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CD Review: Helter Skelter

Helter Skelter *



19 tracks - 60:15

I have to admit that I normally wouldn't judge a CD by its cover, but this one looked just awful. Take a look at it. Does that guy even look like Charles Manson? No, he looks like an actor with a beard scowling into the camera. Manson is crazy. This guy doesn't look crazy. This CD and I were off to a bad start. And it got worse...

The first thing you hear when you hit the start button is the world's worst cover of the classic Beatles' track "Helter Skelter." I'll try and be delicate here, so I don't offend anyone: It basically sounds like it's being performed by a Fabulous Thunderbirds tribute band while playing a Tuesday night gig at the local brew pub out in the suburbs. It's that bad. For the first time in my life, I wanted to grab the disc out of my machine and crush it with my bare hands. From the crappy drum sounds and forced vocals, to the pathetic guitar solo, this track stinks like nothing else I've heard in quite some time.

The next 18 tracks aren't much better. The simply named "Titles" starts with the latest cliché du jour: impassioned, pseudo-ethnic, wordless female vocals. I don't think I have to say much more about how tired we all are with this trend. Won't someone put an end to it, once and for all?

And "Sword" isn't really music as much as it is sound design. Creepy sounds and drones that move about in a murky, dense reverb does not equal musical composition. Adding in Penderecki-like string plunks and plinks doesn't help matters, either. It sounds like they were copied and pasted in because they're, well, kind of creepy sounding. Just ask Stanley Kubrick or William Friedkin, both who used Penderecki's music over 25 years ago!

Sadly, the rest of the album isn't much better, with most of it sounding like you dragged an empty bathtub to a construction site, filled it with cooked oatmeal and stuck your head in it. Scrapes, bangs, mechanical-type noises and drones all awash in a dense fog of delay and reverb. "Come to Now" is the worst, with about two minutes of what sounds like someone shooting hoops in an empty airplane hangar. By the way, this score was nominated for an Emmy.

Basically, the problem seems to be that Mark Snow is trapped in the '90s. The entire sound palette he's using is from the previous decade, and it really shows. One track in particular, "Sunrise Arrest," is a full-on '90s rave scene Chemical Brothers-type dance floor number. Look, the story takes place in the 1960s, right? And the movie was made in 2004, right? Snow's approach doesn't make any sense at all.

Normally, when I hear a score that doesn't work for me, I try and consider the reasons why. Does it just not work outside of the film? Did the director and producers push for a more homogeneous sound? In short, I try to relieve the composer of guilt. But it's hard to absolve Mark Snow of guilt in this case. He's a classically trained musician who studied at Julliard, and has since become one of the most successful TV composers in history. Certainly at this point in his career he should have the clout to pick and choose his assignments, and to work only with top notch talent. So why not push the boundaries? I just can't imagine he'd be content (despite his millions) to be known only as Mark X-Files Snow.

A very disappointing and uninspired CD, Helter Skelter can only be recommended for hardcore Mark Snow fans, or those who need to hear exactly what's wrong with soundtracks today.     -- Ian D. Thomas

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