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Gravity (Steven Price)

October 5, 2013

Cover_GravityGravity

Steven Price, 2013, WaterTower Music
16 tracks, 69:40

One of the harshest scores of the year. One of the toughest to love. Yet, Steven Price’s “Gravity” is one of this year’s most intruiging releases.

Review by Pete Simons

WINNER “Best Action/Adventure/Sci Fi Score”, 2013 Synchrotones’ Soundtrack Awards.

What is it?

One of this year’s most hotly anticipated films, Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity” stars George Clooney, Sandra Bullock, some stunning visual effects and Steven Price’s score. The young British composer (“The World’s End”, “Attack the Block”) seems to have become an instant celebrity since the release of this latest film. The music does, after all, play a vital role in the picture. In various articles Price has explained that, to some degree, the music substitutes sound effects as in space there is no sound. (There would also be no music, but that’s by-the-by!) The story, for those who don’t know, is about two astronauts who are marooned in space, some 300 miles above Earth, after their shuttle is destroyed.

What does it sound like?

It would be tempting to say… “like nothing on earth!” Pun aside, it wouldn’t be too far of the truth actually. An equally interesting questions would be: “what does it not sound like?” It does not have a ‘power anthem’. It does not feature an army of percussionists. And there is barely an ostinato in sight… so to speak. Whilst every other blockbuster adheres to the same musical trends, “Gravity” dares to veer away from them. In fact, it feels like it’s years ahead of its time. Listening to it, I felt like George McFly in “Back to the Future” when he is crudely awakened by heavy metal music from ‘the future’.

Price’s music aims to convey the panic and fear that the characters must be feeling. This is not a film about the wonder of space, the awe of discovery. There is no place here for heroic fanfares. This is a film about terror, helplessness, the instinct to survive. The score walks a fine line between ‘music’ and ‘sound design’, with the composer relying mostly on synthesizers to deliver the goods. Some of it is quite beautiful and ethereal, most however is harsh. An onslaught on the senses, but a very precisely measured one. On the surface it may seem like noise, but there is something very calculated (… composed) about it. It’s not ‘just’ noise; it’s not simply a random bunch of synth layers; and it’s never loud for the sake of it… But eventually, and very slowly, human spirit prevailes and something very beautiful emerges from this controlled chaos.

The opening track “Above Earth” provides a brief glimpse of what’s to come, as the album opens with a crescendo for harsh synthesizer tones. At the crescendo’s peak, the sound is cut off and we are left with an eerie silence; the previous sound still ringing in our ears. Price continues to do this several times throughout the score, usually as a means of ending a cue. In the case of “Above Earth”, the dramatic drop in volume is followed by  ethereal (synth, flute-like and vocal) sounds. “Debris” is the musical representation of debris hurdling through space. There are fragments of sounds everywhere, panning from left to right, fading in, fading out. It’s a relentless cue; and underneath it all is a constantly pulsating presence.

“The Void” is a lengthy piece of uneasy sound design. It would be easy to dismiss this cue as little more than that, but those paying attention to the sounds will start to recognise certain repeating elements. A frantic, but fragmented string ostinato recurs (after first being heard in “Debris”). There is also a short sweeping synth sound that keeps reoccurring – and will continue to do so throughout the album. (Note that by sweeping I mean a crescendo-ing movement.) “Atlantis” continues with more uneasy soundscapes and ends with an abrupt cut-off, but not before presenting something of a theme(!) on cello.

“Don’t let go” is nothing short of epic – and I mean that within the context of this score and its musical approach. It brings the cello theme to the fore, accompanied by soft (though still eerie) synth sounds, including the sound of searching radio waves. It’s haunting – and then all hell breaks loose. The tempo accelerates, strings are falling, bits of brass are flying past, synths are throbbing… this is Tense. It does calm down and introduces slightly more conventional chords for strings, and later a wonderful reprise of the cello theme accompanied by female vocal (which offers a glimpse of what awaits during the album’s finale!); but all kinds of digitised noises are never far away.

There is a surreal beauty, even something almost classical, about “Airlock” with its soft synth and slow-moving piano theme. “I.S.S.” maintains this odd beauty, through long-stretched synth and vocal chords, but when “Fire” comes around, chaos returns. It’s incredibly effective in building panic though numerous staccato sounds and siren-like noises. You’ll notice that the ‘radio’ noises are still making an appearance. Fans of all things synthesized and sampled will have a field day listening to this album!

“Parachute” comes across as a little brother to “Don’t let go”, as it features similar elements. “In the blind” offers a sense of doom, where “Aurora Borealis” is more accepting. The latter cue, like “Airlock”, relies on soft radio static noises and slow piano play. The atmosphere is totally captivating. By now the harsh sound design is making way for gentler and more subtle sounds, and overall the score is becoming a little more forgiving. “Aningaaq” again is eerily beautiful, as is “Soyuz” though the latter feels a little redundant.

Presumably the score follows the characters’ emotions and has moved from shock to acceptance. The remaining three tracks offer resolution. The main theme makes an appearance in all three of them. The orchestral elements are becoming more prominent (though still face some digital manipulation in “Tiangong” – listen to the trumpets). Strings and vocal are the driving force in “Shenzou”, which seems to owe a little to “The Thin Red Line”. The title tracks “Gravity” is as ‘traditional’ as this score gets, with its staccato strings, vocals and what-souds-like strumming guitar. It’s the feel-good ending that you, the listener, have earned! By Jove, this is brilliant stuff!

Is it any good?

“Gravity” is challenging, without a doubt. It plays with your senses in ways that few, if any, scores do. Until its glorious resolution it leaves you confused and disoriented. As such it’s a perfect companion to the film; and I can imagine why some critics have hailed it as a third character. If you are less than one hundred percent fit for it, this score will beat you senseless; as I found out when I listened to it whilst suffering a migraine (…okay, why would I do that in the first please?!) However, when you are ready for it, this is quite a unique experience. An aural thrill ride like none other.  If anything, consider it this year’s “Inception” or “Requiem for a Dream”. Emotionally challenging, technically brilliant… and ultimately very rewarding. This could very well be the sound of the future.

Rating [4.5/5]

Tracklisting

01. Above Earth (01:55)
02. Debris (04:40)
03. The Void (05:50)
04. Atlantis (03:29)
05. Don’t Let Go (10:59)
06. Airlock (01:54)
07. ISS (02:48)
08. Fire (02:54)
09. Parachute (07:53)
10. In The Blind (02:54)
11. Aurora Borealis (01:35)
12. Aningaaq (04:47)
13. Soyuz (01:38)
14. Tiangong (05:53)
15. Shenzou (05:40)
16. Gravity (04:42)

Availability

Available digitally and on CD.

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14 Comments
  1. Craig Richard Lysy permalink

    Sound of the future? I pray not!

  2. Lars Jacobsen permalink

    Congratulation for this excellent review. I agree totally in every aspect.

  3. Mandar permalink

    great review 🙂

  4. Ankit permalink

    Nice review! 🙂

  5. thegeekisinthehouse permalink

    Do you know who is the vocalist in the last song?

    • There were three vocalist throughout the score: Lisa Hanniga n, Haley Glennie-Smith, Katherine Ellis. Not sure which one sang on the last track.

  6. Suddenly Deaf permalink

    Way way too loud! If the edit was going for total sensory overload great job! If not, lurching from panicked breathing, creaking of the ship/station and gentle monologue – to experimental sonic weapon practically had me clapping my hands over my ears and frantically looking for my volume control. I know the review says it’s never unnecessarily loud, don’t believe it! It’s a trap!! Buy ear defenders and use subtitles but don’t you dare turn it up…you have been warned

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