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The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power

Like a load of other people, I watched the first couple of episodes of The Rings of Power yesterday. I didn’t know what to expect, going in – and I enjoyed it, a lot. We all know how much the thing has cost and there’s no way it will “make money” (whatever that means to a streaming service) for Amazon, but you can see all the money on the screen, which isn’t always the case with these things. If you put some slightly ropey drama school acting from the largely-unknown cast (and one visual effects shot that looked pretty awful), the thing does at least look spectacular, and I’m sure I’ll enjoy it for that even if it doesn’t pick up the momentum it probably will.

It sounds great, too, thanks to Bear McCreary. It’s funny to remember the general “meh” reaction to Howard Shore being signed to do Peter Jackson’s movies, back in the day (rumours had been flying around for ages about various other big-name film composers being offered them and turning them down for whatever reason) – and him going on to write his career-defining work, still beloved now. I don’t know how many composers were asked before McCreary – I know at least one was, who had to pull out due to other commitments – but it seems the producers have pulled off a bit of a masterstroke by hiring him. Let’s face it – he works on an awful lot of tv shows, along with movies and games, and to do that he has to have a large team helping him out – but you get the sense that this is one he’s very much taken personal charge of.

Unusually, the main album was released a couple of weeks before the show aired. It’s a massive album – two and a half hours – and interestingly, is split down the middle between “theme suites” and pieces of underscore. (I’ve always wished Howard Shore had found some way of writing John Williams-style concert suites of his themes – it’s not really his way, I suppose.)

Lots of these themes are good. McCreary has said there are fifteen of them. The best is “Galadriel”, lush and sweeping and with a hint of mystique. It’s all over the first two episodes of the show. One thing I do notice is that lots of the themes share very similar harmonic palettes – with the exception of the more comic material for the Harfoots, there aren’t particularly obvious aural shifts as the show moves from one part of Middle Earth to another. I guess it’s a way of musically demonstrating the connection between all the people we’re seeing early on – and in fairness, later on the album some of the themes do take on rather different forms.

There is a Howard Shore theme here too. It’s good – Shore is not a composer I would necessarily pick if I wanted a short and snappy theme for my tv show (and his theme here is no better than any of the McCreary ones, frankly) but clearly there’s a marketing opportunity there (one which so far does not seem to have been taken). The downside is that it means the “main theme” doesn’t appear anywhere in the underscore since McCreary wrote that without hearing what Shore came up with. It’s interesting how it is not jarring at all – they are very much of the same sonic world (I suppose I’m saying we don’t have an Obi-Wan Kenobi situation here). And it’s interesting that while McCreary in no way whatsoever tries to imitate Shore (the genesis of the music can clearly be heard in earlier scores by its composer – in particular God of War and Da Vinci’s Demons, to my ears) – he does manage to write music that sounds like it’s scoring the same universe as Shore did.

Within the show itself, it’s quite striking how up-front the music often is. Back when Peter Jackson was making his films, it was still not unusual for music to be allowed to play a big role in big fantasy epics. It is certainly rather unusual today. Released almost concurrently with this is House of the Dragon – try noticing the music in that. It’s chalk and cheese.

Is there anything here which provides the instant gratification of Shore’s Fellowship theme or his delightful music for the Shire? – no, in a word. But a couple of weeks into listening to this, I could hum three or four of the themes to you. I’m not sure I remember another tv show where that would be true. McCreary’s been given the opportunity to paint on an epic canvas here – a dream opportunity for any composer – and he’s delivered absolutely the best thing that he’s ever delivered.

Along with this lengthy album, each episode is getting its own album. Interestingly, the first couple (which I have not heard) barely share any tracks in common with the long album, which makes me wonder if even the underscore tracks we have here are edited-together. (Surely “Prologue” from the first episode’s album covers the same ground as “In the Beginning” on this one? – yet the tracks are different lengths.)

This is a real triumph, undoubtedly McCreary’s own career-defining moment. And the great news is that if you want to stay immersed in Middle Earth during the interminable wait between new episodes, you can just listen to part of one of Shore’s Hobbit albums.

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  1. Kostas (Reply) on Saturday 3 September, 2022 at 22:00

    Excellent advance review! Looking forward to reading your opinion on MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE: REVELATION

  2. Matt C (Reply) on Sunday 4 September, 2022 at 18:22

    I liked the score for the TV series so far, but I kinda wish McCreary had quoted Shore’s LOTR material in it (seeing as how Amazon negotiated with New Line to use material from Hobbit/LOTR films). Still good quality.

    If you have the chance to explore more of Bear McCreary’s TV music output, his work on the short-lived “The Cape” series (LLL released an album that’s OOP) is worth checking out. He pays homage to Williams, Elfman and Shirley Walker in that show — and it’s still a distinct McCreary score.

    Love it.

  3. napilopez (Reply) on Friday 9 September, 2022 at 21:13

    Thank you for this review — I very much agree with all of it. I think it’s McReary’s best work since Battlestar Galactica, and it might be better since I take off my nostalgia goggles.

    I think one missed opportunity is actually with the orchestration and mixing in the album though. Shore’s albums are very different from most modern scores in that they have a very “wet” sound. Tons of reverb, mixed much more like you might mix a Mahler recording. And of course, a huge collection of musicians. It makes you feel more like you’re listening to a performance at the orchestra.

    McReary’s score is “big” but it’s mostly mixed with a much drier sound akin to most modern scores, and it uses a smaller choir. Despite the score being very forward in the show — something I love — I feel the mixing of sound makes it sound smaller in scope than it actually is.

    Still though, this is one of the best TV soundtracks I’ve heard in years — better than most movies too.

  4. Joris (Reply) on Monday 26 September, 2022 at 11:31

    Hi James,

    another great review aptly depicted. No ratings though for this album, or is my browser toying with me? Cheers.

  5. Alexander S. (Reply) on Wednesday 19 October, 2022 at 07:46

    This is by far the best score I’ve heard in years. The themes are constructed brilliantly, the orchestration is colorful, the sound is pristine and, above all, listening to it never gets boring. I haven’t enjoyed a release so much since the Star Wars Box in the 90’s.