To launch into a full-blown introduction of HBO's groundbreaking sword-and-sorcery epic, based on the A Song of Ice and Fire series by novelist George R. R. Martin, would be a little insulting and - let's face it - unnecessary. In its fifth season, Game of Thrones continues to be the television show "of the moment", the zenith of adult-oriented small screen geekdom and an exquisitely imagined work of art at ever level of production.
Part of what sets Game of Thrones apart from the crowd is its unique marriage of the "realism of historical fiction" with traditional fantasy elements, resulting in a far harsher, more unpredictable, and politically intriguing brand of fantasy, in which the line between hero and villain is noticeably opaque. Its score by Remote Control Productions veteran Ramin Djawadi helps sell this notion. Best known in the world of television for his highly motivic scores for Prison Break, Djawadi has established an equally motivic but far more brooding (and bigger!) soundscape for Game of Thrones.
In my opinion, the musical highpoint of the series was Season 3, during which Djawadi gave us the best variations of the Lannister theme ("A Lannister Always Pays His Debts") and the main theme ("Mhysa"), as well as a lot of other engaging material in between those bookends. The album releases typically follow this layout, with the best moments coming at the beginning and ending of the albums and a handful of lesser highlights cropping up in between. In Season 5, following the now iconic "Main Titles" (included on every release), we are thrown right into the action with "Blood of the Dragon", a brief but bold cue fusing elements of the main theme with an ascending two-note motif from Season 2's "Mother of Dragons". Chopping strings and choir carry it to a satisfying crescendo, and drop the listener off into the slow-burn "House of Black and White." Usually, Djawadi's atmospheric cues are too meager for my taste, but this one really works. It has a palpable aire of mystery and dread to it, and the grim meanderings gain a little more form half way through with the combination of harp and dulcimer, suggesting dark intrigue. "Jaws of the Viper" is a little less interesting, with languid strings and some forgettable suspense material, but the pace picks up again with the pair of "Hardhome, Pt. 1" and "Hardhome, Pt. 2." The brutality of these action cues suggests some serious unrest beyond the Wall, but aside from some decent, frenzied string writing in "Pt. 1," there's not a whole to latch on to here. A brief cameo from the main theme's underlying string riff, however, does affirm something that I love about these scores. Unlike many television composers, Djawadi isn't afraid to heavily feature the series' main theme in the episodic underscore, resulting in some pretty interesting deconstructions of it.
"Mother's Mercy" features an eerily solemnified version of the Lannister theme, followed by some weightier drama in "Kill the Boy." The cue "Dance of Dragons" is a highlight of the album, featuring a triumphant variation on the main title's string riff, a reprise of Season 3's "Dracarys" theme motif for some dragon mayhem, and culminating in an exhilarating crescendo of the "Mother of Dragons" motif. "Kneel for No Man" follows this highlight with some relatively dull ambiance broken only at its conclusion by the strongest performance of the Lord of Light motif we've had so far (a four-note identity introduced in Season 2's "Warrior of Light"), and "High Sparrow" denotes the addition of Jonathan Pryce's character with a new five-note motif for deep, male choir and brisk strings. After the duller solemnity of "Before the Old Gods," the Lannister theme is recast as a doleful lament in "Atonement", another highlight. "I Dreamt I Was Old" doesn't succeed in the shadow of that cue, but "The Wars to Come" switches things up with a palpable, burgeoning tension. Via the escalating performance of the "Lord of Light" motif, you definitely get the sense that something dark forces are organizing themselves. The latter half of the cue injects a bit more valor into the equation with some nice, emboldened brass at 3:54 (which, if you think about it, is actually quite rare on Game of Thrones). "Forgive Me" starts to wrap things up with another reprise of the "Lord of Light" motif, this time very classically tragic in its arrangement, before we get what Djawadi undoubtedly intends to be the album's highlight, the unsettling tour-de-force "Son of the Harpy." With a whispering choir mixed at the forefront, the new identity for the masked insurgents is melded with some of Daenarys' motifs and Season 1's "Finale" in a truly menacing battle cue. It's a bit like Game of Thrones meets The Omen, with the rare addition of woodwinds and the not-so-rare addition of pounding drums. While not quite on par with "A Lannister Always Pays His Debts", "The Throne is Mine," or "Mhysa," "Son of the Harpy" sets itself apart just enough to make it the best cue of Season 5. Following all this excitement, the haunting vocal performance of the main theme in "Throne for the Game" (sung by New Zealand singer-songwriter Bradley Hanan Carter) reads like a bonus track, but does its job well enough in leaving lingering notes of tragedy in listeners' ears. Incredibly far-fetched prediction: somebody's gonna die.
While this fifth installment of Ramin Djawadi's Game of Thrones doesn't quite live up to some of his previous efforts for the series, there is a lot to like here. More so than with any other season, the music feels like its building towards its eventual end: the stakes seem a little higher, the tragedy a little more tragic, and the grand a little grander. Unfortunately, there's also a lot more in the way of dull filler cues, the need to establish an aire of mystery for the Lord of Light resulting in one too many diversions into meandering ambience. That being said, there are some truly great reprises of the previously-established themes here (the "Mother of Dragons" motif getting much better treatment this time around) and a handful of decently menacing new ones. For fans of Game of Thrones, Djawadi's Season 5 effort will be a welcome return to the Realm, if a slight retread of familiar territories.
A Few Recommended Tracks: "Main Titles," "Blood of the Dragon," "House of Black and White," "Dance of Dragons," "Atonement," "The Wars to Come," "Son of the Harpy," "Throne for the Game"
Label: WaterTower Music
Availability: 18-track edition