Summer 2005 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Ian Lace
Managing Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster Len Mullenger

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Hope Comes in Many Forms:
Battlestar Galactica: Season One
Music composed by Bear McCreary
Few tracks composed by Richard Gibbs
Featured Vocals: Lillis Ó Laoire, Raya Yarbrough, Caitanya Riggan, Daniel McGrew, Brendon McCreary, and Melanie Henley Heyn
  Available on La-La Land Records (LLLCD 1032)
Running Time: 78:33
Amazon UK   Amazon US

There are countless opportunities to take in sex, violence, and humor when communication is worldwide and broadcasts are plentiful.  With television as an integral commercial medium, it’s a given that much of what is offered on it typically lacks in substance.  But in this age of everything-but-the-kitchen-sink exposés, it is uncanny that audiences are still asked—nay, forced to stomach drivel or very forgettable, second-rate shows.  Many cult-loved hits walk or have walked the fine line of high ratings and unfathomable network whim.  Oftentimes, they are yanked prematurely by (misguided) conservatives only to be replaced with inane clones—the majority of these clones being slightly altered, regurgitated material.  How many times can minor variables be tweaked to fill the cultural void that is long-lasting great television?  Sure as hell not enough if it lacks heart.

In the past several years, overall quality has plummeted with mass acceptance of aimless, popularity contests, pseudo-Reality TV, and the loss of one too many precious series, e.g. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Wonderfalls, Dead Like Me, Farscape, Andromeda, the list goes on.  If hits are not already spinoffs of former superb series, they are skipped from timeslot to slot until shot or jump ship to another network to survive, usually cable television.  If not syndicated on cable, they morph into other forms of media such as film, comics, or games, i.e. Firefly.  Thankfully, most everything from the new/recently cancelled to decades antiquated is slowly being revived on DVD.  (Note: Of the above shows, their frenzied DVD sales are evidence enough that the discerning viewership knows that televised crap is still crap regardless of the shiny (re)packaging.)  Ensconcing the self in entertainment that has little or no redeeming value tends to make many forget what it is like to experience genuine fulfillment.  But it only takes acknowledgment or recognition of truth in the unfamiliar for acceptance to take hold.  In television, the best series are often a complicated merging of realistic elements and genre(s) with a little something extra.  So, it’s by no coincidence that this refreshing remake of Battlestar Galactica gives us realism through profound presentation.

In 2003, a mini-series renewed the groundwork for a decades old epic battle between man and machine.  In 2004, the first season of a brooding, slick, well-crafted show resumed the intricate storyline; it further detailed the bold exploits of a ragtag fleet of humans forced to flee from the robotic Cylons.  Under the leadership of President, Laura Roslin, and military commander, William Adama, the last of the human race are in search of the mythical planet Earth in hopes of finding deliverance from deadly Cylons.  Yes, the basics of the erstwhile 70’s premise are the same, but much has been changed to accommodate the 21st century—not the least of which include the hotly debated gender-swap of Lt. Starbuck (Dirk Benedict: original, Katee Sackhoff: new, better) and the Cylon’s new-fangled flesh and blood human form.  With thirteen episodes total, the time and effort put into creating each chapter is phenomenal: breathtaking quality of the CGI effects, ships, dogfights, Cylon swarms, the filmic documentary-style camerawork, meticulously designed sets, tight screenplays, dialogue, fantastic ensemble acting, and lastly, the film-caliber level of the music.

For those who haven’t yet heard of this SciFi Channel triumph, devoted hours to reruns prior to season two’s recent premiere, or cannot tolerate scores sans grand sweeping themes, this album may not be for you.  However, if you appreciate enormous amounts of quality work put into all aspects of TV production, or have been hooked since the mini-series, you’ll take to the eclectic aural designs accompanying all things dramatic and CGI.  Composer, Richard Gibbs, created a very unique sound for the four-hour mini-series; Gibbs, former member of Oingo Boingo, worked with Bear McCreary to fashion a mélange of exotic vocals, Middle Eastern instruments, and layered synths with a stunning array of primal percussion.  Baring little resemblance to the Star Wars-inspired grandeur of Stu Phillips’s original score, the music was very different but somehow befitting for the tone.  Then only credited with additional music, McCreary eventually became the main composer for the stunning reimagined version of the 70’s camp space opera.

From La-La Land Records, this album is a near eighty minute compilation of the best cues used throughout the season.  With Gibb’s original score as his touchstone, McCreary’s work maintains the distinctive, martial élan of the mini-series, but it is developed ten-fold with a collection of appealing styles.  Chamber, ethnic, operatic, or elevator (‘Battlestar Muzaktica’), the arrangements deftly interweave diegetic and non (diegetic) music, character themes and events, or come alive as separate entities.

Extremes are never tempered by the music, only bolstered by pure emotion; most scenes have an underlying intensity given that tension, tragedy, or intrigue is a large part of the storytelling. But when moments call for valor, victory, comedy, or awe, McCreary knows how to create telling and poignant milieus. For example, ‘Starbuck on the Red Moon’ illustrates her risky and remarkable return to space in a Cylon ship. At the outset, steady, metallic clashes and gossamer wails introduce a lone duduk; in the background, kodo drummers focus the beat until the impassioned solo is surpassed by the build up of intense, rhythmic drumming. There is a breath before the plunge, and then the resonant alto vocals (reminiscent of Lisa Gerrard) fuse with explosive drums to bring forth an incredibly sensual and primitive force. With the final emergence of a diminutive, yet plucky flute, conceit, joy, and ingenuity are all captured in this moment of pure conquest. In ‘Baltar Panics’, comedy and anxiety reign supreme; as the framed doctor rushes ineffectually to destroy evidence of his guilt, Taiko drums and minor percussion embody the urgency of time loss while a solo Middle Eastern flute playfully describes his flaming neuroticism.

Without visuals or dialogue, it's fairly difficult to interpret scene specifics through music alone since the compositions encompass a wide range of sentiments. The string chamber group in the ‘The Dinner Party’ provides background music and narration for the asphyxiating—er, off-kilter dinner involving the Tighs, Adamas, and the President. While it very subtly portrays the unsteady decline in etiquette, it also has hints of impudence and the refined, schmoozing characteristic of Carlos Gardel's Por Una Cabeza without the refrain. And in direct contrast to the intended mood, the in-tempo loops and curlicues hilariously understate shock, casual affronts, and on-screen bawdiness—unrelenting antics that make any smidgen of decorum a lost cause. The obvious question mark end sets up a puerile, but timely punch line delivered by the most inebriated of the group. An integral character, Sharon "Boomer" Valerii's Cylon status is not revealed through music, but all that is conveyed is a simple and tragic motif on harp and duduk. Although visual cuts between the ship-top and planet-bound versions are not made clear by the arrangement (‘Two Boomers’), the terror and raw passion of both are palpable. The urgent rendition of her motif is less conflicted and more heartfelt with gentle vocals in ‘Boomer Flees’; as the instrument of Cylon-human exposition, Sharon Valerii's dirt-side copy realizes how much falling in love complicates reality.

Much of the reason for the choices in music is due to the significant amount of communication between composer, producers, and director(s). While this lends to building a more cogent, unified end result, McCreary has less true creative freedom to develop his own distinctive style. For instance, the ‘Main Title’ for the US release is effective, but still styled in the vein of incidental music whereas the original (UK version) by Gibbs, places haunting female vocals in the forefront to carry the weight of courage and loss. The latter's slide to a minor key parallels visible combat death; as a deeply emotive shorthand, it perfectly emphasizes the tone and human realism of the series. ‘Kobol's Last Gleaming’ and ‘Bloodshed’ use the boy choir soloist, Daniel McGrew, in a way very similar to Howard Shore's reverberant laments in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Even as an amusing parody, the Italian aria of ‘Battlestar Operatica’ is very much in the style of Mozart (lyrics in the liner notes). In the aftermath of Capt. Lee Adama's mission success, the song entitled ‘Wander My Friends’ is sung in Irish Gaelic by weathered vocalist Lillis Ó Laoire et al; the stirring Celtic theme, recognizable from ‘A Good Lighter’s Uilleann pipes and Irish flute solos, belongs to the Adama family.

Nevertheless, a facet of McCreary’s style is able to shine through on the album via the tracks ‘Passacaglia’ and ‘The Shape of Things to Come’ from the two part season finale.  These pieces are unlike any of the others in that they put use a live string orchestra without the addition of synthesizers—film score purists will consider these cues to be the highlights of the album.  ‘The Shape of Things to Come’, McCreary’s splendid dedication to his former mentor, also has whispers of the late Elmer Bernstein’s style; both touching and uplifting, the emotional momentum of the cue is what shapes and defines the monumental turning-point of the season.

The area of science fiction is typically fraught with clichés, but the production team of Battlestar Galactica manages to break the stereotype on multiple fronts.  With McCreary onboard as the series composer, they have naught to do but place unconditional trust in him for the rest of season two and beyond.  Potent tracks such as ‘The Olympic Carrier’, ‘The Thousandth Landing’, ‘Flesh and Bone’, and ‘Battle on the Asteroid’, are testaments of his skill. On a more personal note, it is refreshing to know that there are consistently enjoyable composers in the TV realm other than LoDuca and Giacchino.  Bear McCreary has shown that he is versatile enough a composer to craft emotionally apt and exciting pieces even with specific direction and exacting form.  This Battlestar Galactica album is the more listenable of the two currently on the market; much like Gibbs’s original, it works wonders on-screen, but unlike the concentrated mini-series score, this uniquely diverse collection has the power to evoke the ambiance of an entire season.

The album is aesthetically pleasing with liner notes containing track lyrics and notes from both McCreary and executive producer, David Eick. I'll be damned if the second season CD isn't in my possession... and as they say in the BSG universe (or Shakespeare), "So say we all".

Tina Huang

On Television: 5
Standalone: 4.5

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