Hans Zimmer’s mind-bending Dune Sketchbook serves as an intriguing prelude to the score itself, introducing unique and rather memorable themes for its core characters and ideas while also pretty expertly capturing the mysterious and mystical world of Dune itself.
Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is set to be quite the film, and with that comes a rather unusual soundtrack release; we’re getting not one, not two, but three albums dedicated to Hans Zimmer’s score for the movie, and it’s the first of these three releases that we’re going to be tackling today; The Dune Sketchbook. It’s similar to prior soundtrack “sketchbooks” released (for Zimmer’s work on X-Men: Dark Phoenix and Wonder Woman 1984 for example) in that it features mostly musical ideation, with long, sweeping and usually rather experimental renditions of all of the major themes composed for the respective score. What’s unusual here with Dune however is that the sketchbook album is being released first, before the actual film score, which means that basically we’re experiencing the debut of the main themes for Dune in Zimmer’s more explorative, creative form, prior to hearing their context in movie. It will therefore be very interesting to hear just how well they all shape up, both now and in a few weeks times when the other albums come out. That combined with the fact that Zimmer has apparently created new musical instruments especially for this score though has my interest decidedly piqued, so without further ado – let’s dive straight in.
It begins with Song Of The Sisters, and right off the bat you can tell that this score is going to be… different. A rumble of drums opens the piece before some rather creepy, distorted-sounding vocals then whisper through, setting a particularly unnerving tone for the start of (presumably, anyway) the theme for the Bene Gesserit sisterhood. The vocals then continue in this slow, creepy manner for a good four minutes or so, which actually brings me on to one of the more intriguing aspects of this piece – it’s sixteen minutes long, and it’s not even the longest track on the album. Despite only spanning nine tracks this sketchbook has a runtime of just over a hundred minutes, so all of the cues are rather lengthy as a result, which if nothing else will hopefully give all the themes a good fleshing out. As the music continues in this opening one though the vocals then start to quicken, becoming harsher and rather agitated, until they start to chant in a manner not dissimilar to that of Zimmer’s theme for Electro from The Amazing Spider-Man 2. The music then continues like this for the remainder of its lengthy runtime, reaching several short crescendoes with sinister electronics also joining the fray until everything then builds to a loudly ominous finish at the sixteen minute mark. All-in, Song Of The Sisters certainly gets your attention as a creepy, unnerving theme for the Bene Gesserit, while also stating pretty firmly that Dune is going to be quite unlike any film score before it.
I See You In My Dreams introduces what appears to be a general main theme for Dune – at least, gathered from the recurring nature of it throughout the sketchbook. The cue opens with whistling winds and some gritty, atmospheric electronics that almost sound like little grains of sand falling onto a surface (coincidence, I think not). After a minute or so of this world-building, haunting vocals and some rather eerie-sounding strings then playing the opening notes of the aforementioned main theme. It’s quite a melancholic and mysterious piece overall, which in all honesty fits Dune rather well, so props to Zimmer there. At eighteen minutes long this track is also the longest piece of music on the album, so the theme gets plenty of development time too. As it progresses, the sand-like electronics start to become more prominent together with some rather Blade Runner-y synth notes and the ever eerie-sounding strings, with the main theme slowly weaving throughout and coming to a near-deafening crescendo at the twelve minute mark. With the track starting to draw to a close, gentle strings and harsh, whispering vocals then set a similarly sinister mood to that of the opening Sisters cue, which ends the piece a short while later.
Things then get very interesting in House Atreides; the theme for (fairly obviously) the Atreides family, including main character Paul Atreides. Unlike the previous few tracks though this one takes a pretty much entirely different musical approach, with quiet, hopeful vocals hinting toward said cues initially before all hell then breaks loose; some instrumentation that I can only describe as sounding like loud, synthy bagpipes burst into the fray, playing the new Atreides theme in a proud, epic and almost heroic manner. Boisterous drums and a powerful electric guitar then take over the background, boosting the already pretty amazing-sounding theme to near ridiculously dramatic levels. It’s loud, it’s triumphant, and plays almost like a national anthem, to some truly spectacular musical results overall. The motif itself is also quite memorable, and that combined with its brilliantly unique instrumentation and a happily lengthy runtime (fourteen minutes!) has meant that of all the tracks present on this increasingly intriguing sketchbook, House Atreides is the one that I just keep coming back to, so the standout cue it most certainly is.
The Shortening Of The Way then dials up the mystery, bringing back the main theme from I See You In My Dreams and revealing it’s true purpose; it’s a theme for the Kwisatz Haderach, a term used by the aforementioned Bene Gesserit sisterhood in the Dune books for an almost “messiah-like” figure who can see into the future – Paul Atreides in this case, which is why it works rather well both as a mystical motif for Paul and an overarching main theme for Dune itself. Now, onto the music – as you can probably imagine, the Kwisatz Haderach is an old, mysterious idea in the books, and so naturally Zimmer’s music here rather accurately reflects that tone. Slow, eerie strings start things off, before some rather ethereal-sounding vocals then start to sing the opening notes of the main theme. As the track progresses, the music then builds in both volume and intensity, with a rather dramatic electric guitar also joining the fray until a rather epic crescendo is reached at just over two minutes in. Some particularly wacky sounding electric guitar notes then keep the mystery going for the next five minutes or so, in a manner that intriguing feel like a hint toward Toto’s primarily guitar-based score for the 1984 Dune movie until loud percussion and some rather ferocious, imposing synth notes then bring the cue to a dramatic finish. Paul’s Dream then continues where this leaves off, taking the main Kwisatz Haderach theme and expanding on it even further through some particularly emphatic instrumentation, with the established electric guitar and ominous vocals taking centre stage through much of the track’s seven minute runtime. Overall it feels almost like an elongated but extremely satisfying conclusion to The Shortening Of The Way, and the primarily vocal finale in particular actually very nearly made it the standout cue (just beaten by House Atreides).
Quietly morose vocals open Moon Over Caladan, establishing a serene yet also rather sorrowful tone for much of the cue’s opening few minutes. Atmosphere is the key component for this first section, and it continues right through until around the three minute mark, where the music then starts to pick up; a loud burst of electronic-y brass signals a turning of the tide, with low-pitched synth notes and quiet, sombre strings starting to build in the background. A rumble of percussion then pulls the music up into rather majestic territory, elevating the mood from quietly solemn to loudly dramatic as the track then starts to approach its finish. In the final few seconds, the instrumentation then subtly hints toward the main Kwisatz Haderach theme before then fading gently, wistfully away. Things then get loud and imposing for Shai-hulud, a ten minute thematic suite dedicated to the legendary, monstrous Sandworms of Arrakis. Eerie strings open the piece, with some quieter, rather sinister electronics hissing away in the background until some quite synthy-sounding strings then take centre stage at the one minute mark accompanied by several haunting brass notes. All together, this instrumentation then builds over the course of the track’s ten minute runtime, swirling and rising until reaching a near deafening crescendo to close. Overall, the music here is a lot like the Sandworms themselves; imposing, intimidating and simply massive in scale, with a slight mystical hint to it as well. In essence, major props to Zimmer here; he’s certainly got the music for the Shai-hulud right.
Mind-killer opens with cold electronics, with some rather unnerving whispering vocals turning the tone almost horror-like within the first minute. I have to say, as the album nears its end the music does seem to be getting more and more experimental, with this lengthy setpiece being a pretty good example of that. After around four minutes of distorted, odd-sounding vocals the pace then quickens, with roaring percussion joining the fray alongside some frantic, almost Chappie-esque synth, with the established vocals turning fast and ferocious as a result. This all then builds and rises in intensity until reaching a decidedly emphatic crescendo, with the vocal motif from the back half of Paul’s Dream then making a brief and rather harsh-sounding appearance right at the end. After that, Grains Of Sand then takes the reins; the final track on the sketchbook. Light, rapid percussion sets a brisk pace to start things off, with vocals whispering quietly away in the background, and electronics starting to rise in a rather Dunkirk-style fashion. As the action continues the occasional rumble of low-pitched, moody synth starts to fade through the music, adding layers of intensity to the already loudly worrisome cue until everything then slowly fades away in the track’s final minute, ending the album on almost as mysterious a musical note as it began.
Overall, Hans Zimmer’s The Dune Sketchbook is actually quite hard to describe. One thing’s for sure though; from the ever-mysterious themes he introduces to the uniquely-crafted instrumentation he uses, Zimmer has managed to pretty successfully musically capture Dune here, which is certainly not an easy feat to accomplish. Whether it’s the loudly triumphant, anthem-esque setpiece for House Atreides, the sheer mystical heights reached by the main theme for the Kwisatz Haderach (and by extension, Paul Atreides himself) or the massively intimidating motif for the great Sandworms of Arrakis, Zimmer has created unique and memorable themes for each, and given them a significant workout through the album’s hundred minute runtime. Stylistically, Dune sort of feels like a bit of a mixture of Blade Runner 2049 and Chappie; harsh, moody atmosphere combined with loud, primarily electronic motifs, but that’s a rather basic and in all honesty not particularly accurate way of describing it, so to try and put it simply; The Dune Sketchbook is quite unlike any film score you’ve heard before (I mean that literally – Zimmer even went as far as to invent new instruments for it), amounting overall to some truly spectacular, mind-bending musical results.
While the sketchbook does feel a little incomplete without the film score to accompany it, it certainly makes for an intriguing prelude, and I for one can’t wait to hear what Zimmer has in store for us with the other two albums.
For my review of Zimmer’s film score for Dune (the second album), click here.
Standout Cue: 3. House Atreides
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