I really enjoyed this score. It reflects shades of classic bond, but with a muscular modern quality. It embraces electronic elements while remaining organic, and draws deeply on classical music, more perhaps than I think previous Bond scores did.
Thomas Newman brings a mix of ambient, classical and eastern influences to the Skyfall soundtrack. Some of his string and horn arrangement are as lush as Barry's but his have a distinctive melancholy. His electronica is spare and ambient and he builds his tracks around guitar, filtered synths, delays and a low rapidly pulsing synthesised bass. At some points he is purely classical such as the lush melancholy string and harp arrangement on Severine. On tracks like Adrenaline and Grand Bazaar, Instanbul, an eastern sound makes itself heard. But all the way through the score there is a sense of tension and menace, with overtones that alternate between triumphant and melancholy.
The traditional leitmotif that usually accompanies a bond film has been truncated here. Newman cleverly references the original theme with stabs of trumpet, or snatches of flute and strings, usually only for a phrase before returning to his original composition. These references occur when Bond is doing something particularly resourceful, such as using a JCB to hold a speeding train together or when Bond's Aston Martin makes it's appearance. They build in intensity throughout the piece, at first just a few phrases or a gentle rendition on a flute or synth, building finally to a full orchestral blast on She's Mine. But even then the cue never leans to heavily on what has gone before. Newman chooses to use tonality and instrument choice to recall previous bond scores rather than simply reworking the themes. Rich horn sections, vibes, clean guitars, and lush string arrangements evoke Bond's heritage even as the new elements build on it.
Scores are designed to work together as a suite of music, but nevertheless there are some standout tracks on this one. The slow melancholy horn theme on Mother and Voluntary Retirement, grabbed my attention from the moment I heard it in the film. After a listen to the score, a cue called Skyfall (not the Adele song) stood out to me. An oboe theme matched with choir and an echoing ambient delay, evoking a sense of space but also a sense of enclosure. A Close Shave is a gentle romantic cue (woodwinds, plucked violin and vibes) very much in Newman's signature style, bright, sweet and playful. In Komodo Dragon, the Skyfall song is reworked as an ambient piece.
The Chimera is big lush orchestral cue where a stabbing string section hovers over rolling cymbals, backed by a haunting brass section. Shanghai Drive brings in filtered synth and guitar over a pulsing groove. The Quartermaster builds orchestral and eastern sounds around a repeating phrase, before breaking into a run with a pulsing string section. The Moors is one of the most menacing cuts I've heard on a bond film, a growling guitar and bass sets up a riff first against a wash of guitar delay, then the howl of a brass section, which is then outstripped by percussion, and closed with a haunting flute.
This is a very different sort of bond score, and many will be disappointed by the move away from the straightforward use of leitmotif. It's worth remembering that the reboot of the Bond series was attempt to make the series into something fresh and different, and the music has changed as a part of that. There was a markedly less use of this device on David Arnold's Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace scores. In Casino Royale most of the leitmotif is actually drawn from the title song, and the Bond Theme is saved almost exclusively for the last scene with Mr White, to brilliant effect. Secondly, it is worth remembering that reworking a good theme is not a guarantee of an effective score. An early scene in From Russia With Love has the full orchestral James Bond theme blasting out full tilt while Bond calmly checks into a hotel room and opens his suitcases! John Barry had a number of themes he would use, including the 007 theme (as distinct from the James Bond theme), and Mr Kiss Kiss Bang Bang which gives his scores a sense of cohesiveness. However, he left himself plenty of room to make creative pieces to suit the film. It would be a shame to fall into the trap of giving world class composers a list of themes that they must work into a score, instead of opening our minds to see what they can create.
Thomas Newman's decision to use the concept of leitmotif in a subtler way was a brave creative choice that seems to have received rather harsh criticism from other reviewers. Some only commented to complain that Adele's Skyfall
was not included on this CD. Your protest vote has been noted, but what did you think of Thomas Newman's score?
John Barry remains the king of classic bond, but I don't think anyone doubted he would. There is no space for someone to make better score of that type. What remains is to make a different one.