Switched On – Blanck Mass: The Rig (Original Series Soundtrack) (Invada)

by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

This is the first TV soundtrack by Benjamin Power, aka Blanck Mass – a surprising state of affairs, given Power’s prolific output as a composer. It would seem he has been biding his time, for as part of the duo Fuck Buttons he released three albums, as well as providing a good deal of music for the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in London 2012.

Since then he has turned to solo work as Blanck Mass, building a reputation for electronic music of unusual and uncompromising power, with a further five albums under his belt. The Rig is heading up Amazon Prime’s selection of January viewing, a six-part season with a stellar cast directed by Line of Duty stalwart John Strickland. In it, the crew of a North Sea oil rig encounter unseen forces that cut them off from the mainland, with far reaching consequences for their environment and the crew on board.

What’s the music like?

As with all the best soundtracks, Power’s response is one that vividly captures the environment. The weighty main theme is ideally pitched, punching through with concrete-heavy beats that capture the industry, the majestic yet brutal outlines of the right.

The early numbers draw the listener in, setting the scene as the main characters are revealed and established, and conveying the mysterious circumstances the crew find themselves in. Inevitably some of these sketches are short, and work best in the context of the full album, but the disorientation of both personnel and environment proves unnerving for the listener too.

At the same time the ongoing industrial processes are reflected in the clattering percussion (Flesh Meets Floor), the dripping pipes, the echoing chambers and the misty outlines of the vast structure. The unseen menace of the sea is there, too. Sometimes we fall back to companionship, often laced with uncertainty (Ghost), while key scenes such as Helideck build momentum. Power responds to the scenes in kind, moving between the claustrophobic corridors and dimly lit offices of the rig to the vast open reaches of the North Sea.

There are some striking moments. No Fore Without Flare captures the drama of that particular sequence, while We’ll Bring Him In is loaded with emotion. Charlie sends out wails of anguish, realised fully in the extended portrayal of The Wave. This is where the bottom drops out of the music, Power using subtle but striking pitch variations to maximise the discomfort. The story ends in relative comfort but the lasting dread remains.

Does it all work?

Yes. Inevitably there are descriptive elements to the score that are short and undeveloped, but when listened to as a whole the music for The Rig contains a great deal of substance. Power paints a vivid picture of the surroundings without ever resorting to cliché, and there are moments of keen emotion as the characters take over.

Is it recommended?

Wholeheartedly. His previous albums as Blanck Mass suggested Benjamin Power would take to the small screen like a duck to water – and The Rig is proof positive that he has.

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Switched On – Hannah Peel: The Midwich Cuckoos (Original Soundtrack) (Invada Records)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

John Wyndham’s classic 1957 novel The Midwich Cuckoos has inspired a number of big and small screen responses, the most recent being from Sky with their starry interpretation that has been all over digital TV of late. It tells (plot spoiler alert!) of a group of children arriving by stealth in a leafy English town, then growing quickly both physically and mentally as a unit until their power eclipses that of their parents. As the seven-part series takes shape, the tension between the two reaches breaking point, and a number of startling events lead to an extremely fraught battle of the minds.

Reviews for the series, fronted by Keeley Hawes and Samuel West, have been lukewarm, but to this writer at least the story remains a compelling and disturbing one, the tension rarely letting up, with the idea that such dark things could be afoot in ‘normal’ English towns proving to be profoundly unnerving.

The job of portraying these elements in sound has been given to Hannah Peel, who is building up an impressive arsenal of music for the screen, both in analogue and digital form. For her score to The Midwich Cuckoos she uses analogue synthesizers to replicate the ‘hive mind’, shared by the group of children whose initial purpose is to take over the suburbs, but whose greater aims become even more disturbing.

Peel adds drones and tape manipulations to dislocate the perspective of the viewers, but also dips into more obviously English and pastoral references when writing about the setting and the ‘home’ personalities involved.

What’s the music like?

Deeply unnerving but weirdly consoling at the same time – rather like the children who have mysteriously arrived in the town!

Peel’s ability to portray pastoral scenes through her electronics is a massive bonus, for some of the scene setting is exquisite, matching the rich green shades of the production. Yet there is often a dark undercurrent to the writing and a sense of profound unease, especially when describing the hive mind the children have in place. This is done with a single pitch of changing colour and tonal quality, an eerie echo rebounding as though off the walls of a quarry. Lasting comfort is hard to find, though there is brief solace in the mother-child relationships that are formed.

Peel writes descriptively, her melodies portraying the strength of emotion on show from the mothers towards their children, but the deep drones and atmospherics tell a very different story, revealing the layers at work in the youngsters’ minds.

The title music itself is otherworldly, suggesting the intervention of beings from well beyond this planet, and quoting the birdsong of the cuckoo which has at its heart the promise of spring. The Cuckoo music takes the form of the bird as it grows, with the telling lyric “In June, I change my tune”. The Midwich Cuckoos Theme is dark indeed, blotting out the light in a haunting 20 second salvo.

Does it all work?

It does, with the caveat that some of these pieces are short pockets of music written to score specific scenes rather than hang together as part of an album structure. That said, The Midwich Cuckoos makes for compelling if unsettling home listening, which might end with you positioned behind the sofa!

Is it recommended?

Indeed it is – another auspicious addition to Hannah Peel’s discography, revealing a powerfully dark aspect of her writing for the screen.

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As an aside it is worth purchasing the soundtrack on Bandcamp below, as that gives you four bonus tracks.