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CD Reviews: Robocop TV, Farscape

Robocop: Prime Directives ** 1/2


GNP/Crescendo GNPD 8070

14 tracks - 73:11

Mike Miner and Ed Neumeier's Robocop character has survived two witless sequels, an animated show for kids, a syndicated series nobody watched and a video game or two...but so far nothing has recaptured the ugly magic of Paul Verhoeven's first big hit Robocop from 1987. Producer/director Julian Grant tackles the metallic lawman once again in a four-part miniseries Robocop: Prime Directives, which has yet to air in the U.S. Nevertheless the show has been garnering good buzz from people that feel it's the closest thing yet to Verhoeven's wickedly satirical yet moving future vision. We'll see.

One thing that certainly doesn't recapture the feel of the original movie is Norman Orenstein's mostly electronic scoring for the series. Basil Poledouris provided an iconic symphonic score (with electronics in support) for the original film with a bold, bombastic theme that practically shouted out "Robocop!" In Irvin Kirshner's sequel Robocop 2, iconoclastic composer Leonard Rosenman took a strangely literal approach to that idea and actually added a choir singing the word "Robocop!" to his orchestra. The syndicated TV series and animated show quoted Poledouris' theme and Poledouris reprised it in his own score to the sadly juvenile Robocop 3.

For Robocop: Prime Directives, Norman Orenstein abandons all but the most subconscious references to the original Poledouris score, which is just as well since a battery of synthesizer keyboards wouldn't be the best way to experience Basil's booming Robocop theme. Instead, Orenstein's model for Robocop: Prime Directives is a mix of your typical power ballad rock (with lots of wailing electric guitars) and Ennio Morricone's spaghetti western scores. While I have to admit there's a certain originality to the idea of applying the old hyper-melodramatic Morricone trumpet solos (here played by William Sperandei) to the Robocop character, Morricone's spaghetti western music has to qualify as some of the most over-referenced film music around and Orenstein's scoring quotes it so specifically that the novelty wears thin pretty quickly. To be fair, Orenstein does take a good stab at capturing the tragic spirituality of the character towards the end of his five-minute "Prime Directives Overture," and when it's not bleating out its themes with shopworn electronic textures or blaring electric guitars the score is functional enough.

Orenstein genuflects at Poledouris' own electronic motifs in "Death of a Hero" (pretty close to a Morricone cue title itself) and supplies some endless, power-driven synthesizer ostinatos in action cues like "Pursuit" and "Clash of the Titans," although "Smith and Wesson" turns into more of a western roundup with synthesizers. Occasional electronic chime or piano accents (again in the Morricone mold) leaven the score, but the overall tone is harshly electronic. There's nothing inherently wrong with this and indeed it's appropriate given the cyberpunk subject matter (as opposed to, say, The Secret Adventures Of Jules Verne, where a '90s-style Hans Zimmer is used to underscore an imaginary Victorian Europe), but it's also endemic of the current economic and creative approach to music in television which demands that one man and his keyboards (rather than a composer, conductor and an orchestra) score all episodic television.  -- Jeff Bond

Farscape ** 1/2


GNP Crescendo GNPD 8068

23 tracks - 69:25

The sad thing about albums such as GNP Crescendo's Farscape is that they usually serve only to illustrate the perils of episodic television scoring. Time schedules for episodic television scores are often brutally condensed, forcing composers to write something -- anything -- in order to make the airdate. What was fascinating about scores from The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone was how the composers of each show would take situations that would appear to be impossible and turn them into assets for creativity. Today, film and television composers have the means to create much more technically proficient material on a much shorter time scale; one would think that this would leave greater leeway for creativity in musical construction, but unfortunately, as is the case with Farscape, it proves to be the opposite.

The music for Farscape is composed by a handful of people; Chris Neal, Braedy Neal, Toby Neal and Guy Gross are credited in the packaging, with the liner notes noting that "the instrumentation and orchestration" is by the SubVision team. They also share the engineering and production credits. (One is quick to recall the old joke about a thousand monkeys banging on a thousand typewriters...) Said committee-type approach to the scoring accounts for the strengths and weaknesses of this lengthy album, with the latter unfortunately outweighing the former. The music is admirably diverse when it comes to instrumentation, rhythm and tone, but nothing really comes together, and nothing ever sticks in your mind. It's a collection of innovative approaches that, when collected together, dissolves into a mess of cues that appear to have been sound-designed rather than musically-composed.

There are still moments here and there that elevate the music above the usual weekly electronic schlock that one finds all too often on episodic television. The show's main theme has an interesting combination of rhythmic percussion and solo vocals; even if the title cue seems to go on too long on the album, it's a good start for the whole affair. "Wormhole!" has clever sampling work sprinkled throughout its five-plus-minute length; orchestral effects are sampled so skillfully that you almost forget you're listening to a few guys banging out music from behind keyboards and computers. "Goodbye" offers up an elegiac melody to break up the buzzing and beeping electronic effects; the composers of this show would be well advised to adhere to simpler compositional methods.

Indeed, simplicity seems to be what's lacking from the music throughout the Farscape album. The composers all too often get carried away with instrumental and electronic trickery. When more subdued cues, such as "Namtar's Magic" and "Pilot Arrives," forgo the Saturday-morning-cartoon approach, the effects are more deeply felt, but these moments are few and far between. The album is comprised of cues that sound much too alike to discern any musical personality behind them, and given the committee approach, this is unsurprising. My hat is off to the SubVision team for trying interesting things with texture and orchestration, but it's all for naught if the music itself is lacking -- much of the musical material on hand is thinly constructed, with themes coming and going without leaving any impression. Then again, creating an album out of such disjointed material probably wasn't that great of an idea to begin with. One would think that the composers would have been better served by presenting stronger and more coherent material.  -- Jason Comerford

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