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The Return of the King CD Review

By Doug Adams



The Lord of Rings: The Return of the King *****
HOWARD SHORE
19 tracks - 72:35
 
If the past decade of films and film music has taught fans anything, surely it's a stern reprimand about setting our expectations for sequels too high. How many times over the past few years have listeners and viewers tacked their hope for the medium to a project that failed to live up to expectations? How often has a rotten follow-up had that uniquely destructive ability to tarnish not only the picture at hand but also all previous entries? That's our lesson in fandom, but it reveals an even more potent aspect of creativity. Flash and dazzle is easy; structure demands far more from an artist. It's rare today that a sequel fails to offer more visual bang for your buck, but when FX gurus are busy reinventing the wheel, where is story, where is ambiance, gravity, ingenuity? Once again, where's the structure?
 
So is this the part where I break bad news about Return of the King? No. (Wicked, tricksy, false!) This is my way of laying bare the minefield Return of the King set before Howard Shore -- and explaining my pure joy at finding that he has rounded of his massive Lord of the Rings trilogy with a work of staggering emotion and uncompromised musical worth. This is obviously not the first successful sequel score in the history of film music. John Williams' oeuvre is overrun with improved second acts. But when most composers turn in a bettered sequel, it generally feels like a revisitation -- a second at bat where the enhancements are earned through reconsidering the first score. The composer may take score one from point A to point B, the sequel from point A to point C. In Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, Shore went from point A to B and B to C, respectively. Themes continued developments without a recap, drawing fresh connections while pushing the old in new directions; the palette widened incorporating a grander sense of scope and advanced realizations of the styles.

Return of the King takes us triumphantly to point D, which logically expands the compass even further. Shore has built his emotional arc through nearly eight hours of music before reaching this score, and now, as we reach the destination, everything is touched with a sense of gravity. We've earned this voyage; we've come to its conclusion naturally, and the effects are nearly overwhelming.
 
Today's scores are littered with huge moments. In fact, many scores are nothing more than constant strings of these moments, separated by what the composer obviously considers filler. This has long been one of my major complaints about modern scoring. It's built around a stream of screams, committee-designed to pump the audience at every possible moment. But it's musical steroids – a false shortcut that wears on the ears and numbs the mind. Every epic moment in Return of the King is merited – as are the more intimate.

This is another chapter, not another go at it. The primary theme this time is Shore's noble Gondor melody, which first cameoed behind Boromir's speech at Rivendell in Fellowship. This unique melody is one of a very few in the Rings collection to begin with an open leap -- here a perfect fifth -- creating a sense of stature among the thematic hierarchy. (Almost all other Rings themes begin in either stepwise motion or as triadic arpeggiations.) Although the tune itself is set in a minor key, Shore derives endless variations in the accompaniment to keep the harmonic and dramatic palette continually invigorated -- not unlike prior major harmonizations of the minor-keyed Fellowship Theme. This clever treatment of harmony goes a long way toward establishing the ancient/modern sound Shore has brought to the scores. Have diminished chords ever sounded as fresh as they do in Return of the King?
 
The Gondor theme and its stylistic insinuations immediately broaden the music of Middle-earth, informing the listener that even if the plot hasn't yet reached its resolution, the characters have arrived at the end of their journey. Whatever will happen will happen here.
 
Also returning after their brief Fellowship premiere are the shimmering brass figures heard behind Boromir and Aragorn's "White Tower" chat in Lothlorien, here used as a History of Gondor theme relating to the city's former glory and future potential, and put to welcome use in the lustrous "Anduril" track.
 
That other ruined nation, Rohan, rouses its theme again here, now stronger and more directed than in Two Towers, as the king and leagues of horseman set off to play their part in the war to come. Shore no longer treats this is a society in decline. "The Ride of the Rohirrim" begins with a stunning three-part dialogue for strings, solo fiddle and French horn, each vying for chest thumping snippets of theme's opening. After a particularly heroic flash of some Éoywn material, the track concludes with a steely Lydian setting of Rohan's melody where tutti brass builds into a rousing modal cluster -- a brilliant symphonic war whoop.
 
Although the three Ring themes don't figure into this album as heavily as they do the previous two, Shore begins the CD with an amazing set of variations on each. In "A Storm is Coming" the History of the Ring theme flows into a waltz-like mold, an elegant folksy variation related to the original Hobbit music, but slightly different. After the solo violin picks up the tune in a strongly European twist the music grows angrier…belligerent even. In a violent flourish the Evil of the Ring theme belts out its sustained tones in the winds as the Seduction theme saws away over it in violin octaves. Below all this, the Descending Third motive from the Mordor collection burrows lower and lower into the orchestra.
 
This cue (which, incidentally, plays amazingly in the film) is indicative of much of the Return of the King approach. Fellowship showed us the musical connections within Middle-earth. Two Towers broadened the world, allowing the interconnected music to wander of its own accord. Return of the King brings everything back together. As the story climbs to its dramatic peak, Shore runs the themes into one another to create the sense that Middle-earth is colliding – conflict is coming to a head. "Hope and Memory" combines the reedy Shire theme with the harmonies and melodic inflections of the Fellowship Theme. In "The Steward of Gondor," Pippin (Billy Boyd) performs a wistful Celtic melody that's essentially a crossbreeding of the open fifth leap of the Gondor melody and the up-and-down stepwise motion of the Shire material. (Boyd provides a lovely performance, appropriate both to his character and to the writing.) These hybrid themes litter the disc, even in the villains' music. "Minas Morgul" slices open the Mordor material so that the remnants of the Isengard percussion and octave low brass can tromp into the mix.
 
Thematically there's so much happening in this score, I honestly can't imagine ever sitting through it without finding something new. The listing above hasn't begun to detail what the music holds. Minor motifs from the first film, such as the sighing Caradhras theme, return now world-weary and bleak. Shore takes the Evenstar melody from Towers in new directions, exploring the possibilities inherent in the florid line. The furious choral lines behind Sauron's prologue meltdown in Fellowship seek new levels of excitement in the disc's final tracks. Thematic fragments no longer than a half a phrase subtly hint at the psychological overhaul the characters are enduring.
 
Even instrumental colors return in familiar combinations with new material -- especially those associated with Hobbiton. Dermot Crehan once again plays the fiddle solos, and Irish flautist James Gallway adds a new maturity to the whistle and flute parts. Gallway also lends some pan flute lines to the Gondor material, performed with equal class and commitment. Boy soprano and Two Towers veteran, Ben DelMaestro makes a handful of appearances on the album, but it's soprano Rene Fleming who makes the proudest contribution to the score's vocal music. Ignoring, for the moment, that the woman has a supremely radiant voice, her interpretations are outstandingly nuanced.
 
Annie Lenox provides the score's final vocal statement in Shore's song "Into the West." The melody here is drawn from the folk instrumentations in the Shire music and the newly penned Grey Havens theme. Don't let Lenox's past fool your ears. This tune is far more than a simple pop ditty. It's a logical and moving extrapolation of the material we've been hearing for three scores – a kind of Celtic lullaby that ebbs and flows in gentle waves. Shore's sense of structure and line is deceptively complex in this tune. The text is set to a natural cadence that highlights the language with an almost Schubert-like quality.
 
The only minor quibble I can offer here is that one disc is not nearly enough to display what Shore has created for this film. But the same can be said of the first two. The 72-minute running time passes in a blink. Shore wrote even more music for Return of the King than for the other two films, which means a few edit-heavy tracks on the disc have a suite feeling more than a direct story arc. This will only frustrate fans once they realize just how more music there is, but it bodes extraordinarily well for future releases. (The edits are finely executed and will only become noticeable once you've heard the uncut tracks.) Shortened form or no, make no mistakes, this is an Act Three score. The hour spent climbing towards this musical climax ratchets everything up to Shore's most expressive and electrifying music in the trilogy. Even the stops along the road bring new levels to the score. "Shelob" is as dense and lucid a bit of action writing as has been heard in film. In fact, I'm hard pressed to find parallels anywhere but the concert world. Shönberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra springs to mind most readily. And the juxtaposition of light to dark colors in the score -- heard most notably where soloists are pitted against massed orchestral forces -- reaches its zenith as the drama examines the plight of a few related to the plights of many.

The score ends on neither a happy nor sad note, but with a sense of noble resignation. Shore has always treated this music as an emotional examination first and as a spectacle second. That's never been truer than in the score's closing moments. There's no glorious celebration, no maudlin weepiness. There's stillness and introspection and an adult understanding that everything must end. It's a hard lesson for the film's characters, and a more difficult one for us listeners. We may never have another full Lord of the Rings score to await, but we'll always have these three stunning works that Shore has turned out. These works have not only improved the musical landscape of the past few years, they've improved the art of film music. These are landmark scores, not to be missed.



R.I.P. Michael Kamen (1948-2003)


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