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The Legend of Hercules (Tuomas Kantelinen)

February 15, 2014

Cover_HerculesTHE LEGEND OF HERCULES

Tuomas Kantelinen, 2014, Lionsgate Records
12 tracks, 58:35

The legend that is “Hercules” comes to the big screen. Tuomas Kantelinen’s score is worth the admission price alone. Or should I say, only Kantelinen’s score is worth the admission price?

Review by Pete Simons

What is it?

Ever since Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator” (2000) renewed Hollywood’s interest in ‘sword and sandal’ films, many classic (and mythical) tales have found their onto the big screen. From “Troy” to “300” and from the “Titans” to the “Legend of Hercules”. The latter also sees Renny Harlin returning to the limelight, though reviews of the film suggest he might want to step out of it before soon. “Hercules” is an ambitious, but by all accounts flawed film about the hero’s early life. I do feel for Renny… once a popular and successful director (“Die Hard 2”, “Cliffhanger”, “The Long Kiss Goodnight”), now relegated to the B-list and beyond; pretty much courtesy of “Cutthroat Island”, which I personally still find a thoroughly entertaining film, but the rest of the world avoided it like the plague resulting in the demise of Carolco studios as well as that of Harlin’s career.

To his defence, Harlin knows good music when he hears it. On “Hercules” he once again teams up with fellow Finn Tuomas Kantelinen, who scored Harlin’s “Mindhunters” back in 2004. Kantelinen is one of Finland’s most successful composers (probably only really rivalled by Sibelius) whose ballet “The Snow Queen” was one of last year’s best album releases. Though mostly known for his dramatic writing Kantelinen is not unfamiliar with historical epics, as his excellent score for “Arn: The Knight Templar” proves.

What does it sound like?

Tuomas Kantelinen’s score is as big and epic as you would expect for this type of film. It’s as ambitious as the pic it accompanies, though is not without flaws of its own (and I’ll address those later). Two things are quite striking about this score. The first is that the composer’s voice is very clearly present. There is something about the harmonic progressions and the melodies that is quintessential Kantelinen. May be it’s a Finnish thing and not unique to this composer, but it does give him an instantly recognisable voice that stands out from Hollywood’s otherwise homogeneous sound. The second thing is how classical it sounds. Sure, there is a chanting choir and some heavy percussion, but overall it’s a large orchestral affair with proper melodies (including Kantelinen’s musical accent) and relatively lengthy passages of carefully paced and subtle music. Honestly, there is very little ‘Hollywood’ about this score and it even made check the origins of the film itself!

The soundtrack album opens with “The Fall of Argos”, which introduces the protagonist’s main theme. It is a suitable muscular, rising theme for horns over staccato strings.  Chanting choir, female voice and ethnic flutes are never too far away. The ingredients are quite familiar, but in the hands of Kantelinen they’re given a new lease of life. There are plenty of staccato strings here, but you won’t find any clichéd ‘Hollywood’ ostinati here. “Intervention of the Gods” is quite a moody piece for slow strings, woodwinds and female voice. “Hercules and Hebe” offers a sensitive melody for strings and flute. It plays out at a moderate tempo and even dares to suspend certain notes for quite a long time. This actually makes me believe this cue is in fact a combination of several shorter phrases. Towards the end percussion and bird call-like woodwinds briefly evoke memories of James Horner’s “Avatar”.

“Flight” offers a low-key version of Hercules’ theme at first, but turns into an action halfway into the cue. “To War” starts with strident rhythmic patters before offering a full orchestral rendition of the main theme; after which the cue quietens down a little. “Cave” continues the action with brass stabs, chanting choir and racing strings. It’s great to realise this point that, aside from the main theme, there are also certain secondary action motifs that are repeated throughout the score. There was clearly a consistent approach to scoring this film. I do wish the action music had a little more urgency about it. It’s all relatively slow paced.

As you might expect “Funeral” offers elegiac variations, for strings, on the main themes. This is where the score really shines, with these beautiful, heart-warming cues. It gives the music a personality that a lot of its Hollywood counterparts are missing. “Captivity” is a 9-minute action cue with plenty of swirling strings, brass crescendos and anthemic chanting. “Hercules Returns” sees the composer returning to slow writing for strings. This cue in particular highlight ones of the scores other themes, which is made up from a series of three descending notes. Flute and harp break up the string-dominated soundscape.

A new theme is introduced in “Hercules the Leader”, and it’s confident and regal one for brass; not unlike something Patrick Doyle might come up with. The b-section to this theme is rather interesting, as Kantelinen works his way through as series of uncommon, almost operatic harmonies. When I say ‘uncommon’ I mean this in the context of a Hollywood blockbuster; I’m sure that fans of Kantelinen will be less surprised. This ‘leader’ theme as well as Hercules’ main theme play key roles in “Taking Back Argos”, arguably the score’s highlight. The album closes with a beautiful suite of the scores main themes.

Is it any good?

Tuomas Kantelinen’s writing and orchestrations are wonderful as ever. I really appreciate the structured approach to his composition. There are clearly defined themes and motifs (and a healthy few of them, at that) and they are deployed consistently throughout the score. Kantelinen’s trademark rich writing for strings gives Hercules a (probably much-needed) human quality rather than simply making him an one-dimensional hero.

However, earlier I mentioned that this score is not without flaws of its own. Where the album falls short for me is in its mixing and editing. There is far too much reverb here, resulting in a muffled wall of sound. (Geoff Foster, should I be raising my eyebrow at you?) Lots of intricacies, which I’m sure are there as you can occasionally pick them up, are lost. The brass, which is so important in a score like this, sounds washed-out and is sometimes barely audible. When the brass does manage to pierce through (for example: brief trumpet fanfares in “Taking Back Argos”) it instantly livens up the score in a way that is so desperately missing elsewhere. The music is painfully lacking in punch because of it. Presumably this is in an attempt to make the music feel bigger or perhaps to hide differences in recordings, as the booklet reveals that the music was performed by The Chamber Orchestra of London, The Budapest Film Orchestra and Budapest’s National Philharmonic Choir. Not to mention it was recorded in three different studios.

It is also distractingly obvious that a great number of album tracks are made up from shorter cues. Sometimes (e.g. “Funeral”) this becomes noticeable when brief silences break up the flow. In the majority of cases, such as “Flight” and “To War”, there is a frankly terrible cross-fade taking place. Harmonies don’t even match during these fades. The second half of “Captivity” is barely listenable as tempos don’t even seem to line up during these cross-fades! And to add insult to injury, they try to cover it up with mono(!) brass cluster samples. Unsuccessfully, I might add superfluously. The tracklisting might suggest 12 healthy tracks, but I would rather have had the 40 or so individual cues that they appear to be made up from.

Ultimately and unfortunately, the album leaves me frustrated. As a fan of Tuomas Kantelinen I was very much looking forward to this score. And initially I was pleased to hear these big themes, and the gentler elegiac cues; and I was over the moon that Kantelinen’s voice was so clearly present in this big (potential) blockbuster score. The more I listen to it, the more I realise how well written it is; how consistently Kantelinen applies his themes and variations. Some cues are genuinely incredibly beautiful; and the last four tracks alone would make for an excellent EP. Yet, with each listen I also discover another terrible edit. And the reverb results in a desperate lack of punch. I can hear Kantelinen’s best intentions, but the album presentation is very messy.

Rating [3/5]

As written for the film [4/5]
As presented on album [2/5]

Tracklisting

1. The Fall of Argos (4:17)
2. Intervention of the Gods (5:50)
3. Hercules and Hebe (2:51)
4. Flight (3:13)
5. To War (2:42)
6. Cave (4:21)
7. Funeral (2:38)
8. Captivity (9:53)
9. Hercules Returns (6:56)
10. Hercules the Leader (5:05)
11. Taking Back Argos (6:58)
12. Hercules Main Theme (3:50)

Availability
Available on iTunes, including digital booklet.

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