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Soundtrack review: Gunpowder (Volker Bertelmann – 2017)

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Soundtrack review: Gunpowder (Volker Bertelmann – 2017)

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“Gunpowder”, a three-part thriller based on the 17th century events that led to Guy Fawkes Day, is coming to HBO. The miniseries, written by Ronan Bennet (Top Boy) and directed by J Blakeson (The Disappearance of Alice Creed) stars Kit Harington (Game of Thrones) as Robert Catesby, who was the driving force behind the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 London. The story focuses on Catesby, a committed Catholic at a time when Protestant England persecuted Catholics relentlessly, as his refusal to abandon his religion brings him to the edge of financial, social and psychological ruin. Mark Gatiss (Game of Thrones, Sherlock) plays Robert Cecil, King James’ spymaster, who directs efforts to hunt down, torture and kill priests, while rank-and-file Catholics are subject to oppression and the loss of their property. The music was written by Volker Bertelmann, better known as Hauschka.

I am always up for a score by him since he usually writes enjoyable electronic music; seems that just like Tom Holkenborg / Junkie XL, Volker is trying to break away from his musical alter ego and sign with his own name. The opening theme keeps the electronic pulses to a minimum and is a dramatic melodic piece that ushers me into a dark atmosphere. I like that constant pulse in the background as it gives me the feeling of something frantic and alive.

I recognise Hauschka’s trademark electronic sharpness and combination of warm motifs with motifs that feel like barbed wire in the second cue “Execution – Torture – Hanging”; you only need one of these words to get what this cue is about and the music makes it as uncomfortable as possible also with the use of some tortured cello playing. This is the kind of music that is not pleasant to hear but helps bring the atmosphere of the TV show to the listener. It’s always nicer to hear the melodic vibes of “Retrieving corpses” out of context. This is the kind of musical darkness that’s comfortable and familiar to e, a combination of electronic and orchestral.

I am affected by the darkness and pain in the music and this means that Volker Bertelmann is doing a good job because for me this is what film music is all about: making me feel. The tension in “Back alley – Fawkes” is palpable with the tortured strings and electric sounding motifs. I like how the composer manages to create this dense and heavy atmosphere by using very little instruments and sounds and the way the sound develops is like solving a puzzle: the more cues I hear the more the music makes sense to me and the more I am enjoying it. “Why have you brought us here” is a revelatory cue with a maddening string section and a bit of organ; it makes me think of the sound of “Saw”.

Whatever Volker Bertelmann wanted to to here, it worked; the score evokes some dark and cruel times where warm emotions rarely break through the barrage of darkness. When it does though it brings my favourite moments from this score, such as “Epilogue”. All of the music is affecting and captivating and it makes me want to see the show.

Cue rating: 87 / 100

Total minutes of excellence: 14/44

Album excellence: 32%

Highlights:
Retrieving Corpses
Back Alley – Fawkes
Why Have You Brought Us Here
A Steadfast Heart
Execution
Epilogue
Closing Theme

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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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