The Vietnam War – A Soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross
Reviewed by Ben Hogwood
You may have seen The Vietnam War, an ambitious 10-part series directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick that has aired on the BBC through Autumn and Winter. This is the first of two companion soundtracks, featuring over 90 minutes of original material composed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.
Its companion is also a double album, with 38 songs including heavyweights of the era from The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, Simon & Garfunkel and Procol Harum.
What’s the music like?
Atmospheric and moody – but with considerable depth. Reznor and Ross write in a deceptively simple style, setting scenes through unhurried motifs and brushes of instrumental colour. Much of this colour is dark and foreboding, suggesting an underlying threat. The Forever Rain does this most vividly, suggesting the approach of an enemy vehicle.
There is an exquisite tension at play in the music, helped by the subtle use of quarter tones that can distort and pull a suggested moment of consonance in the harmony towards something more weird. Other Ways To Get To The Same Place uses these subtle variations in pitch to introduce disquiet.
There are more comforting moments – the opening Less Likely, for instance, then A World Away, where mottled piano and harp combine in an affecting loop, but by the time Justified Response arrives the tension built up throughout is released with great power. We hear cold electronic drums for the first time, then a full-on, four to the floor bluster.
Does it all work?
Yes. As background music it is extremely effective if rather disquieting, demanding more input on the part of the listener. Ross and Reznor suggest mood, emotion and peril with a surprising combination of subtlety and intensity.
Is it recommended?
Definitely. This is a cut above the average soundtrack music, and an ideal accompaniment to the visuals. The score complements the pop heavyweights elsewhere, which could hardly be bigger hitters – A Whiter Shade Of Pale, The Sound Of Silence and A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall to name just three. Get both for a full picture of the climate.