thu 17/10/2019

CD: Nick Cave and Warren Ellis - Mars | reviews, news & interviews

CD: Nick Cave and Warren Ellis - Mars

CD: Nick Cave and Warren Ellis - Mars

The soundtrack at the root of 'Skeleton Tree'

The red planet-soundtrack

Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s soundtrack for the National Geographic drama documentary about an imagined manned space mission to Mars in 2033 feels at times as if it were a sketch for the sonic ambience that made Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' much-acclaimed 2016 album Skeleton Tree so intensely atmospheric. Which came first isn’t clear, but suffice it to say, that both inhabit the same dark-hued and super-charged sonic atmosphere.

Cave’s music has always been highly cinematic, not least when featuring the imaginative work of his regular cohort Warren Ellis. Here, as in Skeleton Tree, they have clearly had fun exploring a wide range of sounds: distorted guitars that grate almost appealingly on the ear as on “Space X”, sibylline keyboard arpeggios on “Space Station”, and great swathes of synthesized sound, that both suggest and fill the void of space. In “Planetarium”, soulful drones underpin breath-like strokes of synthesized strings. The track develops beautifully, with subtle shifts and phrasing that create a sense of both anticipation and stillness. As befits a film sound track, there are no vocals, apart from on the opening “Mars Theme” and the closing “Life on Mars”, both of which would have hung nicely on Skeleton Tree.

Without the images, this is best described as ambient music, perfect for chilling out and daydreaming. It's a million miles from the in-your-face emotional intensity and frequent violence of the Bad Seeds. A truly creative musician’s work is usually coherent, and this soundtrack , for all its spatial context and allusions, focuses inwards and would seem to reflect to the tragic events – the loss of one of his sons – that have befallen Cave in recent times, as if he were reaching for calm extra-terrestrial waters beyond the struggles encountered in the storm.

I am not normally a fan of soundtrack albums, indeed of most soundtracks: they're often pastiche or program music designed to fill gaps or manipulate the audience’s emotions. But this one is in a class apart, to be seen as an integral part of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s very fruitful collaboration, and something that can be savoured for its own sake, without even thinking about the red planet Mars.

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