Lorne Balfe’s His Dark Materials is a beautiful work of musical art, being a collection of soaring thematic and stylistic ideas that perfectly capture the essence of Philip Pullman’s magical world.
The Musical Anthology Of His Dark Materials is the first of two soundtrack albums that are going to be released for the new BBC/HBO TV show. This one covers the composer’s overarching themes for the score (including motifs for both characters and locations) and the second (releasing later this year) will be a more traditional score release, showcasing various cues from moments in the show. Also, given how astonishingly good Mr. Balfe’s music for His Dark Materials is, you can rest pretty assured that both albums are going to get reviewed on this site. For now though, let’s stick with the first.
The anthology begins with the composer’s main theme for the series, entitled His Dark Materials. A rapid and rather energetic piano opens the piece, before dramatic strings then take the musical forefront for the first playthrough of the theme. As a motif it is long enough to be interesting while not too lengthy as to be overly complex, and in its showcase here it really gets to shine in thrilling, almost heroic form. Loud vocals then takes over for the theme’s middle section, highlighting the fantasy element of the show before the powerful strings then become the centre of attention once again, this time working with the vocals for a rather climactic rendition of the main theme before the track then draws to a close. As an opening cue His Dark Materials gives a great performance, introducing and highlighting both the primary thematic and stylistic elements of Balfe’s score without giving too much away, and of course being a fantastic track and theme just in its own right.
The Golden Compass itself then gets its own theme with The Alethiometer. Much like with the first track it begins with piano notes and overarching strings, however this time they seem much more hesitant and at points; a tad foreboding. Ominous vocals appear at about the ninety second mark to further this tone, with the strings then building up dramatically in the background to add a touch of wonder to the theme. For the final minute powerful brass then joins the fray, overall making for a pretty wondrous yet apprehensive piece of music. The main character gets her much anticipated theme next in Lyra: The Child Of Prophecy, and in a similar manner to The Alethiometer there is a little uneasiness in the music here. Slow, almost solemn strings take prominence for much of the piece, which sadly only lasts for two minutes (despite The Alethiometer‘s four) and honestly I would have liked to have heard more. All-in though these two sub-main themes continue in the same fantastical and beautifully composed vein as the main theme, and I look forward to hearing more of them in the full score album.
A pensive piano opens The Settling Of A Daemon, with quiet brass then starting to build up in the background until the music practically explodes at about two minutes in with a particularly dramatic rendition of the track’s theme. After a minute or so of this the score then slows right back down, with some rather foreboding strings then playing an even more ominous-sounding rendition of the motif to close out the track. Things then get considerably more upbeat with subsequent cue Scholastic Sanctuary, where fast-paced percussion and rather lighthearted strings give us the album’s first properly happy piece of music, and to say that it’s a joy to listen to would indeed be an understatement. Ominousity then returns in The General Oblation Board, which introduces these quite villainous sounding strings accompanied by rapid, almost marching percussion, which overall establishes quite a dark and rather authoritarian tone for the piece.
Rather innocent-sounding woodwinds are the star of the show in The Life Of Roger Parslow, a track that opens with said instrumentation before then building up a little drama with rapid strings. The woodwinds then return for a short while before loud vocals and pensive strings pretty much take over entirely, playing a final rendition of Roger’s theme before the cue then ends. The atmosphere then becomes much darker with The Machinations Of Lord Boreal, where some rather sinister vocals accompany slow and haunting strings for quite a maleficent yet somewhat gloomy-sounding three minute piece of music. Solemnity then returns in full force with A Gilded Cage, where sad, almost mournful strings occupy centre stage for the entirety of its rather short seventy second runtime.
One of the most exhilarating cues of the album is up next, entitled The Strength Of Gyptians. Low and pensive strings open the piece, but it becomes apparent rather rapidly in the form of additional more uplifting string instruments that the music here is anything but sad. Over the course of the track’s first two minutes the score begins to rise, with vocals joining the fray and hope building in the background until brass explodes into play with a triumphant and very heroic-sounding rendition of the Gyptians’ theme. Here the orchestra absolutely shines in breathtaking fanfare before the track then gracefully ends at just over three minutes. Hopeful strings then open A Plea To Fate, and in a similar manner to the previous cue a build-up then ensues, with said strings slowly increasing in volume and intensity and various other instruments forming up alongside until the orchestra peaks in particularly dramatic form (though not quite as upliftingly as The Strength Of Gyptians) and the music closes out.
Pensive yet rather gallant brass introduces The Legacy Of Svalbard, with strings gently rising in the background as the theme continues. Said instrumentation then becomes louder and dramatically builds the pace of the music until the brass once again takes the foreground, playing the new theme in a grand, epic fashion before the track then ends. The past few cues have formed a bit of a pattern in terms of compositional structure (i.e. build-up then powerful release) but this is then broken by Mrs. M Coulter, a much more malicious and rather evil-sounding theme. Like with most tracks so far the strings take precedence at the start, swirling and setting a pretty ominous atmosphere before loud percussion then comes into play, boosting the villainous nature of the theme for a minute or so until the music ends as malevolently as it arrived. The darkness then continues with The Magisterium, where religious-like vocals and low, gradual strings establish quite a sinister tone initially that is then doubled down on by loud brass and commanding percussion towards the end of the piece.
Surprisingly, synth forms the musical backbone of the next track; The Path Foretold. Deep and rising synth notes open the piece and recur in the background throughout its two minute runtime, with pensive and drawn-out strings occupying centre stage. This is the first track so far where honestly nothing much happens, so…moving on. Light woodwinds and dark vocals start off Release The Spy-Fly, with dramatic bursts of brass only sealing the now exceptionally haunting tone. This doesn’t last for long however before the brass then takes over the cue completely, with loud percussion and tense strings delivering a rapid and quite perilous-sounding final minute before the track then ends. The Tales Of Lee Scoresby then lightens the tone considerably, opening with a solo and curiously Old Western-sounding guitar and then continuing with the now cowboy-esque atmosphere with additional strings, guitars and some particularly prominent brass.
As we draw towards the end of the album, the composer brings out one of its most powerful and enjoyable cues with The Compass Points North. A rather tense-sounding piano accompanies synth for the track’s opening minute, with strings gradually starting to appear in the background along with rolling percussion until the orchestra breaks out in full grandiose and epic form. Rapid strings and long, heroic brass notes take the forefront here for a sadly short but truly incredible-sounding sixty seconds of pure musical grandeur. The anthology then finishes up in a curiously haunting manner with The Witches Of Lake Enara, where ominous vocals and creepy synth notes take precedence initially before loud brass and swirling strings then arrive, injecting a small amount of dramatic flair into the cue whilst still retaining the eerie tone established at the start. A few seconds later, the cue then ends as mysteriously as it began.
Overall, Lorne Balfe’s compositional work for His Dark Materials is absolutely fantastic, and I truly believe that this one of his best albums yet. The various themes showcased across the anthology here are masterfully created, from the thrilling and memorable notes of the main theme through to the heroic nature of The Strength Of Gyptians, onward to the villainous and sinister undertones of Mrs. M Coulter and The Magisterium and of particular highlight is the mysterious and rather wondrous The Alethiometer. From start to finish the album is an awe-inspiring and exceedingly enjoyable experience, and as a result I am now very much looking forward to the second score release, not to mention the TV show itself.
One of the best scores of 2019. An astonishing job, Mr. Balfe.
Standout Cue: 1. His Dark Materials