The new millenium has seen some decidedly mixed fortunes for the ever-controversial Hans Zimmer, producing a handful of scores that have even his most die-hard fans - and fans of Hans Zimmer really do die hard - questioning his moves. Inception was loved by many, but found incredibly dull by just as many. Kung Fu Panda 2, though excellent, was absolutely saturated with John Powell's musical voice - I'd be surprised if there was more than five minutes of original Zimmer material on that album. And Rango did manage to offer a few minutes of fun, quirky spaghetti Western homage, but was largely marred by a terribly produced album that was brief, featured many fragmented cues and was riddled by source dialogue and songs. The real stinker of the bunch, though, was Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, a score that left me baffled, dissatisfied and bitterly, bitterly disappointed.
I've always been a fan of Hans Zimmer's, and he was my favorite composer for a long time. It's he who first got me hooked on film music, and he has created some undoubtedly brilliant music in the past. His run of poor form over the last few years, however, culminating in the lazy, rehashed, phoned-in On Stranger Tides, has led to a serious disillusionment. This brings us to Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, a score that I tentatively approached with a make-it-or-break-it attitude: Would Zimmer finally deliver an enjoyable score? Or would I be treated to another frustrating album full of unnecessary source music, remixes and lazy rehashes from the previous Sherlock Holmes ?
Well, a word about the album first: it's rather a bizarre one in that it's highly compartmentalized. It opens with the bulk of the score's straight action material in four cues collectively termed 'Shadows', before shifting to five quirkier, ethnically saturated cues that recall the similar Gypsy-flavored material from the first score. Three source-like inclusions follow (two of which 'Zimmerified' adaptations of previous music), then another five regular score cues, and topped off by a remix at the end. To add even more confusion, three bonus cues are available for download via the CD's enhanced content. Zimmer's recent affinity for eclectic albums certainly shows no sign of abating.
The best thing to do is to discuss these sections' merits and weaknesses in turn, so nothing for it but to start at the beginning: the 'Shadows' cues. The first thing I noticed about this score is the brass contributions; they sound absolutely ATROCIOUS. Zimmer has always had a tendency to mix his brass with a thin-sounding synthetic edge, but never has it sounded so horrible and out-of-place as here. At least in Inception it was a stylistic choice; here, it's absolutely cringe-worthy. Fortunately, much of the action music is string- and percussion-driven (not to mention some bass woodwind writing, surprisingly dynamic for Zimmer), so that awful, cheap-sounding brass isn't a constant irritant, but in cues like 'That is My Curse (Shadows Part 1)', it's really bad. With that out of the way, the bulk of these two cues does actually feature some decent action writing, with 'Tick Tock (Shadows Part 2)' in particular conveying a sense of propulsive urgency. The ticking clock sound running through the second and third parts is a little gimmicky, but isn't too intrusive. Overall the action music is rather darker than in the first score and doesn't feature many references to the series' title theme; it's not as engaging as the lengthy 'Psychological Recovery: 6 Months' cue from Sherlock Holmes, but it's decently enjoyable - as long as that godawful brass stays out of the way!
Where this score does manage to excel beyond its predecessor is in the quirky, ethnic material, for which Zimmer flew out to Slovakia to meet and record with local performers. The pairing of 'It's So Overt, It's Covert' and 'Romanian Wind' will likely be the highlights for listeners less interested in Zimmer's bass-heavy, synthetically-'aided' action style. The former contains one of the sequel score's three full performances of the title theme with the first score's familiar accordeon, fiddle and banjo accents gracing a gradually accelerating oompah rhythm. The latter continues to accelerate, reaching an absolutely breakneck pace by the end. The absolute highlight of both these cues are the spirited clarinet and fiddle performances that dance up and down dizzying scales with nearly as much spirit as John Williams' The Terminal. 'Did You Kill My Wife' is an amusingly dour performance of the title theme's B phrase (best summarized in the final two minutes of the first score's 'Catatonic') by a brass quartet - you know, the sort you usually hear playing Christmas carols and raising money for the Salvation Army out in the street around this time of year. 'He's All Me Me Me' is the second full performance of the main theme, with eccentric fiddle improvisation over the top and, curiously, a snippet of studio dialogue between Zimmer and the Slovakian performer at the end. 'The Mycroft Suite' closes this portion of the album with a daintily mysterious (but ultimately silly) little woodwind march.
The next three cues represent the adaptation of previous material into this score, and range from redundant to outright painful. 'To the Opera' adapts the aria 'Don Giovanni! a cenar teco m'invitasti' from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's opera Don Giovanni into an action cue, and to hear this gorgeous, delicately classical piece of music underpinned by the brute foghorn blasts of Zimmer's Inception-style brass is really quite hideous. Even worse is the addition of droning synthetic overlays to Franz Schubert's 'Die Forelle', which even distorts the singer's voice. Sandwiched in between these most unfortunate cues is a piece from Ennio Morricone's 1970 score Two Mules for Sister Sara, and while its quirky tone isn't too out of place within these scores (and Zimmer hasn't mutilated it), it's a somewhat pointless inclusion.
Thankfully, the real score starts up again afterwards, but there's nothing really remarkable left to tell. A few uneventful action cues are followed by an extremely sparse rendering of the theme's B phrase on honky-tonk piano and zither in 'Memories of Sherlock', before 'The End?' offers the score's final main theme statement in a full, slightly-altered reprise of the first score's 'Discombobulate' cue. The 'Antonius Remix' that follows, 'Romani Holiday', is nowhere near as insufferable as any of the seven included on the score album for On Stranger Tides, and retains cohesion with the rest of the score thanks to the carrying over of the gypsy elements, but it's too long for its own good and likely to be skipped by most score fans. Apparently, Zimmer failed to realize after On Stranger Tides that the vast majority of his fanbase simply isn't interested in these remixes.
The three bonus cues that follow are not really worth much fuss. 'Shush Club #3' and 'Beautiful Eyes' are further evidence that Zimmer had a lot more fun flying to Slovakia to have jam sessions with local musicians than he did composing new material for the score proper, and will both remind of the somewhat obnoxious 'I Never Woke Up in Handcuffs Before' cue from the original Sherlock Holmes. Somewhat more interesting is the waltz in 'Just Follow My Lead', which begins as a fairly standard affair but spins off into ominous waters halfway through, even ending on a few chords reminiscent of Gladiator. This would be rather impressive if it wasn't for the fact that Zimmer (aided by Klaus Badelt) pulled a similar trick in the cue 'Gourmet Valse Tartare' from Hannibal.
So, in the end, where does all this leave us? Unfortunately, somewhat disappointed. Zimmer has managed to avoid repeating the disaster of the most recent score in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, but it's a tentative step forward only, not a giant leap. This new score doesn't even feature any proper new theme for Holmes' archnemesis Moriarty (or, indeed, at all). There's a vague low-register figure heard at the outset of 'Tick Tock (Shadows Part 2)' and again in 'The Red Book', but that's just an inversion of the Cutler Beckett ostinato from Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End - not exactly a satisfying new identity, not even as interesting as the Westminster Chimes motif used in the first score.
What Zimmer desperately needs to do is realize that he is a film composer first, and a fosterer of talent second. These recent score albums all feature a mind-boggling array of different artists (and that's not even getting into the whole ghostwriter issue), whether in performance, composition or (sigh) remixing duties. What Zimmer is trying to do is certainly admirable in spirit, but if the scores that result from these mega-collaborations continue to be as disjointed and unsatisfying as they have been of late, I can see even his unusually large and unusually devoted fanbase start to drift away.
Still, it's far from being a complete loss. Some of the action music, particularly 'Tick Tock (Shadows Part 2),' is enjoyable enough, and it's hard not to appreciate the spirit of a few of the ethnic pieces. Overall, if you enjoyed the first score, here's a lot less of the same.