By Alice Elizabeth Still
Reviewing the score of a film you’ve not seen is an interesting if somewhat frustrating exercise. Divorced from a familiarity of the scenes and narrative references it underscores, there is – for me at least – a tendency to latch on to passages which seem reminiscent of other scores, whether by the same composer or, more often than not, another. This can be something of a drawback; leading to review notes reading like a list of other scores’ cues.
I found this initially to be the case with Brian Tyler’s soundtrack for The Expendables III; without an obvious theme or leitmotif to deploy and develop over the course of the album I found my attention during my first listening drifting to other music of which it reminded me. Having not heard his scores for the previous Expendables movies I am probably at a further disadvantage. However it is a soundtrack which both needs and deserves more than just a cursory listen; having listened to the soundtrack a few more times I found myself revising my opinion somewhat. On closer and repeated listenings teasing hints at the previously missing themes started to emerge and there are some standout cues, even if they may sound like passages been recycled from elsewhere, and this album provides some excellent examples of action film scoring; balancing string, percussion and brass sections to deliver tonally rich cues.
The album opens with ‘The Drop’, a cue which feels very much like it was cribbed from Iron Man 3, to the point of wondering if this drum and bass horn combo would be Tyler’s own version of Horner’s distinctive piano chords of the early to mid-nineties. This is then followed by ‘Lament’, a slow cue led by a classical guitar which slowly builds in to a taut flamenco inspired passage. ‘Right On Time’ begins softly but is dominated by rough synthesisers and strings giving way to an increasingly “rawk” percussion led rhythmic section which becomes increasingly very reminiscent of Iron Man. Juxtaposed with this is ‘The Art of War’, a short solo piano piece which feels very much like a late Mozart/Beethoven hybrid sonata.
‘Stonebanks Lives’ continues the action with a brief contemplative string interlude before the tension picks up again in vigorous string sections. This then builds to satisfying string passages featuring some nice touches of syncopation. The counterpoint of the strings and the percussion is effective and Tyler does some interesting things in the string passages making this quite a blood pumping track. The atmospheric underscoring of ‘Too Much Faith’ merges guitars, synth and percussion in complex rhythms only to give way to a quieter contemplative mood which segues neatly into the next cue.
‘Late For War’ begins dignified and somber; the slow tempo and melodic simplicity lends gravitas while adding to the the sense of foreboding which then grows as horns join and the tempo begins quicken. The rhythmic strings paired with the slow, deliberate horns is an effective passage. A faint chord progression, carried by the higher strings moving the tone from unsettling discord to hopeful, adds to its emotional depth. The cue is carried forward by the inexorable rhythm and the mood cycling between contemplative and active.
Building on the previous cue ‘Descent Into War’ opens with a long low strings and subtle percussion and then develops to a melodically simple but rhythmic cello and horn passage. This then builds in volume until it trails off into a haunting passage heavy with foreboding furthered by echoing woodwinds. The cue then returns to a variation on the simple yet strong and effective string passage whose pulsating rhythm with the addition of muted horns suggest a continuous tension. The pitch then rises before returning to the cells with their ominous undercurrent which put one in mind of Jaws and the potential danger that evokes.
‘Infiltrating The Block’ begins very like ‘Late For War’; building on elements from the preceding cues but with additional percussion and a faster, driving tempo. The use of syncopation helps break up what could easily become rather repetitive action underscoring instead making it a very rousing cue, worthy of repeated listenings.
In ‘Threat Doubled’ slow cellos and the return of the synths and percussion provide an uneasy feeling, the addition of violins add to the tension as the percussion volume grows before suddenly dropping low. This quieter passage then is joined by rhythmic helicopter-like effect reminiscent of the opening of Apocalypse Now before erupting in a discordant blast which leads into a frenzy of action.
Coming as it does between a number of high tension cues,’ Galgos’ Grand Entrance’ just seems so hilariously out of place. Also, having not seen the movie, but aware of the presence of Antonio Banderas in the cast, I just could not help but think of Puss-in-Boots swashbuckling away to this swaggering, upbeat track. It is then followed by ‘Look Alive” which expands on the passages from ‘Infiltrating The Block’ and ‘Threat Doubled’. Again cue possibly suffers slightly from sounding a bit too much like Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World but the use of horns towards the end is nice touch; elevating the emotional tone with a sense of maturity.
‘We Were Brothers’ opens with unsettling, slowly pulsating synths accompanying quietly and slowly rising note on the strings puts one on edge culminating in a series of discordant chords with shrill notes in the flutes providing a nails on blackboard quality. This passage gives way to another of rising strings which in turn lead to the now familiar low brooding cello. This gives way to an energetic string and brass section. It ends with the quiet otherworldly atmospheric brooding before the rising note unexpectedly gives way to a breathy flute.
As is characteristic with this album ‘The Last Window’ begins low and brooding before building up a certain pace with the strings accompanied by percussion, the pace then increases as the brass section joins before turning about face and ending on a slow ruminative note.
‘Valet Parking Done Right’ gets right into the action with a well paced rhythmic opening with energetic urgency demonstrated again with excellent use of syncopation and crispness of arrangement, not all of the orchestra seems to be playing at once, rather different sections alternate grouping up which adds. The cue finishes on a tense note which leads into ‘Moral Chess Games’ and the menacing undercurrent of earlier cues. The percussions and synth return with the industrial sound underscored by the strings.
All in all this is a decent if somewhat utilitarian soundtrack; it does an admirable and effective job of underscoring an alpha-male, testosterone driven movie with appropriately alpha-male and testosterone driven music while at the same time infusing it with a sense of gravitas and sophistication. There are a number standout cues which demonstrate Tyler’s talent but it lacks the kind of anthemic cues which have the potential to take on a life of their own away from their parent album.
The Expendables III is out now from Silva Screen (UK) and La-La Land (US)