Home > Reviews > GHOSTS OF THE ABYSS – Joel McNeely


ghostsoftheabyssOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

Following his Oscar winning 1997 movie Titanic, director James Cameron has since become very interested in the shipwreck of the real life ocean liner, which struck an iceberg on 14 April 1912, while on its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York, and sunk beneath the freezing waters of the north Atlantic, killing almost 1,500 passengers. In Ghosts of the Abyss, Cameron, along with a team of the world’s foremost historic and marine experts and his friend, actor Bill Paxton, embarks on an unscripted adventure back to where some of the footage for his dramatic film was shot. Using state-of-the-art technology and new 3-D IMAX cameras developed expressly for this expedition, Cameron and his crew explore virtually all of the wreckage, inside and out, as never before. In addition, actors re-create key moments from the Titanic’s last moments (in a way similar to Discovery Channel documentaries), breathing life and immediacy to the science.

Written for a full orchestra with appropriately augmented synthesizers and occasional voices, Joel McNeely generally eschews the “knock ’em out of their seats’ style of scoring usually favored by IMAX composers, and delivers a score which is emotionally rich, appropriately dramatic when needed, understated and reverential at times, moody and ghostly at others, and which offers a truly rewarding listening experience. This is great stuff, and it is heartening to see McNeely scoring major movies once again after several years in the doldrums – in addition to this, McNeely wrote four cinematic scores in 2003 (notably the critically acclaimed “Holes”, and the Disney sequel “Jungle Book 2”).

Unsurprisingly, some of Joel McNeely’s work is similar to the Oscar-winning score James Horner wrote back in 1997. Even more surprisingly, quite a lot of it is not, and it is to McNeely’s credit that he ignored what must have been a great temptation to simply re-create Horner’s dramatic masterpiece. The Irish elements are there, again paying tribute to the shipbuilders in who worked on the great vessel. The synthesizers, again, add a modern twist to the tale, and layer in an appropriately ethereal mood, while McNeely’s lovely orchestra gives it that warm, human center. But McNeely’s score seems more introspective and less concerned with interpreting human emotion, instead celebrating the job of discovery and lamenting lives lost. He also peppers it with a series of modern, upbeat, rock-driven tracks that come as welcome surprise.

Of the orchestral tracks, ‘Main Title’ opens the score portion of the CD to great effect, an eerie yet enticing awakening. ‘Getting Ready’ mixes modern electronics with electric guitars and traditional Irish orchestrations to great effect, resulting in an engaging montage cue. Both ‘Floating Above the Deck’ and ‘The Ship’s Engines’ are beautiful, and manage to convey both the epic size and great tragedy that befell the ship, the former segueing out into an action cue that echoes Horner’s previous work. Other cues such as ‘The Grand Staircase’, ‘Elegance Past’ and ‘I… I Had to Go’ deliver a series of charming, effective piano and orchestra ruminations on life aboard the White Star Line, the latter of these bearing a striking stylistic similarity to the work of Thomas Newman. The Irish element is highlighted again in ‘Building the Ship’, where a pennywhistle and pipes join in the fun, and the final five score tracks, from ‘The End’ through to ‘Saying Goodbye to Titanic’ bring emotional intensity, strength, and sympathetic orchestral lushness to the great tragedy’s conclusion.

On the other side of the coin, ‘Dangerous Recovery’ is a modern, thrusting action cue that sounds like a Media Ventures wannabe, while ‘Jake and Elwood’ (a clever play on words from The Blues Brothers), is a surprisingly good rock track. The two songs which bookend the score are both serviceable, the conclusive ‘Darkness Darkness’ by Lisa Torban especially remaining in the memory. Dotted in amongst the score tracks are Titanic musical legends such as ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’ and ‘Nearer My God To Thee’, faithfully recreated to maintain historical accuracy and authenticity. The only negative (if there is one) is that there is no familiar, recurring theme to tie the score together – a tiny niggle, to be sure, but nevertheless a niggle.

I actually surprised myself at how much I enjoyed this score. IMAX films are often notable for their expansive musical accompaniment, and composers such as Alan Williams and Sam Cardon have made genuine careers writing aural accompaniments for the stunning visuals. Although Ghosts of the Abyss is a very different score to, say, Island of the Sharks, McNeely’s lightness of touch and empathy for the subject matter makes for a compelling album. After plumbing the depths with The Avengers, Soldier and Virus a few years ago, it’s wonderful to see McNeely’s career beginning to take off again, and his work here can only serve him well for future, equally important assignments.

Rating: ****

Track Listing:

  • Departure (written and performed by Glen Phillips) (2:33)
  • Main Title (1:16)
  • Apprehension (1:29)
  • Getting Ready (1:20)
  • Titanic Revealed (3:11)
  • Floating Above the Deck (3:01)
  • Dangerous Recovery (1:28)
  • Valse Septembre (written by Felix Godin) (2:19)
  • The Windows (0:47)
  • Jake and Elwood (2:14)
  • The Bots Go In (1:33)
  • Titsy Bitsy Girl (written by Ivan Caryll and Lionel Monckton) (1:52)
  • The Grand Staircase (1:33)
  • Exploring the Staterooms (1:51)
  • Song Without Words (written by Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky) (2:26)
  • Elegance Past (2:10)
  • Building the Ship (1:28)
  • I… I Had to Go (1:54)
  • The Ship’s Engines (1:42)
  • Alexander’s Ragtime Band (written by Irving Berlin) (1:53)
  • The Final Day (2:15)
  • The End (3:17)
  • Memorials (1:18)
  • Go Toward the Light (1:31)
  • The Next Morning (2:08)
  • Nearer My God to Thee (written by John B. Dykes) (0:55)
  • Saying Goodbye to Titanic (1:55)
  • Eternal Father, Strong to Save (written by John B. Dykes and William Whiting) (3:02)
  • Darkness, Darkness (written by Jesse Colin Young, performed by Lisa Torbin) (4:05)

Running Time: 58 minutes 29 seconds

Hollywood 2061-62397-2 (2003)

Music composed and conducted by Joel McNeely. Orchestrations by David Brown, Marshall Bowen and Frank Macchia. Recorded and mixed by Rich Breen. Edited by Craig Pettigrew. Mastered by Pat Sullivan. Album produced by James Cameron, Randy Gerston and Joel McNeely.

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