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Snowpiercer (Marco Beltrami)

July 27, 2014

Cover_SnowpiercerSNOWPIERCER

Marco Beltrami, 2014, Varese Sarabande
20 tracks, 55:57

Scoring half a dozen films a year, Marco Beltrami seems unstoppable. A bit like, say, a giant train travelling through a frozen wasteland. How would he score that?

Review by Pete Simons

What is it?

It’s been 17 years since we froze the earth. The few remaining humans live on the Snowpiercer, a train on an infinite loop around the globe. For those at the front, it’s a lavish paradise of drugs and sushi in the lap of luxury; for those trapped in the tail section, life is short and cruel.” So starts the synopsis for Joon-ho Bong’s futuristic thriller. It reads like an interesting (if somewhat bizarre) variation on the age-old theme of a civilisation divided into social classes; and the revolution that inevitably follows. The director is probably best know for “The Host” (2006). His latest film stars Chris Evans, Jamie Bell and Tilda Swinton. For the music he turned to Marco Beltrami. Not sure how he found time for this between “The Wolverine”, “World War Z“, “A Good Day to Die Hard” and several others. Beltrami has a very busy 2013 – and he continues to be fully booked throughout this and next year.

What does it sound like?

I created three basic themes for “Snowpiercer””, said Beltrami. “The first was the perpetual motion theme that I had to figure out early. The second was a theme to represent the frozen world outside the train; a world that was foreign to the people on the train, yet also familiar to them like the remembrance of a past memory. The third was based on the emotional substance of the characters, which to me, was represented by Yona. This became Yona’s theme, which is woven throughout the film. Every cue was guided by these three themes.

“Yona’s Theme” closes the album. It is a lush piece driven by a solo violin, which seems to have a little bit of a ‘gypsy’ sound to it. A dulcimer adds to the slight ethnic feel of the cue. It’s quite an eerie theme, but memorable it is not. It does, as Beltrami notes, appear several times throughout the score. In fact, the opening cue “This Is The End” features a piano version of it. It’s trickier to recognise it when played on the piano, due to its slow and minimal nature. On the violin, however, the sustained notes allow you to follow the melody more easily.

Many tracks pass by without making much of an impression – not on me, anyway. It’s a quiet and atmospheric score for the most part, with some cues bordering on sound design. A lot of it relies on slow strings, piano and electronics. That is, in itself, not a bad thing. On this occasion however, for reasons I struggle to pinpoint, the music isn’t really ‘doing it’ for me. It feels sparse even during the action-orientated cues. One might say that Beltrami’s writing and orchestrating is very efficient – he rarely does any more than the bare minimum.

In “Preparation” Beltrami introduces the beginnings of his ‘perpetual motion‘ theme (or motif) for the Snowpiercer itself – a 14-note string ostinato over a 7/8 rhythm (assuming I counted correctly). The motif does indeed carry on endlessly (or feels like it could) and it took some doing to work out where it actually finishes and loops back. This and other rhythmic devices recur several times throughout the score (notably in “Requesting an Upgrade” and “We Go Forward”). Together with metallic noises and some, apparently, real train noises it represents the Snowpiercer very well. “Seoul Train” offers an electronica-driven variation on this theme. It’s almost “Matrix”-like (Don Davis versus Juno Reactor) with its pulsing basses and percussion. In contract, “Take My Place” and “Yona Lights” are two heartfelt orchestral cues.

Really neat variations on the 7/8 rhythm can be heard in “Blackout Fight” and “This Is The Beginning”. The latter truly is relentless with its racing strings, strident snare drums and forceful timpani hits. Trombone stabs emphasise the rhythm, whilst horns add to the melodic line. The use of woodwinds here is noteworthy too. At times it reminds me of John Williams’ modernist work on “A.I.” or “Minority Report”. This is, by some margin, the highlight of an otherwise mixed album.

Is it any good?

Marco Beltrami’s “Snowpiercer” is a little bit of a mixed bag for me. There are a number of excellent cues here, particularly those featuring his ‘perpetual motion‘ theme. The orchestrations are really quite interesting (though sparse at times); and the use of woodwinds is particularly noteworthy. Like a locomotion, the score takes some time to really get going. The first half feel sluggish with many cues passing by almost unnoticed. It doesn’t really pick up until track 13. But then… the orchestra starts to play a more prominent role, the themes become more pronounced and the whole atmosphere becomes more epic – culminating in the truly magnificent “This Is The Beginning”.

Rating [3/5]

Tracklisting

1. This is the End (3.41)
2. Stomp (1.00)
3. Preparation (3.10)
4. Requesting an Upgrade (3.40)
5. Take the Engine (2.04)
6. Axe Gang (2.22)
7. Axe Schlomo (1.47)
8. Blackout Fight (4.24)
9. Water Supply (2.32)
10. Go Ahead (2.45)
11. Sushi (1.14)
12. The Seven (1.00)
13. We Go Forward (2.05)
14. Steam Car (2.38)
15. Seoul Train (2.26)
16. Snow Melt (2.02)
17. Take My Place (5.56)
18. Yona Lights (3.33)
19. This is the Beginning (4.00)
20. Yona’s Theme (3.38)

 

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