue, with discordant reprisals of the main theme proving effective. The solemn horns are wonderfully applied for the majority of the soundtrack, and the woodwind portions recall many a vintage Horner score. The bubbly optimism is replaced by timpani rolling and horns of a threatening structure. “Little Wolf” is a showcase of the thematic identity and its variants, that four note motif sneaking its way here too. You have to admire the way Horner stays faithful to that aforementioned identity, and decorates it with lush strings fit for a romantic art-house drama. Cute pizzicato effects sound curious, perhaps conveying the innocence of the little wolf and some humorous situations. The woodwinds are on fine form here.

“Scaling The Walls” employs low notes on brass, and tremolo strings dictate tension well. Horner’s chord progressions serve as a delightful throwback to the scores of the Golden Age, but do little to deviate from his existing material. Still, the curiosity he crafts in this cue is intelligently handled. Oboes are used in lyrical ostinatos, and minimal sliding on the strings convey the wolves’ pursuit upon land. Another brief cue is “Suicide Pact”– here, Horner strays into more tragic territory appropriately, the layered string writing heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time. The theme is spun from different angles, and adds for a more bleak listening experience. The two note motif for the wolves ends the piece. “Hunting The Wolves” creates terror for the wolves, as they and their habitat are duly threatened by the apparatchik. The scratching on the strings is an innovative use of timbre, reminding of Zimmer’s Sherlock Holmes. The horns rise and fall steadily. A constant rhythm in the strings and woodwinds emulates the wolves’ hurried movement. At the 4 minute mark, the strings become relaxed, more tender. Low, octave piano crashing give way to a soulful rendition of the theme once more, its poignancy everlasting in beautiful swoons. The final two cues are the shortest and longest, respectively. “Death Of A’ba” turns grim, as the opening strings heard first in the main theme are followed by sorrowful vocals, lamenting the theme with whining violins gorgeously, in this brief but tragic cue. “Return To The Wild” is a calling card for those who have enjoyed Horner’s lengthy ending suites in the past.  Solemn horns coo the theme helplessly, a sense of finality awaiting the listener. The theme is sequenced quite wonderfully in its concise statements, ranging from sadness to peace. The A minor sections are downright beautiful, and wondrous, as the final scenes play, depicting Chen embracing his interactions with the wolves in his life. A wild timpani roll flourishes, before eerie strings take precedence. The theme is unforgettable by this point, and the soaring, glistening statement plays over the credits perfectly, each section of the four bar melody extended to increase emotional weight. The higher strings are lush as the more poignant trumpets sound out unashamedly.  The cello is fluid, and free moving in this last cue. Crescendos in major keys help build towards a required, glorious, triumphant end. The two note motif is here too, and serves as a fitting end to any cue.

Wolf Totem is somewhat of a godsend. For the people, because his nostalgic, melodramatic tendencies are as always, a refreshing deviation from the more wilder norm. Horner’s powerful theme is one that will linger in the mind for a while, its intelligent, layered concoctions garnished over strong subthemes. It’s unfortunate  that this brilliant work suffers from references to his prior scores, several motifs and themes clearly lifted and sticking out like a sore thumb. In the end, one has to overshadow these tendencies, because we are all truly grateful to have heard his voice. Wolf Totem was James Horner’s final score released before his untimely passing, and there are still two more works that await us. Until then, the listener can relish this score for its epic moments.

Music in connection to the film: [*****] 5/5
Music as a sole listening experience: [**** 1/2]  4.5./5

Overall Consensus: [*****] 5/5


Track Listing:
1)Leaving For The Country                                               (all cues by Horner)
2)Wolves Stalking Gazelles
3)An Offering To Tengger/Chen Saves The Last Wolf Pup
4)Wolves Attack The Horses
5)A Red Ribbon
6)The Frozen Lake
7)Discovering Hidden Dangers
8)Little Wolf
9)Scaling The Walls
10)Suicide Pact
11)Hunting The Wolves
12)Death Of A’ba
13)Return To The Wild

James Horner- A Celebration.

By now, we in the film scoring community will have helplessly, quietly acknowledged the untimely passing of James Roy Horner. The effect his soulful, thematic, grandiose style of melodramatic writing left on us is an impression of immense weight.
The first score of his that brought my attention was 2009’s Avatar. The film was easy to de-construct for me, with its plot borrowed from a multitude of films, and was yet another example of James Cameron’s compensation of style through visual effects over substance. However, the greatest decision Cameron made, was to ultimately reunite with Horner, 12 years after their stupendous Titanic. Horner added a voice to the film that Cameron could not have imagined, nor we as the audience could contemplate. The gorgeous, intimate yet simplistic, stirring theme was the first to raise my heart and give it the simulation of soaring.  The intricate layers of fusion percussion, coupled with chanting and serenading woodwinds was everything that solidified my respect for the film as a whole. Even after 6 years, it remains a favourite.
Then, there’s the other recent commercial effort to contend with:The Amazing Spider Man. I had to applaud Horner for bringing back the 90s feel to a superhero film set in contemporary times, and admired how his romantic, thematic sensibilities embodied the eponymous webslinger’s return to the big screen. After many years, I could connect with the emotional side of a superhero again, and it flooded me with nostalgia. As much as I like the masculinity of Zimmer, the intimacy of Horner served as a truly refreshing change, a wonderful deviation for the norm.
Other examples that captivated me are A Beautiful Mind (‘A Kaleidoscope Of Mathematics‘ is without a shadow of a doubt one of the most beautiful cues written), Apollo 13, Glory and so forth. One of the most powerful capabilities that a composer has at his fingertips is to transcend the film itself and envelop the audience within the music, in an attempt to mask the overall product’s flaws. Someone like James Horner was a man that wrote deep, melodic spells with that power. He created soulful, memorable themes (no better example of this is the infamous Titanic), but a more intelligent example would be his stunning, lush theme for Legends Of The Fall– a film that came before my time, but one that I could grow to appreciate because of the stirring motifs.
Others will have personal favourites that differ to my own, and I respect that- it’s those differences that set apart that layers to a piece of music, and convey to a lesser extent the multiple angles from which it can be adored. Sadly, Wolf Totem was his last release before death, but also his return to the industry after a somewhat quiet period, two posthumous offerings in the form of Southpaw and The 33 yet to come and captivate us once more. We all miss his voice, but will treasure his scores for the years to come. There’s no denying he has earned his place among the greats (Rozsa, Rota, Hermann, Goldsmith, etc), but we have a legacy to remember him by.

Thank you, Sir. For all the memories.

James Roy Horner 
August 14th 1953- June 22nd 2015

Into The Storm- Score Review

Release Date: August 8th 2014 (DIGITAL)
August 19th 2014 (PHYSICAL)
Composer(s): Brian Tyler
Length: 00:47:32
Recorded At: […]* with the help of The Hollywood Studio Symphony                                                      *unknown
Label: Varese Sarabande/ Colosseum VSD


Why You Should…
Into The Storm possesses some strong action material, with innovation and force propelling the cues with momentum to keep action aficionados entertained for almost fifty minutes straight.

Why You Shouldn’t…
The repetition of previous material, particularly TMNT, or the severe exhaustion resulting from the lack of subtlety as whole, despite some strong highlights to be showcased within.

The sustained public interest in disaster films is one that will perplex many. Rarely do we receive a film in the genre worthy of merit or similar high calibre response, instead resulting in thinly written, unevenly fleshed characters and implausible storylines with only the weight of the groundbreaking special effects to steer it home on its haphazard course. Steven Quale’s 2014 attempt, INTO THE STORM is by no means any different. It too succumbs to the tired, tested formulaic approach to disaster films, but one can begin to see where that appeal lies. Perhaps it’s the sense of fear, the ever growing paranoia that alluringly invites the viewer in, to accepting a CGI overload as substitute for the humans at hand as easy entertainment. The film follows the found footage format (remember the Paranormal Activity films?), where the events unfold as such that an amateurish, childlike handling of an ordinary camera somehow managed to conveniently capture an impending catastrophic event.
Here, a series of storms threaten to ravage the lives of those in Silverton, Oklahoma, and follows the events of two school teachers (Richard Armitage and Sarah Wayne Callies respectively) in their subliminal efforts to put up a seemingly impossible stand against Mother Nature, and defend the ones they love from her wrath. The film opened to a response from little to no avail, however, some critics agree that there were traces of thrills within the hampered screenplay.

Brian Tyler is no stranger to these assignments; he has built himself from being able to provide these kinds of services. In an awkward way, Into The Storm is somewhat of a familial homecoming for him, having previously resurrected the infamous Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to bombastic heights in Jonathan Liebesmann’s effort earlier that year. Tyler continues with the intense, raw orchestral power that he employed for the MARVEL realm, but felicitates the brooding Hans Zimmer sound well. Make no mistake, all comparisons made, this is well and truly a Tyler score.
The album begins with the title track, ‘Into The Storm’, that introduces the main theme in a succinct manner of presentation. It’s hard not to appreciate how Tyler does this with each of his scores, and his reliability on packaging a powerful theme into a likewise cohesive soundscape remains as strong as ever. A series of uneasy, eerie puffs from a Shakuhachi flute add a stereotypical air of tension, before the rumbling string ostinatos collide with the percussion patterns. A brief break is heard, before Tyler states the main theme in solemn fashion, conveying the gut-wrenching, sinking feeling well. Though quite simplistic in regard to his recent offerings, it’s exactly the type of music that accompanies the footage well. Slapping percussion, cymbal flourishes and choir add depth and soul to the piece, before a key change to a turbulent D minor brings it full circle, the horns opting to blast the main melody louder than before.
‘Atonement’ begins with the rumbling of dooming percussion, and a horn chorus abrasively rings out against a tense, A minor string section. Trumpets fluctuate between hope and despair, and the meter varies persistently, with colours of dramatic tension washing through. Wild, stomping brass makes a powerful, resonant statement. Again, similarities to his TMNT score are heard, however. Low, sinister E minor celli and strings accentuate the brooding complexity of the meteorological monster at work, and the track ends on a surprisingly high note.

Then, solemn piano is heard in ‘Fate’, as tingling guitars and slow, fleeting strings carry a variation on the main theme, and in a way, a reminiscence of James Horner’s sweeping melodramatic motifs are evoked, before firm, absolute percussive slaps signify the territory as his. There is little melodic development, as the same familial four chord sequence is used, but there is emotion within. An eerie, distorted effect is employed to avail, and some beautiful, sorrowful violin renditions of the theme are heard. A nice contrast to a brooding start enunciates Tyler’s versatility, and one is left wishing that Tyler’s body of work can boast some deeper, emotional films too. ‘Titus Versus The Tornado’ pushes around a C minor barrage of strings and taiko drums, and trumpets and brass convey the necessary heightened scope here. Dissonance is aplenty, and several string bends echo throughout. The horns continue to root the theme in, and the strings wrestle uncomfortably against the snares, a menacing brass section dominating over the rest of the orchestra. A sudden fast rhythmic movement gives way to a high string melody. Tyler also employs a gong, and thundering percussion complement a tense, unstable series of ostinatos. There is a somewhat cohesive sense of fragility and desolation punctuated by the strings in the higher region that are unfortunately overshadowed by the monstrous percussion at work here, and the piece ends on a low D held note.
    ‘Humanity Arising’ opens with the main theme on piano with a faint, distorted electronic background, and some percussion synonymous with that of a heartbeat. It’s sparse, and some delicate strings are also present, a pleasant change from the ruckus of the percussion. Bittersweet cellos forge minimal emotive response in an otherwise quick piece. The track is somewhat of a lilting lullaby in a conventional sense, but despite the toning down of the instrumentation, the air of unrest is very much evident. It’s that gentle touch, however, that will strangely spark a desire within the listener to revisit the piece once more. Alas, the mayhem returns in ‘Culmination’. Frantic strings slide under the weight of the mighty bombast of the percussion, and a noble horn bellows the theme, before augmenting it to a trumpet. A strong, appealing action statement is made near the 1 minute mark, as the thundering Taiko drums storm their way (pun intended), and clapping drums provide a rhythmically wondrous contrast. The brass section does justice in this particular track, alternating from a noble tone to that of a violent, abrasive accompaniment.  A desolate, empty piano doubles against the cello whilst cooing the main theme to an incomplete ending. You definitely can’t say there is little to no thematic reference whatsoever in this soundtrack.

‘Prelude To Phenomenon’ boasts more than an interesting title. The tonality has changed, and precocious strings and a reed pipe (?) give way to a tense chase on the cello. Major-minor alteration is evident, and controlled use of synthesised background and bass drum add a touch of awakening, an infusion of life into the cue. Soft piano tapping is interrupted by more intense puffing on the shakuhachi flute, and the cellos return. Another brief but enjoyable cue to add to Tyler’s ever-growing, expanding collection.
‘Providence’ however, adds a bleak instilment of hope into the equation, with whining violins, and the theme carried yet again on distorted piano. The higher renditions on a whittling violin, however, is what makes the thematic reference palatable this time. Chords on the piano deliver some solid backing to string despair, and those bittersweet cellos come back for another emotional cue, along with the steady but pounding drums. It’s surprisingly good to hear a composer keep reinstating his theme, but the inclusion of it in almost (if not) every track does seem like an earful.Here, treading the line carefully with balance contributes to an overall better listening experience.
The lengthiest cue comes in the form of ‘The Fire Tornado’, at 4 and a half minutes. A vicious staccato cello and string section open the piece with tumbling percussion, prior to the entry of the horns. Simultaneous key change along with subsequent meter variation flourishes in a somewhat colourful atmosphere, despite the tone requiring it to be brooding and perpetual as required. The violins slip through anvil strikes and crescendo horns to strike terror on-screen, and the strings start exploring higher regions. The brass then puffs courageously in a set of brief but effective ostinatos, and a section from ‘Atonement’ is transported to this cue. The relentless charge of the percussion draws to a close with the horns and strings dying out in unison.

‘Evacuation and Interception’ begins sombrely, with a minor major contrast coupled with a growing crescendo. Stiff, choppy string movement glides against the horns, and sinister horns take precedence this time round. A generic string glissando gives way to a statement of ‘Culmination’, and while it’s pleasant to hear these references, the gaps between these aforementioned tracks are far too short too separate the melodies apart. Ticking snare and sudden cello bursts finish things off. A tense, eerie atmosphere is cast in ‘Last Words’, those tingling guitars accompanying the now full embodiment of the introduction to the theme. The cue is akin to a frantic timebomb, ticking electronics sparsely complementing variation on the strings. There is some promising development in each and every piece, but sadly these are too short to be fully appreciated.
‘We Stand Together’ emphasises the unison of the residents in the dire situation well, the cello predominant along with a solo piano (reverbed electronically to harness hopelessness, bleak moods perfectly), and such gentler touches are refreshing amidst the chaos of the orchestra. A cunning shakuhachi flute rises to signal the storm’s arrival, and the theme’s build-up is once more evident. ‘Titus’ employs the percussive mold more innovatively, receding the brute force and optimistic military snare rhythms are very much welcomed against uplifting, heroic work from the trumpet and staccato strings.(In the film, Titus is the name of a car that the protagonists use throughout). It’s a cute moment that humbly epitomises the importance of the beloved vehicle, but Tyler maintains focus well. Another highlight.
 ‘Multiple Vortices’ is more or less a reinstatement of the tension at hand. This time, it is played out to the fore, with bleak, quiet held notes on strings and puffs on that flute. Tremolo violins and brooding cello emerge with a triumphant horn in tow. The action returns, but admittedly, some of the material for the drumming echoes his TMNT score too often. Given that the latter contained energetic bursts of orchestral force stylised with Goldsmithian traditions, one can visualise the stem of his interest in such banality!

‘Remembrance and Regret’ conveys the solemnity of the aftermath and casualties associated with bleak resonance, those hopeful strings desperately fighting for this cue to remain with interest, and to not become a ‘filler cue’, devoid of such presence. ‘Readying For Incoming Storm’, however finally drenches the cue in optimism,with steady strings and an electronic, clock-like accompaniment keeping pace. Hope is conveyed well, and the electronics surprisingly sound refreshing to the previous barrage of the orchestral dominance. The horns sing the main theme well, in a minor key but with more added romanticism. This comprises of a much better cue, despite the decrease in complexity(I could sing praises). A distorted wail cuts against the bleak puffing of the shakuhachi , to compose the latter half to an end.
‘The Power Of Nature’ opens with horn statement and sliding strings- by now they have become weary. They still manage to illustrate the theme well with expansion and triumphance, albeit the brief running time for the penultimate push. The storm then grows weaker, its final ravage presented in the last cue, ‘Aurora’. Aftermath is conveyed in bittersweet strings, and the softer tone is appropriate for a finale as such. Piano collides with victorious horn and Man Of Steel– like percussion. The cue is light, fleeting and a homecoming in its own. The melodies are more prevalent, and Tyler’s trademark guitar finishes are enjoyable in every aspect, contributing to a lusher feel, that warms the listener’s ears. Those warm, romantic strings are a highlight in this otherwise turbulent, laborious score.

Tyler has shown development in his more artistic, softer sensibilities, while the action material serves as merely an expansion of previous ideas, despite some innovation in the reworking of parts in the proverbial machine. The thematic references are the selling point, but can also act as a push factor for those seeking a bit more nourishment in their scores of choice. At the very least, Into The Storm is more than functionally appropriate, applicable in context and savours some highlights that stand out proudly.  The average listener will find a cohesive series of cues that blend together without effort, however the uneven pacing and self-referencing will offput more familiar, experienced ears. Exhaustion awaits those who invest in this score. All said and considered, Tyler’s packaging offers some worthy moments that deliver promise and then some.

Music in connection to the film: [*****] 5/5
Music as a sole listening experience: [***1/2]   3.5/5

Overall Consensus: [***1/2]   3.5/5


Track Listing:
1) Into The Storm                                (all cues by Tyler)
2) Atonement
3) Fate
4) Titus Versus The Storm
5) Humanity Arising
6) Culmination
7) Prelude To Phenomenon
8) Providence
9) The Fire Tornado
10) Evacuation & Interception
11) Last Words
12) We Stand Together
13) Titus
14) Multiple Vortices
15) Remembrance & Regret
16) Readying For Incoming Storm
17) The Power Of Nature
18) Aurora