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'Terminator Salvation': Original Soundtrack CD Review

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I gotta admit I’ve been pretty psyched for this release – and probably a lot of you FEAR fiends are too – ever since composer Danny Elfman announced back in January that he’d been commissioned to score McG’s massive Terminator series reboot, which hits theaters tomorrow. And not just because I’m down with a sonic taste of man-on-machine ass-whuppin’… although I usually am. But I’m also very curious about how venerable score-master Elfman set about tackling that well-established (and seldom messed-with) Terminator vibe.

So does Danny’s music have the cold-rolled steel cojones you hardcore T-fans demand? Scan ahead and find out!

Sure, Elfman’s scores are already legendary enough among genre fans, but this is a match-up that deserves extra attention thanks to a fat franchise pedigree – and particularly that famous clanky, proto-industrial main title theme (you know, the whole DA-dum, tum da-DUM thing) created by Brad Fiedel for James Cameron’s first installment back in 1984, then pumped chock full o’ steroids for the mega-sequel in ’91, reworked by Macro Beltrami for T3, and yet again by the talented Bear McCreary for TV’s Sarah Connor Chronicles (check out my nifty interview with Bear here).

When you think Danny Elfman, likely his signature grandiose, Gothic-flavored, sometimes whimsical scores spring to mind… but like me, you probably don’t readily equate his style with two-fisted epic action-adventure flicks (unless maybe you count Planet of the Apes... although you shouldn’t). But there’s no denying the guy’s got the chops for just about anything, so I’m giving him a fair shake.

That said, let’s start off with the bad news… Fiedel’s main theme is nowhere to be found among the fifteen tracks collected here. That’s not to say it isn’t used somewhere in the film itself (I haven’t seen it yet), and it’s definitely all over the various trailers and TV spots… but it’s certainly not on this disc. But since this is supposed to be a franchise reboot of sorts, I'll cut 'em a little slack on this one, but its absence might make some fans a wee mite uncomfortable.

Stylistically, Elfman’s approach is actually worlds apart from Fiedel’s original score anyhow, discarding many of the overt death-machine rhythms of those first purely electronic compositions (which Fiedel beefed up with muscular orchestral arrangements for Judgment Day) in favor of a broader, more epic feeling – no doubt prompted by the sprawling, Mad Max-style desert landscapes of Salvation’s post-nuclear wasteland, which also lends itself to a certain spaghetti-western feel, accomplished with fitting touches of classical guitar. There’s still a mighty percussive foundation to the music that recalls the preceding Terminator scores, and electronic elements play a more prominent role than in most of the composer’s past work… but still, I felt a slightly more organic vibe. Still, don’t be misled into expecting a solemn, austere approach (Milk this ain't). On the contrary, Salvation boasts one of the loudest orchestral movie scores I’ve heard in a while, competing with Elfman’s own work on the heroic themes of Hulk or Tim Burton’s original Batman in the quest for ultimate... well, huge-ness.

The electronic elements are nearly always present, either as dark, ominous colorings – like in the opening track, where they buzz and thud beneath the stern, commanding brass and regal strings of the overture, or churn like giant rusty gears in sync with the percussion on “The Harvesters Return” – underscoring the onslaught of the 20-foot mega-bots – or used to treat the good old metal-on-metal percussion  for on tracks like “No Plan.” They also provide an effective ambient undercurrent to cuts like “Serena,” which is also enhanced by odd swells of harmonic feedback.

But when it comes to underscoring the many action sequences, it's all about screeching, stabbing strings combined with impossibly guttural brass, used to boisterous effect for the gripping “Hydrobot attack,” finally climaxing in a dissonant metallic pile-up. “Final Confrontation” is not quite as important-sounding as its title implies, but does feature a quickly escalating rhythm of string squeals, brass stabs and bow-stick hits (reminiscent of James Horner's iconic cues from Aliens), combined with lots of heavy sheet-metal-cutter ka-chunks. Though few and far between, there are the occasional quiet, pensive arrangements such as the string & harp in the opening of “Broadcast,” the gentle classical guitar strains of “Fireside” and “Farewell,” and the piano solo that opens the closing piece “Salvation.”

In keeping with the franchise brethren, we get a solid rock track to accompany the end titles – this time substituting the iconic placement of Guns & Roses hit “You Could Be Mine” (which, I’m told, gets a little call-back in the film itself) with the more introspective Alice In Chains classic “Rooster” – which is not only one of my favorite of that band’s output, but sits well in a gritty post-apocalypse worldview. The director says he chose the track specifically because of its “existential feel” and for the lyric “Ain't found a way to kill me yet.” On a side note, rumors had been flying around a few months back about Radiohead's Thom Yorke contributing some music to the film, but unless it's a really well-kept secret, at this point I'd consider it a bit unlikely.

For the reasons I mentioned earlier, Terminator purists might balk at this one... but I'd say it stands well on its own as a solid, massive adventure score that oozes gloom and darkness, with slim moments of fragility peeking through... and I'd like to think that's the movie's concept in a nutshell. Maybe it's not what comes across when paired with the onscreen action, but I'd wager this score suits a tale of courage in the face of imminent human extinction... and packs all the big, scary industrial-strength mayhem this series – and its fans – should demand.

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