Label: Varese Sarabande
Released: July 29, 2016
Tracks / Album Length: 19 tracks / (54:26)
Composer: John Powell
Special Notes: Limited Military Green 180 gram vinyl limited.
The first film in the enduring franchise gave John Powell the perfect opportunity to write what remains both his definitive action sound, and the definitive action score of that decade, blending large orchestral sounds with layers upon layers of electronics. Sometimes the digital contents enhance, as in the short cut “Bourne on Land,” whereas other times they’re the dominant sound, drenching the soundscape with high distortion (“Treadstone Assassins”) or fighting like the film’s hero among huge sweeping strings and a crazy array of backbeats, techno clusters, and a sometimes sledgehammer assault of ethnic percussion.
Powell’s scores are rooted in patterns or whole themes, and he’s a master at variation, stripping down a theme to its underpinnings, and reconfiguring elements to gentle tones (the eerie vocals in “The Drive to Paris” with Asian chimes and slightly unsteady strings); or pure percussion and bass, as in “The Apartment” with one of the score’s signature motifs – rhythms emerging backwards and triggering a rush of pounding drums or drippy-wet bass lines.
Powell’s fixation on ethnic percussion seems to draw from Asian, South Asian, African, and Arabic origins, and the harmonics in themes and their desperate incarnations have an overtly middle eastern feel, making Bourne in particular exotic and mournful – appropriate for a story in which an outsider is dumped by the only family’s he’s known, and becomes fueled by a hunger for answers and eventually revenge.
Powell’s breakdown of Jason Bourne into almost mechanical sounds is wholly logical: just as the rhythms seem to erupt and recur with precision, so do Bourne’s deadly skills set, thrashing, breaking, and pulsing with cold delivery. With the exception of the mournful theme, this is a score about being constantly on the defensive and reactive at any moment. Powell’s design of layered percussion and an insane variety of organic and synthetic textures reflect a character on edge, and senses constantly scanning for details that might be suspicious – hence snippets of percussion trailing off, or rhythms transferred to other percussion instruments, like an assassin handing off plans or deadly implements for a final attack.
A few cues are worth noting for their unconventional scoring approach. The car chase “On Bridge Number 9” is also one of the score’s most melodic, boasting synth tones which chime, and whose harmonics are among its most upbeat, signaling to audiences a key moment when Bourne has the upper hand, and the trust of his former hostage / new love.
“Jason’s Theme” is all bass, backbeats, and flanging effects, and Powell’s digital processing seems to treat a variety of spiraling hits with different levels of ascending and descending tones, making the percussion hits almost rain down on the film’s characters. The suite of edited cues within “The Bourne Theme” reassembles all the percussion motifs – clacking, banks of middle eastern percussion – and Powell’s small details in the cue’s second half can also be described as a little cheeky: as backbeats slam hard, there’s a treated whistle that seems to taunt both Bourne and the man he’s tracking down for a terminal strike.
“Drum and Bass Remix” (credited to Moby) builds on Powell’s use of spinning, unwinding, and recycling rhythms, and much of the cue has chunks which have been snipped out and processed, and sliced back into the mix for a marvelous disjointed track that’s faithful to the various dynamics of Bourne’s combative engagements as Treadstone keeps sending killers to complete an unfinished job.
Powell would revisit his themes in the Matt Damon films – Identity, Supremacy, Ultimatum (with its incredible percussion tracks), and Jason Bourne (co-composed with David Buckley) – but perhaps a close stylistic cousin to Identity is the far more upbeat The Italian Job (2003), which is similarly packed with massive ethnic rhythms.
Varese Sarabande’s decision to reissue soundtracks from their back catalogue in 2016 yielded a trio of titles: Don Davis’ The Matrix, the pairing of selected cues from Marco Beltrami’s Scream and Scream 2, and The Bourne Identity, and while the first two recapitulate the shorter CD versions, nothing’s been trimmed from the original Bourne CD, hence a running time of roughly 55 minutes.
Audiophiles might frown on the score not being split over two platters, if not mastered at 45 rpm, but the sonics on the 180 gram custom stock (with ‘military green’ cloud matter) sounds quite good. Both bass and highs seem to dominate (I might be wrong, but I swear I never noticed on CD the subtle electrostatic distortion in the early pulses in “Hotel Regina,” nor the jazzy vibes in the first section of “On Bridge Number 9”), but the details from the CD seem fully present, especially the digital nuances in Powell’ sublime sonic design.
The LP art ports over key art from the CD, but perhaps what’s missing is the old Varese logo, which was a mainstay in the upper left corner of covers. It’s a small detail, but I always liked the label’s peculiar abstract design.
Hopefully the success of the Bourne LP will yield vinyl editions of Powell’s first two sequels, and The Italian Job, where bass and the fat tones of the electronics would sound very lovely buried in virgin vinyl.
Also available is a podcast interview with Varese Sarabande’s V.P. pf A&R. Cary E. Mansfield.
© 2016 Mark R. Hasan