For all of the cheesy pop music and depressing, mopey indie rock that I listen to, none of that is the focus of my music collection. I am instead steeped in film scores. My primary collections are John Williams and Danny Elfman, but I have hundreds of discs that include film scores that, in one way or another, moved me. I needed to give you that background so that you won't think I'm crazy when I say that my most anticipated album of 2006 was Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers: The Complete Recordings.
Perhaps the greatest accomplishment in film scoring over the past ten years (even surpassing the excellent films themselves) was Howard Shore's work on Lord of the Rings. I must admit that I had very little interest in the first film, The Fellowship of the Ring, in the months that led up to its release. I bought the score first, with the promise that I would be in for some epic choral work. I was so moved by the score that I rushed out and saw Fellowship on opening day with my friend Chris. The movie was, obviously, a successful venture.
Nothing excited me more than the prospect of another score release in the coming year. And sure enough, The Two Towers came along. Howard Shore was once again in top form, although the tone of both the film and the score changed for sure. Gone were the beautiful, carefree melodies of The Shire (which were my favorite pieces of Fellowship), and in their place were the pounding rhythms of orc armies and the dreary and mysterious percussion of Fangorn Forest. Despite the bleak nature of things, there is great beauty within the score. The stand-out theme (among the dozens used in the film, both recurring and new) is associated with Rohan, and it's the music that you'll probably find yourself humming after watching the film on DVD. Often played by the hardinger fiddle, Shore's melody manages to capture the folksy grandeur of the civilization of horse masters.
Of course, this was all available on the original soundtrack, which was much cheaper and took up less space. Is the upgrade worth it? Well, that depends. Many of the key moments of the original film were included on the first album. The Rohan theme is there, as are the emotional pieces underscoring Gandalf's return and Sam's speech to Frodo. If you are a casual fan, the OST will suffice. I won't be giving it up, as it's a nice arrangement and more suitable to brief playthroughs.
If you're willing to make the time commitment (and the money commitment), The Complete Recordings is the only way to go. Shore's music, perhaps more than any film score piece before it, tells a story without the hindrance of the pictures on-screen, probably due in-part to the fact that Shore did so much research within Tolkien's original novel. In the same way that each faction of Middle Earth--say, the Elves or the Dwarves--has their own armor and technology, each faction has their own distinctive musical style, instrumentation, and thematic infrastructure. It is the development of these cultures, and their inevitable meeting (or clashing) that tells the story. Lord of the Rings is almost operatic, in a sense.
Obviously, there is a wealth of material on this release (which clocks in at over three hours) that has never before been released. In fact, some of the material on this volume wasn't even included in the film, excised for directorial or editorial purposes. Rohan is much more than the aforementioned fiddle solo, and we are given a full soundscape as we follow the journey from Edoras to Helm's Deep. The battle of Helm's Deep is finally given proper due. The battle fills almost the entire third disc, and the brutal clash is a wonder to behold. If you thought that Gandalf's return to Helm's Deep was beautiful in the film (or on the original soundtrack album), you'll be surprised to find it even more powerful on this release due to the added, unreleased context on both ends.
Buying the album will also get you Part Two in Doug Adams' series of liner notes discussing, among other things, Shore's use of themes. This is a handy guide that will elaborate on, for instance, all of the different motifs dedicated to the Hobbits. You don't need Part One of the series (available in Fellowship's complete recordings) to "get" the themes from the first film, as they are pointed out in this volume as well. As if this massive booklet wasn't enough, Adams has released dozens of additional pages analyzing the score track-by-track on the official Rings soundtrack site.
If you have one of those hoity-toity digital sound systems, the box set also includes the entire score in DVD Audio and Dolby 5.1 sound. I hear it's fantastic. My "surround sound" cost me fifty bucks at Wal Mart.
If you're going to buy this one, I think it's safe to say that you'll need to buy its predecessor, Fellowship of the Ring: The Complete Recordings, as well. Towers, like the film itself, is the middle act of a trilogy. If you only buy one volume, you'll be missing on the context and expansion of its two companions. If you're looking for just a taste, I'd recommend sticking to the original release from 2002. It is still an excellent piece, if incomplete, and you'll probably find yourself aching for more.
In the words of Homer Simpson, "Now we play the waiting game." Lord of the Rings: Return of the King: The Complete Recordings is due out in 2007, and a release of alternates and rarities is coming at some point thereafter. Doug Adams' book on the subject of Howard Shore's score is also due next year, so keep your eyes open if you're as geeky as I am.
Howard Shore: Edoras