Based on the horror-thriller novel of the same name by Brian McGreevy, the series details the mysterious happenings of a fictional Pennsylvania town, the titular Hemlock Grove. When a series of brutal murders begin stirring up rumors in Hemlock Grove, Roman Godfrey, heir to the town’s powerful (and purportedly sinister) Godfrey family, works together with a 17 year-old Gypsy to uncover the truth behind the murders. Both, however, have their own dark secrets to cover up. Though I can’t personally attest to the quality of the series, Hemlock Grove has all the makings of a dark, treacherous game of cat and mouse in a mysterious and richly supernatural setting. Indeed, Hemlock Grove has some special, gory surprises in store for werewolf fans and draws inspiration from some of the great classic monsters. While critics have largely written it off, Hemlock Grove has already been picked up for a second season and its numbers suggest that it’s found a niche audience dedicated enough to keep this monster-filled, Dark Shadows style soap-mystery going.
In numerous ways, Nathan Barr was the perfect choice for this assignment. He has the horror experience to provide the show with a chilling backbone and his rapport with Roth likely made the decision a no-brainer. What comes out in Hemlock Grove in even greater fashion than his previous works, though, is his command of a small ensemble and his creativity with instruments (fun fact: apparently he owns a trumpet made out of a human femur!). The vibe that Hemlock Grove maintains throughout is rather unique in television, even if it is achieved by way of the same basic ensemble as True Blood and The Americans. It is primarily acoustic, featuring cellos, guitars, piano, guitar viol, Celtic harp, ukulele, vocals, and even a glass armonica, one of my favorite “unusual” instruments. This small ensemble gives the music a dark and delicate intimacy as it plucks along its many, slithery numbers.
The Emmy-nominated main title piece, "Hemlock Grove", is a melancholic cello sonata that manages to connote a sort of sleepy, antique horror, no doubt fitting for the lurking, supernatural mysteries of the town. The chord progressions of the title, as many have noted, bear some similarities to the theme of Showtime’s Dexter, as well as to the cue "Blood Theme" from Daniel Licht’s score for the show. Combined with the distinctive, smoky title visuals, I would argue that Barr’s "Hemlock Grove", albeit similar, is a different beast. Vocals are added to the ensemble in "Ice Cream", before giving way to the cue’s bouncy, whimsical middle expanse with trembling cello. Apart from the title theme, "Shelley’s Email" is the first truly memorable theme Barr applies to Hemlock Grove. It’s a beautifully mysterious piece, with mournful rising and falling progressions giving it a distinctly waltz-like air.
"Crime Scene" is the first piece to contain some more traditional horror/suspense writing, with plucking beats leading a tense, high-pitched piano before giving way to the score’s go-to ensemble of waltzing cellos and piano. "Carnival" sticks out for its strangeness, a bouncy piece calling to mind rickety, old-timey carnivals with something undeniably sinister lurking behind their façades. A very brief reprieve from the jig at 1:10 is a welcome but largely singular bit of harmonic pleasantry. "Aftermath" moves more towards Barr’s distinctive, minimalist take on suspense music, with discordant strings and tapping piano. "Is This A Joke?" features a slithery, almost seductive piano motif before repeating the "Carnival" material on piano and cello from 3:04 on.
The forceful horror material dominates in "Killer Wolf", an interesting but nearly unlistenable piece with slamming piano, trembling strings, and all kinds of discord. At 1:27 the cue abruptly switches gears to what sounds like a vintage light rock number with fleeting "la-la-la" vocals that are soon swallowed up by the slamming piano notes. "Letha Dreams" is an atmospheric piece that nevertheless boasts a strong sense of gravity and the brief "Roman and Olivia" follows it up with a quirky rendition of the "Is This a Joke?" piano motif, which seems to represent Famke Janssen’s Olivia. Both "Peter Dreams" and "Land Beyond" explore a similarly shadowy, cryptic territory before the propulsive, haunting "Brooke’s Vigil" blows both of them out of the water and makes way for a series of highlight cues to close off the album. "Longing" succeeds in creating a dark, melancholic feeling of desire and is one of the most beautiful pieces on the album, painting its yearning with elegant cello strokes. "Trust Each Other" is another piece of chilly, fragile beauty, employing the glass armonica to great effect, while "Screaming Schoolkids" (based on the motif at the beginning of "Is This a Joke?") plays like a mournful lullaby.
The final cue, "Peter’s Transformation", is appropriately one of the best on the album. Employing a bigger, more diverse ensemble than much of the rest of the score, it features a larger string ensemble, electric guitar, and horns in addition to the score’s go-to elements. The building, intensifying mix of percussion, acoustic twang, and electric guitar gives the cue a distinctly Bear McCreary vibe, but it fits well as a bigger, more forceful culmination of the sonic world Nathan Barr has creating for Hemlock Grove.
Nathan Barr’s Hemlock Grove is a splendidly intimate work. It’s small ensemble, played by the composer himself, sets it apart from numerous other scores of its kind and Barr’s command of not only each and every instrument but also the textures he’s discovered with them make it an intriguing listen. The downside of all this is that it is very textural and while much of Hemlock Grove is indeed creative, beautiful, and achingly melancholic, there are only a handful of themes that will stay with you after the first listen. This is not to put down what Nathan Barr has achieved, for Hemlock Grove is a strong television score and the themes that you will remember are elegantly seductive and I’m sure, when married with the visuals, wholly fitting. In sum, Hemlock Grove is a distinct and commendable score by a composer who, like Hemlock Grove, has certainly found his niche. I’m looking forward to hearing where he takes this series next.
A Few Recommended Tracks: "Hemlock Grove", "Shelley's Email", "Brooke's Vigil", "Longing", "Trust Each Other", "Peter's Transformation"
Label: Varese Sarabande
Availability: 17 track edition