Home > Reviews > Under-the-Radar Round Up 2019, Part II

Under-the-Radar Round Up 2019, Part II

As I have done for the past several years, I am pleased to present the second installment in my ongoing series of articles looking at the best “under the radar” scores from around the world. Rather than grouping the scores on a geographical basis, this year I decided to again simply present the scores in a random order, and so this second batch includes reviews of five more disparate scores from the first six months of the year – including a German apocalyptic drama, an Australian horror movie, a Spanish animated film about a surrealist filmmaker, a French drama about religion and pig farming, and a sweeping romance set in the German film industry in the 1960s!

8 TAGE – David Reichelt

8 Tage [8 Days] is a German TV mini-series which aired on Sky Deutschland in March 2019. Directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky and Michael Krummenacher, the series stars Mark Waschke and Christiane Paul as Uli and Susanne, a married couple in contemporary Berlin, and examines what happens to them (and everyone else in the city) when it is revealed that an enormous meteor is going to impact the earth, eight days from the time at the start of the series. It’s a fascinating, harrowing portrayal of the lengths people will go to survive an impending apocalypse, and was widely praised by domestic journalists, although there was a small scandal regarding the advertising for the show when many German newspapers printed ‘stories’ announcing the imminent impact of the meteor, terrifying many people who didn’t understand the context!

The score for 8 Tage is by the young and exciting German composer David Reichelt, whose most acclaimed work prior to this one was for the 2016 adventure film König Laurin. If the score for 8 Tage is anything to go by, he is definitely a composer worth watching, because by and large it’s superb. Reichelt’s approach is an unusual one, as he combines a series of moody, glassy, occasionally quite abrasive electronic textures with the beautiful performances of soprano vocalist Caroline Adler. The end result is a score which sounds both contemporary and classical, deeply emotional and starkly cold, bitter but full of warmth and remembrance.

Many people will gravitate towards the tracks containing Adler’s vocals, and I do too. Beginning with the opening cue, “Eight Days,” her voice emerges from a bed of dark electronic tones and a sampled church organ into something quite astonishing, with chanted and sung lyrics in Latin that are both imposing and beautiful. The liturgical quality of the music clearly relates to the religious aspect of the story – it’s where people often turn to at their darkest moments – so obviously it makes sense to use it as a depiction of the end of the world.

Cues such as “Freedom,” “Passion,” “Baptism,” and “Family” are hauntingly appealing, using lighter pizzicato string techniques and elegant synths that have a sort of Vangelis-ish sound. Elsewhere, cues like “Trafficker,” “Hostage,” and the latter half of “Blockade” are much more intense and urgent, using staccato rhythmic ideas and sometimes adopting a Carl Orff-esque vibe to give the score a more epic scope. “Abortion” takes the unusual step of having the vocalist mimick the labored breathing sounds usually associated with childbirth, which is effective but undeniably eerie in context. As one would expect “Desperation” is beautiful in an awful, gut-wrenching way, while “Horus” has a tragic sense of mortal finality.

The voiceless cues tend to be quite dark and moody, offering solemn tones along with some sub-industrial electronic grinding and abstract electronic dissonances that are quite difficult to appreciate. Occasionally the music does veer into action music territory, especially cues like “Pursuit” and “Poison” which are especially dark and gritty. On the other hand, cues like “Memories” and the more imposing “Execution” have an early 80s throwback aspect that many will find appealing from a nostalgia point of view. It’s all really enormously impressive, a clever blending of modern electronica and soaring classical vocal writing which combines perfectly to encapsulate the show’s sense of fear and impending disaster.

The score is available as a digital download or a stream from most online music retailers, but does not appear to have been released as a physical CD at this time.

Track Listing: 1. Eight Days (1:33), 2. Bunker (2:14), 3. Freedom (2:49), 4. Pursuit (2:50), 5. Trafficker (3:37), 6. Memories (2:10), 7. Passion (3:44), 8. Anger (2:03), 9. Hostage (1:54), 10. Fugitives (1:46), 11. Baptism (3:15), 12. Execution (1:15), 13. Blockade (3:27), 14. Nostalgia (2:11), 15. Control (1:30), 16. Abortion (2:09), 17. Poison (2:37), 18. Family (1:27), 19. Loneliness (1:31), 20. Desperation (2:57), 21. Horus (3:58). Sony Classical, 50 minutes 57 seconds.

 

BOAR – Mark Smythe

Boar is an Australian horror movie written and directed by Chris Sun, about a young family on a vacation to one of the most remote parts of the Outback, who find themselves terrorized by a massive, bloodthirsty wild pig. The film stars Nathan Jones, John Jarratt, Melissa Tkautz, and Bill Moseley, and takes its lead from another classic Aussie horror film – Russell Mulcahy’s Razorback from 1984. It was largely well-received during its two year trip around the world horror festival circuit, and recently received its premiere in the United States on the horror-themed cable TV channel Shudder, hence its inclusion in my 2019 roster of scores.

The score for Boar is by the New Zealand-born Los Angeles-based composer Mark Smythe. Smythe has been working in the Australian independent movie scene for many years (he won two Best Score awards from the Australian Screen Industry Network for Daddy’s Little Girl in 2012 and Charlie’s Farm in 2014), and is well known for both his teaching work and his work with the Society of Composers and Lyricists in LA, but this is only his fourth narrative feature, and so for many people Boar will be their introduction to his work.

As such, the fact that it is so good is a massive bonus. Boar is a great example of contemporary low-budget horror scoring, and of making the most of a small budget. It’s entirely performed with synths and samples, but Smythe’s skill at creating an unnerving atmosphere is impressive, as are the numerous moments where he lets loose with a blast of all-out porcine carnage. What I like about the score is that, rather than portray the boar as something cartoonish, the subtlety and restraint Smythe maintains allows the beastly bacon to be a genuine threat, something that you feel could really happen.

The score is anchored by an eerie melody for synth strings, groaning brass, ticking percussion, and a woodwind sample that could easily be mistaken for a didgeridoo, but the best part of the theme is the unusual sound effect that sounds for all the world like a manipulated pig oink – it’s perhaps a little literal, but it’s still brilliant. The best examples of the theme and the ‘ominous oink’ come in the opening “Night Road,” and as the score develops it establishes itself as a recurring motif for the imminent arrival of the porker. This main theme is clearly evident in later tracks like “That’s Insane,” and during the finale of the conclusive “Just Breathe”.

Cues like “Sasha” and “Katanga” are lighter, with more whimsical strings and a pretty piano melody – the calm before the storm. On the other hand, pieces like “Wired,” “Really Good Idea,” the last few minutes of “I’m Coming for Ya,” and especially the 2-for-1 onslaught of “The Battle of Bernie” and “V Mulieres Bestia” are aggressive and intense, with extended synth chords that mimic the famous ‘descending brass’ that Jerry Goldsmith often favored when writing for animalistic antagonists (think The Edge). Smythe often couples this writing with dark rumbling percussion, and some occasional bursts of high-energy kineticism; there’s even a wordless chorus in “He’s Coming Back” to add a touch of emotional resonance to the scenes of death-by-tusk.

There is some really impressive stuff going on here, and it’s only drawback is the technical limitations of the sound palette that Smythe was forced to use: this sort of music, re-arranged for a full orchestra, with all the depth and power of sound that can bring, would be superb, and I only hope that this talented Kiwi gets some opportunities to write more things like this in the future. The score for Boar is available as a digital download or a stream from most online music retailers, and can also be purchased as a CD-On-Demand

Track Listing: 1. Night Road (5:21), 2. Sasha (0:53), 3. Katanga (0:27), 4. Wired (6:02), 5. Really Good Idea (2:17), 6. Crosshairs (2:51), 7. Night Blues (5:52), 8. I’m Coming for Ya (4:07), 9. That’s Insane (1:18), 10. He’s Coming Back (3:30), 11. The Shack (3:59), 12. The Battle of Bernie (3:51), 13. V Mulieres Bestia (1:56), 14. Just Breathe (3:21). Mythsmaker Music, 45 minutes 45 seconds.

 

BUÑUEL IN THE LABYRINTH OF THE TURTLES – Arturo Cardelús

Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles [Buñuel en el Laberinto de las Tortugas] is a Spanish-language animated film directed by Salvador Simo, which tells the true story of the legendary surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel and his artist friend Salvador Dali, and the lengths they had to go to to secure funding for his second feature length film – a documentary about an impoverished region of Spain called Las Hurdes – which was to be released in the wake of his scandalous debut feature L’Âge d’Or in 1930, which itself followed his groundbreaking 1929 short film Un Chien Andalou. It’s an odd approach to a story like this, but the critical consensus has been that it works, especially as the medium of animation allows the film to be as visually evocative as the work of its subject matter.

The score for Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles is by the outstanding young Spanish-born Los Angeles-based pianist and composer Arturo Cardelús. He impressed me enormously with his scores for Chiamatemi Francesco in 2015 and the documentary Altamira: The Origin of Art earlier this year, and continues to do so with this follow-up work, which for my money is the best thing he has written in his career to date. With this score, Cardelús gives Buñuel’s quest for artistic legitimacy a real sense of playful optimism, combined with a dash of poignancy, all of which is achieved through a series of expertly rendered themes.

The main theme, which appears to be a personal theme for Luis Buñuel himself, is a light, playful piece filled with pizzicato string textures, whimsical dancing rhythms, and cascading motifs for pianos and woodwinds that are charming and elegant. There is a hint of Spanish and French folk music in much of Cardelús’s writing, as well as some clear references to the formal classical waltz style. You can hear this approach clearly in cues such as the opening “Luis Buñuel” and the subsequent “Buñuel,” as well as in a more downbeat variation in “Perdido.” Later, cues like “La Edad de Oro,” “Laberinto,” and “Cabras” take Buñuel’s waltz-like main theme and cleverly alter it through different instrumental and performance techniques; “Laberinto,” for example, features gorgeous liturgical choral harmonies which allow the music to take on an almost spiritual air, while “Cabras” is arranged for playfully comedic accordions.

A second recurring theme is a sentimental, attractive piece for guitars, pianos, and gentle clarinets, which first appears in “Ramón Acín,” returns in “Escuela,” and reaches its emotional peak with a stunning version for orchestra and solo vocals in the conclusive “Por Ramón.” This theme appears to relate to Buñuel’s friend Ramón Acín, who co-produced the film Las Hurdes, but was shockingly murdered by fascists in the first year of the Spanish Civil War. This theme is the emotional heart of the film, and is just outstanding.

One of the best things about the score is the way that Cardelús is also able to bring in many other textures, instrumental ideas, and compositional styles to complement his main thematic ideas. For example, “Calanda” uses voices in an emotional, spiritual manner. There is a set of dark jazz pianos in “Faro,” which later combine with vocals in “Salvador Dali.” “Paris” has ragged, spiky textures, aggressive and insistent. Both “Sueños” and “Padre” feature creepy choral textures, and spooky writing for piano and harp. “La Alberca” strongly showcases the accordions, and has a definite Nino Rota/Federico Fellini vibe. “Niña Muerta” is a gorgeous, emotional duet for strings and piano, and there are classical string flourishes and superb choral textures in “Entierro,” which builds to a flamboyant finale filled with swooping, diving violin figures.

There is so much to like about the score for Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles, from the playfulness of the theme for Buñuel, to the emotion of the theme for Ramón, the warm and summery southern European instrumental ideas, the bold choral writing, and the frequent and strong classical influences. Arturo Cardelús is clearly a composer with a lot going for him, and his work here proves that, once again, Spain is one of the world’s most vibrant and excellent film music cultures. The score is available as a digital download from most online retailers, and on a limited edition physical CD from Milan Records.

Track Listing: 1. Luis Buñuel (2:17), 2. Calanda (1:58), 3. La Edad de Oro (0:54), 4. Leyendo las Hurdes (1:29), 5. Faro (1:04), 6. Ramón Acín (1:50), 7. París (0:48), 8. Buñuel (0:50), 9. Sueños (2:14), 10. La Lotería (0:55), 11. Viaje (0:41), 12. La Alberca (1:03), 13. Laberinto (2:21), 14. Salvador Dalí (1:25), 15. Cabras (1:45), 16. Escuela (1:16), 17. Lluvia (0:57), 18. Niña Muerta (1:21), 19. Amigos (2:22), 20. Padre (0:46), 21. Perdido (1:36), 22. Entierro (1:54), 23. Por Ramón (2:49). Milan Records, 36 minutes 08 seconds.

 

HOLY LANDS – Grégoire Hetzel

Holy Lands, known as Les Terres Saintes in its native language, is a somewhat surreal drama from French writer-director Amanda Sthers. It stars James Caan as Harry Rosenmerck, a wealthy and comfortable Ashkenazi Jewish American cardiologist who – after suffering an epiphany and a crisis of faith – decides to leave everything behind, uproot his family, and become a pig farmer in the city of Nazareth in Israel. The film has a superb supporting cast including Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Rosanna Arquette, and Tom Hollander, but it has unfortunately been the recipient of some rather scathing reviews, which called it an ‘unwieldy melodrama,’ ‘stodgy,’ ‘ungainly,’ and ‘strangely reactionary’. In fact the one element of the film that seems to have been immune to criticism has been the score by French composer Grégoire Hetzel, which is quite superb.

Hetzel is mostly known for his small scale, chamber-like scores for films such as Incendies, Les Fantômes d’Ismaël, and Le Secret de la Chambre Noire, and Holy Lands is cut very much from the same cloth. What I like about it is its emotional content; Hetzel portrays Harry’s emotional and personal crises with tenderness and warmth, often using pianos, soft strings, sonorous woodwinds, and harp textures to capture his character. Cues like “Annabelle’s Letter,” “At the Maternity Ward,” and “David’s Letter & Son’s Photos” are quite lovely, gentle character studies that feel intimate and welcoming.

Both “Motorcycles” and “Bkaïla Recipe & Harry Sleeps at Moshe’s” are more playful and a little comedic, spry and sunny dances for woodwinds, a dulcimer, and strings that have a touch of Nino Rota to them, and go some way to capturing the musical essence of the Middle East; the latter piece especially has a somewhat languid feel to its central woodwind performance. “Michel and Monica” has a dream-like, nebulous quality to it that is difficult to pin down, but the elongated string chords and harp textures feel like a soft breeze, while “Harry and Monica” is filled with emotional catharsis, poignant pianos and more intently focused string writing, especially in the cellos.

The one outlying cue is “The Ballet,” which uses gorgeous wordless vocals, rolling piano figures, and insistent varied percussion to create a mesmerizing musical palette of artistic brilliance. Overall, though, this score might well be Grégoire Hetzel’s best work to date, at least out of the half dozen or so I have heard from him. It’s quiet and intimate, filled with small gestures and delicate phrases rather than moments of grand and sweeping melodrama, but it does everything with a grace and elegance that is very appealing.

The score for Holy Lands is available as a digital download or a stream from most online music retailers, but does not appear to have been released as a physical CD at this time.

Track Listing: 1. Annabelle’s Letter (2:46), 2. The Ballet (4:50), 3. At the Maternity Ward (2:21), 4. Motorcycles (1:41), 5. David’s Letter & Son’s Photos (3:35), 6. Many Rivers to Cross (performed by Jimmy Cliff) (3:02), 7. Michel and Monica (1:44), 8. Bkaïla Recipe & Harry Sleeps at Moshe’s (2:21), 9. An Ephemeral Love (1:33), 10. Harry and Monica (3:19), 11. Harry on the Phone (1:44). Pigalle Productions, 28 minutes 56 seconds.

 

TRAUMFABRIK – Philipp Noll

Traumfabrik is a German language romantic drama directed by Martin Schreier, set in the German film industry in the early 1960s. The film stars Dennis Mojen as Emil, an aspiring young actor and director who spends his days at the famous Babelsberg Studio outside Berlin, being entranced by the world of cinematic fantasy and magic he sees being created there every day. Inspired by the work of his favorite directors, and encouraged by his colleagues at the studio, Emil hatches an ambitious plan to be reunited with Milou (Emilia Schüle), a beautiful actress and dancer he fell in love with years earlier – only for them to be separated by the construction of the Berlin Wall.

The score for Traumfabrik is by German composer Philipp Noll, who has been scoring TV shows, short films, documentaries, and indie features in Germany since 2009, but has never really reached an international audience before. This is my first experience of his work, but I sincerely hope it’s not my last, because the score is quite outstanding. In many ways, Traumfabrik reminds me of Philippe Rombi’s score for the film Angel, in that it is intentionally old-fashioned and emotionally direct, and in the way it attempts to capture through music the essence of a singular feeling: in this instance, Emil’s love of the movies, and how he sees his own world through the larger-than-life lens of German cinema. In response to this viewpoint, Noll’s music is similarly cinematic, and often intentionally ‘big,’ reflecting and enhancing Emil’s life onto the silver screen.

The main themes all concern Emil and Milou, and speak to the passion of their relationship via a series of gorgeous melodic performances. Emil’s personal theme is warm and appealing and optimistic, and features a guest appearance by the James Horner four note motif; conversely, Milou’s theme is a little darker, and has a hint of tragedy underpinning her elegant string and piano writing. I especially love “Valse de Milou,” which is an effortlessly beautiful and elegant version of Milou’s theme.

Their joint love theme is actually introduced in the opening “Prolog,” on soft strings and tender pianos. It features in several cues thereafter, notably the anticipatory “Ein Halber Kuss” where it is filled with tremolo strings and a sweep of Old Hollywood magic, the tender “Ein Ganzer Kuss,” and the emotional “Tränenpalast 1962” where it is enhanced by a soft choir. Later, “Peut-Être” gives the theme a spiritual edge with an arrangement for an angelic choir and harp, while “Die Letzte Nacht” is quiet and reflective and a little sultry, a duet for piano and voices with a guest solo trumpet. The two versions of “Emil und Milou” are just lovely.

The movie studio setting of the film also allows Noll to engage in some large-scale spectacle scoring and moments of intentional pastiche, giving musical voice to the Babelsberg film productions that inspire Emil on his quest for love. There is a sense of magic and wonderment running through the opulent “Willkommen in Babelsberg,” which gives viewers an idea of life inside the famous movie studio with rapidly changing approaches in tone and style that correspond to the different sights and sounds, the hustle and bustle of the different departments, and the variety of the films being produced. Emil’s Theme features prominently here, which makes sense considering that it is through Emil’s eyes that we experience studio life. Many of the ideas introduced in this cue weave through the rest of the score, notably the comedic “Der Gänsehirte,” the lively “Im Kostümfundus,” the sweeping pair “Das Filmteam” and “Das Filmteam Streikt” and the dramatically emotional “Emil der Regissteur,” which uses brass in a way that reminds me of Ennio Morricone.

Other cues of note include “Val de Loire,” which is a cute bit of Franco-pastiche. “Die Rache der Piratenbraut” is fast paced, with stirring brass fanfares and Korngold-style flamboyance. “Mia Lorena” has flamenco-inspired guitars and hand-claps. “Büro Karl Boborkmann” is classic ’sneaky’ music, replete with nimble string figures and playful metallic percussion textures. “Kleopatra” has some mock-Egyptian music that becomes quite bold and extravagant by the end of the cue. “Die Krönung” is more spectacle music, overflowing with brass fanfares, Latinate choral outbursts, throbbing string runs, and pugnacious rhythmic ideas, and is one of my favorite tracks.

The entire score eventually comes to fruition in the stunning conclusive pair, “Milous Traum” and “Traumfabrik”. The former takes Milou’s theme to the next level via a bed of contemporary percussion and some deeply sonorous vocal performances that have a hint of the Middle East to them. The way their two themes combine towards the end of the cue is just outstanding, an explosion of pure melodrama and divine orchestral glory. The latter cue arranges all three of the main themes for the full orchestra, moving effortlessly between each, providing a superb summation of all the score’s melodic content.

Also included on the soundtrack is an English-language song, “See You Again,” performed by German singer Helene Fischer. It’s actually a quite lovely piece, and such is Fischer’s status as a major pop star in Germany that the song has become quite a domestic hit.

Traumfabrik is a truly exceptional work that will appeal to anyone who still values lush orchestral arrangements, strong and memorable recurring themes, and unrestrained emotional content. Philipp Noll is clearly capable of writing some truly outstanding orchestral music, and if this is the sort of thing we can expect to hear from him in future, I sincerely hope his career is long and fruitful. The score is available as a digital download from most online retailers, and on physical CD from Universal’s German label.

Track Listing: 1. See You Again (performed by Helene Fischer) (3:22), 2. Prolog (0:51), 3. Val de Loire (1:38), 4. Willkommen in Babelsberg (3:31), 5. Die Rache der Piratenbraut (2:04), 6. Mia Lorena (0:44), 7. Ein Halber Kuss (1:14), 8. Valse de Milou (1:25), 9. Der Gänsehirte (2:47), 10. Im Kostümfundus (2:05), 11. Ein Ganzer Kuss (1:44), 12. Emils Thema (2:40), 13. Milous Thema (1:40), 14. Büro Karl Boborkmann (3:23), 15. Das Filmteam (2:19), 16. Ein Drehbuch für Kleopatra (1:18), 17. Tränenpalast 1962 (2:09), 18. Kleopatra (1:59), 19. Peut-Être (1:07), 20. Die Krönung (3:45), 21. Emil der Regisseur (2:12), 22. Glühwürmchen (1:09), 23. Die Verhaftung (1:50), 24. Das Filmteam Streikt (3:05), 25. Emil und Milou (1:10), 26. Die Letzte Nacht (1:36), 27. Emil und Milou Reprise (1:52), 28. Milous Traum (4:25), 29. Traumfabrik (5:09). Universal Music GmBH, 64 minutes 13 seconds.

  1. Boubis
    September 8, 2019 at 3:18 am

    thank you Jon for these two parts of under the radar scores !

    my best european & asian music scores/albums released in 2019(until now) are :

    masterpieces 10/10

    masquerade hotel – naoki sato
    doctor of traditional chinese medicine – mark chait
    hitler vs picasso – remo anzovino

    excellent 9/10

    the great war of archimedes – naoki sato
    l’amore strappato – paolo vivaldi & alessandro sartini
    victoria[seasons 2,3] – ruth barrett
    informer – ilan eshkeri
    swoon – nathaniel mechaly
    zwingli – the baldenweg brothers
    la noche de las dos lunas – sergio de la puente
    van gogh – remo anzovino

    very good 8/10

    elcano & magallanes – joseba beristain
    traumfabrik – philipp noll
    minuscule 2 – mathieu lamboley
    mrs lowry & son – craig armstrong
    il contagio – paolo vivaldi
    remember me – pascal gaigne
    water lilies of monet, gauguin in tahiti – remo anzovino
    bunuel – arturo cardelus

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