Mark Isham - Arkangel

by Howard Scott Rating:10 Release Date:2018-10-12
Mark Isham - Arkangel
Mark Isham - Arkangel

It is possible that you may never have heard of Mark Isham, but if your ears have been operating at any kind of efficiency over the last forty years, I can almost guarantee you have heard his work.

Isham, a classically trained musician, has contributed to releases by some of the biggest names in popular music (Rolling Stones, Beach Boys, Van Morrison etc. etc.), released his own albums highlighting his jazz trumpet talents, and written soundtracks for dozens of films and television programs. Movies such as “Blade”, “Crash” and “The Black Dahlia” all were musically enhanced by Isham’s composing. He has been awarded both Grammy and Emmy awards, and an Academy Award nomination for “A River Runs Through It” also tops his lengthy resume.

Almost from the beginning of his musical journey, Isham has had a deep interest and love for electronic music. From learning the quirks of the groundbreaking ARP synthesizer to mastering modern day’s almost endless variety of electronic noise makers, Isham has remained a virtuoso of the genre, even during times when its popularity wasn’t always at the forefront.

This history and accumulated background of unparalleled success led Isham to accept Jodie Foster’s invitation for him to pen the soundtrack to an episode of  Charlie Brooker’s “Black Mirror” that she would be directing. The British television show deals with modern day issues of future technology being as much of a curse as a boon, and the installment, entitled “Arkangel”  carries sinister undertones that keep the viewer uneasy throughout.

The definition of a truly successful soundtrack is one that enriches the visual experience without becoming too boisterous to the point of distraction. “Arkangel” by Mark Isham does exactly this, as one would expect from someone who has been at it for his entire adult life. When the mood is rather serene (not often!), so is the music, and when the tensions get ramped up, the soundtrack carries them along and makes your uneasiness just a bit more prickly.

The first offering on the album, entitled “A Day In The Park”, begins with a slightly spooky 6 note piano signature from which everything else flows. The right-side-of-the-keyboard notes have just enough of an edge to them to assure the listener that something malevolent is coming, and a minute and a half later, it does. A sudden crescendo descends into a more chaotic combination of electronic amalgamation that takes the mood from just uneasy to full-blown panic. I won’t mix episodic spoilers with a review of the soundtrack, but suffice to say that the music gives constant not-so-subtle hints regarding the drama that is taking place on the screen.

There are thirteen separate cuts on the release, but it is almost impossible to take a work like this and dissect it into individual slices as would be normal on a typical album. The soundtrack must work as a single entity bringing cohesiveness and clarity to a story playing out in regimented scenes, and “Arkangel” does this without a hiccup anywhere. There are pieces here and there that stand out for their change-of-direction qualities, such as “Hide and Seek” which takes echoes of the opener but then adds touches of mystery and perplexity that carry the tune into a different dimension.

As we get later into the disc (and the show) the more unhappy and sinister the music gets. The longest cut, entitled “Despair”, gives us almost 5 minutes of string and piano stylings that make us fully aware (even without the title!) that things on the screen are taking a decidedly downward turn. The closer, “Consequences”, speeds up a previously apparent heartbeat-like background beat and adds increased volume and tenor to the sound to bring the opus to a resigned and less than joyous feeling ending.

It isn’t very often that a new offering comes around from someone that has been doing the work at the absolute pinnacle of the profession longer than most of us have been alive, but “Arkangel” gives us just that chance. It would have been very easy to write this review by simply listing every award Isham has won or been nominated for in the last forty years and then putting a declaration underneath that read: “Best in the business and a true musical genius in every sense of the word. Listen to this!”.

This is a different kind of compilation than usually stocks the pages of an alternative music site, but it allows us to appreciate the endeavors of someone who not only was a pioneer of electronic music but has also improved and refined the genre during his incredibly diverse and successful career.

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