His Dark Materials – Lorne Balfe

“The Musical Anthology of His Dark Materials”

As a soundtrack reviewer, I am constantly listening to as many new releases as possible, and sometimes I need to listen to an album from start to end to see if there is something there to talk about. On rare occasions listening to only one or two tracks is enough to make me want to write a review, as was the case with the album with music from the television show His Dark Materials by Lorne Balfe. The show is based on the novel trilogy of the same name, written by Philip Pullman, about a world superficially similar to our own, but deep down extremely different. This fantasy world uses different technology and the soul is not inside the human body but is manifested as an animal, a so-called daemon, which is always accompanying the human owner. With a fantasy world, there is a fantastic opportunity for creating an amazing score. Before the official release of the soundtrack, Balfe released an album called The Musical Anthology of His Dark Materials, with musical ideas for the characters, moods and locations of the show. This collection of ideas is the foundation of the official soundtrack of the series.

One thing a TV show definitely needs is good main title music, which can be heard in the first track “His Dark Materials,” starting with a foundation layer by piano and cello, but transitioning straight into a melody by the violins, before the whole orchestra joins forces with a choir to reach a strong conclusion. The theme is just amazing and fits perfectly with the main title sequence of the show, which reminds me of the popular main title sequence of Game of Thrones. The future will tell how popular the theme for His Dark Materials will become. I would definitely not mind hearing this more often at a film music concert.

The main title is not the only fantastic track on this album. I am happy to say that almost all the tracks are amazing. If I would go in detail for all nineteen of them, this review would be a bit too long to read. I will just pick out the most amazing gems. “The Alethiometer” is the longest track on this album at four minutes and 36 seconds, starting off with a repeating pattern with melody lines and figures on top. Halfway into the piece, the music becomes grander with long lines by the violins while the pattern keeps going, transitioning into a grand finale by the whole orchestra and choir. 

“The Settling of a Daemon” is representative of the amazing buildup pieces (there are many on this album), where a mysterious-sounding melody, performed by a solo instrument, in this case the piano, can be heard at the beginning. This is followed by a buildup towards the middle of the piece where the full orchestra plays the same melody in full force, and the track concludes with the mysterious melody fading into nothingness.

In addition to the regular orchestra and some electronics different instruments are used for the music for this series. In “Scholastic Sanctuary” acoustic guitars form the foundation for a beautiful melody. In “The Life of Roger Parslow” you hear a duet of two wooden flutes, where its melody gets picked up by the whole orchestra, adding many counter melodies to the piece in the process. 

Not every track sounds joyful. In “A Gilded Cage” the strings play a very sad and emotional piece. The next track, “The Strength of Gyptians” also sounds a bit emotional with a single violin playing a moving but gorgeous melody. In small increments the pieces get richer with more instruments joining, playing either the melody or counter melodies. The cue’s climax has the brass section joining in to support the solo violinist to the end. Next to the main theme, this track is certainly one of the highlights on the album. “A Plea to Fate” is another buildup cue with two violins starting off, and halfway through, in addition to full orchestra sounds, women start to sing. “Mrs. M. Coulter” is a theme for one of the characters from the show, starting with mysterious string lines, before the percussion sets in, giving the track more grandeur and a big finale.

“The Tale of Lee Scoresby” starts with an electronic pattern, with a guitar and piano sounding like something you would hear in a Western, creating a genuine cowboy-like vibe. In the finale, the whole orchestra joins in with a trumpet playing over it, as is common practice in a number of Ennio Morricone soundtracks for Westerns. After “The Compass Points North,” which is another buildup from a couple of instruments to a big finale with the orchestra, we can listen to the last track of the album: “The Witches of Lake Enara.” The music in this piece starts with a female choir singing a song with whale-like ambient pulses in the background with support of the orchestra and percussion to conclude the track and the album.

As I mentioned before, I did not highlight all the tracks. The album is not that long with its 52 minutes, and each individual track is only a couple of minutes long. If you are curious about the rest, just give this music a listen.

If I am being honest, Lorne Balfe just blew me away with the music on this album. It is energetic, magical, rich in melodies, strong orchestrations and it comes with an amazing main theme. If you have read other reviews of Lorne Balfe scores I have written in the past, you may have noticed that I used to have some issues with his music. I did not, for example, like the implementation of the music in the movie, or the fact that I was missing emotion to support the storytelling on the screen. This album is the complete opposite for me. I have only watched one episode of the show and have not heard all the music from this concept album together with the scenes. The music is just gorgeous to listen to on its own. Each piece on the album is very well thought out with an amazing structure from start to end, making it extremely satisfying. Of course, this was the main idea for the album, since it is about musical ideas and not the actual implementation of the music in the show; there are no scene transitions or dialogues Lorne Balfe had to work around musically. I am looking forward to watching the other episodes and to the official release of the score after the first season is finished. 

While I am writing this review, a new season has already been announced, which makes me very happy since this will probably result in more gorgeous music. I have been following Lorne Balfe’s music for quite some time. While I am not a big fan of most of his music for Hollywood blockbusters, I do, however, love the music he composed for the games Assassin’s Creed and Beyond: Two Souls, which got my hopes up for a potentially beautiful new score from him in the near future. I am quite happy to have experienced his amazing music for His Dark Materials, which is, in my humble opinion, the best he has written for any media to date. 

Listen or buy

Tracklist

The highlights are in bold.

  1. His Dark Materials (1:38)
  2. The Alethiometer (4:36)
  3. Lyra: The Child of Prophecy (2:20)
  4. The Settling of a Daemon (3:54)
  5. Scholastic Sanctuary (3:07)
  6. The General Oblation Board (2:59)
  7. The Life of Roger Parslow (2:42)
  8. The Machinations of Lord Boreal (2:50)
  9. A Gilded Cage (1:24)
  10. The Strength of Gyptians (3:38)
  11. A Plea to Fate (3:14)
  12. The Legacy of Svalbard (2:30)
  13. Mrs. M.Coulter (2:06)
  14. The Magisterium (3:04)
  15. The Path Foretold (2:15)
  16. Release the Spy-Fly (2:07)
  17. The Tales of Lee Scoresby (2:43)
  18. The Compass Points North (2:35)
  19. The Witches of Lake Enara (3:16)

Total length: 52 minutes
Silva Screen Records (2019)

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