Film scores

Soundtrack review: Before the flood (Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, Gustavo Santaolalla, Mogwai)


“Before the Flood” is a 2016 documentary film about climate change directed by Fisher Stevens. The film was produced by a collaboration between Stevens, Leonardo DiCaprio, James Packer, Brett Ratner, Trevor Davidoski, and Jennifer Davisson Killoran. Martin Scorsese is an executive producer. Along with Leonardo DiCaprio, the documentary’s subjects include Barack Obama, Pope Francis, and John Kerry, among others. The score was written by a mouthwatering list of musicians: Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, Gustavo Santaolalla and Mogwai. I am expecting ambient heaven and this was one of my most anticipated scores of the last few months of 2016. As I look on the track list and see 18 cues worth 90 minutes I get even happier.

Trent and Atticus push down my nostalgia buttons in a way I didn’t expect with the first track “Before the flood”; I have to check again to make sure I’m not listening to a Radiohead tune. The bass and keyboard combination with a very slight percussion is reminiscent of many tunes from Thom Yorke, Johnny Greenwood and their friends. Trent’s wind like sound effects add another layer and I feel as if I’m watching an invisible hand use a pencil to start from a blank canvas and draw each line and point until a beautiful and colorful image appears. The process itself is as rewarding as the end result. Gustavo Santaolalla is also credited on this track but it’s such a classic and familiar Reznor & Ross atmospheric piece that it echoes very deeply inside me.

But nothing compares to hearing Trent’s voice again in “A minute to breathe”. He’s been great at writing just instrumental music but I grew up listening to his tortured yet calming voice which always helped me go through a lot of stuff and hearing him sing something new was one of the nicest surprises of the year. I can’t get enough of his voice. This voice and the quiet supporting piano is one of my oldest and closest friends.

As I listen more carefully to the next cue composed by the trio, “Between two poles” I hear Gustavo’s acoustic guitar breathing warmth between the cold musings of Trent and Atticus. The cue is 8 minutes long but for a fan of ambient music like me it could go on for 20 more and I would enjoy it just as much. I love this silent flow of the cue until it basically dissolves naturally having served its purpose.

Mogwai make their pulsating entrance in “Dust bowl”. I recognize their more abrasive brand of electronic, ambient music with a heart beating constantly surrounded by some pieces of shattered glass. Gustavo Santaolalla goes solo on “Thin ice” and the haze of nostalgia covers me again. Everywhere I touch this score I find the comfortable padding of familiar places.

Setting aside my personal feelings and emotions for a second, the score works marvelously for the documentary it was written for; the music is quiet and spacious and lets the images unfold with their necessary weight and impact. One of the cues is called “Ghost nets” and for me this describes the score best: a ghost net that supports the on screen images. The music flows and gives the impression of a very slow but unstoppable deterioration. I get a feeling of eternal winter from this composition and I just sit and watch it go by at that slow pace; it relaxes me.

The styles of the four composers complement each other and blend together very well. In
Trembling” Santaolalla’s strings get a bit tortured as Trent and Atticus create the surrounding soundscape. Everything fits, everything falls in its right place and everything is silky and comfortable to hear. For me Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross provide the balance of the music while Mogwai smooth down the edges of their compositions and Santaolalla roughens his to reach the same level.

I like little composing games like having a cue called “Thin ice reimagined” where Reznor and Ross extend Santaolalla’s original piece. It reminds me of Nine Inch Nails albums when Trent would have different versions of songs…reimagined. My favorite cues are “8 billion” and “One perfect moment” because they are the most reflective and peaceful from the entire album. “One perfect moment” feels even longer than the 10 minutes it has and feels just like an endless moment in the arms of your one true love, your home…

I think this one will even please the most aggressive critics of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. This score is simply beautiful and I am very happy that it’s almost 100 minutes long. Ambient music should have no limits and no end.

Cue rating: 93 / 100

Total minutes of excellence: 69 / 90

Album excellence: 76%


A Minute to Breathe

Between Two Poles

And When the Sky Was Opened

Ghost Nets



At Dusk

Thin Ice Reimagined

8 Billion

One Perfect Moment

A Minute Later

After the Flood



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).


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