Buy it... if you desire the first truly intelligent action blockbuster score to grace the collaboration of Walt Disney Pictures and Jerry Bruckheimer Films.
Avoid it... if all the magnificent orchestral, choral, and ethnic flair that Harry Gregson-Williams can muster for this occasion cannot overcome the familiarity of his major themes and the limited, but still obnoxious role of electronic elements in this context.
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time: (Harry Gregson-Williams) So much hope was placed by Walt Disney Pictures on this adaptation of the popular 2003 video game that its release was postponed a year so that it could be perfected and marketed to meet studio expectations clearly set by the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.
As with any Gregson-Williams score, there will be stylistic similarities that film score collectors will notice in conjunction with the works of Zimmer and Powell (alas, more string chops and ostinatos from the Bourne scores). That's typically more often the case with Gregson-Williams' workmanlike and usually underachieving urban thriller scores of a synthetic rendering, however, and when allowed to explore ambitious orchestral avenues, as with Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas and Kingdom of Heaven, his results tend to be as original as they are exhilarating. That said, his music for Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time has more connections to his old Media Ventures collaborators, both thematically and instrumentally, than either of those two scores of half a decade prior. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that Gregson-Williams infuses his otherwise mostly authentic ensemble of orchestra, choir, and regional flair with an occasionally obnoxious dose of electric strings and electric guitar, along with his usual affinity for highly varied percussion use. After all, this concept is adapted from a time-wasting killing game of limited intelligence (let's keep some perspective here). The mix of all the elements is well handled; the brass, for instance, maintain a genuine tone while eluding the Zimmer technique of making them sound synthetic in unison, and the soundscape is addressed as frequently in the treble as it is in the bass. Gregson-Williams is quite adept at creating rhythmic movement and inserting stutters for accent, and nearly every cue in Prince of Persia maintains either interesting instrumental colors or multiple lines of activity to keep the listener of the score on album interested. The application of looped electronic rhythm-setters and the varied percussion will remind many of David Arnold's techno-savvy James Bond scores, especially in the cues "Raid on Alamut" and "Hassansin Attack" (among others). While some listeners may be turned off by the hybrid approach in this context, Gregson-Williams generally emphasizes the organic elements. Naturally, the weak portions of Prince of Persia, such as "Dastan and Tamina Escape" and "Visions of Death," are those in which the electric guitars and slapping percussion become obnoxious. Also, why these composers are obsessed with electric violins and electric cellos remains a curiosity; their admittedly unique tone is a stylistic reminder of yesterday's blockbuster invention and at some point needs to be laid to rest. Fortunately, Gregson-Williams applies them sparingly, supplying a side dish of Bruckheimer expectations while staying loyal to organic tones for the main course.
On the positive side of the ensemble's instrumental style for Prince of Persia is a handful of contributors that give a touch of sophistication to the score's atmosphere. An oud and sitar provide some of this color, along with an Arabian male vocal performance in "Raid on Alamut" that will briefly remind of the highlights of James Newton Howard's Hidalgo (why couldn't these vocals be used more frequently in either score?). The mixed choir offers the fantasy element in a manner not much different from Howard's usual application. A few of the crescendos of ensemble force in Prince of Persia are immensely impressive, sometimes competing favorably with the majesty of Kingdom of Heaven. The choral passage at 1:40 into "The Prince of Persia" will distinctly point to that 2005 score. Both an asset and a misstep in this score, however, is its collection of themes. Although Gregson-Williams does create a pair of strong ideas and integrates them into Prince of Persia, he doesn't reference them as frequently as he could, reprising a style from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (and its sequel) that leaves you seeking more statements and adaptations of the primary identities. Instead, the composer maintains superiority in the score by rarely allowing his filler material, regardless of its absence of thematic cohesion, from becoming mundane. There are secondary themes in Prince of Persia that seem, based on the album presentation, to be somewhat underutilized, a significant disappointment given the quality of Gregson-Williams' seemingly singular thematic statements and general harmonically pleasing stance. Likely the most significant point of criticism awaiting the score for Prince of Persia is the familiarity of all the major themes. The primary idea for the film is one drenched with the chord progressions stereotypically associated with the Middle East in all its grandeur. Heard immediately in "The Prince of Persia," this overarching theme comes across as a blatant merging, though likely not intended, of Maurice Jarre's Lawrence of Arabia and John Debney's The Scorpion King (the attitude and progressions of the latter significantly informing the secondary phrase of Gregson-Williams' theme). Any fan of the Jarre classic of 1962 will roll his or her eyes at about 1:00 into that opening cue, at which point Gregson-Williams even hints at the Arab theme from Lawrence of Arabia in the same bass string counterpoint fashion. The theme defines the princess in "Tamina Unveiled" and is stated in full at the end of "Ostrich Race," the beginning of "Hassansin Attack," and the end of "The Passages." It is conveyed with ultra-bloated majesty and a slower pace in the majority of the concluding "Destiny."
The other major theme of note in Prince of Persia is the standard heroic identification of either the prince or the dagger. Introduced in the last minute of "Raid on Alamut," this idea further develops at the start of "Hassansin Attack" before bursting with full, massive statements early in "No Ordinary Dagger." It yields to the primary theme after a soft rendition in "Destiny." Again, however, this brassy theme is plagued by references to past ideas, seemingly incorporating the Lisa Gerrard "Now We Are Free" theme from Gladiator, the concluding structures of the title themes of Zimmer's Backdraft and Trevor Jones' Last of the Mohicans, and performance aspects from Gregson-Williams' own Aslan/God theme that became more pronounced in Prince Caspian. As if that isn't enough, the only truly remarkable lesser theme in the score comes in the form of a twisted, villainous idea that most likely represents Nizam and contorts with peculiar progressions that match much of Danny Elfman's theme for the Goblin in Spider-Man. It's always heard meandering in the bass region, starting at 4:40 in "Raid on Alamut" and extending to variants in "Running from Sheikh Amar" and faint reminders late in "Trusting Nizam." Other secondary themes, such as an intriguing one for the royalty in "The King and His Sons," are thankfully devoid of such difficulties. Overall, though, Prince of Persia is, if you can forgive the likely unintentional thematic references, a remarkably enjoyable score that will probably exceed the expectations of many. There are weaknesses that restrict the score's rating, however, led by the electronic and/or industrial elements. Why, for instance, a grating Paul Haslinger-like passage early in "So, You're Going to Help Me?," complete with audible distortion, was necessary in this score is a good question. A lack of better thematic attribution to the characters and incorporation in the major action cues (as accomplished in the middle of "The Sands of Time") is a detriment, though it's hard to argue with the individual merit of cues like "Ostrich Race," which conveys the score's sense of humor. The Alanis Morissette song, "I Remain," which has no structural connection to the score but does offer the same pseudo-Arabian progressions, is surprisingly limp, absent a satisfying bass region for much of its length. On the other hand, Gregson-Williams has finally infused a fair amount of intelligence and robust orchestral and choral magnificence into a Disney/Bruckheimer production. The first four tracks of this score's hour on album, along with a handful spread throughout the middle and "Destiny" at the end, will yield a fantastic listening experience to match Sinbad and Kingdom of Heaven, though nagging issues restrain Prince of Persia from the five-star rating those previous scores achieved. ****