Monday, December 19, 2016

Go West, Young Fan

I probably should have been blogging about HBO's Westworld as it ran over the past few months. I don't know that there was anything else on TV I was enjoying quite as much, and it offered plenty to dig into. Perhaps I'll take up writing about it whenever season 2 finally rolls around.

But one thing I don't have to wait on is the recent soundtrack release for season 1. Released just days after the season finale, this 34 track album presents both a healthy collection of composer Ramin Djawadi's original score and all the major pop hits he reorchestrated for different episodes.

It's this latter aspect that has probably driven this soundtrack to unusually high sales. There is a market, it seems, for player piano renditions of Soundgarden, Radiohead, The Cure, and Amy Winehouse. Glibness aside, I don't want to be too dismissive of the subtle creativity at work here. There's a variety of techniques used to give the music a mechanical feel, like wildly different "left hand" and "right hand" parts, and strangely rigid trills and slides. The songs are also played on different pianos for different emotional impact; some tracks use a sharp tack piano, others have a brash and echoing sustain, and others fall somewhere in between.

More interesting are the non-piano covers. Two songs are played by a string quartet: Radiohead's "Motion Picture Soundtrack" and Nine Inch Nails' "Something I Can Never Have." The former has an unsettling squeezebox quality, while the latter feels like accompaniment for some strange ritual. Then there's the pivotal track from the series premiere, a full orchestral rendering of the Rolling Stones' "Paint it Black." First unrecognizable as anything but meandering piano over ominous strings, we get a "showdown at high noon" statement of the melody on horns before the orchestra joins in to luxuriate in the music as the on-screen visuals luxuriated in violence.

But in my opinion, best of all on this album is Ramin Djawadi's original work. Any fan of the show can instantly recall his haunting title theme (the first track on the album, of course), but there are many other gems too. Much of the music involves clever ways of injecting an unfamiliar element into more conventional "Western" music. There's the theme for "Sweetwater," tack piano over menacing strings, but with some odd percussion and sinister scratching just audible as the music fades out. There's the sorrowful piano chords of "This World," that are backed by a motor-like, stereo-panned noise in "Online." Or the track "Reveries," a blend of melancholy violin with an electronic sound evocative of water droplets.

Instrumentation is key even in music queues that aren't explicitly trying to blend the natural and the synthetic. Many tracks are almost divided in half -- the first part a solo or concerto, and the second part a full restatement of the melody using the entire orchestra. The technique shows up again and again, in "Memories," "Bicameral Mind," "Exit Music (For a Film)," and more, but it remains fresh and interesting each time it's used.

I have a number of favorite tracks on the album. "Dr. Ford" features several different melodies, some using natural instruments and others synthesizer (an overt echo of the show's thematic content). "Pariah" is a fun twist on Western movie music featuring a solo, vaguely mariachi trumpet. "MIB" has at least five distinct leitmotifs in just three minutes (and, for Game of Thrones fans, feels most like Djawadi's work there). "No One's Controlling Me" is an angry nest of backmasking, buzzing, and clicking percussion. And "Violent Delights" is pure synth-driven action, a sinister and relentless piece vaguely evocative of Daft Punk's work on Tron: Legacy (in a good way).

Simply put, this Westworld soundtrack is one of the better additions to my collection this year -- though I probably didn't need to tell anyone who watched the show how great its music was. I give the album an A-.

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