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Hammer of the Gods (Benjamin Wallfisch)

August 3, 2013

Cover_hammerofthegods HAMMER OF THE GODS

Benjamin Wallfisch, 2013, MovieScore Media
20 tracks, 62:19

So, you want a score that combines industrial rock with electronica? Prodigy meets Neubauten? Who would you hire? Well, British classical composer Benjamin Wallfisch, of course! It sounds almost ludicrous, yet Wallfisch pulls it off. This score is not for the faint-hearted, mind you! It is meant to hurt.

Review by Pete Simons

What is it?

“Hammer of the Gods” is a British film directed by Farren Blackburn. It’s his first feature after working on various tv shows, such as “Dr Who”, “The Fades”, “Holby City” and… “Footballer’s Wive$: Extra Time” (he was young and needed the money, I hope). His debut movie tells the tale of a young warrior in Viking-occupied Britain some time towards the end of the 8th century. He is sent on a mission, by his father, to find his estranged brother who was banished many years ago. Through his travels and fights the young man grows in to a ruthless and unforgiving warrior. The film is grim and dark and the score by Benjamin Wallfisch follows suit with a highly electronic and visceral soundscape.

With regards to the music, I can’t help but feel the movie pulls off something of a double-surpise. The inclusion of synths, percussion and guitars should be expected with this genre nowadays. Tyler Bates wrote a rock-infused score for “300”, whilst Dutch DJ Junkie XL is scoring its sequel! Britain’s own Ilan Eshkeri did write an orchestral score for “Centurion”, but it still proved somewhat challenging for the casual soundtrack fan. So with hiring Wallfisch, an established ‘classical’ composer and conductor fresh from doing another historical epic called “Conquest 1453” which features a slightly more traditionally Western orchestral score, you would be forgiven to expect a score rich with melodies and familiar harmonies. Yet, the composer of the utterly charming “Summer in February” manages to deliver a score that is harsh and brutal, relying heavily on a distorted sounds.

What does it sound like?

“Hammer of the Gods” is no walk in the park. The title and the artwork along suggest violence and aggression; and that is exactly what Wallfisch brings to the music. Whilst the composer utilises an orchestra (the Macedonian Radio Symphony Orchestra), there is a strong emphasis on electronic and percussive elements; and most of those have been tempered with to create a distorted soundscape.

The album opens with the “Opening Title”, which combines dense and dark string writing mixed with the aforementioned processed electronica (including guitar), albeit still relatively(!) subtle. There is melodic and harmonic writing going on, but don’t expect to be humming it afterwards. The theme is reprised in “Stories” where it’s played in a higher register, alongside plenty of grainy synthesizer pads. It’s quite a long-lined theme actually, but I suspect its structure is a little too complex for most casual listeners.

“Mountain Fight” is primarily made up from electronic percussion and heavy synth effects. It works on a very visceral level and instills fear and anger. “Arm Wrestle”, “The Stoning” and “Forest Fight” all offer plenty of percussion, electric guitar and granular synthesizer sounds. None of it in an ‘obvious’ kind of way, as all sounds are heavily tempered with. The latter of those cues sees the composer seemingly experimenting with sounds as we’re treated to some seriously crazy goings-on! At times it feels like old-fashioned computer game music, sound effects and all! “Ambush” relies mostly on percussion (wondering by now how much of it comes from the Storm Drum libraries). “Steiner Kills Hagen” starts off with a fury of drums and a brief string arpeggio (which fades in and out quickly, reminding me of something Elliot Goldenthal used to do. “Heat” does briefly come to mind). The track continues in a quiet, somber way and even introduces a soft piano, but remains atmospheric.

“Hakkan” builds tension using a string line that rises through a series of overlapping half-steps, followed by dark, barely audible synth pads. “The Journey Begins” combines echoing guitar (think Michael Brook or Cliff Martinez) with atmospheric synth pads. It conveys a feeling of ‘anticipation’, though it doesn’t materialise into something satisfactory for the listener. “The King’s Tent” and “The Search” are atmospheric tracks, with the latter being more extrovert and again using overlapping semitones to build tension. I suspect that Wallfisch may be utilising his main theme in these string passages, but if so it’s very hard to distinguish.

“Determined” seems to rely a little more on traditional harmonies and melodic progression than most other tracks on this album, and as a result feels a little more accessible; but only by a small margin. “Valhalla” combines soft, yet unsettling synth pads with another series of rising half-steps. “The Cave” is a lengthy and entirely atmospheric cue. The droning of synths is only broken up by metallic-y sound effects, that resemble heavily digitized cymbal crashes as much as they do tie-fighters! Not having seen this film (oops!) I am curious to know what goes on in this cave to warrant those sounds? “Astrid Returns” and “Defy Him” continue the atmospherics without bringing much action into it. “Fight to the Death” contains surprisingly little percussion, but makes up for it with aggressive synth effects and even some choral noises. “The Journey Ends” features the strongest rendition of the main theme, but it is still a tough one to get your head around. After the last notes fade out, end credits song “Warrior” kicks in, which (unsurprisingly at this point) is a grunge/metal type track with plenty of grinding guitar noises and screaming vocals.

Is it any good?

It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, let’s be clear about that. You have to have an affinity for electronic and rock-like instrumentation to fully appreciate this album. For me personally, I love electronics, but I’m not keen on that industrial-sounding rock sound. Pardon my limited knowledge of the genre, but I suspect the music is probably closer to The Prodigy and Einstürzende Neubauten than to any other film score; and of all film composers, I could only imagine someone like Elliot Goldenthal being able to pull this off – until now of course! Wallfisch has delivered a well-produced album. Considering his extensive ‘classical’ background, one might even be surprised at how well he manages all the electronic and rock elements of this score. Having said that, I wouldn’t be surprised if the compositional techniques on “Hammer of the Gods” resemble those used in the concert hall (e.g. Wallfisch’s own “Escape Velocity” album) as both seem to experiment with unconventional sounds and harmonies. Composing and technical achievements aside though, the result is a harsh piece of work. Brutal as it is, it’s not without merit for those who can stomach it. Considering the film it accompanies. I don’t think it’s meant to be a pleasurable listening experience; and in that respect it’s a triumph.

Rating [2,5/5]

Tracklisting

1. Hammer of the Gods: Opening Titles (2:24)
2. Mountain Fight (2:00)
3. Hakkan (2:40)
4. The Journey Begins (3:00)
5. The King’s Tent (2:50)
6. Arm Wrestle (3:04)
7. The Stoning (3:06)
8. Stories (3:46)
9. Forest Fight (3:48)
10. The Search (4:06)
11. Determined (2:50)
12. Ambush (2:22)
13. Valhalla (1:36)
14. Steinar Kills Hagen (2:30)
15. The Cave (5:46)
16. The Return of Astrid (3:48)
17. Defy Him (2:36)
18. Fight to the Death (5:09)
19. The Journey Ends (1:50)
20. Warrior (End Credits) (3:51)

Album credits & Availability

Album credits on allmusic.com
Available digitally and on CD. For details visit Movie Score Media

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2 Comments
  1. Craig Richard Lysy permalink

    Brutal is an understatement friend! I was just not prepared for this after the wondrously thematic Conquest 1453. I appreciate that you would review such a challenging listen of a score. I having suffered through will not revisit unless I require an exorcism to purge myself of demons! : )

    All the best!

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