Surround Sound: Could It Be Magic?

In this installment, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, SkyRiders, and The Interior

Certain subjects lend themselves to specific sonic approaches. It's part of the cinematic standard. When you hear that a movie is going to cover the formative years of a boy wizard, follow a group of novices into a dangerous wilderness situation, or deal with a daring aerial rescue of a group of hostages, clichéd aural answers start playing out inside your own personal product jukebox. You instantly imagine what the fantasy will sound like, suggest the sounds of a jungle primeval or a stunt-laced bit of derring-do. Of course, part of the magic inherent in motion pictures is the way said conventions are embraced, thwarted, or dismissed completely. There are occasions however when the unusual or downright odd tactic taken by a composer completely loses the meaning of the movie it is supporting. When that happens, the aforementioned magic turns middling, and then mediocre.

Luckily, that doesn't happen within any of the three scores we are covering in this issue of Surround Sound. In fact, aside from a lackluster entry in a long running series, we have a couple of real compositional curiosities. Indeed, it always seems that the independent or outsider artists working in film today (or as part of the fraternity of the past) come up with a far more intriguing sonic display than someone hemmed in by the needs of a multi-entry big screen blockbuster franchise. Perhaps that's why The Interior and Sky Riders feel so satisfying and why a certain Harry Potter has a hard time leaving an indelible aural mark. In any case, we can easily see where a certain sixth entry fails to fulfill its promise and how a couple of unknown quantities step up and deliver something unusual and quite memorable. Let's begin with the most well known entry this time around:

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 6]

Sometimes, a soundtrack is a warning. It hints at where a film is going, atmospherically, as well as giving away secrets the studios probably wish would remain so. Now imagine you are Nicholas Hooper, stepping in to work on the sixth Harry Potter effort. As the third composer tackling the material (John Williams handled one through three, Patrick Boyle was on hand for movie four), his second stint providing backdrop to J. K. Rowling's wildly successful franchise is definitely a case of music mirroring the final film. Since returning director David Yates has decided to tone things down even further and stick with the novel's more mature, adult themes, one would assume that Hooper would do the same. Oddly enough, he goes even further, offering a score so subtle, too occasionally devoid of action or energy, that you wonder if Half-Blood Prince has any intrigue at all. While the final film itself is indeed casual in how it approaches its storytelling, Hooper is equally guilty of giving everything a laidback, almost lazy aural surrounding.

Things start out strongly, with "The Story Begins" and "Snape & The Unbreakable Vow" showing signs of being hearty and heroic. This continues on with the apropos "Ron's Victory", mimicking one of the more exciting moments in the movie. But then Hooper starts buying into the young love subtext of the story, and everything turns mushy and saccharine. "The Slug Party" is dull and "When Ginny Kissed Harry" is so light as to almost be non-existent. While the soundtrack tries to pick things up toward the end, selections like "Journey to the Cave" and "Dumbledore's Farwell" have none of the power or presence such sequences demand. This is a wannabe epic, a movie making myth on a grand literary scale. The sonic set-up should be equal in scope, overselling the situations to truly immerse the audience in the experience of the characters. Instead, Hooper tries to underplay everything and while completely competent and quite professional, it just doesn't deliver in the dramatics department.

SkyRiders: Music from the Film [rating: 7]

One of the joys of being a critic is discovering something you never heard of before. That applies in both the positive and the negative light. A good discovery will keep you going when all looks bleak, while a bad unearthing will simply confirm your already cynical and superstitious attitude. Now Lalo Schifrin is not unknown to most motion picture purists. He's been adding his sonic signature to cinematic stories since the '50s. While some of his most recognizable scores have come from post-modern classics like Cool Hand Luke, Bullitt, and Dirty Harry, his most popular pieces remain the themes for the TV series Mission: Impossible, Mannix, and Starsky and Hutch. One of his more unusual undertakings was 1976's Sky Riders, a thriller which used the then emerging hobby of hang-gliding as the catalyst for a cat and mouse, kidnap and rescue thriller. Starring Robert Culp and James Coburn, the film was a critical flop. It also gained some minor notoriety when an electrician died on-set during production and several members of the crew were investigated.

For all its flaws as a movie, however, Shifrin shines here. The eight tracks that make up the score provided are quirky, idiosyncratic, and indicative of old school Hollywood showmanship. From the beginning, we get some of that funky jazz joking that the composer relied on during the '70s, with "Flying Circus", "The Riders" and "Gliding" as stand-outs. Once we get to the meat of the narrative, Schifrin shows that he can handle the action with energy and wit. "The Last Kite" and "Copters and Gliders" make up a powerful duo, delivering the kind of kinetic edge of your seat atmosphere a movie like this requires. When the "End Credits" final arrive, we realize Sky Riders short comings. Unlike your traditional soundtrack which seems to offer every musical cue used in a film, this particular CD clocks in at a little less than 48 minutes. That doesn't seem like enough aural accent. While it's possible that this was all Schifrin has to offer for a rather lightweight project, one wonders if this really represents everything he contributed.

The Interior: Original Soundtrack [rating: 8]

It must be hard to break into the world of film scoring. It all feels so cliquish and insular. Just look at the list of mainstream movies that hit the theaters this year and track the names making the music behind them. Nine times out of ten they are someone who's been in the soundtrack game for decades or road the coattails of a particular director or producer onto a path of consistent employment. It’s rare when a new name breaks in, and ironically enough, it usually comes from a foreign or highly touted independent effort. Few have probably heard the name Edwin Wendler. Born in Vienna, Austria, the 34 year old has slowly been making a name for himself in outsider efforts like Home The Horror Story, Black Oasis, and the online drama series The Interior. Now outsider source Perseverance Records is making Wendler's work on the show available separately, and it's a good thing. While many may not want to sit through a surreal story about missionaries lost in a jungle filled with real life dangers, the brilliant score more than makes up for any lost entertainment value.

Things start out earnestly with the industrial tinged title track, "The Gold You Seek". Featuring vocal work by Mike Ator, it sets up the suspense elements of the narrative quite nicely. "The Calling" then adds a few jungle-tinged rhythms to the mix, a concept that will be picked up elsewhere in the score. "The Killing" is low key and very moody, while "Morning Haze" accents its sense of dread with some unusual ambient elements. As we move through the rest of Interior, Wendler starts tossing in tricks like backward masking, sudden aural bursts, and some beautiful keyboard signatures. "The Best Thing" builds on such a design, while "Common Sense" and "In Sickness" sound like outtakes from an album by Moby or Brian Eno. Toward the end, a great bit of tension is twisted into tracks like "Stealing Thunder" and "Threat", and just as we are ready to relax, "Escapa" gives us another techno-twinged treat. All throughout Interior, Wendler keeps things low key and creepy, allowing our imagination to fill in the blanks where visual accents are unavailable. With work like this, this is one newcomer guaranteed a bright future among those cruel, closed off Tinsel Town circles.


The Best Indie Rock of 2017

Photo courtesy of Matador Records

The indie rock genre is wide and unwieldy, but the musicians selected here share an awareness of one's place on the cultural-historical timeline.

Indie rock may be one of the most fluid and intangible terms currently imposed upon musicians. It holds no real indication of what the music will sound like and many of the artists aren't even independent. But more than a sonic indicator, indie rock represents a spirit. It's a spirit found where folk songsters and punk rockers come together to dialogue about what they're fed up with in mainstream culture. In so doing they uplift each other and celebrate each other's unique qualities.

With that in mind, our list of 2017's best indie rock albums ranges from melancholy to upbeat, defiant to uplifting, serious to seriously goofy. As always, it's hard to pick the best ten albums that represent the year, especially in such a broad category. Artists like King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard had a heck of a year, putting out four albums. Although they might fit nicer in progressive rock than here. Artists like Father John Misty don't quite fit the indie rock mold in our estimation. Foxygen, Mackenzie Keefe, Broken Social Scene, Sorority Noise, Sheer Mag... this list of excellent bands that had worthy cuts this year goes on. But ultimately, here are the ten we deemed most worthy of recognition in 2017.

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

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'Curb Your Enthusiasm' S9 Couldn't Find Its Rhythm

Larry David and J.B. Smoove in Curb Your Enthusiasm S9 (HBO)

Curb Your Enthusiasm's well-established characters are reacting to their former selves, rather than inhabiting or reinventing themselves. Thus, it loses the rhythms and inflections that once made the show so consistently, diabolically funny.

In an era of reboots and revivals, we've invented a new form of entertainment: speculation. It sometimes seems as if we enjoy begging for television shows to return more than watching them when they're on the air. And why wouldn't we? We can't be disappointed by our own imaginations. Only the realities of art and commerce get in the way.

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Wars of attrition are a matter of stamina, of who has the most tools with which to keep fighting. A surprising common tool in this collection? Humor.

The name of the game is "normal or abnormal". Here's how you play: When some exceedingly shocking political news pops up on your radar, turn to the person next to you, read them the headline and ask, "is this normal or abnormal?" If you want to up the stakes, drink a shot every time the answer is abnormal. If that's too many shots, alter the rules so that you drink only when things are normal—which is basically never, these days. Hilarious, right?

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