The Chemical Brothers’ Latest Muse: “Hanna”

When filmmaker Joe Wright needed a score to accompany Hanna, the upcoming Focus Features action thriller about a 16-year-old trained assassin sent on a secret mission across Europe, he knew it had to differ from the traditional classical music used on his artsier past films like Pride and Prejudice and Atonement. Sad strings weren’t going to cut it for a fast-paced La Femme Nikita-esque tale. Remembering his previous life as a light show operator at clubs and raves and a visual designer for early Chemical Brothers‘ live shows, he called his old colleagues up and asked them to pen Hanna’s entire score.

Conventional wisdom says the Chemical Brothers’ career should be dead by now; a dusty time capsule of mid-’90s “Big Beat” to be unearthed in 50 years as a byproduct of an ephemeral, if massively popular, movement dubbed “electronic.” Electronic music’s ’90s identity crisis vacillated between chin-scratching and fist-pumping; on their early releases, Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons unapologetically championed the latter. But as the genre became a loud, throbbing fusion of heavy breakbeats, sample-heavy house and rock instrumentation, it waned in the 2000′s and the group struggled to evolve, releasing a series of middling albums with frustratingly good moments. Like the best ecstasy trips, early 21st century Chemical Brothers albums offered sporadic bouts of pleasure even when the trip itself was unmemorable.

It’d be easy to say the Bros are done, but in recent years they’ve turned their knob twiddling towards film and in doing so, have created some of their most original visual and sonic work in years. On 2010′s Further, their seventh full-length album, the group enlisted longtime visual partners Adam Smith and Marcus Lyall to create a short film for each of the album’s eight tracks to be played during their live sets and compiled for a DVD. The synergy was perfect, as Lyall and Smith’s mix of animation, psychedelic graphics and 1,000 frames per second, hyper-slo-mo camerawork achieved that rare feat: visuals that enhanced the live act without distracting or overwhelming it. At the same time, Darren Aronofsky pegged the duo to provide music for the pivotal club scenes in his acclaimed horror ballet Black Swan.

The mark of a good soundtrack is how powerful and striking it is when divorced from its accompanying images. Inspired by the action-cum-fairytale tone of Hanna, the soundtrack stands as the most diverse and complete work since 1999’s Surrender. Opener “Hanna’s Theme” approximates the whimsical psych-pop of Animal Collective, while the propulsive, driving synths of “Quayside Synthesis” and “Escape 700” recall the Motorik of Autobahn-era Kraftwerk. It’s as if all the grand ideas the group couldn’t clearly express on their own record – from the twinkling, childlike piano on “The Sandman” to the squelchy synths and, fine, block-rockin hip hop beats on “The Devil Is in the Beats” – make sense in the context of a soundtrack. The group’s classic big beat sound can still be heard on songs like “Container Park” and “Hanna vs. Marissa,” but Wright’s film seems to have pushed them in the paradoxical cohesive, yet far-reaching direction fans were hoping for years.

It’s understandable, if not forgivable, for an act like the Chemical Brothers to have lost their way in the past decade, relying too much on guest vocalists but thankfully not found (and not needed) on Hanna.  Maybe it was the collaboration with Wright focused and narrowed the group’s tendency toward bombast or unnecessary intricacy. Of all the singers, rappers and producers the group has worked with over the past 15 years, it’s a filmmaker that becomes the pair’s saving grace.

The Chemical Brothers’ soundtrack to Hanna is available now.

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