Ive always been a huge fan of James Cameron's Aliens, so when I came across a battered, well-worn vinyl of the soundtrack recently I just had to pick it up.
Composed by James Horner and recorded by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Aliens soundtrack not only fits the film perfectly but is so atmospheric and bombastic that it remains a pleasure to listen to in its own right. The soundtrack includes tracks of serene yet unsettling atmospheric classical music that do a great job of illustrating the cold, vast beauty of space and the grandeour of huge ships gliding silenty onwards, dwarfed by the infinitude of the cosmos desipte their immense size in human terms.
These tracks contrast brilliantly with the more upbeat and urgent tracks that build up slowly to bombastic crescendos, with ominous, Wagnerian fugues merging with more dynamic strains that puncture the atmosphere like a knife. Meanwhile martial percussion ups the adrenaline further with drumrolls that remind of the military conflict taking place, creating a mix in atmospheres betwenn ancient, hellish imagery, the apocalyptic feel of Gustav Holst's 'Mars' piece and a more modern, futuristic feel.
The effect is not dissimilar to the works of metal bands Nile, Celtic Frost and Septic Flesh who regularly build their murky and portentous brands of death and black metal around similarly ominous classical compositions, employing the likes of french Horn and Timpani to create a similar sense of ancient foreboding in their works.
The digital remastering of the Aliens soundtrack improves on the experience with its crisp yet still immensely powerful sound, and its mix of gentle spaced-out lulls and all-out chaotic booming fugues complete with heavy and dynamic peaks and troughs of sound that stretch tensions to breaking point make the Aliens Soundtrack an essential purchase to anyone with even a modicum of interest in darkly atmospheric music, classical or otherwise.
After Ridley Scott's sci-fi horror film Alien made a splash in creating an iconic horror film and introduced the combination of a nasty murderous alien against a tough, bust-your-balls-out female lead in Sigourney Weaver's Ripley, it took a while for the film to reach the laudits it deserved, and become a viable franchise film. However, when the film did reach to that level, it was no surprise that a sequel followed, albeit seven years later. Along with the new film, also the crew and the entire nature of the story changed from the creepy, uncertain suspense-thriller of claustrophobic corridors where a monster stalked on unsuspecting prey, to a kick-your-ass rollercoaster ride of thrills and spills. Directed once again by a rather fresh director, James Cameron at that time had already had success with The Terminator, but little else. Not wanting to tread old ground, Cameron immediately set out to change the direction to an all out action film where a bunch of tough marines go check out why communications have been lost on a colony on planet LV-426 and at the same time pick up a certain alien species for study that was originally what the Nostromo in the first film was supposed to do. As you may expect, it's not long before things go straight to hell and soon an outright war with the marines and the planet teeming with these aliens ignites with thrilling results.
James Horner was by 1986 already a veritably well-known name when it came to scores for fantasy and sci-fi films, having already written the popular scores for Star Treks II and III, as well as the monumental adventure/fantasy score for Krull. Therefore, Horner was a natural choice to helm yet another sci-fi/action film in his already inimitably energetic way. However, it is ironic to note that despite the change in production crew for the sequel film, when it came to the director and music, a lot had actually stayed the same. Cameron was a relatively new director, but he was a very demanding one just as Ridley Scott had been, and problems with the music did not stop at the previous director's irrate relationship with Jerry Goldsmith. Being ever the perfectionist going after the film and doing tweaks to it and re-editing it time and time again, this had the underhanded position that Horner had his hands pretty much tied as he could not score the film as the scenes were in continuous flux. And by the time scenes were submitted to him, changes in special effects or the scene lengths usually left Horner with a film that continually changed and to which he continuously had to make adjustments, and progress was at a standstill. This then lead to fights with Cameron and producer Gale Anne Hurd to demand a score with basically no time to write and record it as the release date loomed.
At the end of the sessions, Horner was very frustrated and, almost identically as had happened in the previous film, a lot of the finished music was mutilated beyond recognition in the finished film, tracked with Goldsmith's original Alien, or placed in completely different places where the music was intended to go. Ironically, the next time Horner worked with Cameron on Titanic 10 years later, both won Oscars for the effort. But despite these problems, the score itself remains one of Horner's most violent and hair-rising scores ever, stepping along the lines of being very much a continuation of Goldsmith's established sound while providing some base Hornerisms that he's become well known for before and since. Aliens pretty much was the final score Horner recorded in his old analogical style before his scores significantly became more and more fluid and lush in the digital era. The score itself is built on three different types of music. The first, as heard in the "Main Title" is a direct continuation of Goldsmith's original music in it's suspenseful atmosphere, liberally quoting the echoing, two-note "time"-motif in the flutes over a steady thumping heartbeat. This is the key identity of the score's foreboding style that Goldsmith evoked so well in the first one and it appears often thoughout the film as in the cues "Dark Discovery", "LV-426", "Newt" and the "Hyperspace" end titles.
The second variety of music consists of the horror elements that often segues together with the atmospheric suspense music, building ominous soundscapes that keep you severely unnerved throughout their playing time, such as in the early cues of "The Complex", "Atmosphere Station", and "Med.Lab.", while the score lets rip on occasion with full blown horror of dissonance, anvil strikes, groaning brass, high-pitched flutes and shrieking strings, particularly notable in the cues "FaceHuggers" and "Queen to Bishop", the latter which was also re-used in the film profusely in many different scenes. This is perhaps the least enjoyable music to be listened on album, but it does offer some truly frightening blasts of noise that is certainly not easy music of relaxation. The third variety comes in the form of large scale action music, which accommodates a lot of the marine scenes. For this military presence, Horner adds a lot of militaristic undertones to the music that is pretty much a constant feature of the entire score, from the quiet snare drums at the very beginning of the "Main Titles" to the very end of the final scene. Also this type of music yields to a lot of fanfares in the vein of Star Trek heroics, most notably in the cues "Combat Drop" (replaced in the film with ominous drumming not contributed by Horner), "Ripley's Rescue" and the action highlight, "Futile Escape", this fanfare in fact being pretty much the same as the Klingon theme in Star Trek III. Also the cue "Going After Newt" offers probably the most dramatically powerful, yet overall most listenable chase music of the entire score, devoid of a lot of dissonant antics. It is these three types of musical styles that mix and match and overlap throughout the entire score in a torrent of sound that is highly charged and terrifying, proving to be perhaps the most harrowing Horner score since Brainstorm, to which this score owes a lot to.
On the less positive side, this is also a score that presents some of Horner's bad tendencies of being heavily inspired by Russian classical music as the main theme, as heard in the "Main Title", quite liberally quotes a straight passage from Aram Khachaturian's "Adagio" from Gayaneh, made famous by the previous application of the original music in Stanley Kubrick's 2001, the main music being rather impossible to ignore on the unoriginality scale. Likewise the clear Goldsmith references (most likely intentional) and Horner's own quotes of his own music (Star Trek, Brainstorm, etc), make Alien one of those efforts where you will either have to ignore these unoriginalities or just accept them. Horner's also uses the echoplex to create similar kinds of reverberating string slaps as Goldsmith used for the first score to keep up the soundworld essentially similar, while unfortunately the score itself also remains on a scale of being rather an acquired taste as many of the horror elements are rather unlistenable for longer durations. The two cues of "Bishop's Countdown", containing the classic Horner countdown music (which was used twice in the film as well as tracked in years later to Die Hard's finale and half-a-dozen trailers) and "Resolution and Hypersleep" make for a great one-two finale in the film, and both incidentally containing a dream-like "all's safe" type of coda. In essence this is the kind of score from which it is perhaps the most beneficial to pick and choose the tracks you find most pleasure out of and make your own playlist instead of going through the score as a complete listen.
The original album released in 1986, and subsequently on CD in 1987, features around 40 minutes of music, though it is replete with small cuts here and there in many tracks. In 2001, Varèse Sarabande re-released the score in a DeLuxe Edition that contained the entire score as written and intended in the film, and with all music placed in the order it was supposed to appear in, completely remixed from the original masters. On top of the complete score, the album also included a few alternates like percussion only versions of "Ripley's Rescue" and "Combat Drop" (not the one used in the film) and a different ending to the "Hypersleep" cue that ends on a rather shocking note (perfect for freaking the crap out of any unsuspecting bystander). The sound quality is a bit on the dry side, with not as much reverb as there was in Goldsmith's Alien, but is not essentially bad. The London Symphony Orchestra may not always play exactly perfectly, but they sure do work their butts off on the music and the energy level is definitely noticeable even past the dryish sound. Certainly Horner's score for Aliens is not perfect by any margin, but it is one of his energetic best and it truly does send shiver down your spine, while at the same time it is infinitely more listenable than Goldsmith's original mostly thanks to the more malleable main theme and the strongly tonal military music (regardless of the very dissonant and surprise scare tactics involved in much of the rest of the music). It does bear its inspirations a bit too close for comfort at times, but it also wears its heart on its sleeve at the same time. For any fan of Horner's early Star Trek/Krull sound, Aliens is like the close horror cousin of those more openly heroic scores. Just as long as you remember that it's a very bumpy ride for a lot of its time.
I'm sure Amazon is selling it affordably, so just check.
Original 1987 album
1. Main Title (5:10)
2. Going After Newt (2:40)
3. Sub-Level 3 (6:11)
4. Ripley's Rescue (3:13)
5. Atmosphere Station (3:05)
6. Futile Escape (8:13)
7. Dark Discovery (2:00)
8. Bishop's Countdown (2:47)
9. Resolution and Hyperspace (6:10)
2001 Deluxe Edition
1. Main Title (5:13)
2. Bad Dreams* (1:22)
3. Dark Discovery/Newt's Horror* (2:07)
4. LV-426* (2:03)
5. Combat Drop* (3:29)
6. The Complex* (1:34)
7. Atmosphere Station (3:11)
8. Med. Lab.* (2:04)
9. Newt* (1:14)
10. Sub-Level 3 (6:36)
11. Ripley's Rescue (3:19)
12. Facehuggers* (4:24)
13. Futile Escape (8:29)
14. Newt is Taken* (2:04)
15. Going After Newt (3:18)
16. The Queen* (1:45)
17. Bishop's Countdown (2:50)
18. Queen to Bishop* (2:31)
19. Resolution and Hyperspace (6:27)
20. Bad Dreams (alternate)* (1:23)
21. Ripley's Rescue (percussion only)* (3:20)
22. LV-426 (film version)* (1:13)
23. Combat Drop (percussion only)* (3:24)
24. Hyperspace (alternate)* (2:08)
Music Composed and Conducted by James Horner
Performed by The London Symphony Orchestra
Orchestrated by Greig McRitchie
Music Scoring Mixer: Eric Tomlinson
Recorded at Abbey Road Studios, London
Music Editors: Robin Clark & Michael Clifford
1986 / Varèse Sarabande, 1987 (VCD 47263)
Varèse Sarabande, 2001 (VSD-6241)
© berlioz, 2008
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Main Title
2 Bad Dreams
3 Dark Discovery/Newt's Horror
5 Combat Drop
6 The Complex
7 Atmosphere Station
10 Sub-Level 3
11 Ripley's Rescue
13 Futile Escape
14 Newt Is Taken
15 Going After Newt
16 The Queen
17 Bishop's Countdown
18 Queen To Bishop
19 Resolution And Hyperspace
20 Bad Dreams (Alternate)
21 Ripley's Rescue (Percussion Only)
22 LV-426 (Alternate Edit - Film Version)
23 Combat Drop (Percussion Only)
24 Hyperspace (Alternate Ending)