Film scores

Soundtrack review – Unnatural (Edwin Wendler – 2015)

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“Unnatural” tells the story of a photographer and his friends who set out in the dead of winter for the Alaskan wilderness to take advantage of the limited, but beautiful daylight. They are met by an experienced hunter and local lodge owner who instills fear within the group by telling them the legend of Maneater, a bear that has fangs and claws sharper than man-made metal. This epic tall tale quickly becomes our group’s real, living nightmare. I love disaster and monster movies so I will definitely watch this one. This is my first contact with Edwin Wendler as a composer.

The main title is cold and screechy. The sound is also metallic and feels like a shovel repeatedly hitting the snow. The music tiptoes and I get an ominous feeling from this opening. The composer doesn’t impose something heavy on us; instead he prefers to create a misty atmosphere that says “beware”. There’s a sprout of a piano theme in there and its echoes come back in “Mementos”. I can’t help but associate the story with the music though and I am looking for something heavier. The villain in this movie is a genetically altered polar bear and so far the musical threat seems less corporeal than that.

It’s clear to me that Edwin Wendler chooses to focus on the threat more than the actual action and drama. The music is suspenseful and thin and sounds very much like the base layer of a horror score. The problem with this kind of music is that it needs my full attention and an high volume. This is the kind of sound that works much better in context with the support of the images, or rather to support the on screen images. It doesn’t have that something to grab me and make me feel threatened and excited in the same time.

The music gets livelier when the attacks start but I was still expecting something a little darker. There are echoes, yes, and they are intriguing but they very often stop at that. The noise that’s causing the echo stays far away. What “Unnatural” does get right is the cold and unforgiving atmosphere of the Alaskan wilderness. The music makes me feel frozen, alone, almost hopeless. I am missing the beauty of the scenery from this equation. This well established scenery though needs characters and more emotions to make for a compelling score. I couldn’t connect with this one very well… I will be left with the chill and with interesting cues like “Martin’s expedition”.

Cue rating: 76 / 100

Total minutes of excellence: 10 / 70

Album excellence: 14%

Bad News For Buff

Martin’s Expedition

About the author

Mihnea Manduteanu

I have been listening to film music for 25 years and writing about it since 2014. I've written over 1000 reviews and I can't imagine myself doing anything else. I am also a member of IFMCA (International Film Music Critics Association).

5 Comments

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  • Dear Mihnea,

    Thank you for your review of my music for UNNATURAL. If I may, could I point out some things you may have missed?

    You write, “There’s a sprout of a piano theme in there and its echoes come back in ‘Mementos’. I can’t help but associate the story with the music though and I am looking for something heavier. The villain in this movie is a genetically altered polar bear and so far the musical threat seems less corporeal than that.” – That piano theme you mention returns throughout, not only in “Mementos.” It sometimes even becomes the bass notes or the riff in some of the action music, later on. I am sorry you missed all those later occurrences of the theme. Did you listen to them? I am sorry you couldn’t find anything heavier (as in, something that points to the villainous polar bear) in tracks 1-3. I thought it would make sense to present the music in chronological order. At that point in the story, the polar bear hasn’t made an appearance yet, and nothing poses a direct threat. The story is introducing characters at that point. Maybe changing the movie order and putting one of the heavy action tracks at the beginning would have given you what you were looking for?

    You continue to write, “It’s clear to me that Edwin Wendler chooses to focus on the threat more than the actual action and drama. The music is suspenseful and thin and sounds very much like the base layer of a horror score. The problem with this kind of music is that it needs my full attention and an high volume. This is the kind of sound that works much better in context with the support of the images, or rather to support the on screen images. It doesn’t have that something to grab me and make me feel threatened and excited in the same time.” – I made no such choice. Again: We are only 3 tracks into the movie. The threatening bear still hasn’t made an appearance yet. It’s not that I intentionally ignored the bear in my scoring. I did not choose to focus less on the action; at that point in the story, there is no action yet; there is no bear yet.

    I am not sure what you mean by “I was still expecting something a little darker.” Once the action hits, things get very active and quite dark. I am sorry that the music wasn’t dark enough for you. Have you seen the movie? We felt that the music was dark enough for the movie at that point.

    You also write, “There are echoes, yes, and they are intriguing but they very often stop at that. The noise that’s causing the echo stays far away.” I guess you mean that the action music sounds like an echo of something, and not like full-blown action music? I am not sure if you are talking about a specific cue, or the action music throughout the score. The big action set-pieces occur during the later part of the movie and album. Have you listened to the tracks, “Lodge Attack” and “Bear Traps”? If those tracks don’t satisfy your desire for “the noise that’s causing the echo,” then I don’t know what kind of music would have done the job.

    You write, “I am missing the beauty of the scenery from this equation.” I don’t know if you got a chance to read the liner notes, but the mission was to make the music sound cold and unforgiving. Did you get a chance to listen to “Unnatural Main Title (Alternate)”? That was my first version of a main title, and it addresses the beauty of the scenery with some rich string textures and a somewhat “soaring” quality, while still keeping things mysterious. That first approach was deemed too melodic and warm, so the version that ended up in the final movie was appropriately cold, even though the scenery on screen is beautiful. This was a creative decision, and not my “failure” to address the beauty of the landscape.

    You mention the track, “Martin’s Expedition” but don’t mention any of the tracks that follow. I wonder if you listened to any of them. Maybe it was my mistake to not put one of the action cues at the very beginning, in order to grab your attention and not have you stop listening halfway through. It was a creative choice to present the tracks in film order so that people, who have seen the film, can re-experience the events as they chronologically occur.

    I am so sorry to have disappointed you.

    Edwin

    • Dear Edwin

      Thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts and also for taking the time to carefully comment on them. For me reading something like this is very precious because it feels as if I had taken an interview with you about this score. I got to read much more than liner notes, your actual words about your writing process for this score and what you intended to do with it and where you went with the sound. Thank you for that. Wish I could have this kind of insight from every composer I listen to.
      As for my words about the music… the process is always the same: I am human, subjective, and I go into a score with certain expectations (very high here) and in a certain mood which sometimes might not fit the music at hand. I sometimes even mention that in my review. I haven’t seen “Unnatural” yet but I can’t wait to. It is quite possible that I just went into listening to this one expecting shock and action and threats and I missed the more subtle nuances and also, without having seen the movie, i didn’t take the chronology into consideration. This though is one of the scores I wanted to come back to after a few days with a fresh pair or ears, because I had high expectations and I am sure I could have missed something. I will pay attention to it in context.
      For sure I promise you that I will listen to the score once again with your considerations and insights in mind. Still, please keep in mind that I respect your work, I respect your music as do that of every composer and I am never superficial in listening to a score. I didn’t stop halfway through the score, I never do.

      Once again, thank you for taking the time to provide me these insights and for helping me better understand your music!

      • Thank you, Mihnea, for your added notes and perspective. I am glad you listened to the entire album. I just found it interesting that you chose to not address any of the tracks after track 3. You acknowledge track 13, calling it “interesting.” I guess the rest left no or very little impression. I am now thinking: Maybe giving you an album sequence in reverse order might have helped, starting with the end credits cue (#18), then having action cues from the movie’s finale, and everything else just in reverse. That may have made it more interesting for you. Also, I do understand that a review is based on emotional reactions. I just didn’t understand how you came to the conclusion that I chose to not focus on action in the first 3 cues. There simply were no action scenes during the opening. I guess I failed you on the album sequence. I apologize.

  • I’ve seen the film and I know Edwin quite well. It’s tricky now a days to really critique the composer as most of these guys WANT to write different music that is what we all grew up on, Elmer, Jerry, James, Basil etc. These composers would love to write the music we all like, but they are told time and time again, GET rid of that melody or anything at all that makes us die hard film score fans LOVE the score. Instead of saying it’s the composers fault, sadly you need to address the producers, usually MANY of them, investors, directors etc. as they are the ones who tell Edwin what to do and at the end of the day, the composer may not like the final result in his music, but he has to do what they say as they are his employer. It sucks as at the end of the day the composer is the one blamed for the music that someone may not like as much, considering that composer probably created on his first jab at the score much better music that is more like the stuff we all love. Favorite cue is Main Title Alternate!