Alias (Volume 1) – music by Michael Giacchino

Alias (Volume 1)As we’re counting down to the relaunch of the Enterprise on the big screen, I thought this would be an opportune time to check the back catalogue of the latest celebrated composer to put his stamp on the final frontier: Michael Giacchino. After laboring away in the often-anonymous field of video game music, Giacchino began making his name known as a potential A-list composer with J.J. Abrams’ Alias. I wasn’t a huge fan of Alias, but in listening to the two volumes of soundtracks released from the show, I have become a huge fan of its music.

The ironic thing is that, in its more introspective, moody moments, Alias leaned on orchestral music that’s nearly indistinguishable from the music for an episode of Lost (also produced by Abrams and scored by Giacchino). But much of Alias’ music leans in a completely different direction: upbeat, techno-beat-drenched pieces that seem to pay homage to, in equal parts, John Barry’s balls-to-the-wall brassy James Bond scores and the ethnic-location-of-the-week music from Mission: Impossible’s original TV run. Since these scenes almost always accompanied the sight of Jennifer Garner strutting her stuff or kicking butt (and, more often than not, doing both simultaneously), the beat seldom lets up.

The orchestra gets plenty to do in the action scenes, too, but in this case it sounds very little like Lost. One track in particular, though – “On To Paris” – spends a little bit of time combining the techno beats with the kind of low, snarling brass Giacchino frequently uses on Lost, and the effect is quite interesting – the addition of a simple drum beat completely changes the character and mood. One gets the impression very quickly that Alias is what landed Giacchino the scoring assignment for The Incredibles, for which he was nominated for an Oscar, and that’s led to nearly everything since, ranging from Ratatoullie to Star Trek. As calling cards go, you can’t do much better than the music from Alias: its ever-changing settings made for plenty of opportunities for musical variety, and Giacchino didn’t squander that opportunity by phoning in generic music.

4 out of 4 starsSo, should the beat-heavy Alias point the way for Giacchino’s Star Trek score? I’m going to hazard a guess that it probably won’t, but if it did…why not? The new movie is an exercise in trying to push classic Trek into a new style for a new audience. Michael Giacchino is one of a wave of incredibly talented young composers who are currently rewriting the books: not everything has to be in a European romantic style. Why not punch up the music and make it more modern? Alias proved that Giacchino was adept at splitting the difference between both styles.

Order this CD

  1. Alias (0:27)
  2. Dissolved (2:07)
  3. Red Hair Is Better (2:31)
  4. Spanish Heist (4:31)
  5. Double Life (1:54)
  6. Tunisia (4:14)
  7. In The Garden (2:32)
  8. Looking For A Man (3:54)
  9. Anna Shows Up (3:33)
  10. Home Movies (0:42)
  11. On To Paris (1:51)
  12. Page 47 (1:55)
  13. The Prophecy (2:11)
  14. Badenweiler (5:11)
  15. Arvin At The Poles (1:38)
  16. Sleeping Beauty (3:11)
  17. Blow’d Up (2:28)
  18. It’s Not The CIA (1:41)
  19. Oh My God!!! (3:19)
  20. The Tooth Doctor (2:01)
  21. It Was Anna (0:56)
  22. Wet Suits (2:40)
  23. Ball Buster (1:42)
  24. The End (0:58)
  25. Bristow & Bristow (3:31)
  26. SD-6 Dance Party (3:18)

Released by: Varese Sarabande
Release date: 2003
Total running time: 64:56

Eric Woolfson’s Poe: More Tales Of Mystery & Imagination

Eric Woolfson's Poe: More Tales Of Mystery & ImaginationAs most fans of the Alan Parsons Project know, Project co-founder, songwriter and later vocalist Eric Woolfson split from Parsons after the two collaborated one last time on 1990’s Freudiana, an album Parsons produced as a Project concept album but which Woolfson treated as the concept album for a stage musical, the direction he ultimately decided to pursue full-time. Woolfson went on to create several musicals that went down well in Europe, often mining his own Project material for many of the songs. So many fans were surprised to see this 2003 release, boasting an entirely new album of material written by Woolfson which promised to revisit the subject of the very first Project album: Edgar Allan Poe.

But was Woolfson doing a straight-ahead rock album, or auditioning material for a future musical here? Freudiana proved that one can do both at the same time, but now that we’re about halfway through the Project remaster series, with its early-draft bonus tracks, it’s pretty safe to say that Freudiana – and indeed several Project albums – turned out so well because of the checks and balances that existed in the Woolfson-Parsons partnership, with Parsons reeling in some of Woolfson’s music-hall excesses from time to time. Woolfson on his own, however, doesn’t have that somewhat steadying influence, and the result is this somewhat schizophrenic album.

Parts of Poe are trying hard to be a great rock concept album; in classic Project style, the album starts with an instrumental and then segues into “Wings Of Eagles”, an orchestral rock anthem that thunders along under the sheer power of vocalist Steve Balsamo’s vocals. Balsamo does the vocal duties on much of the album, and his range is mindblowing – he can go from operatic to a throat-thrashing raw rock style that just about reminds me of frequent-flyer Project vocalist Lenny Zakatek. The next song, “Train To Freedom”, is a fantastic piece of music that I’m not sure ever would’ve flown with Parsons in the studio, borrowing from the style of black southern gospel music. Balsamo returns for the ballad “Somewhere In The Audience”.

Next up is a musical rendition of “The Bells”, performed by a mixed choir called the Metro Voices, and it’s really one of the weak points of the album. I will admit to a bias here – I’m quite familiar with Poe’s written works, and “The Bells” simply isn’t among my favorites. Translating it into a stagey musical format doesn’t improve that – it just sounds a bit silly. After “The Bells”, the three-part mini-rock-opera “The Pit And The Pendulum” is a refreshing course correction, with Balsamo back at center stage in what may well be the most Project-esque song on the entire album.

Woolfson then steers things back toward a stage musical direction with “The Murders In The Rue Morgue”, which seems to be trying hard to emulate Freudiana‘s “It’s Funny You Should Say That”, complete with silly character voices; I’ve listened to this album about half a dozen times as of this writing, and I’ll confess to having skipped this track on all but two of those listens. Balsamo returns for another ballad, “Tiny Star”, followed by another choral number, “Goodbye To All That” (which isn’t all that, bogged down again by Woolfson’s stagey sensibilities).

The final song on the album is a bit of a shocker, opening with Orson Welles’ narration recorded for the original 1976 Alan Parsons Project debut album Tales Of Mystery & Imagination (but not used as part of the album until the revised 1987 CD edition), and becoming a rather intense power ballad showcasing Balsamo’s impressive vocal range. The song itself ponders the nature of immortality, and whether or not Poe unwittingly achieved it through his work.

3 out of 4More Tales would be a fantastic album, except for the 25% of it that succumbs to Woolfson’s stage musical excesses. While he pulls off a couple of things here that I don’t think we would’ve been treated to if Parsons had been involved in this album (namely “Train To Freedom”), More Tales isn’t on a par with, say, Freudiana. Freudiana‘s stagier pieces at least worked within the context of the album, while their counterparts on More Tales completely interrupt any musical flow that the album might have. On the plus side, we get Steve Balsamo’s simply amazing performances and some fairly decent songs out of the deal. It’s no Alan Parsons Project album, sure, and while it’s probably not fair to expect anything even approaching one, it’s also inevitable that the comparison will be made.

Order this CD

  1. Angel Of The Odd (2:36)
  2. Wings Of Eagles (4:45)
  3. Train To Freedom (4:40)
  4. Somewhere In The Audience (4:47)
  5. The Bells (5:32)
  6. The Pit And The Pendulum – Part I (2:31)
  7. The Pit And The Pendulum – Part II (2:02)
  8. The Pit And The Pendulum – Part III (2:02)
  9. The Murders In The Rue Morgue (4:35)
  10. Tiny Star (2:44)
  11. Goodbye To All That (5:15)
  12. Immortal (5:30)

Released by: Sony
Release date: 2003
Total running time: 46:59

Yoko Kanno – Be Human

Yoko Kanno - Be HumanIs there anything that songstress Yoko Kanno can’t do? Starting out as a video game composer in her 20+ year career, she quickly moved on to other avenues such as anime series and films. Her ability to combine styles and influences such as jazz, classical, electronic, and rock music give her a unique and delightful sound.

Be Human, which serves as the 4th (!!!) soundtrack album for the anime series Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex, contains more of Kanno’s signature sound. This album, however, focuses on the robots of the series, called Tachikomas, and carries this underlying theme throughout the whole album. For example, the leadoff song, the titular “Be Human”, is a dreamy pop song complete with mechanical whirring and beeping. “Trip City” shows off Kanno’s rocker side, with lyrics from longtime Kanno collaborator Tim Jensen. “Cream” combines a drum-and-bass rhythm with violin strings, while Japanese hip hop lyrics are sung over that. “What Can I Say?” instantly brings to mind the slow, moving songs from the old musicals of yore. But those are the good parts.

The rest of the album, quite frankly, feels like it consists of filler. Although the music itself is very good (and it’s hard not to like an album that jumps from the techno of “Patch Me” to the whimsical “Tachikoma No Iede (Runaway Tachikoma)”, which includes a flute solo), it often feels incomplete; like fragments or snippets of actual songs instead of a full soundtrack. And that’s what Be Human ultimately is, a collection of B-sides punctuated by an actual song or two.

2 out of 4Be Human, then, should be recommended to fans of the show or fans of Yoko Kanno (who, in all honesty, are probably to be the one and the same). Otherwise, people who are just starting to listen to Yoko Kanno’s works should probably get a Seatbelts album to find out why Kanno’s music is much lauded in the anime world.

Order this CD

  1. Be Human (4:05)
  2. Trip City (3:55)
  3. Patch Me (1:33)
  4. Tachikoma No Iede (Runaway Tachikoma)
  5. (1:55)

  6. Osanpo Tachikoma (Tachikoma Out For A Walk)
  7. (2:03)

  8. Bang Bang Banquet (2:00)
  9. Fax Me (1:26)
  10. Rocky Wa Doko? (Where’s Rocky?)
  11. (4:25)

  12. Spotter (5:56)
  13. Let’s Oil (0:45)
  14. Cream (3:54)
  15. Spider Bites (0:44)
  16. Good By My Master (2:09)
  17. Piece By Ten (2:50)
  18. What Can I Say? (1:11)
  19. Hi! (0:05)
  20. I’m Not Straight (1:23)
  21. AI Sentai Tachikomans (AI Combat Team Tachikomans)
  22. (1:05)

  23. Pro Bowler Tachikoma (Professional Bowler Tachikoma)
  24. (0:38)

  25. Don’t Sponge Me (0:36)
  26. Po’d Pod (1:02)
  27. Ciao! (0:07)

Released by: Bandai Entertainment
Release date: 2003
Total running time: 43:47

The Mario & Zelda Big Band Live CD

Recorded in concert in September 2003, this CD is literally what the package says – a series of themes and in-game music from Shigeru Miyamoto’s Super Mario and Zelda games, going all the way back to the originals, but arranged for a smokin’ big band. On the surface of it, this may sound a bit silly, but the combination of a great band and some inventive arrangements reveal that there was enough depth in the original music to bring out some swing.

Though the big band pieces are played by the Big Band of Rogues or the Yoshihiro Arita Band, Ashura Benimaru Itoh presses the “start” button with a brief acoustic guitar medley of Super Mario themes to thunderous applause. The early tracks focus primarily on the early games in the Mario series, including a surprisingly effective a capella scat medley of the various original Super Mario themes. For everything that I saw on the tracklist where I laughed at the very thought of it, I was very pleasantly surprised. Bearing in mind that the concert was recorded in Japan, keep in mind that this wasn’t a tongue-in-cheek presentation – the characters from these games are cultural icons there, even moreso than they are across the Pacific.

The beauty and brilliance of this whole thing is that the arrangers were unafraid to reinterpret the material and completely shift some cultural paradigms. There’s a Yoshi theme which is reinterpreted as a pleasant, toe-tapping bluegrass instrumental. The memorable Legend Of Zelda main theme is recast as a dashing flamenco piece. “The Song Of Epona” (from Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time) becomes a lovely Hawaiian-style number – you can almost see palm trees. And it all works. Most of this material I’d never envisioned this way, and now it’s hard for me to imagine it any other way.

4 out of 4There’s one drawback to the whole thing – for some reason, the whole CD is mastered at a surprisingly low level. You have to crank your speakers to hear it in detail, and worse yet, the volume level is not consistent from track to track. As bold and brassy as much of this music is, some more dynamic mastering wouldn’t have come amiss, though a mere three-month gap between the concert itself and the CD’s release may explain that quirk. It’s still worth a listen.

Order this CD

  1. Opening Theme Of Mario (2:23)
  2. Super Mario 64 Opening Theme / Overworld Theme (4:40)
  3. Medley Of Super Mario Bros. (4:24)
  4. Mario Scat Version (Super Mario Sunshine) (2:06)
  5. Go Go Mario (3:36)
  6. Super Mario Bros. 3 Ending Theme (2:42)
  7. Theme Of Athletic (Yoshi’s Island) (4:17)
  8. Yoshi On The Beach (Yoshi’s Story) (3:13)
  9. The Legend Of Zelda: Takt Of Wind – Title Theme (7:27)
  10. Theme Of Dragon Roost Island (4:21)
  11. The Song Of Epona (4:06)
  12. Theme Of The Dolphic Town (4:27)
  13. The Zora Band (4:42)
  14. Theme Of Goron City (3:52)
  15. Theme Of The Shop (3:18)
  16. Medley Of The Legend Of Zelda (4:32)
  17. Ending Theme Of Super Mario Sunshine (4:29)
  18. Encore (Slider) (6:38)

Released by: Scitron Digital
Release date: 2003
Total running time: 75:13

Wendy Carlos – Digital Moonscapes

Wendy Carlos - Digital MoonscapesHaving given her new studio its shakedown cruise during the recording
sessions for the score of Disney’s inscrutably futuristic 1982 movie Tron, composer Wendy Carlos turned to a new challenge – recording a new series of compositions, directly from digital synthesizers with no samples, microphones or any other acoustic recording techniques, fine-tuned until it souded not completely unlike a new piece for orchestra. Jokingly attributing the sounds to the “LSI Philharmonic” (for the large-scale intregrated chips in her new digital synths and recording gear), Carlos created what was almost a modern-day companion piece to Holst’s The Planets, inspired by the then-recent pictures sent back from Jupiter and Saturn by NASA’s Voyager space probes.

Given that my interest in Carlos’ work started with Tron, I’m almost embarrassed to make the comparison, but it must be made – Digital Moonscapes, recorded immediately after the score from that movie, does indeed sound like it could be music from a lost Tron sequel. (And careful listening makes this similarity more than just a coincidence: the piece devoted to Jupiter’s restless volcanic moon Io is actually a rejected cue for Tron‘s light cycle sequence; listening to “Io” side by side with “Light Cycles” from the second volume of Carlos’ Rediscovering Lost Scores reveals the two pieces to be one and the same.) As much as I hate to fall back on a banal comparison, if you liked the music from Tron, Digital Moonscapes is right up your alley.

Trying to get away from that comparison for a moment, Digital Moonscapes is interesting on its own, in some places a little more conventionally classical than that movie soundtrack I keep comparing it to. The other comparison I’ve made, to Holst, deals only with the subject matter. Nowhere in her own liner notes does Wendy Carlos try to draw that comparison, and we’re talking about two completely different kinds of music. As much effort as was put into making Digital Moonscapes sound fully orchestral, there’s no mistaking it for anything but synthesizer music, and ’80s synthesizer music at that. This CD release postdates the original LP by nearly 20 years, though I have an enormous amount of respect for the decision to not tweak the original recordings with more modern technology, because it has a unique character all its own (though I’m a little selfishly disappointed that the thought didn’t occur to add new Rating: 3 out of 4material to accompany Voyager 2’s discoveries at Uranus and Neptune). In tracks such as “Titan”, “Europa”, and portions of the three-part “Cosmological Impressions” suite, Carlos comes dangerously close to achieving that orchestral sound.

It’ll never shake its distinctly ’80s sound, but in some ways, that’s the charm of Digital Moonscapes, and that’s enough to get a recommendation from me.

    Order this CD in the StoreCosmological Impressions

  1. Genesis (7:12)
  2. Eden (4:30)
  3. I.C. (Intergalactic Communications) (3:41)

    Moonscapes

  4. Luna (8:20)
  5. Phobos and Deimos (3:28)
  6. Ganymede (4:25)
  7. Europa (4:19)
  8. Io (4:26)
  9. Callisto (4:29)
  10. Rhea (1:51)
  11. Titan (3:46)
  12. Iapetus (5:50)

Released by: East Side Digital
Release date: 1984 (re-released on CD in 2003)
Total running time: 47:31

Soylent Green / Demon Seed

Soylent Green / Demon Seed soundtrackThis disc brings together the sparse scores for two futuristic ’70s techno-dystopia flicks for their first official release, complete with the usual wealth of knowledge that’s packed into the CD booklet on any of Film Score Monthly’s releases.

In the past, Soylent Green has been mentioned on this site as “a great place to see a pristine Computer Space machine,” but it turns out that, away from the dialogue of this Charlton Heston hand-wringer, the music is another oustanding feature of Soylent Green that stands up over time. Fred Myrow’s music for the movie’s introductory montage is an absolute revelation, blending rhapsodic strings, experimental electric guitars, and an honest-to-God hip-hop shuffle, years before anyone was calling it that. It starts out quiet and rather relaxing, and then builds to a busy, bustling peak about 2/3 of the way in, a musical illustration of the movie’s overpopulation problem. It’s just a great little piece of underscore – I think I listened to that track five times in a row when I first listened to this CD, because it’s just so stunning.

The various themes the run throughout the rest of the score are established in those opening titles as well, though in slightly different forms. It all adds up to a very cohesive score, and quite an impressive musical feat overall. I like the movie itself as a guilty pleasure, but I have no qualms about saying that the music is better than the movie, and I’m glad it can be heard here.

In a completely different vein musically is the 1977 techno-horror thriller Demon Seed, whose score was composed by original Star Trek veteran Jerry Fielding. If you’re expecting it to sound even vaguely like a classic Trek score, think again – Fielding goes largely electronic here, befitting the movie’s theme of a rapacious supercomputer that decides it needs to reproduce (with Julie Christie, no less). Rather like Soylent Green, Demon Seed hasn’t really aged very gracefully, though its sometimes abstract music was ahead of its time. Fans of early ’70s analog synth music should give this one a shot. Heard without dialogue or effects, it’s some very interesting music.

Rating: 4 out of 4Though one might not normally think of these two films at the same time, this album is one of the best (and naturally, one of the more obscure) gems in Film Score Monthly’s library, and I highly recommend it.

    Order this CD in the StoreSoylent Green

  1. Prologue / Opening City Music (4:20)
  2. Can I Do Something For You? (1:47)
  3. Out For A Walk / Nothing Like This / Assassin Approaches / Necessary To God / New Tenant (5:29)
  4. Stalking The Pad (1:41)
  5. Tab’s Pad / Furniture Party (3:43)
  6. Shirl And Thorn (2:08)
  7. Home Lobby Source (2:58)
  8. Sol’s Music (6:29)
  9. Symphony Music (Tchiakovsky / Beethoven / Grieg) (6:17)
  10. Infernal Machine / Thorn In Danger / Are You With Us? / Alternate City Opening / End Credits (5:13)

    Demon Seed

  11. Birth Scene / Speaking Room / Elk Herd (3:17)
  12. Proteus Requests / Light On / Your Phone Is Out (8:25)
  13. Visiting Hours / Probed And Put To Bed (3:24)
  14. The Gaz Chamber / Rape Of The Earth / How? / Hypnosis / Chimes (8:23)
  15. Pre-Trip / Big Wind / Sperm / Spirograph / Tetra Waltz (7:18)
  16. Last Voyage (2:35)
  17. Closing Crawl (2:03)
  18. End Credits (3:59)

Released by: Film Score Monthly
Release date: 2003
Total running time: 79:49

Namco Video Game Music

Namco Video Game MusicEven though we now live in an age where ringtones outstrip them with actual sampled sounds, I’ve always thought the bite-sized video game music cues of yesteryear were really catchy in their own hypnotic way. Granted, they weren’t exactly great music in cases, and some of them weren’t even particularly complex – but with repeat exposure, they had a way of lodging themsselves in my brain all the same.

Namco Video Game Music is a CD that gives you a chance to hear those sounds away from the games that inspired them. In come cases, that’s brilliant, while in others, it comes across as little more than a sound effects disc for serious retrogaming enthusiasts. It’s hard to take it to task too much, however, for this is a CD pressing of one of the very earliest releases of video game music in the world, having originally appeared on vinyl in Japan around 1986.

There’s a decent balance struck here between popular games whose sounds everybody will recognize, and obscure, less obvious titles. Phozon and Libble Rabble never even made it to North American arcades, but they each boast some outstanding pieces of intricate music. On the other hand, as familiar and popular as Pac-Man is, it really only has a couple of pieces of music; much of its track is taken up by the sound of the game being played. You could hook up any machine running Namco Museum to your stereo and get much the same effect.

Other games have great music that are a little bit buried behind sound effects. When the Pole Position track finally got to the end of its “sound effects” section and started playing the game’s numerous post-game ditties in a row, I found that I remembered each one of them well (and while I’m sure some would say “well, that’s because you’ve been playing it nonstop for 24 years!”, I don’t really go reaching for a Pole Position fix that often – the music is, in fact, that catchy).

The first and final tracks, however, are the real bonus fruit at the end of the round. The track devoted to Xevious kicks off with a wonderfully authentic arcade soundscape, with the sound of that game front and center in the mix. Gradually, though, it segues into something else: the repetitive Xevious background tune becomes the backdrop for an Art Of Noise-esque collage of samples from the game, carefully arranged to provide their own beat. Given the original release date of this album, and the fact that Art Of Noise was only just catching on at the time in its original form, this means Namco Video Game Music was way ahead of its time.

The final track kicks off with what sounds like a Galaga audio chip test, cycling through all of the possible sounds and musical interludes that the game contains, until it settles upon the almost hypnotic post-game tune that accompanies your final score and hit ratio statistics. Again, new instrumentationRating: 3 out of 4 is gradually added to the mix, with not-quite-lounge-style organs expanding on and developing that tune until it’s actually upbeat and relaxing. Given the way that the sparse music from these two games is developed into music that stands on its own, it’s really a shame that the rest of the album wasn’t along the same lines.

    Order this CD in the Store

  1. Xevious (6:15)
  2. Bosconian (0:15)
  3. Pac-Man (2:57)
  4. Phozon (2:12)
  5. Mappy (3:36)
  6. Libble Rabble (3:35)
  7. Pole Position (2:43)
  8. New Rally-X (3:11)
  9. Dig Dug (1:30)
  10. Galaga (4:23)

Released by: Scitron Digital
Release date: 2003 (originally released in 1986)
Total running time: 30:37