Tensions are high with James Horner’s Aliens, an expertly-crafted action-horror score that perfectly bridges the stylistic and thematic gap between the original iconic film and its more action-oriented yet equally exceptional sequel.
James Horner’s Aliens is a fantastic score, especially considering how little time he had to write it. Atmosphere is very key to its musical core, as evidenced in the very first cue; Main Title. Quiet and rather ominous electronics open the piece, kicking a particularly creepy tone into gear almost immediately. Slow, low-pitched rising brass notes then begin rapidly fading in and out, adding a slight militaristic hint to the otherwise ominous score. This build-up of tension continues for a few more seconds before Horner then goes full horror with rapid electronics that sound eerily like screams backed by loud, crashing percussion. Things calm down considerably for the next section of the cue where calming, serene strings enter the fray to introduce the score’s main theme for Ripley – which then fades out rather rapidly after its gentle introduction. Next up, the composer has a little thematic treat for us; a haunting reprise of Jerry Goldsmith’s two-note secondary main theme from the original Alien. While its appearance here is sadly short it does form a nice thematic bridge between the two movies, and really helps to cement the score firmly in the frightful tonal world of the xenomorph. The fading brass “motif” from earlier then briefly reprises alongside Goldsmith’s Alien theme for about a minute or so before the cue then simply drifts out. Overall – as both thematic and stylistic score introductions go, Horner really does nail it here.
The main theme appears rather solemnly at the beginning of Dark Dreams, with rapid strings then thundering into view to deliver one of the score’s most spine-chillingly creepy musical moments. Dark Discovery/Newt’s Horror then heads right back into Jerry Goldsmith territory with the tone shifting into slow, atmospheric strings playing another unnerving reprise of the secondary Alien theme. The first hints of militaristic percussion then arrive in LV-426 with the aforementioned theme from Alien moving ominously alongside. Things then slow down a tad a couple of seconds later for a soothing playthrough of Ripley’s motif to close out the cue. Combat Drop introduces the full theme for the Marines along with a short two-note action motif, both played by upbeat strings and hopeful brass which are then joined by the dramatic militaristic percussion from earlier tracks. Things get a little tenser as the cue continues, with the pace kicking up and the instrumentation becoming more poignant until finally crescendoing in rather epic fashion as the track ends. The rising brass notes from Main Title return in The Complex, where the militaristic drums for the Marines and Goldsmith’s atmospheric Alien motif play in tandem to create a particularly unsettling mood overall. This tonal idea continues through to both Atmosphere Station and Med Lab where slow, methodical strings and low-pitched brass notes handle the ominous while louder, horror-like strings strike through at irregular intervals together with short punches of brass to maintain an eerie sense of dread throughout.
Slow, moody brass opens Newt, which then begins to rise as the track continues until the militaristic drums reprise and a few notes from the Marines theme play in slightly hopeful fashion before then disappearing as quickly as they arrived. Goldsmith’s Alien motif then quietly rears its creepy head before the six minute Sub-Level 3 then begins. Here dramatic brass notes punch through every so often alongside particularly ominous backing strings, making for some of the tensest few minutes on the album. Quiet brass lurks in the background for much of the piece, with the two-note Alien theme also skulking around eerily alongside it. A loud burst of strings then properly wakes the score up towards the end of the cue, then seguing rather dramatically into the subsequent action-centric Ripley’s Rescue. Here the theme for the Marines and two-note action motif together with the militaristic drums return in full fast-paced form, with some reluctantly rousing brass then joining the fray a minute or so in. Horror returns for a few moments with rapid blasts of high-pitched brass before the score then doubles down on the action with the Marines theme reprising in its most tense yet resilient playthrough yet – one that persists all the way to the track’s loud and dramatic finish a couple of minutes later.
Things then slow right back down for the creepy Facehuggers, with high-pitched horror-esque strings playing alongside several rising brass notes alluding back to the Main Title cue. This doesn’t last long though before loud percussion and rapid strings burst onto stage with the rising brass descending into slower, more sinister territory. The pace then slows a bit in the middle, continually building tension until the rumbling militaristic percussion arrives once more to close out the cue. Another action setpiece is up next – the eight minute Futile Escape, which begins slowly with the aforementioned drums alongside some rather tense strings, quietly building for a few minutes until the Marines theme then comes crashing into frame on loud, frightening brass and now considerably more intense percussion. Here the two-note action motif also takes centre stage then for pretty much the entirety of the track, and that combined with some seriously tense brass moments and many an ominous thematic reprise makes it overall one of the best action tracks on the score. Newt Is Taken then slows the pace back down while still retaining the loud, threatening brass punches and suspenseful two-note action motif, building apprehension throughout much of the track’s two minute runtime for payoff in the score’s finale – that starts in the next cue.
Rousing, almost hopeful brass and the militaristic percussion from earlier opens Going After Newt, with the rapid pace returning in full force alongside a curiously placed stylistic reference to Horner’s Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan. The Alien threat is still felt through the cue with low brass undercurrents, though the two-note action motif then does its level best to keep the tone brave in the track’s back half while at the same time battling some particularly ferocious horror-like strings. The Queen then drags the mood fully back down into spine-chilling scare territory, with low and extraordinarily creepy electronics establishing an ambience so far up the ominous scale it makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end.
Happily though this doesn’t last for long before Bishop’s Countdown fires up the action again with heroic brass alongside the two-note action motif. After about thirty seconds or so the pace kicks up and the brass begins to build, with the orchestra then practically exploding with the score’s most dramatic (and rather famous) musical moment yet. Calming strings occupy the back half, hinting hopefully towards an end to the horror before Queen To Bishop then dashes that dream to pieces. Here rapid strings and angry brass return for one last foray with the two-note action motif reprising in short sections throughout the track. Resolution And Hyperspace then starts where it leaves off before triumphant brass then finishes off the action in happily heroic form, allowing quietly optimistic strings to reprise Ripley’s theme in a very finale-esque manner – and closing the score on a well-earned hopeful note.
Overall, James Horner’s score for Aliens is absolutely spellbinding, and practically a masterclass in terms of musical tension and atmospheric world building. The themes are all expertly-crafted and a joy to listen to, whether it’s the gentle strings-based notes for Ripley, the hardened brassy battle score for the Marines or simply the two-note tense action motif that keeps suspense high and action epic throughout the album. I also absolutely adore the use of one of Goldsmith’s original Alien themes here, as it brilliantly bridges the tonal gap between the two iconic movies and sets this score firmly in the cold, harsh musical world of the xenomorph. All-in it’s one of James Horner’s finest action scores, and certainly not one you want to miss.
Standout Cues: 11. Ripley’s Rescue/19. Resolution And Hyperspace