Latest reviews of new albums:
Mad Max: Fury Road
  • Composed by Tom Holkenborg
  • WaterTower Music / 2015 / 125m

After years stuck in development hell, George Miller’s fourth Mad Max movie has finally arrived.  It’s been knocking around for so long, Mel Gibson was originally going to be in it (it was pre-meltdown), but when production finally got underway it was with a new (and possibly slightly less mad) Max, played by Tom Hardy, with Charlize Theron also on board as Imperator Furiosa.  The film – a chase movie – has received ebullient praise from critics and director Miller apparently has two sequels up his sleeve.

Australian composer Brian May wrote his most famous music for the first two films in this series before the baton was passed rather unexpectedly to Maurice Jarre (and Tina Turner!) for the very different, far more lavish and expensive third part, Beyond Thunderdome.  Fury Road has been around for so long, a couple of composers were attached to it in the past: first was the enticing prospect of John Powell scoring it, signed up when it was originally scheduled to go into production over a decade ago; but he fell away with all the delays and then came the equally-enticing prospect of Marco Beltrami scoring it.  Ultimately the job was given to Tom Holkenborg, perhaps a little less enticing, though anyone expressing such a thought on Facebook was risking incurring the full force of the wrath of the Dutch composer’s cheerleader-in-chief.  Apparently he poured his heart and soul into it for years on end, you see.

Tom Holkenborg

Tom Holkenborg

He certainly had a vision for the score: drumming.  Loud drumming.  Loud, endless drumming.  As a kind of primal sound for a post-apocalyptic world, of course it makes sense.  And in fairness it doesn’t start immediately – a full two minutes (packed with abrasive strings and synths) pass on the album before a single drum is heard.  After that, it’s relentless for a very long time.  The obvious thing to do is to say it’s a bit like Man of Steel; and that’s the obvious thing to do because it is a bit like Man of Steel.  Not just that – there’s a descending string motif serving as the main theme which is straight out of the Dark Knight series textbook (and you’re in trouble if you don’t like it because you will hear it over and over and over and over and over and over again, with precious little variation).  There’s nothing inherently wrong about music like that being used to score a film like this – I haven’t seen it yet but I’m sure it works.  The tone is just right – it’s dark, oppressive and moody.  The occasional metallic feel fits in perfectly with the look of the movie.  One of the vehicles even has drums and drummers on it.  I’m sure a lot of people will enjoy it.

Having said that, I’m amazed to see the number of people who have written “it’s the only way a film like this could be scored” because it’s obviously not how either John Powell or Marco Beltrami would have scored it, and while I am in no position to say that either of them would have done a better job, it’s a bit of a shame to see how many people have bought into the propaganda that it’s this way or nothing.  The creative vision is clear but the execution is hugely limited: it’s basically just drumming with horns that are (according to the album credits) real but sound synthetic providing some sturm and drang along with the standard-issue Remote Control string bed underneath and synth stingers on top; and we’ve heard that a thousand times already.

The intensity is its main selling point – it really is relentless once it gets going and Holkenborg doesn’t waver from his chosen path.  It’s pulsating enough in small doses but by doing it for so long, attention quickly begins to wane somewhat because of the simplicity.  There’s nothing wrong with simple music and it can (and has often been) very effective in film; and even taken outside the film and put on album, everyone wants a hamburger sometimes instead of a steak.  Not many people want to sit and eat one hamburger after another for 125 minutes.

So, there’s the bad out of the way, so onto the good – this is a very long album and actually there are several impressive pieces buried in the monotony, particularly in the second half.  The standout action track in the long sequence of them in the album’s first half is the six-minute “Storm is Coming”, easily the pick of the bunch because it’s got something a bit different going on, not least the burst of heroism in the middle in the form of a little Media Ventures power anthem, and there’s a certain elegance and artistry to the percussion here rather than just brute force.  The brief “We Are Not Things” which follows immediately offers something else that’s different, which is real emotion from the strained strings, and it’s impressive stuff.

“Brothers in Arms” starts out much like most of the rest of the tracks, with electronic bleeps and squirts and yet more of the endless drumming but just as you’re reaching for the skip button, three minutes in something changes and a wonderfully dynamic and engaging action track emerges, clearly owing quite a debt to Tron: Legacy and Oblivion, but few will consider that a bad thing.  It raises the stakes so much, has such energy and drive, the whole score is given a lift and the album is much stronger for it.  The track’s central action theme gets another workout in the following “The Chase” – again it’s a pity the horns sound sampled despite not being (a curious thing that has blighted scores by Hans Zimmer and his cohorts since he first started writing them) but that manic energy is there again in the strings.

The score’s second half is bolstered too by not being non-stop noise.  “Redemption” is a brief but lovely piece, melodramatic strings carrying a touching melody.  “Many Mothers” is even better, with a dramatic sweep to it not unlike something like The Da Vinci Code and later a gorgeous wind solo straight from Powell’s Bourne scores, and it’s the best track of the score by far.  “My Name is Max” is a sweeping string piece, again impressive.  “Let Them Up” is like a rousing, satisfying finale though in fact there are still two tracks left – both of which are among the best on the album, string writing in the “Coda” sounding a bit like (don’t laugh) the mighty Bernard Herrmann.

If you distilled this album down to the emotional stuff and the action parts that sound more like Tron Legacy and less like Man of Steel and The Dark Knight Rises, you’d have something really entertaining, only 30-40 minutes long maybe but they’d be some 30-40 minutes.  There are in fact two versions of the album: the one I was sent to review is over two hours long and needless to say that is not a presentation that does the music any favours.  The regular edition is not exactly short at 73 minutes; looking at the tracklist, it omits a couple of the better, softer tracks from the deluxe but I’m sure would be a much superior listening experience.

I am sure that many people will put this album on, whack the volume up and have a great time, but it’s not really for me, at least in this form.  I greatly like parts of it but the repetitive action cues which form the bulk of the album are too off putting: there just aren’t enough ways found of making one piece of noisy drumming sound different enough from another piece of noisy drumming to make me want to listen to it, which isn’t necessarily a problem in the film but is of course a big one on the album.  Another significant drawback is the mixing, which is done so hot all the musical detail is lost.  It’s far from being a disaster but there is too much in Mad Max: Fury Road which is essentially like any standard Zimmer clone modern action score; had it all been of the quality of say “Storm is Coming” and “Brothers in Arms” then we’d have a little modern classic on our hands, but it isn’t.

Rating: ** 1/2 | |

Tags: , ,

  1. tiago (Reply) on Monday 18 May, 2015 at 01:29

    Sad you didn’t like it, James, but that’s not surprising. I like Tom’s style, specially his drumming, which I think that worked better here and on Divergent (another awesome score) than on Man of Steel, for example. Sure, Junkie XL’s scores are no great piece of art, but they’re kinda entertaining.

  2. Rob (Reply) on Monday 18 May, 2015 at 03:15

    There definitely some lengthy tracks that tested your patience than drive you(no pun intended). 12 minute “The Bog” and 8 minute “Citadel” and such could have easily been cut in half and give it a brisker pace.

  3. MrZimmerFan (Reply) on Monday 18 May, 2015 at 11:26

    I prefer Divergent or ROE, but three stars for this đŸ˜‰

  4. ANDRÉ -- Cape Town. (Reply) on Monday 18 May, 2015 at 17:53

    The trailers for Mad Max featured powerful symphonic/choral statements [sometimes the trailers do use musical excerpts from the film’s score, otherwise musos specializing in ‘trailer music’ provide the accompanyment]. And so I checked out HOLKENBORG’S score on UTUBE. The electronica sounded like STOCKHAUSEN’S early 1928 experiments for this genrĂ© while other tracks lacked variety… & I couldn’t find those spectacular choruses heard on the trailer! After his awful score for ‘Rise of an Empire’ (by his alter Ego JUNKIE XL) I’ve decided to avoid HOLKENBORG’S effort AND the movie with its thunderous metallic vehicular crashes, endless dust bowls and grotesque-looking denizens. Does anyone know who scored the trailer music? It sounded like TWO STEPS FROM HELL. I hope the director, George Miller, considers them for the planned two sequels.

  5. Edmund Meinerts (Reply) on Monday 18 May, 2015 at 20:16

    Two Steps is never going to write a film score, Andre, by choice – Thomas Bergersen has said that he would find it too restrictive.

    In any case, I don’t recall any of their music being in the Mad Max trailers (in fact, one of them did have music from the Junkie XL/Holkenborg score, didn’t it? I recall that descending string line being in there).

  6. Eric Marcy (Reply) on Tuesday 19 May, 2015 at 04:31

    Thanks for the thoughts James! Though the highlights pushed this score more into positive territory for me than I think it did you (perhaps my purchasing of the shorter CD edition helped this) I appreciate your balanced, thoughtful and fair analysis of the score. “Brothers In Arms” and “Many Mothers” are simply phenomenal. I also do quite enjoy the cacophonous metal mayhem of “Blood Bags.”

  7. Mr. Verdi Fan (Reply) on Wednesday 20 May, 2015 at 00:16
  8. Yavar Moradi (Reply) on Wednesday 20 May, 2015 at 14:51

    Yes the Dies Irae from Verdi’s Requiem is one of the most awesome things ever. I heard the whole work performed live with Gustavo Dudamel conducting the L.A. Phil at Walt Disney Concert Hall…it was amazing. Now THOSE are big boomy drums, and since they only come in occasionally in the whole work they have real impact.

  9. tiago (Reply) on Saturday 23 May, 2015 at 17:29

    James, with the new Mad Max now on theaters, why don’t you revisit the previous scores on the series, by Brian May and Maurice Jarre? For the third film, Jarre did a pretty fine job, with some beautiful and heroic themes. But I would like to hear your opinion on that.

  10. ASFan (Reply) on Sunday 24 May, 2015 at 17:57

    Tom took cues straight out of his 300: Rise of an Empire score.

  11. victor (Reply) on Monday 25 May, 2015 at 00:56

    That’s quite probable, since the cues “The Road to Knowhere” and “Claw Trucks” both feature a string ostinato that is pretty similar to the one that appears on “Dauntless Attack”, from the Divergent score. And also the beginning of “Storm is Coming” recalls the Zod’s theme from Man of Steel.

  12. Sarah Brouns (Reply) on Tuesday 26 May, 2015 at 06:45

    Sorry you didn’t like Fury Road score…I can easily see how maybe it may not work great on CD or listening without the visuals but in the film it worked completely fit the dystopian future…of course it would be like the Aliens score by James Horner..a lot of people don’t like that score on CD either but in the context of film it was brilliant..but I really enjoyed Mad Max: Fury Road

  13. Daniel Henderson (Reply) on Wednesday 3 June, 2015 at 07:07

    After seeing the movie in the theater, it does work well. It does get rather one note after a time. I really would have loved seeing someone like Christopher Drake get a budget of this scale, or listen to what Bear McCreary could do with a massive taiko ensemble and other various drums.