Craig Armstrong has always created music of a highly cinematic nature. His debut release The Space Between Us was a steamy blend of orchestral movements and dark beats, and after working with everyone from Massive Attack to Everything But The Girl, I knew it was only a matter of time before he got tapped to do a movie. Although his score for Plunkett And Macleane went largely un-noticed (mainly because the movie went unnoticed), he must have caught a few ears, as he was pegged to do the score for the movie Moulin Rouge.
While he has been consistent, Armstrong isn't exactly the most subtle composer around, which seemed like a good fit for the film. Scarily enough, the rather garish movie drowned out his score almost entirely, and it has never even been officially released (although the movie has spawned two other horrible soundtracks of mainstream pap). At any rate, As If To Nothing follows quickly, and a quick scan of the sleeve shows him working with an even more varied roster of musicians including Bono (yes, of U2), Evan Dando (formerly of the Lemonheads), Mogwai, Photek, and King Crimson (sampled).
Once again, the main crux of the album is swelling orchestral movements that would seem downright manipulative placed in the context of a film (a touching moment, cue french horns!), but actually still work pretty well on the album as a whole. The release starts out with "Ruthless Gravity," and even though the everprescent strings are still the focus, pulsing electronic blips (sounding almost like morse-code at moments) and a rumbling beat give the track a nice new wrinkle. "Waking Up In New York" is one of the closest things to a 'pop' track that Armstrong has ever done. With Dando adding some subtle vocals, it runs 3 and a half minutes long and is quite touching, regardless of whether it was written before or after September 11th (most likely the latter).
Those hoping for some huge guitars on the collaboration with Mogwai on "Miracle" will be sorely disappointed. With middle-eastern vocals by Swati Natekar, the only recognizable touch of the group is some soft guitar melodies at the beginning and a touch of piano. Likewise, the collaboration with Bono doesn't really cover any new ground, rehashing "Stay (Faraway, So Close!)" from their Zooropa album into a symphonic version. Probably essential if you're a U2 fan, but most others will cringe at having to hear one of the most over-hyped artists around. Fortunately, Photek redeems himself a bit (from his rather weak last release of Solaris) with some dark, rumbling beats on "Hymn II" and "Starless 2" reworks a King Crimson sample into a shimmering slow-burner.
Elsewhere, the album is a bit hit-or-miss, fortunately more of the former than the latter. "Finding Beauty" and "Niente" find Armstrong in familiar territory with subtle electronics and orchestra swells, but both still work nicely and neither run on too long. "Sea Song" is nearly the opposite, taking what could have been a short, pretty track with female vocals and dragging it out for far too long . The collaboration with singer Steven Lindsay sounds surprisingly like Bono again, causing a double take before the disc closes out. In the end, the disc is best when it strays from the typical Armstrong formula, as on the middle-eastern sounding "Miracle" and the jungle rumblings of "Hymn II." If you've liked his releases before, you probably won't go wrong here, but as a composer it seems that he works best when teaming up with those who are the least like him.