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Harsh, brutal music from Horner pulls no punches, takes no prisoners

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Album cover copyright (c) 2006 Hollywood Records; review copyright (c) 2007 James Southall

Whatever you think of him as a person, Mel Gibson has turned out to be a surprisingly bold and daring director, spending vast quantities of his personal fortune on his last couple of movies to bankroll seemingly-uncommercial fare which would never be touched by a major studio.  After the dizzying The Passion of the Christ, Gibson again looks to ancient times and tells a brutal story (so brutal, some reviews of Apocalypto have called it a horror film) surveying a slice of the great Mayan civilisation which flourished for centuries.

After turning down the chance to score The Passion (allowing John Debney to step in and write a heartfelt, impressive score), Gibson's usual composer James Horner returns for Apocalypto.  Despite having a reputation as being a conventional composer, when he chooses to, Horner can really push the creative boat out, and he very much does so here - there is no orchestra, but instead a collection of weird and wonderful, mostly extremely rare wind and percussion instruments, augmented by wailing vocals and synthesised strings, which create exactly the right kind of primal sound.  It's probably not authentic in the slightest, but it sounds it, and that's all that matters.

Despite this novel approach, and indeed soloist Tony Hinnigan's comment that much of the score was improvised, the music is instantly-identifiable as being from the redoubtable Horner, with his trademarks stamped everywhere.  Personally I find it quite reassuring that a composer can completely abandon all of his usual tools and still come out of it sounding like nobody other than himself, but Horner's is a singular voice indeed.

The music growls and snarls its way through an hour of mostly brutal, uncompromising material.  The unsettling vocals, the arresting percussion and the primal wind solos combine to form what could, I suppose, be considered the flipside to Horner's recent score for The New World, which wasn't in the film very much, but filled out a wonderful album.  Where that score emphasised everything that was calm and beautiful about its centuries-old tale, Apocalypto does exactly the opposite, taking every opportunity to highlight brutality, darkness and terror.  It is done in such a stark way, in such contrast to the composer's usual emotional approach, and is never less than impressive.

However, the score is so effective and, frankly, so brilliant at doing what it wants to do, it is difficult to imagine that many people will actually enjoy listening to it when removed from the film.  When one hears Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan growling as only he can, and Terry Edwards shrieking "POW!" in accompaniment, all heard over the top of several ethnic flutes gradually building into a fervour and the constant, insistent percussion creating the most frenzied music you could imagine, it is very hard to reconcile this with the fact that it has come from the pen of a composer often lambasted for being too obvious and too lightweight.  It's an outstanding film score, there's no doubt about it, but be warned that as a listening experience, it is as uncomfortable as they come.


  1. From the Forest (1:55)
  2. Tapir Hunt (1:31)
  3. The Storyteller's Dreams (3:40)
  4. Holcane Attack (9:27)
  5. Captives (3:06)
  6. Entering the City with a Future Foretold (6:05)
  7. Sacrificial Procession (3:40)
  8. Words Through the Sky / The Eclipse (5:11)
  9. The Games and Escape (5:14)
  10. An Elusive Quarry (2:14)
  11. Frog Darts (2:45)
  12. No Longer the Hunted (5:50)
  13. Civilisations Brought By Sea (2:19)
  14. To the Forest (7:30)