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Snowpiercer
  • Composed by Marco Beltrami
  • Varèse Sarabande / 2014 / 57m

A very highly-regarded South Korean-made film, Snowpiercer is set in a dystopian near future in which governments’ attempts to combat climate change end up changing the climate in a disastrous way, turning the planet into a frozen wasteland.  The only survivors are found on a train travelling around the world – it pierces the snow, you see – and a rigid class system has developed on board, the rich living in luxury at the front, the poor slumming it at the back.  Guess what – they rebel.  Directed by The Host‘s Joon-ho Bong and counting Chris Evans, Jamie Bell, Tilda Swinton, Ed Harris and John Hurt amongst its fine cast, the film waited a long time for a limited release in American cinemas but when it came it attracted rave reviews from many critics.

Marco Beltrami’s score was released by a Korean label last year and has now been picked up by Varèse Sarabande for a wider release around the world.  Those who have followed the development of Beltrami’s career are unlikely to be surprised by what they find: it is a bleak, sometimes brutal score: in common with some of his other recent works (like The Wolverine, which he scored just before working on this) it is not always pleasant to listen to – indeed, often it is distinctly the opposite – but in this case there is a compelling narrative force going through it which makes it a really rather compelling listen.

Marco Beltrami

Marco Beltrami

The opening cue is called “This is the End”, which gives you an idea of how things are going to go.  It’s introduced by a lonely, slightly chilling solo piano theme before the post-apocalyptic histrionics take over.  After that, the score blends fierce action cues with very rugged suspense and drama – very effectively.  No punches are pulled in the action, which comes in various forms – the desperately dark “Axe Gang” is quite oppressive, contrasting with “Blackout Fight” which has a more expansive feel (but remains far from cheerful!) – the latter is perhaps the most crowd-pleasing piece here.  Cleverly, Beltrami uses a battery of percussion to convey the sense of forward motion of the train, a relentless march on.

His soundscape is an interesting one: a lonely dulcimer in “Water Supply” contrasting arrestingly with the freezing strings around it.  Importantly, at times the composer allows the listener a moment of calm, a chance to draw breath – “Go Ahead” has a hint of warmer emotion to it and is followed by an elegant classical piano solo in “Sushi” making a nice break from the general anarchy.

The dramatic thrust is soon back, the appropriately-titled “We Go Forward” driving from a typical Beltrami action ostinato into some electronics (continuing in “Steam Car”) which more literally evoke the train.  “Seoul Train” is a surprising piece of electronica, not expected in the context of the score but somehow blending seamlessly with the whole.  Strained emotion is at the fore of the bittersweet “Take My Place”, desperately sad yet also very beautiful (the melodic highlight of the album, in fact) and it is the first of four cues which end the album in some style.  “Yona Lights” has a real sweep to it, the strings swelling in a way they rarely have before that point; it feels cathartic.  “This is the Beginning” is full of sunlight and optimism, a rousing finale to the score which I suspect is going to find itself included on many people’s “favourites” playlists.  There’s still time for an epilogue, “Yona’s Theme”, a haunting waltz with real character (and a funny little choral Easter Egg once it ends).

As impressive as much of it is, the album isn’t an unqualified success: particularly in its second half, a few cues seem a little lifeless and detract from the overall experience.  A slightly more judicious production may have enabled this to be considered amongst the very top tier Beltrami scores, but as it stands it is a little short of that.  That said, this is undoubtedly my favourite Beltrami score in a long time: it is no less brutal than The Wolverine or World War Z but far more satisfying an album and certainly comes recommended.

Rating: ****

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  1. Palavar on Monday 14 July, 2014 at 03:44

    I know Beltrami is really a go to guy for horror or action material, it seems, but I’d really love to see him lean more in the direction of his Soul Surfer material. Good melody, smart orchestration, not insane in large portions. That isn’t too much to ask, is it? Still, I’ve been hearing good things about this for a long time, so may have to check out.

  2. James Southall on Monday 14 July, 2014 at 08:12

    Yeah, Soul Surfer was really very good. He does seem to like this sort of thing though (and he is very good at it).

  3. mastadge on Monday 14 July, 2014 at 12:58

    Oddly, he apparently doesn’t really like this sort of thing. To wit, from a recent interview about Snowpiercer (http://www.filmmusicmag.com/?p=13153): “It’s really not the genre that inspires me. Truthfully, I have an aversion to horror movies because I’m such a cheap scare.” Even as far back as the 90s: “I wouldn’t want to be typecast as a horror composer since it’s not a genre I’m too familiar with. In fact, Scream was the first horror movie I’d even seen – I hadn’t seen the Halloween movies or anything. It’s not something I would have placed myself in doing, and I think that’s why the Scream and Mimic scores have been successful as music scores. Since I’m not aware of horror movies, I don’t think I’m falling into the cliches. I don’t think my music necessarily lends itself to one particular style.” (http://www.soundtrack.net/content/article/?id=13)

    From the same interview, on his process: “My style is to watch the film, and get ideas for it while away from any instrument, because I find that if you’re working at a particular instrument, it tends to colorize your vision of the piece. For example, if you work at a piano, you write piano music. So I need to get the concept of it first – to work on the melody in my head, and then sit at a piano and play some ideas through. Only then do I begin writing.”

  4. Synchrotones on Wednesday 16 July, 2014 at 17:08

    I’ve been listening to it today… but I just can’t get into it. I’m a big fan of the Beltrami, and there are a few moments that get me quite excited, but on the whole… I’m struggling with this one.

  5. tiago on Friday 18 July, 2014 at 02:30

    Anyone else also heard a hint from Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings on the track “Yona Lights”?