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Wildly experimental music is a hard slog, but worth it

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Album cover copyright (c) 1992 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation; review copyright (c) 2006 James Southall

Much-derided at the time of its release, the years seem to have been rather kind to Alien 3.  After Ridley Scott's exceptional Alien (surely one of the most influential films of its time) and James Cameron's daft (but entertaining) shoot-em-up sequel, David Fincher's movie was rather bleak, rather violent, and I thought at the time, very effective - brilliantly-designed and shot, the only real misfire for me was a bit of strange casting.  It also served as the mainstream introduction of Elliot Goldenthal to an unsuspecting world.

Goldenthal had scored a handful of projects beforehand - none of them particularly high-profile - and so his uncompromisingly bleak music was a bit of a shock to many listeners, particularly after James Horner's crowdpleasing effort on Aliens.  To use a footballing expression, Goldenthal sets his stall out early doors with the first track, "Agnus Dei", being bone-chillingly cold, a solo choirboy joining a mildly dissonant orchestra.  The second track, "Bait and Chase" (when I loaded the disc into my computer for this review, the automatic track title system amusingly called it "Bait and Cheese") sums the whole score up, really - blaring brass action music alternating with exceptionally dark suspense highlighted by high strings accompanying the deepest of bass brass and percussion.

The score continues in such uncompromising fashion.  This score is clearly a watershed in Goldenthal's career, a seminal moment.  He himself has described it as "an experiment" - one which took him a full year to write - and so many of his subsequent scores are based around similar ideas.  Many Goldenthal fans will tell you it is a masterpiece, and it's here that I begin to take issue - it's a brilliant work, clearly one crafted extremely carefully and precisely, and one which works extremely well in the film - but is so unremittingly bleak that it is unlikely to be a CD that many people listen to particularly often.

Even tracks which don't hammer you over the head and beat you into submission don't exactly fill you with warmth - "Lento" is beautiful, for sure, with a lovely part for choirboy, but that is still filled with a detached sense of coldness.  When it is followed by tracks full of the kind of brutal dissonance which dominate "Candles in the Wind" ("Goodbye, Norma Jean...") and "Wreckage and Rape", it is difficult for any sense of beauty to linger in the memory, in any case.  

"Death Dance" is a brilliant piece, one of the finest examples of Goldenthal's unmistakable action music style (well, OK, I suppose you might mistake it for Corigliano).  Utterly thrilling, it is exactly the sort of piece the composer would use in later action scores.  This is followed by the haunting "Visit to the Wreckage", in which warmth is again notable by its absence, but the brass writing is gorgeous.  It's back to the action in "Explosion and Aftermath", probably the score's standout action piece, with the frilly brass trills joined by swirling strings and clanking percussion - until a surprise towards its end, when finally, after nearly 40 minutes, there is just the tiniest hint of warmth, the smallest glimmer of hope, for the first time in the score.  (Needless to say, it doesn't last long - it's followed by "The Dragon", which is so dissonant and experimental it verges on the musique concrète.)  

Trademark Goldenthal shimmering strings close out "The Entrapment" in beautiful fashion (and, again, it is a device he has used frequently since) before things are rounded off with "Adagio", a romantic piece reminiscent of the way Goldsmith had intended to finish the first Alien (before Ridley Scott got too involved with his temp track).  Finally, at last, music which seems to rise from the dark like the morning sun and cast warmth over everything - it's a rousing and remarkable way to finish.  Alien 3 is a masterful film score - an impressive composition - but be warned, it takes some real work before you can start to actually enjoy it!


  1. Agnus Dei (4:29)
  2. Bait and Chase (4:40)
  3. The Beast Within (3:07)
  4. Lento (5:48)
  5. Candles in the Wind (3:20)
  6. Wreckage and Rape (2:41)
  7. The First Attack (4:18)
  8. Lullaby Elegy (3:39)
  9. Death Dance (2:15)
  10. Visit to the Wreckage (2:02)
  11. Explosion and Aftermath (2:19)
  12. The Dragon (3:05)
  13. The Entrapment (3:40)
  14. Adagio (4:14)