James Newton Howard’s Raya And The Last Dragon is a disappointingly forgetful affair; a score consisting of an intriguing and at points genuinely breathtaking orchestral style but sadly very little substance bar a short and simple main theme that makes few appearances on album.
Opening track Prologue opens softly, with a light pattering of percussion playing before dramatic, chanting vocals then enter the fray accompanied (rather intriguingly) by a dubstep-esque sound that then further leads into several powerful brass notes. Things quieten down slightly after this rather…interesting mixture of instrumentation, with slow strings and gentle woodwinds establishing quite an ethereal atmosphere (and a musical style notably similar to that of James Horner’s Avatar). This doesn’t last for long however before the track begins to pick up the pace again with the chanting vocals taking centre stage alongside rapid strings, then reaching a loud percussive crescendo at around the four minute mark. As the cue starts to draw to a close loud brass bursts in, hinting briefly at frantic action alongside tense percussion before then coming to a dramatically sudden stop, with the music then ending as quiet vocals fade gently out. Overall, the nearly six minute opening piece is a bit of a mixed bag – the musical style is well composed and at times quite intriguing (take the initial orchestral/dubstep mix for example) but it’s very stop-start, and difficult to really get into as the track jumps around almost too quickly to enjoy. Not a massively strong start to say the least.
Things do get a little better though with Young Raya And Namaari, where the main theme of the score is introduced. The track starts off with gentle strings setting a quietly optimistic tone before woodwinds then fade in, playing the new main theme quietly and rather hopefully for its introductory rendition. At just four notes long it’s perhaps a little unmemorable a motif, but the way it plays pensively here backed by some particularly elegant instrumentation sure makes for a much stronger start to the score than the previous track did. A rumble of electronic percussion then opens Betrayed, turning the tone from gentle to frantic as loud EDM-esque electronics and bursts of dramatic brass then arrive to pick up the pace. As the track goes on though the orchestra starts to become more and more prominent, building and building while the electronics fade away until a crashing crescendo is reached a few seconds before the track ends, with solemn strings then closing the piece on a particularly sombre note. Search For The Last Dragon then starts to stir up hope again, with upbeat woodwinds evoking gentle optimism for a short minute before the track then sadly ends as quickly as it arrived. The main theme returns on hopeful strings in the similarly sub-minute Enter The Dragon, a cue that opens with flurries of cheerful percussion before then playing the theme happily on strings and light percussion before the track then annoyingly ends just as quickly as the last one. Dramatic electronics then take over in action cue Fleeing From Tail, with rapid strings and bursts of worrisome brass setting a frantic tone before Avatar-esque ethnic vocals join the fray for a minute of tensely orchestral action. Rapid strings and rumbling electronics then open Journey To Talon, with a burst of epic vocals breathing some particularly emphatic musical life into the cue. Upbeat woodwinds and gentle beats provide a rather lighthearted tone a little later on before the just over a minute-long cue then closes out.
So far, I must say I’m a little disappointed with Raya. I’d been hoping for a richly orchestral fantasy score with an epic main theme tying it all together, and while we’ve got a fair amount of the first bit (oddly-placed EDM electronics aside) the thematic side of things is currently leaving a lot to be desired. This point is illustrated quite well in the subsequent Sisu Swims – which by most accounts is an excellent track – upbeat percussion, gentle strings and more Avatar-esque ethnic vocals paint a rather compelling and enjoyable musical picture, but one sadly completely lacking in thematic material – lacking in anything really to give it proper heart or stand it out from the film score crowd. The style’s all here, there’s just no substance.
Deep, foreboding electronics then start off Dragon Graveyard, with vocals adding a touch of the eerie alongside solemn strings. As the music continues low-pitched brass then enters the fray, pulling the tone further down into darkness before the action loudly kicks back into gear at the start of Escape From Talon. Upbeat percussion and tense strings start things off before bursts of frantic brass arrive to further the pace, with the mood then turning rather worrisome as the established percussion, brass and strings combine to drive home the now quite dramatic mood. This doesn’t last for long though as things get quite jovial in Noi And The Ongis, with the orchestra taking first watch as the track begins before the EDM-esque electronics return and take over a short while later for a minute of loudly emphatic score. Being People Is Hard then slows things down considerably, with solemn strings establishing quite a sorrowful mood to start off with before the orchestra arrives and builds to a loud, heroic crescendo – one complete with bursts of triumphant brass and rumbles of epic percussion. Sadly though this idea doesn’t stick around as quiet, strings-based pensivity then re-enters the fray, sticking around for a couple of melancholic minutes before the track then ends on a similarly short yet upbeat note to the earlier crescendo.
Low-pitched, moody brass opens Spine Showdown, though the slow pace doesn’t last long as light percussion and worrisome vocals then arrive to kick the cue up into action territory. Frantic brass and loud drums also enter the fray at the sixty second mark, surging the music forward and going faster and faster until reaching a powerfully heroic crescendo just before the track then comes to an end. The brisk pace then continues somewhat into Running On Raindrops, with ethereal vocals starting things off before a rather joyful main theme then plays firstly on upbeat strings and then louder and bolder on chanting vocals and dramatic brass. It’s been a good while since we’ve heard the theme properly, and it’s great to hear it finally played loudly and proudly here. Brothers And Sisters then evokes a similarly grandiose style, with dramatic vocals opening the track that build and grow alongside increasingly powerful brass until gallantly crescendoing a few seconds later. Twinkling percussion and ethereal vocals then stir up hope at the start of The Meeting, though the music then quickly descends into darker territory with frenzied electronics-esque action that then segues directly into subsequent action setpiece Storming Fang. Here the Avatar-esque ethnic vocals play in full force along with tense percussion, woodwinds and near horror-like strings. After a few minutes things quieten down a bit, with pensive strings setting a sombre mood for a little while before the loud brass and chanting vocals then return for a loudly epic musical finish. Electronics and strings together with the now established vocals build up to epic heroism at the start of Return, with percussion and brass arriving a few seconds later to cement this happily upbeat tone before the main theme then plays in a loudly triumphant though sadly short rendition (which incidentally sums up most of its appearances fairly well). To close out the album, The New World then takes the main theme and plays it happily and victoriously once again, hammering the motif home as the music then fades away.
Overall though, James Newton Howard’s Raya And The Last Dragon is a bit of a disappointment. While the main theme is quite nice, the album stumbles considerably by not really using it all that much, and also not having a whole lot of depth, variation or length to the motif even when it does appear. The overall musical style is also a little odd, consisting of a blend of traditional orchestra and EDM-esque electronics that sometimes works, and sometimes really doesn’t. It’s quite a jarring tonal blend overall, and doesn’t quite hit all the musical marks you want it to. Having said that though the orchestra itself is beautifully crafted, and there are many instances across the score where it sounds absolutely fantastic (standout cue Running On Raindrops for example), it’s just a shame that there’s not an abundance of memorable themes or epic action setpieces to go along with it. Throughout the score, I kept waiting for that one brilliant track that would elevate the album tenfold and make it all worthwhile, but it just never came. All-in, I’m afraid its all style and no substance for Raya, and a fairly forgettable soundtrack experience to boot.
Standout Cue: 17. Running On Raindrops
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Will you review the WandaVision soundtrack when the last album is released?