Tuesday, 6 October 2015

THE MARTIAN Score Review

Check it out... if the crescendos and never-ending ostinatos that defined Interstellar proved too simplistic for your tastes, Harry Gregson-Williams' The Martian continuing on in the same vein as that score in terms of minimalism, but offering a more extensive sonic palette with 

Skip it... if you are opposed to slower, more textural based works, as The Martian's thematic depth is not particularly profound 

"The Martian is an exemplary example of how to do toned-down, highly compelling composition."

Adapted from the acclaimed novel by Andy Weir comes Ridley Scott's The Martian; a science-fiction flick that stars Matt Damon as Mark Watney, a man left on the surface of Mars after his crew-mates are forced to abandon him during a fierce storm. Thanks to a quick-witted and entertaining screenplay, brilliant performances, and an effective combination of visual and practical effects, The Martian was released to near-unanimous appraisal from both critical and general audiences, and immediately garnered a strong box office return. The film serves as composer Harry Gregson-Williams' third (second solo) collaboration with the director, after Kingdom of Heaven in 2005 and Prometheus in 2012. After a dreadful 2014, which featured some of the most deplorable and widely dismissed material of his illustrious career thus far (The Equalizer and Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare two largely berated messes), Gregson-Williams has done everything within his power to return to an admirable standard with his work during this calender year. His previous 2015 release, Monkey Kingdom, was met with positive reactions, and The Martian continues the trend, the majority of the scoring community greeting this new, versatile little score with mild, if not reasonable praise. 

Based on descriptions of the score's use in the film, you may have been led to believe that the music that Gregson-Williams provided for Scott was more minimalistic than anything else, and this is accurate to a certain degree. The melodic elements incorporated throughout are sparse in quantity, and there are very few full-blooded instances of orchestral grandeur. Instead, the composer utilises a combination of symphonic and synthetic instruments and sounds, focusing on texture as opposed to thematic technicality. On the rare occasion where we are gifted soaring orchestral majesty, Gregson-Williams offers up some of the most stunning material of his career to date; the sweeping performance of one of the minor brass themes during the powerful 'Crossing Mars' (a track which, admittedly, beckons comparisons to Hans Zimmer's Rush and any number of James Horner scores, namely Avatar, yet always remains thoroughly enjoyable) is an immediate standout. But for the most part, solo live performances litter the soundscape, an austere sonic environment the resulting effect. Gregson-Williams creates space and vast size by applying copious amounts of reverb to nearly every instrument in the mix, but it never feels excessive nor unnatural. Despite the feeling of broad size and melodic restraint that permeates the majority of the duration, the mix is so alive with energy that The Martian never feels devoid of humanity or tension; something that many scores which attempt minimalism succumb to. The Martian is an exemplary example of how to do toned-down, highly compelling composition.

People will be quick to assume that this score takes cues from Zimmer's own Interstellar, as well as other highly acclaimed space scores, and whilst the Interstellar comparisons are warranted (the measured string swells and organ use throughout 'Emergency Launch'), Gregson-Williams' methodology is effective enough to retain a respectable amount of individuality. During sequences featuring discovery and development ('Making Water', 'Science the S*** Out of This', 'Sprouting Potatoes'), he makes use of gradual ostinatos and nuanced electronic manipulation, to better highlight the futuristic technology available to the protagonist Watney, and his efforts to sustain himself during his ordeal. Gregson-Williams introduces a number of lighter and less significant motifs during these tracks, to help further focus this sense of advancement; the four chord string progression that serves as the primary recurring melody for 'Sprouting Potatoes' is a hopeful little tune that depicts optimism in as efficiently a manner as possible. But in one of the score's most bittersweet moments, he takes this theme and spins it around, offering a minor chord rendition that is full of gloom and melancholy, on the piece 'Crops Are Dead'; this reprise is rendered through a hazy fog of synthetic distortion. The leitmotif remains short and to-the-point during this latter statement, but the difference lies in how Gregson-Williams manages to subvert the meaning of the initial performance of the melody. Small details of this nature can be found in abundance all throughout the album, and they provide incentive for numerous replays. 

Other standout tracks include the opening, 'Mars', which begins with a foreboding, bass-heavy electronic chord, before giving way to the main theme, comprised of a rising set of guitar chords; 'Messages from Hermes', with its gorgeous opening string melody, heavily reminiscent of Steven Price's Gravity, and rousing final half; and the final two pieces, 'Build a Bomb' and 'Fly Like Iron Man', which conclude the story in an appropriately dexterous fashion, emotional piano lines and forward-moving, rhythmic synthesizer and woodwind passages interspersed throughout. There are certainly moments which fail to make an impact, such as in the middling 'Hexadecimals' and slightly monotonous 'See You In A Few' (this track also happens to have, at least initially, a piano that feels oddly mixed, to its detriment), but rarely does The Martian stray into genuinely substandard territory, most tracks at least somewhat redeemable in terms of sound. It does take many an idea from its contemporaries, but Harry Gregson-Williams' The Martian is still an endearing, amusing and fascinating listen all throughout. You can purchase The Martian on Amazon or iTunes, here and here.



Additional notes about release: the piece 'Fly Like Iron Man' was re-titled shortly after the album was released; the track's original title was '"I Got Him!"'. A deluxe version of the score is set for release on November 6th, 2015. This deluxe edition combines the original score album, by Harry Gregson-Williams, with the Songs From The Martian soundtrack, into a single, two-disc product. You can purchase this deluxe version on Amazon, here

Track Listing

2.Emergency Launch3:09
3.Making Water2:38
4.Spotting Movement1:49
5.Science the S*** Out of This2:16
6.Messages from Hermes3:31
7.Sprouting Potatoes1:39
8.Watney's Alive!2:46
11.Crossing Mars3:36
12.Reap & Sow2:21
13.Crops Are Dead3:26
14.Work The Problem1:58
15.Leaving Mars5:11
16.Build a Bomb5:06
17.I Got Him!4:45
 Total Album Time:52:53

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