Monday, 27 April 2015

THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON Score Review

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             
Check it out... if you have been disappointed with the lack of continuity in regards to prior Marvel scores, as Tyler and Elfman manage to finally collate a respectable quantity of individual thematic premises together for an action score that achieves everything it desires

Skip it... if Tyler's usual propensity towards over-utilisation and mixing of brass elements does not bode well with, the composer's writing often heavily accentuating the horns over the rest of the mix at various points 
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             

"Tyler and Elfman have constructed a score which achieves a suitable amount of action grandeur."

The relevance and mass-popularity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe continues to puzzle me upon each new iteration into the franchise. Every film accumulates astounding quantities of revenue, and attracts audience members from across the globe. Theatre chains sell out weeks prior to release dates, people clambering to be first in line upon opening night. But to what end; what differentiates any of these films from the other bloated, silly action films currently playing? In more ways than one, the Fast and the Furious franchise, whose latest installment is currently breaking box office records at a stellar pace, is eerily similar to any number of Marvel ventures, the same kind of ingrained sentimentality, wit and expansive pompous scope permeating both film series'. That said, the Furious features maintain a tonal consistency, something that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is hopelessly incapable of doing. 2013's Iron Man 3 was labeled prior to release as a gritty and dark installment into the Iron Man canon; one that explores the titular character's personal and mental dilemmas suffered after The Avengers film; alas, the final product barely scratched the surface on potential thematic realms, and instead sought to elicit cheap laughs from the audience at every available opportunity. The same can be said of Thor: The Dark World, which failed due to its lack of originality or anything remotely distinct, as well as the overbearing comedic presence, invading every sequence imaginable. Both Guardians of the Galaxy and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, despite numerous qualms, were good-to-great films, but neither achieve anything that we hadn't seen before. The last truly brilliant Marvel film was seen within 2008, Jon Favreau's Iron Man a perfect embodiment of pitch-perfect pacing, strong performances, impressive visual effects and a compelling story that explores its protagonists inner-complexities delicately and appropriately. Where is that Marvel now?

The Avengers: Age of Ultron is the direct sequel to 2012's The Avengers, both directed by Joss Whedon, and proves even more vapid than the latter oft-times visually uncaptivating exploit. Its structure is disgustingly overfamiliar, character development and adequate down-time forfeit for overwrought action sequences which contain neither peril nor entertainment. An underwhelming yet burdening sentimentality and psychological undercurrent is never fully explored, and so eventual gratification from its initial promises seems impossible. The titular villain, in classic Marvel fashion, lacks any of the menace promised in the first and most powerful trailer for the film, and is therefore rendered an arrogant, witless if ambitious antagonist whose vision for mankind feels all too rushed. If it wasn't for the irreproachable performances, gloriously undervalued set design, welcome comedic undertones (the one-liners are not as tonally inconsistent as they were in previous installments) and a grandiose score from Brian Tyler and late inclusion Danny Elfman that reflects a heroic and proud quality that is never wholly achieved within the film, Age of Ultron would fail on all respects. Unfortunately, the biased approval from over-excited fans continues to overwhelm the voices of the reasonably cynical, and the critical circles continue to champion what is essentially repetition, every new film within the Marvel Cinematic Universe retreading the same structural beats as the one come before, Captain America: The Winter Soldier the only Phase Two picture to utilize anything that even somewhat resembles innovation (and earning appropriate universal appraisal for doing so). In a world which seems to actively detest invention, this series is often the focal point for criticism, and Age of Ultron does not make me question my active disapproval. 

Adding to many people's frustrations with the franchise is the foolish approach to the musical accompaniment, which lacks basic continuity between the many individual pictures. Captain America's central themes changed in-between his first film, The First Avenger and The Winter Soldier, the themes used for The Hulk during his standalone The Incredible Hulk were discarded seemingly in their entirety for The Avengers, and Thor is just a mess. Often attributed to the issue is the lack of collaboration between directors, producers and composers, no-one wholly dedicated to the concept of thematic cohesion. It means starting over time and time again for composers introduced to the Marvel Cinematic Universe multiple films after its initial few forays, and it makes listening to all the scores in a single sitting disjointed. Brian Tyler made headway in 2013 by utilizing Alan Silvestri's Captain America leitmotif for Thor: The Dark World; a welcome advance, but that effort was then subsequently rendered worthless after Henry Jackman decided to rebuke the concept of coherence and conceptualize a completely new central theme for Captain America in The Winter Soldier. Fortunately for those irritated by this idiotic mishandling of leitmotific material, Brian Tyler was assigned late last year as the composer for Age of Ultron, and with his capabilities as an action writer having previously meshed well with his thematic transitional aptitude, all looked swell for those who feared another situation like that of The Avengers, where a culmination of identities was never truly seen. Add to that Danny Elfman's name, who joined later in the recording and was reportedly working alongside Tyler to provide much of the villain material, and the anticipation for this Marvel score was at an unprecedented level. 

The results are in, and The Avengers: Age of Ultron is indeed a fantastic superhero score. Combining the thematic concepts behind nearly all the individual members of the Avengers team, Tyler and Elfman have simultaneously constructed a score which achieves a suitable amount of action grandeur, interlaced with a subtle inclination towards higher register instruments, something Tyler is not generally fond of. It's masterful stuff at its finest, and for those disappointed by the lack of sheer magnificence witnessed within Silvestri's Avengers score, you shan't be afflicted by the same woes this time around. Tyler and Elfman tap into their most grandiose propensities, making for an experience that is at once entertaining yet worthy of critical analysis at a more detailed level. Elfman in particular imbues the recording with a number of his most overt mannerisms, muffled in blatancy by Tyler's orchestrations, loud and rambunctious in nature. These two musical methodologies at once seem so distinct; how can the aggressive, brazen and free-flowing style of Brian Tyler harmonize so well with the legato-based, fluttering techniques that Elfman is so famous for utilizing? Yet they seem to gel coherently, and their individual compositional dispositions invade each other's works. Tyler's brass-heavy approach is altered to make way for a more accessible woodwind influence, and Elfman's higher registers are restrained, his action passages full of more brute force than anything I've heard from the man as-of recently. Both composers have been yearning for an appropriate project to highlight their capabilities on, as Elfman's only truly decent work from 2014 was the documentary The Unknown Known, and Tyler's last fantastic score was Thor: The Dark World, from 2013. If this is not a perfect enunciation of both men's skills at their most wild and bashful, I do not know what is.

The most instantaneously delightful feature that appears from the second cue onwards is the reworking of Silvestri's original Avengers theme, first witnessed at 0:33 minutes into Elfman's 'Heroes' after a wonderful brass interlude. It seems Whedon deemed Elfman the sole bearer of the concept, Tyler rarely handling this element of the composition. After another small Silvestri reference within 'It Begins', we're treated to the creation of the Ultron material within 'Birth of Ultron', twisted strings, understated harps, grumbling brass leading into the introduction of a 5 note primary motif for the central antagonist. Surprisingly, this piece was constructed by Tyler in one of his most structurally varied instances. The same kind of tragic and manipulated strings pervade the entirety of 'Ultron-Twins', the dark menace of the percussive elements helping to form a foreboding atmosphere that effectively captures the intended malice of Ultron and his new-found proteges, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch. A violin captures the Russian flavour that these characters bring to the table, and Ultron's material relents for a number of minutes to allow these characters time to grow, before bellowing down on them at the conclusion. Tyler's Iron Man theme is referenced throughout the running time, the most gloriously blatant inclusion at 1:04 within 'Hulkbuster'. New character Vision is gifted a delicate and sharply played array of material, similar in vein to Ultron's manipulated strings, only the synthetics and fluctuations in volume and brass more prominent. This material is highlighted best within 'Vision', one of the score's least aesthetically-pleasing cues, but one that is undeniably impressive. Silvestri's Captain America identity is highlighted within the first stages of 'New Avengers - Avengers: Age of Ultron', and it's rather splendid. Elfman also takes time to reestablish the Helicarrier theme from the first film during 'Outlook' to a wonderful reaction that beckons applause, even in the context of the film. Perhaps the greatest amalgamation of themes within the score occurs at 2:25 into 'Inevitability-One Good Eye', which features a tight reiteration of the Iron Man theme, the Elfman Avengers variation and the Silvestri Captain America identity, all underneath a 4-note string passage; it's insanely well coordinated, and one of the highlights of the album. Thematically speaking, Age of Ultron is most certainly one of the strongest Marvel scores released, both composers taking means to highlight the individual identities of its numerous heroes. 

Varied ethnic influences invade the score, and whereas Black Widow's thematic concept proved the only truly foreign idea instilled within Silvestri's work, the large-scale scope of this installment needed to be further reflected within the music. Tyler initially explores this route with 'Hulkbuster', the percussive elements feeling South African in nature, as permits the composer due to the location in the film. Wooden percussion arrives within 'Seoul Searching' to accentuate the Asian soundscape whilst also adding to the budding tension of the sequence. For the most part however, Elfman and Tyler remain set on the conventional Western orchestra, utilizing it to its greatest potential. The score is fast, brutal and unforgiving in its execution, the writing as vehement and hectic as anything Tyler nor Elfman have provided in years gone by. I have seen numerous complaints in regards to mixing, several refuting the decision to mix the brass over the choir so wholly (the final half of 'Sacrifice' features much of this), but I found the mixing reasonably adequate, if slightly too centred around the trombones and trumpets. The crowded nature of Tyler and Elfman's initial compositions meant that this issue was virtually unavoidable, but it still deserves to draw criticism. Speaking of the crowded canvas, many listeners have complained that this leaves no breathing room for the score, both composers attacking so directly that they destroy any ounce of coherence. This is debatable; Tyler's work, the focal point of the disapproval, whilst destructively loud and all-encompassing, is reasonably well balanced in regards to slower and faster movements. The opening of 'The Battle' crescendos to a satisfying cesura, before starting up again, this being a perfect example of Tyler working towards a specific goal, and then allowing the recording to sit for a moment, before continuing on full speed ahead. That said, one does have to admit that in certain moments, Tyler does give way to babbling madness; the chaotic and somewhat unfocused layers of 'Seoul Searching' whilst at their loudest seem to partially detract from the piece, the amount going on in one instance overwhelming to a certain extent.

That said, this speed and agility is where Tyler is most entertaining, his lavish and multi-layered approach inappropriately undervalued by the visual format but always on centre-stage here. Elfman shines primarily whilst evoking sentimentality, though his compositions sometimes veer into the chasm of disinterest: 'Farmhouse' namely features romantic material for The Hulk and Black Widow, and it's less than engaging. It's not necessarily poorly composed, just nothing that grabs a listener and beckons repeated listens. Elfman does achieve much with his material though, both thematically and in terms of general writing: his work is often the most effective available. 'Avengers Unite' is his masterwork for the score, and is the piece that many shall come back to upon completion, the thundering snares, choral influence and booming horns arresting from the word-go. 

Both Elfman and Tyler are discounted to a certain degree with the disappointing album situation, the track listing obviously out of chronological order, rendering the flow of the score stilted and melodically out-of-sync. Concerns like this irritate me to no end, and Age of Ultron suffers quite dearly from it. That said, it's nothing that will drastically change one's opinion of the material itself; you'll either appreciate the unabashed brutality of it all or you won't. The masculine stomping of Tyler's work is highly reminiscent of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, if slightly less repetitious and featuring stronger woodwind and violin lines, so if you did not approve of that album, despite its numerous positives, steer clear from the majority of Tyler's pieces within this context. Elfman's material will appeal to the majority, so I don't feel obligated to provide a disclaimer against seeking it out. As a whole experience, it's not as cohesive a product as one would desire (as I pointed out just above), but it remains undeniably well executed solely in regards to composition. For those who have been disappointed with previous Marvel Cinematic Universe releases, and have desired a score that harnesses the strengths of its predecessors whilst also building its own reputation and methodology, The Avengers: Age of Ultron is most certainly worth a look. The brunt of Thor: The Dark World and Iron Man 3 collides with both the bravado of Silvestri's precursory work and the characteristically lighter touch of Elfman's style. It's by no means perfection, but it remains undeniably enjoyable, loud and florid; whether or not you see those descriptions in a positive or negative light is up to you. You can purchase The Avengers: Age of Ultron on Amazon or iTunes, here and here.

7.8  
                       
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             

Additional notes about release: none.


Track Listing


1.Avengers: Age of Ultron Title (Brian Tyler)0:44
2.Heroes (Danny Elfman)2:09
3.Rise Together (Brian Tyler)2:25
4.Breaking and Entering (Brian Tyler)3:07
5.It Begins (Danny Elfman)2:44
6.Birth of Ultron (Brian Tyler)3:08
7.Ultron / Twins (Danny Elfman)4:17
8.Hulkbuster (Brian Tyler)4:36
9.Can You Stop This Thing? (Danny Elfman)1:04
10.Sacrifice (Brian Tyler)2:44
11.Farmhouse (Danny Elfman)4:07
12.The Vault (Brian Tyler)3:00
13.The Mission (Brian Tyler)2:50
14.Seoul Searching (Brian Tyler)2:38
15.Inevitability / One Good Eye (Danny Elfman)5:12
16.Ultron Wakes (Danny Elfman)1:44
17.Vision (Brian Tyler)3:50
18.The Battle (Brian Tyler)4:28
19.Wish You Were Here (Brian Tyler)1:37
20.The Farm (Danny Elfman)1:15
21.Darkest of Intentions (Brian Tyler)2:28
22.Fighting Back (Brian Tyler)2:35
23.Avengers Unite (Danny Elfman)1:04
24.Keys to the Past (Brian Tyler)1:49
25.Uprising (Brian Tyler)2:34
26.Outlook (Brian Tyler)2:40
27.The Last One (Brian Tyler)2:16
28.Nothing Lasts Forever1:58
29.New Avengers - Avengers: Age of Ultron3:10
Total Album Time:78:13