Film Music Review
The Sammy awards










Music composed and conducted by James Horner.

14 Tracks (Total Time: 60:41)




Album produced by Simon Rhodes and James Horner. Vocal solos by Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Additional vocals by Terry Edwards. Music recorded and mixed at EMI Abbey Road Studios, London, by Simon Rhodes. Music edited by Jim Henrickson and Dick Bernstein. Album edited and mastered by Simon Rhodes. Design by Enny Joo.

Hollywood Records D000015802

Rating: ****


Mel Gibson ’s APOCALYPTO seems like an unlikely film from many angles: film about a dead culture, subtitled, tons of violence (supposedly), etc. Among the perhaps most unlikely things about the film is the choice of its composer, James Horner. This has more to do with content rather than the pairing since APOCALYPTO is the third film Gibson has used a Horner score: the others being THE MAN WITHOUT A FACE (1993) and BRAVEHEART (1995). And, Horner provided music for RANSOM (1996), which starred the director.

For this unusual film, Horner has incorporated the talents of Qawwali singer Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Qawwali is a form of Islamic devotional music native to Pakistan and India and Rahat is one of the leaders of a group that performs this music. This choice also seems odd since the film is set in ancient Mayan civilization. To suggest that Gibson is attempting a filmic allegory for our own time may be a bit much given the resulting action-adventure film that takes common storytelling clichés and sets them in a pre-modern civilization.

Horner is one of those film composers you either love or hate. But being too dismissive of one of the most popular composers to rise up in the 1980s is not a very good way to appreciate the skill Horner brings to a film and occasionally means missing out on some fine music. When he gets a chance to try something new and different, the results are often fascinating. His score for ALL THE KING’S MEN earlier this year is just one of those good examples of a score working well on disc as well as in the film.

“From the Forest” opens the disc with a blend of something old and something new. The old is that slowly descending string idea common in Horner’s music. The new is the variety of sampled bird calls that populate the track. A moaning chant enters briefly lending a haunting feel. “Tapir Hunt” is probably the most unusual thing from the composer we have ever heard. It is an obvious action cue with lots of ethnic (and perhaps sampled?) percussion with vocalized chanting a la Morricone. “The Storyteller’s Dreams” presents another musical sound world for the score featuring ethnic flute and an odd orchestral pedal that gives way to more ethnic drumming. The melodic contour here does sound different from the Irish-styled versions. The track includes some ambient sound as well but it all gives the impression of being improvised.

“Holcane Attack” is the longest track on the disc running to just over nine minutes. It plays out with a combination of musical sounds set up so far set with a nasal vocalization recurring against agitated ethnic flute and more traditional string orchestra. Horner pulls out a lot of unusual sounds throughout this long cue mixing them expertly into a soundscape that continues to contribute to the foreignness and overall creepy power of his slowly building crescendo. Blending in synthetic string sounds also serves to give the music an otherworldly feel.

What works well in the score, at least on disc, is the introduction of musical elements that are not so far from aural experience that they seem distant. Horner’s score slowly introduces the various elements, often couched in traditional sounds, of his score so that when things move to the barbaric they fit musically without seeming out of place with the surrounding musical material. This is a score of composed ambient sounds that flow in and around thematic and motivic ideas, or specific musical sounds, in an almost improvised feel. It is unlike anything Horner has written. The score brings you into the visual world in a way that can both soften the images while also keeping you a bit unsettled along the way.

APOCALYPTO is a score that plays with dissonance in ways not heard in Horner’s other music. Rather than thematic ideas that blatantly run through the fabric of his music as in other more popular scores by the composer, this one takes the wealth of his material and distributes it in new and unique ways. When the more tonal segments of the score appear they help relieve the tension satisfyingly. Specific sounds serve to anchor various character specific moments and likely serve to achieve quite a surreal visual effect. These play off more plaintive thematic statements such as the one that opens “Sacrificial Procession” before it moves into the bizarre and visceral rhythmic music of ancient civilization.

This is not an easy score to listen through, but it is filled with examples of what makes Horner a very good composer when he is called upon to do something truly different. If there had been a song to close of this score we would have known from the start that we were in for something we had already heard. Here we are led through one musical surprise after another and perhaps even a deeper admiration for this often lambasted artist.

--Steven A. Kennedy , 12 December, 2006

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