I have often found it surprisingly necessary to distinguish between Hans Zimmer's action scores (Backdraft, Crimson Tide, The Rock, The Peacemaker, Black Hawk Down) and his epic scores (Gladiator, The Last Samurai, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End). But, to me, it is obvious which of these two "sub-genres" I prefer.
Zimmer's action scores are filled with frenetic percussion, obvious electronics and, to my mind, a certain amount of incoherence (kind of like my pet peeve, Mickey-mousing, but in a less obvious way). Tracks like "The Chase" from The Rock contain excellent bursts of thematic material that are then drowned in minutes after minutes of anonymously clattering drums that make for a more difficult listening experience.
Zimmer's epic scores, on the other hand, use bigger and more rhythmic drums, a deeper electronic mix that adds to, rather than overwhelms, the full-sized orchestra, and usually incorporates a choir. But, most importantly, when Zimmer goes epic, he keeps his battle sequences almost completely harmonious and thematic, making for excellent listening experiences where action music can stretch for minutes on end without becoming tiresome or annoying.
King Arthur is a perfect example of this. Its second track, "Woad to Ruin", is eleven minutes plus, and it remains to this day on my top ten Hans Zimmer tracks list (one of two songs from King Arthur, but I won't give anything away yet...). Zimmer opens this particular epic with a tremolo eighth-note ostinato accompanied by massive choral and French horn swells, before the big drums break out to accompany a theme that is memorable in the utter simplicity of its chord progressions, but also by the sheer power of the brass section that belts it out. Basil Poledouris famously employed a 24-strong French horn section for his classic Conan the Barbarian. The power behind Zimmer's score is equal to Poledouris'. I cannot say whether this is achieved by acoustic or electronic means, but it sounds plenty convincing to me (one of King Arthur's many, many excellent points is its deep, bass-heavy and very wet mix that perfectly brings forth the brass and choir, while the gigantic drum section and string ostinatos rumble ominously beneath).
"Woad to Ruin" also introduces the main theme to King Arthur, which is perhaps not as memorable as the almost minimalistic idea heard at the beginning, but is suitably Arthurian (naturally), and has a certain versatility that allows it to be both downbeat and immensely inspirational, depending on its accompaniments and orchestrations. The eleven-minute suite has a very strong action section in its middle, with some kick-ass rhythms, and at the end a secondary theme, a triumphant-to-the-point-of-blowing-down-the-walls march that roughly follows the structure of a typical, Crimson Tide style Zimmer power anthem, but bloats it to a choral, orchestral and percussive level outstripping even Gladiator.
King Arthur's middle section is slightly weaker than its bookends, but only slightly. "Do You Think I'm Saxon" has relentless, pounding rhythms that remind of Alan Silvestri's Van Helsing. There are moments in here that even remind of the heightened fantasy of Howard Shore's immense Lord of the Rings scores, and some slower, more dramatic music towards the end, but none of it is as engaging as "Woad to Ruin."
"Hold the Ice" offers some more interesting orchestrations of the type Zimmer saves for his true epics - solo horn, solo cello and solo female voice, for example - not to mention a truly gigantic statement of the main theme towards the end. By the time I heard that, I thought Zimmer had reached the very limit of how high he could bloat the melodrama. I was to be proven wrong.
"Another Brick in Hadrian's Wall" is arguably the weakest piece on album. It starts with the triumphant march, but soon dissolves into some of the more anonymous action music and ends with some rather interesting, more downbeat solo cello variations on said triumphant march.
Oh, no. We've come to "Budget Meeting".
I don't even know how to BEGIN describing this piece. It alone is worth the price of the album - and it, or at least the first five-plus minutes of it, remain my very favorite Hans Zimmer track of all time. With reason - "Budget Meeting" marries Zimmer's action to his power anthems in the most immensely enjoyable, dark, epic and thrilling battle song I have ever heard. So melodramatic, so powerful, so utterly over-the-top is this powerhouse of a piece that it is impossible to imagine it accompanying anything but a full-scale battle, which separates it from its action predecessors immediately. It takes one of the kick-ass rhythms from "Woad to Ruin" and hands it to Zimmer's gigantic percussion section and boy, do those taiko drum players make the most of it. Fans of war drums, leap on board - this is the best percussion will ever get in an epic score, and savor it while you can.
At 4:40...well. Suffice to say the main theme, played on about a thousand French horns, is layered on top of the drum beat and accompanied by a furiously chopping string ostinato. It epitomizes epic, it epitomizes Hans Zimmer, it absolutely epitomizes everything I could possibly expect from a film score, and when it's finally over, it's very hard not to just start the whole darn thing over again.
"All Of Them!" is a decent conclusion to the album, but after "Budget Meeting", it seems little more than an afterword despite its ten-minute length. It opens with the solo voice and cello solos of "Hold the Ice" and "Another Brick in Hadrian's Wall", and finishes quite satisfyingly with the most robust, full statement of the epic march.
King Arthur has been criticized for being too formulaic (a certain James Southall of www.movie-wave.net called it a "McScore). While it is impossible to entirely disagree with these accusations, King Arthur is far more accessible, in my opinion, than the scores it is accused of ripping off (Crimson Tide, in particular, as Gioachino Rossini once said about Richard Wagner, has great moments and bland quarter-hours). What Zimmer has done here is taken the stateliness of Gladiator, the pure power of Crimson Tide and the solemnity of The Last Samurai, combined them, and elevated them even further to heretofore-unknown levels of melodrama and crowd-pleasing über-power. King Arthur is not to be missed by any Zimmer collector, or any collector of epic film scores whatsoever.
Unfortunately, King Arthur does slow down a bit too much at times, with some of the cello solos moving at glacial, The Thin Red Line - like speeds. If it wasn't for that, King Arthur would attain the rare 10/10 guilty-pleasure rating that only Alan Silvestri's Van Helsing and Hans Zimmer's own Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End have so far earned in my ranking. As is, though, King Arthur remains a very strong nine-star effort, definitely worth enjoying on a surround-sound system.