If there is one thing that John Williams has shown in the twilight of his career, it is his eagerness to embrace different styles that are appropriate for each film he has scored and to push the envelope in ways even his most devout fans may not expect. For example, last year Williams embraced neo-Renaissance period instruments for his "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" score, then did a complete 180 degree turn to bring the charms of clarinet and accordion to "The Terminal".
This year, Williams has performed a similar feat, first bringing us his brilliant, Wagnerian finale score for "Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith", full of bombast and more themes than a Mahler symphony. Now, for his 21st feature film collaboration with director Steven Spielberg, Williams brings us one of the most brilliant and radical scores he has ever composed: "War of the Worlds".
I'm not going to talk much about the plot of the film (you can see it for yourself); suffice it to say that aliens invade Earth at the dawn of the 21st century and man must find a way to defeat the invaders before he is eliminated from Earth forever. With this scenario in mind, Williams has fashioned a brilliant example of modern concert composition, blurring the line between tonality and atonality so finely that one must focus the ears more than usual to appreciate the subtleties of the score.
Unlike Williams's most famous works (i.e. "Jaws", "Star Wars", "Raiders of the Lost Ark") there are no themes in this score that you will be whistling long after you've listened to the CD. In fact, unlike Williams's typical work, theme is hardly discernible on this album. There is a short motif, typically performed by the low brasses, that represents the alien invaders, and another theme played primarily in the strings that could be called a "reflection on mankind" theme; this theme is featured most prominently in the final two tracks.
Beyond these two themes, most of Williams's work is scene-specific underscore, similar in approach to his "Minority Report" score from 2002. The action sequences are scored with pulsating string and percussion syncopations, with the brasses interjecting occassionally to emphasize these offbeats. Much of this album features quiet music that will require one to turn up the volume, the most prominent example being "Probing the Basement", in which shrieking violin harmonics underscore an alien inspection of a cellar in which the protagonists are hiding.
Do not purchase this album if you are merely a casual film score or Williams fan who enjoyed "Star Wars" and "E.T.". You will be greatly disappointed, and might find this score to be nothing but noise. However, if you have heard or own Williams's score to "Minority Report", or have a great appreciation for serialist music and modern atonal compostion, this album will surely satisfy. "War of the Worlds" may not be Williams's greatest score, but it is his most daring and unique score of the last 10 years, and it is refreshing to hear a great master take a chance and create something completely different than his typecast work.