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Lair
  • Composed by John Debney
  • La-La Land Records / 2014 / 115m

An ambitious 2007 video game, Lair was released to great anticipation and with great hype only to become a great critical and commercial failure.  Sony used the game to pioneer its “remote play” capabilities, with the player able to play on the PlayStation Portable as well as the main console; and it made heavy use of the then-new motion controls for the PS3.  All of that led to great difficulties with the control system, forming the basis of many of the negative criticism.  The plot sees the player take on the role of Rohn Partridge (Alan’s brother – a-ha!) in a battle between two great civilisations, with much dragon-based combat.

The developers wanted a cinematic feel to the game and wanted a film composer to write the score, turning to John Debney, who because of the volume of music required collaborated closely with fellow composer Kevin Kaska (the latter orchestrated all the music and wrote several sequences based on Debney’s themes).  The composers had lofty aims for the score – in the liner notes, Debney says they strove to “write Star Wars meets Conan” – it doesn’t get much loftier than that.  The impressive thing is that they succeeded in doing so, creating one of the great fantasy scores in the process which can sit proudly alongside the great ones from cinema.

John Debney

John Debney

There are a lot of themes here, several of which are melodically closely related.  “Rohn’s Theme” is a classical heroic fantasy theme, intended as an homage to Basil Poledouris and it certainly has a Conan vibe, a strident and noble arrangement announcing its arrival at the start of the album and a spirited vocal version serving as the basis for its named appearance on the album.  It gets a stirring arrangement for the “Lair Main Menu” (whose placement in the middle of the album at first seems a bit odd, but it works very well) this time for the strings.  “Love Theme” is a simply gorgeous melody which echoes biblical epic scores by the likes of Alfred Newman and in particular Miklós Rózsa (and a hint of James Horner when he’s in an epic mood); in its full performance in the track which bears its name the strings soar majestically and magnificently and it’s really quite something.  The use of the famous James Horner four-note “danger motif” at the end of the track is quite amusing (one assumes it can only have been intended as an in-joke tribute to the composer; it doesn’t appear anywhere else in the score).  The theme sounds terrific when used within the body of the score, particularly in the two-part “Return to Mokai City”, which also features the impressive “Mokai Theme”.

“Darkness Theme” (which actually barely appears in the score) is another stunner, Lisbeth Scott lending her familiar vocals and some ethnic winds adding a lovely colour – there is an epic feeling of tragedy to the piece, entirely appropriate for what Debney intended it to represent (the fall of a great civilisation).  It gets hinted at in the dramatic “The Search for Food / Campfire Discussion”, a piece of fairly patient drama.  “Diviner’s Theme” is the main melody for the chief bad guy and it has a brilliantly macabre darkness to it that leaves the player (and listener) in no doubt about the character’s sinister intentions.  It’s a rollicking piece of music.  “Lodan” is a very busy theme with a martial feel, rousing and full of energy.  Several of the themes are combined wonderfully in the introductory main title piece.

“Breaking the Ice” is the first of the big action sequences and it’s spectacular, as they all are.  There is a very clear Star Wars prequel influence – Revenge of the Sith‘s “Battle of the Heroes” in particular – and you have to leave aside any negative feelings about the music’s fairly blatant inspiration and simply revel in its enthusiasm and fun – something very easy to do if like me you have years of experience of being a James Horner fan.  “Diviner Battle” is even more blatant; and even more enjoyable, one of the pick of the cues on the album and almost frighteningly authentically like it was written by Williams himself.  “Firestorm” is another corker, with Scott’s vocals adding another layer to the orchestral grandeur.

“Blood River” is another great one – grandstanding, massive action music that is like manna from heaven to someone like me.  “Bridge Battle” has a darker timbre, Debney going all-out once again but this time with a certain desperation inherent in the music, a growing anxiety.  “Serpent Strait” has a more jagged feel, angular brass to the fore, but again the whole orchestra gets some workout.  I love the little brassy fanfares that highlight “Bridge of the Ancients / The Ice” (though the piece does end rather abruptly, one of the few pieces on the album that doesn’t feel entirely musically satisfying).  “Mokai Camp Attack / Reach Mokai City” is a slightly different type of action, more aggressive and guttural, with more than a hint of Jerry Goldsmith to it; and it continues right into the following “Defences Overrun”, which includes a great thematic sweep, and then “The Holy City of Mokai” contains more thunderous action and some more Goldsmithian touches.  “Final Attack” is the most like Jerry Goldsmith of all, the legendary composer’s unmistakable action technique hinted at throughout.  Then, if anything, the action intensifies even further for the climax, “Battle for Asylia”, which is one of the best of the lot.

It’s not all rousing action though (well, not quite) – there are a few other set-pieces with a calmer feel, the first being the brief “Funeral Pyre”, which offers some mournful reflection.  “The Last Straw” is another beautifully reflective piece, the colour of the erhu and cimbalom adding greatly to its impact.  “Lost” begins with strained, sombre emotions (and wailing vocal) and is probably the most low-key cue of the album.  “Preparing for Battle / Maelstrom / After Burners” opens with some dark, thunderous action but soon develops into a piece of lyrical – but anguished – drama.  “Elegy” is what it says – and is full of moving emotion.  “The Search for Water / Deadman’s Basin” moves things forward very nicely towards the end, with a considerable elegance to its first section before more blustering action afterwards.  This come to an incredibly rousing conclusion in the “Epilogue”, complete with an unbelievably grand Rózsa-esque climax.

Lair is just brilliant, fantastically composed music that makes no secret of its influences and is no less entertaining for that.  I get the impression that the game’s makers allowed Debney and Kaska considerable freedom and they really went to town as a result.  This is a score that wears its heart on its sleeve, features sweeping, memorable themes in abundance and is quite exhaustingly grand and sumptuous.  There is barely a dull moment in the 99-minute score and the album is brilliantly sequenced to provide a terrific musical architecture considerably superior to the previous release (digital only, at the time the game was released).  Jeff Bond’s liner notes are excellent, with extensive quotes from Debney; and there are some decent bonus tracks, including a live recording of an 11-minute concert suite and the original trailer music.  The fantasy genre has produced some wonderful film music over the years and Lair can stand up alongside any of it.  Quite magnificent.

Rating: *****

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  1. Gashoe13 (Reply) on Sunday 31 August, 2014 at 00:28

    Totally agreed! Loved this score. At least as good as Cutthroat Island.

  2. Juan Carlos (Reply) on Sunday 31 August, 2014 at 10:03

    Hi James, excellent review (as usual).

    I found a mistake: on last paragraph you said “(digital only, at the time of the film)” but LAIR is not a film 😉

    After you said “Iron Man 3” is your favorite Brian Tyler, I am looking forward a review of “Now you see me”. Best!

  3. Alonso (Reply) on Sunday 31 August, 2014 at 19:59

    Juan Carlos, I’d love to see a review of Now You See Me as well. That’s probably one of my most favorite Tyler scores.

  4. James Southall (Reply) on Sunday 31 August, 2014 at 20:14

    Juan Carlos – thanks for pointing that out. Now fixed!

    Now You See Me… maybe some time. I thought it was pretty good.

  5. Mike (Reply) on Tuesday 9 September, 2014 at 00:39

    I always want to like this score more than I do…but, the similarities to Star Wars: Episode III (Battle of the Heroes) and, believe it or not, Julian Nott’s score to Wallace and Grommit (which seems to be where the bad guy’s theme comes from- it’s very similar) bother me every time I play it!

  6. mastadge (Reply) on Tuesday 9 September, 2014 at 01:43

    I also want to like this more than I do, but to me it just comes across as, basically, the average of all epic fantasy scores. It does everything just right, but it all feels so familiar. I get no sense of wonder, no feeling of anything new. (And, yes, as is often the case, Kaska’s action music sounds a little *too* much like ’00s John Williams.) Maybe someday I’ll revisit it and recognize it as a masterpiece of the genre, but right now my reaction to it is much like yours to Journey 2: nothing wrong with it, but I’ve heard it done before, fresher and better.