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His Dark Materials
  • Composed by Lorne Balfe
  • Silva Screen / 53m

There’s already been one attempt to bring Philip Pullman’s delightful fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials to the screen but the first part, The Golden Compass, was disappointing and so the sequels never made it. Now here comes part two – on the small screen this time, a BBC/HBO adaptation, and while even in this long form some of the detail is lost it’s a much more satisfying endeavour all round (and there is much less of a worry that they will see this one out).

You know I’m going to say this – one aspect of the earlier production that was absolutely stellar was Alexandre Desplat’s magnificently intricate and thematically-rich score, which remains one of his best “big” scores. He certainly left some big shoes to fill – and while (apart from some of his work for animation) Lorne Balfe has not done much to impress me beforehand – when he was announced, I remember saying “well, maybe this will inspire him to do his best work” – and it has, very much so.

Lorne Balfe

This album’s actual title is the rather cumbersome “The Musical Anthology of His Dark Materials”, intended to present the core thematic material from the score, with a much longer album of music to follow later in the show’s run. I must admit I have no idea if the cues on here are actual ones from the show’s score or if they’re recorded especially for this but either way, it’s the perfect way of presenting the music – a set of distinctive pieces that function well together as a kind of concept album.

The show’s main theme comes first, as you’d expect – it’s very much a product of the Game of Thrones era of tv themes, maybe not quite such an ear-worm as that but it’s a close one. “The Alethiometer” has a darkly mysterious tune on the violins backed with some deep bass rhythms which is very effective, later joined by some deep male choral chanting as it makes its way towards its rather epic conclusion; then we hear the surprisingly dark theme for the central character Lyra in “Lyra: The Child of Prophecy” which again starts with a rather mysterious tinge to it before the melody actually starts – a series of short phrases heard initially on piano before the strings join in and start to swell, a subtle variant on the main theme – nicely mirroring the character, an air of uncertainty at first before the confidence grows.

“The Settling of a Daemon” also starts on piano, plenty of slightly unsettling electronic enhancement to the orchestra starts to play a greater role, and about half way through the dynamic theme picks up and it’s another very strong one, a reminder that Balfe played a key part in the creation of the Inception score (this piece could easily be an outtake from that). There’s a bit of a world music feel to “Scholastic Sanctuary” which is done well – much more laid back, yet another decent theme this time with acoustic guitars backing the orchestra. “The General Oblation Board” gets some sinister electronics to start its theme, sweepingly dark gestures from the strings taking over – one of the things I like about this music is that, while there are depths, there are also clear colours used – none of the murky shades-of-grey-for-everything approach that might have been feared here.

“The Life of Roger Parslow” is certainly a highlight: an exotic flute solo (presumably played by Richard Harvey) opens the track and it’s a beauty – a crystal clear trumpet solo heralds the arrival of the choir – it’s wonderful music. Darkness rules in “The Machinations of Lord Boreal” but there’s more lurking under the surface – the murky swell of the cellos accompanied by ethereal synth and choral textures, a lack of certainty as to the real dramatic intent coming when the violins offer something lighter over the top. The brief “A Gilded Cage” is full of tragedy – a now-familiar melody heard in a completely new guise, it’s got a real elegance to it. That leads in to the album’s real pièce de résistance, the magnificent “Strength of the Gyptians”, this score’s “Chevaliers de Sangreal” or “Time” – the piece’s theme heard first in an exquisite cello solo before the orchestra takes over, the cello now giving the counterpoint, then choir joins in and there’s a stirring crescendo as the B-section of the theme bursts forth – it really is quite a thing.

The stirring drama continues in “A Plea to Fate”, desperate emotional feelings coming through with some very interesting choral textures; and then prepare to get those heart-strings pulled again in “The Legacy of Svalbard”, its gestures slow and steady but certainly grand and certainly moving. “Mrs M Coulter” is another of the show’s antagonists – and she gets another perfect theme – sleek and stylish, but always with a murky undercurrent, gaining real power as it builds momentum. By contrast “The Magisterium” foregoes the sleek and stylish and concentrates fully on the murky – dark, oppressive, unsettling. I love the unusual synth texture that opens “The Path Foretold” and then runs right through it, with those bleak feelings continuing.

“Release the Spy-Fly” goes back to the realm of mystery, with more impressive choral work joined by some stirring orchestra, including a particularly dramatic surge from the brass. Another of the album’s highlights comes next – the slightly spaghetti western-like “The Tales of Lee Scoresby” complete with Duane Eddy-style guitar, Morricone trumpet and (literally) foot-tapping accompaniment. “The Compass Points North” sounds like it should be the grand finale – it has a very “Journey to the Line” feel at first, then takes off so dynamically. But instead Balfe chooses to end things a little bit more open, with “The Witches of Lake Enara” providing a rather dramatically ambiguous conclusion.

I’ve said some horrible things about Lorne Balfe over the years in my reviews and so I’m probably never going to be getting a Christmas card from him, but really His Dark Materials shows just what he’s got there to offer. It’s not just good by his standards, it’s good by anyone’s, easily the best episodic tv music I’ve heard in a very long time and it’s presented wonderfully on this well-conceived album. My only complaint (sorry!) is that it does have that very particular and very peculiar Remote Control recording style which makes (presumably) real instruments sound synthetic. Otherwise, it’s the real deal – thematically rich, dramatically potent fantasy music – in the context of what film (and tv) music is generally like in 2019, this is about as far along the quality scale as it could have got and is undoubtedly one of the most impressive new scores of the year.

Rating: *****

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  1. Edmund Meinerts (Reply) on Sunday 17 November, 2019 at 20:43

    Must say I’m extremely surprised that you gave this full marks. It’s good, certainly one of the best things Balfe has ever done, but is it *that* good? It still sounds a bit too cheap and simplistic for my tastes; in fact, it sounds pretty much exactly like the best-case scenario version of an RCP composer trying to emulate Desplat’s score for this very same story (and I don’t even think that one’s a masterpiece, but it’s got far more depth and craft to it than this). I don’t want to come across as too harsh as I do think Balfe has acquitted himself pretty well here, but I’m very surprised to see you of all people slap it with all five stars. I think you’re adjusting for the composer a bit too much.

    • James Southall (Reply) on Sunday 17 November, 2019 at 22:08

      Well, maybe. I realise there’s no doubt at all that for quite a few years I’ve compensated for the era and it’s easier to get more stars these days. Nothing conscious on my part, just seems to have happened.

    • Micheal Stevens (Reply) on Saturday 23 November, 2019 at 04:56

      Balfe created the best soundtrack this year.Strong themes also. Don’t understand the fact it doesn’t sound like a real orchestra?Its the BBC Symphony Welsh orchestra

  2. James Southall (Reply) on Sunday 17 November, 2019 at 22:08

    A friend suggested the reason the orchestra doesn’t sound like an orchestra is that it isn’t one.

  3. Amit Rubinstein (Reply) on Monday 18 November, 2019 at 07:11

    I agree with Edmund. It’s an impressive work – certainly by Balfe’s standards – and might be the best thing he’s done, but it is far from justifying a 5 star rating. Large portions of the album sound like leftovers from Inception, and there isn’t any narrative flow to it. The “Strength of the Gyptians” cue might be the album’s highlight, but it still sounds like an average Thomas Bergersen piece.

  4. Miles Blitch (Reply) on Monday 18 November, 2019 at 15:46

    Balfe is certainly capable of doing good music when movie producers aren’t asking him to churn out temp-track-following “blockbuster” scores. If you want to hear primo Balfe, listen to some of the scores he’s done for video games. Beyond: Two Souls and Assassin’s Creed 3 contain some of the strongest material he’s ever written, in my opinion.

  5. Yavar Moradi (Reply) on Monday 18 November, 2019 at 18:42

    Yeah, I’m with Edmund and Amit. Shocked you’d give this a perfect five star rating even though I do agree it is the best thing Balfe has produced. The synthetic sound of the orchestra (especially that terrible MV/RC “brass” sound) is a big detriment, and very prominent right there in the main titles.

    “easily the best episodic tv music I’ve heard in a very long time”?? Really?

    I’d say it’s maybe as good as Djwadi’s Game of Thrones scoring. But “easily the best” when we have Bear McCreary’s fantastic thematic orchestral scoring for Outlander? Or (not *too* long ago…certainly not “a very long time” ago) Abel Korzeniowski’s amazing work on Penny Dreadful? I must only conclude that you are somehow overlooking some of the best TV scoring…

    • James Southall (Reply) on Monday 18 November, 2019 at 19:11

      Well… I don’t really remember Outlander’s music. I certainly prefer this to Game of Thrones (vastly in fact) or a Penny Dreadful.

      But it would appear I may be out on a bit of a limb with this one!

  6. Erik Woods (Reply) on Tuesday 19 November, 2019 at 19:56

    I think it’s a fantastic score and a bloody marvellous album. I can totally understand why James gave *THE ALBUM* perfect marks because it’s a brilliantly produced one. What an absolutely superb listen. And I’m with James concerning his “best episodic tv music” comment. This score clearly blows away almost everything Djawadi did in Game of Thrones and even the work McCreay has done on Outlander. Penny Dreadful is superb and might very well be the last truly great TV score written next to this new effort by Balfe.

    Great review, James. Keep it up. Stick to your guns!

  7. Mike Peters (Reply) on Saturday 23 November, 2019 at 16:19

    Amazing soundtrack and is an interesting mixture of orchestral and electronic mixture.Most definitely 5/5.

  8. Timothy Snyder (Reply) on Monday 9 December, 2019 at 06:43

    Oh my, James gave Lorne a 5/5. I guess I have to listen to this album now.

    Are we sure Mr. Balfe didn’t just copy another superior, more obscure score?