Sunday, 19 April 2015

EX MACHINA Score Review

Check it out... if you appreciate versatile, intelligent and oft-times easily enjoyed synthetic compositions, Ex Machina one of the few mainstream electronic releases that doesn't immediately repulse a contemporary collector

Skip it... if an innate prejudice against this genre of composition prevents you from ever obtaining enjoyment from its numerous positives

Ex Macina (Digital Cover)
"It's subtle enough to permit analysis but thematically conscious enough to engage even a casual listener."

A refreshing departure from the usual science fiction fare, Ex Machina is an original feature directed and written by screenwriter and common Danny Boyle collaborator Alex Garland, whose credits include that of 28 Days Later and Sunshine. His unique and peculiar look at artificial intelligence with this rampant yet strangely intimate affair has drawn serious acclaim, critics appraising it as one of the strongest features of the year so far, and the public embracing it with earnest. An irritatingly varied release schedule has stilted some of the mainstream anticipation, the UK having had the film since late-January, whilst Australia is set to receive its official release in the coming month, but this has not dissuaded many from recommending it to those around them. The story of the film revolves around a young coder winning an opportunity to spend a week at the private retreat belonging to the CEO of the company he works at: upon arrival at this retreat, the protagonist finds, to his surprise, that he is to take part in a bizarre experiment involving interacting with the world's first sentient artificial intelligence, who comes in the form of a beautiful young female named Ava. Its exploration of various thematic concepts has boded well with audiences, and the performances from Domnhall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac and Alicia Vikander have all aroused particular commendation, some even citing the film as a strong award contender come end of year due to these reasons. One can only hope that an original science fiction picture be awarded its due compensation outside of the technical categories, the genre consistently dismissed by The Academy and company. 

One category that sci-fi has never seemed to struggle to gain recognition within is the "Best Original Score" area of the ceremonies, Interstellar proving just this year that whilst award shows possess a certain prejudice against the genre, they still appreciate and respect the musical accomplishments belonging to the classification enough to acknowledge them publicly. That said, modern sci-fi remains a breeding ground for musical synthetic drivel, so despite its mainstream appeal, the genre serves as a disappointing entry-way for any aspiring collector whose first experience with scoring is likely that of a science fiction sound-design-orientated work. Dull and derivative, the vast majority of efforts released within sci-fi retain minuscule slivers of instrumental variation, and rely solely on the power of volume, distortion and tonal consistency. When scores that lack the ability to enunciate any ounce of emotion, event or detail are those being triumphed as the finest of our great art, what does this tell you? People prefer a lack of development in their scoring, where characters are treated (musically) as one-note individuals who serve a singular role in the overall arc? Whilst I can very easily appreciate the efforts of great electronic composers whom utilize sound-design to further their compositions (Daft Punk, Vangelis, Steven Price), I can not approve of those who use it as an excuse for lazy writing. Joseph Trapanese offered us Insurgent a number of weeks ago, and its monotonous cycle of regurgitated crescendos, ostinatos and funebre percussion patterns relied solely on the prowess of Trapanese's mixing and producing capabilities, all of which only proved effective for around a quarter of the running time. 

Meanwhile, whilst Trapanese was constructing his unimaginative and tired effort, two genuinely impressive lesser-known electronic composers were assembling the score to Ex Machina, their names Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury. Barrow and Salisbury have contributed little to the world of film scoring part their rejected score for 2011's Dredd (which was subsequently released as Drokk and garnered generally mixed reactions), so Ex Machina serves as what will undoubtedly be their break-out release, the score different enough from the majority of electronic compositions to warrant legitimate interest from both the electronica crowd and the general scoring community. Whereas the most prolific synthetic works released this year have mostly underwhelmed me (namely the highly adulated It Follows), Ex Machina honestly provoked tension, emotion and pain in me, and the experience serves as proof that modern science fiction scoring is not wholly devoid of creativity and ingenuity. Last year, I could not even partially empathize with those who found enjoyment with Mica Levi's Under the Skin: the sounds were just too obtrusive, repetitive and lacking in any variation for my tastes. This time, I completely understand the appeal. Ex Machina is the perfect sound-design album to present to contemporary scoring enthusiasts who possess an inherent intolerance against the art of electronic composition, as it is subtle enough to permit analysis but thematically conscious enough to engage even a casual listener. It's intelligent, consistently engaging, unnervingly foreboding and looms over the listener like a giant, preparing to pummel one with its perpetual menace. It's a wolf, hiding in the grass, stalking its prey methodically, before launching out into the open, fangs bared. Whether or not personal preference enables one to instinctively appreciate the sounds emitting from their speakers, the score remains unique enough for any listener to be engaged, for better or worse. 

These factors don't stop the album from veering into dangerously derivative area, the composers allowing pronounced instances of distortion usage to weigh the value of the score down substantially. 'Hacking / Cutting's final few minutes lacks the intelligent arrangement of concepts seen throughout the majority of the initial five pieces, as volume amplification and distortion begin to wage superiority over the rest of the mix, representing what is most obviously evil. It could not be more obvious what Salisbury and Barrow are looking to enunciate in these situations; only Reznor and Ross are capable of being any less subtle with distortion use, as is evident within Gone Girl. Speaking of lurid compositional techniques: the central theme for Ava seems overtly predictable, the twinkling bell-like sound of the ten-note idea immediately proving reminiscent of Hans Zimmer's leitmotif for the titular robot in Chappie, as well as, according to some, the five-note theme from Williams' Close Encounters of the Third Kind. These loud and unimaginative fragments within the larger picture will deter many from traversing further into the work, as was the case with me (the volume of the reverb and the frequency of the treble lines in 'Ava' tested my patience and my capacity for putting up with such garish instrumentation and mixing), but fortunately, they are but a portion of the entire experience. 

The rest of Ex Machina is oft-times impressive, if quite slow. If one allows themselves to get lost in the atmospheric euphoria of the work, much enjoyment can be extracted. The score manages to ride the fine line between "reading filler", designed to serve as background noise for any activity (though I prefer to utilize Dickon Hinchliffe works as my background filler at the present) and simplistic, and comes off as an enthralling, albeit sometimes superficial work. Most of the duration, it's easily termed as minimalistic; a captivating example of two composers who understand the benefits and detractors of sound-design, and are using the form to improve upon their initial work, both to provide variation and ensnare the listener. From muffling the volume of the recording to make it seem distant (portions of 'The Turing Test'), to enhancing how sharp a guitar riff is played (or using a guitar in the first place for a multitude of themes, including a two-note motif heard best at 6:37 in 'The Test Worked' or throughout 'Bunsen Burner' by Cuts, to another 2-note theme found at 1:15 in 'Watching'), to a great deal of subdued reverb (which, unlike Trapanese's recent efforts, purposefully extends the size of the recording to create an otherworldly, ethereal vibe); Salisbury and Barrow are consciously restrained in how much they edit and electronically distort, so that the final product is enhanced in size and sound, but is still grounded in reality. After all, this is a tale of how artificial intelligence interacts with a human personality, so a grounding force is necessary.  

Also impressive is how professional and full-blooded Ex Machina comes across as. For a film with a budget of less than $12 million US, the fact that the score seems so pristine in recording and final execution is a credit to the composers and mixer Rupert Coulson. There are exceptions to this, 'Ava', 'Hacking / Cutting', parts of 'The Test Worked' and 'Skin' coming off as cheap-sounding, but these portions make up less than 40% of the duration; the majority of the running time is a wondrous experience. Where an individual's level of affection for the work is determined depends on their willingness to embrace contemporary sound-design. An inability to accept the inherent qualities of the work shall prove detrimental for any who hope to derive enjoyment from the score at any length. Even at its most aesthetically abhorrent stages, it remains even somewhat intelligent, and miles ahead of the rest of the mainstream synthetic crowd. The guitar influence is a particularly applaudable creative decision, and is executed far better than any of the attempts to insert rock elements into Insurgent. For the most part, it's easy listening that doesn't oppress too greatly to openly offend anyone. It's most certainly worth a glimpse from any and all, if only to bare witness to an example of the capabilities of electronic composition. You can purchase the digital download of Ex Machina on Amazon or iTunes, here and here. You can purchase the physical edition on Invada Records here



Additional notes about release: the digital download version was released by Back Lot Music, and features a different cover to the jewel case version, released by Invada. The physical version offers two discs of material; the first disc featuring the main score and the second disc featuring bonus material not available on the digital copies.

Track Listing

1.The Turing Test4:30
5.I Am Become Death3:15
6.Hacking / Cutting6:36
7.The Test Worked8:59
10.Bunsen Burner (The Cuts)4:00
 Total Album Time:47:54

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