Album Review: Junkie XL, ‘Mad Max: Fury Road OST’

Tom Holkenborg aka Junkie XL Mad Max: Fury Road OST
(WaterTower Music – May 12, 2015)
(Soundtrack)
Review by Rob Bockman

Mad Max: Fury Road dropped into the summer set zeitkreig exactly as anticipated: with a cry of “Here we go, girls” and a roar of V-8 engines. What was less expected is what a significant impact the film has already had culturally, with theories and thinkpieces already dominating certain corners of the sociosphere, not to mention the stable box office returns.  The breakout character of the flick, judging by Twitter response and midnight-Monday interviews on clickbait sites, is Australian cabaret artist iOTA’s “Doof Warrior,” an image that crystallizes the entirety of Miller’s aesthetic into one frame. He’s a masked psycho in a Union suit, swinging in ecstasy from a harness on a multilevel taiko-drum-and-amplifiers stack fitted into a rocketlauncher vehicle, stomping in glee as he windmills heavy riffs from a flamethrower double-necked guitar. It’s a fabulous image, but one that serves a vital function beyond set-dressing: he sets the pace for Immortan Joe’s warband and serves as a diegetic tension-mechanism—when the music begins to swell, our heroes know the caravan is approaching. It’s that multivalent kind of imagery that drives both the film and JunkieXL’s score—the drone of synths under the pounding score doesn’t just provide a contrapuntal percussive note, but evokes engines and scavengers, ensuring listeners are never far removed from Max’s frantic survival instincts. Dutch artist Tom Holkenborg, operating under the nom du fou of JunkieXL, cuts the thunder with ambient engine noises like the buzzing of flies—underlining the movie’s premise: they’re on your tail and gaining fast. Fury Road is an exercise in cycles—the cycle of destroy/create emblemized in the film’s thorny gender interactions, the cycle of a two-stroke nitro-burning engine, and the  narrative cycles of “out-of-the-frying-pan, into-the-dust-storm-with-Half-Life-Warboys-hot-on-our-tails.” That cyclical structure extends to JunkieXL’s compositions, as well—surging crescendos and repeating phrases that eventually—c.f. The Doof Warrior—provide a recurring theme for characters, from the spooky whisper of Immortan Joe’s entry music to the sudden dual-note scowl of Max’s. It’s a soundtrack that perfectly matches the bombast and joy of a film that sees nothing off-kilter about naming its character Rictus Erectus, Toast the Knowing, or Imperator Furiosa. JunkieXL’s score (with Hans Zimmer) for The Dark Knight Rises used a similar bluster, but where the cinematic inertia of that film was more weighted towards “inert,” his work on Fury Road is as retro and vibrant as Miller’s blasted-earth & scarred-flesh film.

The sudden sawing of cello that punctuates “Survive” is deeply (perhaps intentionally) indebted to Williams’ theme from Jaws, and loses nothing in the repetition. In this setting, though, the wild creature that threatens the peace is Tom Hardy’s Max Rockatansky, and that’s one of the real pleasures of Miller’s world: as viewers, we’re asked to take the next logical step up (down?) from Spielberg’s film and fully invest in the shark. Humanity colonizes; humanity complicates, so why not cast your lot with the single-minded apex predator and watch true survival? The most cinematic piece, “Many Mothers,” the recurring theme of Charlize Theron’s incalculably rad Imperator Furiosa, is a restrained and lovely slow build of strings and music box simplicity that hints at the deep reservoirs of self-possession and anger at the core of Theron’s portrayal of the character; that ability to build character through music is as valuable as it is rare, but it’s something JunkieXL does with aplomb (and Miller’s help) throughout his work. The majesty of “Immortan’s Citadel,” full of hushed choirs and brassy blares like Bernstein played at half speed, matches the scale of the eponymous structure and the toxic virility of Immortan Joe, a mutant god-king who demands fealty from his woebegotten Warboys and settlers in exchange for the fresh “Aqua-Cola” he pumps up from the watershed. It’s a superb contrast to the plaintive and beautiful “We Are Not Things,” the theme that appears with Immortan Joe’s escaped slave-concubines.

It’s always difficult to rate a soundtrack divorced from the film—scores can gain or lose impact immensely based on how they match the action and the dialectial narratives of film—and Fury Road especially is such a sumptuous exercise in excess that, without the punctuation of setpieces, the soundtrack becomes samey and overlong, the pieces breaking down into movements rather than punchy tracks. That’s not a criticism—or at least not much of one—so much as a contextualization; while JunkieXL’s score for Fury Road gets a bit uniform without Miller’s imagery, it still holds the captivating pulse of the film.

Tracks to Watch: “Survive,” “We Are Not Things,” “Chapter Doof,” “Many Mothers”

Tracks to Skip: “Water,” “Redemption,” “The Return to Nowhere”

Setting: Watch the movie.

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