It's been a long time since the last Mad Max film, thirty years to be exact. Back then he had the honour of being scored by Maurice Jarre (Lawrence of Arabia); before it was Brian May (not the guy from Queen) who provided music for Max's first two adventures. Behind the wheel this time is Tom Holkenborg aka Junkie XL - will he prove a worthy successor for Max as he cruises the Fury Road?
Holkenborg's score is likely to be hugely divisive. I think it'll be liked by the more casual soundtrack listener, while the more traditional fans will probably reject it for its sound design blend and general philosophy of cacophony and intensity over traditional film scoring techniques. That's not to say it's not thematic, it is - especially via percussion - but it takes a while, and to be honest, Fury Road demands stamina. Some people just may not be up to that.
Trying to imagine the recording elements for Fury Road is quite fun. I have a vision of Holkenborg in a desert surrounded by rusty muscle cars with their engines ripped out and replaced with guitars and synths, and an orchestra full of musicians wearing goggles and breathing masks. There is madness in this score and there is hubris. But does it work?
On album? It's rather difficult to say, but I should contextualise. One of the things we always have to remember when writing about film scores is the word "film" - they exist to accompany a visual medium and primarily have to serve that. Based on the trailers, Fury Road's score is probably a good fit for the film. It's really, really loud and has all sorts of tribal drums, thick brass chords, and wailing distorted guitars. But it also has a more emotional and softer side where it does introduce more conventional score elements, such as the warm string ensemble, with a certain part sounding like it's taken great inspiration from Samuel Barber's immortal 'Adagio For Strings' (popularised in film by Georges Delerue in Oliver Stone's Platoon). It's like beauty and the beast. But there's more beast than beauty.
I imagine this is great for the film. But it appears rather lopsided on the album, especially as there's no real development for the softer music that comes in the second half. Some of the earlier tracks are really brutal though, and enjoyably so. Pipes echo, strings buzz like insects, and the guitars rumble like thunder, and it's when these combine with the strings that it works well as contrasting sounds, philosophies even. And some of the softer parts are magnificent, particularly the majestic 17. But in places it feels like it's been stitched together from different scores - maybe that's the point? In a post-apocalyptic work where everything from cars to clothes has been patched together, why not the cultural influences? Why not the music?
But, putting the theorising aside, that doesn't make the listening experience better. It may be that there's a much more satisfying one out there, after all Fury Road is a bit of a LEGO soundtrack, coming in two distinct forms (three if you count the upcoming Mondo LP). The CD is your standard one-disc affair, but the deluxe digital edition has a ton of bonus and extended tracks with a running time of 125 minutes - that's longer than the film. So you can create your own tracklist out of this. The full deluxe edition is an exhausting experience that I don't recommend unless you have some speed handy.
It's hard to judge Fury Road away from the film, at least more than most soundtracks. I did enjoy listening to it, and while some cues bored me, others delighted me. I'd recommend the CD program over anything else, but that's the beauty of it; you can construct your own. This is happening more and more with digital score releases, and while it sometimes means the art of a lean soundtrack is often jettisoned, the consumer has more music available to her to make her own creative decisions. And that's something that can't be that bad.
Mad Max: Fury Road is out in the US on May 12 on CD and digital from Watertower, and on vinyl on May 15 from Mondo