Latest reviews of new albums:
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
  • Composed by Howard Shore
  • WaterTower Music / 2012 / 127m

It always seemed quite likely that at some point The Hobbit would make it onto the big screen from the same team that brought forth the excellent Lord of the Rings trilogy just after the turn of the century.  It took a decade, marred by numerous challenges to the production from financial problems at the studio and a change of director, for the first of the new trilogy to arrive.  The first thing a lot of people thought when it was announced that the book was being split into two parts to be filmed was – why?  It’s a pretty slight children’s book, nothing like as deep as the Lord of the Rings ones, so it seemed a dangerous game to play dramatically to split it in two.  It was of course good news that Peter Jackson ultimately ended up in the director’s chair – Guillermo del Toro having been signed up for a while – but he isn’t exactly renowned for the tightness of his storytelling.  Then the decision was taken – very late on – to try to milk the cash cow that little bit more by turning two films into three.  Coming next from Jackson: a 365-part adaptation of The Silmarillion, one part for each of the book’s pages.

Not surprisingly, An Unexpected Journey feels like a particularly unfinished one.  It’s nothing like a film – it sort of builds up to nothing, with unnecessary details added to pad out the running time that add nothing to the story, as slight as it is in the first place.  To repeat an oft-heard quip: the film not only doesn’t go “there and back again”, it doesn’t even get “there” – hopefully once the three are released, the complete story will prove satisfying.  The film relies a lot on good will towards Jackson’s Middle Earth universe generated by his previous tales, and it’s true that can get you a long way: it’s great to be back there.  It’s a lighter, wittier story too.

Howard Shore

Howard Shore

Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings music was widely praised at the time and has since become beloved by many people in the way that few film scores are.  But there was a bit of nervousness as to whether he would come back and do The Hobbit: Jackson had – to the shock of most – rejected Shore’s music for his bloated King Kong remake.  There were numerous sighs of relief when it was announced that they had reconciled their differences and Shore would, indeed, be back in Middle Earth.  When the film finally emerged, it seemed that something still might not quite be right – with music controversially tracked in from Lord of the Rings a few times to provide a bit of musical familiarity that didn’t make leitmotivic sense, replacing the composer’s original compositions for the new film.

I’m not the wild devotee that many have become, but I’m certainly a fan of Shore’s Rings scores: they’re very enjoyable, there are several fine themes, they hit just the right dramatic note all the time, and it’s great how the composer managed to create distinct musical worlds within the overall world – you know when you’re in Hobbiton or Lothlorien or wherever thanks to the different colours in the music.  People have written thousands and thousands of words about the thematic depth of the scores, to the point of obsession; and while those same people are writing very similar words about The Hobbit, I’m afraid that The Unexpected Journey is a different beast entirely.

Gone are those distinctive musical worlds within the whole – this time around, everything takes place in the same dreary, murky soundscape.  I’m sure there are dozens of new themes here – in fact I know there are, because people on messageboards keep telling me there are, and people on messageboards are never wrong – but the average listener is unlikely to notice them.  And that same average listener is particularly badly-served by the album releases: there’s a special edition (this album) which is over two hours long, designed to allow those in love with Shore’s music or the film to explore it in great depth.  And there’s a standard edition, which is almost two hours long, and I’m not really sure what that’s designed to do.  It’s far too long to be satisfying to the average listener who wants a musically-satisfying collection of highlights, padded out with absolutely loads of uninteresting murkiness; and the devotees won’t buy it (except to hear the brief passages of music that are inexplicably on the shorter album but not the longer one).  I don’t have an ideological opposition to long film score albums, but the music has to be interesting enough to sustain them; and this music, I’m afraid, falls a long way short of being interesting enough.

Most mystifying of all is just how maddeningly murky it all is.  Where’s the lightness, the humour?  For five tracks, covering 24 minutes, at the start of the album, you’re hit over the head repeatedly by extraordinarily oppressive, dense music with barely a light moment at all – there’s a nice return to familiar territory in “Old Friends” with Shore’s wonderful hobbit theme making an appearance, but asides from that and a bit of nice Beethoven-ish string writing in “An Unexpected Party”, it’s extremely downbeat and, sadly, dreary stuff – I can’t find fun here, nor any great satisfaction.  No doubt someone will point out the four thousand thematic developments within these five tracks and that’s fine, it clearly takes a huge amount of work to conjure up something like that – but can it be that while doing so, Shore may just have lost track of the more pressing need to write something that does the film score’s most simple job, to support the film?  Is it possible that in putting so much thought into the detail, he lost sight of the bigger picture?  I don’t know – but I do wonder.

Fortunately there is an injection of something far more memorable in the next cue, “Misty Mountains”, which introduces a theme which goes on to run through the rest of the score, a lovely theme for the dwarves and by far the score’s most memorable feature.  It’s not actually by Howard Shore – rather, by a New Zealand group called Plan 9 – but aside from that initial vocal introduction, it is given his very customary orchestration.  More impressive too is the upbeat part of “The Adventure Begins”, which is lighthearted and playful in a way that I wish more of the score had been.  The most satisfying portion of the album continues with “The World is Ahead”, in which the orchestral version of the “Misty Mountains” theme is heard for the first time.

After that I’m sorry to say that it’s more than a bit of a slog to get to the finish, a slog admittedly punctuated occasionally by moments of real quality.  But somehow the murky chorus accompanied by piercing strings and blaring low horns which is so familiar from Shore’s past just doesn’t hold any appeal for me any more – “An Ancient Enemy” is dank, depressing and utterly unlikeable, coming across as an uninspired retread of similar (much better-executed) ideas in Lord of the Rings.  I’ve no doubt that many will love hearing music like this again, but I find myself not just finding it hard to like it, I actually actively dislike it.  Perhaps it’s me that’s changed or perhaps it’s Howard Shore, but all of a sudden a style of music that once sounded impressive now sounds tired and I’m just not that interested in hearing it.  Even the concluding song – now a customary feature of these films – is a let down.  Neil Finn’s “Song of the Lonely Mountain” (which draws in part from “Misty Mountains”) is singularly unattractive, particularly in its arrangement and the weird 80s stylisation to the vocal.

Nobody could doubt the compositional quality of a track like “Roast Mutton”, often cited as one of the score’s finest; but a brief burst of “Misty Mountains” aside, it’s so wearingly bleak, the score in a nutshell – I can hear the thought process that’s gone into it, I can see that it’s mirroring the pattern of the film, but I just can’t enjoy it.  And there is so much music like that on the album.  Given that geological eras come and go in the time it takes to play from start to finish, that’s a serious problem.  I’m not sure there’s enough really interesting music here, the sort to make the listener sit up and take note, for an album even half as long as the original Lord of the Rings ones; and in fact, the album’s twice as long as them.  I’m afraid I just don’t like it.  There are some fine highlights (the action finale “Out of the Frying Pan” is pretty spectacular) and it’s very clear from the general reaction that my feelings place me firmly in the minority – and frankly it’s not difficult to imagine that the unnecessarily padded film left Shore in a much more difficult place than the fine ones he scored for Jackson before – but ultimately, it feels like a huge chore to sit through it all.

Rating: ** | |

Tags: ,

  1. Debbie (Reply) on Saturday 14 December, 2013 at 18:46

    Sadly, I agree with you. I loved Lord of the Rings books and soundtrack and thought that the soundtrack was much closer to the book than the movie was.(I did not like the movie)
    Having bought Hobbit however, it sits unheard on my nano…
    Probably not entirely Shore’s fault, the silly movie meanders around , so what is a soundtrack supposed to do with an aimless movie?
    Silmarillion needs a different director for sure if it ever comes to pass

  2. Edmund Meinerts (Reply) on Saturday 14 December, 2013 at 18:47

    I think it’s best I not comment too much on this review for fear that I degenerate into a string of Dwarvish curse words…

  3. Erik Woods (Reply) on Saturday 14 December, 2013 at 19:01

    Excellent review, James.

  4. Solaris (Reply) on Saturday 14 December, 2013 at 20:16

    What was the point of you reviewing this, given the fact that a) you already stated that you disliked this Score, b) seem to struggle to write anything about it and c) generally dislike most Albums that are longer than, like, 30 Minutes.

    I respect your Opinion and if you particularly dislike something, its your damn right, but this venture seems pointless to me. :\

  5. James Southall (Reply) on Saturday 14 December, 2013 at 20:20

    The last review I wrote was a five-star review of the 75-minute Gravity album. I prefer writing about things I like, of course, but don’t think that’s all I should do.

  6. Christian K (Reply) on Saturday 14 December, 2013 at 21:17

    Howdy –

    Only two brief comments, nothing like the battle of words you and I used to have ten years ago…

    “Given that geological eras come and go in the time it takes to play from start to finish, that’s a serious problem.” Being a geologist AND a film music fan, this made me laugh out loud, so kudos for that.

    On a more serious note, I completely get where you are coming from, James. There is value to everything you point out, from the overall murkiness to the obsessive fans (me definitely being one of them!). When I read your review, I did so remembering what your opinion was on the LotR trilogy, so this one didn’t “hit” me unprepared. I somewhat agree that the freshness of Shore’s music for Middle-earth may not be the same any more, but then again, that’s to be expected. I still would have his take over anybody’s other, frankly. Everything you mention that makes you dislike this score does the opposite for me, so it all, once again, comes down to differing taste.

    And there’s not much arguing that.

    Loved reading this review, and I’m looking to reading the one for Desolation of Smaug in a year’s time! 😉

    Best wishes, CK

  7. Erik Woods (Reply) on Saturday 14 December, 2013 at 21:50

    I don’t see the point of your comment, Solaris. While James’ review is negative it presents valid criticism that offers soundtrack aficionados and general music fans alike an alternate view point of the music. This isn’t James Southall’s Film Music Reviews Of Only Scores He Likes. That would be boring as bat shit and I wouldn’t come to a page that presents ONLY positive reviews.

  8. James Southall (Reply) on Saturday 14 December, 2013 at 21:55

    Thanks, Erik. I was surprised by Solaris’s comment. I know he’s been a reader for a long time and hope he continues visiting the site.

    And thanks, Christian. I actually thought of you (and Edmund) while I was writing this. The main reason for not writing it sooner was that I wanted to be absolutely sure before I did – (a) because I’ve looked a bit foolish in the past when I’ve been too hasty in reviewing something; and (b) because I know how much this music means to some people, and how irritating it can be when some fool dumps on something you love.

  9. Solaris (Reply) on Saturday 14 December, 2013 at 23:20

    Okay, sorry for sounding rude earlier (I was already in a rather pissed-off mood as it were, which may have partly influenced my tone) but “The Hobbit: An unexpected Journey” was easily my favourite Score of 2012. When I first listened to it, I listened to the entire Album in one go, keeping the Film (which was fresh in my memory as I watched it the day before that) in mind and paying attention to the multitude of both new Themes and the careful statements of the old ones in mind. I also had no problem with the overall style, on the contrary listening to this score was like a visit by an old friend or (to get even more metaphoric) coming home. I know that its an expected and (after 10 Hours of LotR) well-worn Style, but as someone who could listen to a bazillion Drama-Scores from John Barry or James Horner (with all their similarities) without a problem, this wasnt a big deal for me either.

    Yeah, the bottom line is that this is all opinion-based and as it happens, your Opinion is diametrically opposed from mine. Which is entirely fine, it would be outright boring if everyone would love/hate the same things. Franky, I guess my problem with the review wasnt that you had a different Opinion (which shouldnt be a problem at all) but its structure, which I felt was basically a few variations of ‘I know it should be xxx, but I just cant see it’. On top of that, there isnt much in-depth analysis. For a number of Scores you go cue-for-cue, point out what is where and which Themes, but here there is some backstory, a broad outline and a final verdict. And on top of THAT – and I know I get into ‘apples and oranges’-Territory here) I couldnt help but think of your Reviews for James Horners’ Score for “Patriot Games” and “Clear and Present Danger” which were both afforded positve in-depth-Reviews (MY OWN OPINION on these two rests closer with CCs. Make of that what you will.)

    Of course I will continiue reading, I meant no insult. I just needed to get this off my chest.

  10. James Southall (Reply) on Sunday 15 December, 2013 at 00:41

    No insult taken. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  11. Chris Avis (Reply) on Sunday 15 December, 2013 at 05:04

    First of all, I have to say that James’ review is fine… it’s clear that he’s given the music a thorough listen, up to his usual excellent standards and has given an honest and fair opinion of its merits.

    That said, like Solaris above, I have to disagree with this opinion. Both Hobbit scores are fine pieces of work and amongst the best film music of their respective years, though neither is as powerful as the original LOTR scores. Both scores also took their time to really grow on me, but now that I’m more familiar with them, I enjoy them both immensely.

    James raises the excellent point about the release strategy for the scores. The 2-disk special edition is essentially akin to the complete recordings we got for the earlier trilogy, ideally suited to those who want to probe the details of the score in depth. It’s baffling as to why the standard edition, presumably aimed at the general moviegoing audience and/or score fans who aren’t so enamored with Shore’s work wasn’t released in a single disk highlights edition which might have trimmed the fat and shown the work in a better light.

    Anyways, a solid review nonetheless and we’re each entitled to our opinion (I for one would never have acclaimed Gravity as a 5-star score, but that’s another story entirely…)


  12. Chris Avis (Reply) on Sunday 15 December, 2013 at 05:08

    Out of curiosity, James, was your general opinion any different on Desolation of Smaug?


  13. Daniel Azevedo (Reply) on Sunday 15 December, 2013 at 19:09

    James, thank you for yet another insightful review.

    I tried to like the music for the first Lord of the Rings films. I really did. I bought the regular edition. Then the complete recordings — all three of them. I ordered Doug Adams’s book from Amazon. And I bought the special edition of the first Hobbit score. But I can now get it off my chest: this music does nothing for me. Zero. Nada.

    You may have hit the nail on the head when you say that Shore lost sight of the big picture. I just got back from seing the second Hobbit filme and it was, as usual, overscored to death. The music is incessant, like some kind of murky wallpaper that will not give up. Even when the movie does not need it, it is present, and it quickly gets tiresome. I might say overbearing. It’s the same crescendi over and over again, with murky underscore and not a single new memorable theme. Shore created a handful of themes for the first trilogy but seldom wrote any interesting variation of them, instead concentrating on very cerebral connections between intervals and musical details that the average viewer will fail to notice.

    I mourn that lack of emotional involvement in these scores. Whenever there is some kind of emotional suggestion (a major character’s sacrifice or some romance), it is done in a very cliched way such as using a solo voice to suggest sadness. The new movies are not much help, with overreliance on CGI. The orcs that were played by actors 10 years ago now are rendered with CGI and sometimes I felt I was watching a boring videogame played by someone else.

    Shore’s approach is terrific for some of the stuff he is known for, such as David Cronenberg’s films and Seven. But to me he missed the boat on Lord of the Rings and his music is one of the weakest aspects of these films. Even the end titles songs, which once were character or story-driven such as the ones sung by Emiliana Torrini or Annie Lennox, now are just generic ballads. The new films are indeed shameful, done just for the sake of milking the cash cow.

    I always wondered how a better dramatist such as James Horner might have scored the Lord of the Rings films. Now that’s something I would have wanted to hear… What do you think?


  14. Christian K (Reply) on Sunday 15 December, 2013 at 20:55

    If there is one thing that I will thank God (who is James Mason) for in eternity, then it is that James Horner rejected this assignment. It surely would have meant the effin’ four-note motif for the Nazgûl.

    Sorry, but not sorry. 😉

  15. James Southall (Reply) on Sunday 15 December, 2013 at 21:00

    I’m sure I would have loved Horner’s scores, but I wonder if he was really asked to do it, or if that was one of his interview blemishes.

  16. Solaris (Reply) on Sunday 15 December, 2013 at 21:13

    What if… Wojchiech Kilar had scored the LotR-Trilogy?

    Man, this is just too awesome to imagine. :O

  17. James Southall (Reply) on Sunday 15 December, 2013 at 21:16

    I must admit that it took me a long time to get over the glorious thought of Kilar scoring it – and I initially unfairly judged Shore against what might have been rather than what was.

  18. Solaris (Reply) on Sunday 15 December, 2013 at 21:31

    Have you ever listened to Kilars’ Concert Piece “Exodus”?

  19. Gorbadoc (Reply) on Monday 16 December, 2013 at 14:22

    “It’s the first time in a very long time that the score for a blockbuster has been this intricate, this detailed, had so much going on in it […]

    I can’t remember the last time I could say that about any score, let alone one for a big blockbuster. […]

    It’s this sort of score that got many people of my generation into loving film music in the first place […]

    I’ve been waiting a while for someone to strike back against the increasing mediocrity and frequent banality which has dominated music for big Hollywood blockbusters recently […]

    It’s a reminder of how good film music can be when it’s written by a proper composer with proper dramatic instincts, not some guy who subcontracts it all out to a team of people with fancy computers […]

    This is the score of the year.”

    I took the liberty to collect some sentences from the conclusion of your review of ‘Avatar’, because they express exactly how I feel about “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” 🙂 I think this is a perfect example of difference in taste: please allow me to complete the circle by using a quote from your Hobbit review above to express my personal view on ‘Avatar’ (or any other score by Horner):

    “[…] I just can’t enjoy it.”

  20. Anthony Aguilar (Reply) on Wednesday 18 December, 2013 at 12:55


    Once again you’ve written another absorbing and insightful review. Like many here, I disagree with your final analysis but can understand where you’re coming from. For a film that is supposed to be lighter fare than LOTR the score does come off a little heavy-handed at times. One of my worries a couple of years ago was that the intensity and tone of Shore’s scores would match the LOTR films’ apocalyptic style, and thus be inappropriate for the lighter “Hobbit” story. However, it seems that while the lighter elements of the story are still there, it is Peter Jackson who has brought the darker elements from the LOTR trilogy along for the ride (appendices, other Tolkien stories, etc…) and Shore simply composed the film he was given. Given that, I still loved the films and the scores.

    I’m with you, though, on the release strategy for the scores. I understand that the LOTR: CR sold like hot cakes, but a 2-disc ‘non-special-edition’ release? Seems a bit much to me. They definitely should have put all of the highlights onto one disc as it would have made for a tighter, more concise, and possibly more consistently enjoyable listening experience.

    Anyway, that is my $.02, if it is even worth that. Great review, as always!

  21. Jostein (Reply) on Friday 20 December, 2013 at 11:34

    Murky describes it pretty well. The music AND the recording itself.

  22. Edmund Meinerts (Reply) on Friday 20 December, 2013 at 19:08

    I wish the Standard Edition had been one disk and the Special Edition what it is now. That would make the most sense for everybody, I think.

  23. James Southall (Reply) on Friday 20 December, 2013 at 19:50

    Indeed, indeed.

  24. Solaris (Reply) on Friday 20 December, 2013 at 23:35

    Just out of curiousity, James, but what would be your Cue-picks for a 1CD-Edition of, like, 60 Minutes?

  25. mastadge (Reply) on Saturday 21 December, 2013 at 15:03

    Here’s a start, roughly 70 minutes. Your taste in cues might differ, though, and you may wish to incorporate some of the bonus cues which are quite good.

    My Dear Frodo (08:03)
    Misty Mountains (01:42)
    The Adventure Begins (02:04)
    The World Is Ahead (02:19)
    An Ancient Enemy (04:56)
    Radagast the Brown (Extended Version) (06:37)
    Roast Mutton (04:02)
    Warg-Scouts (03:02)
    The Hidden Valley (03:49)
    Over Hill (03:42)
    A Thunder Battle (03:54)
    Brass Buttons (7:37)
    Out of the Frying-Pan (05:55)
    A Good Omen (05:45)
    Dreaming of Bag End (01:56)