Home > Reviews > GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY – Tyler Bates

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY – Tyler Bates

guardiansofthegalaxy-scoreOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

I have waited for 15 years, ever since I heard his first major score for the 1999 film Rated X, to type the following sentence: finally, after all these years, here is a Tyler Bates score I enjoy quite a lot. I have made no secret of the fact that I have found the vast majority of Bates’s work over the past decade pretty underwhelming. Ignoring the controversy surrounding his work on 300, scores like The Day the Earth Stood Still, Watchmen, and Conan the Barbarian had the conceptual and thematic potential to inspire truly terrific music, but ended up being disappointments of the highest order. Guardians of the Galaxy, thankfully, is a significant step forward. While still lagging behind the upper echelons of the film scoring world, and despite still suffering from a curious lack of individual personality, it is nevertheless the best score of Bates’s career to date by a country mile, making use of a big orchestra, a big choir, electronics, and some rock and 1980s pop elements, all brought together under the banner of a rousing central theme.

The film, which is directed by James Gunn, is based on one of the more obscure comic books in the Marvel Universe. It stars Chris Pratt as Peter Quill, who as a young boy was abducted from Earth following his mother’s death, and grew up as part of a band of space scavengers led by the rough-and-ready Yondu Udonta (Michael Rooker). The story begins in earnest when Quill – now calling himself Star Lord – comes into possession of a powerful artifact called the Orb. Quill discovers that a powerful warlord named Ronan (Lee Pace) wants the Orb for himself, and has dispatched a green-skinned bounty hunter named Gamora (Zoe Saldana) to steal it for him. Quill’s adventures eventually see him teaming up with a genetically modified raccoon named Rocket (Bradley Cooper), Rocket’s sentient tree sidekick Groot (Vin Diesel), and a surprisingly sensitive muscle-bound warrior named Drax (Dave Bautista), and this unlikely band of heroes seek to keep the powerful Orb from their foes. The film – which features star-studded cameos from such unlikely actors as Glenn Close, John C. Reilly and Benicio Del Toro – has been an unexpected summer smash hit, taking almost $95 million at the box office in its opening weekend.

Gunn had already worked with Tyler Bates on previous projects, including Slither in 2006 and Super in 2010, so he was the natural choice to score this film. This also makes Bates the eighth person to score a film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe after Ramin Djawadi, Craig Armstrong, John Debney, Patrick Doyle, Alan Silvestri, Brian Tyler and Henry Jackman; musical consistency across projects is clearly not Marvel’s first priority, and we just have to accept that this will likely never be the case. In the case of Guardians of the Galaxy, however, Bates’s musical approach is closest in style to that of his almost-namesake Brian Tyler than to Jackman and Djawadi, which is clearly a good thing. Furthermore, the fact that Guardians of the Galaxy also exists in something of a conceptual bubble means that Bates was able to develop music for this film independently, without having to stay too close to other entries in the series.

After a moody opening in “Morag”, which features some interesting contrapuntal brass writing and choral textures, the main theme for the score is introduced in the second half of the second cue, “The Final Battle Begins”, a stirring blast of fanfare horns and swirling strings set alongside a subtle electric guitar undercurrent. Several of the film’s large action set-pieces are built around, or feature large-scale performances of this theme, including “Quill’s Big Retreat”, the gargantuan “The Kyln Escape”, “The Great Companion” and the triumphant “Black Tears”, while other action cues, notably “What a Bunch of A-Holes”, “The Pod Chase” and “The Big Blast”, offer some frenetic string runs, beefy brass hits, tricky percussion patterns, and more (although the latter does owe a great debt to James Horner’s “Bishop’s Countdown” from Aliens). Strong, memorable thematic writing has never really been Bates’s forte, so it’s especially pleasing to see him adopting this mindset here. There’s also a secondary theme for the Nova Corps, the heroic defenders of the planet Xandar, which is heard in its fullest during “The Ballad of the Nova Corps”, but also features in subtle counterpoint to the action during several other cues.

Some cues also feature an extended electronic palette, especially when the character Ronan is involved. These harsh, vaguely industrial textures create a mood of menace, but may put off some listeners who are less inclined to appreciate such guttural pieces – I’m thinking specifically of cues such as “The Destoyer”, “Sanctuary” and “Ronan’s Arrival”. At the other end of the scale, there are some surprisingly lovely quieter moments, including the subtle piano melody in “To the Stars”, the choral tones of “Sacrifice”, and especially the celestial synthy magic of “Groot Spores” and “Groot Cocoon”, which for me were two of the musical highlights of the movie.

However, the main drawback to the score is also something that affected his score for Conan the Barbarian in 2011; to paraphrase my own review of it, and with the exception of the main Guardian theme and the Ronan motif, too many ideas and instrumental textures come and go seemingly on a whim, with no real consistency or recurring conceptual thought process. Just when you think there’s a cool new theme brewing, or an interesting percussive sequence developing, or a moment of harmonic beauty in the offing, it’s gone before it can take hold. All of this leaves too much of the actual underscore curiously anonymous, and slightly generic sounding. Too many of the score’s middle-album cues, despite having a sense of scope and energy and motion to them, and despite pressing all the right buttons at the right times, feel too much like window-dressing, with no depth or substance beyond giving the film a pretty aural sheen. The music is fine to listen to on a superficial level, but there’s nothing more to them than that superficiality in purely musical terms, and it remains a little frustrating.

guardiansofthegalaxy-deluxeOne of the more interesting things about Guardians of the Galaxy is the prevalence of numerous hit pop songs from the 1970s and 80s throughout the film. However, unlike other such needle-dropped soundtrack-bait pieces, these songs actually play an integral part in the film’s narrative, as they are heard diegetically, often coming from main character Peter Quill’s Walkman. As director Gunn explains, using the songs from the 70s and 80s were “cultural reference points”, saying, “It’s striking the balance throughout the whole movie, through something that is very unique, but also something that is easily accessible to people at the same time. The music and the Earth stuff is one of those touchstones that we have to remind us that Quill is a real person from planet Earth who’s just like you and me. Except that he’s in this big outer space adventure.” It also helps that the songs are all eminently likeable; the scene of Quill dancing across a barren alien landscape to the strains of Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love”, for example, is a wonderful juxtaposition of the familiar and the peculiar. The songs are available separately on the “Awesome Mix Vol.1” soundtrack album, while both albums can be purchased together as a Deluxe Special Edition 2-CD set.

As I mentioned earlier in the review, Guardians of the Galaxy is by far the most accomplished and enjoyable score of Tyler Bates’s career to date. The enthusiasm that Bates and conductor/orchestrator/additional music composer Tim Williams have for this project shines through. They clearly wanted so much for this score to be fun, and exciting, and heroic, and for the most part they have succeeded. The main theme is great, some of the action writing is terrific, and some of the emotional moments are unexpectedly touching, while the number of interesting orchestral and choral textures the score incorporates gives it much more ‘meat on its bones’, in terms of things to listen to, pick up on, and appreciate. Not only that, it does what it needs to do in the context of the film, and the fact that it was written for a film this popular will give it a long shelf life. However, it’s more than possible that I’m so thankful Bates has written a traditional, old-fashioned, orchestral super hero score, I might be guilty of over-praising it. The super hero genre has produced so many defining landmark scores over the years, from Superman to Batman, Spider-Man, The Rocketeer, and even Captain America (my personal choice for the best in the MCU to date), and looking at it rationally, Guardians of the Galaxy isn’t in any of their leagues. But, we have to take what we can get these days, and with those caveats in mind, I nevertheless recommend it.

Buy the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • SCORE ALBUM
  • Morag (1:58)
  • The Final Battle Begins (4:21)
  • Plasma Ball (1:18)
  • Quill’s Big Retreat (1:38)
  • To the Stars (2:52)
  • Ronan’s Theme (2:24)
  • Everyone’s an Idiot (1:26)
  • What a Bunch of A-Holes (2:14)
  • Busted (1:34)
  • The New Meat (0:36)
  • The Destroyer (1:27)
  • Sanctuary (2:26)
  • The Kyln Escape (7:23)
  • Don’t Mess With My Walkman (0:44)
  • The Great Companion (0:51)
  • The Road to Knowhere (0:37)
  • The Collector (3:20)
  • Ronan’s Arrival (0:56)
  • The Pod Chase (3:56)
  • Sacrifice (3:20)
  • We All Got Dead People (1:46)
  • The Ballad of the Nova Corps (1:48)
  • Groot Spores (1:11)
  • Guardians United (2:46)
  • The Big Blast (3:05)
  • Groot Cocoon (2:29)
  • Black Tears (2:43)
  • Citizens Unite (1:15)
  • A Nova Upgrade (2:10)
  • SOUNDTRACK ALBUM – AWESOME MIX VOL.1
  • Hooked on a Feeling (written by Mark James, performed by Blue Swede) (2:52)
  • Go All the Way (written by Eric Carmen, performed by Raspberries) (3:21)
  • Spirit in the Sky (written and performed by Norman Greenbaum) (4:02)
  • Moonage Daydream (written and performed by David Bowie) (4:41)
  • Fooled Around and Fell in Love (written and performed by Elvin Bishop) (4:35)
  • I’m Not in Love (written by Eric Stewart and Graham Gouldman, performed by 10cc) (6:03)
  • I Want You Back (written by Berry Gordy, Freddie Perren, Alphonso Mizell and Deke Richards, performed by The Jackson 5) (2:58)
  • Come and Get Your Love (written by Lolly Vegas, performed by Redbone) (3:26)
  • Cherry Bomb (written by Joan Jett and Kim Fowley, performed by The Runaways) (2:17)
  • Escape (The Piña Colada Song) (written and performed by Rupert Holmes) (4:37)
  • O-o-h Child (written by Stan Vincent, performed by Five Stairsteps) (3:13)
  • Ain’t No Mountain High Enough (written by Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, performed by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell) (2:29)

Running Time: 73 minutes 07 seconds — Score
Running Time: 44 minutes 34 seconds — Soundtrack

Hollywood Records/Marvel Music D002014802 (2014)

Music composed by Tyler Bates. Conducted by Timothy Williams. Orchestrations by Timothy Williams, Neal Desby, Drew Krassowski and Edward Trybek. Additional music by Timothy Williams and Dieter Hartmann. Recorded and mixed by Gustavo Borner. Edited by Steve Durkee. Score produced by Tyler Bates. Album produced by James Gunn, Kevin Fiege and Dave Jordan.

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  1. August 5, 2014 at 11:43 pm

    Yeah, seems like you got a little over-excited by an orchestral Bates score to me. Even while recognizing the problems of the middle of the score this seems a little too positive given what we got here. The absence of woodwinds is also significant here and makes the orchestra sound tiny.

  2. August 5, 2014 at 11:56 pm

    I don’t think I would have ever described the orchestral sound here as “tiny”. The synth textures in the quieter moments take the place of woodwinds for the most part, and I don’t think the score suffers from their absence. Psycho didn’t, and that had no woodwinds either! 😉

    • Ed
      August 6, 2014 at 9:02 am

      I can see what he means, though. The writing for it isn’t “tiny”, but it sounds a bit like the ensemble isn’t all that big. During some of the string ostinatos especially, I could slightly hear that lack of depth. Fortunately Bates seems to have avoided the temptation to overdub it with samples to make it sound “bigger”, like he did in Conan the Barbarian with decidedly poor results. I’d rather have a small, but organic ensemble!

      • Edmund Meinerts
        August 6, 2014 at 9:03 am

        That’s me Edmund, by the way. Not sure why it only took “Ed”!

      • August 6, 2014 at 9:50 am

        Obviously the size of the ensemble alone doesn’t really say much about the quality of the writing. At the same time as I found this score uninteresting for small sound I also got the Varese release of No God, No Master by Nuno Malo in which a small orchestra is used that is probably smaller than what Bates used here. However, the difference is Nuno Malo knows how to properly toss themes around between soloists so that it remains interesting.

        Then again I wasn’t particularly impressed by the themes Bates wrote for this score or the textures he used behind them. Similarly there are many small ensemble scores out of Japan in which the composer or arranger features themes played by soloists in inventive ways such that I am not bothered.

        The problem here is that Bates wanted to go for the full orchestral sound without taking full advantage of what he had. Even taking into account the lack of woodwinds he could have done a lot more interesting stuff in the background of major cues. Maybe my standards for big action cues are slightly higher than most because I listen to so much music by Joe Hisaishi where big action cues feature two full themes and multiple motifs.

  3. August 6, 2014 at 6:31 am

    “…his almost-namesake Brian Tyler…”

    I had to laugh at that. The similarity of their names has caused no end of confusion for me over the years!

    • August 6, 2014 at 9:03 am

      At least BT has mostly gone away!

  4. August 7, 2014 at 8:38 am

    I really enjoyed this score, for me, it’s the best superhero score of the year – which isn’t a great deal, since I hated the Capt. America 2 and Spidey 2 scores, and X-Men: DOFP was rather uninspired. However, this is indeed the best work of Bates to the date. The action cues are surprisingly great, the drama moments are really nice and the Guardians’ theme is properly heroic. The main problem is it’s lack of originality (sometimes, his music for the film looks a bit of a poorer version of scores of people like Brian Tyler, Alan Silvestri, and even Hans Zimmer). I hope that Bates fixes it for Guardians 2.

    • August 7, 2014 at 9:35 am

      Do you consider Ninja Turtles and Hercules superheroes? They’re both fighty movies based on comics, too.

      • August 7, 2014 at 9:55 am

        I’ll take Velazquez’ Hercules score over Guardians of the Galaxy. Still, in a year where we have How to Train Your Dragon 2 there is little contest from something like this.

      • August 7, 2014 at 7:25 pm

        I was listening to the TMNT score today, and it’s in fact better than Guardians. If you consider the Turtles classic super-heroes from comics, then you can say that it’s the best super-hero/comics adaptation film score of the year.

        As for Velázquez, he is clearly a better composer than Bates, but I was a bit disappointed with his score for Hercules, because it looked too much like Brian Tyler style. I was expecting something a little more original, Velázquez is new on the Hollywood action blockbusters, and he could bring and interesting and fresh new voice, instead of just copying Tyler.

        But, well, I guess you are right. So, reformulating my sentence, I would say that Guardians of the Galaxy is the best Marvel score of the year, hahaha.

  5. August 8, 2014 at 9:07 pm

    Jon, I didn’t understand one thing. When I watched the movie, the end credits informed that Gavin Greenaway conducted this score. But, here, you say that the conductor is Bates’ longtime partner Tim Williams. So, who was the person who orchestrated and conduct this score?

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