Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (Hans Zimmer)

Final Musings: Hans Zimmer delivers yet another disappointment. The themes are anonymous in nature, the mixing is downright awful and the album is a hazardous listening experience. However, the action music can be enjoyable for some and there is a sense of genuine spirit in the Romanian music that shows that Zimmer had fun creating this score. Unfortunately, the score ends up being less a score and more of a compilation of ‘jamming sessions’. Fans looking towards Zimmer’s return to his better works will leave this album, severely disappointed.

Guy Ritchie’s entertaining (and some devotees of Arthur Conan Doyle might say blasphemous) adaption of the universally known stories of Sherlock Holmes fared surprisingly well, especially against the box office titan that was Avatar. With the stellar pairing of Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law eager for more, and the great revenues, it wasn’t surprising to see studios push for a sequel. This new film, Game of Shadows (Shadows, not Thrones ;)) is largely based off of Conan Doyle’s The Final Problem in which we are introduced to Holmes’ equal and greatest rival, Professor James Moriarty. While disappointment is the usual routine with sequels, critics found the film to be surprisingly entertaining, or as Roger Ebert likes to put it, “high caliber entertainment”.  I’m not sure if he would say the same for the score.

Returning with the crew for the sequel is Hans Zimmer. Zimmer has been quite busy with assignments this year as is expected of one of the most sought after composers in Hollywood. While the composer has occasionally proven himself worthy of his prominence with some of his great work, the man’s recent work has been rather disappointing. If one were to look specifically at this case, it would require a look over the shoulder to the first film. With Sherlock Holmes, Zimmer surprised many of his critics with some of his most humorously fresh and comically engaging material in quite a while (especially at a time where his predictable style became tiring). While the main theme may herald back to Jack Sparrow’s quirkiness and several of the composers trademark “Zimmerisms” are apparent in the score, rarely has he packaged them in such a way. Saturated in eclectic Celtic and gypsy tones (much like an Irish pub), the score was an incredibly entertaining and refreshing experience for fans who were tired of Zimmer’s more predictable side. Back in 2009, Zimmer was still going strong with great scores like the blood-pumping Angels and Demons and the more intelligently stimulating score for the drama, Frost/Nixon. Yet after the composer’s success with his bland score for 2010’s Inception, the composer has rarely failed to disappoint with horrible album releases for Rango and half ass efforts for On Strangers’ Tide (can’t forget the excruciatingly painful remixes of latter, can we?). Yet to the few Zimmer fans clinging on to the hope that Zimmer will prove  his critics wrong, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows seemed like the ideal opportunity. One could argue that a good deal of hype was built towards this score. Considering how the Celtic flavor and the gypsy tones really worked to the previous score’s favour, you can imagine the expectations set with this score. And Zimmer’s trip to Slovakia for further research and inspiration for the gypsy music certainly helped maintain the hype (but that’s what these publicity stunts tend to do). People will probably approach the score expecting the refreshing, creative, undeniably fun experience that was the first score. Unfortunately, this will most definitely not be the case with this score.

There are a numerous amount of problems in this score that it really is hard to pinpoint a specific place to begin. Perhaps the issue of coherency would be a good place to start. Zimmer previous score attempted to be wacky and unpredictable in a musical sense with its gypsy tones and eclectic rhythms. This new score in essence, attempts to keep itself rooted in the same sound. However, in an attempt expand the sound, Zimmer goes to certain levels that result into an overall disappointing product. There are different sides to this album. There is the orchestral material; the source-like Romanian music, the classical music that was well tampered with and one cannot forget the remix at the album’s conclusion. Composers have mastered the art of creating well balanced multifaceted scores in an album (such as John Williams with his recent score for War Horse), but Zimmer truly fails to package these elements together for a coherent listening experience. Consequently, the album is disastrous as a stand-alone listen.

The orchestral material is a lot darker than its predecessor, but that doesn’t make it better. The action highlights of the album are summed up in the first three tracks known as the “Shadows”. Listeners may find the action here enjoyable, but it is sub-par compared to what was heard in its predecessor. Often persisting in its simplistic melodramatic pounding at moments like the conclusion of Tick Tock or 0:51 in Chess. The ticking noise that Zimmer creates in “Shadows” does beg for a rolling of the eyes, but it’s not detrimental to the music. What does affect the music however are the horrendous samples. Zimmer has often been known to place a synthetic rendering of his music over the orchestral recording to give his work a synthetic edge. The enhanced bass and the unnecessary dubbing have often provoked criticism for his work, but rarely has it sounded so bad. Take for instance the rising figures in the brass at 1:00 – 1:38 in This is My Curse that sound terribly cheap.  When the strings pulsate at 1:43 in Tick Tock, one can’t help but marvel at the low-budget nature of the samples (much like what low budget video game scores suffer from, except we’re dealing with quite a big budget film here). To add on, there are many synthetic elements that persist in their nuisance. Some grating examples would include the horrible electronic noise at 2:29 in Tick Tock and the noise at 0:18 in Zu viele Fuchse fur euch Hansel. Listeners should also look for the infamous foghorn blasts from Inception as well, which make multiple appearances on the album. Moreover, droning is also prevalent in some cues that really leave fans of the energetic sound of the 2009 score disappointed.

The orchestral passages aren’t all bad though. Fans of Zimmer’s action style may find some enjoyment in the action here. The composer even shows off some surprising dynamic range with the use of woodwind solos in cues like This Is My Curse, The Red Book and several other cues (considering his past history with the ‘effeminate’ woodwinds section). The woodwind march in The Mycroft Suite will also be a nice comical piece for listeners to enjoy. To go on, Zimmer even reaches a sense of ethereal material with the high pitch tones at the end of Moral Insanity (before whisked away by the ugly brass) and the end of Memories of Sherlock. As aforementioned, Zimmer also keeps the score rooted in the gypsy, wacky and unpredictable style. At a point the squeaky violin sounds, ridiculous trumpet blasts like 0:18 in Chess, and dissonant violin echoes as in the beginning of The Red book all end up being quite silly really.

Speaking of silly, the album might horrify listeners with how Zimmer mutilates Mozart and Schubert. He infuses his droning techniques and his honking Inception brass blasts into the beautiful Don Giovanni in To the Opera and destroying Schubert’s Die Forelle with his ambient synths. Well these may be necessary elements for the film, the need to keep these tracks on the album escapes me. The brutal degradation to the pieces will leave lovers of classical music bleeding their ears out. It only adds on to an extremely flawed album experience.

On the other hand, the ethnic Romanian music is an intriguing factor to approach while reviewing this score. The tracks; It’s So Overt It’s Covert, Romanian Wind, Did You Kill My Wife, He’s All Me Me Me are arguably the some of the most interesting cues in the album. The first and the last of the group take the main theme (and its different phrases) and transform them into Romanian pieces. Taking ethnic instruments such as the accordion, the cimbalom and several other chamber instruments, Zimmer does an excellent job of maintaining ethnic authenticity. To top that off, the cues sound like Zimmer and the performers were genuinely having some fun, jamming out the man’s tunes. Listening to Romanian Wind, one cannot help but be swept away by the sounds. Unfortunately, this is one of the inherent problems of the score as a whole. It’s really hard to take this score seriously. It sounds like someone taped up a bunch of jamming sessions and put it together onto a CD. Especially at moments like hearing snippets of dialogue at the end of He’s All Me Me Me, it’s hard to imagine this working as a serious film score. Or rather, it doesn’t sound like Zimmer really worked on this while keeping in mind that he was doing a film score.

And this brings us to the biggest problem with the score. It is essentially going nowhere. Thematically, the score incorporates the main theme in certain variations along with a couple of new motifs and themes. The main new thematic identity is for Holmes’ brilliant arch nemesis, Moriarty. It first debuts with its secondary motif; a rising progression of notes.  You hear the full Moriarty theme at the opening of Tick Tock. The first half’s 3 note phrases will remind people of Beckett’s theme in the POTC franchise.  Moriarty’s theme receives its prominent action variation in its triplet figures first at 2:58 in Tick Tock. This returns throughout the second variation in different forms. To represent the concept of time, Zimmer introduces a motif that ascends and descends in rapid motion. This first debut at around 5:51 along with ascending brass patterns that herald back to his material in Inception. The time motif does an adequate job of portraying a sense of urgency and the motion of time.  Zimmer also introduces a rising motif at 2:21 in Chess. This is prevalent in varied forms and is also reminiscent of works such as Inception. The final new theme would be a comical theme for Mycroft, Sherlock’s own brother. This only plays out once on album in (you guessed it) The Mycroft Suite. The theme is harmonically and rhythmically similar to Sherlock’s own theme using similar chord progressions and such. Whether this was done intentionally to represent the relation between the two characters or not remains up for debate. Another action motif in its heralding nature also premiers in Zu viele Fuchse fur euch Hansel and it reoccurs in other cues such as Moral Insanity. This action motif is often paired up with a long bass chord progression (this is even interestingly taken up by a solo clarinet at 0:40 in The Red Book), as shown primarily in Moral Insanity.

While it may seem like Zimmer has lain out quite a bit of new material, most of these themes are subtle and insignificant in the big picture. Moriarty’s theme may be simplistic and derivative in its nature, but it suffices. In addition, its more robust action may be enjoyable before it tires you out. Unfortunately, none of these themes and motifs show any sign of development in the sound of the franchise. There is no new big theme to identify this film with (in fact, some may find it difficult to notice Moriarty’s theme in the first place). This may be either the fault of the score or the album. Instead, the film continues to rely on its old theme.

Now this is not a bad thing. Thematic continuity is always of the utmost importance to film score collectors, and for good reason. The problem is, Zimmer doesn’t take the main theme in a good direction. It’s interesting to note that the original Sherlock Holmes featured a prevalent rhythm (the same one that would later give birth to the nuisance that was the Mombasa track in Inception). Likewise, Zimmer showcases the main theme primarily through a triplet action rhythm featured first at 0:45 in Chess.  It may entertain at first, but listeners will tire of it easily as they are beaten to submission by its pounding nature. It’s important to understand that the main theme isn’t really the most complex of themes if one were to break it down. Its advantage is its different phrases that can be easily bent. However, whereas the original score took the different phrases and offered numerous enjoyable variations with the cimbalom and such, this score really tires one out with its new variations. In fact, one could argue that the theme’s possible weaknesses are more exposed in slower variations (like simplistic swinging pairs at the beginning of Chess). At times, the composer does attempt to relive the success of the previous score by taking previous variations at The Red Book. He even closes the album on a note similar Discombobulate, except with this horrifying scratching noise at intervals. In terms of other old themes, one could argue that the rising patterns at the beginning of This is My Curse is a variation of a similar descending motif from the previous score (look to cues like Data, Data, Data). Furthermore But the key idea is that there is no development upon both old and new themes. Zimmer fails to take his scores in any new direction, which brings up the question of how seriously listeners should take this score. It seems like the composer took his successful theme and decided to jam out some new variations and record them to be labeled as a score. His new themes sound more like secondary action motifs rather than dominant representative themes. It really is a shame because Zimmer set a solid foundation with this score’s predecessor. If only he moved away from the jamming sessions for the Romanian music and shared the same passion and focus for the orchestral, theme-dominated score material.

The final issue to bring up is the appalling recording, or rather mixing of the score. Its hard to exactly describe what is wrong, but the score sounds wrong. It has been well known that Zimmer went to great extents to give the previous score a honky tonky flavor (going so far as taking a grand piano to the parking lot and smashing with a hammer to detune it) and it worked to its advantage. In contrast, it’s unbearable here. Simply by listening to the luridly flat tone of the first statements, one will have shivers sent down their spines. The mix is very murky and muddled. To go on, Hans Zimmer has effectively mixed his synths and orchestra before, but here, the mixing exposes the synthetic samples right out in the forefront. It just adds to the entire “cheap” vibe that the score gives off. Once again, it seems like Zimmer took out a keyboard and had some fun on it and voila! That’s what you’re listening to.

Well the comments above are largely negative; there are some good moments to get out of this score.

Muse on These:

Tick Tock (Shadows, Pt. 2)

The best action track in the score. It is entertaining and enjoyable with some great action variations of Moriarty’s theme. Just watch for the superficial single note banging at the end.

Romanian Wind

This cue is very good fun! Clear proof that Zimmer did a great job with the ethnic music (or rather we should thank the local musicians he found in Slovakia). There may be a point where it becomes some to appreciate rather than enjoy, but this is some fun stuff (if you can keep up with the cimbalom player).

Did You Kill My Wife?

Again, this cue is good fun (despite the dismal performance). In the fashion of Nino Rota’s popular works, Zimmer offers a sorrowful performance of the B phrase of the main theme with a brass ensemble. The trumpet really offers a great interpretation of the theme.

The Red Book

If you can get past jarring dissonant violin echoes at the beginning, you might find something to enjoy. With omnious statements of Moriarty’s theme (on woodwinds! J) and some enjoyable variations of several other themes this cue pertains more to the enjoyable nature of the predecessor. It’s a shame that the cue ends with about 16 seconds of an ambient droning…odd.

Memories of Sherlock

Here, the B phrase of the main theme is played on a haunting piano. At least the synths don’t bother you here. It ends off on an interesting ethereal note.

It is key that readers understand that this is not really amongst the worst scores of the year. It’s just a terribly disappointing one. Unfortunately, this seems to be the trend that Zimmer has been taking up recently. Just recently, On Strangers Tide was a disgraceful follow up to Zimmer’s fantastic score for At World’s End. At least this score only has one remix and it isn’t that bad. Its good to hear Zimmer having fun, but it becomes a bad thing when it leads the score to a self-destructive destination. As I’ve said before, its hard to take this score seriously with its cheap synths, its lack of development and lack of focus. Someone really needs to slap the idiot that put this hazardous album together as it really is a terrible listening experience on album. Unfortunately, a combination of precarious elements leave fans of the previous score’s refreshing experience extremely disappointed.

Rating: * * 1/2

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5 Comments on “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (Hans Zimmer)”

  1. Joel G says:

    Great review again! Really enjoy the depth you go into and your ability to pin-point all the thematic developments, however subtle or disappointing.
    I too was overall very disappointed with this score, especially the album release. I thought in context of the film, that the score worked overall, but on album certainly it’s a very obnoxious presentation, and seems to be missing several pieces from the film that I actually thought were enjoyable.
    I was definitely let down by the overall sound, how much the synth/bass angle has been amplified, ala-Inception, thus taking the fantastic raw mixed sound of the original, and totally polarizing it into two sections, the “score”, and then the source cues. I’ve always had a fascination for gypsy-esque music, so I actually really enjoy these gypsy cues for the most part, and it’s clear Zimmer and his team are having fun, but I just wish they had found ways to incorporate into the actual Score.
    In terms of themes, thanks for your analysis, it does help me that there’s at least a Little bit more than that I first realized, although most of these ideas are so Zimmer-ey, and washed up with so many synths and distortion that they just don’t really stick out in the mind. Ironically, the one new idea that Did really jump out to me when watching the film is barely represented on album (at least I Think it’s a new idea, correct me if I’m wrong). It plays on album at the very beginning of the cue “The End?”, a short, mysterious motif on harpsicord (or something similar). In the film, it only really plays at the beginning and end of the film, as Watson sits and recounts his adventures, but I really liked that little tune and how it was used.
    Overall though, a really missed opportunity.

    • Darko says:

      Yep, that ‘new idea’ you mentioned was the only cool part in the score, next to the Moriarty part in Tick Tock.

      That ‘new idea’ is also at the end of Moral Insanity (in the film: at the end of the confrontation scene between Holmes and Moriarty, also when Watson receives the oxigen thingy package).

  2. Zimbodi says:

    This is such a mature and well thought out review. I sincerely enjoyed reading it. Please keep doing this, i would love to see you write other reviews of Hans Zimmer’s works. He’s my favorite composer, but this review really addresses the issues with this score in a mature and professional way (unlike many other reviews that I’ve seen). Please keep writing! I look forward to your upcoming reviews!

  3. I had a question. Could I get Hans Zimmer’s original score for the ‘Romanian wind”? What were the instruments used there?

  4. Lexa says:

    I know what’s wrong with the mix you mentioned in the end…the entire score is in a different key to what it was in the movie. I find this to be EXTREMELY irritating and it completely waters down the music.

    Great review by the way. I just stumbled on this page. I’ll definitely be reading more!


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