Thursday, September 29, 2016

Seven's Deadly Songs

Until its release was announced a few months back, I didn't realize how much I wanted a soundtrack album of the score from the movie Seven (or Se7en, if you prefer). And until I was listening to my newly acquired copy last week, I didn't realize what a potent addition to my collection it would be.

Today, composer Howard Shore is most widely known for his work on The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Se7en was years before all that. Its score features no melodies half as memorable, but Shore's work is an even more masterful evocation of a filmmaker's intended tone.

What has impressed me more than anything, listening to this soundtrack, is how difficult it is to listen passively. On one level, I expected this; this is dark and ominous music for a dark and ominous movie, not the sort of thing to throw on in the background while you clean the house or some such. But I was surprised at just how much the music makes me sit up and take notice here in isolation -- because when paired with the movie, it slinks into the background just the way it's supposed to.

The music of Seven is littered with strange, industrial noises that defy clear identification: you can imagine thick metal cables being strained, steam vents slowly hissing, or grinding gears. Many of these sounds are exactly what Don Davis would employ years later in his score for The Matrix, making it clear that Howard Shore was ahead of his time here in this experimentation. Often, you're not sure which sounds are orchestral and which are synthetic. Until now, you weren't even sure which sounds were part of the music and which were the sound effects of the film itself.

That said, Seven is a predominately orchestral score... just not in any comforting, harmonious way. I'm not sure there's a major chord in the entire thing, just a bleak landscape of dissonance. When melodies appear, they either feel out of key with the rest of the music ("Gluttony"), are quite brief ("Somerset" and "Mrs. Mills"), or are stifled and mocked out of existence by the orchestra ("Linoleum"). Many tracks feature an unyielding pulse on percussion and bass instruments to set the tension, and climax in volume and speed in the final moments.

There's also dry wit on display. "Sloth" is one of the most rhythmic, fast-tempo tracks of the score. "John Doe," marking the arrival of the killer in the narrative, is the first track to truly organize the chaotic soundscape that's come before into an ordered melody that passes around sections of the orchestra. "Envy," the 7-minute long piece that leads up to the climactic final scene, follows a predictable scale progression that just keeps rising and rising -- you know it's going somewhere terrible, and you can't stop it.

And perhaps most intriguingly, the album opens with a cue that was cut from the movie by David Fincher, "The Last Seven Days." It's an oddly light, even uplifting piece with chimes and sweet chords in the string section. It feels carried in from another movie entirely (kicking and screaming, one imagines). I love the track all the more for it being so jarringly different from everything that follows.

I've long appreciated Howard Shore's work, but I feel like I've rediscovered him with this album. I have to be in just the right (wrong?) mood to listen to it, but that's only a small drawback to truly excellent music. I give this new score album for Seven an A-.

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