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Unstintingly bleak, detached score easy to admire, harder to enjoy

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Album cover copyright (c) 2006 Nonesuch; review copyright (c) 2006 James Southall

You know what it's like - you have a couple of pints, crack open a tube of Pringles and sit down for some brainless popcorn entertainment.  But what do you pick?  Are you going to go for the latest Michael Bay movie?  Maybe get out one of your Disney DVDs?  Or perhaps you might go for that Darren Aronofsky movie about a man in a spaceship with a big tree?  Yes, The Fountain has baffled audiences everywhere, with some critics saying they didn't get it, and others pretending they did.  Aronofsky is not your typical director (in fact, he's as far from it as you could get), but there's a thin line between intellectual showboating and downright pretentiousness, and you have to question which side of the line he's on.

After the successful collaborations on Pi and Requiem for a Dream, the director turns again to former pop star Clint Mansell for his score, and Mansell provides music which is equal parts challenging and rewarding.  The rewarding side is first to be uncovered in the superb "The Last Man" which opens the album, whose dreamy textures played by the Kronos Quartet evoke Glass or Goldenthal and are terrific.  "Holy Dread!" introduces the other side, with incessant synths, drums and guitars joining each other in a cacophonous frenzy which is brilliantly effective at creating an intense mood, but about as pleasurable to listen to as a Jehovah's Witness with a speech impediment.

Sadly, it is the latter style which dominates proceedings during the album's first half.  It is, I suppose, a little similar to when someone like Glass or Nyman tries to go all trendy and bring modern instruments into their musical worlds, and Mansell is to be applauded for his singular vision, but I'm not sure he quite has the deftness-of-touch those two fine composers have which makes even their most abrasive music perfectly bearable.  It's hugely-effective music, but quite who might want to listen to that sort of thing is beyond me.

Fortunately, the highlights are so good that the album is well worth a punt anyway.  Aside from the aforementioned "The Last Man", there's the other Kronos Quartet pieces, all of which are very beautiful, particularly "First Snow", with its distant chorus a further plus, and the extended, truly outstanding "Death is the Road to Awe".  However, even these pieces are so incredibly similar to each other they can wear just a little thin, despite their obvious qualities not just in composition, but in performance and recording too.

There is a brutal sense of intensity here which is very well done, but at the same time, the score is constructed entirely from the barest slither of a motif which is endlessly varied and repeated in minimalist fashion, which makes it exceptionally hard to listen to.  Mansell is clearly very talented, and is an exciting prospect, but The Fountain is so intense that it becomes a challenging album indeed.  This is intelligent music, intellectual even - perhaps a little too knowingly so - and as a result becomes perhaps one to admire from afar, rather than ever truly enjoy.


  1. The Last Man (6:09)
  2. Holy Dread! (3:52)
  3. Tree of Life (3:45)
  4. Stay With Me (3:36)
  5. Death is a Disease (2:34)
  6. Xibalba (5:23)
  7. First Snow (3:09)
  8. Finish It (4:25)
  9. Death is the Road to Awe (8:26)
  10. Together We Will Live Forever (5:02)