Six notes transform Howard Shore’s Desolation of Smaug soundtrack from adequate to awesome. That might sound a big call, but they could just form the tensest, eeriest leitmotif that you’ll hear this year.
A lot of folks noted (or if you prefer, complained about) the lack of new motifs in An Unexpected Journey. “Give us a hook, just something new to whistle!”, the people seemed to cry.
On first listen, the Standard Edition of the soundtrack for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug doesn’t introduce that many new hooks. There does seem to be one for Bard, and perhaps a short baroque moment of harpsichords on Thrice Welcome that might introduce the Master of Lake-town (or maybe it’s the more pompous-sounding bit later on).
However, it’s those six stomach-twisting notes for Smaug himself that truly grab one by the ears and demand undivided attention.
Initially, it’s just two heavy, swaying notes that project bombast, menace and unremitting tension. (Side observation: they seem almost an inversion of the Jaws theme). Strung out over long moments at the beginning of Inside Information, the intense unease is only outweighed by a sense of immeasurable immensity. Repetition, to ratchet the tension. Variation of texture and timbre to maintain interest.
Plus the chiming Balinese Gamelans that we’ve heard rumour of, to instill a profound alienness.
Then four quick notes to complete the figure.
Rinse, repeat. Vary as required to ensure no-one gets bored. Occasionally (very occasionally) weave in lighter elements to leaven what would otherwise be a grim musical palette. That might sound reductive, but it’s just so well executed. No fat whatsoever — Disc 2 of the soundtrack is all killer, no filler.
Sonically, Smaug is the star of the second half of the film — his motif dominates. Across In The Shadow Of The Mountain, Inside Information, A Liar And A Thief, Smaug, My Armor is Iron and even a fair slab of The Hunters — it returns over and again, driving the action relentlessly forward on a roller-coaster of tension and threat.
And, repeatedly the whole defies musical expectations to create an uneasy and sometimes atonal atmosphere that radiates menace.
Once you’ve recognised that key motif, you start to hear it elsewhere, in non-obvious places. In Flies and Spiders, for example, where it appears as a single, screaming bar, early in Wilderland where it pops up in a blare of brass and crashing gongs, and midway through The Nature Of Evil, where it assumes a peculiar Arabian/Ali Baba feel.
The first disc though, doesn’t possess the same thematic spine and initially comes off a bit limp. Certainly, it has its moments — the enticing call and response that opens The Quest for Erebor, Wilderland‘s fast, energetic pulse, and the screeching bursts that characterise Flies and Spiders.
But the ideas introduced in The Woodland Realm, Barrels Out Of Bond and Forest River feel undeveloped — a lot of choppy huffing and puffing that in the end fail to take the listener anywhere. The House of Beorn is probably the most disappointing track in this respect, and even a brisk tempo doesn’t save it from coming across as filler.
Thematic re-use is really well-handled. Yes, you’ll hear the Sauron/Barad-dur theme as Gandalf takes us toward Dol Guldur. You’ll hear others as well, the mournful theme of The One Ring, the quirky little thing that designates Bilbo, and probably a bunch of others I’ve missed. It’s all to the good though — they add heft without dominating.
For some, this album might prove too dark — only A Feast Of Starlight, Kingsfoil and closing track, Beyond The Forest, could be said to sound particularly hopeful or uplifting. But if you’re willing to invest the time to listen and be challenged, the musical rewards are damn good.
In addition to writing for TheOneRing.net, Demosthenes often moonlights as a live music reviewer and gig photographer. Over the years he has seen and reviewed acts as varied as U2, Metallica, Tori Amos, Sigur Rós, Muse, Kaki King, Lindsay Stirling, Björk, and more Australian local bands than he can possibly remember. This review constitutes his own opinion and does not necessarily reflect those of TORn, or other TORn staff.