2013 has been a good year for Hans Zimmer fans like myself. The renowned German composer has scored the music for four major films this year, three of them already released, with one more still to come. His score for Man of Steel was met with a storm of both positive and negative press, dividing listeners between those that hailed it as a bold and modern reimagining of Superman's musical identity and those who lampooned it as yet another minimalistic, over-synthesized formulaic soundtrack in the vein of The Dark Knight's famous two-note motif (I have found myself occupying somewhat of a middle ground). Next came The Lone Ranger, which elicited a far more positive response, overcoming the same tonal inconsistencies the film suffered from with some individual moments of musical ingenuity, a few tributes to Ennio Morricone, and a fantastic adaptation of the William Tell Overture. And now we have Zimmer's rock soundtrack for Rush, the Ron Howard F1 racing film, and I am happy to report that not only is it Zimmer's strongest album of the year, but it may provide some of the best music the we have heard from the composer so far this decade.
One of the critiques often leveled against Zimmer is the fact that his thoroughly modern style of scoring (electronically driven, structured similar to rock music, simple progressions relying more on powerful and sonically deep performances rather than technical nuance) is applied too often to contexts it is not suited for. This is most certainly not the case with Rush. It is hard to imagine that another composer in Hollywood today would be more suited to score a 70's racing drama, as the source material plays right into Zimmer's strengths. A product of late 70's/early 80's rock himself, in which he started his musical career, Zimmer's compositional style has always been rooted in guitar based chords and structure. Classic guitar riffs, pounding percussion, and a dash of synth-powered orchestra is exactly what this film needed, and Zimmer delivers.
The album opens with the muted whoosh of racecars in "1976", which broods for a minute or so with eerie atmospherics and synthesized strings interspersed with delicate piano. Eventually a guitar joins the mix, building a sense of anticipation with a simple repeating pattern (what will become a racing theme of sorts) before a majestic cello piece surfaces, heralding the main theme's arrival on brass along with a sudden and energetic blast of guitar and percussion. These elements make up the backbone of the rest of the score. The racing theme supplies a pleasantly simple and uplifting sense of excitement and eagerness, getting its best performance on "Stopwatch", one of the finer pieces of music to come out of Remote Control Productions in recent memory and easily the highlight of the album. The sense of hope and passion on that track flows almost seamlessly into the heavily percussive and guitar driven "Into the Red", capturing perfectly both the adrenaline-pumping intensity of such a competition as well as the natural swagger and arrogance of the racers themselves.
"Into the Red" is but one of several action cues that prove to be standout tracks, racing forward with a propulsive energy driven by both guitar riffs and excellent percussion. The drums in Rush prove far more effective than the much hyped 12 piece drum orchestra Zimmer assembled for Man of Steel, for here they do not simply hammer the listener into submission, but rather utilize interesting rock techniques in "Watkins Glen" or accompany a powerful discordant guitar wail prominent in "1976", the transition between "Stopwatch" and "Into the Red", as well as the beginning of "Car Trouble". Guitars chug menacingly under synthesizers during "Nürburgring", before sharp, rapid percussion joins in. "Car Trouble" proves to be the most engaging piece of Zimmer action music since "160 BPM" from his 2009 Angels & Demons score, racing forward with perfectly blended drums and guitar, and becoming particularly poignant thanks to the guitar riff from 0:57-1:23 and reprised on strings later in the cue. Never does Zimmer fall prey to the minimalist droning and pounding he has become known for recently. His action music for Rush is instead nuanced, weaving the racing theme in and out of these and other tracks, as well as incorporating the main brass theme on "Reign" and prominently throughout the majestic "Lost but Won".
This brass theme is a fairly simple and standard construct for the composer, but it effectively communicates the self-perceived importance and significance of victory for these F1 rivals, and it is weaved beautifully and subtly throughout the score, twisted and contorted throughout the disturbing "Inferno", and reprised triumphantly on "My Best Enemy". It does not hurt that Martin Tillman's cello performances of the theme on "1976" and "Lost but Won" are chilling in their gravity and nobility. Zimmer is not afraid to let rip with the period rock vibe either, and "I Could Show You If You'd Like", "Oysters in the Pits" and "20%" will all be standouts for those who enjoy that era, along with the several rock songs from the time that are seamlessly included on the record. It is a credit to Zimmer and his production team that their original music is mixed and composed so authentically to the period that it is easy to lose track of which songs belong to Zimmer and which belong to the likes of Thin Lizzy, David Bowie and others.
In short, Rush showcases Zimmer at his best, adapting his style sonically for an era it is perfectly suited for. Rush is a must-have for fans of the composer, showcasing a truly hopeful and uplifting guitar motif, some of Zimmer's best action music in recent memory, and a noble brass theme all presented in a classic and accurate period context. Rush will thrill and excite every bit as much as the F1 race cars it is intended to represent.
See more reviews like this on my blog, "Pulling On The Push Door".