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Ad Astra
  • Composed by Max Richter
  • Deutsche Grammophon / 126m

James Gray’s ambitious Ad Astra stars Martin Sheen sent on a mission to find Marlon Brando, who hasn’t been heard from in a while and has gone a bit bonkers. Wait, that’s something else. Anyway, let’s hope we get to see the infamous deleted French plantation scene in a few decades, even though it will probably disrupt the pacing.

One thing I’m renowned for absolutely loving is exceptionally long soundtrack albums. This one is actually longer than the film itself, which is always a good sign that it has been thoughtfully produced for the ultimate listening experience. Actually in this case special circumstances apply, given that Max Richter – and one thing you can say about Max Richter is that, like him or not, he certainly provides what you expect him to provide in a film score – evidently provided something that the filmmakers weren’t expecting. Apparently there’s a guy in Indonesia who hasn’t yet been replaced by Lorne Balfe (the horror, the horror), but Max Richter isn’t on that list any more, and I swear that last week I saw someone working on my neighbour’s roof get fired and Balfe arrived there a few minutes later with some new tiles to finish off the job. So there are “only” 95 minutes of Richter music on the album, which is barely enough to last a flight from London to Barcelona, let alone a ride on a huey from Saigon.

Max Richter

Richter’s score sits somewhere between the emotional yearning of Interstellar and the intellectual abrasion of Arrival. The beautiful opening “To the Stars” is very much like the former – slow, deliberate, a sense of moving inexorably towards the destination – and it’s full of passionate. The album’s highlight without question.

Then “Encounter”: buzzing, taut, tense, by design unpleasant. It’s effective – damn straight it’s effective – I want to curl up into a ball and for someone bring me a saucer of milk. More of the same in “Cosmic Drone Gateway”: so slow, but you can’t get out of its way. Like most of the best film music, it’s emotionally potent, it tells a story.

Ethereal synths join the strings in “I Put All That Away” – and what’s that, voices? Yes, voices. They don’t have anything to say, but Richter has lots to say with them. “A Trip to the Moon” is space shuttle music for the Hans Zimmer age, the synths chugging before another slow-moving themeless theme comes in – but it works, it really does. Then the horror (the horror – sorry, same joke again): “Terra Incognita” would have been called “Terror Incongnita” if the track titles had been provided by Michael Giacchino. Brassy blasts, those spooky voices again, strings swirling – it’s borderline gruesome. And speaking of track titles, “Ex Luna Scientia – Requiem” would sound pretty pretentious on a film soundtrack album usually; not so much this one. It’s another drawn-out portrait of both mystery and emotional depth full of tension; the unusual percussion sounds doing plenty to aid the latter. It’s almost too much to take.

Phew: “Journey Sequence” is next. That must be nice – journeys in films always are, aren’t they? There are flutes! Set sail with the angels, they’ll surely be taking you somewhere warm. It’s beautiful. Wait, we’re here – “The Rings of Saturn” – get your swimming costume out. Yes, the one that you can use in a vacuum. Ethereal sounds again: heavenly voices (told you!), unexpected harmonic leaps, and then we’re back to a reprise of the wonderful opening in “The Wanderer”.

“Erbarme Dich” (which when said out loud sounds like a tweet by President Trump about his predecessor) brings the synths right to the centre-stage – if it sounds like one of Richter’s classical reinterpretations then that’s probably because it is. It’s switched-on Bach and it’s mesmerising, moving, stunning.

After that interlude, we’re back on course in “Forced Entry”: this is what Max Richter action/suspense music sounds like. It doesn’t sound like US Marshals. It growls, snarls, goes places you don’t think it will. “Preludium” (which I think is Latin for “right in the middle”, and so is placed appropriately on the album) takes you somewhere else unexpected: after all that tension, a bit of release, a very pretty piano solo the order of the day.

Chimes usher in “Resonantia” – it sounds almost as if there’s somebody at the door, well it would do if it weren’t for the pedal note (the score’s real distinguishing feature, anchoring everything in this sense of never-ending vastness). “Let There Be Light” sees urgent electronic rhythms portend something of great importance (really, the Interstellar bleed-through here is very frequent, if more likely a result of both things being inspired by similar sources).

“Ursa Minor – Visions”: a dreamscape, three minutes long but it seems much longer. We’re used to the score moving slowly by this stage (and it does so in a thoughtful way, so that’s no criticism); tempting to call it glacial pace, but we all watch the news and those glaciers aren’t quite so glacial themselves these days. And just when you think “Event Horizon” is going to slow that crawl down yet further, in comes another achingly beautiful piano solo (it’s very simple but also very effective). A stunning track.

If the last piece was drawing out heartfelt emotion, then “Musurgia Universalis” (I think I have some ointment for that somewhere in the cupboard) is back to hitting you over the head with scares. It should be X-rated. “You Have To Let Me Go” is as desperate and as sad as you might expect “You Have To Let Me Go” to be.

That’s the 73 minutes of original Richter score here: smart, dramatically potent, not exactly pleasant listening but it’s quite riveting throughout. Could it do with a belting tune to complete the package? – probably, it could, but I’d sound like an idiot for suggesting that. After the score comes the 21-minute “Tuesday (Voiceless)”, the non-voiceless version of which was written for Richter’s earlier album “Three Worlds: Music from Woolf Works”. I don’t find it particularly engaging in this form, I have to say (and when it lasts as long as it does, that’s a problem). Far more engaging is Nils Frahm’s brilliant “Says” which makes a delightful coda to the album. There are also some tracks by Lorne Balfe.

Rating: ****

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  1. John (Reply) on Sunday 3 November, 2019 at 20:31

    Did you notice that “To the Stars” is essentially the Adagio from Sunshine? I couldn’t get past the obvious temping.

  2. Kalman (Reply) on Monday 4 November, 2019 at 11:25

    Thanks james! I needed a good laugh today! 🙂

  3. Quintana (Reply) on Monday 4 November, 2019 at 17:20

    What a brilliant piece of writing, James! Thanks!
    I don’t remember disliking Balfe’s work earlier on but he has quickly become one of my least favourite “A list” composers. He probably has more talent than Junkie XL but he’s putting out so much more. The last weeks have been especially dire, with the former releasing this and the embarassing Gemini Man and the latter returning to his old form of being gloriously inept with, basically, everything, in the moronic Terminator Dark Fate score. So again, thanks for making me laugh.

  4. Ian Smith (Reply) on Tuesday 5 November, 2019 at 15:35

    I’m waiting for the physical release in a few weeks time. I honestly thought Richter had replaced Balfe, not the other way around, but I suppose this explains the delayed soundtrack release (even digital weeks after the film came and went theatrically). It’s a surprisingly thorough release all things considered ( original, replacement, and even a source cue from Nils Frahm). Pity Blade Runner didn’t merit this kind of effort back in 1982, I’d have been a happier teenager).