Friday, 27 February 2015

WOLF TOTEM Score Review

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             
Check it out... if you're a fan of James Horner's rich and vibrant orchestral compositions, Wolf Totem another highly applaudable effort that contains emotion, intelligence and thematic development over its hour long duration

Skip it... if you're tired of Horner's self-plagiarism, his inability to completely reinvent his style a somewhat distracting feature of this otherwise impeccable release
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             

"[Horner] paints a vivid picture, rich with colour, depth and texture that is admittedly hard to dismiss as anything less than astonishing. Such is Wolf Totem."

Over a decade ago, Lu Jiamin's highly appraised novel Wolf Totem, was released to immediate appraisal, both critics and the general public acclaiming its fluid style, thematic commentary and intelligent characterisation. Receiving a substantial quantity of awards and instantaneously exhibiting strong sales, the book, which centres around a Chinese student sent to live with Mongolian shepherds during the late sixties and stumbling upon the wolves of the location, was almost guaranteed to be adapted into a cinematic counterpart shortly after its release. And whilst the "shortly" portion of that statement has proven highly inaccurate, the fact that a Jean-Jacques Annaud-directed visual adaptation had been in production since August 2009 should prove surprising for few with genuine interest in the novel. Wolf Totem (the film) appears to possess an indefinite release date for the United States, and so international (outside of China) enthusiasm and interest is relatively slim, at least in the mainstream; I guarantee that only an insubstantial minority of Western viewers will pay witness to any promotion for the picture. That said, its releases in France, China and Belgium have all been met with relative commendation, and it has fared commercially well for a film being released in only three nations. When the film arrives in the land down under (on DVD at least, for a theatrical release is immensely unlikely), I will undoubtedly check it out, if only for the sweeping score that James Horner has managed to conjure up as the musical accompaniment for the picture.

On that note: for Horner fans, it has been a long two years. Both 2013 and 2014 did not see any new film work released by the man, despite his continued enthusiasm for the practice. He had rejected scores, disparities in opinion between himself and various directors, and a general distaste for the world of Hollywood (which seems to be obligatory of any and all who live there). For those who hold the composer in high stead, enduring the previous two years without any output from a man many herald as one of the finest in the business was unquestionably difficult. If anything, it was difficult for those concocting lists of the respective year's finest material, as Horner is often considered a necessity on any of them, therefore reducing any pressure one feels to fill up another spot in their collation. But alas, 2015 is quite obviously a come-back year for the man, his energy rejuvenated, his choral implementations at the ready and his melodic accessibility welcome in-and-amongst the plethora of recently released material which contains little of such. Wolf Totem represents his first foray into scoring of the year, The 33, Living in the Age of Airplanes and Southpaw to follow. And if this is any hint as to what awaits us for those aforementioned subsequent releases, I can do little but shudder in anticipation. Wolf Totem, despite its obvious familiarity, is another astounding Horner release that reminds us of the capacity of sweeping and thematically-dense composition in this glorious genre of ours.

As I found Jupiter Ascending highly disappointing (and no; I shan't be reviewing it), Giacchino's writing lacking an energy and recording quality that I greatly desired, my search for a score which contains a robust energy and size about it has been proven in vein. That is until now! Many of Horner's critics reasonably have gauged that his inability to innovate shall prove his downfall. His pathological methodology is one that never seems to fully grow between works, and even in his most majestic of moments, he can never fully transcend the limitations that come with constant reiteration. Whether it be his love of urban and rustic vocal performances; certain forms of ethnic instrumentation; John Barry-esque horns; when you press play on a Horner album, you're almost guaranteed to receive these features and more. But even despite this, as is most palpable with my review of Avatar I posted a while ago, his ability to exert an orchestra's full capacity, both emotionally and technically, is a joyous singularity in a time period which supports the minimalism approach. His recording and mixing capabilities are beyond comparison within Hollywood, few composers employing such a beautiful soundscape that balances each individual component evenly and precise, from the light and wistful woodwinds to the heavy and direct brass. He accomplishes what many do not, and that is to fully encapsulate the sentimentality, mood and situation of any cinematic context he is scoring for. He paints a vivid picture, rich with colour, depth and texture that is admittedly hard to dismiss as anything less than astonishing. Such is Wolf Totem.

Seeing as my knowledge of Horner's discography is rather feeble, much as I stated with my disclaimer for The Hobbit: The Battle of The Five Armies, this review should not be accredited as a reliable source for thematic incorporation detailing nor, more importantly, Horner plagiarism references. It is true that there are a number of melodic statements that appear throughout which many will instantaneously associate with certain phrases, instrumental inclusions and thematic concepts that have appeared in numerous Horner scores throughout the decades. Yes, 'Scaling The Walls' and 'The Frozen Lake' seem to feature two separate Horner passages which are directly taken from Avatar (a three note brass motif for the former and a five note trumpet motif for the latter). It is true that 1:42 minutes into 'Leaving for the Country', the score's preliminary offering, a piano melody from The Amazing Spider-Man makes a slight but undeniably discernible appearance. Others, as many have informed me, are lying on the surface, but seeing as I am not a scholar in regards to Horner's work, my ability to uncover them is hindered. All the same, this minor impediment should not deter fans of Horner; Wolf Totem is a particularly strong score when it comes to memorability and leitmotific writing, Horner's skills enunciated all throughout. For newcomers to the man's compositions, the score will prove refreshing. A bucket of water straight to the face after much of the dry and tonally underwhelming material released throughout the earlier portions of 2015. From the first scream of banal agony and unrest within 'Leaving for the Country', it is clear that this is a Horner album through and through. The dark undercurrent (though not too dark) of cello movement swiftly directs us towards the initial statement of the central theme; one that virtually makes or breaks the score for a listener. Performed on a wide range of Asian-centric instruments, the theme is implemented with all manner of tones and moods within this single, opening piece, as well as for much of the running time of the album. From outright and heroic, to subdued and slow, it is Horner's ability to tactfully find ways to manipulate this six-note leitmotif into various forms that makes it never tiring. Its development is smooth, powerful and well-documented all throughout the duration; it's also easily identifiable and rarely understated, which makes it a joy to take in time and time again. 

Whilst the action receives a brief citation within 'Wolves Stalking Gazelles', Horner's compositional prowess within the faster of paces first moves to the forefront of our attention with the lengthy 'An Offering to Tengger/Chen Saves the Last Wolf Pup', and subsequently 'Wolves Attack the Horses'. Where Horner departs from his usual shtick is with his string writing, which is insanely frenetic. The low and reverberating horns are nothing new during these sequences, but it's when an explosion of colour, aggression and density flourishes at 2:34 in the latter cue that we can do little but direct our undivided attention towards the music. The piano fires up with staccato quaver repetitions underneath a wide array of both bass and treble orientated violins, violas and cellos. The timpanis roll; the cymbals crash; the horns announce destruction and panic. For those who doubt the emotive and aggressive merit of classical orchestral film scoring, Wolf Totem represents some of the finest in action writing from Horner. 

The score moves onto lighter and less frantic passages, the trumpets and woodwinds coming out in earnest to provide a beautiful and serene soundscape. The cheeky and fun 'Discovering Hidden Dangers' provides relief from all the action and affliction endured within the preceding pieces by instigating a wonderful woodwind theme just after the 1:00 minute mark. 'A Red Ribbon' reminds me towards its opening of Barry's Dances With Wolves, the lush and fluid writing utterly impeccable. Horner contrasts these lighter moments that paint a picture of an extensive and layered environment with darker movements that feature slowly augmenting string underswell that ignites into faster and more wholesome appropriations of the initial melodies. This form of development can be seen within numerous cues, whether it be the natural development of the introductory dubious string phrases forming into the fast and driving percussion of 'The Frozen Lake', the fluctuating brass, percussion and violins that transform into a masculine and powerful three note horn motif in 'Scaling the Walls' (also part of the aforementioned Avatar plagiarism phrases); it's a form of building tension and heightened impact that always provides thrills. 

Away from the action, we bear witness to some of Horner's most passionate and mournful writing since Avatar or Braveheart. The visual medium provides an ideal canvas for Horner to enunciate feeling and sentiment, the story dwelling on loss, hardship, friendship across the bounds and discovery. This is exactly what Horner requires to elicit the most heartfelt and genuine of stories through music. I do not need to watch the film to understand the character's, their plights, their emotions and allegiances, for Horner is so specific in his characterizations that we feel as if we have watched those central to plot instead of listened. The sheer gravity and turmoil injected into a cue of the ilk of 'Suicide Pact' or 'Death of Ab'a' is breathtaking, and we understand the emotional weight that they carry within the sequences they support. The middle segment of 'Return to the Wild', with its harrowing and emotionally poignant variation on the main theme, proves to be the shining example of Horner's dexterous thematic aptitude. The sweeping and slow crescendo over a number of minutes is utterly beautiful. A similar moment occurs at 7:31 minutes into this same piece, the music having built steadily to a moment of utter ecstasy, the violins leaping up an octave to provide us one of the shining moments of the score. At moments like these, I feel it necessary to shout out to the heavens, "Where have you been Horner?!"

There are mistakes here and there, namely the fact that the bass in the entire recording, as many have pointed out, feels oddly muted in comparison to the higher registers of the release. It's not a huge concern, as much of the score is written in this vein, but it does prove partially irritating, especially in situations where a solid increase in bass would do wonders for the feel of a cue. There's also an awkward moment within 'Return to the Wild', where the music halts for a brief interval, before starting back up again; this occurs at 8:45 minutes into the piece. The entire soundscape seems to change in size and impact when the music returns, and it prove rather irksome for such an astounding piece. And of course, the cries of plagiarism that litter every new Horner release are rather substantial, his work sounding like that of other projects he's done before. Fortunately, in comparison to many of his other works, this feature isn't so prevalent, and thanks to Horner's frenetic composition and energetic orchestration, it is easily dismissed.

Ultimately, whether one is to sit and nitpick all day is up to them. Wolf Totem, in my mind, radiates with a vitality and heart that is jarringly refreshing. The recording is dense and populated with robust magnitude, the musicians tasked with the job of performing the pieces delivering wholeheartedly. Horner has embraced both contemporary and culturally-diverse forms of instrumentation to accentuate the locations of the film, and has brought to life the awe-inspiring vistas of Inner Mongolia. Thematically speaking, there is enough diversity and intelligence in the multitude of statements provided to keep one on their toes for both their first listen and the successive returns to the work. Whether it be the gorgeous development of the central theme, the incorporation of a four note secondary concept within 'An Offering to Tengger/Chen Saves the Last Wolf Pup', or the various action motifs that Horner underplays all throughout; they all serve as resonant and highly evocative. For those who desire a composer whose methodology seeks to not only effect you in regards to your heart, but also stun you with its obvious melodic bravado and technical wizardry, it's hard to move past James Horner. Wolf Totem is a score which I was at first hesitant about embracing, but now fully realise the depth layered within. It's not perfect, suffering from issues which plague every Horner release, but perfection isn't required to wholly embrace such an exquisite array of beauty, detriment and emotion. This exudes the kind of gracious harmony that Horner seeks to evoke within every project he is given an opportunity to tackle; what's more, it's the kind of release that never seems to tire the listener no matter how many times it graces their ears. A captivating, enchanting and timeless addition to James Horner's illustrious filmography. You can purchase Wolf Totem on Amazon France here.

9.1