The 33 / by Charlie Brigden

6801401_review-the-33-starring-antonio-banderas_8c909eaf_m The composer James Horner's career came sadly to an untimely end in the summer of 2015 in a tragic flying accident but at the time the composer had completed no less than two documentaries and three feature film projects for the year, the movies including Jean-Jacques Annaud's Wolf Totem,  score for Antoine Fuqua's boxing drama Southpaw and finally the Patricia Riggen directed The 33, which was the last of the three to receive soundtrack release in October. The Chilean film recounts the story based on true events of the 2010 Copiapó mining accident that trapped 33 miners inside the San José mine in the Atacama district for 69 days and the subsequent survival story and race against time to rescue these men. Horner, who has always been a superb dramatist and most of all a believer in the power of music to heighten the emotional message of the film and known for his soaring often larger than life scores, chose here, correctly it might be said for a story based on real events, to step back and create a smaller scale intimate composition that complimented the drama with distinctive yet not overwhelming musical world. The composer also uses a smaller than usual orchestra for the score which consists of strings, synthesizers and percussion and a smaller ensemble of ethnic instruments native to the region (or at least alluding to it in the ears of most filmgoers).

The album opens with atmospheric 'The Atacama Desert' where Horner's typical device of pulsing shakuhachi makes its first appearance before a gentle guitar and fluttering ethnic flute establish both the location and one of the main themes through the simple chords that seem to speak of family and human bonds. It is a measuredly quiet curtain opener and the theme is further explored by the solo guitar in the following 'Empanadas for Darío' where glowing high string chords that seem to denote hope attach to the theme. This gentle "home and hearth" simplicity is contrasted by the music of the mines first exemplified by a steady pounding rhythms surrounded by metallic synthetic textures and mechanically pulsing string ostinati in the poetically named 'To the Heart of the Mountain', which shows how these things are done with panache as Horner keeps the music aurally interesting throughout. 'The Collapse' is a lengthy piece of dramatic and action scoring done with urgent string lines and hectic shakuhachi piping churning underneath a bed of synth effects and percussion beats which give the track a modern edge and manage to convey the dire straits with convincing drive without  the music devolving to cacophony, reminding a bit of the same seamless combination of these elements Horner used in Avatar.

'Buried Alive' showcases once more the subtle hand Horner is using to paint the drama with the lonely ethnic flute and shakuhachi pulse returning over sombre strings to provide subtle emotional beat to the harrowing human drama but even here laced with a kernel of hope. 'Drilling, the Sweetest Sound!' opens with beautiful harp solo before introducing another major theme, this one for the survival, an upbeat Andean sounding folksy melody for flutes, light percussion and strummed guitars, which depending on your disposition to this style of music can either be delightful or highly annoying. 'Prayer – Camp Hope' reprises this lively folksy flute melody with even stronger guitar backing again clearly communicating optimism.

The longest piece on the album 'The Drill Misses (and Dreams Fade...)' is focused on crafting a background ambiance with a sense of resignation until midway through the family theme heard at the opening of the album returns in muted tones to signal (at least momentary) defeat. Clearly not wanting to overpower the drama Horner steers away from flashy scoring of these small moments of human drama and lets the film do the talking.

'Aiming to Miss' offers a new lilting mysterious piano motif interspersed with the family theme creates a haunting atmosphere of uncertainty and the hope slowly rekindles in 'We Are All Well in the Refuge, The 33' where harp and ethnic flute first intone the survival theme before it bursts into a livelier joyous setting for a folk ensemble of flutes, guitars, pipes and percussion that manages to convey the sentiment without massive forces behind the sound.

'Fénix' pulses in an elegant measured duet for solo harp and string section of the orchestra that encapsulates determination and hope as it finally soars into a beautiful string and flute coda. 'First Ascent' unites the pulsing synth heavy music of the mines with ethereal glinting textures and subtle readings of the "survival theme" and the music remains quietly emotional throughout as it depicts hope and tension in equal measure. 'Celebrations' finally unfolds a triumphant theme for the rescue of the miners which is a terrific piece of dramatic scoring opening tentatively with a sense of relief and finally leaping to a flowing melodic idea so very typically Horner and here complimented by choral shouts and percussion and gives a tender closure to the story with 'Family Is All We Have' where the family theme on solo guitar and those hopeful string chords that have accompanied it from the start give the musical narrative a serene close. But the album doesn't end here as Horner draws the whole score together with concert suite styled version of the survival theme in 'The 33' and 'Hope Is Love' gives the family theme one more outing with the expanded orchestral backing which beautifully explores the melody further in a guitar and strings setting that truly brings the album to a satisfying and a bit bittersweet conclusion.

The album also features two songs, 'Gracias a la Vida' and 'Al Final De Este Viaje En La Vida' interspersed with the score a bit distractingly as they cut the flow of Horner's eclectic music as they don't mesh well with the atmosphere the composer is building with his often quiet intimate music.

The 33 is one of Horner's more modest and restrained scores and contains very familiar elements he employed during the last decade of his career but you won't find his typical soaring string and roaring brass themes here. Apart from few singular moments the music might not make an immediate impact upon initial listen due to its largely subdued nature but it still exhibits many of the inestimable composer's strengths, his gift for melody, his skills in orchestration and his understanding of human drama, which he translated so well into music. And frankly he does so here as well as there are genuinely impressive intimate musical moments on this soundtrack. This is the kind of music that undoubtedly serves the film well and actually benefits from multiple listens on the album as much of its power is tied to smaller musical gestures and connections and if you listen with attentive ears there is a good deal to appreciate in Horner's way of combining the symphonic ensemble, ethnic instrumentation and synthesizers. And even if this Horner's swansong is not an unequivocal triumph it comes with a cautious recommendation.

-Mikko Ojala

The 33 is out now as a digital download and Amazon on-demand CD-R from Watertower Music