Friday, August 26, 2016

Paramour - Original Broadway Cast Recording Review

Why is it so hard for Cirque du Soleil to engage an experienced musical composer from Broadway to lead their New York based shows?

It's the troupe's third attempt at breaking into the market, and each time has been a sadly disappointing offering. Paramour is the closest Cirque has come to creating a traditional musical, but as always, the composition doesn't fall to a well known composer or team of creatives, but to those they know best, composers Bob et Bill (Guy Dubuc & Marc Lessard), who have scored a jaw-dropping nine original scores for the company. Perplexingly joined by Andreas Carlsson, it was a missed opportunity to let this team write the score for a big scale musical in the Big Apple. Wanting to conquer the New York theatre scene without engaging composers who have ever worked there before - will Cirque ever have the courage of their ambition?

The premise in Paramour is a sticky love triangle set to the backdrop of a movie being made, which spans multiple different genres. It actually wasn't so long ago that we were presented with a musical score of a similar premise - Carter Burwell's score from Hail, Caesar! also had the composer going through different ages, times and styles to the premise of the audience visiting various 'movies'. It was extremely theatrical and probably would have been smarter framework than the flimsy love-story here. To their credit, the team manage to evoke these movie genres extremely well, with all the textures and instrumentation you'd expect in hackneyed spaghetti Western ('Help a Girl to Choose'), biblical epic ('Cleopatra') and mobster crime noir (NYC Rooftops) films. Other songs make interesting homages to old school musicals and Hollywood - 'Everything' sounds like a blend of 'Maybe' from Miss Saigon crossed with some more irritating material from Sunset Boulevard, such as 'Too Much In Love to Care'.

On the other hand, there's the usual Bob et Bill percussion-noise driven filler crap ('Revenge Fantasies', 'NYC Rooftops' - does anyone ever listen to these tracks after the first listen?), but also extremely satisfying moments, such as the highlight 'Egyptian Gift', an instrumental moment both clandestine and exotic, with booming drums and an arresting violin peppered across which sounds like magic. 'The Hollywood Wiz' is exactly the kind of opener a big-scale show needs - a grand, vaudeville feeling show-man tune with a strong contribution from the ensemble and a big voice. Maddeningly, unlike any well structured musical with themes and leitmotifs for characters, each 2-3 minute song in Paramour tries to make a new melody which is dead and buried before it even takes off. There are two brief reprises of songs, but nothing sophisticated or clever . . . maybe there are more, but I don't care to listen to it again to find out.

Who are the key players in Paramour? Ruby Lewis makes her debut with the role of Indigo, Ryan Vona plays composer Joey and Jeremy Kushnier plays AJ. They've all got awesome, powerful and vibrant voices, a belting hybrid of classical musical theatre and pop, with a bit of rough and raw power. It's just too bad that their material ranges from average to awkwardly bad.

The lyrics suck. There are too many instances where the most cringy, predictable rhymes you hope won't happen do happen, so there's really no point identifying examples. Honestly, what were we expecting from Andreas Carlsson, a man who writes lyrics for the likes of Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys and NSYNC? This is Broadway, where the story is sometimes as important as the music - frankly it's not good enough and really lets the whole production down (chuck on 'Ginger Top' and 'Love Triangle' for a laugh, as they are worst offenders).

All in all, a passable but disappointing offering from Cirque du Soleil in their attempt at global domination. Talented cast members can't make up for unforgivable lyrics, and the music is not sophisticated or up to scratch to rank with the best shows on Broadway. Maybe one day, Cirque du Soleil will dare to work with some new composers, but until the day comes, there won't be a stand out performance from them on Broadway.

'Cirque du Soleil Paramour - Original Broadway Cast Recording' by Cirque du Soleil is available digitally on iTunes and, and is also available on Spotify & physical CD.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Toruk - The First Flight is an unexpected delight

Toruk - The First Flight by Cirque du Soleil 

Where to even begin describing this unexpected delight?

After a lukewarm performance on Joya, I didn’t have high expectations for Toruk. If I were asked to pick a favourite Cirque du Soleil soundtrack, the scores of Bob et Bill (Guy Dubuc and Marc Lessard) would never have been among my choices. Now, I would consider Toruk ranking among some of the most listenable, and ranking among one of the best.

Toruk succeeds where Avatar didn’t - it distinguishes itself beyond the broad genre of ‘tribal’ music.  The late James Horner wrote a surprisingly unremarkable score for Avatar; for a film with such acclaimed in its visuals and imagery, it certainly lacked distinction in its musical style. I would never be able to tell you what influences have been picked and make up the DNA of Toruk. It absolutely has a tribal feel and basis, but draws on electronic beats, complex percussive patterns and a huge variety of voices and instruments. Bob & Bill seem to hit their stride when it comes to creating a more cinematic and immersive feel for a soundscape.

Typical of the pair’s work with Cirque, there is no big ballad or grand use of themes and motifs. There are fragments of both but instead, the compositions seem to progress through many movements within a single track. The only caveat is that some phrases seem under-developed, but the variety is refreshing and the result is a collection of tunes that manage to cover a lot of ground. The music feels like a fusion of works from Deep Forest albums, Tan Dun operas and Damon Albarn's scores for stage. As a little side-note for big Cirque Musique fans, this record has a few cameos from superstars including Julie McInnes, Isabelle Corradi and Christian Laveau contributing vocals - it’s really cute that they contribute here.

On a whole the album is extremely unified and very listenable – there are a few brilliant tracks that distinguish themselves. ‘Lu Aw Navi’ is quintessential Cirque, a multi-layered percussive-electronic fusion that builds climactically through layering and caries the central theme of the album, and ‘Direhorses’ is an absolute revelation – a jaunty and celebratory string arrangement that is extremely emotive and elating. The new singers to the Cirque catalogue including Cumie Dunio and Elsieanne Caplette have excellent voices that blend and transcend around the music, and I hope these talented ladies end up on more Cirque recordings.

I will be interested in listening to the duo’s score for Paramour, Cirque’s ‘first’ (read: third) attempt to break into the New York theatre scene – as it’s going to require them to bring out some serious melodies and ballads that I wish were included here. However, on a whole the album is dynamic, rhythmic and enjoyable, and a terrific offering for Cirque to have in their catalogue.

Finally, we have another Cirque du Soleil soundtrack that lifts us up and takes us to another world.

'Toruk - The First Flight' by Cirque du Soleil is available digitally on iTunes and, and is also available on Spotify & physical CD.

Monday, April 11, 2016

The Baroness Redecorates - Absolute Perfection

The Baroness Redecorates (Source: Amazon)

The Baroness Redecorates is perfection. I can count the number of records I consider 'perfect' on one hand, and this is always the one that I name first. I remember when I ordered this EP from Canada, the disclaimer on Maple Music said it would arrive in 10 weeks. 9 weeks and 6 days later I received it in the mail - and it did not disappoint. Every track on this album is perfect.

The Baroness Redecorates marked a (celebratory?) parting of ways from Sarah Slean's record label. While my appreciation of The Baroness grows with each listen, I found it to be the slowest of Slean's catalogue. The Baroness Redecorates couldn't be a further departure, and it's jaw-dropping that this outstanding collection of tracks were considered B-Sides. The result, however, is a brilliant 30 minute EP which literally never leaves my collection.

The album is beautifully meditative and reflective at times, and wild and upbeat in the remainder. The coquettish 'Parasol' is a tango with a habanera flavoured rhythm paired with hysterical musings, and in a similar vein 'Compatriots' is a frantic number of bristling city life. The slower numbers are beautiful - 'The Lonely Side of the Moon' and 'Modern Man I & II' are wistful and evoke a feeling of longing and wanderlust. The best track of the album (which shifts to any given track on any given listen) might be 'The Rose'. This remarkable piece is at once sorrowful and celebratory, an ineffably beautiful reflection about how all life in the world must end.

The lyrics are scintillating, sparkling with wit and originality. A lot of this comes from the fact that these songs are not constricted to the theme of love - they're refreshingly abstract themes such as life, environment and trust.

Instrumentation is almost entirely piano and strings, with the strings in particular - all of which are written, arranged and conducted by Slean - being superb. They circumnavigate the melodies to embellish them, but when needed they suddenly descend into passages which are heavenly, dramatic or even becoming a piece in themselves. The album includes Slean's first string quartet, a 6 minute movement called 'The "Disarm" Suite' which concludes the album as the perfect encapsulation of what we've experienced.

TL;DR - this is the best album I've ever heard and owned. An absolutely outstanding record created by a vastly under-rated and unappreciated artist.

'The Baroness Redecorates' by Sarah Slean is available digitally on iTunes and, and is also available on Spotify & physical CD.

Monday, February 1, 2016

The bewitching bells of Notre Dame


Sometimes it just doesn't seem feasible to create a product like this - a whole orchestra, brilliant core cast and a choir of 30, assembled for a complete recording of a musical that will probably never make it to Broadway. Therefore, I believe we need to chalk this recording of The Hunchback of Notre Dame up for the sheer sake of artistry.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is one of the vastly under-rated scores of the Disney cannon. After missing out on the Oscar in 1996 it (along with the movie) disappeared into this void. Which is disappointing, considering the influences it draws upon and the complexity of its composition. This is also a score and film that doesn't shy away from complex themes and issues - the uncomfortable nature of sexuality, death, racism and [exclusion] all rear their glorious, ugly heads here encapsulated in this music. Originally the show was made in German to great acclaim in 1999, before making its long awaited English premiere in 2014. Now, it finally comes to a recording, and it couldn't be more perfect.

The cinematic feel of this recording is absolutely spine-tingling. No corners have been cut - this isn't a typical Disney musical soundtrack where you can hear a piano clomping around in the middle of the music holding it all together. The instrumentation and orchestrations behind the singers are absolute world class quality and pulls out all the stops - it potentially rivals the movie's original soundtrack. This music is powerful, oozing with grandeur and sparkling with brilliance. 'The Bells of Notre Dame' and is repeated motifs are breath-taking, as is 'God Help the Outcasts' and 'Heaven's Light'. And of course, one of the highlights is the brooding and dark twisted cry 'Hellfire'.

This feels like the only Alan Manken musical where the additional material fits into the same world, and feels like it's actually adding something to the story. 'Flight to Egypt', 'Thai Mol Piyas', 'In a Place of Miracles' and 'Made of Stone' are terrific additions, and the excellent 'Someday' which was cut from the original movie is re-purposed here (as a side note, 'Flight in Egypt' replacing 'A Guy Like You' is one of the best choices that Disney has ever made - it totally transforms the mood). A longer score has also allowed him to really flesh out brilliant themes. Stephen Shwartz might not have the same light and silly touch as the late Howard Ashman, but Schwartz manages to craft lyrics that aren't dumbed down to children. They speak esoterically and abstractly, and as such makes the material suitably feel more epic and suited to a musical.

You couldn't find another cast that would reach this level of confluence. The supporting cast are uniformly excellent, and absolutely rock their musical theatre ensemble feel and also . The remainder of the core cast include Ciara Renee's crystaline Esmerelda, Patrick Page's dark and authoratative Frollo, and Erik Liberman's flashing cheek and humour Clopain. The star of the show is Michael Arden, who brings an incredible flavour to Quasimodo. While Tom Hulcet's Quasi is quiet, refined and well spoken, Arden acts the role with a slight . But when he belts - and it's done fairly frequently - it's breathtaking and sounds like he can flatten mountains. 'Out There' made my eyes water from his emotion. Absolutely awesome.

You can tell that this soundtrack is the result of many hours of labor and passion of the collaborators - and for a measly $15 you'll get a slice this brilliance forever, along with a beautiful glossy 32 page book along with lyrics, pictures, and a forward from the creators. Please buy this soundtrack to support these gutsy, incredible artistic gambles. Everyone wins when the product is as great as this!!

'The Hunchback of Notre Dame', composed by Alan Menken with lyrics Stephen Shwartzr, is available digitally on iTunes and, and is also available on Spotify & physical CD.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Into the Heart of the Jungle

Heart of Thorns soundtrack cover (Source:
After completing the score of Guild Wars 2, original composer Jeremy Soule signed a contract where he was to exclusively write music for the Everquest series. With Soule refined to his tiny MMO cage, we now have the pleasure of Maclaine Diemer and Lena Chappelle (featuring a bit of Stan Le Pard) creating the music behind this absolutely spine tingling addition to the Guild Wars musical canon.

The music couldn't be a further departure from Soule's style. Whereas Soule's work is fantastical, this team know how to capture that fantasy sound but also create atmosphere. The score is lyrical, blending amazing orchestration (brass, strings and percussion being the strongest featured) and the traditional fantasy soundtrack with inspiration of indigenous voices and Eastern tonalities. The results are gorgeous, forlorn, and overall, exceptionally powerful.

There are no throw away tracks in this score. The thunderous 'Heart of Thorns Theme' is brilliant - a brooding, dark overture which pulsates with a rhythm driven by powerful percussion, strings, and brass. It's nothing short of awesome. Other picks are the mysterious and serene 'Quaggan Command' (dat name tho), the escalating 'Maguuma Overture', the exquisite candor of 'Tarir, the Forgotten City' and the ethnic and jaunty 'Jaka Itzel' (which along with 'Faren's Flier' provides some nice light relief to the otherwise serious score). There is also this beautiful discourse of intoxicating mystery which comes across in tracks like 'Rata Novus', 'Dangerous Beauty' and 'Taming the Jungle'. The score closes with 'Mordremoth', a final ode to the treaterous jungle which encapsulates the whole score with lightning strings, intricate rhythms and percussion and alien languages and ritualistic chanting.

There's also a very impressive preservation of themes previously appearing in the series - Soule's Guild Wars motif echoes throughout, featuring prominently on 'Leaving Tarir', and Crystal Oasis (all the way back from the original Guild Wars: Prophecies) features on 'An Exalted Lullaby'. However, the team integrates them only as brief fragments before they evolve to take on a life of their own. And I won't go into great detail on excellent battle tracks like 'Attack on Tarir' or 'Mouth of Mordremoth' - all you need to know is that they feature far more melody and structure as Soule's work, but unlike Soule, manages to actually make something enjoyable.

The recording of the orchestra isn't the highest possibly quality, but that's what makes it such a refreshing listen to after hearing so much of Soule's scores. You hear little scuffs, pages shuffle and people taking breaths, and at one point you can even hear someone's muffled cough in the background. These don't detract from the music - on the contry, it gives it a magical, living and breathing feeling. I understand there is a certain amount of instrumental patches used, but I couldn't be happier that there's a real orchestra in use to some capacity, and I hope it carries on for the next Guild Wars expansions.

I can't comment on how appropriate this music is within the game's instances, but the quality of music and melody here is extremely strong, and easily stands alone as an excellent soundtrack. My jaw dropped from the moment I hit play on a sample up until the final note had settled on the finale. I hope Diemer & Chappelle stay with ArenaNet for a long time, and I'm eagerly going to await their foray into Cantha, Elona, and beyond.

''Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns Original Soundtrack' by ArenaNet, composed by Maclaine Diemer, Lena Chappelle & Stan Le Pardl is available digitally on iTunes and Available for pre-order on physical vinyl. I wish it was available on CD, but who actually buys them anymore?