December 2006 Film Music CD Reviews

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

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Battlestar Galactica: Season Two  
Music composed, arranged, orchestrated, and conducted by Bear McCreary
(‘Colonial Anthem’ contains ‘Theme from Battlestar Galactica’ and ‘Exploration’ by Stu Phillips and Glen A. Larson; ‘Battlestar Galactica Main Title’ by Richard Gibbs)
Score Produced by Bear McCreary and Steve Kaplan
Performed by Unnamed Ensemble
Additional Artists: Supernova String Quartet, Raya Yarbrough, Bt4, Steve Bartek et al
  Available on La-La Land Records (LLLCD 1049)
Running Time: 78:53
Amazon UK   Amazon US

See also:

  • Battlestar Galactica: Season One
  • [This piece was submitted July of 2006.]

    A Brief Preamble: This long awaited album for SciFi Channel’s re-imagined Battlestar Galactica is finally mine.

    If waiting out the four month season two hiatus was a quaint slice of hell, the wait for the second score’s release was an extended holiday to an unnamed, angst-ridden abyss.  (The handful of ‘preview’ tracks released during the time only tormented me further.)  However, the outcome was somewhat strange when I was at last able to lay claim to the CD, ogle the liner notes, and dive into the first run-through.  I didn’t have the slightest urge to write, much less speak or form a coherent thought.  But the impulse that I had instead—and eventually gave in to one too many (semi-moderated) times—was to put the score on an endless loop, and let the senses wallow in the thrilling embodiment of the show.  Now that I’ve had sufficient immersion time, I can say with absolute certainty that Bear McCreary has more than delivered the goods… and this time, there’s a little something extra.

    For an hour and near twenty minutes, Battlestar Galactica: Season Two gives new listeners an exciting, varied experience of sci-fi drama, and fans a well-packaged compilation of intense sensations (to relive again and again).  The emotional ride is no less steep this round, and the tracks are proof that ‘expansive styling’ is the name of McCreary’s game.  If anything, it shows that he’s definitely on the way up.  The composer’s freshman work was a break from Richard Gibbs’s score in the 2003 miniseries; the synthetically exotic score by Gibbs set the initial tone with ethnic instrumentation/vocals, alien synths, and unique percussion. When McCreary took the helm for the series start, he was initially bound to Gibbs’s structurally sound, if subdued source, but slowly managed to develop a multi-tiered, episodically poignant, mass of emotional highs.  The cues (a distinct mix of the new and traditional) were somewhat similar to his predecessor’s, but involved layers that were infinitely richer.  And despite the rigid structure imposed by the producers, the young composer was able to bypass it with aesthetic finesse, and embark on a journey to transform the Battlestar Galactica (BSG) sound into his own.  McCreary’s longtime study with the late Elmer Bernstein has clearly paid off in more ways than one; instead of repetitious recycling of themes, motifs, and arrangements, we get to witness slowly evolving, high caliber film music… for television.  (Though, it must be noted that the show is innately unlike any other sci-fi series I’ve ever seen.)

    This second album has larger technical and aesthetic transitions from its sonic roots.  Thankfully, the changes aren’t made at random since the music, like the plot, is tenderly cultivated in tandem with the show’s ever-changing, collection of complex characters.  Battlestar Galactica’s first season was a progressive chain of climaxes from start to finish.  And even with the rare off episodes and the painful extended pause, season two spiked appropriately before exploding through the roof.  (See image below.)

    The show’s tendency to spring surprise twists, characters, cram in everything but the kitchen sink, and push the envelope, is (for the composer) inspirational fodder worthy of a myriad styles.  It’s been made known that the music’s key role is to separate this new series from the old; and at this point, it’s doing that and more by branching out, and undergoing a massive metamorphosis…  Season two’s album ties everything together with an abundance of (Philip) Glassian-type concepts—in particular, Mishima (‘Promise to Return’, ‘Prelude to War’, ‘Allegro’), various forms of rock, and an stimulating blend of quasi-Glass, the traditional, and/or rock (‘Something Dark is Coming’, ‘Dark Unions’, ‘Worthy of Survival’)—all of which allow the composer to imbue in the work, and develop from within, more of his personal style.

    Speaking of which, it’s not an easy task to point out how much of the score is actually McCreary’s default style…  However, ‘Black Market’ seems the closest considering his professed love of classic rock; the almost out of place, bookend cue is a hard mix of the Rage Against the Machine (sans screaming vocals), Metallica—from the Michael Kamen S&M concert phase, and the new Battlestar ethnic instrumentation.  This tragically muted, background music from the same titled episode—featuring gamelans, sitar, prominent duduk, and former Oingo Boingo members: Steve Bartek (on guitar), John Avila, and Johnny ‘Vatos’ Hernandez—is presented in its full glory on CD.  Although it might not be accessible to most traditional score collectors, it’s a testament to McCreary’s skill for taking what could be an extended (totally badass) jam session, and making it a seemingly natural part of the BSG universe.

    ‘Lords of Kobol’ features the smooth and sensuous vocals of Raya Yarbrough (who’s barely heard in McCreary’s US version of the ‘Main Title’) in a slow, alterna-rock/poppish ballad.  (It may be along the lines of the composer’s natural tastes, even if he didn’t anticipate going in this direction.)  This version—which isn’t the same one used on air—is clearer, and tighter in arrangement since it’s meant for album format; the electric guitars, rifts galore, BSG instrumentation, and heavy synths make it a stunning vocal highlight to loop.  It’s just a shame that there are no lyrics in the liner notes, or any explanation of the language Yarbrough sings, but the atmosphere—generated by her articulation and tonal grace, unfurls in a carnal, deliberate manner. (Picture a curious, semi-sated cobra emerging from its nest.)  Ironically, this piece is played during a fortuitous meet and merging of crew, and for such an astonishing, triumphant moment, it’s foreboding. [Dec Update: Lyrics and language revealed; a recent, super delayed discovery on my part.]

    If McCreary was pushed to experiment more, it’s interesting how he consistently returns to his rock base—with a touch of Glass—for setting certain moods.  In ‘Gina Escapes’, the sinuous rock mix of glissandoing guitar, percussion, and muted gamelans puts into perspective the turbulent, yet poignant moment between Baltar and the Pegasus Six (Gina).  Like a vivid painting, the music captures succinctly what could be expressed in too many words.  The eponymous track, ‘Pegasus’, is a quiet, 80s type ambient rock led by an electric guitar; it begins with a timid aloofness, then gathers confidence and speed, to gradually crescendo into a lush, synthesized, multiple exclamation mark end.

    In total contrast to that, ‘Something Dark is Coming’ features the same electric guitar from ‘Pegasus’ in a shadowy, full circle, ambient rock cue that has (on album) a soft, saddening reprise of Boomer’s theme at the climax.  The piece narrates a complicated, eye of the storm, montage of political prepping, tactical briefing, and prophesized doom (from the mouth of Caprica Boomer). Instead of a ponderous arrangement to underscore anxiety, McCreary’s nuanced, interchanging layers—of instruments and motifs—contrast the excess tension; they shape for him a deceptively complex, molten web of intrigue.  He kicks it off with an ominous foundation… a quiet, bass guitar line, repeating a cryptic tune, is made the tense backdrop, and thematic glue, for the interplay of various instruments.  Baltar is given bright ostinatos on the electric guitar, a solemn duduk is bestowed on a jittery President Roslin, anytime she interacts with Commander Adama, sentimental strings illustrate their rapport, military snares and occasionally the taikos emerge during the briefing, and the gamelans for Boomer bring in unease, and punctuate moments like a dire, question mark.  Regardless of where or when they appear, and what other instruments they’re entwined with, these motifs are gradually mixed to provide aural hints as to how things tie together in the plot; as it turns out, a major clue is subtly dropped during what might feel like an out of sync, in-scene moment.  Without the images (and the culminating violent outburst), this track could easily be dismissed as a murky, meandering mélange—where the only clarity comes when undulating strings undergo a hairpin change in dynamics; however, it’s amazing how a simple, rock motif can accommodate so much emotion and drama without ever seeming out of place.

    One facet of McCreary that shines all throughout season two, is his knack for arranging music; his skills in this department are undoubtedly further ahead than most his age.  For examples on a small scale, the aforementioned preview pieces are cues used in the actual episodes; McCreary’s able to rearrange/remix, and blend them seamlessly into quasi-miniature or normal sized suites (‘Prelude to War’, ‘Reuniting the Fleet’, ‘Standing in the Mud’) for the album.  ‘Roslin and Adama’ is one of the latest themes introduced in season two; the core of this tender violin solo, with piano, guitar, light percussion, and string accompaniment, resonates in the soul.  (It might be worth it to add that the preview track—which is almost a minute shorter than the album adaptation—is somewhat more poignant in its mostly acoustic form.)

    The larger scale arrangements are phenomenal.  The ‘Colonial Anthem’, based on Stu Phillips and Glen A. Larson’s original Battlestar Galactica theme, is an interesting inclusion in the album.  Not only is it an arrangement that fits right into the re-imagined show, it’s the relationship between the two series personified; the silver age quality of Phillips is in the bones of this rearranged rendition, but the total form is (unapologetically) loaded with synthesized orchestra, taikos, duduks, and less ostentatious than the original in expression.  The patriotic cue is not simply the old with new trappings, it’s the old rebuilt from the bottom up, with completely different components—like the very Cylons watching the anthemized documentary.

    Another instance is ‘Allegro’, a heavily transformed, reworked, multilayer version of season one’s ‘Passacaglia’; McCreary uses a traditional, smaller-sized string ensemble to convey the isolated team’s search for the Tomb of Athena.  Waves of overlapping strings convey the bittersweet moments, touch on Boomer’s theme briefly, and weave together many parts to form a coherent whole; it’s less lavish than the originating cue—and ‘Shape of Things to Come’—due to political and military strife, but it’s also an eloquent encapsulation of courage, faith, uncertainty, and unrest.

    ‘Escape from the Farm’ places Starbuck’s theme (nicely melodic) in a rousing agitato arrangement.  It’s a mesh of season one’s stylings/instrumentation in ‘Starbuck Takes on All Eight’ and ‘Starbuck on the Red Room’, layered with a gritty, electronic violin—something I like to call the ‘instrument of destiny’ (also heard in ‘Baltar’s Dream’ and season one’s ‘Destiny’), and grounded by light strands of the new string quartet.  This combination of styles intensifies the visceral, paranoid quality of Starbuck’s flight from the dirtside ‘hospital’, both on CD and screen.  ‘A Promise to Return’, featuring the Supernova String Quartet, is in the aftermath of the traumatic escape; when there is finally transport back to Galactica, Starbuck must leave behind Anders (her new love) to complete her destiny-bound mission.  The fluid cue is a distant variation on Starbuck’s theme—thus a new motif—that ties in her intense/immediate connection with Anders; the no-frills composition is truthfully intimate, heartbreaking, and features the melodic reprise in three solos (violin, viola, and cello).  Until this piece was performed, there was never an instance of Starbuck’s theme that would (or could) concern anyone other than herself, so the change in arrangement is quite significant.  (‘Scar’, a composition patterned like the skirmish cues of season one, also presents this Starbuck/Anders love theme, but a version laden with despairing duduk and melancholy strings.)

    From season one, ‘A Good Lighter’ (featuring solo Uilleann pipes) was meant to establish the close rapport between father and son.  And the large vocal/instrumental ensemble for ‘Wander My Friends’ was a celebration of Apollo and the Galactica’s mission success.  McCreary’s second season arrangement of the Adama’s theme (‘Reuniting the Fleet’, though previously known as ‘Adama’s Choice’) brings together both elements in a heart-rending hymn for remembrance.  It begins with morning mist-styled synths, and subdued snares introduce the theme hummed by a male chorus.  Alongside the resonant voices, an Irish whistle soon reprises the melody, and is joined by quiet guitar; there is a pause, before hopeful Uilleann pipes, accompanied by lush strings, perform the melodic bridge and unite briefly with the whistle…  The strings linger a while longer before melting into the background, and give quiet strength to the lone whistle.  This cue’s appearance in the silent scene is unexpected, pivotal, and a thing of beauty.

    ‘Martial Law’ mostly adheres to the traditional Battlestar instrumentation, but presents a new melody that has only been heard on one occasion.  The cue narrates the unexpected carnage that ensues after Colonel Tigh enacts martial law; from the beginning, sinister bass rolls out and spreads like a preordained drop cloth, while a funereal duduk precedes the slow crescendoing of elegiac strings.  Tension mounts when layers of bass, synth percussion, and taikos pave the way for tragic horns; excluding the ‘Colonial Anthem’, this is the first time horns are prominently featured in a normal episode cue.  (The piece itself is riveting, but whether or not it was intended by McCreary, its style is very similar to a segment of Harry Gregson-Williams’s The Chronicles of Narnia cue, ‘The Battle’, and has a slight Hans Zimmer quality to it—that might make some listeners appreciate it for all the wrong reasons.)

    With ‘Prelude to War’, we finally get to experience an all out battle cue; fans of space warfare will drop to their knees, and praise McCreary for giving us what Battlestar Galactica has needed since season one.  Oh, and the best part?  The track is near eight and a half minutes long!  (It should be noted that the preview version, ‘Galactica Attacks’, gives listeners only a fraction of the album cue.)  This is actually a suite that combines the best action score segments from ‘Pegasus’, ‘Resurrection Ship Part 1’, and ‘Resurrection Ship Part 2’; if you’re unfamiliar with the episode details, the scenario you might imagine upon hearing the track will greatly differ from the actual events.  Nevertheless, it opens with martial snares, taikos, and severe col legno from the strings pound out a menacing march.  Hushed two-toned gamelans (representing the Cylons) are layered in along with a haunting duduk and Irish whistle articulating Starbuck’s theme.  There is a gamelan-induced calm before the storm, and suddenly, all hell breaks loose; incensed strings explode into the scene with the never-heard-before, commanding battle theme.  It’s rife with purpose, precision, and percussion punctuating each phrase as mad strings (waxing and waning in waves of intensity) dominate the melody and lead the charge.  This is just a small taste of one of McCreary’s most thrilling action cues; you have to hear it—and the grand finale—for yourself.

    ‘Worthy of Survival’ is like a hybridization of the motif heard in ‘Dark Unions’, and the intense, quieter sections of ‘Prelude to War’; the composer develops the piece dramatically without ever inducing a sense of immediate combat.  The music illustrates a situation that just gets worse and worse; like the surviving humans on New Caprica, the piece is surging with emotions, giving you a sense of hope in the midst of despair, and pushes you to the precipice—only to take your breath away.  It’s the track for the season finale cliffhanger.

    There are a couple other tracks that don’t necessarily match the BSG style that we’ve come to know, but don’t seem out of the norm, even on album.  ‘The Cylon Prisoner’ is a guitar track with wailing vocals by Bt4—McCreary’s brother’s band, and plays like an aural narrative for a dubious, western town.  While it may stick out on the album, it’s a perfect match for Baltar’s mournful session with the incarcerated and traumatized Six.  ‘One Year Later’ is the score for one of the best segues in the season; the musical arrangement may be simplistic, but it’s potent when combined with the on-screen visuals.

    There are two flaws worth mentioning: the filler ‘Main Title’ by Richard Gibbs (it’s already on the season one CD), and the unbelievable amount of missing cues.  (Even if the pieces are brief or undeveloped, this composer should have little problem putting together a suite—or ten, and that would be enough for a whole new album.)  Nonetheless, these blemishes don’t purge my gut feeling that the shape of things to come (on the music front) will be exciting as hell.  In the meantime, I just hope that the webisodes of The Resistance are enough to tie me over to the season premiere… which seems… lifetimes away.

    Tina Huang

    On Television: 4.8 (rounded up to 5)
    Standalone: 4.5

    Michael McLennan adds:-

    Beyond the ‘Prelude to War’ cue, I haven’t heard this album. What I have heard was a really nice appropriation of some of Philip Glass’s minimalist devices in the battle cues from his masterwork score Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. If the rest is as good as that cue, I can’t wait to hear McCreary’s work in full. These are good days for television music.

    Michael McLennan


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