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The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
  • Composed by Howard Shore
  • WaterTower Music / 2013 / 129m

The middle part of Peter Jackson’s bloated adaptation of The Hobbit, The Desolation of Smaug sees the band of dwarves and a hobbit battling the dragon Smaug to take back the dwarves’ homeland.  It’s nothing like a film, lacking both a beginning and an ending, but to be fair nobody could deny how much middle it has.  Pacing issues from the first movie continue – some parts still seem to go on interminably, others feel like forced addenda to pad out the running time – but the tone issues are somewhat addressed (no forced, flat humour this time).

Howard Shore’s music for An Unexpected Journey, the first film, is one of the most crushing film music disappointments I can remember.  It may have lived in the same sonic realm as his wonderful The Lord of the Rings, but that’s about it – the magic just wasn’t there.  It was nice to hear snippets of some of the old themes again, but apart from the wonderful Misty Mountains theme, the new material felt tired and dreary and so joyless, it took me a year to muster the enthusiasm to listen to it enough times to write a review of it.  It is only fair to note that a number of Shore’s Middle Earth music devotees continued their devotion and managed to love it, evidently finding things there that weren’t even vaguely apparent to me.

Howard Shore

Howard Shore

There’s one piece of really good news about The Desolation of Smaug – recorded in Shore’s absence (I am not really sure why), there is a vibrancy and clarity to the recording which was absent from his previous music in this universe.  People say they can’t tell that it was the first Middle Earth score not orchestrated and conducted by Shore himself (Conrad Pope filled that dual role instead) and maybe that’s the case, but surely nobody could with a straight face claim they can’t hear the difference in recording.  Everything isn’t buried under mud, instrumental lines are so much clearer, there is a life here which makes listening to the super-long album so much easier.

Sadly, a lot of the other issues I had with An Unexpected Journey return in the sequel.  Like that score, it was released in two editions – a special edition, running just over two hours, aimed at Shore completists eager to explore the music in as much depth as possible; and a regular edition, running almost as long and nobody’s entirely sure who that one’s aimed at.  Those wanting a tightly-produced album which actually functions as a listening experience were again left disappointed.

After sitting through the horrendous opening 22 minutes of the album one could be forgiven for fearing the worst for this score but finally a track of interest arrives, “Flies and Spiders”, which by no coincidence is also the first time the austere seriousness lets up for a minute or two and there is actually the impression for the first time that the listener is allowed to enjoy himself.  Not long after, “Feast of Starlight” is a gorgeous piece, a lilting Morricone-style melody sung beautifully by a boy soprano, orchestration for once simple and direct, emotional shackles released.  The theme reappears later, just as attractive in “Kingsfoil”.

I love “The Forest River”, the best piece in the score, an action track which sticks with the general dark tone but sees some frantic melodies explode from that backdrop.  Its proportions are massive – room-shaking, no doubt – and here Shore achieves what his best music from his original Middle Earth adventures did – compositionally complex (as are even the most humdrum parts of The Hobbit scores) but dramatically rich, emotionally direct and engaging.  It’s a pleasure to hear a piece like that, which could sit alongside most of even the finest moments from The Lord of the Rings.

It’s hard to believe that only an hour has passed by the time the second disc starts with “Thrice Welcome”, which for a few bars at least is quite a fun little thing, before the misery sets in again.  I quite like “In the Shadow of the Mountain”, which has darting little flashes of colour punctuating the fog and a dashing, almost Herrmannesque romantic grandeur to the strings.  “On the Doorstep” is a lengthy piece which meanders for a while but also contains a beautiful, moving little melody, again notable by its simplicity.  “Inside Information” is a completely different-sounding piece of action music – indeed, so different does it sound from anything else that it seems really rather incongruous – but on its own terms it’s most entertaining.

“A Liar and a Thief” is a pretty intense piece of action and leads nicely into another of the score’s real highlights, “The Hunters”.  It’s ten minutes long and doesn’t maintain its strength throughout, but there are parts of it which are breathlessly exciting – despite being blisteringly dark.  The following “Smaug” is even darker and is largely forgettable but there are one or two places where Shore goes unexpectedly avant garde and they are just fantastic.  Consistently impressive is “My Armour is Iron” – it’s murky for sure but fast-paced and stylish, aggressive yet satisfying.  The album still has a couple of tracks to go – an Ed Sheeran song, “I See Fire”, nice enough without pulling up any trees (and whose melody doesn’t find its way into any of Shore’s score) and then an orchestral finale, “Beyond the Forest”, which is outstanding.

I really don’t understand why The Hobbit scores have been released the way they have and the lack of a properly produced album for the casual (or, to be honest, discerning) listener is very disappointing.  But whereas An Unexpected Journey had the wonderful “Misty Mountains” theme, I doubt that more than half an hour or so of the music in the score was all that interesting and I wonder whether a particularly interesting album could have been drawn from it at all; The Desolation of Smaug doesn’t have that memorable theme, but instead it has some very fine set pieces and probably around an hour of music that’s consistently good.  That means that overall it’s a distinct step up over its predecessor – it suffers from the same faults but Shore injects that little bit more energy into a higher portion of it.  It still needs an album producer to go through it meticulously and chop out the fat, but there’s more than enough here to make it worth persevering, however hard that is at times.

Rating: ***

See also:
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Howard Shore | |

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  1. tiago (Reply) on Saturday 6 December, 2014 at 21:14

    I like The Hobbit’s scores, it’s not good as The Lord of the Rings, but, there, you have probably the best and most epic film score of the twenty first century. An Unexpected Journey is a nice soundtrack, and Desolation of Smaug has its moments, but, overall, it’s the least good Middle-earth soundtrack.

    The main problem that I have with those soundtracks is the horrible way Peter Jackson is treating them. There’s a lot of differences between the music on the film and on the album. The horrible edition of DOS makes the music seem out of place. and, in AUJ, everyone who watched the movie remembers the bizarre apparition of the Ringwraiths theme on the battle between Thorin and Azog. And, with all respect for the musicians of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and Conrad Pope, but I still prefer the LPO, with Shore conducting and orchestrating.

  2. Edmund Meinerts (Reply) on Saturday 6 December, 2014 at 22:40

    You like it twice as much as I’d expect and about half as much as it deserves…or something Bilboish like that.

    Oddly enough, though, I prefer the first one, and actually this is the one drags more on its 2-CD album.

  3. orion_mk3 (Reply) on Sunday 7 December, 2014 at 04:53

    With LOTR, we got our 75-minute albums and theatrical cuts, with the Expanded Editions of both available for enthusiasts who didn’t mind the bloat. Now, they’re starting us out with the bloated EEs as PJ continues to Lucas up his prequels something fierce

    All of that said, though, part of me wonders if the professional rupture that Jackson and Shore had during King Kong poisoned these later collaborations. It would go a long way to explain the hacking-up of the scores in the editing room and the reshuffling of back-room personnel, as well as the feeling that Shore’s heart just ain’t in the undertaking.

  4. Ian Simpson (Reply) on Sunday 14 December, 2014 at 15:19

    I slightly prefer this one to An Unexpected Journey- I think it has some fairly bland sections but also some good tracks as well. Incidentally, I’ve just been listening to The Battle of the Five Armies and consider that soundtrack to be an improvement over The Desolution of Smaug, so at least Shore appears to be heading in the right direction again.

  5. Rob (Reply) on Wednesday 24 December, 2014 at 21:59

    Yeah, there’s something so needlessly frustrating about the release of the Hobbit scores on different sets being only minutes and a track or two difference. Both versions are 2 discs, I want to ask WHY??

    One Disc versions of the LOTR trilogy work fine as a compilation. I go back and forth between that and the Complete Recordings and be satisfied equally for different reasons, former for highlight reel and latter for narrative.

  6. Rob (Reply) on Saturday 12 September, 2015 at 19:19

    Still eagerly awaiting for your Battle of the Five Armies review. Hoping it’ll do a Return of the King effect of restraining a bit too much and then go full out. The opening alone Fire and Water far surpasses the previous openings, and I am certain there are plenty more highlights in the first disc this time around. Bred for War, Guardians of the Three, and Battle for the Mountain as my personal favorites.