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Hidden Kingdoms (Ben Foster)

May 4, 2014

Cover_HiddenKingdomsHIDDEN KINGDOMS

Ben Foster, 2014, Silva Screen Records
48 tracks, 78:45

The smaller the creatures, the bigger the music. Ben Foster’s score for the BBC documentary “Hidden Kingdoms” is quite a force of nature of its own.
Review by Pete Simons

What is it?

“Hidden Kingdoms” is a 3-part nature documentary that aired on BBC earlier this year. It sets itself apart from most other documentaries by deliberately staging certain scenes, and by using visual effects to enhance the drama. The makers want to show the lives of little creatures and, in order to get them right in front of the cameras, they use raised sets and blue-screen technology. The show received mixed reviews, as some people did not take to the technological approach; but personally I greatly enjoyed it. Visually it’s quite cinematic though perhaps a little overly dramatic. And to be fair, Ben Foster’s larger-than-life music is partly responsible for that. So how does it fare on album?

What does it sound like?

Colourful and vibrant, are just two keywords that come to mind when listening to Ben Foster’s score for “Hidden Kingdoms”. Seeing as the show itself is much more theatrical than most other documentaries, so is its music. Compared to ‘established’ documentary scores such as George Fenton’s “Planet Earth” (et al), Foster’s score is bigger, louder, and more excessive. This is not the serene style of Fenton, this is the brobdingnagian sound of Ben Foster; composer of “Torchwood” and orchestrator of “Dr Who” and “Prometheus”.

As said, the show consist of three episodes; each tackling two stories in different locations. The science of maths thus dictates that we’ve got a total of six stories. Whilst the tv show jumps back and forth between an episode’s two stories (oh, it’s clever stuff and you really have to pay attention!) the album runs through the stories one at a time – much easier to follow for the likes of me.

The album opens, aptly, with the show’s “Opening Titles”. It’s a rousing piece for full orchestra and percussion. The theme here is not particularly memorable, but its rising notes do generate a sense of excitement. The album then features six tracks from its Africa-based story. Flute and various percussive instruments play key roles during these tracks. “The Dung Beetles” sounds a bit more militaristic and even seems to harken back to old-fashioned sword and sandal scores. This is odd, seeing a beetles don’t carry swords and also don’t wear sandals. The music is fun nonetheless.

“Life” is arguably the highlight of the album, as it presents a gloriously soaring theme celebrating all creatures great and small and even those that eat others. It’s a fairly simple melody and Foster uses all the tricks in the book to make this track what it is. Yes, we’re totally being emotionally manipulated, you can just feel the strings being pulled. But when it’s this good, who cares?! This is what film- and tv music is supposed to do. The theme is flung around the orchestra like a mouse amongst cats… from horns to strings to woodwinds (with an ethnic touch) and back to the trumpets. With each chord-change the cue builds momentum; the orchestra swells and the choir goes from humming to oohing and aahing. Percussion kicks in; one more chord change…. Wow, this is grand, epic feel-good-to-the-max kind of music. It may not be presented as being the main theme for the show, but it’s certainly the one that viewers and listeners will take away from it.

The theme is later reprised on electric guitar (of all instruments) during “Scorpion Mouse”, which belongs to the “Sonoran Desert” episode. This desert covers parts of Arizona and Mexico. This is reflected in the music by a slight ‘wild west’ influence, through the occasional guitar, a particular violin sound or certain rhythmic patterns. “Tom vs The Lizard” prominently features a Mexican-sounding trumpet. I have to admit that this story upset me. It features the cutest mouse ever (the one on the cover) and its fight for survival (musically covered by “Run Mouse, Run!”). The “Life” theme returns on harmonica during “Running Free”, accompanied by humming choir and an ostinato on piano. As the track progresses the orchestration evolves and the cue concludes with the theme being sung by choir, accompanied by full orchestra, and with an African choir chanting over the top of it – very poignant.

There is nothing here that sounds even remotely like Hans Zimmer, and yet I’m going to make a comparison to his music. What I’m reminded of is the sheer, unashamed fun you find in Zimmer’s older scores like “Power of One” and “Lion King” – especially as experienced on the “Wings of a Film” album. I’m not talking about style; I’m referring to a vibe. That’s a bit abstract, I do realise that. If we’re comparing styles, than an obvious comparison is made with Murray Gold’s “Dr Who”. I’m also reminded, a lot of the time, of David Arnold and Nicholas Dodd.

The next lot of nine cues takes us to North America, where we’re “Meeting Chip”. Flute and guitar, as well as plucked violins play a key role. Woodwinds, especially those that operate in the lower registers, also play a prominent role. Percussion during these cues tends to be ‘snappy’ and ‘clicky’. The tone overall is darker and a bit more cynical than before, without losing its sense of melody and drama. And when listening to the fluttering brass in “Fight Fight Fight!” you will know why I mentioned Arnold and Dodd.

The story moves to the other side of the world to Borneo. “Life in the Trees” is a wonderful cue for flutes, twinkly sounds, and a bass ostinato. The percussion sounds a little heavier and a bit more wooden than before. “The Forest” seems to continue with the lighter parts of the previous cue (flutes, tremolo strings), whilst “Three Little Pigs” picks up on the darker bits. Percussion drives it along. There are various ostinato for various string sections, as well as some John Williams-esque trumpet quintets. “Forest Giants” may be one of the quietest cues on the album (at least during the first half) and it’s quite a scary one. Muted horns and slithering sound effects (presumably by brushing drums and gongs) open this cue. The second half introduces some brass stabs and some nervous runs for clarinet (dare I say Williams-esque again, seeing as I was reminded of “Jurassic Park”?). Suspense and action sequences continue to alternate throughout the next few tracks.

Foster takes us to the urban jungle that is Brazil. As the wacka-wacka guitars kick in, you may be forgiven for thinking Lalo Shifrin has taken over, but no… this is still Ben Foster being a bit of a chameleon (animal-based pun intended). “Ant Colony” is a very cool cue. There are various percussion instruments (live and sampled) setting the pace, string ostinato, and a four note theme for brass (not that four note theme). It sounds Arnold-esque, especially towards the end of the cue. “Cat on the Prowl” continues this and offers a grand finale to this story.

Electronics suddenly appear, every time, city lights are near. The final story takes us to the heart of Tokyo, so expect Japanese sounding instrumentation (ethnic flutes, koto), yet also synths and electric guitars. “Beetle Rock” combines clichéd Asian sounds and styles, including some Japanese chants. It’s a bit cheesy, I have to say. “Beetle Roll” mixes rock (electric guitars and drums) with koto and orchestra. Yeah, still cheesy but still a lot of fun. Synthesiser arpeggios and percussion return in “Bright Lights”, mixed with orchestra. Foster has picked synth sounds that (whilst unmistakably electronic) are quite warm and blend in nicely with the orchestral elements, which still dominate. Fans of this sort of hybrid should really enjoy this section. “Ghek off the Wall” is fully orchestral and features an interesting theme that reminds me off something John Williams would write for the bad guys in “Indiana Jones”. One of the album later highlights is “Flight to the Temple” which opens with a mesmerising run for violins. A theme for ethnic flute (and legato strings) is layered on top of it. Flute, cello and koto finish off this cue. Very beautiful! “Beetle Battle” is a fast-paced exciting cue; whilst “Living Side by Side” and “Everywhere, A Hidden Kingdom” bring the album to a satisfaction end. The melody here echoes the first notes of the “Life” theme, but it doesn’t actually go there, which is a bit of shame – though narratively it may have been inappropriate, seeing as the “Life” theme belongs to that one episode. It just happens to be the strongest theme here. The album closes, quite aptly again, with the “Closing Titles”, which unsurprisingly is a variation on the “Opening Titles”. It’s a tad faster and a little lighter in its orchestrations.

Is it any good?

Yes! Seeing as I’ve already written about twice as much as I usually do, I thought I’d be brief here. As I wrote earlier, it’s a very colourful score (varied orchestrations), it’s vibrant, it’s big, it’s a bit theatrical. A lot of the time it reminds me of the Arnold-Dodd collaborations, it’s got that kind of vibe to it – lots of soaring brass. It is incredibly well written, brilliantly orchestrated and a whole boat load of fun. The live percussion adds so much life and energy – and also makes it really easy to imagine hearing this music live in concert (a bit sad though it is that, in this day and age, I’m noting the live percussion). If anything, the music hardly ever lets up and so the album, at 78 minutes split over 48 tracks (though there is some clever cross-fading going on), does feel a bit long. And that “Life” theme is so darn catchy that it may actually steal a bit too much of the attention. Mute points though when a score is this much fun and when nearly every single track is a delight.

Kudos should go to the various performers such as Tom Rees-Roberts (trumpet), Toby Pitman (guitars), Joby Burgess (percussion), Eliza Marshall (ethnic flutes) and the Face Music Gospel Choir. Heck, even Ben Foster found time play the harmonica and synths.

Rating [4/5]

Tracklisting

1. Opening Titles (1.49)
2. Africa (2.24)
3. Lizard Attack (3.18)
4. Exploring The Trail (1.10)
5. The Dung Beetles (1.50)
6. Fire (1.27)
7. Life (2.52)
8. The Wild West (1.02)
9. Scorpion Mouse (2.22)
10. The Jaws Of Death (0.55)
11. In The Rain (0.55)
12. The Flood (0.55)
13. Run Mouse Run! (1.38)
14. Tom vs The Lizard (1.26)
15. Running Free (4.13)
16. Meeting Chip (2.53)
17. A Burglar (1.12)
18. You Naughty Moose! (1.01)
19. It’s A Fight!! (0.45)
20. The Dark, Dark Wood (0.37)
21. Forest of the Owl (1.24)
22. Winter Approaching (1.01)
23. Do Or Die (0.55)
24. Fight Fight Fight! (1.34)
25. Life In The Trees (2.14)
26. The Forest (1.20)
27. Three Little Pigs (2.21)
28. Forest Giants (1.33)
29. Pitcher Plant (1.21)
30. Fluorescence (1.48)
31. Snake Attack. The Leap (1.31)
32. The Seasons Change (3.07)
33. Urban Jungle (0.44)
34. The Streets Of Rio (2.22)
35. Marmoset Investigstes (1.31)
36. Ant Colony (1.48)
37. Cat On The Prowl (1.50)
38. Tokyo Nights (0.47)
39. Beetle Rock (0.53)
40. Beetle Roll (1.50)
41. Bright Lights (3.00)
42. Ghek Off The Wall (1.33)
44. Flight To The Temple (1.44)
45. Beetle Battle (1.31)
46. Living Side By Side (1.27)
47. Everywhere, A Hidden Kingdom (0.40)
48. Hidden Kingdoms Closing Titles (1.09)

Availability
Visit the Silva Screen Records website.

Additional Information
Blog by recording / mixing engineer Jake Jackson.

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