Music

Westworld Season 2 (Ramin Djawadi) – Score Review

Having just finished up its second season, HBO’s Westworld continues to serve as a kind of diversion for those looking for high-concept adult television while waiting for the next season of Game of Thrones. When the show was announced, the production values and concept drew immediate comparisons to that medieval epic, so it was no surprise when Thrones alum Ramin Djawadi was announced as the composer for this Jonathan Nolan cyber-western thriller.

While his work for Game of Thrones has been frequently praised in its latter seasons, score fans know that it took the composer a few years to develop his themes and instrumentation into anything worthy of frequent revisits on album. With Westworld, the hope was that Djawadi’s evolution as a composer would allow him to produce a classic television score right from the beginning. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the score to Westworld’s first season proved a divisive listening experience.

For some, it was the best thing that Djawadi had written, providing a catchy title theme, ragtime-esque covers of rock songs, and a nice balance between western sounds for the “world” and synth-heavy suspense music for the corporate aspects of the story. For others, all of this variety created a disjointed listening experience with flashes of brilliance, but little to hold it all together. With Season 2, Djawadi certainly unifies his soundscape to more cohesive results, but at the cost of much that gave the first season its unique sound palette.

Given the darker and more violent path of Westworld’s second season, it is perhaps no surprise that the more synth-led thriller music is dominant this time around. Very little in the way of a western vibe is present on album, really only showing up during moments of “My speech.” Otherwise, the album divides itself between the now-trademark orchestral covers of popular songs and dreary underscore.

The covered songs for this season are fairly diverse, ranging from a standard ragtime performance of Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” to the much-hyped takes on Nirvana’s “Heart Shaped Box.” Djawadi’s handling of these covers is not uniformly exciting, but does lead to several highlights of the album. While “The Entertainer” and “Runaway” add little variation to justify their inclusion on this set, the Wu-Tang Clan’s “C.R.E.A.M.” and the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” are both more creative.

The latter is especially intriguing, providing a more subdued take than expected with the addition of stereotypical Indian instrumentation to tie it into the following track, “The Raj.” Unfortunately, Djawadi’s take on Nirvana suffers from anonymity, with both the orchestral and piano-only versions playing like one’s standard orchestra take on a classic rock song. Radiohead’s “The Codex” does fair a bit better, orchestrated to more effectively blend in with the underscore’s sound.

As mentioned before, the underscore this time around eschews outwardly western moments for more standard thriller music. We get a taste of this pretty quickly, with the second track, “Journey into Night,” evoking the synthetic grinding and pounding approach to tension-building that has become popular post-Sicario. This approach pops up again throughout the score, especially in action tracks “Les Ecorches,” “Virtu e Fortuna,” and “Virus.” For the softer moments, Djawadi provides standard keyboarded themes over a bed of synth-strings in tracks like “Myself” and “Take My Heart When You Go.”

These themes are an issue for the score, as they are neither interesting nor memorable enough to survive with such simple orchestrating. While the action tracks here convey momentum and the softer tracks are pleasant to the ear, Djawadi’s approach in this season is about as generic as can be imagined, and without strong themes to guide the listener along or distinguish the work from that of other Remote Control composers, the album becomes a slog through what sounds like stock music.

This has been an issue for Djawadi before, primarily with his early Game of Thrones work. A product of Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control group of composers, his adherence to that group’s style of endless grinding bass ostinatos and simple chord progressions hits a wall when not using catchy melodies or dynamic instrumentation.

Perhaps that is why the most memorable tracks are those which adopt cultural instrumentation. Indian instrumentation carries over from the “Seven Nation Army” cover into “The Raj” before devolving into standard pounding action music in the latter half of the track. Similarly, an Asian influence comes to the fore with the cello-led “Akane no Mai,” and carries over to the “C.R.E.A.M” and new “Paint it Black” covers. The latter may be the only truly vital track from the album. Opening with plucked Asian strings and woodwinds, Djawadi slowly plays with the song’s melody before combining the cultural sounds with a more muscular Remote Control-esque bass presence and galloping percussion. It is the one place where the score’s disparate parts truly come together in a satisfying way, held back only by its synthetic rendering.

One’s mileage with this album will vary greatly, probably most informed by how much one enjoys the show itself. In context, it does a fine job supporting the narrative and enhancing the emotions on screen. On album, the disparate parts combined with the surprisingly anonymous underscore make it a harder sell. There is still plenty here for Ramin Djawadi to flesh out in subsequent seasons, but do not be surprised if you find yourself preferring the more unique and scattershot first season’s album to this one.

Westworld: Season 2 Soundtrack is now available from WaterTower Music.

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