The thought of another zombie movie to add to the bulging numbers of movies and TV shows already around chronicling the zombie apocalypse may not raise much enthusiasm but Jason Bolinger and Mike Sauders’ movie, Collapse, promises a “fresh take” on a well-trodden path. More an examination of one man’s decline in the face of apparently insurmountable outside pressures than “just” a zombie movie, Collapse follows Robert Morgan (Chris Mulkey) who is struggling to cope with family tragedy and being able to support his dependant family. The appearance of a mass of zombies changes his perspective from trying to save the family farm to how to keep his family alive and we follow Morgan’s struggle to retain his sanity as well as save his family from the onslaught. Composer Vincent Gillioz is no stranger to scoring horror movies, having composed scores for a number of films of this genre including Ty Jones’ family-drama-with-a-bit-of-horror movie, Last Breath (reviewed HERE). Given the opportunity by the directors to work freely on coming up with a score to fit the film, Gillioz has more-or-less abandoned themes and melody in favour of “textural atonalism”, giving Collapse a cold and heartless centre that favours violence and hostility, with only a hint of lyricism.
What that means when you listen to the score is that the composer has built a soundscape that seems appropriate for a post-apocalyptic world. Cold electronics mix with distorted guitars, violent percussion, screeching metal effects and sampled instruments and are moulded into a variety of grotesque sounds in an assault on the ears. A select number of live instruments (mainly woodwinds) are also present. Normally, when listening to scores that use techniques such as these, the sum of all the various parts doesn’t really gel to make for a very enjoyable listen. However, with Collapse, Gillioz’ time and effort spent at creating interest and varied sounds, and thinking where to place them in the “aural space”, has fashioned a textural score that’s always interesting and surprisingly listenable. A big part of the interest is that Gillioz’ score isn’t all about textures and sounds. There are a number of leitmotifs or “gestures” that are featured that represent specific aspects of the story and which are placed throughout the score. It’s actually quite fun listening out for these motifs amongst the maelstrom of the atonal textural landscape.
There is some melody though. There is a theme that represents the Morgan family. Played mainly on piano, and heard best in tracks such as “My Son Is Sick” and “Family Dinner”, this homely theme is an island of consonance amongst the dissonance. However, listening closely, it’s clear that all is not well with the family: the stilted and stand-offish nature of the playing suggests that the image of a secure family unit may not be entirely true and that there’s something underneath the surface that’s troubling. As with many of the devices the composer uses in the score, this melody is heard at several other points in the score, sometimes as only the briefest fragments and using varied instrumentation (e.g., “Aftershock”, “Like A Bad Dream” (both cello) and “Cold House” (woodwinds)).
Three other main motifs are featured in Collapse. There’s a “zombie gesture”, which is a percussive march-type effect achieved by having double basses slapping their strings against the fingerboard (called a Bartók pizzicato apparently). This appears frequently when the pace of the score quickens and adds an ominous and relentless energy to the score; it makes for a great opening to the album in “The Zombie Dance”. Although this motif is heard a number of times throughout the score – most notably in the aforementioned “The Zombie Dance” but “Storming The Town” and “Assailed” are other good examples – its use is not as commonplace as you would expect in a zombie movie. This really highlights the emphasis of the film being, as mentioned earlier, more to do with the psychological fragmentation of Robert than zombie invasion. The remaining two “gestures” Gillioz uses in the score really get to the heart of this psychological disintegration of the father and their presence is, therefore, much more widespread. By far the most prevalent motif is a disorienting random trumpets device playing rapid staccati that bends downwards. As the composer says, this device is representative of the disintegration of the father’s own state of mind. This motif crops up everywhere, sometimes only being heard for the briefest moment (“Playing With The Head In The Sink”). There’s also a great sequence in “Playing With The Head In The Sink” where this brass staccati is accompanied by some great distorted guitar phrases and is a good example of how novel the score can sound. There’s also a motif representing how the world around the family is collapsing, where low brass hold a low note which bends in a downward direction. This motif is dotted throughout the score, reinforcing the mental instability of the father but also reinforcing how the zombie hordes are tearing the family’s life apart (e.g., this pitch-bending brass effect is combined with the “zombie march” pizzicato in “Storming The Town”). The bold statement of this “world collapsing” motif in the final track, “Pandemic”, suggests to the listener that the disintegration of the family is complete.
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Gillioz’ score for Collapse. The prospect of listening to a textural score for a horror movie was not one I particularly relished when I first came across the album. So many time recently, scores for movies such as this seem to be so textural and ambient that they may fit the films well enough but, when listened to away from their intended place, they just sound like noise. And I’ve questioned the need for scores such as these to be released at all. But, the music for Collapse works remarkably well away from the movie. A lot of that is down to the attention that the composer has given to the project, pouring over every aspect of the score and making numerous decisions that mean there’s a reason for why every sound is present in the music: a process that’s seems to be lacking in a lot of scores of this type. Yes, there’s a lot of bits and pieces present (in terms of sounds and effects) but it all comes together into a whole that’s more than just the sum of its parts. Having a number of distinct “gestures” also helps bind the score together. This aspect of the score touches on another reason I believe that this score works so well as a listening experience. As with Howlin’ Wolf Records’ previous release of Gillioz’ score Last Breath, this newer release features some great liner notes by Benjamin Chee. Within these notes, Gillioz lays out some of the ideas behind his choices for the score, including a bit of a guide to the various motifs he used and the reasoning behind using them. Understanding better what these are (and how they’re created) adds interest to the music, and I found that I was listening out for their appearance in this textural world. This resulted in me trying to understand what the music was about. Bottom line: it maintained my interest in a score that I probably wouldn’t have listened to with much relish. I think that more labels should take the trouble of providing good in-depth notes with albums of this kind that feature more information from the composer about the ideas behind the music (or soundscapes) they have created.
Gillioz’ score for Collapse is an engaging one. I may not choose to play it very often if I wanted an enjoyable, and thematic, listening experience, but if it were to appear top of a random shuffle list I would certainly sit back and absorb the sonic world Gillioz has created. Sometimes it’s good to have a challenge when listening to music and this score is as good as any for that. Collapse is available on CD from Howlin’ Wolf Records HERE and audio samples of some of the tracks are also available on the label’s website.
- The Zombie Dance (2:10)
- Tormented (0:55)
- My Son Is Sick (1:46)
- Playing With The Head In The Sink (4:16)
- Storming The Town (1:24)
- Contaminated (2:00)
- Police Charge (3:57)
- Post-Apocalyptic Landscape (3:38)
- Family Dinner (3:06)
- Into Darkness (1:35)
- Sneaking In The Plagued Town (3:46)
- Listening To The CB Radio (1:34)
- Aftershock (1:49)
- Disturbing Intruder (1:33)
- Zombies In The House (3:11)
- Like A Bad Dream (2:17)
- Assailed (2:08)
- Inauspicious (3:33)
- Going Out Alone (2:57)
- Cold House (2:04)
- Hostile Ride (1:32)
- Pandemic (1:37)
Running Time: 52:59
Howlin’ Wolf Records HWRCD-023 (2014)