Ah, trailer music. As far as I can tell, most people seem to either love it or dismiss it as generic, derivative and generally not worth their time. Ever since discovering the music of Two Steps From Hell, I have found myself firmly in the former camp, and frequently attempting to prove to those of the latter camp that trailer music is so much more than over-the-top Carmina Burana rip-offs (this review is, probably, little more than another of those attempts). Admittedly, you do get quite a lot of that kind of thing, but in the hands of a talented composer, there is very little in this world that is more entertaining. Two Steps From Hell, a trailer music company consisting of Thomas Bergersen and Nick Phoenix, are relative newcomers in the trailer music world; their music first appeared in trailers in 2006 and their first public album was only just released last year. Since then, they have skyrocketed in popularity and shot past veteran companies like X-Ray Dog and Immediate Music to the very top of the heap. This is in no small part thanks to the immense up-and-coming talent of Thomas Bergersen (sorry, Nick, you have a solid style but I just connect with Thomas' cues a lot more). So when he announced that he would be releasing his first public solo album, Illusions, I was overjoyed. Short of John Williams' score for the upcoming Tintin film, there was hardly anything I was looking forward to more this year.
To say that Bergersen met my expectations would be an immense understatement. Illusions is an incredible musical achievement, an album which maintains an undercurrent of familiar Two Steps From Hell sounds but manages to transcend that in almost every way, almost bordering on New Age levels at times. For certain, it establishes Bergersen as one of the most talented and underrated composers of the new generation, with an identifiable style and an unerring knack for emotion in his music rivalled by few others. He somehow manages to bring the disparate elements of orchestra, percussion, choir, pulsating electronics, exotic instruments and solo vocalists (the latter a staple of Bergersen's style) together into emotionally resounding crescendos of harmonious grandeur. Each individual cue on this album is a memorable self-contained musical journey, and not one of them is anything less than extremely strong. While there are no recurring thematic elements running throughout the album as there would be with a film score, it sounds remarkably cohesive compared to Two Steps From Hell's other two public albums, Invincible and Archangel. One of the reasons for this is probably the lack of Nick Phoenix's cues, but the other is that cues tend to run far longer than they normally would on a trailer music album; the average track length is over four minutes and the longest eight.
It is truly difficult to single out highlights on an album as uniformly strong as this, but I can mention moments of individual interest. The cue 'Starvation' - probably the album's best, if I had to pick - has a truly haunting moment at 1:14 featuring a chanting Bulgarian choir, segueing into an utterly awesome theme at 1:55 before launching into a rhythmic section reminiscent of, bizarrely, Hans Zimmer's Crimson Tide at 2:16, and so on. The way Bergersen unifies these wildly differing sounds is truly intoxicating. The choral work in 'Ocean Princess' is almost as intriguing, with a unique high-pitched staccato female voice effect entering at 2:15 and battling the more stereotypical male chanting. The only thing remotely like it I've ever heard in my life is some of the choral work in Harry Gregson-Williams' Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas. The brief and melodramatic 'Hurt' cue features a female vocal soloist who sounds very similar to Lisa Gerrard, and the cue will probably remind listeners of Gladiator and King Arthur. In general, most of this music won't sound too far distant from the Media Ventures/Remote Control sound, with chopping string ostinati in particular a driving force in the majority of cues, but these are so energetic and nimble that they, again, transcend that mundane origin.
'A Place in Heaven' is another knockout cue, featuring sopranos and pan flutes alternating in their statements of an absolutely lovely, vaguely Celtic melody over a galloping, pulsating undercurrent of electronics, percussion and strings - if you liked 'Run Free' from Hans Zimmer's Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, you'll be delighted with this piece. Similarly gorgeous is a cello solo in the first minute of 'Promise' (a cue which goes on to sound like a truly overblown conclusion to a romantic comedy, but in a good way - the same could be said about 'Homecoming'). A waterfall of echoing pianos in 'Femme Fatale' give way to one of the more typically trailer-music-esque crescendos of the album, though all that choral bombast doesn't drown the pan flute that calls out at 3:42. 'Immortal', with its almost drumkit-like percussion and syncopated choral chanting is similarly destined to be a favorite of Two Steps From Hell fans.
If there's a single complaint that could conceivably be leveled at this album, it's one of 'cheesiness'. Some of the vocals, electronics and chord progressions do skirt New Age territory at times, so if you're put off by that kind of thing, it could put you off here. Personally, I find that when tastefully applied, such elements can have a phenomenal emotional effect, and that's the case here. I suppose another legitimate complaint could be about the absolutely shameless lack of subtlety. The album is fully harmonic and tonal throughout, without one dissonant moment or soft cue (what few quiet moments there are inevitably rise to enormous crescendos), and that does become a bit much after a while. But then again, that's hardly the point of trailer music, is it? Alexandre Desplat fans might be a bit horrified by it all, but I personally have always preferred a no-holds-barred approach to my music.
In the concluding paragraph of my review, I'm sure you've been expecting a comment along the lines of 'Admittedly, this music isn't stylistically unique, but it certainly is entertaining'. However, I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that this music IS, in fact, unique in much the way Daft Punk's score to TRON: Legacy was unique; by combining the familiar tropes of modern film music in ways never before heard. We've certainly heard chanting choir in trailer music before, but not in the way it's employed in 'Starvation' and 'Ocean Princess'. It's also pretty unique to hear a piece of trailer music (or 'traileresque' music, since this isn't officially meant for trailers) given the opportunity to develop itself for three, four, five, even eight minutes the way it does here. This is my favorite album of 2011, probably the single most satisfying trailer music album I've ever heard and dangerously close to being one of my favorites of all time. Certainly, it's an album that I heartily recommend to trailer and film music fans alike. Producers, take note: there's a goldmine of talent here and its name is Thomas Bergersen.