Lost Season Five (2009)

Composed by Michael Giacchino

Season 5 of Lost might be the most over-the-top season of the show, thought it is still greatly entertaining. The plotlines go all over the place, for reasons I will explain once I get into spoilers. I find this to be the in the bottom third of my season rankings. It’s not bad, just not as great. Giacchino’s music also seemed to be affected for the fifth season. I think the issue was that 2009 was the year where he started taking on major film score assignments. While scoring Lost, he was also creating scores for the Star Trek reboot and Pixar’s beloved Up. His creative energies seem to have flowed more to these properties, and understandably so. While season 5 of Lost has some new concepts and a couple new characters, Giacchino could easily just insert his pre-established material.

Even on album, parts of Giacchino’s music are lifted whole or nearly wholesale from previous cues. This creates a lack of originality in places and makes avid listeners wonder why a few of the more unique pieces were not chosen for album space. The trade-off is that season 5’s album is the most thematically cohesive. The themes for Locke, Ben, and Jack are prominent throughout the disc and two of the main themes also recur fairly regularly. As for new themes and motifs, this season still has a good amount. The only one to have a lasting impact through the remainder of the show is the mystical theme for Jacob (“Tangled Web”). The new love theme in “La Fleur” also grabbed fans’ attention. Otherwise most of the themes and motifs were singularly suited for just this season. The most memorable of these is the bomb theme (introduced in “Sawyer Jones and the Temple of Boom” at 2:44), which appears to be built out of the second phrase of the main Lost theme. Continue reading

Lost Season Four (2008)

Composed by Michael Giacchino

Season four of Lost was the shortest of the seasons at 14 episodes. The producers were actually already planning for shorter seasons, but it would have been 18 episodes. A writer’s strike had forced them to cut things down, unfortunately resulting in underdeveloped new characters. Still, it’s an engaging season where the pace really picks up. Also, the shorter runtime means that it was easier for the album producers to select highlights for a full single disc. The soundtrack for season four is where Michael Giacchino’s music reached true cinematic levels, even though the booklet shows that he still had the same number of musicians. Some of the lengthier tracks sport four or five themes in interplay with each other, and some of the action cues are able to sustain themselves beyond one or two minutes. The higher level of emotion and intensity make this the best single disc presentation of music from the series. It’s definitely the first that can safely be accessed by people who have never watched the show.

This season also introduced the Oceanic Six theme for its three-part finale. This theme appears around the album’s halfway point in “There’s No Place Like Home.” As with many of Giacchino’s theme introductions, it starts on piano and then repeats on more dramatic strings. The construction of this theme is epic, and noticeably utilizes the first six notes of the main Lost theme at the end. “Of Mice and Ben” reuses the theme with heavy percussive elements for a cliffhanger. “Can’t Kill Keamy” brings in the theme for a very stirring moment, this time with the full Lost theme as counterpoint (0:46). “Landing Party” provides a final grand iteration, this one with a heart-tingling flourish of cello at the end (2:44). This theme is so notably epic that Giacchino used it as the main emotional identity for the series finale two years later. Continue reading

Lost Season Three (2006-2007)

Composed by Michael Giacchino

Season three of Lost was the last of the show to run for a full 20+ episodes. From what I recall it’s my favorite season, though it also sported the single worst episode in “Stranger in a Strange Land.” In this season the show digs deeper into the mysterious Others, the other inhabitants of the island. At the same time more aspects of the greater conflict start to appear, of course in mysterious tidbits. Giacchino’s music definitely went on an upswing this season. With the dramatic stakes escalating the emotional cues have more power. There’s also a lot more in the way of action scenes and a couple smoke monster attacks, so in contrast to season two there’s more excitement and intense rhythms to be had. In a welcome surprise, Varese Sarabande opted to release two jam-packed discs. There were so many musical highlights and thematic development that this was definitely a wise move. The first disc contains music from the first 20 episodes, while the second has the complete score for “Through the Looking Glass,” the season finale, and an abundance of material from the preceding episode.

The first disc is definitely superior, featuring selected highlights. By this time the music was much more lush and exciting and at certain points positively cinematic. The second disc is a different story. It is fascinating to get a complete score from one of the episodes, but the end result is a good amount of material that simply isn’t that engaging, from slow, underdeveloped emotional signatures to ambient suspense. There’s lots of slow string twanging and long pauses between notes. The sound quality on the second disc also seems to be somewhat like the tracks were hastily taken from the initial recording sessions. A better release would have had both discs be highlight-centric, with a few more cues from the first 20 episodes and a more rounded 40-50 minute presentation of music from the last 3. Still, it’s hard to complain when one considers how much great material would have been left off a single disc. Continue reading

Lost Season Two (2005-2006)

Composed by Michael Giacchino

The second season of Lost was a strong continuation of the show. Like the first season it focused much on the characters’ efforts to survive. But it also sees the character relationships start to cement, for better or worse. Also the island’s mysteries remain far out of reach, but elements of its past are slowly revealed through the discovery of the Hatch, an underground facility with a dark secret. Another major element is the discovery of another group of survivors from Oceanic 815, but thanks to circumstances involving the actors this didn’t amount to much in the long run. Michael Giacchino also continued his strong run, further developing his network of themes and motifs. The score as heard on album, however, is lacking in several areas.

One of the major issues is actually with the season itself. It’s not bad, but there are far less smoke monster and polar bear chases and the show hadn’t reached the point where shootouts became a common recurring feature. As a result the album moves rather slowly despite the quality of the compositions. The emotional character themes are almost exclusively broken up by dark suspense. Again the music is good, but the album flow suffers as a result. Ironically the second issue is related to the themes. The producers of the season 2 album seemed to prioritize establishing the various character themes. It catches up on ones that were introduced in season one, but absent from the first album, including those for one-hit musician and drug addict Charlie (“Charlie’s Temptation”), overweight comic relief Hurley (“World’s Worst Landscaping”), former Iraqi interrogator Sayid (“A New Trade”), and rich step-siblings Boone and Shannon (“Shannon’s Funeral”). There’s also a plethora of new character themes for Nigerian priest Eko (“All’s Forgiven…Except Charlie”), Korean couple Sun & Jin (“The Last to Know”), Scottish Desmond (“Bon Voyage, Traitor”), two more themes for Hurley (“Mess it All Up” and “Hurley’s Handouts”), and loveable old couple Rose and Bernard (in the track of the same name). In a 65 minute presentation the multitude of themes ensures that no theme or themes, such as the trio of strong identities on the first album, provide a cohesive framework. The album as a whole works better as part of a vast musical experience encompassing all ten discs rather than a stand-alone piece. Continue reading

Star Trek Beyond (2016)

Star Trek Beyond (CD Edition) – HQCovers

Composed by Michael Giacchino

After Star Trek Into Darkness J.J. Abrams moved on to Star Wars. Justin Lin filled the director’s chair and actor Simon Pegg, who plays Scotty, took a large role in writing the script. Star Trek Beyond sees the Enterprise go on a rescue mission from the space station Yorktown. It turns out to be a set-up and after a big space battle our heroes crash on the planet Altamid. Separated into small groups, the various characters unlock the mystery around the villains, led by Krall (Idris Elba). Since this is New Trek, Krall is motivated by revenge and plans to use a superweapon to attack the Federation. While by no means great, Star Trek Beyond was a big improvement over Abrams’ film. There’s still too much emphasis on laser battles and the antagonist is another generic vengeance-hungry villain. However, the film shines in the second act when the characters split into small groups and the actors play off of each other. There is even a sense of planetary exploration, albeit one in the confines of uncovering the mystery around Krall rather than any deeper themes or concepts. Michael Giacchino took his music in a slightly different direction that distinguishes his third contribution to the franchise.

Once again Giacchino’s music went through both a single-disc release and a complete Deluxe Edition. This time the first release was longer at an hour’s running time. What is immediately notable is that Giacchino puts more effort into imbuing some character outside space heroics and action. This is fitting as Star Trek Beyond actually has its characters exploring new environments as opposed to sitting in space battles (though there are a couple of those). There is a lot of glassy or primal percussion that, while never reaching the heavily alien sounds of Jerry Goldsmith’s work, adds a unique flavor to the scenes on Altamid. Giacchino makes more use of piano and woodwinds, somewhat evoking Goldsmith’s classical sensibilities for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. There’s also a fair bit of patriotic trumpets and snare drums, fitting into the villain’s motivations and the ideals of the Federation. Continue reading

Lost Season One (2004-2005)

Composed by Michael Giacchino

Lost, conceived by J.J. Abrams, became an instant television phenomenon. The show sees a plane crash on an island. The survivors realize that there is something odd about the island, such as how no rescue seems to be coming even after weeks of waiting. A mystery show, Lost kept audiences engrossed with its seemingly endless string of mysteries and surprises. But the true appeal comes from the interesting cast of characters (ranging from the mysterious John Locke to the loveable Hurley) whose stories are equally interesting and absorbing. Each episode would focus on a character, providing flashbacks to their pre-crash lives. One aspect that greatly helped the story along was the fantastic music by Michael Giacchino. Giacchino had previously worked on J.J. Abrams’ Alias. Giacchino’s music for that series was heavily electronic and Bond-inspired. But for a show as big and ambitious as Lost, Giacchino and the brains behind the project knew that an orchestral score was needed. And so the composer embarked on an incredible musical journey. His work on the six-season show produced an incredible array of themes and motifs which by the later seasons worked with each other in a complex web. While Giacchino had some fairly high profile work with the Medal of Honor franchise and the Incredibles, this show really launched him into the major leagues. It further helped usher in what I consider the golden years of TV scores, alongside Bear McCreary’s Battlestar Galactica and Murray Gold’s Doctor Who. Whereas they were previously cheap, often synthetic filler, they were now rich orchestral scores that often outshone film scores with easier production schedules.

My reviews for the Lost soundtracks will of course be guided by the album production. I can say right off the bat that Giacchino’s music for the series as a whole hits a 10/10 rating. Album releases for television scores, moreso in those days, would contain about an hour to a full disc of highlights, sometimes from more than one season. Therefore I rate each season’s score by how it was put on album, not in the show itself. I will also try to give brief spoiler-free summaries before launching deeper into the music, for the benefit of anyone who plans on seeing the show for the first time and wants to be surprised. The album for the first season is about 65 minutes and spans material from 25 episodes (roughly 1,050 minutes of running time though much of season one is unscored). The first season only scratched the surface of the island’s mysteries and was often more about survival and learning to get along. The music is thus less complex than what would be heard in later seasons. Many of the earlier cues featured ethereal synthesized-backed moments or low-key suspense. The album is full of short but frenetic action cues that, given the isolated jungle island setting, sound primal. The various percussive effects give even softer cues a distinctly tropical feel. The music in later seasons would get showier. Giacchino’s music actually has a bit of a throwback feel, sometimes evoking Bernard Hermann’s suspense scores (“Kate’s Motel”) or The Twilight Zone (“Proper Motivation”). Continue reading

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

Composed by Michael Giacchino

J.J. Abrams’ follow-up to his Star Trek reboot is a polarizing film. Some say its great blockbuster fun. Others say it’s a horribly stupid or even sacrilegious take on the franchise. Star Trek Into Darkness tries to, as its name implies, be a dark film. It focuses secret governmental organizations, paranoia, and allusions to contemporary terrorism. A terrorist named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) is launching attacks on Starfleet. Kirk and friends are out to stop him, but it turns out Harrison is part of, and perhaps a victim of, a conspiracy involving Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) and the unscrupulous organization Section 31. I consider this to maybe be the worst Star Trek movie (going through the Next Generation films I’d say there’s some competition). Like Abrams’ own Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker years later it’s a movie held together by coincidences, convenient tech and abilities that come out of nowhere, and a fast pace that makes sure less attentive viewers won’t realize how absolutely nonsensical it is. Abrams aims for nostalgia to cover his own superficial understanding of the franchise. There’s Tribbles, Klingons, and total rehashes of Wrath of Khan. Kirk and Spock continue to act out of character, with the former still running around like a hothead and the latter far too easily prone to emotional outbursts. Since I have such little respect for the film, I’ll not worry about spoilers when covering the score by Michael Giacchino. I will avoid one major twist though anybody who knows Abrams’ fan-baiting style will probably figure it out easily.

Giacchino score for Into Darkness, is largely a continuation of the previous entry. He liberally applies his own Main theme, but usually does so in small fragments or altered forms. The other returning theme is Spock’s. This time the synth-enhanced Erhu is largely absent, present only in the Deluxe Edition’s “Spock and Uhura.” The actual theme itself is much more present on the original album, featured prominently in action cues such as “Spock Drops, Kirk Jumps” and “The San Fran Hustle.” Thanks to a small section of the film set in the Klingon Empire, Giacchino is able to invent his own music for the iconic race. He opts for harsh warlike textures with aggressive chants and a menacing motif (0:13 in “The Kronos Wartet”). This music features on “The Kronos Wartet” on the original album and gets a couple other appearances on the Deluxe Edition. It’s a highlight of the score, though as a recurring franchise theme it won’t work as well as Jerry Goldsmith’s more famous composition. It’s too simplistically barbarous to apply to any further exploration of their culture and nuances. Continue reading

Cross of Iron (1978)

Composed by Ernest Gold

Cross of Iron is a dark World War II film directed by Sam Peckinpah. Cross of Iron has received attention as one of the few Hollywood films to follow a group of German soldiers, and also one of the few to take place on the Russian front. The plot sees Sergeant Rolf Steiner (Lee Marvin) butt heads with the arrogant and aristocratic Prussian Captain Stransky (Maximillian Schell). Stransky is out for an Iron Cross and is willing to risk his men’s lives to get it. A major Soviet offensive sees Steiner and his platoon stranded in enemy territory and they have to take a journey to make it back to their unit. Cross of Iron is a decent flick. Despite what was at the time an original WWII setting, it doesn’t have much meat to offer in terms of characterization and messages. The ending, however, has some wonderful dark humor that displays the madness of war. Composer Ernest Gold offered a bittersweet war score.

Gold introduces the main melody in “Steiner’s Theme.” Steiner’s theme does not aim for heroism, nor does it suggest the military aggression of the German Wehrmacht. It is rather a morose piece which underscores the plight of the German rank-and-file in the most horrid front of their war.  “Main Title” stars a children’s choir. They sing a classic German folk song, “Hanschen Klein.” These innocent passages are used for irony, playing over Nazi imagery and war footage. Gold further inserts portions of heroic martial music (perhaps an actual snippet of a Wehrmacht tune?) to further underscore the high hopes Germany had when embarking on its conquest of the East. Continue reading

Star Trek (2009)

Composed by Michael Giacchino

After the under-performance of Nemesis killed the film franchise, Star Trek fell into a hiatus of a few years. It did not take long for Paramount Pictures to revive the series. This time it was to be a full reboot under the direction of J.J. Abrams. The movie was a success and I used to like it. Over time, though, as I’ve watched more original Trek, I’ve found the film to be uninspired and only superficially Star Trek. A Romulan mining ship led by Nero (Eric Bana) goes back in time thanks to some black hole physics. It attacks a ship and kills Kirk’s father. Over twenty years later Kirk (Chris Pine) and his future crew are called up due to an emergency. Nero is out for revenge and plans to use a weapon to destroy earth. It turns out that in the future Romulus was destroyed, despite the efforts of Spock. The time travel creates a separate timeline so Abrams doesn’t have to worry about linking up with the original show (called the Kelvin timeline). The movie is a lot of people running around and yelling and shooting each other so nobody will notice the plot holes or Abrams’ horrible grasp of space distances and physics. The plot itself boils down to bad guy wants revenge, and this story would be told in the two sequels itself. Abrams also has a very superficial grasp of the characters. He assumes Kirk is a reckless hothead (he was actually very considerate and thoughtful), makes Spock is prone to emotional outbursts because of his human side, and replaces Dr. McCoy’s place in the main trio with Uhura, throwing off the character dynamics that fueled most of the Star Trek’s emotional and ethical stakes. In short it heralded the simplistic, uninspired plotting Abrams would conduct for The Force Awakens. At least the music is good.

A common collaborator of J.J. Abrams, Giacchino naturally got the role of composer. 2009 was a big year for Giacchino. He scored three films (while still doing scoring duties for Lost), among them this one, Land of the Lost, and Pixar’s Up (for which he won an Oscar). While he would not regularly compose films for a couple more years, his placement on a globally identified franchise did wonders for his career and allowed him to flex his musical muscles with a larger orchestra. Continue reading

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007)

Composed by Hans Zimmer

The Pirates trilogy concluded with At World’s End. While still not as good as the first film, it was a big step over Dead Man’s Chest and a real thrill ride. Lord Cutler Beckett and the East India Trading Company, with Davy Jones and his haunted ship now under their control, are clamping down on piracy around the globe. With a broad definition of “pirate” and “conspiring with pirates,” this means they are executing thousands of small-time criminals and innocents as well. The heroes need to get all the pirate lords together to defeat Beckett and Jones, but first they need to go to Davy Jones’ Locker and rescue Jack Sparrow (and his ship the Black Pearl) from the afterlife. The film contains a dizzying array of double-crosses and shifting allegiances. My dad had the odd misfortune to fall asleep for about 10 minutes and woke up absolutely confused by why all the character alignments were suddenly different. My one main quibble is that the audience is told to root for what essentially are violent criminals. Things do make more sense when you consider that the movie intentionally presented a large corporation vs. small business scenario, represented by the East India Company’s attempts to create a monopoly on all sea trade. This message is actually quite timely, though hypocritical coming from Disney. As for the music itself, Zimmer finally created a worthy score.

Zimmer’s score for At World’s End is much more pleasing than Dead Man’s Chest. For one thing it’s got a lot more energy and enthusiasm, and even breaks out classical piratey woodwinds at a couple points. While the previous entry had a prolonged, downbeat last act, this score boasts a thrilling series of climaxes, full of action, romance, and adventure. Even if one finds the Media Ventures anthems inappropriate, the music is undeniably engaging from start to finish. Also delightful is Zimmer’s tribute to Ennio Morricone, who had received an honorary Oscar the same year. There’s no real in-film reason to reference the famed composer, but the tributes are appreciated nonetheless. Both are derived from Once Upon a Time in the West. First is the new take on Jack Sparrow’s theme in “Multiple Jacks” that brings in the humorous and quirky instrumentation of Cheyenne’s theme down to the harpsichords. This mode of Jack’s theme represents the further madness created by the character’s time in Davy Jones’ Locker. Second is the throwback to “The Man with the Harmonica” in “Parlay.” The scene involved has a standoff between six characters so the Spaghetti Western showdown music is not wholly inappropriate. The rhythm in “Parlay” is actually the East India Company’s theme which was introduced in Dead Man’s Chest. Zimmer must have recognized its similarities to the rhythm from Harmonica’s theme and used it accordingly. Also present in this track is the Love theme (which covered several paragraphs down) on guitar. Continue reading