Home > Reviews > MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE: REVELATION – Bear McCreary

MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE: REVELATION – Bear McCreary

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

I am Adam, Prince of Eternia, defender of the secrets of Castle Grayskull. This is Cringer, my fearless friend. Fabulous secret powers were revealed to me the day I held aloft my magic sword and said… by the power of Grayskull!

When I was a kid growing up in the 1980s, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe was one of my favorite cartoon shows. It was, of course, created as a vehicle to sell action figures by the global toy company Mattel, and it was exceptionally preachy, with an obvious ‘moral of the story’ coda at the end of each episode, but 8-year-old me didn’t care. I couldn’t get enough of the noble warrior Adam and his muscular alter-ego, saving his home planet from the evil Skeletor with the help of his friends – an ever-changing cast that usually included the heroic man-at-arms Duncan, his trusty steed Cringer aka Battle Cat, the magical Orko, and the warrior princess Teela. Looking back at it now with more adult eyes, it was incredibly cheesy and repetitive, badly animated, and somewhat crudely written; despite this, I have fond nostalgic memories of the show, which have stayed with me over the years.

Having suffered through the risible but enjoyable 1987 live-action movie with Dolph Lundgren, as well as several animated TV spin-offs which I didn’t watch, we now have Masters of the Universe: Revelation, which was developed by filmmaker Kevin Smith for Netflix. The show is a direct sequel to the original animated series, and picks up the story almost directly where it left off, so all the original characters return. Interestingly, it’s also very clearly aimed at a more adult audience, with more sophisticated writing and plot development, and more brutal and realistic action which has actual in-world consequences. The show takes place in the aftermath of an immense battle between Skeletor’s forces and the guardians of Castle Grayskull, which results in the famous Sword of Power splitting in two, seemingly killing both He-Man and Skeletor. As a result, Teela embarks on an epic journey to re-unite the two halves of the sword, and save the planet. The show has a wonderful voice cast that includes Chris Wood, Mark Hamill, Sarah Michelle Gellar, and Lena Headey, among many others, and has an absolutely magnificent score by Bear McCreary.

McCreary is, like me, a child of the 1980s and a He-Man fan, and so approached scoring the show with a massive amount of enthusiasm. His original pitch to Kevin Smith was for him to write a score that is “epic, symphonic, and completely serious … like Basil Poledouris collaborated with early Metallica to score Conan the Barbarian”. Fortunately for us, Smith agreed, and the resulting score is just like that: a massive orchestra recorded in Budapest, a massive choir, rock-style electric guitar solos performed by Omer Ben-Zvi, and specialist vocals performed by Icelandic bass singer Sigurjón Kjartansson, all wrapped around an astonishing FOURTEEN recurring themes and motifs related to the various different characters and concepts. It’s a gargantuan score in every sense of the word, and sets a new high bar for animated TV show music.

First thing’s first, though: fans may be disappointed to learn that the classic He-Man theme from the original animated show, which was written by Haim Saban and Shuki Levy, does not feature anywhere in the new score. McCreary was initially hesitant to use it anyway, as he felt the theme contained ‘an inherent innocence and playfulness that is at odds with the more grown-up story in Revelation,’ and may have distracted from the overall tone of the piece. As it turns out, even if McCreary had wanted to include it, contractual shenanigans would have prevented him from doing so anyway. While I completely understand the reasoning behind the decision, I can’t help but lament the fact that we weren’t treated to a massive orchestra-and-chorus version of that iconic theme, and as such I continue to feel a tiny pang of disappointment. So, with that out of the way, let’s get to the music that McCreary did write, which is across-the-board magnificent.

The score sets out it’s stall early with the opening cue, “Masters of the Universe: Revelation,” which is essentially an exploration of the theme for He-Man. The opening ostinato is clearly an homage to Basil Poledouris and Conan the Barbarian, but once the theme kicks in, with its varied choral ideas, sweeping orchestra, and blazing rock guitars, the effect is immense. The low bass voices complement the main melody perfectly, giving it power and depth, and the melody itself – which is usually carried by trombones – is a soaring, heroic fanfare. Counterpointing this is the theme for Skeletor – heard for the first time at 0:48 – an evil staccato brass march underpinned with a string and bassoon ostinato which McCreary says was inspired in part by Mussorgsky’s classical masterpiece “Night on Bald Mountain”. These two themes do battle continually throughout the score, clearly illustrating the conflict within the story.

The subsequent cue, “Skeletor, Lord of Destruction,” is built mostly around variations on Skeletor’s theme, but also introduces another one of the score’s primary themes – the Sorceress Theme, beginning at 0:15. As the guardian of the power at the heart of Castle Grayskull, the Sorceress is a beacon of hope and light, and her theme has a magical, expansive tone; churning orchestral strings surrounded by dancing arpeggios, angelic choral voices, and leaping, soaring woodwind textures. This classic fantasy sound has been used by everyone from Bernard Herrmann to James Horner, notably in scores like Krull, and I love how McCreary emulates that here. The malevolent-sounding figure that begins at 0:42 is a more prominent version of the Skeletor ostinato that underpins his theme, and is often heard as a herald of his impending presence.

In the original Masters of the Universe series Orko, a trans-dimensional magician, is the show’s comic relief, and that role continues here, although to Smith’s credit he is also given much more depth and a chance to show his heroism. “Orko’s Bubble” introduces Orko’s theme, a playful and innocent little piece inspired by Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, which is full of lithe strings, trilling woodwinds, and happy horns. Interestingly, considering the arc of the character within the show, McCreary does some really fascinating things with Orko’s theme as the score develops, which I’ll get to later, but this brings up another superb aspect of the score overall, which is the way McCreary was able to craft themes that have the ability to carry an array of emotions. He-Man’s theme is probably the best example of this – not only does it play in its epic guise, but it also plays softly, wistfully, tenderly, sadly, and this applies to other themes too.

“Sorceress Under Siege” is the first of the score’s main action set pieces, and is the first instalment in what is essentially a 20-minute masterclass of leitmotivic scoring, with McCreary presenting superb statements of He-Man’s theme, Skeletor’s theme, the Sorceress theme, and more, often in aggressive counterpoint to illustrate the various conflicts and one-on-one battles. The first appearance of Teela’s theme occurs here at 1:27 (more on that later), and then after a massive statement of He-Man’s theme in “He-Man Transforms” comes the 13-minute “The Power of Grayskull,” a showstopper underscoring a massive battle sequence with the full orchestra, the full choir, and the rock band. The theme for Prince Adam’s bodyguard and head of the royal guard, Duncan aka Man At Arms, is introduced here at the 0:20 mark, an unambiguously heroic brass fanfare underpinned with chugging strings, which then re-occurs later in a softer variation for muted brass at 1:37. Virtually every main theme makes an appearance in one form or another – listen especially for the heroic version of Orko’s theme at 2:05! – all embedded within an array of dense, complicated, sophisticated orchestral action music. The hyper-masculine choral chanting that runs through much of the cue reminds me of the traditional Japanese ‘kakegoe’ vocalization techniques which worked so wonderfully well in Godzilla: King of the Monsters, and which work equally well here.

Towards the end of “The Power of Grayskull,” specifically around the 11:30 mark, is where the big sea-change in the score occurs, and the focus of the story switches from Adam/He-Man to Teela. The first really prominent performance of Teela’s theme occurs here, but it’s not heroic or even especially feminine; instead, McCreary captures the emotional bitterness she feels regarding the first episode’s shocking revelation, using ominous woodwinds, shadowy strings, cooing choirs, and hammered dulcimers to capture her demeanor, until it is eventually overtaken by a funereal variation on He-Man’s theme to close the track.

There’s a lot of Teela’s theme in “The Mighty Motherboard of Tri-Klops,” including a warmer and more inviting variation in the first moments of the cue, as well as a new theme representing the technology-worshipping Motherboard Cult that emerges in the aftermath of the Grayskull battle. The theme for Tri-Klops and the cult is a staccato march rendered entirely on electronic and metallic instruments, one of the few moments in the score that doesn’t focus on the orchestra, but it eventually gives way to more intense bombastic action, although this time it’s Teela’s theme that gets the huge rock beats and powerful orchestral forces; the statement of her theme that begins at 3:42 is outstanding.

This exploration of Teela’s theme continues in “As Goes Eternia,” which is almost a fantasia on that melody, surrounded by numerous gorgeous orchestral textures of great beauty and occasional great majesty. Interestingly, this cue also features the first prominent setting of Evil-Lyn’s theme, beginning just after the 1:30 mark. McCreary said he imagined Evil-Lyn’s theme as the musical counterpart to Teela’s theme, just as Skeletor’s theme is to He-Man’s theme, but there’s an unexpected beauty to what he wrote, especially in the way he combines cellos and woodwinds with luxurious-sounding harmonies. There is a sort of moral ambiguity to Evil-Lyn here – is she truly evil, or is there a principled core beneath the sneering demeanor? It’s clever stuff, and it really adds a layer of pathos and even sympathy for the Evil-Lyn character that I did not expect to feel.

“Finding Duncan” is an interesting exploration on the Man at Arms theme, offering a more introspective version of the melody for rich and darkly-hued horns, moody woodwinds, and reverential strings, hinting at the regret he feels for betraying his daughter. Equally emotional statements of Orko’s theme (at 1:20), and even Evil-Lyn’s theme (at 3:50), offer fascinating tonal variations, and McCreary even finds time to introduce yet another new theme at 3:25, this time relating to Teela’s friend and ally Roboto, the mechanical man who longs to be human, and whose music captures that yearning desire. The final new theme in the score is the one for “Scare Glow, Lord of Subternia,” the wraith-like ruler of Eternia’s ‘land of the dead,’ to which Teela and her allies journey as they continue their quest for the two halves of the Sword of Power. Scare Glow’s music is a tribute to The Omen and Jerry Goldsmith, a mass of layered voices which chant and sing and whisper at you in a variety of ominous ways. There’s a bunch more cool thematic variations here too – listen for the melancholy oboe version of Orko’s theme at 2:21, followed by the similarly-pitched version of Teela’s theme – and some brooding action in the finale, much of which is again built around Teela’s theme.

“Evil-Lyn Opens Heaven’s Gate” contains perhaps the most prominent statements of Evil-Lyn’s theme, which at times are sweeping and powerful, especially in the moments when the orchestra is joined by a choir and the effect verges on the heroic. Scare Glow’s music returns to make the atmosphere threatening, and then McCreary provides the score’s best version of Orko’s theme, a full-on brass action variation which begins at 2:18. The two themes for Scare Glow and Orko then exist in conflicting counterpoint, until Orko’s theme climaxes in a rich burst of stirring emotion and noble sacrifice, beginning at 3:45. The subsequent “Lament for a Friend” is a score highlight, and is a melancholy version of He-Man’s theme with sung lyrics performed by Raya Yarborough; in a brilliant touch, she is singing “by the power of Grayskull, I have the power” in Latin.

Once the heroes have entered “Into Preternia,” He-Man’s theme returns to the score, initially in almost astonished juxtaposition to Teela’s theme, as the miraculous nature of Preternia, and what it means for both He-Man (and Skeletor) is revealed. McCreary lays thickly into the Nordic orchestrations here – Viking-style vocals, medieval-sounding flutes, a nyckelharpa – for his depiction of Preternia as a Valhalla-like resting place of fallen heroes. He then expands this into a rousing rhythmic action sequence for the full orchestra and rock band in the superb “Teela Joins the Wild Hunt”. The full-on heroic version of Teela’s theme at 1:50 here is just outstanding.

The finale of the score begins with “Roboto Reforges,” an action sequence which underpins the scene where Roboto uses his powers to put He-Man’s ‘magic sword’ back together, after Teela and Evil-Lyn locate the two broken halves. McCreary uses punchy rhythmic pulses, brass clusters, swirling strings, epic chorus, and throbbing rock guitars to build up to the pivotal moment, and then a statement of Roboto’s theme beginning at 3:30 that makes the character’s demise all the more poignant. The conclusive “From Man to God” is a multi-thematic extravaganza of enormous proportions, as hidden secrets are revealed, alliances are formed and broken, and iconic characters return to the forefront of the storyline. Duncan has a moment of glory at 2:11, there’s a heavenly statement of the Sorceress theme beginning at 4:20, Evil-Lyn reveals her treachery at 6:24, and the whole thing concludes with Skeletor triumphant – at least for now – with his theme dominating everything from 7:30 to the end.

As you can probably tell, scores like Masters of the Universe: Revelation are the ones I gravitate towards the most. I am almost involuntarily drawn towards scores which offer rich tapestries of leitmotif themes, and Bear McCreary’s work on this project is an outstanding example of just that. The intellectual depth needed to write music with this sort of internal architecture fascinates and delights me, and when the themes are also beautiful and memorable and capable of being presented in so many different emotional guises, it’s just icing on the cake. With its bold orchestrations, its wonderful use of choir, and its incorporation of a rock band adding to the overall coolness factor, Masters of the Universe: Revelation is one of the best scores of 2021 – and, don’t forget, this is only Volume 1, representing music from the first five episodes of the 10-episode show. Volume 2 will likely drop later this year, or early in 2022, and I already can hardly wait. I have the power!

Buy the Masters of the Universe: Revelation soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Masters of the Universe: Revelation (Extended Version) (1:55)
  • Skeletor, Lord of Destruction (1:12)
  • Orko’s Bubble (0:39)
  • Sorceress Under Siege (4:18)
  • He-Man Transforms (1:32)
  • The Power of Grayskull (13:19)
  • The Mighty Motherboard of Tri-Klops (4:41)
  • As Goes Eternia (5:47)
  • Finding Duncan (6:55)
  • Scare Glow, Lord of Subternia (10:26)
  • Evil-Lyn Opens Heaven’s Gate (5:22)
  • Lament for a Friend (0:48)
  • Into Preternia (3:30)
  • Teela Joins the Wild Hunt (4:52)
  • Roboto Reforges (4:34)
  • From Man to God (8:42)

Running Time: 78 minutes 41 seconds

Mattel & Arts Music/Netflix (2021)

Music composed by Bear McCreary. Conducted by Peter Illenyi and Zoltan Pad. Orchestrations by Sean Barrett, Benjamin Hoff, Jamie Thierman, Jonathan Beard, Edward Trybek and Henri Wilkinson. Additional music by Omer Ben-Zvi, Bailey Gordon, Brian Claeys, Jesse Hartov and Marisa Gunzenhauser. Special vocal performances by Raya Yarbrough and Sigurjón Kjartansson. Recorded and mixed by Ben Sedano and Ryan Sanchez. Album produced by Bear McCreary.

  1. Jamie Mac
    August 17, 2021 at 10:04 am

    Recorded in Budapest? Good to see Maestro McCreary lighten up about recording abroad…

  1. August 19, 2021 at 11:03 am

Leave a Reply to Jamie Mac Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: