Thursday, May 1, 2014

A Review of the "Room 237" Soundtrack

I love big, symphonic movie scores.  The all-time master of that art is John Williams, who has been scoring films for nearly sixty years now.  I'd also mention Jerry Goldsmith, Bernard Herrmann, John Barry, Ennio Morricone, Danny Elfman, Elmer Bernstein, Alan Silvestri, Howard Shore, Max Steiner, Maurice Jarre, Basil Poledouris, and Michael Giacchino as being terrific practitioners of that art.

But symphonic film scores are not the be-all / end-all when it comes to movie music.  There are several film-music forums that will do their best to convince you otherwise, but those places seem to wish the world had stopped turning in 1979 or so.

To each his own, but for my tastes, a really good electronic-music score is a thing of beauty, and if you've seen Room 237, then you know it has just such a score.  It's composed by William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes (presumably no relation to Wesley, but a blogger can dream, can't he?), who are unfamiliar to me apart from their involvement with this movie.  The small amount of research I've done on them reveals that they have mostly worked individually, and not as a duo, and that between them they have several current bands, several former bands, and a number of film scores (mostly for television and for documentary shorts).

Based on the music here, I would say that investigating their other works would probably be well worth my time.  However, that is going to have to be a project for some other day.  On this day, let's focus merely on the score at hand.




That's the cover of the CD, which was released by Death Waltz Recording Company, a UK-based label that specializes in vinyl (and CD) releases of horror-movie soundtracks.  Which Room 237 isn't, but it has obvious horror-movie associations, so the jury will allow it.  (Links now follow for the CD and the vinyl releases.)

The cover art is by Sam Smith.  I don't really know what to make of it.  I guess the idea is for me to figure out what it means (a tactic which clearly has resonance given the subject of Room 237).  I am tempted to get grumpy about it.  Why not just make the cover art one of the seemingly dozens of awesome posters for the movie?  I like the music so much that I can't summon a grump about it, though.

The interior art will not alleviate any of my concerns:



My scanner insisted on making those scans a little bit blurry.  Sorry 'bout that; it's not your eyes, nor is it the CD package art, it's my shoddy tech.

Here's the back cover, which at least has a bit of substance to it:


Another poorly-focused scan.  Not sure what's up with that, but I don't have the energy to rescan everything, so let's allow it to serve as a document for the moment in which I was living.


Hey!  Lookit that!  Bear McCreary -- currently gettin' shit done as the house composer for both The Walking Dead and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but doomed to forever be best-known 'round these parts as the musical mastermind of the revamped Battlestar Galactica (which had genius scores week after week) -- is one of the players!  How cool is that?  I dig that guy.

The obfuscation continues on the CD's spine, but this makes me laugh:




If you've seen the movie, it probably makes YOU laugh, too.

Alright, so now that the surface-level stuff is dealt with, let's turn our attentions to the music.  I'm going to do a track-by-track breakdown, and record my impressions as I'm listening.  I have a piss-poor musical vocabulary, and usually when I try this, it's a semi-disaster.  But I'm not going to allow that to stop me, so let's soldier on.  I vow to, as way of apology, embed as many of the tracks as somebody else has illicitly uploaded onto YouTube.

#01 -- Recourse to Eagles (3:39)

This track consists mostly of atonalities, which immediately summons a connection with both Kubrick in general and The Shining in particular.  Kubrick, of course, used plenty of atonal and avant garde music -- or what I think of as those things, at least -- in several of his films.  The track slowly builds in intensity, and seems to suggest that something is on the verge of happening; as listeners, we are going to break through something, in some way.

#02 -- To Keep From Falling Off (4:32) 

A repetitive synthesizer theme -- of the sort that reminds me very strongly of "Tubular Bells" and of certain John Carpenter themes -- opens this track, and clearly, it is this to which "Recourse to Eagles" was building.  But the theme is initially tentative, until drums kick in and send the track into a somewhat different mode.  About halfway through the track, the drums key another ratchet-up into a stronger mode, and the track becomes somehow funereal and triumphant at the same time.  It's marvelous, majestic music.

This cue comes from the very beginning of the film (the title references one of the contributors' comments about having to grip the arms of the seat "to keep from falling off" while seeing The Shining for the first time).  The music functions to lure viewers into the film, and it worked like a charm on me.  As I believe I recounted during my review of the film, I watched Room 237 only reluctantly, from a completist's standpoint.  But the opening scene utterly floored me; I was hooked in big-time, and the Hutson / Snipes music is a big part of that.  I actually remembered the music, and if it had not been on the CD when I got it -- not an uncommon scenario for soundtrack hounds -- then I was going to be furious.

Luckily, it's right there where it belongs.
 
 
  




#03 -- Escape Pod (3:53) 

More atonality, but with occasional drums to liven things up.  I am going to step out on a limb slightly and say that this track reminds me of Goblin, who did many notable horror-movie scores.  I am by no means an expert on Goblin; to be honest, I don't even qualify as a novice.  I sampled some of their stuff years back, and so I'm basing my comparison of this track to their style on what may well be a faulty memory.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is the high-quality analysis you have come to expect from The Truth Inside The Lie.

In any case, this particular track is fine, but it's one of my least favorite on the CD.

#04 -- Minotaur (5:21)

Pulsing synthesizer kicks in right at the outset of this track, in the sort of music you can imagine appearing in the original Tron (which itself has a connection to The Shining, in that both films were scored by Wendy Carlos).  The music is urgent, peristent, and a more reflective theme soon begins to play over the top of it.  Then, somebody starts hitting some cymbals lightly, and shaking a rattle, and the percussion -- which is eventually joined by drums -- serves to tie the two modes together quite nicely.

The impression this gives me is of things coming together: there is a pattern here, and while it is not necessarily apparent at the outset, the fact that it is initially obscure to us does not change the fact of its existence, does it?  This may merely be me imposing a reading of the film onto the music, but then again, it may not be.

Another very good track.

#05 -- Barry Lyndon is a Boring Movie (5:26) 

First of all, no it isn't.

Looped percussion (I think) kicks things off here, and is soon joined by chimes (I think) and synthesizer pulses.  The pulses of the synth hint at the "Dies Irae," which serves a major function in Wendy Carlos's Shining score, and also in the overall Room 237 score.

Things take a turn for the stranger when synthesized strings begin playing, accompanied by the sounds of a female voice whose owner is crying, or having sex, or masturbating, or possibly trying to get her breath after a good job.  I guess your brain will hear what it wishes to hear here; personally, I think she's having it off, one way or the other.  A flute solo also joins in the fun, and that means that I now have to think of American Pie and Alyson Hannigan.  Fine by me.

The flute solo, if I am not mistaken, is playing the same melody that appears in "To Keep From Falling Off."





#06 -- Suite 3 (3:50)

Back to the land of atonality we go, but this time there is a sort of searching feel to the music.  It does not necessarily seem to be building toward anything; instead, it seems to be looking for something.  Either that, or I am full of shit.

Or both.  It could be both.

In any case, if the music is looking for something, it never finds it, which means this track has a sort of forlorn and destitute feel to it as it ends.

#07 -- Universal Weak Male (2:19)

A rather Carpenter-esque theme begins playing here on piano -- and on some of the black keys, I think.  Pulsing synthesizer joins it, then drums, and then another layer of even more Carpenter-esque synth.

Thing is, this is isn't a simple aping of John Carpenter.  Anyone can rip somebody else off; this is a duo of composers channeling Carpenter's style, which is something else altogether.

It wouldn't necessarily rank as one of Carpenter's better themes, but it's solid.

#08 -- Ignorance of Visual Information (2:34)

A droning, atonal synth hum fades in, and is eventually joined by a one-two-three-four repeating figure of synth pulses.  (I keep saying things like "synth pulses," and am cognizant that I may be mis-decribing what I'm hearing.  Can't be helped.)

The track gradually grows more intense, as a metronome-like bass pulse joins in.  Again, the result is of things being tied together.

#09 -- They Didn't Need to Do That (3:48)

Looped percussion beats -- ? -- dominate this track early on and create a mood of uncertainty, but are eventually joined by a toneless synth line.  The tying-things-together effect recurs as a bass line begins playing.  The bass line is very Carpenter-esque, but disappears at some point, seemingly defeated by whatever forces surround it.  It reappears, accompanied by a melody being played on synthesizer.

#10 -- Moon Landing (5:25)

Carpenter-style bass is back, as is a looped drumbeat.  And our potentially-masturbating ladyfriend, too!  She's taking her time, whatever she's doing.

Something weird happens eventually in this one: a church-bell sound arrives on the scene, casting a funereal pallor over everything.  Or perhaps our female friend has stopped having premarital sex and decided to tie the knot.  All in the ear of the beholder, I guess.

An eerie synthesizer bit also shows up, and it would be right at home in John Harrison's Creepshow score.  There is even some electric guitar, which kicks things into a minor-mode (?) resurgence of the melody from "To Keep From Falling Off."  And then the lady comes back, softly weeping in the background, or jacking off, or whatever she's doing.

Good track.  Sorry I can't embed it for you.

#11 -- Everything in Focus (2:48)

Chimes play the theme that opened "To Keep From Falling Off."  Specifically, it's the bit that reminded me of Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells" as heard in The Exorcist.  But, again, this is not a rip-off of that theme; it's a channeling of the style Oldfield used.  It's a haunting piece ("Tubular Bells," too, obviously).

This track has a sort of science-fiction music-box quality to it.  Beautiful stuff, one of my favorite tracks on the album.

#12 -- People Look Like Giants (5:15)

Synthesized tones appear one at a time, adding up to a sort of vaguely comedic melody.  "Comedic" is probably the wrong word.  But whatever the right word is, the music here is less troubled, less haunted, than most of the rest of the score.  It's simpler in some ways, so maybe that's what I'm hearing; the seeming simplicity implies innocence of some sort.

There is also a surf-like sound layered into the mix, which adds a sort of soothing element to the score.

I don't dislike this cue, but it seems somehow out of step with the rest of the score, in a way I can't quite explicate.

The music becomes troubled right at the end, and the use of xylophone-style percussion makes me think that this music may be intended to represent Danny.  The xylophone is conjuring up an association with Barry in Close Encounters, though, so that may be putting ideas in my brain.

#13 -- This Deeper Story (2:57)

Atonality right off the bat here, deep and ominous, with vaguely insectoid effects popping up in the mix.  The music seems to be waiting for something to happen; the image of a rocket preparing for liftoff comes to my mind thanks to some vague rumbling that may in fact be the result of my shoddy speakers.

Not one of the better tracks on the album, but it does serve to make a transition from the lighter mode of the previosu track to the album's grand finale.

#14 -- Dies Irae (5:27)

My favorite track on the album.  "To Keep From Falling Off" comes in at a close second, but this one wins the gold medal.  I challenge you to listen to this in the car on a long, deserted road with the windows rolled down and NOT start driving faster at the 1:33 mark when the dums kick in.





How badass is that?  I mean, sure, it requires that your definition of badass be able to encompass early-eighties synthesizer-score pastiche, but if you can handle that requirement, then badass this certainly is.

*****

I don't know that there's much more to say than that.  As always, music is better off being listened to than described.  Especially when I'm the one doing the describing.

My final thought is that this is a very strong score that not only does a great service to the movie from which it derives, but also works quite well on its own (provided the atonal sections don't put you off too badly).  I've never sat down and done any sort of ranking of the scores to Stephen King movies, but if and when I do undertake such a project, I feel certain that this will be in the upper echelons.

Speaking of which, I'll have another soundtrack review in the next few days: Harry Sukman's score to Tobe Hooper's Salem's Lot.

6 comments:

  1. I'm quite enjoying this soundtracks-run you're on. Entertaining write-ups (sometimes I prefer a non-musician/music-critic's descriptions of tunes and instrumentation, etc. - it feels more immediate to me than discussions of modulation and keys and such) and fantastic clips. Each of the ones here is pretty wild. I'll have to track this down. I love stuff like this.

    Bear McCreary - nice cameo! These titles are great, as well. I love that CD-spine bit.

    I share your love of scoring / big symphonic scores but re:

    "But symphonic film scores are not the be-all / end-all when it comes to movie music. There are several film-music forums that will do their best to convince you otherwise, but those places seem to wish the world had stopped turning in 1979 or so."

    Anyone who would consider an electronic score to be less-than-Jake is not someone whose opinion I'd place any stock in whatsoever.

    Have I ever asked you if you've read any of Kay Kalinak's books on film scores? I must have - drawing a blank at the moment, but probably in some other comment. She's done some great work in that too-neglected field.

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    1. Not only have you not asked, but I've never even heard of Kay Kalinak. Sounds dangerous. Sounds like the sort of thing I might be tempted to look into...

      "Anyone who would consider an electronic score to be less-than-Jake is not someone whose opinion I'd place any stock in whatsoever." You and me both, pard.

      On a different note, I'm going to see Rob Zombie live in a few hours. Kinda stoked.

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  2. I worked on The Shining for 2 weeks as on of the Overlook staff and Bellhop/Bellboy. Great times!

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    1. WOW!!! What memories those must be -- it ain't everday you work on a timeless classic, but that's certainly what that movie has turned into.

      I'd love to know what you thought of "Room 237," if you have seen it.

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  3. Waited for so long for this score, wrote so many letters to film and record companies. There are still so many great unreleased scores on record. Big thumb up to Intrada and all other "minor" labels pleasing the demanding fans of film music !

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    1. That big thumbs up is second here for sure. I'd buy a lot more titles released by those labels if I could afford to; as is, I only buy a few here and there (I'm a big John Williams, so any time one of his comes out, plus the occasional Star Trek or Stephen King or what have you), but not as many as I would like.

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