Let us all spare a thought for Lorne Balfe. His Dark Materials is a much beloved and deeply nuanced piece of work. Before the series it had already had one attempt at a film adaption that seemed to upset almost anyone with any view on the original books. Although this adaptation still isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, it was far better received by fans and casual viewers alike.
But this is a property with a fair amount of baggage. Balfe has to create music that unites the visual world created by others, the written world created by others, and the imaginary world created by others, all while keeping his own, distinct voice. To pull off this unenviable task he’s managed to give us a beautifully scored and orchestrated soundtrack.
Balfe knows his craft. He’s worked all across the industry and here he’s brought that mound of experience to the fore, focusing on worldbuilding. There are hints and flavours of different cultures. It’s rather like walking through a wonderfully diverse market somewhere in London.
One moment you hear an eastern European language, the next your stomach rumbles from the smell of cardamom and turmeric. It’s just a shame he didn’t push the envelope a little further, Though there are hints of the unusual, we’re never given a real taste. Or rather we’re served the chicken tikka masala, There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s definitely designed to agree with all tastes.
With every track there’s something a little too much of the road already travelled. We’re constantly reminded of something we’ve already heard. Of course His Dark Materials is a huge production, and so one cannot expect an avant-garde album focusing around the theremin, Jew’s harp, and Mongolian throat singing, nor would anyone want to hear anything of the kind.
But if a composer is going to present us with a ‘traditional’ fantasy score, they have to be very careful. They will inevitably be compared to the sweeping grandeur of Shore’s epic work on Lord of the Rings, Poledouris’ battle-scarred Conan, or Djawadi’s eminently hummable Game of Thrones.
And here Balfe comes up ever so slightly short. It’s not that there is anything wrong with what he’s given us, far from it. If you want an album to listen to while running a game of Dungeons and Dragons, or in the background as you read Pratchett, this is perfect. But it’s perfect because it’s what you expect.
Great fantasy soundtracks make you feel like a visitor to an exotic world. Here, though its beauty and grandeur are undeniable, the over-familiarity makes you feel like a local.
The Musical Anthology of His Dark Materials (Series Two) is available digitally from Silva Screen Records.