Latest reviews of new albums:
Off the beaten track, March 2024

I’ve only done about three useful things in my life – I would like to do more but having no talent for anything is a bit of a barrier. Still, if I can do one useful thing through this website then it’s to highlight great music that you might not otherwise find out about, and here’s my latest attempt. You won’t find a better score either on or off the beaten track lately than Stormskerry Maja, a Finnish period drama with music by Lauri Porra. If I tell you that he’s the great grandson of Sibelius and that the talent has clearly flowed down through the genes then hopefully that’s an exciting start, sorry, I mean an exciting Finnish.

The music is an outstanding effort, a portrait of a difficult and challenging life on a remote, stormy island but one which features numerous moments of exquisite beauty. Porra is clearly a master of the orchestra: whether it’s dark suspense/action music for the full symphonic breadth in a cue like “Imperial Entanglement” or a light shimmering breeze for string quartet in “We Are Married Now”, the emotional depth he gives this music is remarkable.

There’s a real meaning to the music – it’s written and performed with passion and not a note is wasted. In film music terms I think of Bernard Herrmann at his most romantic but really the comparison should be with classical music (I’m too much of an ignoramus to say exactly what). Listen to the cello dancing in the three “Cello Interludes” – the soaring, powerful “Bonfire” – the gentle piano of “Firstborn”. Best of all, I think, the pair of tracks called “Driftwood” – the first presenting a theme for piano and string quartet, the second the same theme for the full orchestra – it’s a dazzlingly beautiful, virtuoso display of emotional writing and playing, quite the highpoint. Porra’s music is genuinely brilliant and I couldn’t recommend this one more highly – it’s only March but I’d be amazed if this doesn’t end up on lots of people’s best-of lists come the end of the year, if only they hear it.

Go For Grandma is a short film in which a boy is allowed to escape the horrors of his home life by listening to stories told by his grandma, stories of dragons and unicorns and fantasy worlds. Fabrizio Mancinelli’s delightful score takes as its inspiration the classic fantasy scores of the 1980s and is everything you might want a score of that description to be. Warm, melodic orchestral music is the order of the day – the emotional main theme is playful and heroic and that’s just the start.

The composer’s score is essentially a series of mini episodes – each piece doing something new, from the brassy blast of “Alone in NYC” through the twinkly “Magic is Real” (which sounds exactly like you might expect it to) and the incredibly warm-hearted “Grandma’s Painting”. It’s not quite all joy and happiness – there’s a little edge to some of the action later on – and that makes it all the more well-rounded. It’s a short score, but it’s as big a short score as you could imagine – think Alan Silvestri, think Bruce Broughton, nothing specific but that style. Definitely one to check out.

Until We Meet Again is a 2022 film whose score has only just been issued. A mixture of ghost story, romance and music, it sounds like it must have been a great palette on which the composer, Emir Isilay, could paint. His music – written for string orchestra and piano – begins with the gushingly romantic “Lisa and Eddie”, essentially an eight-minute fantasy on a theme, which cleverly mixes tenderness with light suspense.

“Eddie’s Theme” is a vaguely Elfmanesque piece which playfully treads a line between magic and sadness, full of passion. I really like the score – Isilay carefully moves between different feelings as the film reveals itself, with the romance and suspense playing off each other very nicely. It all culminates with “Concerto”, a short concert-style piece that he wrote first and then purposefully built the score to lead up to – full of quality and class, it’s a great finale. Hard to go wrong with this one.

I suppose Joe Hisaishi isn’t really off the beaten track, but I haven’t read much discussion of Silent Love so here we go. The film is about a young couple who fall in love – one mute, one blind – hence the title. Hisaishi’s tender music is really small-scale, played by a chamber ensemble and focused almost entirely on two themes. But those two themes – one for each of the main characters – are so often interwoven with each other, tentatively at first but completely by the end – it’s a masterful display of how to make this sort of thing interesting.

It’s electric guitar we hear introducing the first of the themes in the opening track, but as the score progresses we frequently hear it on harp, gossamer-thin accompaniment; the other theme often on piano, but sometimes the composer switches them round, plays them on top of each other, slowly dials down one as the other emerges. Hisaishi is known for his showmanship and he’s done it again here, albeit in a very different way than we are used to from his Ghibli scores. It goes without saying that it’s not going to be entering legend the way much of his music has, but his fans will be in for a treat.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

  1. Rolf (Reply) on Sunday 24 March, 2024 at 17:04

    Thank you very much for your recommendations, James!

    These days 95% of “modern” film music is worthless and a waste of time to listen. And they’re releasing so much of it, I’ve long given up checking qobuz or youtube in search of one or two single gems among the pile of crap.

    Articles like yours are indeed very useful and your work on this blog is truly appreciated!

  2. Jon (Reply) on Sunday 24 March, 2024 at 18:27

    Couldn’t agree more with the comments from Rolf. So many of these lesser known scores from lesser known films would never be discovered by most of us were it not for these reviews. Thanks for the work you do!

  3. Deborah Koren (Reply) on Monday 25 March, 2024 at 23:20

    I echo the sentiments of Rolf and Jon, and I really really appreciate all your reviews. Almost all the new music I’ve purchased in recent times has come from your recommendations. Thank you, and I look forward to more reviews and future recommendations!

  4. Pat Cleary (Reply) on Friday 24 May, 2024 at 17:59

    I have found Stormskerry on youtube and it is magnificent. My goodness the final track is truly majestic and a fitting closure to what we have heard earlier. Many thanks for revealing yet another gem.