Friday, September 25, 2015


This coming Tuesday sees the return of Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which really blossomed in its second season thanks to improved writing and some compelling new characters. In the past few weeks, I've been sort of "counting down" to the return by listening to the recently released soundtrack album, featuring samples of composer Bear McCreary's score from throughout the first two seasons. Many of you will have heard McCreary's work on other TV series, including The Walking Dead, Outlander, and Eureka. But his style is best exemplified by his music for Battlestar Galactica. The Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. music is compelling for how it retains much of that sound while blending into the Marvel universe.

The Marvel films actually don't have much of a musical style of their own; rarely has the same composer worked on more than one MCU film, and rarer still has any new composer hued to the sound established by one of the old ones. That doesn't hinder Bear McCreary, who in turn adopts the styles of multiple Marvel films. There's smatterings of the distorted hyper-electronic style of The Winter Soldier, and anthems that seem clearly inspired by the Avengers. Meanwhile, he's mixing some Galactica-style taiko drums with a conventional rock drum kit, evolving the action music he wrote for Human Target, and even incorporating some of the creepy bass he used for Europa Report. In short, it's definitely Bear McCreary music at the core, even when he experiments.

The album kicks off with the big, brassy theme that is the "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Overture." It establishes a melody that recurs throughout the album (and the show), a heroic anthem more memorable than most of the Marvel film scores served up. Interestingly, it's among the shortest tracks in the collection; this album chooses to present many long cues of 7 minutes or more (basically, an entire act's worth of music from an episode). It's a decision that really lets you get into the music.

"Showdown at Union Station" brings an electric guitar to the orchestra, and uses not only the S.H.I.E.L.D. theme, but a tender melody for a more emotional moment (a melody that also recurs throughout the album). "0-8-4" is a great suspense cue that uses percussion and bass to give the impression of a bomb -- first ticking, then ringing, then detonating in a sort of slow motion explosion. There are slow tracks that imply mystery, like "The Obelisk," with its discordant strings. There are tracks that emphasize the conventional orchestra (like the tremolo strings and sinister brass of "Cal") and others that showcase non-acoustic instruments (like the growling synth bass of "Gravitonium").

The biggest break from the norm comes in "Cello Concerto" (from a pivotal first season episode of the show), where a cello soloist broods in contemplation for a minute-and-a-half before the orchestra joins in to transition to suspense. There's also experimentation with music-as-sound-effect in "Helicopter Rescue," where the pulsing crescendo of the bass instruments implies the beating of a chopper's blades. On the other end of the spectrum, the most conventional track (for McCreary) is "Alien DNA." It uses his wife Raya Yarbrough as a solo vocalist, chanting a haunting melody.

"Garrett" establishes a militaristic motif for that important first season character, while "Hail Hydra" appropriately mimics the sounds of The Winter Soldier soundtrack to create a motif for the villains. One of my favorite tracks on the album is the lengthy "The Big Bang," an all-out action cue with distorted electric guitar, crazed drums, and clever use of different sections of the orchestra.

The last track on the album, "The Rising Tide," ends with a triumphant statement of the S.H.I.E.L.D. anthem... but with uncertain strings still pulsing beneath. It promises more adventure to come, which is exactly what we're getting in just a few days. If you can't wait that long (or if you're just a Bear McCreary fan), you can pick up the soundtrack in the meantime. I give it a B+.

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