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Black Gold
  • Composed by James Horner
  • Varèse Sarabande / 2012 / 55:27

A lot of money from the oil-rich state of Qatar was behind Black Gold, a film about the discovery of oil in the region in the early 20th century and the subsequent war between two families over the deserts that previously nobody cared about.  Unfortunately, after sinking all that money into it – securing a high-profile director, Jean-Jacques Annaud – and a cast headed by Antonio Banderas – the film has barely even been released outside the Arab world, and languishes without a distributor in America.  Some of the oil money managed to secure the services of one of the highest-profile Hollywood composers – James Horner returns to work with Annaud for a third time.

His score opens with the colourful “A Desert Truce”, wailing Arabic vocals (supplied by the Qatari singer Fahad Al-Kubaisi) introducing the film and score, before the composer adds some further local instrumental flavour.  The real fun begins in “Horizon to Horizon”, in which Horner fully reveals his main theme.  It’s hard to escape the fact that it sounds rather familiar – the A-section is a close cousin to the theme from his previous score for the director, Enemy at the Gates (and indeed was used before that, albeit more fleetingly, in Balto and no doubt others – and would you believe, even that kleptomaniac Gustav Mahler had the nerve to steal it from James Horner) – but what’s interesting is how many different directions the composer is able to take that one theme over the course of what is not far from being a monothematic score.

James Horner with Fahad Al-Kubaisi

In the aforementioned “Horizon to Horizon”, it has a real, epic sweep – approaching Lawrence of Arabia territory in its scope.  But then, sometimes its pared down to a simple solo piano version which sounds just as full of passion, but considerably more intimate in its emotional reach.  When it appears on piano backed with tremolo strings in “I Have Chosen You”, the effect is electrifying – vintage Horner.  The theme’s B-section doesn’t appear quite so often (and itself vaguely recalls The Mask of Zorro) but when heard in full, as in the beautifully-developed nine-minute finale “A Kingdom of Oil”, the sense of vastness it conveys is as monumental as the sense of intimacy conveyed by the bare-bones solo piano versions.  It’s great to hear a piece being developed so fully over the course of a film score.

The score’s secondary theme is heard far less frequently but is no less beautiful.  Heard fully for the first time in “Father and Son”, the composer takes cello, piano, wordless male voice and percussion and builds it into a theme which suggests honour and familial ties on the one hand but slight longing on the other.  A gorgeous vocal duet highlights the theme in the following piece, “Phantom Army”.  Those vocals are the most obvious ethnic touches Horner brings to the music – some have compared the vocals with The Four Feathers, but I have to say I find Black Gold far more appealing.  Take “So This is War” – the vocal over the solo piano performance of the main theme is breathtakingly moving.  I can’t remember such genuine feeling of this kind in a film score for quite some time – Horner sometimes gets a bad press for overdoing the emotional manipulation, but it sounds so genuine here, I can’t help but fall for it.

There’s the occasional set piece which adds a bit more colour to the score.  The early “The Wonders of Wealth” is a breezy showpiece for the full orchestra which brings to mind John Williams in his pomp; later, the composer visits similar territory – but this time with a fully-orchestrated version of the main theme – in “Fresh Water”.  The score’s darker side comes out in “The Blowing Sands”, female vocals initially (male later in the cue) this time being used to provide a tragic air.  The only real action in the score comes in “Battle in the Oil Fields”, the composer showcasing deep brass and percussion with grand, slow statements based on fragments of the main theme – it’s well-conceived, well-realised stuff, massive in scale and the London musicians are captured brilliantly in Simon Rhodes’s recording.

Sandwiching that action cue are the score’s two longest, most dramatic pieces.  “One Brother Lives, One Brother Dies” (vintage Horner track title!) runs through a whole gamut of emotion as you might expect, Horner packing in no small amount of heroism and ultimately tragedy.  I know I say it all the time, but it really is such a joy to hear music that flows so effortlessly – nobody does it quite as well as Horner, writing lengthy pieces that hit all the emotional points without slavishly following actual sync-points with the film.  I believe that more often than not (perhaps all the time, these days) Horner avoids using click-track, and that surely only helps with the organic feel.  I’ve talked about the finale, “A Kingdom of Oil”, earlier – but it does bear mentioning again that it’s a wonderful, full-bodied conclusion to a wonderful, full-bodied score.  Horner has his detractors but when he’s in this kind of form, personally I don’t think there’s anybody better.  Fans of the composer are unlikely to find much not to love about this one.  **** 1/2

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  1. Matt (Reply) on Friday 23 March, 2012 at 05:07

    I agree with this review. I’ve had this album for about 3 weeks now and I can’t stop listening to it. It is the kind of stuff that made me a Horner fan to begin with. With Karate Kid and this score, I’ve been really impressed with James Horner recently again. Looking forward to Spider-Man…

  2. orion_mk3 (Reply) on Tuesday 27 March, 2012 at 17:01

    Listening to this for the first time, and you’re spot-on. As I said in a discussion about the upcoming Spider-Man, I’d rather hear a thousand Horner self ripoffs (or classical borrowings) than another soulless Green Lantern or Iron Man.