Media Ventures composers can, roughly speaking, be divided into two groups: those composers who have no trouble with eschewing any personal style in favor of emulating their former teacher Hans Zimmer and his tried-and-tested sound for their scores; and those who have managed to branch out and create a sound of their own. Unfortunately, it is the former end of the spectrum that is most heavily-populated by names such as Steve Jablonsky (though Steamboy is an excellent exception), Ramin Djawadi, Geoff Zanelli, Nick Glennie-Smith, Trevor Rabin and Klaus Badelt (again, The Time Machine and The Promise are strong exceptions). It is generally agreed upon that the two MV alumni who can best be said to have truly created a distinct musical voice are Harry Gregson-Williams and John Powell. However, Gregson-Williams has written plenty of unmemorable thriller scores such as Dèja Vu and Man on Fire amongst his fewer, stronger efforts like Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas and Kingdom of Heaven. John Powell, on the other hand, has been in fine, rising form ever since his solo career emerged in 2002 with the popular The Bourne Identity score. While that electronic, thumping affair did not necessarily show a lot of promise, his scores in following years have only gotten better and better: The Italian Job and Paycheck in 2003, The Bourne Supremacy in 2004, Robots and Mr. and Mrs. Smith in 2005...etc. Though a versatile composer, Powell has particulary excelled in two specific genres: the modern, Bourne-esque action-thriller, and the animated adventure. My favorite scores by him have mainly fallen in the latter category, which is why I awaited his latest effort in the genre, How to Train Your Dragon, with bated breath.
Powell fans, fear not...HTTYD is all that you have come to expect from a John Powell animated score, and much, much more. It's as if the inexhaustible energy from Antz, Chicken Run and Robots ate up the massive, epic scale and thematic depth of X-Men: The Last Stand. The result is pure magic, a relentlessly enjoyable album that never exhausts its considerable, 68-minute length (song aside). Its themes are numerous and memorable, its orchestration detailed and layered, its sense of fun and reckless energy is almost palpable. Sure, it isn't a work of leitmotivic genius on the level of a Lord of the Rings – not that an animated movie calls for that kind of operatic scoring – but who cares when it's this darn fun to listen to?
'This is Berk' is a barnstormer of an opening, presenting three of the film's prominent themes in snapshot succession. First we hear a slow, steady statement on powerful horns of the 'flying' theme - seems anything with the word 'dragon' in the title is bound to have plenty of flying sequences to score, which is absolutely fine by me, as these tend to inspire amazing music, and this is no exception. During the magnificent 'Test Drive' and the final minutes of both 'Battling the Green Death' and 'Coming Back Around', this theme explodes with exhilarating, soaring joy. Powell's manipulation of this theme is impressive, especially during the earlier sequences where Toothless (the film's titular dragon) tries and fails to fly - Powell hints at the theme, deftly foreshadowing it by twisting the chord progressions around in a manner not dissimilar to similar James Horner techniques (this is best heard during 'Wounded', which employs exquisitely mystical female vocals). Its penultimate performance on solo piano in the second half of 'Where's Hiccup?' is a magical moment, made doubly striking by the fact that this is the piano's only appearance in the entire score.
The second theme, entering the fray over typically Powellesque light percussion at 0:24 of 'This is Berk', doubly represents the Nordic setting and the protagonist, amusingly cynical Viking teen Hiccup. Despite sounding more Scottish than anything else, there's plenty of Viking heraldry to be heard when it explodes into full, brassy, swashbuckling, balls-out mode, accompanied Antz-style by whistling at 1:09. Oh, and if that doesn't sound Viking enough to you, wait until the male voice choir starts heave-ho-ing at 2:08. This is what Alan Silvestri's Beowulf would sound like if it ditched the synths and drank a few gallons of coffee. This theme returns in 'New Tail', 'This Time for Sure' and 'Astrid Goes for a Spin', but ends up giving way to the flying theme as the score's major identity.
There's a short sweeping string interlude at 2:59 of 'This is Berk', a hint of the vaguely James Horner-esque (and completely wonderful in a nostalgic, sentimental way) theme representing Hiccup's love interest, Astrid. The theme returns majestically for the glorious and all-too-short 'Romantic Flight', which is complete with fiddle solos, a gently cooing choir and lush, soaring strings. This lush sound is reprised in shorter form at the beginning of 'Coming Back Around'. Again, Powell develops this theme nicely, with a subtler variation appearing in 'The Cove' on a solo woodwind sounding oddly like some sort of harmonica.
'Dragon Battle', besides featuring some pounding, horn-dominated action writing that begs comparison with Jerry Goldsmith's The 13th Warrior, introduces a fourth theme for the dragons. Here it's a motif of snarling villainy performed on low brass - in cues such as 'The Dragon Book' it is a more mystical, fantasy-oriented idea, highlighted by some excellent. This idea crops up often in the later action material, with a tremendous crescendo in 'Dragon's Den' and several menacing statements throughout the exhausting-but-glorious 'Battling the Green Death' and 'Counterattack'.
A less easily defined motif exists for the more comedic moments of the film and score, a lighthearted idea not dissimilar to similar ideas from Powell's own Ice Age scores. This theme manages to be comedic without resorting to cheap Mickey-mousing mimickry, a fact for which many will be very grateful. It makes its first appearance on clarinet towards the end of 'This is Berk', appears for a burst of Erich Wolfgang Korngold-inspired adventure at 1:47 of 'Battling the Green Death' and gets a few violin and woodwind solos during the afterthought-like final cue, 'The Vikings Have Their Tea'.
And finally, the sixth and final theme in this score represents the friendship between the Viking boy Hiccup and the dragon Toothless. It's more of an ostinato than a theme, a chopping idea not too far removed from Powell's Bourne scores (though with a completely different tone, of course). This nature allows Powell to integrate it smoothly into the thematic tapestry, allowing it to stand on its own (such as its beautiful swelling statements during 'Romantic Flight' and 'Where's Hiccup?', as well as 'Forbidden Friendship' - more on that cue later), but also using it as a rhythm-setter during the invigorating sequences featuring the flying theme (the flying theme and the friendship ostinato are tied together closely, an intelligent and sensible move). It even manages to work its way into the frenetic Scottish-jig-like 'See You Tomorrow', an album highlight of Chicken Run-like enthusiasm.
But the album's absolute highlight is, without a doubt, the singularly beautiful 'Forbidden Friendship', which is practically indescribable, but I'll give it my best shot. It employs the same sort of ticking movement as the Bourne scores, but instead of urgent synths and chopping strings, the orchestration features gentle marimbas, xylophones, bells and beautiful vocals to create a dreamy, unique, New Age ambience that builds slowly over the course of three minutes and reaches a magnificent and emotional climax before fading slowly back into the background. It's the best cue of John Powell's career, so far, and it alone makes this album worth paying good money for.
Detractions? Quite honestly, there are none. If I wasn’t a film music fan already, this is probably the score that would convert me. It’s an exhausting album to sit through due to its almost constant high energy level (broken only by the beautiful “Forbidden Friendship”, “Romantic Flight” and “Where’s Hiccup?” cues, and the few softer, comedic interludes), but exhausting in an absolutely glorious way I haven’t experienced since I first listened to John Debney’s Cutthroat Island. There is a fair amount of Celtic-type music in here, which may seem rather odd when considering the movie’s about Vikings, but ever since Vikings invaded Scotland in the ninth and tenth centuries, the music of the latter has been associated with the former and one cannot really discredit Powell for delivering what the general public thinks sounds like “Viking music” - plus, the most obviously Scottish cue 'See You Tomorrow' has as much energy as the hallowed 'Building the Crate' cue from Chicken Run. With that taken into consideration, the slight geographic discrepancy is easily forgivable.
Also, if you’re a sourpuss who has an aversion to scores that impress you with volume and would prefer a more subtle fantasy score along the lines of, oh, Lady in the Water for example, well, HTTYD roars enough to send those with weaker ears scuttling off for the aspirins (though even they should find something to appreciate in the countless bits of soloist color provided by flute, pipe, fiddle and vocals throughout the score). But I am an absolute sucker for that kind of over-the-top scoring, and therefore this album comes with the absolute highest recommendation, simply for being the most joyful 68 minutes of film music ever put on album. If you only ever get one John Powell album in your life, make it this one, for it is the ultimate culmination of his dynamic orchestral animated style. It’ll take something special for this not to be my favorite score of 2010 - it's a frog's whisker away from becoming my favorite of all time.