Wednesday, 17 December 2014

THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES Score Review

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             
Check it out... if you're an avid fan of this franchise, and desire a satisfying and powerful conclusion to this awe-inspiring and epic series of scores, as The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies concludes Howard Shore's Middle-Earth scores with grandeur and emotional poignancy

Skip it... if you have and will admonish any scores that have come out of this series, despite their obvious thematic ingenuity, emotional complexity and racial variety (in terms of the different sounds for different races and factions within the films)
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             

THIS REVIEW IS SOLELY FOR THE SPECIAL EDITION OF THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES

"Shore has had to pull out all the stops to produce something suitably satisfying, to reward fans of the series for their patience, persistence and support. After running through the album numerous times, 'satisfying' is not the term I would assign this; 'emotionally-poignant', 'colossal' and 'monumental' are all far more accurate."

Perhaps the defining feature of the current generation's fascination with technologically-based entertainment, alongside the innovations in relation to smart phones and tablets, will be the passion observed in relation to some of this centuries most impressive cinematic achievements, most notably The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Whereas prior to the release of this awe-inspiring, colossal set of films the genre of fantasy motion pictures were either shunned by the general mainstream or elitists (or both), The Lord of the Rings cultivated a new generation of fantasy-loving cinephiles who grew to appreciate the immense artistry and precise coordination of the entirety of the monstrous trilogy. Whether it be the characters, the performances, the writing, the visual and practical effects, much could be found within the cinematic adaptations of one of the most beloved book series' of all time to praise and acclaim, critics and audience members doing just so. The final installment into this initial trilogy, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, also managed to garner the approval of the Academy to an almost unprecedented degree, accumulating 11 Oscar nominations and wins, tying the record for the most awards won at the ceremony for a single film, alongside Ben-Hur and Titanic. Considering this and the enormous financial success for the picture, it was reasonable to assume that the production studios behind the project, as well as the director of the initial trilogy, Peter Jackson, would eventually aspire to continue the franchise in some distinct and hopefully successful way. These assumptions were indeed grounded in reality, and after numerous years of production turmoil, Jackson was announced as returning for the prequel, which would be extended out to a trilogy, to direct, and that the first installment would be released in 2012. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey garnered less critical acclaim than its predecessors from The Lord of the Rings, but managed to accumulate a solid box office return, reaching upwards of $1 billion. The second installment, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, fared far better in terms of critical praise, but failed to reach the billion dollar mark, and has left many fans worried for the finale in the trilogy, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.

And so after all so many years, it comes down to this final inclusion in the series from Jackson and co. Initially greeted with a chorus of approval, the film has seen, like other recent anticipated cinematic fares Inherent Vice and Interstellar, a fair quantity of disparate reactions, though it is still estimated that the critical consensus by the end of its theatrical run shall be in favour of the film. Musically, the Middle-Earth franchise has always been acclaimed, ever since the initial film in the original trilogy, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring's initial release, which garnered near universal acclamation from score critics across the web. Currently revered as one of the strongest trilogies of musical scores in history, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, composed by Howard Shore, has been embraced by both the scoring community, alongside the general mainstream, many of of whom have been brought closer to the world of cinematic scoring by this expansive and highly intelligent musical franchise. Receiving multiple Academy Award nominations and wins, it was almost entirely guaranteed that Shore would return to compose for the prequel trilogy, and again, such assumptions turned out truthful. Whilst many consider both An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug insignificant in comparison to any of the prior trilogy's scores, they have mostly seen wide-ranging appreciation nevertheless; the former primarily for its bold thematic material and strong emphasis on the titular character in Bilbo Baggins, and the latter for its dark and atmospheric mood, culminating in strong material for the main antagonist of the series, Smaug the dragon. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies occurs after Smaug the dragon has been awoken from his slumber in the dwarven mountain of Erebor by Bilbo, and begins his flight to the neighbouring establishment of Lake-Town to reek havoc and burn the innocent citizens who dwell there. Meanwhile, elves, dwarves, orcs and men are heading towards Erebor to seek revenge for those killed by the dragon, who many consider Bilbo and his company of dwarves responsible for waking, and to pillage the gold and treasures that lay within the mountain. Thus, a war breaks out between the numerous factions present, and the battle of the five armies commences.

As the definitive and bridging installment within this huge franchise, Howard Shore has had to pull out all the stops to produce something suitably satisfying, to reward fans of the series for their patience, persistence and support. After running through the album numerous times, 'satisfying' is not the term I would assign The Battle of the Five Armies; 'emotionally-poignant', 'colossal' and 'monumental' are all far more accurate. The Battle of the Five Armies will undoubtedly please long-lasting fans of the Middle-Earth franchise, as well as those who have been brought in due to Shore's involvement with The Hobbit series, due to its thematic consistency, character development and action sequences, all of which are particularly spectacular and worthy of acclaim. Seeing as I am neither an enormous fan of either of the initial Hobbit scores, despite a great quantity of highlights hidden away in their over-2 hour lengths, this is a particularly impressive statement coming from myself. The Battle of the Five Armies is a culminating effort that combines all the most impressive thematic, melodic and instrumental concepts that blossomed within portions of the previous Hobbit albums, all alongside the emotional poignancy and intelligent compositional story-telling that occurred within The Lord of the Rings scores, more specifically that that was present within The Fellowship of the Ring; a score which I continue to champion as the most impressive score in this franchise by a vast margin. The Battle of the Five Armies features the strongest musical action sequences of the series, and pivots consistently, providing variables for individual characters, their motivations and their mental state with but a few fluctuations in tone, volume and consistency for any given thematic idea. These certain variations often play into the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring, where The Battle of the Five Armies is obviously trying to lead into.

This review is not to provide an immensely informative and detailed collation and database for the individual implementations of each specific thematic statement; that will undeniably be provided by Christian Clemmensen of Filmtracks once his review is up, however long we shall have to wait for that. I'm not a highly learned scholar in terms of The Lord of the Rings scores, nor The Hobbit scores, so my knowledge and references are to be strained. With that overtly long disclaimer out of the way; speaking of thematic material, Shore's implementation of various new and returning leitmotific statements are satisfying and often somewhat comforting. We see old and familiar phrases returning to grace us with their splendour all throughout The Battle of the Five Armies; the most obvious concept utilized within the original trilogy and presented here is the primary Shire theme, which appears numerous times throughout the score, initally within the stunning 'The Ruins of Dale', and then within 'The Return Journey' and 'There and Back Again', both of these latter inclusions towards the conclusion of the album. The original Fellowship theme returns for a brief reprise within 'Courage and Wisdom', lessening the gap between the two series', and foreshadowing the inevitable quest that begins with The Fellowship of the Ring. The Rivendell theme is once again present for but a brief instance, and the classic History of the Ring motif returns to once again grace our ears, representing the Necromancer and Sauron's return. The identities for locations like Lake-Town and Erebor have both seen tremendous development by Shore, each of them changing drastically. The pompous Lake-Town theme from the previous score, one of my favourite thematic concepts from The Desolation of Smaug, has been ruined by the evil and destruction of Smaug, all from within the opening cue on the album, 'Fire and Water'. The Smaug fluctuations destroy the blatant arrogance of the location, and from then on, the individuals inhabiting it are represented with agony, pain and but a smidge of resilience. It's a satisfying and understandable direction for a thematic concept of such nature. We see this development in numerous cues throughout the album; examples include 'The Ruins of Dale' and 'Gathering of the Clouds'. In regards to the mountain in question, this time, seeing as Erebor has been reclaimed by the dwarves, it is no longer (or very rarely) presented with wistful and desirable anthems, its two note progressions proving cautionless, barbaric, sleazy and entirely corrupted, due to Thorin's altered mind-state within the film, and due to the power of the Arkenstone and Dragon-Sickness; both of these we shall explore later on.

Individual ideas for certain characters return, all of which are again, altered. The most immediately obvious are the thematic concepts for Bard, which are no longer sly and untrustworthy; his prowess and bravery is proven within 'Fire and Water' as he battles the antagonist Smaug, and from then on, he is represented with heroism and gallantry. Thorin, as mentioned, sees far less opulent valour within his primary leitmotif, and his 5 note leitmotific concept soon becomes immediately recognisable alongside the Arkenstone's mysterious and seductive material. His corruption and inner defeat is prominent all throughout the score, most notably within the cue 'Dragon-Sickness' which completely abandons Thorin's prior material in favour of more diabolical and broken phrases. Still, Thorin's fantastic and powerful theme that we've seen in prior installments does appear within numerous battle cues and poignant pieces, the most blatant and powerful showcases of such being within 'Sons of Durin', where the opening minute features a gorgeous and bountiful version of the awe-inspiring motif, and the gorgeous 'The Return Journey'. The titular character of the entire series, Bilbo, is given little time to shine, unfortunately, and many of those who appreciate his loving and intimate thematic material will undoubtedly be disappointed by his lack of development. Fortunately, there are moments where the lead protagonist's material is able to shine through the battle-hardened sequences. Whilst Bilbo's humorous secondary theme is entirely absent throughout the duration of the score, the latter stages of the running time see small portions of his main clarinet motif, as well as his strong and confident heroism theme from An Unexpected Journey, which was entirely dismissed within The Desolation of Smaug

It is somewhat disappointing to note that Bilbo isn't gifted a whole heap of opportunities to shine throughout the score; the latter pieces which are more Hobbit-based are less so focused on delving into Bilbo's Hobbit material and are more interested in exploring the multiple variations on elven themes, Gandalf's material and the classic Shire and Hobbit themes from the original trilogy, leaving little time for Bilbo's newer thematic statements to build in. But whilst Bilbo is neglected to a certain extent, leitmotifs for the dwarven race, as well as the militarized factions who make up the various armies of the film, are high in abundance. A heavy brass theme in the latter half of 'The Ruins of Dale' and the final half a minute of 'Mithril' is perhaps the most immediately entertaining and compelling piece of new material, representing what I would anticipate to be the dwarves with might and furiosity. Whilst it has been referenced in prior installments, the elongated and absolutely sensational material for Dain Ironfoot, showcased best within the cue 'Ironfoot', is my personal pick for favourite central thematic concept within this sensational album, expressing the jubilant and heroic stature of the dwarf it represents and his body of support who follow him to Erebor for the battle of the five armies. His Scottish-influenced material, expressed primarily with bagpipes, is still tremendously powerful and fun, and provides some of the best moments in the score. A gorgeous 8 note leitmotif initially introduced within 'The Gathering of the Clouds' is an effective and highly enjoyable phrase which may very well refer to Bilbo or the elves. Speaking of such, the elven material returns with a vengeance, and instead of the gorgeous Legolas and Tauriel themes we received in The Desolation of Smaug (arguably the best components within that prior installment), we are given far more aggressive turns, the vocals and grandeur that usually represents the elves butting heads with the twisted high strings of Sauron and Azog's armies, the defeated but yet still insistent Lake-Town brass, and the low, angry and brutal brass of the dwarves. These culminations of individual thematic premises are found most prominently within the various action cues on the album, 'Battle For The Mountain', 'The Darkest Hour', 'Ravenhill' and 'To The Death' featuring strong iterations of all the various factions' themes and instrumentation. 

Numerous characters and relationships, like Bilbo, are not gifted as much opportunity to shine here as they have in the previous scores in the series, though their few moments of ecstasy are often the most impressive on the album. What was vastly considered the most enjoyable and accessible new piece of thematic material introduced within The Desolation of Smaug was Tauriel's various musical identities; from her primary theme shown first in 'Flies and Spiders', to her secondary theme's introduction in 'The Woodland Realm', to her love theme with one of the dwarves, Kili, displayed best within what is largely considered the best cue on the album, 'Beyond the Forest'. Tauriel and her subsequent love theme with Kili have a noticeable decline in air time during The Battle of the Five Armies, and whilst the ethereal elven choir and delicate harp and string combinations are still very much present throughout the battle sections of the score, the loss of their fantastic, individual material is certainly felt. Still, the brief inclusions of Tauriel's identities are still appreciated; the fast-paced and highly entertaining 'Ravenhill' slows down numerous times during its latter half to provide some exceptional Tauriel-related material, and just over half way through 'Courage and Wisdom' we are subjected to the love theme in all its beauty and glory. Whilst Smaug is absent from much of the film, his presence is felt all throughout the score, his 2 note fluctuations occurring consistently from beginning to end. Shore doesn't wish for us to forget who really is the antagonist of this series; the real threat is Smaug and his fire, not those with swords and arrows. He is the reason the quest for Erebor was started, and he is the reason everyone is flocking to the mountain to claim it for themselves. The other antagonists of the film, as we know, are the orcs, under the control of the Necromancer, who may very well be Sauron (my embarrassing lack of knowledge in terms of these films and their lore is undeniably evident at this point). The high strings of the Necromancer are a constant all throughout the album, and the low, deep and sinister force of Azog, the chieftain orc, is present primarily within the battle sequences. Sauron's thematic material really begins to come into play within 'Guardians of the Three', a number of brief installments of the History of the Ring theme playing out, in between a 7 note leitmotif. Azog and the orc legion's material, brutal and unforgiving, is ignited within 'Bred For War', and then returns as the battle of the five armies commences within 'Battle For The Mountain'.  

But it's the action sequences which are truly where The Battle of the Five Armies stands out from the rest of The Hobbit scores, and perhaps even surpasses The Return of the King (my personal least favourite from the original trilogy). The frantic, bountiful and consistently energetic composition throughout these numerous and gorgeous pieces are a welcome treat after much of the downtime divulged in throughout both An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug, and provide some exquisite confrontations and events. Shore handles the immense task of providing over half an hour of seemingly continuous battle music with force and detriment; his material never compromising nor lacking in vigour. Whilst more listens will be required to fully analyse the orchestration and individual entries of certain performers and instrument sections, my first 5 or so chronological experiences with The Battle of the Five Armies have had me find no errors in performance. The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, as was the case within The Desolation of Smaug, are very much competent and impressive all throughout the recording, and prove to be just as effective as The London Philharmonic Orchestra, who had delivered all the material for the former trilogy, as well as the first installment into The Hobbit canon, alongside the efforts of The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. The recording of the score is just as spotless as one expects from this franchise, a size and scope to the sound of the album clearly decipherable, and it makes the battle pieces ever the more exciting and glorious. Whilst on the topic of technical achievements and discussion, perhaps the biggest issue with this album is not just the ordering of the tracks (which is not only out of chronological order, but entirely unsatisfying at its conclusion), but also the inclusion of 'Thrain', a piece which is from the extended edition of The Desolation of Smaug. The decision to release this specific cue within this here album was an incredibly idiotic one; whereas it could've been quite easy to have released the track as a singular digital download for iTunes for any die-hard Desolation of Smaug fans to pick up, the cue has been placed at the end of the album (and not just the digital format, but the official CD release). Whilst I'm somewhat accepting of the final track on the album being 'Dragon-Sickness' (the cue prior to 'Thrain'), which doesn't wholly satisfy but does move into the tone and mood of The Fellowship of the Ring quite adequately, 'Thrain' does neither satisfy nor follow into the next chronological installment for the Middle-Earth musical canon. Collectors will undoubtedly be scrambling to eject the disc out of their stereos the moment 'Dragon-Sickness' concludes so as not to interrupt the carefully selected ordering of the album by subjecting themselves to a cue which wasn't even intended for this very release. WaterTower Music have proven their incompetence this year, not only with this here album, but also the extensive and unnecessary quantity of releases for Interstellar; it does not reflect well onto their business model, which from the exterior appears to be, "Give little effort, irritate customers and make as much money as humanly possible."

Nevertheless, for those seeking a more conclusive ending to the album, you will be disappointed; not just by 'Thrain', but by the aforementioned 'Dragon-Sickness', which was obviously not developed as an ending cue. Once there is a chronological order available somewhere on the Internet, perhaps those who seek to assess The Battle of the Five Armies entirely on its own merits and without consideration of the subsequent score, The Fellowship of the Ring, will be pleased. Fortunately for those who are listening to the score as a digital release, switching various cues around is not particularly difficult. Also included on the album is a song written and sung by Billy Boyd for the end credits of the film. Once you manage to traverse the first few seconds of 'The Last Goodbye', you should find yourself in good company; the opening half a minute of the track is absolutely cringe-worthy. Still, tonally it is effective, whilst it also encapsulates the saddening reality that this franchise is closing its doors forever (or at least for the next decade). Boyd's vocals lack projection, but his pitching is strong, and the instrumentation, whilst simplistic, is reminiscent of that of the Hobbit's; it has a folk-like gleam to it. It isn't as strong an end credits song as last years Ed Sheeran input, or An Unexpected Journey's Neil Finn rendition of 'Song of the Lonely Mountain', but it does the job well and ends the album with a degree of beauty.

So whether you're a die hard fan of the series, or your knowledge of this franchise's music is relatively limited, I would find it hard to believe that you would, in any strain, dislike The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies; this is arguably the strongest and most consistently impressive score of The Hobbit franchise. Shore's compositional prowess is utterly palpable, and few releases this year have been as overtly emotional, dynamic and compelling as this collation of music. I believe few felt like Shore could have adequately delivered the perfect final score; one that both represents the ending to The Hobbit series and the Middle-Earth franchise as a whole aptly, whilst also serving as a bridge between The Hobbit series and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but alas, Howard Shore has done all that and more. Whilst never reaching the dizzying heights of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, I found The Battle of the Five Armies to be a thoroughly impressive listen, composed of some of the strongest music of the year. The wide range of varied and highly entertaining music available consistently keeps the listener enthralled and excited, and the emotional payoff at the end of the album, whilst stilted partially by a mucky track-list from the dreaded WaterTower Music, is suitably affecting for a score of this calibre. It has been a long journey for Howard Shore, and the development of his scores for this prosperous and expansive universe have been oft-times difficult (dealings with Jackson, limited time, quantity of music required to be written), but perhaps that difficulty and hardship is what has pushed him to achieve a new, transcendent level of epic. If there was any way this franchise needed to conclude, than this is the picturesque and most desirable variation possible. You can purchase the standard edition The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies on iTunes or Amazon, here and here; you can purchase the deluxe edition of the score on iTunes or Amazon, here and here.

9.3