The disappointing thing about Daft Punk’s Tron Legacy soundtrack isn’t that it’s a film score, but that it’s such a typical Hollywood film score. It sounds similar to music from other recent blockbusters to such an extent that one has to question how many of the creative decisions Daft Punk made themselves. Much of this album sounds like it was written by committee, with the French duo adding their distinctive electro flourishes on top to digitally sweeten an otherwise mundane soundtrack.
This isn’t to say that Daft Punk are in bad form here. The sonic sculpting on this album is nothing short of impressive, with some of the sexiest synthesized sounds the duo have ever created. There’s a particular distorting effect used on the percussion in “The Game Has Changed” and several other tracks that is pure ear candy; it’s some kind of mix of compression, bitcrushing and who knows what else, producing a skittering, staccato tone that fluctuates in pitch and pulsates menacingly. “End of Line” is another nice showcase of synthesis and sampling skills, with deliciously deep, resonant synths building upon each other and then churning through bubbly, glitchy distortion that makes the song sound like it was run through a dusty old Atari.
“Derezzed,” the album’s seeming attempt at a single, is no less impressive with the synth manipulation, but it’s dishearteningly short at a minute and fourty-four seconds long, and it seems more like a sketchy idea for a song than a musical offering worthy of Daft Punk’s reputation. “Derezzed” is catchy, but it doesn’t really go anywhere in its short lifespan, and doesn’t really inspire the listener to dance or to feel any particular emotion. It just seems to say “listen to these cool sounds we can make.”
And that’s the problem with most of this album: Daft Punk seem to be resting on their laurels rather than going off on any new adventures. They’re mostly relegated to making cool noises to spice up a score that sounds like it was patched together from bits of Inception and every other blockbuster action/drama movie of the past twenty years. Most of Tron Legacy relies on harrowing orchestral sounds that get louder and louder and higher pitched, always building towards some gigantic climax, at which point the song abruptly ends. It’s hard to differentiate many of the tracks on this album, because 80% of them are the aforementioned formula with slight variations in the instrumentation and synth effects used. It’s all beautifully mixed, but the constant orchestral assault quickly becomes monotonous. This isn’t music that expresses an emotion so much as it demands that the listener become upset, on-edge and biting their nails for whatever cinematic event is about to occur. It’s oppressive, rather than expressive.
There are exceptions, of course. Most of the fun is to be had in the few tracks where the synthetic instrumentation dominates. ”The Son of Flynn” is a slow-building, beautifully arpeggiated piece that uses just enough orchestra to add depth to the melody. “Solar Sailer” is similar, with a punchy analog synth lead flying through spacey pads and tastefully minimal strings while a twinkling synth horizon slowly rises in the background. It evokes bits of “Night Vision” and “Verdis Quo” from Discovery, and makes one wonder what Daft Punk could have done here if they hadn’t been forced to go the full-on Hollywood orchestra route. There are many moments in the score where the synths tantalizingly tease, but then fade away as the orchestra starts to blare, leading into the same tired theatrics.
Thankfully, on the “End Titles” track, Daft Punk really gets to let loose. Drum machines kick away, rotating synths flange and distort themselves joyfully, and the lead is firmly taken up by a synthesizer rather than strings. This song rocks. The same cannot be said for many of the tracks here, which are not much good for dancing, listening to at home, or, dare I say it, scoring a movie. Many reviewers will undoubtedly say that this is what should have been expected of this album, since it is soundtrack music, but the fact is that thousands of movies have been made that don’t use this kind of cliched pseudo-classical Hollywood music. Personally, I was hoping Daft Punk would have an approach similar to what Vangelis did with Blade Runner, which involved no orchestra and had none of the obsession with repetitive climaxes, but it’s pretty obvious that Disney felt they were spending too much money on this movie to take artistic risks with the musical tone. They let Daft Punk play their established role in a safe manner, and I’m sure it will be profitable for everyone involved. At least we got some cool new synthesizer sounds out of it.
I was going to include some of the songs in the review via youtube, but all of the ones I could find had pathetically terrible sound quality. Here’s a consolation remix: