Ad Astra – Soundtrack Review

Max Richter and Lorne Balfe have created a breathtakingly atmospheric musical world for Ad Astra – one that makes you feel as if you’re floating amongst the stars.

Here it is at last – the highly anticipated soundtrack release for Ad Astra.  I’ve been a rather big fan of ambient-style space scores for a while now, with great ones like Gravity and First Man appearing very frequently on my relistening playlists. Couple that with the fact that Max Richter (the composer for the fantastically-scored The Leftovers) and Lorne Balfe (who scored the recently-reviewed Gemini Man) have co-composed it, and as you can probably imagine – I was pretty damn excited  So without further ado, let’s dive (or rocket) into the ambience of outer space.

The soundtrack begins with To The Stars, a kind-of-sort-of main theme for the overall score. Given the ambience and rather atmospheric nature of the music here there is of course the expectation of very little in the way of thematic content, so to get a stylish and thought-provoking main theme track as the album opener was quite the pleasant surprise. Structurally the piece does exactly what it’s supposed to, introducing slow and sweeping strings that then elegantly establish a wondrous and rather relaxing atmosphere. Piano notes then appear at about the ninety second mark, combining with the strings to cement this feeling of just sheer awe – making you feel as if you’re actually floating amongst the stars (hence the track title, I suppose). Overall it’s a beautiful piece of music, and a fantastic way to start the album.

The tone is then dramatically switched up as subsequent cue Encounter begins, with horror-like high pitched strings snapping you right out of relaxation in the track’s first few seconds. The intensity then fades back slightly and the music takes a breath, before deep electronics then appear alongside rapid yet fleeting percussive elements and the horror returns with tensions running high. Without reading too much into it, the considerable juxtaposition that this cue creates when paired with its predecessor is actually really interesting, as these two tracks pretty accurately represent outer space as we experience it; breathtakingly beautiful, but also incredibly dangerous.

Following track Cosmic Drone Gateway then returns the score to the more gradual and atmospheric side of things, though this time with an edge of mystery in comparison to To The Stars. Deep electronics and sweeping high-pitched strings are introduced to create this eerie, almost creepy tone, and this combined with the slow and rather solemn nature of the backing instrumentation makes for a rather dark yet wondrous piece of music overall. A Trip To The Moon then lightens things up a bit, establishing fast-paced and upbeat percussion in the opening minute before then slowing right back down and reintroducing the main motif from To The Stars in a similarly gradual and relaxing manner. Terra Incognita then switches the tone up yet again, this time bringing back the horror-esque strings and combining them with these truly eerie vocals to create quite an unnerving and chilling track, and a particularly jarring atmospheric change.

Wonder returns inThe Rings Of Saturn, where light strings and woodwinds team up with high-pitched and heaven-like vocals to pull the atmosphere right back into relaxed and awe-inspiring territory. The main theme then makes another return in The Wanderer, which continues the same slow and methodical musical mannerisms as both the previous cue and To The Stars. To complete this trilogy of atmospheric outer space tracks we then get Erbarme Dich, which like the previous two continues the same slow pace but this time brings long, drawn-out synth notes and light percussion instruments to the mix, making for a particularly calming four minute tonal setpiece overall.

Let There Be Light opens softly, with low strings slowly fading in before percussion then starts to build in the background both in intensity and volume, and before long the music is completely taken over by loud and dramatic electronics. These however only last for a few seconds before then fading away, leaving behind only the strings to return the track to its opening ambience before it then ends. Said strings then continue in Event Horizon in a similarly calming manner, before then being joined by a rather solemn piano about about the one minute mark. As the music continues, low brass then slowly fades in, so subtly that I almost didn’t catch it at first. Tonally it really elevates the piece, making Event Horizon one of the best tracks so far in my mind.

To close out Max Richter’s side of the album (I should point out that all the tracks so far were composed solely by him) we get You Have To Let Me Go, a rather solemn and sad cue that makes excellent use of instrumentation (through subtle vocals and melancholic strings) and motifs (as the main To The Stars theme returns along with some stylistic callbacks to Event Horizon). Overall it brings Richter’s music full circle with a well-executed and highly enjoyable six-minute conclusion, before the album then moves on into Lorne Balfe’s side of the score.

Ominous strings open his first track entitled Opening, and while there is most certainly a compositional and stylistic difference between the two composers’ work, Balfe’s style here actually works pretty well with Richter’s, at least initially anyway. At about the minute mark brass and electronics are introduced, and the music starts to edge painfully close to loud Zimmer territory before then coming to a rapid finish. Subsequent cue Briefing then thankfully brings things down a notch, returning to the low and atmospheric territory that Richter established earlier with deep electronics. Almost upbeat percussion then opens Space Journey, setting a rather wondrous yet mysterious tone before then adding light electronics and sweeping Blade Runner-esque strings, and I must say, so far Balfe has me pretty intrigued.

Things get a whole lot darker with Rover Ride, with deep, drawn-out brass notes and rather eerie strings combining with the now established upbeat percussion to create this almost horror-like but still rather wondrous tone. Pirate Attack then doubles down on the horror elements, with loud and unnerving electronics opening the cue in an almost sound-effect-like manner that puts you off balance pretty much immediately. The typical rising horror strings then show themselves about halfway through, working with dramatic vocals and the intense electronics to really hammer home this new danger-infused atmosphere.

Lengthy synthesizer notes then open Orbs, and I must say I found it rather difficult not to compare the compositional style here with that of a certain well-known atmospheric synth score. If not for the ominous percussive elements in the background I could have actually almost mistaken this cue for one representing a dystopian Los Angeles and a rather solemn-looking Harrison Ford. The same goes for sequel track Underground Lake, a piece that continues in the same atmospheric elongated synth style, and overall both cues are pretty enjoyable, not to mention relaxing. Trip To Neptune then concludes Balfe’s work for the album in a much more orchestral manner, introducing wondrous vocals, a rather sombre piano and some rather awe-inspiring electronics that together make for quite a calming and tranquil finale to the score.

Overall, Max Richter and Lorne Balfe’s score for Ad Astra is simply wondrous. Richter’s work here is breathtakingly ambient, with To The Stars being the star of the show stylistically, atmospherically and thematically. That being said however I can see (well, hear) why Lorne Balfe was called on for additional music, as his work adds a breath of fresh orchestral and electronic air amongst Richter’s consistently ambient compositions, and while I’d say Balfe’s work doesn’t quite hit the mark for me (mainly because of the jarring switches between synth and orchestra tracks), it was nice to hear something a little different after ninety minutes of Richter. Along similar lines, structurally the album is a little bit of a mess, and that does kind of screw up the musical storytelling here I think as tones are a bit all over the place. Overall though, I quite enjoyed Ad Astra’s score, and you probably will too.

 

Score: 8/10

Standout Cues: 1. To The Stars/17. Event Horizon

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