Saturday, 2 May 2009

"The Pool of Fire" Told in Music.


The Tripods was a BBC television serial adapted from John Christopher’s trilogy of novels about a future earth stripped of technology, and a society of humans that has had its creativity, ingenuity and rebellious nature suppressed by a skull implant called a Cap. Four boys avoid the Capping ritual imposed by the alien Tripods and join other free thinking un-Capped humans hiding in the Swiss Alps.

While some viewers felt the pace of the series was painfully slow, all were in agreement over the major plusses, namely the principle actors, the Tripods themselves (realised by cross cutting between model shots and full sized Tripod legs) and Ken Freeman’s superb music score.
Ken was not just a composer who worked with synthesisers, he was an inventor, and built his own keyboards. He supplied the synths for Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of the War of the Worlds (1978). The strings you can hear on that iconic record aren’t the strings of an orchestra, but the keys of Ken Freeman’s synthesiser. What he was engineering was way ahead of the regular pop music of the day.

The Tripods TV series was aired across 1984 and 1985, and then, in an attempt to save money, the BBC chose the axe the filming of the third and final book.

Fast forward 25 years, and BBC DVD has released Series One and Two, alongside a BBC4 documentary entitled The Cult of The Tripods as a limited edition set. A booklet has been thrown in describing how the third book would have been realised on screen, and Ken Freeman has composed and recorded new music for the unmade third segment.

Entitled The Pool of Fire Suite (named after the book), the seven track album authentically recaptures the style and mood of the television series while telling the final third of the story in music.

The opening track, “A Plan of Action” is, for me, the weakest, because it doesn’t quite do what it says on the can. It’s supposed to conjure up the boys returning from the Tripods’ city to the Freemen’s destroyed mountain camp (which is where Series Two climaxed) and then finding the relocated community and drafting up a plan to destroy the enemy. I think it would have been better for the track to start by recapping the feeling of doom, perhaps using the same music from the Series Two climax and then build the new composition from there. As it is, this track serves more as a taster for what’s to come. There are recognisable sounds and established melodies – if anything, it’s saying, “The Tripods is back!”

“The Green Man” is good, capturing the scene where the boys send out a green man on a green horse to attract the attention of a Tripod, with the intention of seizing the machine and its occupant. Some of this track is used on the menus to the DVD and is quite stirring.

“A Drink With Ruki” starts with a flowery piece, featuring a very pleasant melody on the flute. It makes me think of Austria in the summer (or any countryside scene, really). There a few sounds later on that suggest the improvised chamber housing the captured Master. It gets a bit too poppy for my liking towards the end, but on the whole it’s a nice track.

The alien winds put you in mind of “The Pool of Fire”, the heart of the Tripods’ City of Gold, in the track of the same name. I would have preferred a few more sounds from Ken’s Season Two score to confirm that we are back in the city, but this track does let you know you’re in a dangerous place. Again, it concludes with something akin to 1980s pop music, which doesn’t feel part of The Tripods somehow.

“Summer Wind” is as pleasant as the title suggests.

“Freedom” is the big one as far as the story is concerned. It charts the Freemen’s attempts to drop explosives from hot air balloons onto the dome of the Tripods’ city to shatter it. In the end, Will’s cousin Henry has to land his balloon on the dome and detonate his bomb directly. The dome is shattered and he is killed in the process. The sound of the explosion is built into the music and I shudder every time I get to this bit, as I imagine Henry – as played by Jim Baker in the series – blown to smithereens.

When Ken released some remix CDs in the 1990s, I was disappointed to find that although he had produced two new versions of the catchy Opening Theme to the TV series, he hadn’t done anything with the rousing Closing Theme, with its stirring trombones and addictive da-da-da da da-da da rhythm. But in the last track on this MP3 release, “The Conference of Man”, he has more than made up for it. This is my favourite piece of music on the new album, and it sets the whole thing off perfectly.

As with the original soundtrack CD, I lament the omission of the Tripods’ hunting call, because it’s their signature in a way, and while technically being a sound effect, for me it’s part of the musicscape and should be in there.

The composer went to great lengths to make sure these new compositions can sit comfortably alongside his Series One and Two scores, even renting an old Synclavier II synthesiser to recreate the main sounds.

Anyone who loves Ken’s other Tripods albums will love this. Anyone who loves classical music realised electronically will love this.

I highly recommend it.

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