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Off the beaten track, vol. 1

One way a website like this can add value to the world is by pointing out hidden gems that might otherwise have passed people by. In this new series, I’ll round up a handful of such albums that have come to my attention. I’ll focus on stuff I like – there seems little point in me trashing a score that you haven’t even heard of. My legal team has asked me to point out that any similarity to Jon Broxton’s regular “under the radar” series is entirely coincidental.

A Belgian comedy film, De Zonen van Van As – De Cross marks the feature film debut of composer Joris Hermy, a regular in television previously. I should point out straight away that I’ve met him a few times at various film music concerts and that he is a very warm and likeable person; I point this out not because I want to highlight a potential conflict of interest (honestly, I wouldn’t talk about the music if I didn’t like it) but because I want to say that even if I hadn’t met him, I’d still be able to tell that he’s a very warm and likeable person based on this music, which is quite delightful.

With a slight western influence at times from the guitars and harmonica – and even a little nod to Morricone with some of the vocals – and a bit of folk music at others – the acoustic ensemble is not the largest, but the warmth that runs through all the music is. This is music with a big heart. It’s steadfastly melodic – the main theme is a strong one – and there’s a secondary theme which Hermy twists into a tension device at times, very skilfully. I just love the gentle love theme which closes the album. Comedy music isn’t always the easiest to pull off – people like John Powell and George Fenton started writing it essentially as a set of pieces which feel almost like pop instrumentals at some point in the 2000s and that’s the style here, which is a good way to go. I’m sure the composer has a very bright future ahead of him.

What Isobel Waller-Bridge’s The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse has in common with it is its heart, which is enormous – otherwise it’s a very different proposition. The animation is a lovely tale of friendship and the composer’s traditional orchestral score is a complete delight. While it lacks a truly memorable main theme to bind the whole thing together, otherwise I have nothing to criticise. Gentle strings dominate but there are instrumental colours added to represent the various anthropomorphic characters – the deep winds for the fox, ominous at first, (inevitably) friendly later on.

Critically, it’s not all sunny and warm – as pleasant as that may be, it’s always better when there is some dramatic tension. When that comes, it’s done in such a classic family movie way, melodramatic and very entertaining. Waller-Bridge pulls a big sound from her orchestra and it’s great to hear. Needless to say, by the time we reach the end of the brief album everything has resolved itself delightfully. It’s really lovely.

Nature documentaries are traditionally fertile ground for composers (though the BBC – traditionally the home of the best of them – has gone a rather dispiriting musical route of late). Matthijs Kieboom’s music for Wolf – a documentary about the history of wolves in Europe – is a great one. Intriguingly, he blends three different elements together so well – there’s a gorgeous (slightly James Horner-like) theme for the wolf followed by the film, a mysterious and occasionally jarring sound produced by an instrument called a Cristal Baschet used to represent the broader natural world, and some more modern elements used to represent the intrusion of humanity.

At times these elements work together in harmony, at others they don’t – and this gives the score a sense of narrative that perhaps sometimes even the best of them for nature documentaries can’t quite manage, typically focusing on continual awe and wonder. Don’t worry though: there’s plenty of awe and wonder here. The 55-minute album is very strong throughout and the amount of colour Kieboom paints through it is a joy. Make sure you listen to “Meet the Pack” – it’s so full of beautiful elements, a real taster of the wider score. It’s brilliant music.

Slightly more traditional is Dirk Brossé’s Our Nature (Onze Natuur) which offers a smorgasbord of full orchestral majesty. This one is firmly like the traditional George Fenton ones – large pieces with all parts of the orchestra having a role to play, the colours of the different sections of the Brussels Philharmonic being used to highlight different natural wonders.

Unlike Wolf – but like Fenton’s work in the genre – there isn’t any unifying theme running through it. Instead we have a series of what are essentially orchestral vignettes, each with its own miniature story to tell. There’s awe and wonder – of course – but also some pieces which could be construed as being action music, with some thrilling interludes. It’s all very beautiful and while I can’t help but harbour suspicions that somebody less ignorant than myself may be able to point out quite a few influences from the classical world, what a joy of an album it is.

Looking much further to the east, I very much want to highlight Naoki Sato’s Ghostbook. I assume the film is a spooky adventure aimed at kids (it’s hard to find much information – so I am basing this on the album cover). For those who – like me – grew up on those great big fantasy adventure scores of the 1980s and 90s, this one is a treat. Big themes, melody everywhere, it is like stepping a quarter of a century back in time to a point when people like James Horner and Danny Elfman were putting scores like this out every few weeks.

With fantasy, magic, spooky horror and mystery, it’s got all of the ingredients to be a very entertaining album and in Sato’s assured hands it certainly is that. True, the main theme isn’t going to sit in the mind like a Witches of Eastwick or Casper – but it’s not far off that sort of level and it’s hard to imagine anyone who enjoys film music like that not also enjoying this. This is not music like it would be for a similar Hollywood film in 2022 – which is to say, deliberately designed in little cells that can be individually deleted, shifted around and so on as the editing process unfolds – each piece is a proper standalone piece of music and they come together to make a very satisfying whole. Yes, it does sag a little in the middle but otherwise it’s great.

Staying in the same region but moving to a very different score, I turn to The Faith of the Three Kingdoms. It’s a video game about which scant information seems to exist, but I do know that it has music of the highest order. The short album (less than half an hour, it’s around ten times shorter than a lot of video game soundtracks) begins with the exquisite main theme composed by the great Shigeru Umebayashi – a sweeping piece which mixtures rousing western orchestra with all sorts of Japanese touches, it’s just brilliant.

The rest of the score is by Chad Cannon. His action-packed music is played with a straight bat – he does retain some of the Japanese touches of the main theme which gives it a distinctive feeling, and some of the earth-shaking percussion is clearly evoking the country’s music, but this is designed to be a set of non-stop thrills and that’s exactly what it is. From first moment to last, Cannon doesn’t let up with the excitement and while the album itself may be surprisingly small, the music it contains is exceptionally large. If you like big explosions of brass and thunderous percussion, well then this is the place to come. I haven’t listened to all that much game music of 2022, but this is undoubtedly the best I’ve heard.

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  1. Stephen (Reply) on Sunday 22 January, 2023 at 16:42

    I watched The Boy, the Fox, etc. and ordered the soundtrack album the same day. Need I say more?

  2. Duncan (Reply) on Sunday 22 January, 2023 at 16:46

    I’ll be more careful with my wording this time but what is wrong with you? Who cares about this shit?

    • Mikael (Reply) on Sunday 22 January, 2023 at 22:50

      I know you’re trolling, but in answer to your question, I do. Who cares what you think about James’ reviews? I don’ t.

  3. Malte (Reply) on Sunday 22 January, 2023 at 20:03

    Great new series off the “usual blockbusters”. If I msy suggest to add some headline structuring sections for each album as it would help readbiliy (and a bit with SEO, too)

  4. Alexander S. (Reply) on Wednesday 25 January, 2023 at 08:16

    That’s exactly the kind of post that I find particularly useful. There’s so much stuff out there, yet most people keep talking about recent blockbusters, mostly Zimmer and Balfe scores (that don’t interest me at all). For me it’s the small gems that keep the magic of film music alive – thank you for finding them!!