(Note: The following soundtrack review is based on listening experience alone and not on how the music works to picture.)
Whenever Hans Zimmer releases a new score, it is either the best thing ever conceived by mankind and will cure cancer – or it is actual cancer and will doom the entire filmmusic business.
And then there is Inferno.
Acclaimed director Ron Howard is famous for giving us amazing things like ‘Willow’ (1988), ‘Apollo 13’ (1995), ‘A Beautiful Mind’ (2001) and the most beautiful creature on this planet: His daughter Bryce Dallas Howard (no bias here). 10 years ago he took it upon him to adapt the smash-hit novel ‘The DaVinci Code’ by Dan Brown for the big screen, resulting in another smash-hit, resulting in, of course, SEQUELS(!) – namely ‘Angels&Demons’ in 2009 and now ‘Inferno’. The latter actually is the fourth book revolving around symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) with the third novel ‘The Lost Symbol’ not being adapted (yet?).
The music to the first two entries has been written by German composer and rockstar Hans Zimmer, who provided two of his best scores for the series. ‘The DaVinci Code’ was a wonderfully subtle, low-key score full of sophisticated stringwork, great themes and ethereal vocals. ‘Angels&Demons’ carried over the most important motifs but took them into a more action oriented direction with loud, overblown (in the best way possible) choirs and driving percussion. They were in all the right amounts equal and different to each other, as were their respective films.
What to expect from the soundtrack for ‘Inferno’
Naturally, with those two and the other great Howard/Zimmer collaborations (‘Backdraft’ (1990), ‘Frost/Nixon’ (2008), ‘Rush’ (2013)) in mind, filmmusic collectors world wide were really excited of the prospect of Hans finishing his mythological trilogy. The important question thus is: Did he deliver another brilliant score for the franchise?
Yes and no.
First of all, everybody diving into ‘Inferno’ should know, that you are in for one of the most purely electronic Zimmer-scores of the last few years, comparable to ‘Chappie’ (2015). You should prepare for a a very dark and synth-heavy techno-thriller. That alone should be enough to at least have a rough sense of what we will be getting. Especially the first 10 tracks feature very harsh, heavy electronics: There is grinding, there is screeching, there is droning, there is brooding, there is ticking and clicking and swooshing and huffing and puffing. It will blow your house down.
The three parts of Hans Zimmer’s score
If this is not for you, you will probably despise a lot of ‘Inferno’, but still, don’t dismiss it yet. The soundscape of the score can actually be pretty much divided into three parts: First, you have the harsh electronics for action and suspense. Second, you have mysterious synths, very reminiscent of the likes of Tangerine Dream and third, you have Hans Zimmer doing what he is best at.
Sadly, though, those three parts don’t get an equal amount of time to shine.
1. Harsh electronics
Cues like Seek And Find and Vayentha will test your patience and endurance like Must There Be A Superman? did earlier this year. Together with the clock-like ticking in Maybe Pain Can Save Us Joker-Flashbacks are guaranteed as similarities to his Why So Serious?-Suite from “The Dark Knight” are prominent and will understandably shut a lot of orchestral-enthusiasts off. But opposed to that, there doesn’t seem to be any narrative purpose to the grinding noise except for being grinding noise for grinding noise’s sake. It just follows the modern understanding of horror/thriller-music: If the scene has to be unsettling, just throw a ton of obnoxious sound effects on the screen and be done with it.
The action-music from “Cerca Trova, I’m Feeling A Tad Vulnerable or Remove Langdon are more accessible, though still harsh and loud as coitus. The reason being the thematic writing, though motific writing would be more fitting, since there are no real themes in that scores, but Cerca Trova introduces a neat 4-note action motif with a nice trance-like vibe. Then there is also the curious reprising of Science And Religion (from ‘Angels&Demons’) which is, next to the popular Langdon-Theme, the only notable melody of the prior entries reappearing in this score.
Yes, you heard right, no further exploration of the god-like, holy amazingness that was 160 BPM which is a real shame, because, albeit the action-music has some nice ideas here and there, it really needed something along the lines of the last movies’ main theme, especially since there is no noteworthy new theme.
The Cistern is a prime example of how dull much of the action is, despite its apocalyptic loudness. It feels like a fan trying to emulate Zimmer’s modern action-style, but failing. It hits the right clichés (thumping percussion, loud synth/orchestral hits) but without the grounding of a great main theme, it just falls flat and feels like stock action music and the aforementioned 4-note Cerca Trova motif is surely not enough.
2. Mysterious synths
Quite the opposite is the last minute of Vayentha. After the screeching is done, Zimmer hands us a synth-heavy action-variation of the Langdon-Theme and while it is certainly not for everyone it is much better and exciting to hear Robert Langdon going on a rave than the aimless pounding of The Cistern. In fact, the Langdon-Theme gets a few fast-paced reprises (I’m Feeling A Tad Vulnerable; The Logic Of Tyrants) which is nice, since it was mostly used in a more suspenseful manner before.
So, the action-music clearly is a mixed bag but the most intriguing (though not necessarily the best) part of the score is the ambient sound design. As mentioned above, the score is very similar to “Chappie” in both its pulsating action-music and its calmer moments, presumably due to the involvement of Steve Mazzaro and Andrew Kawczynski who were prominent co-composers of ‘Chappie’.
The investigative suspense-material of ‘Inferno’ owes a lot to their Vangelis-like useage of synthesizers and their reprises of Science And Religion during Maybe Pain Can Save Us or Our Own Hell On Earth.
So there is at least a slight hint of a narrative in those parts, but they raise the question, why Hans and his co-composers don’t just take a year or two off of filmmusic, lock themselves up in his studio and write an instrumental orchestral/synthesizer/rock concept-album. They could experiment and jam and do whatever they want, without pesky reviewers lamenting the lack of musical storytelling, because there would be no need for it. Hans wouldn’t be limited to follow the on-screen action but could develop his ideas the way he wants to.
3. Hans Zimmer doing what he is best at
One really wonders, what ‘Inferno’ could have been, if it just was an “Inspired by”-album where he could explore things like the Cerca Nova-motif in a 6 minutes long suite or something alike. The two highlights of the score just cement that notion:
Those two highlights being Elizabeth and Life Must Have It’s Mysteries which seem to be suites rather than actual underscore, though the latter probably starts off as underscore to the obligatory sweeping epic final shot transitioning into the end credits. As so often nowadays, those are the pieces where Hans really shines, because, as already said, he doesn’t have to work off certain beats, cues or cuts and just can let his ideas evolve.
Elizabeth is a 4 minute-long exploration of a piano motif that has a few nice applications earlier in the score like in the beginning of Venice. To be fair, the melody itself isn’t all that great but it is such a welcome contrast to the whole noisy stuff that you really appreciate it way more than you actually should. Well played, Hans. Also refreshing is the mixing of the piano itself which sounds way more organic than all of the last piano-themes written by Zimmer. ‘Man Of Steel’, ‘The Amazing Spiderman 2’, ‘Inception’ etc. all had some kind of synthetic processing to them and although it always sounded nice and fit into their movies, it’s nice to hear such minimal manipulation, though it’s not as clear and natural as Message From Home from ‘Interstellar’.
Life Must Have It’s Mysteries starts off with a short statement of the Elizabeth-theme and then goes into the usual variation of the Langdon-Theme that closes out every Dan Brown movie. This one is closer to the original Chevaliers de Sangreal in terms of its progressing (it really follows it beat for beat) while the soundscape owes a lot to the more electronic version from ‘Angels&Demons’. Etheral synths play the ostinato until the strings take over and Aleksey Igudesman’s violin solo from the actual theme kicks in while prominent synth-beats (though far softer ones than the ones from Remove Langdon or Vayentha) accompany it. The male choir is a tad undermixed, but still adds an epic quality to the overall sound.
This cue clearly is the singular highlight of the whole album and as beautiful and awesome as it may be, that also shows the main problem with this score: Almost everything positive about it, relies on the nostalgia of the first two scores, be it the reprises of the Langdon-Theme or Science And Religion (Beauty Awakens The Soul To Act being an almost 1:1 rip of the violin solo, just with a quiet synthetic choir added) and while those reprises do set themselves apart from the originals due to their electronically altered soundscape, it still is saddening, how little new material there is, especially when considering how masterfully ‘Angels & Demons’ managed to do that with it’s outstanding main theme.
The few new melodic ideas we do get (the Elizabeth-theme and another little piano-motif heard in the beginnings of The Logic Of Tyrants and Our Own Hell On Earth) are not strong enough to carry the score while also pushed aside by the edgy, hip, experimental sound-design.
Concluding: ‘Inferno’ is neither great, nor horrible
So, where does ‘Inferno’ stand? Will it cure cancer or will it doom the entire industry?
Well, neither of it. It is a highly schizophrenic score with some lazy uninspired thriller-music and some enthralling harmonic stand-outs. Whoever calls this one a masterpiece is probably just forgetting that what he thinks is “experimental and groundbreaking” is actually the standard MO for modern thrillers: Screeching electronics are everywhere nowadays and there is nothing “different” about them.
And whoever calls it “just awful noise” probably didn’t catch the few statements of the old and new themes and motifs to establish some kind of narrative while also dismissing that the music doesn’t have to be ear-pleasing. As I have not yet seen the film, I am pretty sure, that Seek And Find will work marvelously on the screen with all those terrifying, disturbing visions Prof. Langdon keeps having, though that doesn’t excuse the lack of narrative in those cues.
‘Inferno’ is simply… there. It is not great, it is not horrible but it has small glimmers of both in it and it wouldn’t probably hurt as much if it wasn’t the follow-up to two of Zimmer’s best scores.
At least do yourself a favour and listen to Life Must Have It’s Mysteries, as familiar as it might be, it will make you feel better.