His Dark Materials is a fantasy TV series based on the novels by Philip Pullman. It is a BBC/HBO co-production and you can see both British and International elements among the cast and crew, with the likes of Ruth Wilson, James McAvoy, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Andrew Scott among the adult cast. Although some of the main characters are children and there are some standard fantasy tropes with sentient animals, magic devices and witches, there are also more adult topics such as political power struggles and a good mixture of pseudo-science. With an international collaboration such as this, it was no surprise to see composer Lorne Balfe land the job of series composer, since he was born in Scotland and now works in LA. Balfe has been doing some sterling work recently on the series "Succession" starring Brian Cox (not to mention "Pennyworth", "The Wheel of Time" and "Dopesick"), so will fully understand the rigours of creating music for a series spanning many worlds and many episodes.
While this review is about the Series 2 soundtrack album, it is worthwhile making some reference to the Series 1 soundtrack. This established the show's main theme, which features a folk-like melody with a "Scotch snap" rhythm, with support from a string ostinato pattern and a descending motif in the low strings. These elements all make their appearance in series 2, but are reserved purely for special events. Instead Series 2 introduces its own new theme, and its own associated elements help to give series 2 its own character while still sounding like a further development of the original series. The series 1 music comes in 2 different releases, the expected "His Dark Materials - Original TV Soundtrack" double album and a further single album "The Musical Anthology of His Dark Materials". I wasn't initially aware of this, and so far have only heard the "Anthology" version. However the series 2 Double Album is split into "Original Television Soundtrack Series 2" consisting of 35 tracks, and 9 further tracks under the label "The Musical Anthology of His Dark Materials Series 2". This distinction would now appear to be significant, and the assumption is that the "Soundtrack" tracks are cues taken from the television soundtrack with little modification, while the early "Anthology" album for series 1 and the "Anthology" tracks on the series 2 double album are like bonus tracks. These tend to be slightly longer and they might be thought of as re-workings, suites, extended or uncut versions of music from the series but not quite as broadcast.
The soundworld of "His Dark Materials" is fairly typical of the Fantasy genre. It is firmly orchestral, dominated by strings, with the brass used largely for power, regular use of chorus, percussion for certain tracks, with woodwind and subtle synth effects used on special occasions. Although melodic themes were mentioned above in the context of main themes, the impression from much of the score is that it is largely ambient or at least non-melodic, and melodies of any significance are reserved for moments of special narrative significance. This pattern is apparent from the outset of the album. "A Parallel Sky" gets the series 2 soundtrack off to a rollicking start with a high-intensity track, it briefly comes down a notch before returning to fever pitch, while introducing some melodic ideas, chord sequences and ostinato patterns that are important parts of the overall series 2 score. "Tortured Witch" starts off in ambient mode with some texture and largely low-key thematic aspects gradually emerging, ending soon after a climax with loud orchestral hits. "Land of Spectres" gets off to a folky start, with some plucky sounds accompanying the main 'series 2 theme' on strings before receding. "He's a Murderer" has a very light start, the textured ambience rising in volume with percussive support, while "Magisterium's New Era" is dark on dark with low strings and minor intervals.
By now you will have got a flavour of the soundtrack to come. Many tracks are concerned with setting the tone of various locations, characters and groups, with many of them being dark and threatening. While some more emotional tracks such as "The Chosen Two" being lighter and more inviting, representing strong relationships between the heroic characters and often emphasising the series 2 main theme or at least elements of it. It's like the score heads off in some dark directions as the characters confront various dangers and challenges on their adventures, but fall back on a core of friendship and comfort represented by the main theme. Examples of such returns are "The Key to the Multiverse" with its wholesome version of the 'series 2 main theme' which then continues into a variation over a tortured accompaniment. Then later "Indomitable Courage" starts with an heroic horn while the strings play the main theme. Of course this kind of musical evolution follows the ebb and flow of the narrative, and many tracks will change character over the course of their duration as dictated by the on-screen events.
In many ways the "Anthology" section of the double album avoids this ebb and flow effect since it is not totally locked to screen events, and the music has space to evolve and develop at its own pace. And many will find these 9 tracks to be the most musically satisfying for this reason. As an example "The Subtle Knife" undoubtedly evolves over the course of its near 5 minutes, but it feels like it stays on topic rather than turning a corner. Initially there are some low ambient strings but these grow and textures emerge with a rising motif joined by voices, orchestra and drums. The rising motif disappears to leave the beat behind which continues with bending whistle sounds - which could be the ethnic flute mentioned in the sleeve notes. This new motif continues while strings dance around it with expansive arpeggios joined by powerful brass forces. It resolves leaving behind a different textured ambience with a few little flourishes. The final track is "The Shaman" which starts with a string figure which then continues to accompany an heroic trumpet solo playing the theme from "A Mystic Explorer", before percussion joins in. After a short interlude, a related yet familiar string figure begins as a new accompaniment to this heroic theme. It neatly illustrates the relationships between some of the thematic material and provides a fitting conclusion to the album.
In summary Balfe has constructed a rich soundworld to accompany the rich fantasy worlds of Pullman's novels. That soundworld provides atmosphere to the visuals, with themes that heighten the mysterious adventures and flesh out the various characters, while adding depth to their emotional journey. This is exactly what we want from dramatic music scoring, and the series 2 album is available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk, while the series 1 music is still available as "His Dark Materials - Original TV Soundtrack" at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk, and the bonus album "The Musical Anthology of His Dark Materials" is at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.