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Soundtrack review: Buffy the Vampire slayer collection (Christophe Beck, Thomas Wander, Robert Duncan – 1997, 2018)

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Soundtrack review: Buffy the Vampire slayer collection (Christophe Beck, Thomas Wander, Robert Duncan – 1997, 2018)

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“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is an American supernatural drama television series created by Joss Whedon under his production tag, Mutant Enemy Productions, with later co-executive producers being Jane Espenson, David Fury, David Greenwalt, Doug Petrie, Marti Noxon, and David Solomon. The series narrative follows Buffy Summers (played by Sarah Michelle Gellar), the latest in a line of young women known as “Vampire Slayers”, or simply “Slayers”. In the story, Slayers are “called” (chosen by fate) to battle against vampires, demons, and other forces of darkness. Being a young woman, Buffy wants to live a normal life, but as the series progresses, she learns to embrace her destiny. Like previous Slayers, Buffy is aided by a Watcher, who guides, teaches, and trains her. Unlike her predecessors, Buffy surrounds herself with a circle of loyal friends who become known as the “Scooby Gang”.

As it does most of the people who read it, this dry description of what is for me arguably, together with it’s spinoff series “Angel”, part of the greatest universe TV world has seen (sorry, “Star Trek” fans, to each his own) makes me chuckle, but for entirely different reasons. I smile because of how ridiculously huge the difference between premise and realization is, between an apparently simple idea and an incredibly complex realization, between the quick dismissal of this show by those who haven’t seen a minute of it and the amazing wealth of emotions and issues this wonderful imaginary world was hiding inside. Joss Whedon became a God among geeks and I am forever grateful to him for creating this universe, these characters and making their lives and mine richer.

For me no other show had a greater personal influence or made more sense (yes, I am talking about a show with monsters and vampires). It helped me navigate a troubled period in my life and it came at the perfect time considering the differences in culture and development between my country and Sunnydale: the show started by dealing with high school life in the same time as I was starting my college life. Their problems made sense to me, I could relate to what they were going through and I wish I had bonds in my life as strong as Buffy, Willow and Xander had. The variety and honesty of the non supernatural issues coupled with the wonderful and poignant metaphors the supernatural elements brought made “Buffy the Vampire slayer” something unique and my closest friend in times of need. Objectively, the emotional depth this show reached, the unprecedented boldness of some of Joss’ creative decisions and the way the writers dealt with the consequences of those decisions paved the way from a lot of what today is perceived as fantastic TV, “Game of thrones” included.

Then there was the banter, the witty dialogue…I think that was what got to me first as I started to watch the show. Never before had I heard such clever and snappy conversations, such funny and then serious back and forths and such a care from the writers for what their characters actually said. If some of you watched “Gilmore girls” you know what I mean because that was the other show that relied on similarly prickly, biting and smart lines. I guess my point is that “Buffy” was life itself with this unique mix of tears, both or laughter and of sadness and with the way it encompassed all the emotional elements of ones life, from love to joy to sadness to sorrow to longing to motivation.

As with any TV show, music was a big part of it; sound wise Buffy was the second show after “Miami Vice” to perfectly blend score and songs, to create its unique musical universe and the bands that played night in and night out at “The bronze” put into notes and lyrics the angst of those times and of that world. Setting aside the vocal songs that were such an integral part of the show, the score was also as piercing emotionally, as warm sometimes and unforgiving at others as the scripts themselves. Christophe Beck who is now enjoying a fruitful career as a film music composer was, for me, just like Michael Giacchino for “Lost”, a favorite composer long before his exposure grew because of the hours of sanctuary his music provided for me while watching the show. Cues like “Close your eyes”, the famous and heartbreaking love theme of Buffy and Angel have been stuck in my head for almost 20 years as did, to be fair, Robert Duncan’s brilliant score for the final season and especially the final battle of the show.

As with other favorite shows of mine like “Miami Vice”, “The X-Files” or “Beverly Hills 90210” there was never enough music released…one CD here, a couple of cues there but nothing to capture the entire musical canvas those worlds had. I kept wishing for a box set, or more box sets with music from each episode, I kept collecting bootlegs (there were some fans that literally made a compilation of hundreds of songs and cues ripped from every single episode of both “Buffy” and “Angel”) and finally 5 years after the show ended one CD of music was released. It wasn’t enough and luckily the folks at La La Land who are already legends because of how much freaking music they released from “The X-Files”) announced a (first?) Buffy box set, four CDs of music, strangely, from season 2 onward only. Where is the music of season 1? The previous compilation didn’t have it either. As I am writing these words it’s 21 years to the day since “Welcome to Hellmouth”, the first episode of “Buffy”, premiered and it’s finally time to explore something like 4 hours of music, freshly remastered and carefully organised by episodes. This is a review of this particular box set with the hope that it won’t be the only one.

Season 2

I have to warn you that there will be spoilers in this review because I am too close to the show and I can’t help associating the music with the scenes, so proceede at your own risk if you haven’t seen the show. As the box set is neatly divided by episodes, listening to this score will also be a trip down memory lain through the narrative thread of this story, a story that started, each week, of course, with the cracking main theme which still is one of my favorite opening credits theme with the awesome rock jam sound and that iconic end frame of Buffy with the stake in her hand. Like I said, the collection starts abruptly with music from the second season and that first episode where, after, well, dying for a bit in the season 1 finale Buffy rebels a bit. The first few episodes of season 2 were more serious (with the exception of “The dark age” maybe” and the music reflects that with a more action oriented vibe. It’s funny how I don’t have nostalgia for this particular sound since for me the show as mostly about characters and emotion; even if it’s only the third cue out of over 100, “Buffy saves friends” is representative for how the action pieces sounded on this show: relentless, sharp and pounding. For most of the 15 years which have passed since Buffy ended I’ve focused my memories on the countless and harrowing emotional moments but listening to this extended score reminds me of the maybe forgotten sound of the fight scenes, of the action that was often the background of the emotional content, the almost horror sound of the Buffy nights. Christophe Beck built his own world of Buffy and played with a variety of sounds, like the almost mystical “Ampata’s kiss”.

The first half of the second season slowly builds up towards the game changing series of episodes which started with the “Surprise / Innocence” double, the first time we got to see Angel’s dark half, Angelus, after achieving that one pure moment of happiness. And this is the first pure moment of happiness from the score…”This is nice”, from “Surprise” brings for the first time a version of the “Buffy / Angel love theme” which has haunted me for 20 years; that gorgeous heartbreaking piano, the pure innocence and tenderness in the music, the combination of love and sadness so subtly written by this brilliant composer, it is truly a theme that’s genius through it’s simplicity and impact. This particular version is raw, almost incipient and yet gets me misty eyed. It’s as if I’m looking at my own past from where I am now, seeing a far away,early moment 20 years ago when something started, before all the weight, before a huge lot of baggage got added. “This is nice” is the before version of that theme. “Spike my boy” brings the second variation, almost a solo piano, and the backbone of the majestic and doomed love story on this show is created. “Spike my boy” is actually constructed just as that love story, with the tender, sublime start followed by a loud explosion.

Listening to the music of “Buffy” and writing about it is a strange experience for me since I am so emotionally connected with the show; on one hand I am anticipating my favorite moments from the show and their music, on the other had I get brilliant musical pieces from Christophe Beck that I don’t remember from the series, like “Buffy meets judge” but which are equally brilliant, the counter balance of the romantic moments.

I remember I was still affected by Angel’s transformation, still recovering, thinking that that was it, it couldn’t get any worse, when “Passion” came. The unforgettable episode 2×17, the hour when Joss Whedon changed TV forever and turn my beliefs as a TV viewer upside down. Few hours on TV shocked me and affected me as much as that one because for the first time I knew that even in TV land my heroes weren’t safe; nobody was. Sure, now people are shocked and raving over what happens on “Game of thrones” and how the main characters, especially good ones, get mercilessly killed but 20 years ago this was unheard of. But Joss Whedon is an artist and he wanted to make us believe in the transformation of Angelus and experience his evil first hand; this wasn’t just cardboard, superficial villainy. Angel was pure evil, and in “Passion” (that voiceover…that speech…I haven’t forgotten them) he killed Jenny Calendar, sweet Jenny, the gang’s friend and Giles’ girlfriend. I remember watching the chase, being scared but knowing in the back of my head that she was going to be safe, right? Characters like her don’t die on TV. And then comes that scene when Angelus catches her in front of that window and just breaks her neck and it was just…unreal. And it wasn’t all. Joss Whedon, the genius, the master manipulator, decided that our collective hearts shouldn’t just be broken but that the pieces needed to be ripped from our chest one by one and crushed again; Angelus is pure evil, aren’t you convinces? So we got what is one of the most memorable scenes of the entire run of the show…Giles coming home ready for a romantic evening…Giles picking up the roses on the stairs, smelling them dreamy and full of hope…climbing those stairs and finding his loved one dead in the tub.

The music of this episode is mostly quiet, textural, since what was going on on screen didn’t need anything else to feel real. We only get two cues from this episode, cues that were already available before, the tense and melodic “Angel waits” which really captures perfectly the way the character was then, not drugged, not under some spell, but aware, awake and calculated, and “Remembering Jenny”, Christophe Beck’s homage to the character and to what she brought to the show, the piano elegy, simple and heartbreaking, the evocative chorus, the sombre voices…with the feeling of an intimate funeral. By now the music was an integral part of the show, a character on its own, a full member of the Scooby gang.

Then came the double feature that ended the season,”Becoming”. It’s not easy to make a top of favorite Buffy episodes since there are so many of them and so good but ultimately, for me, “Becoming”, parts 1 and 2, are just a nose above the other contenders. I also saw it back then in a time of personal turmoil and I could related very well to that final scene where Buddy boarded a bus and left for good. These two hours on their own, as a culmination of two seasons were perfect from start to finish. The music rose to the challenge first with the suites dealing with Angel, his past, his curse, with the harrowing violin solo in “Cursed” and the thick doom of “As Angel becomes” as Christophe Beck never lets us forget the duality of this complex character, his tragedy and the constant battle between his soul and his monster. None of the Angelus cues are without emotion, without letting us know that the character we love might still be in there.

“Massacre” is one of the cues I remember most vividly from the show, from the scene where it played, a scene that seemed never ending at the time, with the blend of pulsating action and even the sudden rendition of that love theme in the middle, stunningly played in the beginning over a constant heartbeat, before dissolving into nothingness. It really is one of the best cues I’ve heard on TV. Nothing beats the music of “Becoming part II”, these three cues where Christophe Beck showed how well he had gotten to know the characters and, of course, the audience. First it’s “Waking Willow”, with that beautiful piano solo, right at the edge of heartbreak, with that feeling of last hope of waking your true love up bled into it. There’s the tender flute that feels almost like a soft, quiet prayer at a bedside. The composer never lets out of his sight that the main characters were basically kids that still tried to hold on to their innocence in all this madness. “Waking Willow” is the warm emotional core of the season finale. “Vision of Jenny” still brings shivers up my spine as I remember how amazing the scenes where the demon tool her face were. It was nice to see her again but so painful to see her changed, just like Illyria taking Fred’s place on the final season of “Angel”. Here as well Beck combined the mystical presence with the emotion of seeing a loved one again, through tears, through mind games. Her presence in this form only made the heartbreak tougher and Beck keeps the music dense and restrained, just as Giles himself was in that scene. Simply brilliant.

And then there’s the climax…THE most memorable theme from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” in all its glory. “Close your eyes”, the Buffy / Angel love theme that plays over a scene that is still hard to watch to this day. The emotional build up of the cue, with layer above layer being added with each note, with that huge cloud, with the sublime piano that never fails to bring tears to my eyes, every single second of this cue is perfect. I rarely split cues like this but that moment at 1:45, so in tune with what happens on screen, is just unbelievable, the moment of that last, enormous sigh before making the toughest and hardest decision of her life, before the catharsis, before the final explosion of orchestral love and pain that ends the cue. Of course none of you have forgotten the scene when Buffy is faced with the demon in Angel’s form, ready to drive the sword through his heart, already in pain because of the face she was seeing in front of her, and then that moment when Angel, the real Angel, the love of her life, wakes up because Willow’s spell had worked. Both actors played the scene magnificently, with disoriented and pained Angel uttering “Buffy…” and her eyes filling with tears, just like mine are now, because she knew she had to kill him anyway and send him to the hell dimension for all eternity. She takes a couple of seconds and then… And this scene would never have worked without Christophe Beck’s magic touch. I know it’s not part of the score but I always feel the need to listen to Sarah MacLaghlan’s “Full of grace” at this point, the song that plays when Buffy abandons everybody and takes that bus to go far, far away.

Season 3

Season 3 is where “Buffy” the show really hit its stride for me. It includes, about midway through, one of the best series of 4 episodes TV land has ever seen. But before we get to those, first I discover a powerful action cue I didn’t remember from “Anne”, the sole episode Buffy spends in her self imposed exile, “Deliverance”, a piece that shows how the Christophe Beck’s music for the show has also evolved and gotten more complex and rewarding. “Tai chi” was present on the previous release and it’s one of the rare reflective moments in all the turmoil; that scene of course is also a fan favourite with Buffy and Angel almost dancing in complete silence and synchrony and Beck accompanies their movement with a dripping piano motif, velvety and pleasant to the touch.

The four episode arc “Revelations”, “Lover’s walk”, “The wish” and “Amends” is the place where everything breaks and is redone for the group, sentimental wise, emotional wise, this is where maybe the last traces of innocence goes away and our favourite characters Buffy, Willow, Xander, Cordy and Oz mature and realise that things will rarely be happy again. Giles does some growing up himself, having to face and help the one who killed his lover, now changed and remorseful. The breakups, Angel’s return, the accidents, Anya’s rage that almost ends the world, Spike’s legendary “Love’s bitch” speech where he calls bullshit on Buffy and Angel pretending they are friends, everything just goes into puzzle mode and as good as the writers were in breaking up the characters and redefining them, in giving each of them time to grow and develop, the music matches it note for note. “Loneliness of six”, the melancholic guitar based cue that plays over the end of “Lover’s walk” when we see everyone depressed and broken is one of the more memorable pieces from the entire run of the show. “Slayer’s elegy”, the choral requiem from the episode where Anya wishes Buffy didn’t exist and it comes true, is also one of the most emotional cues from this season, a cue that evokes a heroic death. My one regret is that there is so little music from these four episodes, with the suite from “Amends” that basically takes us through Angel’s entire life and ends with the magic snow scene being the most rewarding. “Amends” is truly a special episode” and very dear to me and the suite “Dublin 1938 / Dreaming Of / Magic Snow Music” is as well since it also includes a heartbreaking Celtic violin motif that never fails to affect me. It’s fascinating how Christophe Beck can write so tenderly for a character like Angel, using the flute to mark his lonely, painful moments from after he was cursed and then turn the horror back on in an instant without breaking the flow of the music. I just love the solo piano motif in the middle that for me speaks of extreme desolation and loss of hope while in the same time keeping the warmth of a soul, of that spark that represents the essence of this character. The suite ends with the magic snow music, so gentle, Christmassy and hopeful, a balm to sooth the hurt from before.

I like this episode suite treatment that continues with “Helpless”, “The prom” and the two part season finale, “Graduation day, part 1” and “Graduation day, part 2”; each of these episodes gets a dark and healthy dose of music. Once again setting aside my emotional connection with the show the music is really good and I have a chance now to discover cues (like the “Betrayal / Kralik’s House / A Father’s Love” suite from “Helpless”) that I didn’t remember; tense, suspenseful cues that bring back the unique atmosphere of the monster of the week episodes. This particular cue sends proper shivers up my spine with the string buildup that makes me feel very at unease; it might just be the best cue from “the rest” of the show, meaning the episodes that didn’t leave an undying mark inside me. I know it sounds cliche but they don’t often make film or TV music like this anymore, so dense, so complex and so meaningful. This cue goes from frightening to romantic in an instant and takes me through a rollercoaster of emotions. I am sure this “Buffy the Vampire slayer” set will win over casual fans as well through the sheer quality of the music. Take “Dead guys with bombs” for example, from the wonderful Xander centric episode “The Zeppo” which is just a great improvisation, a mix of horror and gypsy music that gets quite catchy.

I wanted a bit more music from “Choices” also a special episode for me because of how real it felt, of how it dealt with real life changes for once, not vampire or supernatural related, with Buffy and Willow discussing their future, going to college, under that big tree in their high school yard. We only get “Into the mayor’s layer”, a sneaky and oily cue that is rife with danger. I am happy with “Dearly Beloved / Beginning of the End / Class Protector” from “The prom”, with it’s sombre celebration vibe, with the gratitude and with the horror that never misses. Once again Christophe Beck alternates within the same cue the most suave of piano motifs with a rush of blood to the head, a horror buildup that hits the mark, before ending with a gala motif that separates this particular episode from the rest.

It’s nice to rediscover the music of the “Graduation day” double with my favourite part being “Faith’s end” with yet another violin requiem, honest and heartbreaking. These two episodes also provided some of the best action music Christophe Beck has written for the show, pure, epic action without the element of horror. Ah how I remember the fights with Faith and the rest as I listen to the “Poison Arrow / Faith’s End” suite…this is the kind of piece that would work great on today’s most epic Marvel movie scores, as would “Aftermath / Drink Me / Little Miss Muffet / War / One Last Moment”. The end of the third season (and I’m looking at you, “One last moment”) is also pivotal in the run of the show as Angel and Cordelia leave Sunnydale to go to LA. I just get lost in this suite, the second longest of the collection at 8 minutes and a half, as I remember the epic finale, the fight, the first true, all out war of the show and the emotional breaks. Listening to the music is a ride as rewarding as watching the show as I retrace steps I’ve take so many times before and I recognize dear and familiar places. “Little Miss Muffet” is one of those nuggets of sentimental brilliance that Beck graced the show with. Once again this is some of his best work and it would have been a shame not give it the exposure it deserves. I am just in awe even now, hundreds and hundreds of film and TV scores later, at how well Christophe Beck completed the Buffyverse and at the depth his music added to the characters and scenes.

Season 4

The fourth season of “Buffy” was very polarising for fans and I fall in the ney category. I didn’t like the plot, I didn’t like the villain, I didn’t like Riley or The Initiative. I did enjoy comedy Spike though, he and Xander living together could have been a dynamite sitcom, and I enjoyed one of the most memorable, the infamous “Hush” where nobody is able to speak. Naturally we get a hefty chunk of music from this episode since it was all about the music; we get 14 minutes worth of cues, starting with “Demon got your tongue” with its almost comedic brand of horror, with the tortured strings and pompous brass section which makes me remember The Gentlemen and their creepy movements and smiles. The music of “Hush” is all about creepy strings alternating with romantic period music and has a sound that kind of separates it from the other episodes, after all, this was the clearest hour of horror fairytale from the show.

Even with my lack of feeling with the plot, I discover another side of Christophe Beck’s immense canvas from this show as we expands the universe with romantic, sweeping cues like “Spellbound” and “Body paint” which actually starts the other episode from this season that gets special attention score wise: naturally the strange season finale “Restless”. This thematic episode which plays like a vision, like a hallucination gets dreamy, almost hypnotic music at the beginning and still quiet but menacing later. Any of the five cues from this episode I listen to I could recognise “Restless” instantly because of this special kind of mood. The “Restless suite” (“Willow’s Nightmare / First Rage / Chain of Ancients”) is spellbinding itself with percussion and romance and choirs and both reflective and thought provoking. As I listen to the curtain call cue of this season I realise how far and how deep this musical journey has taken me, how much the music of “Buffy” has evolved and intensified since the start.

Season 5

And then came Dawn, the key, the shock for all the fans, Buffy’s sister. Of course, before she came we had that gimmick episode “Buffy vs Dracula” and it introduced us to a new composer for the series, Thomas Wander. Even if Wander is usually a louder, more epic oriented composer than Beck he stayed true to the sound of Buffy and the transition from the Beck action moments to the Wander ones is seamless. On the romantic side as well Wander keeps to the quiet, moody piano vibes in “Love montage” from “Shadow” and the music of Buffy stays consistent regardless of the composer change. Even if a bit overly dramatic, especially since I wasn’t very fond of the character, “Riley’s departure” from “Into the woods” is heartbreaking and actually makes me care, with the wailing female voice and the majestic string section that both play over a constant piano motif that makes me think of restrained fury and I can actually identify in this particular cue Riley’s drama, his frustration with how everything played out even if, as I said, the cue is a bit overly dramatic.

There is, of course, a special episode worth mentioning in this season, the fantastic and emotional “The body”, where Buffy’s mom dies and I remember how impressed I was at the setup and realisation of that episode as the most heartbreaking scene contained absolutely no music, to maximise the impact. Joss and the writers talked about this and it was a conscious decision to leave the music out of it. There are no cues from “The body” on this collection but there is a heartbreaking, melancholic piano theme from the next episode “Forever”, the cue that plays over the funeral. Thomas Wander evokes a more elegant and dramatic mood with his emotional pieces than the raw emotion that Beck used to write.

I was surprised to find 17 minutes worth of music for “Tough love”, certainly not one of the most memorable episodes even if we do get that heartbreaking scene where Glory turns Tara to insanity and Willow’s first foray into dark, evil magic as she tries to kill Glory for revenge. Here as well I discover the depth of Thomas Wander’s emotional cues as the tenderness of the piano in “Tara and Willow argue” and “They’ll take Dawn away” gets to me in an instant and for a few minutes I forget about the supernatural and the horror and get the feeling of listening to a drama score. This is actually the strength and the core of this episode, the personal dramas, the real life dramas of the characters coping with changes and tragedy. As the musical arc ends with the epic, violent cue describing Willow’s rage filled attack I am grateful to La La Land for making this much music available as every single second from “Tough love” would make it on my shortlist of Buffy cues.

Once again the final two episodes of the seasons feature prominently through their music.
The line between supernatural and real life gets blurrier and blurrier as the clear cut demons and monsters from seasons past are replaced with gods and the fight turns from fist and stake fights in cemeteries and dark alley to duelling in dark magic. Also the character development shifts from dealing with mostly external threats to having to control and fight the inner threats as most of our beloved characters get to face their dark, evil and often irrational sides. “The weight of the world” continues with the almost mystical sound, quiet and sneaky, silky dark and seductive. That piano I can’t resist returns in “Willow helps Buffy” and I just can’t get enough of it.

And then there’s “The gift”…hundreds and hundreds of pages have been written about this episode that marked the show’s finale at WB and, yes, Buffy’s death. I remember I had no idea if the show was going to continue and in which form so I was a mess during the summer that followed this season. Buffy dies and the way she does it, her ultimate sacrifice for Dawn, the entire scene was about the hardest I have ever cried in front of a screen, I am not ashamed to admit. The end scene where the other characters gather around from the rubble, broken, wounded, and see Buffy’s corpse is just too powerful to handle. There is also another scene that is very memorable for me, the scene where Giles kills Glory in the human form of Ben…”She could have killed me” mutters Ben and Giles, with an almost deranged, cold and determined look in his eyes replies “No she couldn’t. Never… She’s a hero, you see. She’s not like us.” and proceeds to suffocate Ben for the greater good, after carefully putting on his glasses.

Christophe Beck returns to score this fantastic episode and together with Joss Whedon contributes to a lesson in TV making. The end scene is just perfect. As all hell breaks loose around them, Buffy and Dawn share a moment as the little sister is ready to sacrifice herself to stop the demons. The music is barely audible underneath the explosions and monster noises during the opening moments of the scene, until Buffy realises that her blood is just as good and that death is her gift. The noise shifts to the background and in comes Christophe Beck who achieves something I didn’t think possible: to write a theme maybe better, more intense and emotional than “Close your eyes”; as Buffy sacrifices herself and jumps to her death a magnificent, heartbreaking, tear inducing piano theme starts playing (its first sprout is heard on “The construction”, earlier in the episode) and accompanies Buffy’s final words to her sister, her friends discovering her body and the unforgettable headstone with “She saved the world…a lot”. Beck managed to write the music for this scene unbelievably well without ruining the emotional balance of the images, without tipping the scale with his theme; he simply found the perfect way to express the same emotions Joss did in the scenes, only without words.

The cue itself is titles, simply and poignantly, as blunt and as shocking as the event was, “Buffy dies”, like a cold, emotionless headline in the morning paper. This cue is a 9 minutes long suite and it starts earlier, with the piercing strings of the “shallow cuts” scene as creepy Doc is trying to bleed Dawn out. There is no trace of that piano emotion during the first minutes as the suspense and horror add to the impact of the cue. The string and brass motifs are as sharp as weapons before quieting down; the scene doesn’t stop so the music needed to fit it and I just love it that we get to hear this suite in all its uninterrupted glory (pun intended) as I get to relieve those moments. The end scene is so imprinted in my mind that as the music becomes grave and menacing I remember the fabric between dimensions tearing, the horror and determination in Dawn’s eyes and the monsters coming out, that is, until Buffy realises what she has to do and as everything quiets down inside her in the moment of the decision, so does the music as it morphs, 6 minutes into the cue, into that magnificently heartbreaking and poignant piano theme that marks the death of Buffy. I wouldn’t have had this track any other way; the scene is a whole and the music should be the same. This is the moment when for me Christophe Beck also became a legend, before “Frozen”, before “Ant-man”, before everything else.

Season 7

From the end of season 5 the score collection does a massive time jump right to the end of the show. There is almost no music from season 6, just a single Thomas Wander cue from the season finale “Grave”, and we transition to Robert Duncan’s treatment of the all important series final episodes, starting with “Dirty girls”. There is one hour worth of music from “Dirty girls”, “End of days” and “Chosen” with the focus falling naturally on the series finale.

Before getting into that though I have to mention and episode and a particular scene from season 7 that I consider in my top 3 favourite scenes from the entire show and I am sorry that the cue that plays over that scene, even dark and minimalistic as it is, doesn’t appear on this collection. It’s one of the toughest scenes to watch and one of the darkest pieces of music: “Beneath you”, the heartbreaking final scene in the church when Spike tells Buffy that he has a soul. I know I’ve been unfair to Spike and James Marsters and I haven’t mentioned him a lot in this article; Spike was one of the best characters of the show but in no other instance did James Marsters play as poignantly and as marvellously as in this monologue, this scene. Since I am reviewing the music of “Buffy the vampire slayer” I couldn’t miss mentioning the sombre, requiem like, superb piece of music that plays over his harrowing confession. I wish I had that cue in complete form and if you watch the scene again, the music will make an impression almost as big as the acting. “Can we rest now..?”

So Robert Duncan took over composing duties for the all important final season. The show had come full circle, the evolution of the characters and their stories had gone far, far away from the high school beginnings; Giles was gone, and the enemy was the primordial evil, “The first”. Season 7 is about as dark as they come and the most joyless from the script point of view but nevertheless a great season of TV and a proper end to this story. Right from the first Duncan cue “Recap” from “Dirty girls” it’s obvious that the music too has evolved in tone with everything else; Robert Duncan tortures the strings, makes them sound unnerving and painful like a small sharp knife cutting deep in “The war beings” from “Dirty girls”. “A bloody battle” follows and it’s just great horror fantasy music. There’s no more tenderness or innocence as all that matters is winning that war against evil.

“End of days” was the penultimate episode, the final setup before the biggest battle our characters had ever known. Of course even with all the stuff going on in the episode all that remains for me is Angel’s surprise return and Spike watching Buffy and him kiss, full of jealousy and rage. The music of this episode is vast and dramatic and always dark. I just love the bursts of action energy that come every now and then as they remind me of the hectic chases and events of the episode. As I listen to an epic cue like “Buffy saves the girls” I realise that this is the sound of the best cues from recent Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s the same level of darkness and drama and kudos to Robert Duncan for bringing it to Buffy 15 years earlier. Then again those nervy strings that are so simple yet so effective in creating an uncomfortable atmosphere. I also love how the cues deal with all the characters, they are present in the music as well with cues like “Xander grabs Dawn”, “Faith the loner” (an emotional cue that captures the almost tragic essence of this beloved character), “Spike and Buffy” as they share on final quiet moment on the wings of a sublime cue where the piano plays gravely a melancholic theme that has the scent of a final break up, and, finally “Angel arrives”, another powerful action piece which ends with a fairy tale orchestral motif when he finally shows up, a motif that makes me think of romance movies from the golden age of Hollywood, a motif to match the impact of his presence.

Chosen

And then comes the series finale, the culmination of seven years of adventure and emotions, and it’s really all about the final battle. Yes it starts with the kiss (and the cue that describes it is much darker than I would have expected) but it’s all about tying up loose ends and, well, defeating evil. The good folks at La La Land give us no less that 30 minutes of music from this episode and the cues take me through all the range of emotion, from the sad solo piano of “Angel leaves”, one of the final emotional breaks of the show, together with “Willow and Kennedy” for which the composer chose to also use the harp, to the pounding action of “Finishing off Caleb” in which the strings are played in a way which makes me think of blades clashing. As I listen to the music outside the context of the show I can appreciate Robert Duncan’s musings in “The necklace” (ah that amulet that Angel brought which will give way to the most heartbreaking scene of the finale for me) and the trembling emotion of “The first visits Buffy”, a cue that is actually warmer and more emotional than the one with the kiss.

As I listen to the music scenes from the episode go quickly through my head and I remember Buffy’s speech to the Potentials and how amazingly motivating the music of that scene was when I saw it, how well it underlined what Buffy was saying. You can hear it in “The last battle” and it’s still amazing and inspirational on its own. I must have watched the final 15 minutes of “Chosen” a hundred times so I know the scenes by heart. I also know that the music never stops during those minutes, from Willow’s goddess spell to the fight and there are two particular moments when, incredibly for me given what was happening on screen, the music obliterated everything just like Spike’s amulet, and it’s all in the final monster cue of this huge collection, the 10 minutes long “The war against evil”; as a side note, even if he doesn’t write anything else for the rest of his career, Robert Duncan still has this particular piece that is really hard to match in TV history.

The first scene I haven’t forgotten for one second, music included, is the one that really changes the course of the battle and makes our guys win. The music is in full stride, with the strings hacking away, building up as the battle does as well. Then comes this scene which is just as heroic as they get; the way the episode was constructed, I believed everything Joss was telling me. First (pun intended) I was sure that Buffy was going to die for good when she got stabbed and got the scythe to Faith with one last motivational line. Even if it hurt, I liked it, Buffy giving her life and Faith saving the day. But then the good guys (or, should I say, girls) got overwhelmed and one by one they started falling and dying. The music was still pounding action at this point and it started slowing down and getting more dramatic, more elegiac. The comes THE MOMENT, really a scene that’s hard to top like ever, when The first, in Buffy form, comes to taunt Buffy and our hero stands up slowly; the music quiets down, almost stopping for a second before exploding in a string buildup that is so epic, so heroic that should be right up there with the most memorable and legendary Western cues from Morriconne as that is the vibe it brings. Epic really is too small a word for what is going on; the orchestral plays sublime as Spike’s amulet connects with his soul and we get to the second majestic scene, his ultimate sacrifice. “I love you”, Buffy tells him with tears in her eyes. “No you don’t…but thanks for saying it” her hero replies as he obliterates what was left of the evil army, as well as himself and the entire hellmouth. Including, the mall. The music builds up and concentrates in one glorious, relentless string peak Like I said the music never stops, it only changes form and switched between epic and heroic, leaving only a couple of instruments playing when what goes on on screen needs to be highlighted.

I am not exaggerating when I say that enough passages from “The war against evil” rival the music of “Star Wars” in emotional impact and orchestral wealth. Just like the “Chosen” episode, this cue is a culmination of all the music from Buffy and of the incredible work these three composers put together. One cannot listen to this cue without getting emotional, inspired, teary eyed, even if he has no emotional attachment to the show. And if they do, then this cue with fill them all with slayer’s power. For me is as inspirational an anthem as, say, “Training montage” from “Rocky IV”. It’s a maddening, limitless piece of music, a rollercoaster, and a concentrated dose, in musical form, of what “Chosen” meant. I adore the ending, the soft, poignant piano motif that accompanies that final scene in the sun as the survivors descend from the bus and look at what was once their town. It’s almost a fairy tale ending that matches the smile on Buffy’s face as the final end credits roll.

The journey of listening to this incredible box set was quite demanding and extremely intense due to my very strong emotional connection with the show and due to the fact that I have had some of the cues and a lot of the scenes play in my head for almost 20 years now. I am unbelievably grateful to the guys at La La Land records for making this dream come true, for releasing this collection, in this form. Listening to almost 5 hours of Buffy music, carefully divided by episodes helped me track the musical evolution as well, in parallel with the evolution of the story and characters. The beauty of it is that the fans can choose what to listen to, they can pick their favourite episodes, favourite scenes and remember them through the music as well. It took three mighty composers to create this fresque and complete the vision that Joss Whedon and his team had. I would say that Christophe Beck wins the emotional side with two eternal pieces like “Close your eyes” and “Buffy dies” while as good as his action pieces were as well, Robert Duncan becomes a legend for “The war against evil”.

Fans of the show, especially the die hard ones (who am I kidding…all Buffy fans are die hard) will have a blast going through this collection even though I’m telling you, it’s not easy to to as the emotions will overflow and might get too much at some point. I don’t think there is any fan who forgot how the most memorable scenes sounded as the music was glued, welded to what was happening on screen. Casual music fans with no relation to Buffy will be able to discover in the “Buffy the vampire slayer collection” some of the best work from Christophe Beck, Thomas Wander and Robert Duncan, all at the peak of their creative craft. The music of Buffy, like the show itself, has everything from comedy to horror to suspense to love to sadness to inspiration and still, as always, there are things missing, episodes missing and I would love to get more volumes of Buffy. La La Land did it with The X-Files, three 4 CD sets with a fourth one planned so there’s no reason why Buffy shouldn’t get the same treatment. There are still enough episodes, memorable ones, from which we got too little or no music at all and, by the wealth of great music I discovered on this box set even from episodes I didn’t remember much of there are clearly treasures left to be unearthed.

For now though, let’s enjoy this particular collection and revisit our favourite Buffy moments. 20 years later the connection is still strong and I am sure when you listen to the music you will get the urge to see your chosen episodes once again.

Cue rating: 98 / 100

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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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