Talk about tantalizing.
I discovered Steve Jablonsky in the same manner as most of his fan(boys). Back in 2007, I thoroughly enjoyed the Transformers score in the context of the movie. I actually thought to myself, “Hans Zimmer’s done it again,” before being thoroughly surprised to see Jablonsky’s name roll up on the credits. Upon acquiring the Transformers score, I judged it a work very much derivative of Zimmer, but enjoyable nonetheless. In a nutshell, it was a typical sort of above-average Media Ventures score, and I slightly wrote off all hope of this Steve Jablonsky character ever truly impressing me with originality or style. But newcomer Klaus Badelt had provided a strong un-Media-Ventures score for The Time Machine back in 2002, the beginning of a very hit-and-miss career – maybe there was a similar hidden gem hidden somewhere for Jablonsky.
I decided to look a bit further into this composer – who, I suddenly noticed, appears on the credits of all sorts of scores, from Armageddon to Hannibal to Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl. I repeatedly came across forum comments that dismissed Jablonsky as yet another Media Ventures hack – EXCEPT, many of them added, for his little-known 2004 score to the anime film Steamboy. So I decided to check this Steamboy out for myself – and I was NOT disappointed. Steamboy is an almost entirely orchestral, adventurous, fast-paced, spirited action romp that perfectly toes the magic line between Jablonsky’s Media Ventures sensibilities and a fresh, individual flair that is quite obviously missing from any of Jablonsky’s other scores.
The first two tracks showcase this perfectly, and set the tone for the rest of the album. “Manchester 1866” is a lovely track of light drama and adventure, hailing back to Jablonsky’s days on Desperate Housewives, and foreshadowing his later music for The Sims 3 (yes, I did my homework!). Jablonsky’s huge array of various percussion is introduced right away – from the suspenseful click-clicking woodblock sound heard in Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, to sharp snares and medium drums employed in the action cues. Unlike almost any other score from the Media Ventures/Remote Control studio, these drums are not further enhanced by synthesizers, drum pads or muddy, bass-heavy mixing. It is unbelievable what a refreshing difference Steamboy’s mix alone makes when compared to the studio’s usual output.
Track two, “The Chase,” is an early highlight, and is the first of many top-notch action tracks that this album boasts. In style, it again employs a skillful blend of Media Ventures tactics – chopping, fast-paced strings, for example, as well as a few neo-classical, Hans Zimmer-inspired progressions – and Jablonsky’s own flair, heard especially in the complex – and yet not looped – percussive rhythms that pound resolvedly throughout the track and score. Deep piano strikes augment these rhythms effectively. Also, at times, a marimba comes in to accompany the various string ostinati, giving the action music an adventurous touch even during its most frantic moments. All these traits are carried forth consistently in the other action tracks.
Even more than the action, though, Steamboy’s strength is the truly touching material Jablonsky composed for the film’s lighter scenes. “Scarlet,” for example, a lively, playful theme for that character performed on solo pan flute and accompanied by a piano and cembalom. But the score soon moves back into string-, piano- and percussion-driven action in “Raid by the Airship,” before the album’s arguably most memorable theme is introduced in the second half of “London World Exposition.” It’s a sombre string melody that builds on neo-classical chords. People who really know their Jablonsky will understand me when I say it sounds something like his contributions to Tears of the Sun.
“The Atelier of Ray” and “Crystal Palace Waltz” offer more of that lighter side of this score, welcome breathing moments between the action tracks. The latter track especially, featuring the same theme and the same lightweight instrumentation we heard in “Scarlet,” perfectly balances between playful and poignant.
Almost the entire second half of the album, from “Ray’s Dilemma” to the penultimate track, “Collapse and Rescue”, is one long action extravaganza, and not a second of it is boring. Jablonsky’s knack for coming up with inventive rhythms is on excellent display here – that at least was carried forth into his weaker The Island and Transformers scores, albeit in the form of obnoxious drum loops.
“Fly in the Sky” stands out from the rest of these action tracks, because of its upbeat, soaring, almost swashbuckling nature. A theme hinted at subtly in “Manchester 1866” and “The Atelier of Ray” is performed energetically on a brass section over racing string arpeggios and percussion. Unfortunately, the track ends almost before it has begun, but the next two tracks also do not disappoint.
“Two Delusions” states the same sombre melody we heard in “London World Exposition”, but this time, the idea is allowed to build into a massive choral and orchestral crescendo over moving string lines (if there’s one film scoring technique I’m a huge sucker for, it’s moving string lines, which Media Ventures employ very regularly). The first thing that came to mind was the music for Cutler Beckett’s death scene in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, though this predates that score by three years.
“Collapse and Rescue” is the album’s longest track by far, almost eight-and-a-half minutes long, and it is all anybody could possibly wish for a climactic track like this. It has swelling crescendos, soaring strings, the omnipresent percussion and a wonderful, swashbuckling brass theme – a continuation of “Fly in the Sky” is stated at about five minutes in, accompanied by light chorus.
This same brass theme is given a fuller development in the last track, “Ray’s Theme,” beginning on a solo piano and swelling into an excellent, upbeat and highly adventurous way to complete this hidden gem of an album.
It is very difficult to say exactly what it is I love so much about Steamboy. It doesn’t have any truly knock-out moments – for that matter, it doesn’t actually have any totally memorable themes (the only aspect where Transformers is superior to this score, though Zimmer-style power anthems are always easy to remember). And yet, Steamboy is such a downright lovable score, so energetic and full of adventurous spirit that I can’t help but lap up every second of it. It doesn’t hurt that there are next to none of the typical electronics or synths one would expect in a Media Ventures score – this score’s organic nature only adds to its endless appeal.
The action music – which sounds in places like Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, only far superior – is definitely the highlight of the album, and there is certainly a generous amount of it here. For enthusiasts of strong, complex, rhythmic percussion work and plenty of string ostinati, Steamboy is a dream come true, and worthy of standing alongside my big two favorite albums, PotC: AWE and Alan Silvestri’s Van Helsing.
As a big – I mean BIG – fan of Hans Zimmer, I have to take this opportunity to address those who criticize Zimmer’s style of having several ghostwriters on call to help him with a score. How else, do I ask, would a budding young composer such as Jablonsky gain the talent and experience to suddenly leap into solo flight with such a resounding bang (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre aside)? For example, Jablonsky’s work on PotC 1 was a big influence and help with this score. Now that I have heard Steamboy, I can safely say that the track “Blood Ritual” on the PotC 1 album was probably his baby, as it is very similar in style to this score. But, unlike PotC 1, nobody can argue that Steamboy is a derivative Media Ventures score – Zimmer is a better teacher than most give him credit for, and Jablonsky has proven it.
Finally. I cannot help but point out rather an oddity: the music here sounds almost NOTHING like Jablonsky’s work for The Island or his infinitely more popular Transformers scores. There is an extremely logical explanation for this inconsistency: Steamboy is the ONLY film Jablonsky has worked on without the dubious influence of Michael Bay as producer and/or director. Transformers was enjoyable, yes, but it sounded too much like a thinly-veiled adaptation of a Hans Zimmer-heavy temp track. Which is exactly what Bay asked for, of course. As a film music enthusiast, though, I beg of you, Mr. Jablonsky – find yourself a decent action-adventure film helmed by a director who will allow you to employ your considerable creativity, and use the opportunity to provide us with another Steamboy! It’s tantalizing and immensely frustrating to know Jablonsky posesses the talent to write a score like this – and yet he hasn’t done anything but churn out recycled Zimitation scores in the five years following. It’s high time to shake the shackles of Media Ventures and Michael Bay, and show the world that Steve Jablonsky is a musical force to be reckoned with!