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CD Reviews: Black Hawk Down and Count of Monte Cristo

Black Hawk Down ****


Decca 440 017 012-2

15 tracks - 66:59

Black Hawk Down is a film that's likely getting more attention than its makers expected, although it's also likely that it's not the kind of attention they were hoping for. Current world events render many films about warfare and terrorism with unexpected subtext, and looking at Black Hawk Down objectively is harder than it would have been, say, a year ago. The film proper seems to be polarizing -- some accept its lack of sociopolitical context and go with the in-your-face rush of its (technically brilliant) battle sequences. Others, including some of its own cast members, have cried foul, calling it one-sided, right-wing propaganda. Either way, Hans Zimmer's score tends to provide the film with more context than the script does, which may have been his point all along. Ultimately it achieves the rare distinction of being an unseen character in and of itself, and that alone is something to savor.

Zimmer's score is more sonic texturing and atmosphere than a traditional thematic approach, a la Gladiator. The ironically titled "Hunger" (ostensibly pointing out the plight of those the US forces were supposed to be defending) sets the tone for what will follow; synthesized textures are often laid underneath African and Middle Eastern instrumentation, and the juxtaposition, surprisingly, creates a pretty fascinating feel. Zimmer provides more of a dimensional context than an emotional one -- the combination of musical elements is meant to represent the literal clash of cultures, and there's something deliberately unsettling about the smoothness with which this is accomplished. He's creating a deliberately alien soundscape for the movie, and that makes sense, because from the soldiers' point of view, they're entering into alien territory.

Certain elements of Zimmer's approach stick out -- the heavy-metal guitar riffs that color cues like "Vale of Plenty" and "Chant," the solo male vocalist (Sengalese singer Baaba Maal) that hums and soars above elegiac string patterns in "Still" and "Of the Earth," perhaps meant to evoke the effect of old blues artists like Billie Holliday or Bessie Smith. And even Zimmer's normally generic action cues get a boost -- the risky nature of the overall musical approach manages to give the score's aggressive battle cues ("Synchrotone," "Tribal War") an unsettling, and tactile, sense of danger. By the time more directly sentimental tracks roll around ("Leave No Man Behind," natch), their appearance makes sense, because all of the varnish has been stripped away and all that's left are the simple, raw emotions.

All throughout the score has a very slight sense of irony to it. Witness the inclusion of tracks like "Barra Barra," and "Gortoz a Ran - J'Attends," both of which are Western in structure and approach, but with African vocalists and instrumentation. (Gladiator co-conspirator Lisa Gerrard lends a hand for the latter, an elegiac song in direct contrast to the hard-rock approach of the former.) I could be reaching here, but the message might be that while Westerners may be unwelcome in locations like Somalia, the cultural influence has already taken strong root. Ultimately, the album, sequenced with typical meticulousness by Zimmer and crew, gives you a sense of dimension and scope that the film itself may not have had, which is no small achievement.  -- Jason Comerford

The Count of Monte Cristo ****


BMG 09026 63865 2

15 tracks -52:55 mins

If I were to describe Ed (K-Pax) Shearmur's score as Hook meets Cutthroat Island by way of The Musketeer, you'd have a pretty good idea of what to expect -- big music to swash your buckles with. But while it's a rousing series of cues that's set it roots deep in Korngold territory, it's also infuses the oft-visited genre with contemporary riffs and ambient undercurrents.

As with his Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Director Kevin Reynolds adds modern sensibilities to a classic tale, but this time the score is not so anachronistic as Kamen's chart-pleasing melodies, and, praise be to Alexander Dumas, there's no "Everything I Do (I Do it for You)." In fact, this score is probably closer in tone to Kamen's The Three Musketeers (another Dumas adaptation), though sporting an even more classical approach.

The short "Introduction" is a low-key brooding mixture of chanting and disassociated instrumental sounds, and it's only halfway through "Landing on Elba" that the glorious themes kick in. From here on, it's full orchestra, flourishes of horns and even that old chestnut "Training Montage," which gives a single violin the opportunity to momentarily take center stage. But then, just when you're ready to pigeonhole the score, it shifts focus and becomes something darker and unsettling.

There are quieter moments (the harpsichord movement and lush conclusion to "Escape from the Island") but it's the drama of "Marseille" and the staccato plucking of "Edmond's Education" that stick in the memory. The "End Titles" remind you of just how far the score has developed from its humble beginnings, and even if it's not immediately hummable, it's an accomplished finale.

Yet again, The London Metropolitan Orchestra deliver the goods, and Ed Shearmur can tick another box on his ever-growing list of achievements.  -- Nick Joy

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