London Philharmonic Orchestra, London Oratory School Schola Choir, London Voices Choir
Destined to be one of the most successful trilogies of films in the history of cinema, The Lord of the Rings finishes its snapshot succession of yearly sequels with the final chapter, The Return of the King. Even hardcore fans of Tolkien and his novels could have a difficult time keeping up with all of the merchandise from the trilogy on film, including the different cuts of the films themselves, which are promised with The Return of the King like the previous two entries. Composer Howard Shore entered this situation knowing full well that his involvement in this trilogy would extend well beyond the basic duties of a composer on any normal project. Shore has seemed well adjusted to the idea of scoring The Lord of the Rings in bits and pieces, adding new cues to scores as additional scenes are added, and working closely with director Peter Jackson under a schedule of additional recordings made to the scores for The Lord of the Rings long after the meat of the originals was already released in theatres. In the case of The Return of the King, Shore was recording the score late in the summer of 2003, but was prepared to write and record additional material for the film in March of 2004 to accommodate additional scenes on the DVD release of the film. Over the course of Shore's adventures, from the original viewing of the shooting locations in New Zealand several years before to the last DVD release in 2004, Shore has written music with large-scale talents of the London Philharmonic and London Voices in mind. Criticism about the previous two recordings had come from audiophiles who were unhappy with the echoing, wet recording sound of the orchestra; individual instrument performances were washed out to make way for a resounding whole, arguably improving the sheer mass of sound in some sections while also degrading solo contributions by lesser-powered instruments.
For The Return of the King, the same bass-heavy, echoing sound has been utilized, although to perhaps a slightly lesser extent. The epic scale of the first two scores has been continued in the final chapter, completing Shore and Jackson's notions that the music is one massive, single score that has simply been divided into three parts. Upon hearing The Return of the King, however, a case could be made that this third score in the trilogy has far less in common than its two predecessors had with each other. The Academy Award-winning score for The Fellowship of the Ring was naturally expanded upon in The Two Towers, with the second score clearly restating motifs and themes from the first one while establishing its own new ideas. This process does not carry over into The Return of the King; rather, Shore seems content to carry the third score with the same stylistic motifs and chord progressions of the series while not offering steady statements of previous themes. Thus, you don't get explosive performances of the first two films' primary themes. You hear many hints, adaptations, and faint echoes of the previously established ideas, but the consistency in The Return of the King is executed though the use of the same instruments, vocals, and, as mentioned before, motifs and chord progressions. This could be disheartening for listeners who enjoyed the bold new themes in The Two Towers and concurrent, major statements of the original film's themes as well. Even more interesting is the lack of more than one engrossing, dominant new theme in The Return of the King. The Gondor theme heard in "Minas Tirith" and "The White Tree" (with a different version used in the main theatrical trailers for the film) is sparsely integrated into the rest of the cues. A lesser developed secondary theme for Grey Havens is heard in the Lennox song, "The Grey Havens," and at the end of "The Black Gate Opens" but likewise suffers from few performances. It is a score full of bombast, choral chants, and beautiful underscore for solo instruments, but aside from the ending of "The Black Gate Opens," the horns are never really unleashed on more than that one new thematic idea for Gondor. Perhaps the thematic table was best set by the end of the previous score, and that is understandable, but the lack of a natural conclusion for the previous themes is surprising, if not startling.
Keep in mind, though, that this analysis comes from the album releases for The Return of the King; Shore could very well have left some statements of previous themes off of these releases. Still, to not hear any substantial use of Gollum's chilling theme from The Two Towers is puzzling, especially with that character's integral role in the resolution of the tale. As it would unfold, the three songs heard over the end credits of the three films would not largely appear in the other chapters of the trilogy. To say that this lack of cross-over isn't disappointing would be a lie, for the songs, including the Annie Lennox entry in The Return of the King, would provide a distinct character to all three films. The primary, horn-driven "Lord of the Rings" theme, swinging in style and with noble intent, is only referenced two or three times in The Return of the King, with only one half-hearted full performance in the epilogue section of the score. The "Fellowship theme" is sparingly used, but is offered with more substantial development along with the "Shire theme" as the post-climax, fluffier character interaction takes place. The most disturbing absence of power in The Return of the King is the lack of strong use of the themes established for the humans in The Two Towers. The Rohan theme, spectacular in its performances during riding scenes and at the end of the credits, is hinted at in "The Ride of the Rohirrim," but yields to other, more nebulous ideas during the cue for the crowning later in the film. Shore's "danger theme" on deep bass strings (heard at the start of The Two Towers) is the most commonly reprised element in The Return of the King, marking the continuing peril for the Hobbits on their journey to Mount Doom. The more upbeat, faster theme for Gondor -one could dare say that it has the rhythm of a Western theme- is introduced in the latter half of "Minas Tirith," but while it may seem to be the introduction of this score's primary new theme, it only achieves similar attention in a few instances.
In The Return of the King, Shore has an interesting habit of taking pieces, measures, and bars of previous themes and combining or mutating theme into different themes. The "Shire theme" is the most adapted, with pieces of it heard at the start of a new Hobbit motif. Shore does this with the Isengard theme of evil in the series as well, starting with that quick three-note start to the theme, but outside of "Minas Morgul," not making use of its full form. In the process of this expansion of sound, Shore utilizes new instrumental and vocal techniques that does bring fantastic moments specifically to The Return of the King. The danger theme is provided in the opening cue by a squeaky, old violin, the woodwinds are featured more prominently in the place of soothing vocals, and an adult male vocal appears at the end of the score (differing from the boys and women's voices typically heard to date). The massive weight of the music for The Return of the King, with the absence of magnificent thematic placement, falls on the quality of the straight battle sequences and haunting moments of mystical underscore. Here, Shore continues to impress. The mainly harmonious action music, pulsating with full orchestra and chorus to the strong beating of drums, is not to be missed. The "Fields of the Pelennor" cue presents action material to rival the activity of the momentous cues in the latter half of The Two Towers. The "End of all Things" cue likewise alternates in the same shifts between choral majesty and unrelenting orchestral bombast (there are sudden shifts from orchestra to solo vocal in this and the "Minas Tirith" cue that are a tad abrupt, though). As with the previous scores, the harmony of these huge cues is occasionally lost, but never so much so as in the horrific "Ash and Smoke." The intimate parts of The Return of the King may not raise the hair on your arms like similar cues in The Two Towers, but the flute performances in "The Steward of Gondor" and "The Black Gate Opens" are nevertheless gorgeous (that latter cue has, by the way, a fantastic brass conclusion of the theme of the film's song). The final two score tracks (before the song) present the fullest, soft performances of themes from Fellowship of the Ring, with a slightly matured "Shire theme" leading the way. The sendoff after the song is contemplative rather than bold... another surprising move.
The Annie Lennox song is a well-written piece with decent lyrics. The songs have gone from a new-age affect (with Enya) to a dark-musical effect (Gollum) and to a very light pop effect set by faint guitars for Annie Lennox's "Into the West." The orchestral backing of the song isn't as impressive as hoped, with some brass counterpoint halfway through as the only substantial accompaniment. Lennox's voice works well in her lower ranges, but is perhaps too harsh and contemporary for the upper ranges. It would have been more effective had someone with a softer, fairy-tale whisper of tone, such as Natalie Merchant, performed this finale. Overall, the Lennox performance caps off an album with spectacular orchestral and vocal recordings, and yet that same Lennox tone of voice represents a larger feeling of displacement in the score. As a stand-alone score, The Return of the King would be a superb effort, but when you pull back and compare it to Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, you can't help but feel unsatisfied by the lack of a full circle of themes, or even a continuation of the development that was heard in the second score. Like the Star Wars trilogy, the second score of the series turns out to be the gem, and be sure to recognize that this opinion comes without the complete versions of any of these scores released for the public. That, of course, is an entirely different matter. Instead of ranting here again about Reprise Records and Warner's commercial butchering of these album releases, go back and read the rant about the Two Towers albums in that specific review. The same exact situation applies to The Return of the King, with Reprise and Warner continuing to suck hard-earned money right from the wallets of fools. Their routine with buddy icons, trading cards, different covers, leathery packaging, limited editions, and other nonsense is especially egregious in the case of The Return of the King because none of the 'limited albums' include the most important thing: extra music. Until these greedy corporate executives figure out that the music is the actual reason for these albums, there's no reason to purchase anything more than the base, regular old album in a standard jewel case. Someday, there will likely be expanded versions of all of these scores released to the public. Until then, if you were to choose between the existing commercial albums, The Two Towers would be the best score to buy, followed by Fellowship of the Ring and then The Return of the King. All of them, including The Return of the King, are excellent, diverse scores at a time when such monumental orchestral music is a rare find for even the grandest of Hollywood adventures.