The last time Bristol pair Geoff Barrow, of Portishead and Beak>, and film composer Ben Salisbury tried their hands at a soundtrack, it broke loose from its film and strutted away. Drokk was written as a notional soundtrack to the 2012 Judge Dredd film, Mega-City One. In fact it was too complete a soundscape to exist in the background of anything, summoning up rather than complementing the action. It was the film, full of deeply atmospheric electronics and the unashamed influence of Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds.
Now Barrow and Salisbury have a real soundtrack on their hands. They have completed the music for Ex_Machina, an Alex Garland written and directed sci-fi already been and gone from UK cinemas but released in the USA this week. Domhnall Gleeson is assigned to check the human qualities of alluring robot, Alicia Vikander. With the soundtrack out at the same time as the film, the main question is how well it works as standalone music, regardless of its role on screen. The answer, fortunately, is very well indeed. The tone of Ex_Machina is different to Drokk, more subdued, less assertive, less conclusive – necessary for a functional soundtrack – but it operates as a distinctive, absorbing set of tracks. A full ten bonus tracks are included, half the album, which do not feature in the film.
The tracks are chilly, laboratory specimens, with titles such as ‘The Turing Test’, ‘Bunsen Burner’ and ‘Masks’. They build slow, shimmering layers of synthesised sound, as for example on ‘Skin’, which increases in volume over five minutes to reach a rush of interference reminiscent of a satellite link beaming a rocket launch. Shivering gongs and lurking menace dominate ‘Watching’, and then a strange, organic pulse emerges in the background. Something is alive! On 'Hacking/Cutting’ cymbals imitate the thin buzz of a surgical saw. ‘I Am Become Death’ channels Robert Oppenheimer in the most minimal piece of all, in which oscillating electronics shelter behind thick glass from a muffled atomic blast. ‘Bunsen Burner’ comes closest to the spirit of Drokk, but its rich, vintage synth chords are detached and eerie.
Ex_Machina sounds like another world, one in which invokes '50s sci-fi films and '70s television soundtracks exist as faint memories. The music floats free, cocooned from the unsettling events and disturbing sights clearly visible through the laboratory door.