With Hans Zimmer’s rock star status in the film music world and beyond, it is hardly surprising that his music gets a lot of exposure. From big arenas, glamorous concert halls to small-town events – Zimmer’s music can be heard everywhere. However, the pool of tunes that are being played all the time is actually rather small. One look at Zimmer’s discography reveals that there are a significant number of soundtracks hidden in the second row behind the familiar evergreens. I had my personal revelation in this regard when I recently heard a beautiful Zimmer piece and only found out afterwards that it was actually from the King Arthur soundtrack (which I had never heard about before). So I checked out the complete score, hoping to discover a buried treasure.
Directed by Antoine Fuqua, King Arthur retells the Arthurian legend, with Clive Owen, Ioan Gruffudd and Keira Knightley in leading roles.
The soundtrack CD begins with the title track “Tell me now (what you see)” which features vocals by Moya Brennan, member of the Irish band Clannad and sister of Enya. Tender, earnest and quite distinctive it is a good song in itself, but the Irish singer musically illustrating an explicitly British legend leaves me a little confused.
“Woad to ruin”, the longest track on the CD, is like a small suite and therefore hard to describe coherently. Initially, you hear a wailing male choir and resonant drums, but soon they subside and a gripping passage of rising intensity, driven by a rolling drum beat and prominently featuring the trombone, begins. Medieval flutes make a short appearance and in combination with hurried strings as well as hasty clapping noises they make for another spike in excitement. Overall, I got the feeling that in this track, you are being teased with many nice ideas, but none of them are elaborated on in much detail. Instead of dwelling on a specific tune or theme, the music hurries on to the next item.
“Do you think I’m Saxon?” might be the darkest piece on the CD. It begins with hard drums, heavy brass and a strict beat, transitions via high flutes into choir spheres and battle cries to culminate in a short finale dominated by strings, brass and the choir.
“Hold the ice” begins with Moya Brennan chanting with only the slightest musical accompaniment. The soft sounds are like the musical representation of a candle with a tiny, almost dying flame in a dark room. But soon the orchestra and choir burst out in all their might to blow a powerful sound that at the same time conveys a little desperation.
The next track is “Another brick in Hadrian’s Wall” and while, after a slow start, its powerful brass and rolling drums almost remind me of the battle waltz in Gladiator, it gets calmer towards the end as it fades out with a slow and grippingly sad string part.
At its very beginning, “Budget meeting” has a scary atmosphere dominated by a male choir and quickly rising tension. Unfortunately, it damps down soon and becomes almost generic battle music with the usual strong drums and trombone bursts, only interrupted once by a quite decent choir phrase.
The final track “All of them!” begins with a beautiful chant by Moya Brennan. Her slow and drawn out way of delivery makes it difficult to distinguish individual words (or to guess at the language she is singing in), but it is very effective in creating a grave and almost sad atmosphere. Further on, parts of this track reminded me of The Last Samurai because of the way two separate string melodies entwine and build on each other. In the build-up towards a great finale, the melody of “Tell me now (what you see)” is picked up once more and the full orchestra and the choir join forces to create a final truly heroic moment.
Most of the tracks on this album are quite long and not very homogenous. Sometimes the music stops completely within individual tracks, which may suggest that musical ideas were glued together without much effort, in an attempt to put together a somewhat coherent CD.
Musically, there is a return of many familiar features from previous Zimmer soundtracks: rolling drums, long, drawn-out strings, strong brass parts and a wailing female voice. All of them are applied very effectively, but they all have been heard before. Therefore, this soundtrack does not quite work for me, even though the music itself is rock-solid. If this would be the only Zimmer score in existence, it would be a great one. As it stands, however, it is only more of the same.
Nevertheless, it allows for an informed guess about one part of Zimmer’s winning formula: while at the bottom of things he is basically always doing his thing, he uses distinctive instruments and musical elements (preferably indicative of a certain region) to add colour and to make the soundtrack unique. Following that reasoning, Moya Brennan’s voice in King Arthur serves the same purpose as the duduk in Gladiator or the koto and shakuhachi in The Last Samurai.
All in all, this score seems to be the perfect example of a composer nailing the task of doing the same again, but different (which supposedly is a recurring request of directors when they approach composers). A tried and tested formula is applied once more, but even though it works perfectly, the result is not quite as spectacular as it was the first time round.
So it turns out that unfortunately this time there was no hidden treasure for me here. But even though King Arthur will not make it to my list of favourites, I enjoyed listening to the soundtrack and during my research I dug up some even older Zimmer scores that I’m going to check out next.
Listen or buy
- Buy this soundtrack from Amazon.com or iTunes
- Listen to this soundtrack on Spotify
- Request a track of this soundtrack on StreamingSoundtracks.com
- Tell me now (what you see)
- Woad to ruin
- Do you think I’m Saxon?
- Hold the ice
- Another brick in Hadrian’s Wall
- Budget meeting
- All of them!
Total length: 57 minutes
EMI Records Ltd (2004)