In terms of disaster movies, no year in film history can defeat 1997 for pure quantity - if suspect quality. We had Titanic, of course - yes, it's theoretically a disaster movie. We had Dante's Peak. And we also had Volcano, which was frighteningly similar to Dante's Peak in several ways - but not the score.
Alan Silvestri's 90s were disappointing in quite a few ways. Disappointing for the composer, who (despite never reaching his 80s brilliance) produced some very strong material that was more often than not wasted on unimpressive films – of especial note is a trio of critically panned action movies: Judge Dredd in 1995, Eraser in 1996 and now Volcano in 1997. The decade was also disappointing for the composer's fans, who were subjected to several less-than-score-friendly soundtrack releases – the godawful songs on the Judge Dredd CD especially are nothing less than disturbing.
Silvestri’s score happens to fit both these categories. The movie itself is an entertaining, but formulaic and at times laughably inaccurate flick, and, not for the first time either, Silvestri has stepped up and provided an above-average action-adventure score to accompany the physics-defying and rather artificial-looking flows of lava that devastate Los Angeles onscreen. At 29 minutes, the album is ridiculously short. Oddly enough, though, this short album serves the Volcano score very well.
The "Main Title" introduces a light, prancing little motif, hopelessly optimistic in its fluffy progressions on synthesizer accompanied by softly swirling and chopping strings. These Hans Zimmer-reminiscent string lines, hinted at in Eraser and first fully employed here (incidentally, eight years prior to Zimmer's first use of them in Batman Begins) have been used in several Silvestri scores since. A few low, ominous brass chords sometimes filter through, subtly showing us that something bad is going to happen to shake the happy world portrayed by this motif.
"Miracle Mile" is more of a suspenseful track - though it carries over some of the plucked synthesizer effects from the previous track, they are now accompanied by low, James Horner-esque piano strikes. Towards the end, we are treated to the first taste of this album's entertaining action music. As per the Silvestri norm, it is brass- and percussion-dominated, accompanied by more chopping ostinati. An interesting choice here is the use of trilling and sliding horns - á la Elliot Goldenthal - which, in my opinion, very effectively paints a picture of the "roiling" lava.
The first of this album's two major themes is introduced at the beginning of "Tarnation" - it's an ominous motif representing the lava itself, played in the low ranges of the horns, very much in the style of Silvestri's own Predator. The rest of this theme is on-and-off action, some of the more deliberate sections hinting slightly at the film’s second theme. This idea, representing the humans who try and stop or channel the lava, is the album’s most memorable, heroic idea, and it is presented with determined grandeur at the end of the next track, “Teamwork”, accompanied by a synthetic choir.
The next two tracks, “Build a Wall” and “March of the Lava”, are where Silvestri really unpacks some above-average music and wonderful statements of theme for this distinctly below-average film. The latter track, especially, is a true highlight, in which both the lava theme and the heroic theme are given massive statements over ripping snare drum rhythms.
The short “Roark’s Missing” is reminiscent of the most melodramatic moments of Judge Dredd, offering yet another chorally-aided heroic-theme statement. “Cleansing Rain” then closes the album on a light, woodwind-and-strings note. It is rather interesting to consider how the synthetics that represented L.A., pre-eruption are replaced by a real orchestra post-eruption – and knowing Silvestri, this can only be a conscious choice.
In the end, Volcano doesn’t really leave a huge impression, not in the way that the monumental Judge Dredd did the first time I listened to it. In terms of complexity and variation of statements, Volcano’s heroic theme doesn’t stand up to that of Judge Dredd. But without a titular character (both Dredd and, theoretically, Eraser have one), the need for a big theme is diminished.
Because of its short length, Volcano never overstays its visit, and I am constantly surprised by how often I find myself listening to it. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that, unlike both Judge Dredd and Eraser, the album contains little sound-effects-driven suspense or horror music.
Volcano is a surprisingly defining score in Silvestri’s career, and not only because of the introduction of the string ostinatos. I find the melodramatic, energetic Judge Dredd to be a forerunner of sorts of The Mummy Returns, while the contemporary Eraser is comparable to Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life. Volcano, on the other hand, most closely resembles Van Helsing with its relentless rhythmic pounding and simple, brassy, memorable heroic theme. Followers of my reviews probably know by now how highly I regard Van Helsing, so perhaps that partially explains why this unjustly-overlooked score finds its way into my ears with such regularity. Simply put, Volcano is a pleasure, and not just a guilty one, for all fans of Alan Silvestri’s action music. Pity it’s so short.