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Thursday, April 30, 2015

Michael Giacchino -- Alias: Season Two [Original Television Soundtrack]

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My review for Michael Giacchino's soundtrack for the first season of Alias was as much about me as the music. I sacrificed certain details about the show's plot so you could instead discover how much I like to talk about myself. For this review of the second season soundtrack, the last soundtrack ever released for the five season series, I would like to shine the focus on the show itself. After all, Season Two is Alias' landmark season.
Alias is about double-agent, Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner), and her attempt to take down rogue intelligence agency, SD-6, through her work with the CIA. She is aided by her father (Victor Garber), a fellow double-agent, as well as her CIA handler, Michael Vaughn (Michael Vartan), and Vaughn's own partner, Eric Weiss (Greg Grunberg). Her SD-6 partner, Marcus Dixon (Carl Lumbly), has become suspicious of Sydney's activities, though he himself is unaware of SD-6's true nature. Dixon, along with the majority of SD-6's agents, have been led to believe they are working for the CIA. SD-6 is run by the slithery Arvin Sloane (Ron Rifkin), who manipulates his patriotic agents into fighting against the very country for which they believe they are fighting. Sydney is given spy gadgets by SD-6's innocent and goofy Marshall Flinkman (Kevin Weisman). To further complicate matters, Sydney must also face off against the suavely dastardly bastardly Brit, Julian Sark (David Anders), a wild-card villain who works for the highest bidder. To blow off steam, Sydney relaxes with her roommate, Francie (Merrin Dungey), and their friend, Will (Bradley Cooper). Francie is oblivious to Sydney's day job, but Will, through much personal harm, discovered the secret near the end of the first season. There, I think I've mentioned everyone.
Season Two sees Sydney continuing her original mission, after making the soul-crushing discovery that her mother, Irina (Lena Olin), who supposedly died in a car accident years ago, and who Sydney has held on a pedestal, is not only still alive, but doing some wicked, wicked things. Turns out Irina, whose actual last name is Derevko, was an undercover KGB agent, assigned to marry and manipulate Sydney's father. After her faked death, Irina went into hiding. Now Sydney must grapple with the fact that she is the progeny of a false union--however, now she also knows why her father, who has long known the truth, is such a distant, hard-edged sourpuss who would fight a great white shark, underwater, with his bare hands, to protect his daughter. Garber brings an incredible gravitas to this role. Check out a clip of Garber in real life, then check out a clip of him as Jack Bristow, torturing someone who is trying to hurt Sydney. That dude is an actor (he also made a swell Jesus in Godspell). Anyway, Sydney is forced to come to terms with her evil mother to an even closer degree, when Irina inexplicably shows up at CIA headquarters to turn herself in. As Irina, Olin does several miraculous things: she brings a fierce sensuality to the role, but also menace. It's strange to see Garner (in an award-winning performance), who is not only beautiful in this role, but equally vulnerable and dangerous, completely overshadowed in the scenes she shares with Olin, who is somehow more beautiful and more dangerous, despite the fact that Olin was pushing 50 when this season was filmed. She is such a formidable figure, looming high over Sydney's life.
The second season takes off from there, as Sydney fights to undermine SD-6, while fighting to keep her sanity in meetings with her locked up mother, and persuading the doubting Dixon that she means America no harm. Sydney's relationship with Vaughn deepens (Garner and Vaughn, dating in real life, had incredible chemistry during the show's first two seasons), she begins to understand her father more, and it looks like everything is going to be status quo, and then the Tampa Bay Buccaneers played the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII. I went to two Super Bowl parties, co-hosted my weekly radio show at KLSU, and figured out the bassline to Coldplay's "Clocks," but by far, the most thrilling moment of that night for me was watching my VHS recording of the Post-Super Bowl Alias episode, "Phase One." I got home close to midnight from the radio station, but didn't even think of going to bed without catching up on Alias. That Superbowl may have been forgettable (Tampa Bay crushed 'em), but I will never forget Alias' second season's insane thirteenth episode. Here's the best comparison I can make:
Imagine instead that this is E.R., Season Two, episode 13. Here's what happens: The hospital blows up, and everyone moves on to much bigger, more epic things, as a prophecy portends the end of the world. George Clooney and Julianna Margulies finally get together. Anthony Edwards is murdered and replaced by a doppelganger. Gloria Reuben finds that she didn't even have AIDS in the first place. Everything is thrown into complete chaos. That's Alias' "Phase One."
At this point, the show, which has functioned as a season-and-a-half non-stop episode concerning Sydney Bristow's batle against SD-6, completely changes course. Til this point, I've neglected to mention a major component of Alias: Milo Rimbaldi. Rimbaldi, in the show's mythology, was a renaissance figure, comparable to Leonardo Di Vinci, except he also made a bunch of prophecies about the end of the world, and also, possibly, found the secret to eternal life. Turns out Arvin Sloane's main goal is not so much destroying the CIA as it is collecting Milo Rimbaldi artifacts that lead to Rimbaldi's great secret--possibly the discovery of the aforementioned immortality. The rest of the Season Two is a race to figure out just what it is Sloane is doing and then to stop him. I make this Rimbaldi stuff sound more random than it should, but the show has been building a foundation for it throughout the first 1.5 seasons. Truth be told, Rimbaldi's mysteries dominate for much the rest of the show's five season run (sans the first half or so of Season Four), if you didn't want any sci-fi in your action-packed spy show, sorry, and go watch something else. Know, though, that Alias, particularly its first two seasons, received much critical acclaim. If life were fair, the public would recognize Alias' second season as one of the best television seasons of all time. Unfortunately, life's not fair, and Alias was a low-rated network program that arrived just before the age of online viewing. It just missed the window that would have granted it Rimbaldi-like immortality. I guess it's up to me.
Anyway, I guess I should start talking about the music.
Composer, Michael Giacchino, takes Alias' musical identity in a slightly different direction for Season Two, just as JJ Abrams did the actual program. While the first season was musically backed by a lot of techno-esque beats and soundscapes, augmented by orchestra, Season Two's soundtrack is mainly orchestra, augmented by some techno-esque beats and soundscapes. As the orchestra is more greatly utilized, Giacchino's orchestral compositions have grown far more complex and sophisticated.
The Giacchino produced Alias: Season Two [Original Television Soundtrack] starts off with the JJ Abrams penned electronic ditty, "Main Title," just as its predecessor did. Following that is Giacchino's first original piece, "On the Train." "On the Train" flows naturally from the first season's sound, starting with a techno beat, strings, and bawdy brass. I failed to mention it in my Season One soundtrack review, but there are times, much like in the James Bond films, where Alias' horns sound like they could be backing a burlesque show. Actually, there are plenty of Bond comparisons to make, which I failed to do in my first review, as well. With that said, John Barry's orchestral work on the 60's Bond pictures is influential here, as well as David Arnold's attempt to infuse those classic sounds with the modern electronic music of the 90's for Pierce Brosnan's Bond (good Bond, bad movies, with the exception of Goldeneye). With that said, I feel like Giacchino has more success with this idiosyncratic melding than Arnold did. And now, let's get back to "On the Train."
Halfway through the track, the beat and brass fall out, leaving nothing but contemplative strings and subtle horns. This is a sign of things to come, as is the way the beat comes back slowed down and more sophisticated, to end the track. This leads directly into "Mother of a Mother," introducing Irina's theme, a motif played by seductive, yet plaintive cellos, backed by mysterious Middle-Eastern-style singing. Speaking of Middle-Eastern, "Rabat" comes next, kicking of with Middle-Eastern instrumentation, before climbing up to a stylish beat and violins that sound about as dancey as violins can sound. The song then enters an ambient midsection before the beat comes back, and the violin-theme returns. It's quite an atmospheric piece, yet also a bit of a counter to Season One's track four, "Spanish Heist." Both are album standouts, but where "Spanish Heist" was fast-paced, light-hearted fun, "Rabat" is more slowed-down, mysterious, and hypnotic, yet equally evocative. Like "Spanish Heist," it's also fitfully representative of a globetrotting show.

Track five, "Over the Edge," is most representative of Season One's techno side, but it leads directly to track six, "Emily's Eulogy," a slow, emotional orchestral piece. Season Two's emotional stakes are far more vast than Season One's, and Giacchino's moodier, more orchestral approach, along with his further mastery of classical composition, are necessary. They translate as well to the show as to disc. Some have criticized this soundtrack for not being as fun as Season One's, lacking its faster pace, and that may be true, but Alias: Season Two [Original Television Soundtrack] certainly makes up for those things with its beauty, sophistication, and emotional depth. I think "sophistication" is my soundtrack review go-to word.
Giacchino continues in this vein, not completely discarding the techno elements, but rarely letting them dominate ("Going Down" and "I'm So Screwed" are notable exceptions).
Track twelve, "Aftermath Class," which soundtracks the closing moments of "Phase One," features a beautiful, definitive rendition of Sydney's "emotion theme" on strings, but also segues to a dark, final passage, representative of the show's shift into a much darker organism in the season's second half. These tones are quite reminiscent of John Williams' work during the Sith meeting at the end of Star Wars: Episode Two, a film which was released a year before this season of Alias aired. Later Williams' is actually a good reference for some of the things Giacchino does here, as well, and if you reference anyone in your soundtracking career, you're best off with him.
"Sarkavator" continues the strains of darkness with stabbing violin reminiscent of Bernard Herrman, as do the techno and orchestro trilogy of tracks that follow, "I'm So Promoted," "I'm So Screwed," and "I'm So Demoted." The next track, "Inferno," is an absolutely gorgeous piece for strings, further showcasing Giacchino's increased composing skills. A couple tracks later, on "Something Fishy," Giachino references Williams again, this time with opening strings that remind of Williams' work on Jaws...not the main two-note theme, but the frightening strings found in the film's more suspenseful scenes...think Brody's and Hooper's investigation of Ben Gardner's boat.
Even as the darkness mounts, the latter part of Alias Season Two takes on a dreamlike feeling. As such, Giacchino's score becomes a bit more impressionistic. Check out "Sloane's Revelation"'s blurry reverie of strings, suddenly giving way to a terrifying chorus of rising voices.

The quality of this music is far higher than what one would usually expect to hear on television. Honestly, this music is better than a lot of what one hears in a cineplex. Yeah, "cineplex" is a word. I remember early into the first season, coming to the conclusion that I had never heard anything like this on TV, just as I had never seen anything quite like the show itself. I hoped for a soundtrack, but as that was rare for a television show, I wasn't optimistic about the chances. As much as I'd now like soundtracks for Alias' final three seasons, I'm thankful for these two. Perhaps the producers knew they were never going to top Season Two's finale, "The Telling." JJ Abrams-created television programs can claim two of the greatest season finales of all time (along with many other season finales that are just plain old ordinary "great")--"The Telling" is the first of those two...the other I'll get to later. "The Telling" (along with Season Two's latter episodes) swells tension and expectation until the viewer is standing on a skyscraper of it...then Abrams and company spend the episode's final ten minutes pushing the viewer off.
This nightmarish turn of events begins with the major villains escaping, then moves to the best fight sequence ever filmed for television. I know some people will say that Buffy the Vampire Slayer featured a couple fights that were better, but the fact of the matter is, Buffy relied heavily on stunt doubles, and was never too great at disguising them. "The Telling"'s climactic fight pits Garner's Sydney against an actress one would never suspect could throw a punch. However, the actress (SPOILER: IT'S DUNGEY) found out about the season-ending events well before filming, and spent the entire season leading up to them training with a fight coordinator (youtube is full of behind-the-scenes footage of this), so stunt-double use would be minimal. That last sentence was ironic considering the scene I'm describing.
I've heard that fights in American cinema differ from those in Asian cinema for one major reason: in American cinema, the two enemies fight because they hate each other; in Asian cinema, they fight because they respect one another. "The Telling"'s climactic fight posits another scenario. Two people look at each other and come to the same conclusion at the exact same time: If I do not kill this person, this person will kill me. And yet, simultaneously, there is so much more to it, and yet nothing more to it than that...check Garner's expression when she sees what's in the bathtub :59 in on the clip below. She feels an entire world's emotions in a millisecond, compartmentalizes, and returns to the fray-an excellent bit of acting on Garner's part.
For three minutes, Garner and Dungey go at it with such an intensity, it's a wonder someone didn't kick in the camera lens. Sydney's and Francie's house turns into one giant weapon, as Garner and Dungey rip anything off the walls that won't stick. By the end of the fight, they are shredded to bits--there used to be a rule on television stating that blood could only appear on an actor's face if it was dried--it's pouring off of Garner's and Dungey's in torrents.
Alias spent a year-and-a-half convincing the viewer that a 120-pound woman could stomp the shit out of anyone who dared point a fist at her. It only takes three minutes to make believable that she could be completely dominated by her roommate. Enough of me yakking about it, though. Just watch the fight:

Check Giacchino's massive cue at the end of the clobbering, "Balboa and Clubber." Beside being titled with an awesome Rocky III reference, "Balboa and Clubber" puts a huge exclamation on this otherwise music-less battle royale.
The episode doesn't end when the fight does, though. Sydney wakes up to find herself in something worse than a nightmare. All of the impressionistic tones click into place. Giacchino's "Almost Two Years" feigns comfort before pulling the rug out. Garner's horrified expression. Season Two ends. The show does not, though.
While Alias went on for another three seasons, it could never get out of the massive shadow of Season Two's creative success. While Season Three is quite thrilling in its attempts to reconcile the events of "The Telling," it buckles during its finale, having a character who is so minor betray Sydney, the betrayal does not emotionally register, and gives sense that the show is grasping at straws. Season Four is an attempt to simplify Alias' chaos, and it used a self-contained episode formula, along with a sexy new timeslot after ABC's new hit, Lost, to achieve the best ratings of Alias' run. Unfortunately, for those who fell in love with Alias' breakneck pace, this viewer included, the more procedural episodes of Season Four felt like a bit of a drag. Season Five is a shot in the arm, a return to the crazier pace of earlier seasons, and plot twists that actually land, It also features a pregnant Garner, and a fun side-story about a wet-behind the ear's agent who tries to step into her shoes. While Season Five's final episodes take the Rimbaldi thread to soap operatic proportions, the overall season is a fun ride. Then, the show is over. Season Five received dismal ratings, just as much of the rest of Alias did (for example, "Phase One" received the lowest viewer-percentage of any show to air after a Super Bowl in nearly two decades).
Alias has been forgotten by the public. Life isn't fair. But I will not let this stand! Myself and others like me will keep its memory alive. Most of the major publications who gave Alias stellar reviews when it aired still have the articles posted to their websites. All of the awards and award nominations are recorded. Alias may never get the recognition it deserves, but as long as Google exists, and this blog's URL is not destroyed, it will be recognized here!
Oh, yeah, and this is a very good soundtrack.

2004 Varèse Sarabande
1. Main Title (Written by JJ Abrahms) 0:28
2. On the Train 3:01
3. Mother of a Mother 1:40
4. Rabat 2:22
5. Over the Edge 3:03
6. Emily's Eulogy 3:06
7. Fond Memories 2:16
8. Post A-Mortem 1:32
9. Syd's Best Alias Yet 3:44
10. Going Down? 0:53
11. Sydney Implores Dixon 2:42
12. Aftermath Class 4:16
13. Sarkavator 0:33
14. I'm So Promoted 2:28
15. I'm So Screwed 2:47
16. I'm So Demoted 1:41
17. Inferno 2:35
18. Do I Have to Do Another Eulogy? 6:16
19. Something Fishy 2:37
20. Sloane's Revelation 2:50
21. Hitting the Fan 4:22
22. Balboa and Clubber 1:12
23. Almost Two Years 4:58

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