Thursday, September 17, 2015

Monkey Music

Over the past couple of weeks, I've had a continuing mini-series of posts on awesome TV shows I talk about by way of their soundtrack albums. Today is the latest entry, with a look at 12 Monkeys.

Since Battlestar Galactica ended years ago, I hadn't really been pulled into the Syfy (formerly Scifi Channel) series I'd sampled. That all changed with 12 Monkeys, an adaptation of the Terry Gilliam-directed science fiction film. That's a favorite movie of mine, so the idea of a remake immediately violated my personal belief that only mediocre movies should be remade. (The theory being that the bad movies don't deserve a second chance, and the great ones shouldn't be messed with.) But in this case, my curiosity overwhelmed that feeling. 12 Monkeys itself already is a remake, of a (boring) French short film, La Jetée. It already felt as to me as though the core idea had been enlarged; how could it expand to sustain multiple episodes of a television series?

I had to know. And the answer is: very well. I hold the film in such high regard that I can hardly claim the show surpasses it... but the show does do an excellent job of setting up a similar premise in its pilot episode, and then expanding onto a much bigger canvas as its 13-episode season unfolds. It quickly became its own entity, and very good in its own right. I find myself eagerly awaiting the second season, coming next year.

One very evocative component of the show is the music, composed by Trevor Rabin and Paul Linford. Not only is it perfect for the show, it's also a perfect illustration of how the show forged a different path than the film. The score for the 12 Monkeys movie was conspicuous and bizarre, featuring jaunty melodies on a squeezebox. (But strange though it was, it totally worked.) 12 Monkeys the TV show has a much more conventional orchestral soundtrack that's clearly inspired by more classical-style film composers. There's heavy use of frenetic strings, reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann. There's strategic use of Eastern percussion that sometimes evokes Bear McCreary. But there's also plenty that seems uniquely tailored to this series -- the "12 Monkeys sound."

That sound is often a wonderful juxtaposition of urgency and melancholy. It's perfectly represented by the show's theme, a song you get only a few seconds of every week, but which gets a full overture presentation on the album in the opening track, "I Am the Clock." Tense strings provide the backing for a haunting piano melody built around a five-note pattern. The album version explodes this into something majestic, almost like a superhero's anthem, but the song always returns to the main, simple melody, trading it to different instruments.

A variety of instruments get turns on center stage in this soundtrack. There's a sad cello (for "Katarina (Jones' Theme)"), rain pipes (on "The Monkeys on the Wall"), the piano ("Railly Meets Jones"), instrumental guitar ("Goodbye, Cole"), and a vocalist with a solo violin ("The Cycle Is Complete"). In all, real world instruments are more prominent than in most modern television scores, though some tracks play with synthesizers as well -- weird echoes (in "Do You Believe in Fate?"), half-swallowed tones (in "Temporal Frustrations"), a sinister bass so low in pitch that it's only a rumble ("The Pallid Man"), and mechanized whining ("Scav Attack"). But overall, the human element is always winning out over the technology, a sonic mirror for the themes in the storytelling itself.

After recently picking up a few soundtracks that play more like soundscapes than conventional music, the 12 Monkeys album was a welcome return to something more familiar. There's something tenuous and mournful about it -- as you might expect for a show involving an apocalypse. But there's also something compelling about the world it pulls you into. I give the 12 Monkeys soundtrack a B+. And it evokes many memories of a consistently good show.

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