Latest reviews of new albums:
Black Adam

There have been a few composers in the past where my opinion has changed over time – usually only up or down by a notch or two – rarely has one been so completely transformed in my estimation as Lorne Balfe. I hadn’t used to be able to latch onto his music, for whatever reason, and in the depths of time (maybe 2017) I was accustomed when I wrote about it to give it a bit of a roasting. But one day (I think it was when I heard His Dark Materials) it was like a switch was flicked and suddenly I just got it – whether it was his music that changed or me I don’t know (I’ve revisited some of his older work and found myself more sympathetic towards it – none more so than Mission: Impossible, with the words I wrote about that one in particular seeming to be about a completely different album than the one I can hear now).

Anyway, it’s the case now that I genuinely greatly anticipate all his new projects (which is decent news, since a new one seems to come along every week) – his last big comic book movie was Black Widow which ended up producing perhaps his finest score of all, so expectations were sky-high for his continuation of the Black saga in Black Adam. He doesn’t reuse any of the thematic material from the first film, but it does seem to feature generally new characters, with Scarlett Johansson replaced by Dwayne Johnson in the title role.

Lorne Balfe

There ain’t much subtle about this score – it’s great big and very loud almost non-stop from start to finish (and it lasts nearly two hours). And it’s great fun. Almost the whole thing is built from two themes – but the thing with both of them is that they are themselves built from multiple distinct ideas, which means the score being duothematic and long is not the problem you might anticipate. Fortunately, the album presents concert suite-style versions of both themes.

First is the “Black Adam Theme”. The track opens – not unusually for a Balfe theme – with a string ostinato, over which shortly comes a three-note figure for trumpets and screeching choir – then a catchy motif takes over before the main section of the theme itself, an heroic and fairly long-lined one – and then what I call the Beyoncé section, initially for the choir before it continues with the A-part of the theme now heard underneath it. (Why the Beyoncé section? – from the first moment I heard it I could barely resist singing “if you liked it then you should have put a ring on it” to it – I can’t believe I’m the only person to have noted the similarity.) More to come though – first a fantastic rising motif that’s all heroic, then the real objet d’art, a grand and sweeping section full of comic book joy, before the main part returns. Each of the many component parts is terrific, and each of them a real ear-worm. It’s ludicrously entertaining, even if sometimes some of the many different elements all happening at the same time do get a little lost in the mix.

Then there’s “The Justice Society Theme”. It opens – believe it or not – with a catchy little ostinato. The theme that then appears over the top is a nice, adrenaline-soaked bustling one, full of all the requisite heroism. Its rising mid-section really sees it soar away – and do I detect just a hint of Tom Holkenborg’s “Foundation Theme” from Justice League? (If I do it could be a coincidence since – I am reliably informed – the Justice Society is a completely different body from the Justice League – but I’m sure I hear it.) Another great theme.

The whole album is enjoyable and Balfe plays all the material that make up those two themes off against each other in every conceivable combination, but two other tracks to highlight are “Father and Son” – which is one of the very few times the octane levels drop from high – where there is some warm emotional content; and the pick of the action cues, “Fly Bikes”, in which so much is going on it approaches Black Widow’s “Natasha Soars” – to be fair it doesn’t quite hit that level, but it’s great entertainment.

If I were to have one criticism it is that the score is so big so often, the album doesn’t really offer much of a narrative flow – almost every track sounds like it could be underscoring the grand finale. But it’s got really great tunes in it, it’s so energetic and constantly exciting, it’s bright and colourful – certainly my favourite Balfe score of the year (so far, there are probably a dozen more to come yet) and another step on his remarkable rise in my estimation.

Tags: ,

  1. Marco (Reply) on Saturday 12 November, 2022 at 21:24

    Incredibly curious what Balfe will bring to the final Mission: Impossible movies. Might give this one a listen once I’ve the movie (not in much of a rush for that, though), but I do like the suite arrangements.

    • Timothy (Reply) on Wednesday 30 November, 2022 at 23:24

      Hopefully there is less blatent mimicking of Zimmer like there was in Fallout. I loved Fallout as a movie, but it was kind of distracting tracks came up that sounded like they were pulled straight from Dark Knight Rises and Inception.

      Both Fallout and Dark Knight Rises’ soundtracks even start off with a track called “A Storm is Coming”…

  2. Alexander S. (Reply) on Monday 14 November, 2022 at 09:38

    After I learned that there are quite a few composers who employ ghostwriters, I’m increasingly suspicious when composers turn 180° between projects in style or quality or both, even more so when they take on several projects at the same time. I have yet to give Balfe’s scores an analytic listen in order to eliminate these doubts.

    • Ian Simpson (Reply) on Monday 14 November, 2022 at 15:57

      I think the evidence is strongly in Lorne Balfe’s favour here. I’ve checked the Filmtracks reviews (which make a point of flagging up scores that used ghostwriters), and they suggest that most of Lorne’s recent scores have been composed mostly or entirely by himself, whereas his earlier scores that were regularly panned here at Movie Wave tended to rely heavily on ghostwriters. This suggests to me that it’s primarily a case of his own compositional talents coming through.

      Generally I’ve been noticing a trend towards Hans Zimmer and other Remote Control composers producing higher quality music and relying less heavily on ghostwriters in the past 4-5 years, and being more up-front about it when they do use ghostwriters. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to have some additional musical input from the rest of the team, as long as the lead composer openly acknowledges them, but I think when they had a large number of people writing the score it has tended to water it down and make it bland.

  3. Edmund Meinerts (Reply) on Monday 14 November, 2022 at 21:27

    I gotta say your newfound love for Balfe has me a bit nonplussed. I always thought you were a bit too harsh on his older scores, and now I think you’re way too generous on the newer ones, which are slightly better in some ways, but certainly not significantly so to these ears – and crucially a lot of them still sound really obviously digital and “blocky” in their spotting and recording and rendering, which is increasingly an aesthetic that turns me off in film music. Black Adam for instance, for all that it’s big and loud and (superficially) busy, and I tend to enjoy big dumb action scores of this type quite a bit when done well, here it just seems kinda soulless and lacking heart to me.

    I still think his best work is a couple of his animated scores from a few years back – 2015’s Home and 2017’s Lego Batman.

    • Marco (Reply) on Tuesday 15 November, 2022 at 17:24

      Don’t forget Penguins of Madagascar. 😉

  4. MPC (Reply) on Wednesday 30 November, 2022 at 23:19

    I wasn’t impressed by Balfe’s “Black Adam” score at all — at least not in the actual film itself. Only enjoyable part was his re-arrangement of John Williams’ theme for Henry Cavill’s Superman cameo (which isn’t on the album).