Sunday, 24 August 2014

Penny Dreadful Score Review

Check it out... if you're a fan of Abel Korzeniowski's work, and love to indulge in his carefully constructed, intellectual scores, Penny Dreadful being no less impressive than any of his prior scores in regards to those factors

Skip it... if you desire a varied and inspired piece of work, that equals the grandeur and emotional resonance that has been showcased within other Korzeniowski works, such as Romeo and Juliet or Escape From Tomorrow, for Penny Dreadful can fall flat in some instances in terms of exuberance or enthusiasm. 

"However well arranged and composed Penny Dreadful really is, I can't help but feel something is lacking here."

A period piece, set in London 1891, full of mysterious and supernatural themes, starring Eva Green, Josh Hartnett and Timothy Dalton; for me at least, that sounds like a rather impressive first description for the new Showtime series Penny Dreadful, which wrapped it's first season on June 29th this year. Created by John Logan, the show premiered to a great quantity of critical acclaim, and was renewed for a second season quickly after it was apparent that what Logan had brought to the small screen was indeed quite popular. Whilst I personally can't go along with the hype, Penny Dreadful is certainly a very intriguing and intelligent series, packed with a great deal of easter eggs and exquisite monologues. From my viewing of the pilot, I can't say I'm genuinely looking forward to traversing the rest of the first season, though I can most certainly understand other's and their love for the characters, cinematography and writing in general. It is a show which had a lot of potential, and I don't believe it has all been squandered.

The location and time period the show is set in seems to immediately lend itself to a rather slow and mournful kind score; one with a strong, sinister orchestral presence. For a score which applied to these traits, composer Abel Korzeniowski, currently one of the finest film and television scorers in the business, was recruited and sent to work. After gloriously entertaining pieces of music such as last year's Romeo and Juliet and Escape from Tomorrow, one could expect some quality Gothic music from Korzeniowski, and you'd be correct in that assumption; Penny Dreadful's Gothic identity is clearly realised, thanks to some of the intelligent instrumentation employed throughout this project, that works in the context of the show, as well as outside it to a degree. Certainly whilst watching the show, the score's Gothic tendencies add to the character and uniqueness of the entire series. On it's own, as a solo listen, you can rightfully appreciate the range and intelligence of the writing and instrumentation on offer, though from the second that the music is turned on, something seems suddenly out of place. After my second listen through, it became apparent that this seemed to be the lack of enthusiasm that the music portrayed through it's long and seemingly endless use of mournful and depressive strings. Whereas Korzeniowski's previous works seemed to be filled to the brim with inspiration and enthusiasm, Penny Dreadful seems a labor of some kind. And it's disappointing for such a composer as Korzeniowski, whose music so often seems to be genuinely inspired by the action onscreen, whether or not said action is rather dull or poorly executed (see the 2013 version of Romeo and Juliet for example).

Listening to the aforementioned Romeo and Juliet, it is quickly apparent that Korzeniowski seems genuinely devoted to the idea of a tragic and beautiful love story, no matter how stupid this love story may appear on screen. His music doesn't reflect a sappy 2013 re-imagining of the classic Shakespearean tale, but more so the kind of a tragic romance film that is executed with the time period of the original story in high priority, and explores the themes of tragedy and love with greater intensity and grandeur. The music is an onslaught of beautiful orchestral composition, fit with some of the finest instrumentation seen in recent years. Ultimately though, what makes Romeo and Juliet such an effective score is the inspired state it appears to be in throughout it's entire duration; despite expectations and the visual medium he was supporting, Korzeniowski delivered a beautiful, serious and timeless piece of music, inspired more so by the story of Romeo and Juliet as a whole than the actual film he was composing for. This appears to be a good thing, in retrospect, seeing as the film was a disaster. Look towards Penny Dreadful, though, and everything Korzeniowski has composed in this context seems far less intuitive and exploratory. It doesn't feel as adventurous as Escape from Tomorrow, nor as graceful or expertly constructed as W.E, Romeo and Juliet or A Single Man; instead, much of the score feels heartless, to an extent. The music never reflects an enthusiastic attitude, even if Korzeniowski was feeling as such whilst writing the score, and it makes listening to the score often quite difficult. I like to feel as if the composer was invested in his work and the visual medium he's composing for, and was devoted to producing work that really works in depth in relation to the themes and story. I like to hear this through the music itself. Unfortunately, Penny Dreadful makes Korzeniowski sound less eager to compose something rejuvenatingly beautiful or inspired than previous endeavors. 

Nonetheless, there is still much to enjoy here, from the composition's intelligence, to the range of instrumentation (though it's not always quite so varied), to the great use of textures, moods and smaller phrases to represent individual characters. Whereas composers like Ramin Djawadi have begun to make it a common trend to consistently provide blatant leitmotifs for each and every individual character, Korzeniowski has made all his leitmotifs and representative cues all far less obvious in their execution. It's not so much about the composed phrase that represents any individual location or character, but more so the tone of the music and the textures of the instrumentation; various string runs can represent any given character. These string runs are by far the most common occurrence in all the instrumentation, being utilised in nearly every cue as the main heart and soul of the piece. It helps that this use of this specific section reflects the Gothic mood that was mentioned before; the deep and sinister cello riffs all add to a moody atmosphere, that is carefully constructed underneath Korzeniowski's trained ear. Violin laments riddle the entire score from beginning to end; from the opening cue Demimonde, which immediately sets the beautiful though menacing feel of the score, to the final few cues, those being Reborn and Up The Side Of The Mountain. Korzeniowski works hard to implement that rich, old London kind of sound to the entirety of the score, and for the most part, on instrumental and emotive levels, he succeeds on this front. From the second the first violin note heralds in, it can almost feel as if you're being transported to another time period, full of dark and aggressive cello runs, paired with the lightest of timpani rolls and flute trills. It's an evil and dangerous place to immerse yourself in, though Korzeniowski makes it somewhat enjoyable.

It's surprising that I'm so hesitant to truly applaud this score, especially when I gave 9/10 of the cues on the card an approval rating; an outstanding result, even by my standards. Though perhaps this was because I appreciated and accredited the compositional element a little too much, and discounted my own personal issues. There's no in my mind doubt that Korzeniowski's work here is still top notch in regards to writing, though this isn't all that constitutes to a fantastic album of music; it's also the amount of enjoyment, tenseness and satisfaction I can draw from what I've listened to. Unfortunately, Penny Dreadful didn't provide me a great deal of satisfaction, even after a number of listens, and this is disappointing, especially after Korzeniowski's previous ventures in prior years. With such an awe-inspiring run of inspired and energetic music, that leaves you consistently emotionally drained (in the best way possible, I might add), it's rather disappointing to see something that doesn't really enthrall me throughout; in fact, it sometimes bored me. This is a truly disheartening result for something I expected so much out of. Though I must reiterate; this is in no stretch a poorly composed score. It is filled with some genuinely brilliant moments of Gothic-themed music, that set your heart to pumping far above it's average rate. The cue Asylum holds a heavy percussion beat towards the beginning which literally saw me jump off my seat in fright! That kind of suspenseful and freakishly scary music is quite a rare thing indeed, and so Korzeniowski certainly deserves props for providing me with more than one scare throughout the duration of this piece of music. In summary, whilst it's a component, often ingenious score, for some, there is a good chance that it'll leave you desiring more flair, energy or variation. String runs are only so interesting for a certain period of time, Korzeniowski. Nevertheless, I implore you to explore Penny Dreadful, though don't expect it to be nearly as exuberant or potent as anything Korzeniowski has composed before. You can purchase Penny Dreadful on Amazon or iTunes here and here.   


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