Fall's Soundtracks Bring Mysterious Music

Nov 18, 2016

Credit UMG

Each weekend on Performance Saturday, I enjoy sharing new releases following the “concert” broadcast portion of the program, and this fall, I’ve been sharing excerpts from soundtracks to films clouded in mystery. None of the scores are purely orchestral, and the distorted and sometimes frightening soundscapes of these albums make for some interesting car trips! (Listening while driving is pretty much the only way I get to do any extended sampling nowadays.)

In order of release, let’s start with Craig Armstrong and Adam Peters’ score to “Snowden,” the Oliver Stone film about Edward Snowden, the ex-CIA employee who leaked thousands of classified documents about the United States’ worldwide surveillance programs, exposing the government’s ties to communications companies. Armstrong and Peters use pulsing electronic melodies combined with strings to convey the feeling that anyone could be watching you, anytime. An occasional happy melody on piano appears, but it’s only for specialty cues like “Happiness Montage.” Overall, this is a score to put on the player when you’re under the gun at work and want a soundtrack to your anxiety.

In “The Girl on the Train,” Emily Blunt plays a divorced woman whose voyeurism leads to her getting caught up in her ex’s affairs—literally. Danny Elfman’s score has a touch of smoky jazziness in some cues, and goes abstract in others, but mostly stays within the orchestral noir palette with subtle electronic touches . I enjoyed listening to this score, and loved some of the track titles—let’s see, there’s “Wasted,” and then there’s “You’re Always Wasted,” and the aptly named “Really Creepy.”

Ron Howard and Dan Brown return to the conspiracy thriller well once more with “Inferno,” about a madman that aims to unleash a global virus that somehow ties in to Dante. The joyless film flopped, and the soundtrack isn’t any fun to listen to either. Composer Hans Zimmer is quoted in the press notes for the disc as saying that this score is “darker” than his other Dan Brown movie scores, and is all about “disorientation.” To me, it just sounds like Zimmer’s usual BRAAAAAAMMMMMMM!!!!!

Finally, the smartest film of the bunch also features my favorite score of the four—Denis Villenueve’s “Arrival” is simultaneously spooky and hopeful. This film about first contact with alien beings and the power and mystery of language and communication is just about the perfect movie for late 2016, and Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score works beautifully. Watching the film, it was difficult sometimes to discern where the music ended and sound effects of the alien craft and its beings began. Listening to the album, it’s clear that Jóhannsson played a big role in the aural success of “Arrival.” This is probably the most unconventional score of the bunch, full of low drones that’ll give your subwoofer a workout, whale-like cries, bleating soprano saxophones that sound like alien conversation, and at least one track that combines all three with a choir. It even works as a whole apart from the film, placing the listener in a trance-like state where time matters little.

Inferno: Not recommended.

Snowden, The Girl on the Train: Recommended for Spotify.

Arrival: Best on CD for the full effect.