Monday, 3 November 2014

MIDDLE-EARTH: SHADOW OF MORDOR Score Review

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             
Check it out... if you're a fan of prior work from composers Garry Schyman and Nathan Grigg, and have desired the opportunity to see a darker and more horror-centric side to the Shore or Thomas contributions to the Middle-Earth musical canon

Skip it... if you're intolerant of repetitive and derivative action music featuring little more than brass and percussion fanfares, shrill and unnecessary violin and synthetic implementations, as well as a continual lack of energy or variety 
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             

"Shadow of Mordor is a score which wisely veers away from both the Shore contributions and the more recent Chance Thomas input, and instead takes a darker, more twisted turn."

With certain recent Middle-Earth video games falling flat in comparison to their literary and cinematic counterparts, fans of both the Lord of the Rings universe and of video games everywhere were anticipating the release of the recent Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor game, developed by Monolith Productions, and released by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment. The game takes place in between the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and follows the protagonist of Talion, a ranger of Gondor, who seeks revenge against Sauron after the Dark Lord kills his family. As he enters Mordor, seeking the opportunity to avenge those of whom he loved, he meets others who hold grudges against Sauron, including the maker of the Rings of Power, Celebrimbor. Receiving outstanding reviews from critics abound, and gaining a mass following from fans, Shadow of Mordor looks to steal a number of awards come end of year, many predict. It seems that this is the first time after the derivative War in the North where we can safely say the Middle-Earth brand is a successful one in regards to the video game medium.

Composing the score for the game are somewhat unknown video game composers (at least in my eyes) Garry Schyman and Nathan Grigg, who actually each harbour relatively large discographies, Schyman's history featuring more titles than Grigg's. The composers have a history with darker and more horror-centric video games, including F.E.A.R, Bioshock and (to a lesser degree) Dante's Inferno, and this influence seems to slip in and amongst the score for Shadow of Mordor, a score which wisely veers away from both the Shore contributions and the more recent Chance Thomas input, and instead takes a darker, more twisted turn. Horror traits slip into this score, differentiating it from anything else come before within the Lord of the Rings brand, and so what we receive is an interesting albeit unoriginal endeavour into the darker areas of Middle-Earth. Shrill violins, synthetics which fly high in pitch, and large quantities of deep brass and percussion help form an aesthetic quality that is likely unexpected, certainly in my case. Unfortunately, not all of the material provided comes as highly recommended as one would desire, for much of Shadow of Mordor seems highly derivative and lacking progression, as well as containing structural issues in a number of cues. Nevertheless, Shadow of Mordor is a somewhat accomplished score by any account, full of material that is, at the very least, commendable by the way of tonal inventiveness, of which both Schyman and Grigg possess in spades.

The score could be broken into three components; three acts, if you will. The first act of the score features a large quantity of highly seasoned music, littered with instrumental choices that are certainly uncommon for a piece within the Middle-Earth saga. Whilst not overtly impressive in regards to composition and thematic introductions, the first portion of the score features some of the most varied and testing of music produced within this title. The mood is immensely dark, the entire soundscape seemingly dripping with atmosphere, something of which I crave within scores. An Arabic influence seeps in from the word go, as the main theme is introduced within the initial cue, 'The Gravewalker', and we get a large quantity of reverb and accented violins; all of this contributing to a creepy atmosphere, one that is very much appreciated. Other themes are introduced, from another string theme showcased within the beginning of 'He Has Returned To Mordor', to a piano theme within 'Ioreth', which is later reprised in the sensational 'The Hammer Falls / Lithariel'. The score begins to enter its second act after the cue 'Gollum', this cue featuring a great collation of ambiance and irritatingly high-pitched violins, moving us more into the action-based portion of the album; this is around about when the score begins to truly suffer from repetition and a lack of ingenuity. Percussion and brass rule this portion of the score, delivering little variety, and continually smashing us over the head with monotonous and cliched phrases and motifs. When the music does diverge from its action tendencies, which become stale shortly after they become a common component within the album, we receive a plethora of electronic material; these electronics are generally utilized to poor results, and we are left with shrill sound effects that provide little intelligible music, nor anything substantially creepy. There are a number of cues lacking proper development or foundation; they simply throw notes at our ears and expect us to accept it. 'Celebrimbor' is a fine example of this, as the beginning of the cue utilizes a strong string phrase, but quickly goes along the roots of strange metallic percussion, electronics which add little but annoyance, and various fluctuations in volume that have little reason to have been implemented. The cue is not entirely without merit, due to a fine, small portion of respectable vocal inclusions, but aside from this, the cue has little of value.

The same could be said for a number of other cues in this middle section of the running time, though it's more so the lack of variety that this portion suffers from than a lack of structure. I was genuinely bored through a good quantity of the score, and found much of the composition lacking anything special. The album reinvigorates itself on a few occasions throughout this excessive duration of unexceptional music; 'You Have Sealed Their Doom' not only features a strong central passage performed by the string section, but is restrained and careful enough to sound properly creepy, which I believe was one of the intentions in regards to the entirety of the score. But it's but shortly after that the music continues its dull ways, with action cue after action cue quickly forming into a dull muck of monotony. Fortunately, but perhaps too late, the music finally turns slightly more energetic and coherent as the final ten or so cues play out. The strong building strings of a cue like 'The Black Hand's Gift' allow me to fully appreciate some of the better artistic decisions made by Schyman and Grigg. Whilst featuring many of the traits that made the second act of the score disappointing, these final pieces manage to indulge in enough comprehensive atmospheric composition that one can easily find enjoyment in what they're listening to. Unfortunately, though, this doesn't fully (or even majorly) rectify the rest of the score, nor the composers responsible and their consistently abysmal efforts. For a score that features a staggering 47 cues over a 1 hour and 13 minute long period, there is surprisingly little easily definable thematic material or particularly powerful action music, the most surprising fault of all. Generally, even with the less satisfying inclusions into the musical Middle-Earth canon, one can rely on the knowledge that the faster, action-based material will be commendable. Shadow of Mordor represents a conflict for this ideal; whilst much of its action is initially enjoyable, it quickly tires as nothing overtly original is occurring. A disappointing result for a score which shows potential in a number of key segments.

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor somewhat plays like a Brian Tyler album, in retrospect; often Brian Tyler places the highlights of his scores at the beginning of the album, meaning after the first ten or so cues, you may very well be left with little quality material. Of course, this isn't the case for all of Tyler's titles, with Thor: The Dark World, Iron Man 3 and Children of Dune all proving to be exemplary exceptions to this supposed rule. Nevertheless, Shadow of Mordor plays out a little like Tyler's Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, released last year to relatively mixed reactions from critics and audiences alike (though unlike many others, I would vouch that it was one of the finest video game scores of the previous year); whilst this here title has a number of respectable and lively highlights towards the beginning of its running time (I awarded positive marks to seven of the first twelve pieces), it slowly fades into little more than a basic musical cycle, full of recycling and repetition. It's a boring listen as a solo album that I most certainly will not return to, albeit for a number of spectacular individual cues. I can certainly see its use in context as being effective, as it reflects the dark and twisted nature of the game's lead character, as well as the environment he exists within and the acquaintances he meets along the way. Perhaps if more attention had have been diverted towards structural coherence, as well as varied orchestration, Shadow of Mordor could've received a positive rating. As it stands, the score earns little more than a shake of my head, signalling disappointment and disapproval. You can purchase Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor on Amazon or iTunes, here and here.    

5.0