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King Arthur: Legend of the Sword
  • Composed by Daniel Pemberton
  • WaterTower / 2017 / 76m

It may have been told a thousand times before, but the story of King Arthur and co has never been told quite as it is in Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, with Charlie Hunnam in the title role.  Finally released almost a year later than it was originally expected to be, the film met with scathing reviews and looks set to become a box office bomb of appropriately legendary proportions.

Director Ritchie continues the collaboration with composer Daniel Pemberton which started, so successfully, on his previous film, The Man from UNCLE.  If that score was bright and hip and unfussily entertaining, then this one is the polar opposite: gritty, earthy, grimy, guttural, unremittingly dark.  I wasn’t quite prepared for the extent it was those things, first time I heard it; but this is one of those albums that rewards repeat visitors and while I was impressed with the vision and execution first time round, subsequent listens have drawn me in and I find myself being rather cast by its spell.

Daniel Pemberton

One thing’s for sure: don’t go into this expecting First Knight or Merlin, or even Hans Zimmer’s King Arthur, because you’ll not find anything remotely like any of them.  The film may be a contemporary Hollywood action take on the legend, but the score isn’t.  Pemberton uses ancient-sounding instruments but throws them into a very modern-sounding mixing pot (possibly literally in a few tracks) with guitars, percussion and an orchestra that is only heard prominently once in a while.

From this, the composer develops a kind of gritty anthem as his main theme in the title track (second on the album after a brief prologue), before the genuinely arresting “Growing up Londinium” introduces a panting vocal which sounds like a fat man whose car has broken down, struggling to run to KFC before it closes.  (Yes, that man might be me.)  It’s genuinely creative and weirdly compelling.

Much of the score is made up of dark action music: a battery of percussion, often evoking swords on shields, grimy deep brass sounds, plucked and bowed strings continually sounding agitated.  Some of it is quite stirring, but the album’s biggest flaw is that because there are so few tonal shifts it does get rather samey.  76 minutes on the CD (and even more on the digital release) is quite a lot of this type of thing to take.  The occasional shafts of light that come from the very few concessions to more traditional orchestral heroism serve to offer some moments of relief, but they are few and far between.  “The Born King” is one such moment, a rousing piece which seems to rise up from and ultimately sink back into the ground, standing majestically tall in between.  You won’t be humming the tune when it finishes, but I imagine it’s one of the tracks most likely to satisfy the average listener, even if many of those around it are a harder sell.

I’ve been impressed with Daniel Pemberton since he first appeared on the scene.  He has been busy writing pretty characteristic scores which don’t generally sound like the standard modern things, and it’s refreshing.  King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is not anywhere near as instantly gratifying as the composer’s best, but it’s surprisingly deep and even if you don’t end up playing it particularly frequently (and I can’t believe I will), it’s an impressively different piece of work.  I don’t suppose Pemberton will score Guy Ritchie’s next film – the latest unnecessary Disney live-action remake, this time of Aladdin – but let’s hope this collaboration does continue in future, because its first two entries show a lot of promise.

Rating: ***

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  1. silverghost (Reply) on Saturday 3 June, 2017 at 15:20

    I may be one of the few that actually love this score, and like the energy and thought Pemberton employed here in this score. It’s way better than most “popcorn” films these days. And way better than the latest F&F, Guardians of the Galaxy, Pirates scores. You may disagree but I find this to be truly entertaining and a score that is gritty and raw with hints of power. I have not seen the film so I can’t comment on whether it works against the film. But the score is bloody brilliant in my mind.

    • Michael (Reply) on Thursday 8 June, 2017 at 20:29

      @Silverghost
      I agree with you. One of the most creative, innovative and downright entertaining scores of the year. Love Pemberton’s use of breathing and sound effects.
      Might I add it suits the film like a glove.
      And my favourite track has to be either Power of Excalibur or Run Londinium or Growing up Londinium

      • Eric (Reply) on Monday 10 July, 2017 at 20:20

        Completely agree with your favorite tracks. Very entertaining. I haven’t seen the movie yet but the soundtrack surfaces an urge to go check it out!

  2. Deborah Barr (Reply) on Friday 7 July, 2017 at 20:58

    I have to say I disagree with you about this score, it totally is compelling and I listen to most of it over an over every day. Maybe that’s because I love the film so much and saw it 10 times in the theater. It fits so well with it’s subject matter that listening too it allows me to revisit the beloved scenes in the move.

    I have to say this will go down as one of the most underrated films of 2017 and maybe of the last 10 years. The score too is inventive and creative while bringing goose bumps to the flesh during certain songs such as the Lady in the Lake and how can you not just love and want to spam The Devil and the Huntsman.

    I know the people who actually saw the film loved it, most of them, so it’s really sad that it didn’t do better at the box office, but I was happy when I went to a $1 theater last night that the theater it was in was half full, so it is still putting butts in seats, too bad people aren’t still counting.