Ridley Scott's first historical action drama since Gladiator saw a change-up in composers when longtime Scott collaborator Hans Zimmer turned the project over to Harry Gregson-Williams, Tony Scott's frequent collaborator. Should fans expect a rehash of Gladiator? Possibly–but don't. Gregson-Williams has created a diverse musical sound for himself in the past few years, composing scores for a wide array of genres ranging from Shrek to Man on Fire; his approach to Kingdom of Heaven was as different from Zimmer's Gladiator as he could get. This score will not be as immediately embraced as was Gladiator because it focuses less on the action, but the music's subtleties make this score an astounding repeat listening experience.
There are some instrumental similarities to Gladiator in parts (namely "To Jerusalem" and "The King"), but we are dealing with a Ridley Scott historical picture, so this can be forgiven to some degree. Zimmer's Gladiator was bold and militaristic; Gregson-Williams, instead, took a more personal, introspective approach and developed the film's sound with fewer themes and more instrumental consistencies. Kingdom of Heaven features an astounding collection of choral hymn cues in Latin that immediately set the tone for a medieval religious crusade. Harry Gregson-Williams also develops numerous ethnic sounds and moves the score along with impressive percussion orchestration. Rounding off the ensemble are the usual suspects for his scores: Hugh Marsh on electric violin, Martin Tillman on electric cello, and vocalist Lisbeth Scott. Some purists might see the use of electric strings as inappropriate for film set in medieval times, but the sound creates a harsh feel to the music that contrasts well with the angelic beauty of the choirs.
In short, Gregson-Williams has created somewhat of an opera for Kingdom of Heaven. This is the first film of this epic scale and dramatic style that he has scored and the result demonstrates his skill as a composer; the music transcends the film and works as a cohesive album that develops both thematically and musically throughout. Gregson-Williams presents the main theme with the choir in the first few tracks. This theme is elusive because it passes between the chorus and vocalists and the orchestra and is used in various ways. The theme is built further with the orchestra in the latter parts of the album. For the Christian parts to the music, the choir, appropriately, sings in Latin. A secondary theme is introduced in "Ibelin," which is the first introduction to the Middle-Eastern influences in the score. "Rise a Knight" follows with the first fully orchestral statement of the main theme that builds during Balian's (Orlando Bloom) rousing speech that also brings forth the first prominent brass presence in the score.
The second half of the album continues the use of brass and raises the level of percussion as the action begins. Nearly every cue has some presentation of the theme, either in short, ethereal vocals ("Better Man") or in full orchestral statements ("An Understanding"). "Better Man" also brings forth the heavy percussion and the harsher sounds of Tillman's electric cello. The heavy percussion continues in a massive cue, "Wall Breached," which is one of the album's highlights that also includes some of the best orchestral music between the percussion explosions. "An Understanding" and "The Pilgrim Road" develop some of the earlier ethnic ideas and culminates in the aftermath cue, "Saladin," with a poignant string statement of the theme with a horn countermelody.
The final two tracks on the album are what could elevate the score's potential for the Oscars. "Path to Heaven" is a minute and a half solo choral cue in Latin that is breathtaking; the multiple parts weave together in beautiful suspensions. This cue is a culmination of the choral hymn ideas that permeate the rest of the score. The last track is a reprise of the Ibelin theme performed beautifully by Natacha Atlas in Arabic. Kingdom of Heaven reflects Harry Gregson-Williams' approach to Spy Game (which I consider one of his best to date). The mix of multiple vocal and choral elements mixed with layered strings and heavy percussive elements (in this case non-electronic) all supported lightly by the full orchestra. Like Spy Game, the themes are not bold and brassy as with a Hans Zimmer score. Rather, the thematic material is always present in a subtle way that holds the music together, but rarely tells the listener blatantly that it is there. The score works as much as a classical piece as it does a film score. Gregson-Williams should be recognized for making the music different from past historical film scores while maintaining a realism to it by incorporating numerous ethnic and religious sounds.
This review was originally posted on SoundtractNet.