Arch Stanton's review on here is excellent. He manages to say everything I would like to say and so much more eloquently; so I'm going to keep my review very brief.
This is a brilliant score. BUT..my only complaint is that it's too action oriented. I would have liked a few more gentle moments - if only so I could have time to breathe. Personally, I preferred Unexpected Journey to this one; but nonetheless this is a brilliant score and the extended version is brilliant.
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I have some misgivings about this album. On the one hand it is full of excellent music and well worth buying if you liked the previous installments in this series. On the other, it tends to be rather repetitive and relies strongly on relatively few cues (far fewer than LOTR) which it repeats again and again. For the first half of this album I was extremely disappointed. It is entirely derivative and features nothing that we haven't heard before. The Flies and Spiders track was particularly disappointing because the scene is one of my favorites. I started to despair. But then as the album progressed I found the music gradually getting better. Starting, I think, with The Woodland Realm new themes start to appear and old ones are used in a new fashion. It makes me wonder if he had already planned some of these cues before they split the two films into three because everything up til then would have fit in very well at the end of the last album. At any rate, from this point on the quality slowly rises until it reaches a pitch that is as good as anything in the LOTR albums. If it had been this way from the beginning I would have had nothing but high praise for this album.
The Woodland Realm manages to seem elvish and ethereal while avoiding sounding like Rivendell or Lothlorien. I think it's my least favorite of the three, but then I really love those other themes. It certainly holds its own. The Forest River is also good, as is Barrels out of Bonds (though slightly more derivative), but the really great stuff hits once we reach Laketown. Protector of the Common Folk is a delightful little track that sounds very whimsically medieval (but in a good way). I believe it represents the Master of Laketown's theme and it is developed even more strongly in Thrice Welcome. Girion, Lord of Dale is a sad piece with some very moving humming towards the end.
After this we head off to the Lonely Mountain and the score really shines. The key element here is the presence of Smaug. His theme (heard briefly in My Dear Frodo in the previous album) rises to new heights here. And very impressive it is. My Armor Is Iron and The Hunters in particular feature its blaring trumpets at full blast. Strangely enough the track Smaug doesn't focus on it too much, but instead seems to push Smaug's seductiveness and dangerous charm. It's a very effective track, especially since it does what Smaug does and gets you so lost in the wonder of it that you forget about the danger until the cue roars at full blast. There's another theme in the mix here which I will think of as the greed for gold theme, and it provides a wonderful impression of great wealth and temptation. Inside Information features a lot of it, very effectively intercut with Smaug's theme. The album spends a lot of time in Smaug's lair and I have to wonder what they're going to do in there that takes up all this time. Whatever it is it'll have a great musical accompaniment.
And then there are the last two tracks. These are a bit odd. The ending song, I See Fire, is a bit tame. The song itself is decent enough, it's just that it feels like it should be accompanying a slow motion montage of the entire company laughing and hugging. That's not really what I want from my Hobbit films. I'm curious to see how it works in the film. The last track is entitled Beyond the Forest. Anyone hoping for a repeat of the wonderful extra tracks of the first Hobbit are in for a disappointment. The track itself is alright, but nothing memorable.
And so we come to my feelings of the album as a whole. This album isn't what I was expecting from a Hobbit soundtrack. Missing is any bombastic adventure theme to link the tracks together. Instead it is tied together by a string of tracks that play off of suspicion and greed. Not that some tracks don't have great action cues, but they're missing the one unifying theme that we saw in Misty Mountains Cold. I don't believe we even hear that theme once. This piece is dominated by dark and brooding music instead. In a way it's fitting that Smaug should suck the innocent exuberance out of such a quest, but at the same time I think we could have done with a few more grand moments that aren't dark and moody. The album holds up well thematically, but if this movie has already succumbed to gloominess I can only imagine what the next one will be like. The plot for this film still has a good deal of adventure to it, but the next one will be dominated by themes of corruption and betrayal.
None of that takes away from the quality of the album as a whole. It's still better than almost anything else on the market. I'm rather torn between this album and the previous one actually. That one was more consistent qualitywise, but at the same time felt a bit like a retread. Apart from the Misty Mountains theme the most original music came in the bonus tracks at the end. This time the album builds in quality until the very end. For all my misgivings this is easily a five star work.
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