MIRRORMASK – Iain Ballamy

Original Review by Alan Rogers

Dave McKean’s MirrorMask is – from the CD booklet, at least – a visually imaginative backdrop for the story of teenager Helena (Stephanie Leonidas), a member of a circus family who dreams of an ordinary life. When Helena’s mother falls ill, Helena blames herself. On the eve of her mother’s surgery Helena dreams of a strange land populated by bizarre creatures, masked characters and two opposing queens: one white and one dark. The white queen has fallen ill and it falls to Helena to find the MirrorMask as this is the key to helping the white queen. As a companion to the specific look of the movie McKean was very specific about the music he wanted; “…music to sound from everywhere and nowhere…”, with an “…orchestral punch [and] mysterious middle European flavour.” McKean turned to saxophonist turned film composer Iain Ballamy to come up with a score that would compliment the director’s vision. Ballamy’s studies in world music and his collaborations with numerous world music musicians have been put to good use here as this score exhibits influences from numerous geographical locations: France, Spain, eastern Europe, India, etc.

Ballamy has created this multi-cultural feel in his score by bringing together various instruments associated with a variety of folk music styles; e.g., accordion, acoustic guitar, banjo and cimbalon. And it is how Ballamy has brought together these various colours into interesting combinations that makes this score stand out from the crowd. A specific highlight is “Butterfingers”, where cimbalon and accordion combine together wonderfully well in this enthusiastic, though short, cue. Ballamy’s saxophone playing – heard previously in scores such as Jerry Goldsmith’s music for the Ridley Scott fantasy movie Legend – features in many of the cues and acts as a sort of musical glue that holds the whole series of musical vignettes together. Listening to the score as a whole, it all sounds like a heady mix of hybrid European folk music/jazz fusion pieces and it is difficult to appreciate all the tracks as a cohesive piece. It is certainly easy to forget that you’re actually listening to a film score. But, where Ballamy’s potential as a more conventional film composer shines through is the 10-minute cue, “Discoveries / Fight of Flight? / Goodbye Evil Helena”. Starting off with a delicate music box-styled celeste the cue quickly moves to a Herrmannesque vibraphone ostinato with unsettling woodwinds reminiscent of Herrmann’s Twilight Zone scores and then gets going with some dramatic string samples. But, the use of the sitar midway through the cue reminds us that everything’s a bit whacky!

Space doesn’t really allow time to truly get across how much variety there is in this score: for example, in addition to all that’s already been said there’s the use of several musical styles (e.g., waltzes, rumbas, etc), effective synth soundscapes and some wonderful use of featured vocalists. This latter aspect of the score helps to heighten the folky feel to the whole project. Another highlight that features some mesmerising vocals is the unusual version of Bacharach & David’s “Close To You”. Ballamy’s arrangement and Josefine Cronholm’s vocals (she contributed eight separate voice tracks for this cue) transforms the song into some sort of surreal music box piece.

La-La Land Records have again excelled with this release. The presentation is top-rate and showcases Ballamy and co-producer Ashley Slater’s production skills: they have captured the enthusiasm and talent of all the (sixteen) musicians and vocalists wonderfully well so that the result is a memorable listening experience. The myriad of styles and sounds on this release may polarise listeners into two distinct camps: those who love it and those who hate it. But it’s a CD that should be listened to at least once and given a chance. And if you start off in the group that doesn’t warm to the direction that Iain Ballamy has taken this music, I recomment listening to it again a few times: you may just find yourself switching camps…because, that’s what happened in my case.

Rating: ***

  1. Sock Puppets / Flyover (2:50)
  2. Circus Overture (2:01)
  3. Spanish Web (2:09)
  4. Gorillas! (1:07)
  5. Running For The Bus (1:06)
  6. Abandoned Hall (3:33)
  7. Leaving The City (1:05)
  8. Arresting Helena (1:43)
  9. The White Queen Sleeps / The White Palace (2:52)
  10. Rabbit Band (0:40)
  11. The Library (0:33)
  12. The Myth of Creation (1:37)
  13. Fish Street (0:47)
  14. Looking Through The Window (1:17)
  15. Giants Orbiting (4:23)
  16. Outside Bagwell’s (1:05)
  17. Mrs. Bagwell’s Rhumba (3:15)
  18. Meeting The Sphinx and The Dark Queen (4:42)
  19. Monkeybirds (2:12)
  20. Dream Park / Meeting In A Dream (3:39)
  21. Conjuring A Dome (1:25)
  22. In The Dark Forest (1:13)
  23. Betrayed! (4:01)
  24. Close To You (2:06)
  25. A New Life (2:36)
  26. A Rather Tense Dinner Party (1:20)
  27. Butterfingers (0:59)
  28. Discoveries / Fight of Flight? / Goodbye Evil Helena (10:05)
  29. My Waltz For Newk (3:54)
  30. If I Apologised (3:42)

Running Time: 73:57

La-La Land Records (2005)


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