Remember that oh-so glorious time some 20 years ago, when The Matrix had first exploded onto out screens? When we had just the one movie to obsess over, before everything was spoiled by two incredibly lacklustre sequels (with The Animatrix doing its best as damage limitation)? Yes, those truly were the days.
The Matrix was probably the first major Cyberpunk Hollywood blockbuster – it was massively influential in popularising the genre in the mainstream, but also for giving us the ‘bullet time’ effect, which – it seemed for a while after the movie was released – was pretty much the only show in town when it came to VFX shots, as it ended up being used over and over again, including numerous parodies of the effect in comedy films. The visual look and style was also imitated in movies such as Night Watch and Equilibrium. A film with such stunning and distinctive visuals needs to have an equally idiosyncratic soundtrack, and thankfully that was exactly what we received here.
On a purely personal note, my musical tastes are about as far removed from the artists and genres on this soundtrack as you can get. Which is why no-one was as surprised as me to find myself going out and buying a copy on CD not all that long after seeing The Matrix on the big screen two decades ago. It’s a testament not only to how well the tracks chosen carefully fit the visuals, as well as the moods which the Wachowskis are looking to evoke, but also just how much the music manages to reach a much wider audience than would usually be the case, and successfully cross over to attract people outside the normal target market.
A mix of metal – industrial, nu and heavy – and rock; along with electronica, ambient, techno, and rave. All of the tracks selected could have just been transposed onto the soundtrack album in a strictly linear and conventional manner; however, it seems that – much like the underlying message of Neo’s training – the rules are made to be broken, and in this case chronology is not something that really matters here. For example, the opening track is Marilyn Manson’s ‘Rock Is Dead’, whereas it turns up in the movie’s end credits, teamed with the last song on the album, Rage Against The Machine’s ‘Wake Up’.
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Given that ‘Wake Up’ predates The Matrix by nearly seven years, it feels as though it could have been written especially for the film, not just with it tying into humanity’s being enslaved in a dreamlike state, but in terms of Neo and the Nebuchadnezzar’s crew literally doing what the band’s name advises, and raging against the machines which have overtaken the Earth. A case of serendipity, it would seem, and one which works very neatly indeed.
Its surprising how little some of the tracks actually get featured in the film, if at all in some cases. When Neo is being prepared to meet the Oracle, there’s a snatch of Meat Beat Manifesto’s ‘Prime Audio Soup’, which is enough for the purpose of keying us up for a jump into the Matrix, but it avoids using any of the lyrics, meaning we only find out via the soundtrack album that it’s not solely an instrumental piece. Similarly, there’s a neat and – to the unknowledgeable and untrained ear – almost imperceptible mix between Rob Zombie’s ‘Dragula (Hot Rod Herman Remix)’ and ‘Mindfields’ by The Prodigy: it’s a segue between two rather disparate musical styles which happens to work out beautifully in the movie, but the album at least gives an opportunity to appreciate them both in full.
One of the more familiar tracks featured on the soundtrack is ‘Clubbed To Death (Kurayamino Mix)’ by Rob D – again, only a snippet is used in the movie itself (for the sequence with the Woman In Red in the training program); however, it’s the most famous part, which ended up for a time being used as aural wallpaper on a lot of TV shows – usually talent or clips shows, in need of a suitably dramatic or scene-setting instrumental. However, we don’t get to hear the haunting excerpts from Elgar’s ‘Enigma Variations’, which gives ‘Clubbed To Death’ an unexpected depth, and is a much quieter and more understated piece than those around it.
Another one of the tracks which has since taken on a life all of its own beyond just the soundtrack of The Matrix is the funky ‘Spybreak!’ by Propellerheads, which will now forever be enshrined as being the ‘lobby shootout’ music. It seems to have become not only a shorthand for a high-octane action sequence, but is also used as a punchline for parodies of such scenes – it’s also turned up as the backing music for numerous trailers, so it’s a pity that its overfamiliarity slightly dulls or takes the edge off its impact somewhat. That huge bassline is infectious, and deserves far more than the ignominious infamy it’s received courtesy of The Matrix.
A lot of the harder, heavier tracks – such as ‘Bad Blood’ by Ministry, Rammstein’s ‘Du Hast’, and ‘My Summer (Shove It)’ by Deftones – help maintain the tone set in the nightclub scene, with its dark, carnal and visceral nature, showing us a rather dark and unseemly world within a world (and within another world, once we have learnt that it’s all taking place within the Matrix). When you actually watch the film, there happens to be a number of tunes in there which don’t even get a look-in. Well, maybe some 1930s Jazz by Duke Ellington and Django Reinhardt might have been a step too far for this particular soundtrack album.
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One thing that you find about the tracks selected is that they do manage to work well at complementing Don Davis’ score for The Matrix, which is a conventional orchestral piece, but there are instances – such as in the Woman In Red sequence – where you move almost seamlessly from one to the other, without realising these aren’t actually part of the same person’s work, unless you’re familiar with those artists whose pieces have been used. The two work well together, in a similar way to Howard Blake’s Flash Gordon score feeding into Queen’s rock and pop songs, and vice versa, together making a whole that’s greater than the sum of even these parts.
It’s a carefully curated selection of tunes, and one which has certainly stood the test of time much better than most soundtrack albums for Hollywood movies – all of the genres featured have aged far better than contemporary songs used in most films, as pop music styles tend to change much more noticeably over time than metal or electronica seem to in comparison. In the run-up to The Matrix‘s 20th anniversary, the soundtrack was released as an LP for the first time in 2017, with a limited two-disc release on coloured vinyl – red and blue, for Morpheus’ two pills. The blurb by Real Gone Music stressed how much the soundtrack has managed to capture the zeitgeist, and it still does manage to sound as fresh listening to it now as it did back in 1999.
Unfortunately, no-one can be told what The Matrix soundtrack is. You’ll have to hear it for yourself.