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Elysium (Ryan Amon)

August 31, 2013

Cover_elysiumElysium

Ryan Amon, 2013, Varese Sarabande
29 tracks, 71:28

One day you’re uploading demo tracks to YouTube, the next you’re scoring the year’s hottest blockbuster. That is roughly what happened to Ryan Amon. With a background in trailer-music he is the perfect man for this sci-fi epic.

Review by Pete Simons

What is it?

Director Neill Blomkamp secured himself a bigger budget, off the back of the surprise debut “District 9”, to make this ambitious sci-fi thriller. Blomkamp decided not to reunite with Clinton Shorter, who composed a wonderful score for “District 9”, and instead opted to hire debutant Ryan Amon. There is an amazing story about how Blomkamp discovered Amon on YouTube and sent him an email. Amon has written trailer music as City Of The Fallen and “Elysium” is his first film – of any kind.

What does it sound like?

Much has been said already about its similarities to other contemporary film scores (notably those from Remote Control composers), due to its use of percussion, synths and string ostinati. This really should come as no surprise, seeing as this is a modern film demanding a modern sound, which is being provided by a composer who worked exclusively on trailer music before now. You do the maths! The surprise lies in the fact that Amon manages to infuse some much-needed freshness into this style of scoring. If comparisons need to be made, I’d suggest that one to Marco Beltrami (and his work on “World War Z” and “The Wolverine”) is more accurate.

Despite a threatening multi-horn blast (lovingly called ‘horns of doom’ by enthusiasts), the opener “Heaven and Earth” is a rather ambient affair. Fans of software synths and sample libraries will have a field day listening to all the marvellous sounds here and, indeed, throughout the score. A solo cello adds a human touch to this otherwise otherworldly cue. “Fire Up the Shuttle” sees the score turning the ignition key. Here come the string arpeggios, the big drums and a huge horn section. The ‘agnus dei’ vocal samples feel a little too cheesy nowadays, but aside from that this is a nice little warm-up track.

The album alternates between ambient tracks (such as “Unauthorised Entry” and “Darkness”) and visceral action cues. It would be tempting to say that the quieter tracks border on ‘droning’ and may easily feel superfluous. However, truth is that both types of track need each other. It balances the album. Some cues are nothing less than an aural onslaught and, believe me, you need the ‘boring’ ones to regain your hearing.

“You Said You’d Do Anything” is a bizarre, yet infectious cue which sees some weird chanting combined with a stomping rhythm. “A Political Sickness” is a contender for most obnoxious cue of the year with its ‘buzzing fly’ and ‘there’s a cat stuck in my engine’ sounds. “Zero Injuries Sustained” then is one of the score’s highlights with its fat brass chords; pounding percussion and nice little string ostinato. Yes – all the things Remote Control does and gets slated for. However, Amon’s mixing is excellent and allows the orchestral parts to sound, well, real! The balance between live and sampled instruments is so much better understood by this composer.

“You Have No Idea” presents something of a main theme for horns over arpeggiating strings. It’s a fairly simple theme, but it’s satisfying enough. Its statement here feels determined, if somewhat melancholy. “I Don’t Want to Die” combines soft strings with a solo female vocal. Some (film) reviewers have slated Amon’s use of vocals as “Lisa Gerrard-ish vocals go ‘Ohhh-hiiii-yaaa, ahhhhh-ai-yaaaa!’ in that manner that was already tedious back when ‘Gladiator’ did it.“* Personally I don’t agree with such a statement. The voice is an instrument like any other and it is there to be used. No one complains about John Williams’ use of brass, just because Waxman’s already used it many years earlier. (There… I mentioned Williams and Waxman in an “Elysium” review!)

Other late offerings of gentle scoring come in the form of “Matilda” (piano and strings) and “Breaking a Promise” (synths and vocal). As the film works towards its climax, the music intensifies. The last third of the album presents one strident cue after the other, really building on Amon’s trailer-music experience. “Heading to Elysium”, “Kruger Suits Up” and “Fire and Water” are action highlights. Again, it would be easy to dismiss these as Remote Control clones, but then I’d urge you to listen closely to the detailed writing in the strings and the brass; the little accents and various playing techniques that Amon applies. There is a lot more here than ‘just an ostinato and some drums’.

The composer aims to end the album on a somewhat melancholy yet poignant note. “Elysium” succeeds in that doing that, but “New Heaven, New Earth” (whilst interesting in its own right) only just lacks the gravitas to provide a satisfying end. Swapping these last two cues around would’ve worked better, in my opinion.

Is it any good?

It could’ve done with being a little shorter. 29 tracks over 71 minutes is a lot to take in, especially when so much of it is so aggresive in its nature. Whilst most of it is good, and some of it is very good, inevitably some tracks will feel superfluous. I would’ve preferred a tighter 50-minute album. I love this hybrid style of synth and orchestra, yet as much as I like this score I regret to say that it out-stays its welcome. The absence of a clear main theme is also disappointing. The one heard in “You Have No Idea” is by far the most obvious theme on this album and I believe it to be strong enough to carry the score, had it been allowed to. There are plenty more nice ideas here, but it is actually the consistent style and orchestrations that bind this score. This, I think, is one of the side-effect of having been a trailer-music composer.

Its conformance with current film music trends (primarily those set by Remote Control) will either attract people to this score or put them off. Yes, it has all the familiar ingredients of synth pads, sampled percussion, brass stabs and string arpeggios. In my view there is nothing wrong with the ingredients – it’s what you do with them. Amon respects his instruments and understands what they do. Let synthesizers be synthesizers and use them for all the wacky sounds they can produce; but let the orchestra be an orchestra and leave it to sound like a real, breathing animal. Amon does exactly that. Despite being harsh at times and visceral at others, “Elysium” always sounds organic. And that’s why I started off saying that a comparison to someone like Beltrami would be much more accurate. This is the current and future sound of film music – and we’re going to need more people like Amon to develop it to its full potential.

Rating [3/5]

Tracklisting

01. Heaven and Earth (4:25)
02. Fire Up The Shuttle (1:45)
03. Unauthorized Entry (4:36)
04. Deportation (1:55)
05. Darkness (4:50)
06. Things to Come (4:36)
07. You Said You’d Do Anything (3:30)
08. A Political Sickness (3:48)
09. Arming Projectile (1:26)
10. Zero Injuries Sustained (1:30)
11. I’d Like Them Dead (1:22)
12. You Have No Idea (2:12)
13. The Raven (1:57)
14. Let The Girls Out (2:07)
15. I Don’t Want to Die (1:36)
16. Matilda (2:53)
17. Step Aboard (2:54)
18. Heading to Elysium (1:54)
19. Keep Them Busy (0:53)
20. When He Wakes Up (1:40)
21. We Do The Hanging (1:07)
22. Kruger Suits Up (2:26)
23. The Armory (0:59)
24. I’m Right Behind You (2:25)
25. Fire and Water (1:52)
26. The Gantry (1:09)
27. Breaking a Promise (3:19)
28. Elysium (3:45)
29. New Heaven, New Earth (2:22)

Availability

Available digitally and on CD.

Quote Source

* Luke Y. Thompson, Topless Robot

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