Given the altered focus of this new installment and Zack Snyder's comparatively minimal involvement, it's not surprising that a new composer would come on board to tackle it. Furthermore, anyone even remotely familiar with Tyler Bates' contribution to the original 300 will also understand why that composer's return might rub salt into a few, deep wounds. What is perhaps the most recognizable theme from that film, the grandiose identity for Leonidas and Sparta heard in "Returns a King", was quickly revealed to be an exact rehash of Elliot Goldenthal's "Victorius Titus" from the 1999, Shakespearian revenge-tragedy Titus. That's right - blatant plagiarism - not just in the theme's chord progressions but in nearly every aspect of the piece's production. Bates' score for 300 has therefore become the shamed poster-child for film music plagiarism in recent years, the most frequently referenced example of a composer blatantly stealing from another's work and barely attempting to cover up his transgressions. So in short, the composer selected for 300: Rise of an Empire wouldn't have very big sandals to fill. Enter Argentinian composer Federico Jusid... umm... I mean Dutch composer Tom Holkenborg.
Holkenborg, better known to the world as electronica artist and producer Junkie XL, was largely introduced to film music enthusiasts through his efforts on the middling techno-thriller Paranoia. But, as with so many new names of late, we've actually heard more from Junkie XL than we realize. Since moving into Hans Zimmer's Remote Control Productions studio, Junkie XL (or should I just call him XL from now on?) has collaborated with the Oscar-winning composer on numerous projects under the all too familiar "Additional Music" credit. What informs his contribution to 300: Rise of an Empire most is a prior effort for which he scooped up such a credit, that is, Hans Zimmer's divisive Man of Steel. In a role conceivably similar to that which he played on previous projects (if not more involved - it's always murky), Junkie XL served as a composer of additional music, a co-conductor, and a rhythm designer for Man of Steel, tackling much of the industrial sound for Kryptonian General Zod. Though it's anyone's guess as to what exactly a "rhythm designer" does, the fruits of Junkie XL's labor on that process no doubt informed much of his approach to 300: Rise of an Empire.
While 300: Rise of an Empire frequently veers into the territory of hard rock (or some hard rock / "orchestral" hybrid), much of the score's soundscape remains strikingly in tune with the more brutal portions of Man of Steel. Few moments of subtlety abound here, as each and every note is ferociously slammed out to affect an absolutely mind-numbing sense of ballsy magnitude. So, yes, many of the same grievances critics had regarding Man of Steel will indeed carry over to this score. Such tactics do render some of the music an inaccessibly violent, often distorted wall of sound but, much to my own surprise, I've managed to glean a few select moments of guilty-pleasure fare from Junkie XL's score. And I mean a few. While the muted, industrial aggression of the first half of "Greeks Are Winning" evokes more General Zod than Themistocles, the second half of the cue features a major-key theme for the Greeks uncharacteristic of much of the rest of the score. It's brawny and brash, with processed strings and horns blasting away over thunderous drums, but it at least manages to suggest a sense of heroism that much of the rest of the score utterly lacks. The concluding portions of "History of the Greeks" and "End Credits" also feature the idea, while a duduk blends into a female vocalist's rendition of the theme in "Queen Gorgo", a rather rare and welcomed attempt at organic beauty.
The theme for the Greeks also appears in "Marathon", the first of many tracks to play like a greatest hits compilation of the Man of Steel drum circle. The rhythm is distractingly similar to Zimmer's production, with that familiar, punctuating pair of four beats recurring throughout. Much of the action material proceeds in this manner, either heavily reliant on the percussion or completely dominated by it, as in "Sparta", "Fog Battle" (despite a fleeting moment of heroism at its midpoint), "Fire Battle", and "Greeks on Attack". What damns these portions is just how little variation there is to latch onto here. Just listen to the pounding repetitiveness of the concluding minute of "Fog Battle"; it might succeed in having even the harshest of Zimmer's critics pining for Man of Steel. The score is not entirely absent of worthy percussive work but the far more common, unvaried pounding shortchanges on style in favor of mind-numbing volume and intensity. Even by Spartan standards, the final percussive moments of "End Credits" are harsh.
What can be said for Junkie XL is that he at least tries to ascribe some kind of "ancient" flare to the proceedings, even if this effort comes across as more stereotypical than authentic. The mournfully wailing male and female voices are all here as expected, but it's really only the tender female singing of "Queen Gorgo" that rises slightly beyond a tired cliche and commands the listener. Junkie XL also uses a host of ethnic instruments with mixed results, from the breathy duduk ("Queen Gorgo") to the aimlessly meandering aulos ("A Beach of Bodies"). He ascribes a ballsy identity to Artemisia and the Persians in "History of Artemisia" and "Artemisia's Childhood", relying heavily on lute, wild strings, and the "wub-wub-wubbing" of electronic underlay. Though many will rightly question the cultural cliches abounding in them, those two cues still represent some of the score's more enjoyable material. Keep an eye out for the Dark Knight lurking at the three minute mark of "History of Artemisia", though.
In the end, there may indeed be a few bits of guilty pleasure material to be gleaned from Junkie XL's latest effort, but 300: Rise of an Empire is at best an unremarkable score. At worst (as most critics will attest), this is bottom of the barrel action noise. And this is coming from someone who enjoyed the origin of this score's framework, Zimmer's controversial Man of Steel (pardon me as I dive back into my trench!). The obvious rebuttal is that, well, this is Sparta (or at least Athens) so what more should one expect from this kind of score? I think an attempt at engagement is not too much to ask, as much of this score fails to even actively engage the listener, instead thwacking us over the head with a wall of dissonant thrashing ("From Man to God King", "Sparta", "Suicide", "Fire Battle", and "Greeks on Attack" are all easily passable). Aside from suffering from a chronic emulation of Man of Steel down to the score's motifs, sound design, and perhaps even orchestral samplings (as it often sounds like Junkie XL is drawing from the same library of sounds assembled for Zimmer's production), 300: Rise of an Empire also fails to be much fun at all. What redeems some of this is that Junkie XL does form a few recurring motifs and themes, unremarkable as they are, out of an otherwise passable effort. "History of Artemisia", "Queen Gorgo", "Greeks Are Winning", and a bottle of Advil should be more than enough to satisfy most listeners.
A Few Recommended Tracks: "History of Artemisia", portions of "Fog Battle", "Queen Gorgo", "Greeks Are Winning", or head to parts of Paranoia or the Man of Steel track "Arcade" for a more palatable display of the composer's abilities
Label: WaterTower Music
Availability: 16 track edition