Is it a BRRRMMMM? Is it a plane? Hans Zimmer’s Man Of Steel soundtrack is so loud it could probably be mistaken for either.
You don’t notice it at first: the film starts off with a gentle synth. Some brass enters, accompanied by a faintly other-worldly vocalist. The strings whip us away with threatening fast-paced noises.
Then, they happen.
The drums. So many drums.
“Someone else might wonder one day what 12 of the best drummers in the world would sound like all playing simultaneously in a space designed for a symphony orchestra – using not only rock drum kits but tympani and field drums as well. But such a person would likely be neither inclined (nor able) to pick up the phone and make it happen,” writes co-producer Peter Asher in the album’s liner notes. “Hans is the only person I know who would actually make those bets: and then win.”
I agree with all of that, except for the last part. 12 drummers drumming? It’s certainly something. Such is the level of the drumming drummers that the Man Of Steel soundtrack can be divided into two halves: the parts with the drums and the parts where your ears are recovering from the parts with the drums.
It’s a very Hans Zimmer approach to the whole scenario, one that sadly sees much of the Man Of Steel score descend into Dark Knight territory. The film itself is loud, almost overpowering in its relentless punch-up between percussionists. On tracks such as Oil Rig you can practically hear Zack Snyder shouting “Can we have MORE drums?” before deciding to bring in one massive drum and have Superman and Zod smash each other’s heads into it.
Away from the big screen, though, it’s another matter. Listen carefully and you hear something different: a hint of John Williams.
Hans has spoken a lot about how intimidating he found working on Man Of Steel given the status of Williams’ original theme. The composer produced an instant classic with his hallmark perfect fifth, a fanfare that carries all the hope and American pride of Copland’s Common Man. So iconic is that tune that Bryan Singer’s underrated reboot, Superman Returns, simply asked John Ottman to update Williams’ work. The result was a new yet old homage/remix that touched up the first theme, gave it a lick of acoustic paint and even found time to insert the Krypton theme into Ottman’s romantic moments.
Zimmer and Snyder, though, were more ambitious. They wanted a complete break from the past. A new start for a new Superman.
But Clark Kent’s identity still has to continue. Just like the colours of the costume, there’s a tradition that must, in some essence, carry on. How do you manage to invent a new sound for Superman without losing a sense of who the character is, or what he stands for?
The answer came in the trailer for the film: two notes, a rising jump on a piano over seven semitones. A perfect fifth. For Zimmer, a man who loves his minor thirds, it’s a huge departure from the norm. In fact, he’s gone and borrowed Williams’ signature interval, without knowing it or not.
The next two notes? A fourth, introducing hints of that Copland vibe Superman has always been associated with. The theme grows in confidence, lowering to a major third until the leaps become bigger: a sixth, a seventh and, finally, up a full octave, a moving climax that captures that same sense of flight Williams did all those years ago. A major theme with simple modulations and played out on horns? This isn’t Zimmer doing his own thing: this is Zimmer paying tribute to Williams.
As if to prove it, someone has even remixed the two themes together. It’s no coincidence they’re so well matched:
There you have it. New theme. Old values. Job done.
Zimmer even reworks that theme into a minor key for If You Love These People, using violins to drive a sad rendition of Kal-El’s soaring signature. This then scales upwards to combine with General Zod’s theme, a descending minor string riff, to form Terraforming, a big, epic action moment.
All of which, unfortunately, can be easily lost when those drums return. Offbeat dotted quavers overlap with triplets to form a wildly complex series of bangs and booms. Taken separately from the action on screen, you start to notice the intricacies on display. It turns out there are drums, drums, drums and drums – not just DRUMS, as the movie leads your ears to believe. In isolation from Snyder’s smorgasbord of excess, the percussion is so exciting you’ll soon be standing up on the bus shouting “Release the world machine”.
But just as it lets you appreciate the deceptively deep texture of the score, the CD also reveals how similar a lot of it is. DNA, Goodbye My Son, Krypton’s Last, You Die Or I Do, I Will Find Him and other tracks all have more than a hint of Batman about them: while Zimmer has created a fantastic new theme, his love of ambient soundscapes is hard to shake off. The Deluxe Edition of the soundtrack? More of the same, with General Zod’s theme and Arcade offering 14 whole minutes of highly familiar work.
Would it help if he toned down the synth for once and left the sound of his real orchestra untampered with? Perhaps, but the second disc on the Deluxe Edition also reminds you how hands-on Hans can be in his workshop of helpers and toys: a 28-minute track dubbed his “Original Sketchbook” is essentially half an hour of him twiddling knobs to try out different noises. Turn the volume up with some headphones on and it’s surprisingly absorbing stuff – maybe even more so if you take advantage of the Deluxe Edition’s “Z+ App” to download it in DTS Headphone: X Surround Sound.
The standout track on the whole score, though, is undoubtedly Earth. A companion to that first trailer piece (disc one’s climax, What Are You Going To Do When You Are Not Saving The World?), it’s an astonishingly delicate version of the main tune, a piano-led track that sounds almost like Chariots Of Fire mixed with more than a dash of quaint guitar and synth-ed celesta. Those troublesome drums, meanwhile, are relegated from clashing noises to subtle background beats.
It’s a glorious demonstration of just how emotional Zimmer’s Man Of Steel theme is; like Christopher Reeve’s face supposedly inserted into a single frame, it’s a glimpse of John Williams streamed through a digital lens. There’s even a hint of Krypton’s theme in the music’s long sustained suspensions.
In the cinema, Superman’s new bombastic sound doesn’t always impress but listen carefully (in DTS-branded surround sound) and there is greatness to be found in Zimmer’s latest work. It’s the definitive example of what’s best and worst about Hans’ prolific output. At times, Man Of Steel’s score isn’t a BRRRMMM; it’s plain beautiful. After all, who needs 12 drummers when you can have five simple notes?
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