Knights of Badassdom
Today, the feature film Knights of Badassdom finally hits Video On Demand after a limited theatrical run last month. Today also marks the release of my original score, brought to you by Sparks & Shadows. The album containing both my original score and songs is available digitally from iTunes, Amazon MP3 and is also available on CD. Feast thine ears on this ten-minute preview of my score!
My journey with Knights of Badassdom began almost exactly five years ago. My dear friend, and frequent collaborator, Joe Lynch put a script by Kevin Dreyfuss and Matt Wall in my hand. In the darkest hours of a cold winter night, I read a chronicle of adventurous LARPers, an evil curse, a disgruntled heavy metal singer, wizards, warriors and the Hell Lord Abominog. As I read, my musical imagination filled with soaring bagpipes, drop-tuned distorted guitars, double kick drums, blaring horns, dulcimers and ethereal vocals – everything I love about music in one epic score. Now, five years later, after a long and twisted creative journey, I am thrilled that the music I heard that night in my mind is finally unleashed upon the world, as the soundtrack to Knights of Badassdom.
Heavy metal and rock influences pervade the film and I knew the score needed to be written with a firm grasp of the style. My experience with heavy metal when I was growing up was limited – I acquired a taste for overdriven guitars and screaming vocals a little later in life. I’d certainly never written anything in the style prior to Knights. So, my first step was to reach out to a few friends to help me get started.
I got together with Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian (with whom I’d collaborated on Battlestar Galactica: The Plan) and asked him to recommend a playlist of influential metal albums. Drawing from his advice, and the advice of a few others, I assembled a massive playlist of about 20 hours of music. The tracks included metal bands such as Iron Maiden, Sepultura, Amon Amarth, Dethklok, Pantera, Metallica, Dimmu Borgir, Dio and Ensiferum. I listened to almost nothing else for an entire year.
When the time came to begin writing (the song “Your Heart Sucks My Soul” was needed early, so it could be played back on set) I reached out to Brendon Small, the creator and composer of Metalocalypse and its animated metal band Dethklok. I was a tremendous fan of his show and was listening to his music intensely for inspiration, so I wanted to ask his advice on writing heavy metal music. We hit it off, and he contributed brutal solos and rhythm guitars to my score. (In return, I later contributed orchestral production to his epic rock opera, Metalocalypse: The Doomstar Requiem.)
Scoring Knights allowed me to work with many of my favorite musicians, and meet new musical partners who would become close friends. Brendon Small and I assembled a band to perform a Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert in 2011. During that experience, I was introduced to the musicians who would become the primary Badassdom rhythm section: Mike Keneally on guitar, Pete Griffin on bass and Joe Travers on drums. I knew if they could handle the music of Queen, they could handle the music of Knights.
The down-home slide guitar was performed by Ira Ingber, who has mastered the style over decades of being an in-demand session and live player. The face-melting solo on “At the Gates” was played by Whitesnake’s Doug Aldrich. Terrifying guitar textures for the horror cues were provided by Oingo Boingo’s Steve Bartek. The gorgeous Uilleann and small Scottish pipes were performed by Eric Rigler, who was featured on the score to Braveheart and has worked with me many times on Battlestar Galactica. Having access to these brilliant musicians allowed me to bring the wide emotional range of this score to life.
The characters in Knights of Badassdom are drawn from divergent backgrounds, so the score, too, is influenced by various genres, including heavy metal, contemporary orchestral, Renaissance and country. While the combined instrumentation may be unorthodox, my approach was actually quite traditional: I wrote themes for each character or faction and developed these themes over the course of the film.
MODERATE SPOILERS AHEAD: Our hero, Joe (played by Ryan Kwanten), is the lead singer of Doomstalker, a struggling heavy metal band. Thanks to his friends Eric (Steve Zahn) and Hung (Peter Dinklage), he is thrust into the world of Live Action Role Playing (LARP) after a painful breakup.
Joe begins the film a pathetic loser, and ends it a triumphant hero. To represent this classic arc, I wrote Joe’s Theme:
Joe’s Theme is first heard in “Slightly Badass,” when he makes the fateful decision to join his friends in their LARP, at the urging of Eric. The theme follows his ups and downs throughout the narrative, most notably appearing in “Earn Our Valor,” for his rousing speech to Eric when he, in turn, convinces his friends to join him. Inspired by Brian May’s electric guitar layering in Queen songs, I often set Joe’s Theme in big chorales, orchestrated for layered electric guitars and orchestral strings and brass.
Along the way, Joe falls for a LARPer named Gwen (Summer Glau). Her character is represented by the Gwen Theme:
Her theme is frequently played by the English Horn, giving it — and her character – a sense of Renaissance nobility. She is more than the virtuous damsel, however, most notably when she single-handedly takes out two armed assailants. Here, fittingly, her theme thunders with heavy metal instrumentation.
Joe is thrust into the world of the LARPers, a passionate group led by their game master Ronnie Kwok (Jimmi Simpson). They are represented by the LARPer Theme:
In Ronnie’s mind, this fantasy world is very real, so his theme is a beautiful medieval melody, without a trace of irony. A throwback to fantasy scores of old, this tune is inspired by Renaissance music and performed on traditional instruments including lutes, recorders, dulcimers and tambourines. The LARPER theme is featured prominently throughout “The Kingdom of Eliphaz” and “The Game Master.”
In order to re-animate Joe’s character for the LARP, Eric reads from a mystical book he found online, the Sigillium Dei Aemeth, and unwittingly unleashes a real demon who takes the form of Joe’s ex-girlfriend. This evil scourge is represented by the Succubus Theme:
The dissonant motive is often performed by Raya Yarbrough’s ghostly vocals, floating over scraping prepared pianos and harpsichord. In fact, the film itself opens with Raya’s haunting solo vocals singing this melody. As the story progresses, the theme becomes increasingly dissonant, culminating in terrifying variations that occur in the second half of the record.
In the third act, the Succubus is transformed into the giant beast, the Abominog. At this moment, the theme itself is transformed, and turned upside down, where it remains for the rest of the film. This moment can be heard on the album in “The Hell Lord Abominog,” where the heavy metal band pounds out huge power-chords of the melody. Above them, Raya harmonizes the same notes in repeatedly stacked minor seconds, building intensity until the sound feels like nails on a chalkboard. Scraping prepared pianos and harpsichords provide rhythmic energy while dissonant orchestral strings scream. The combined result is pretty terrifying!
The evil unleashed from the Sigillium Dei Aemeth is not the only antagonist in Knights of Badassdom. Our heroes also face off against nasty redneck paintball enthusiasts, who are represented by the Paintballers Theme:
Their theme is totally at odds with the rest of the score; after all, these guys come from a different world. Their gritty blues theme is played on dobro and slide guitar, evocative of country and blues, a far cry from the driving heavy metal distortion of the guitars featured in other themes.
For the film’s triumphant third act, I introduced the Evermore Theme:
This theme begins during the montage when our heroes gather their weapons, and builds into a fanfare worthy of the kings’ speeches before their epic battle. Though only heard in “Earn Our Valor” and “Abominog Battle,” the Evermore Theme is the most rousing in the score. It introduces the culmination of all the various factions for the film’s climax, building to the point where LARPer fantasy adventure and real-life horror inevitably collide. At this point, all the primary themes are interwoven with the Evermore Theme.
These various themes hold the score together as a cohesive, instrumental piece. However, music in Knights of Badassdom plays a more important role than mere background score. The music of Joe’s band, Doomstalker, is essential to the story. At the film’s climax, Joe puts his heavy metal singing skills to the ultimate test: he sings a song that must defeat evil. “Your Heart Sucks My Soul” is a Doomstalker original. We get a short glimpse of it in the film’s first act, but nothing can prepare us for the power Joe unleashes at the end.
“Your Heart Sucks My Soul” was the first piece I composed for the film, because it was needed for playback on set for filming. The process of composing it gave me much of the template for how the rhythm section and guitars would work throughout the eventual score, and provided a great chance for me to get my feet wet with heavy metal composition.
“At The Gates,” the closing credits song, was the final piece I composed for the film, co-writing it with the my brother Brendan McCreary, who provided the singing voice for the main character. In many ways, this song brought my entire experience with Knights of Badassdom full circle. I wanted the searing guitars, the elegant orchestral strings, the lyrical bagpipes and Renaissance instruments to smash together in a final musical burst that captures the spirit of the film.
After I wrote “At the Gates,” I realized that the instrumental bridge in the middle turned out to be one of the strongest musical passages in the entire score. Had I written it earlier, I would have used it thematically throughout the film. Alas, there was no time to go back and work it into the score. But when the time came to produce the soundtrack album, I realized I could use the material as a bookend for the whole journey. The album opens and closes with a lonely bagpipe solo playing the instrumental bridge theme from “At the Gates” against the backdrop of distant, rolling thunder.
Producing the soundtrack for Knights of Badassdom has been a joyous experience. I think of it as a “heavy metal fantasy concept album.” The cues are presented in narrative order, for the most part, with some slight restructuring and occasional new material to facilitate a smooth musical flow:
01. The Kingdom of Eliphaz
02. Your Heart Sucks My Soul (Garage Version)
feat. Brendan McCreary, vocals
03. Joe’s Power Ballad
feat. Brendan McCreary, vocals
04. The Game Master
05. Slightly Badass
06. The Sigillium Dei Aemeth
08. Demon Apes
09. Gwen’s Theme
10. Massacre at Valinore
11. Out of Game
12. The Hell Lord Abominog
13. Earn Our Valor
14. The Epic Battle of Evermore
15. Abominog Battle
16. Your Heart Sucks My Soul
feat. Brendan McCreary, vocals
Brendon Small, guitar solo
17. At the Gates
feat. Brendan McCreary, vocals
Doug Aldrich, guitar solo
I hope that when you listen, you are swept away, as I was that night I first read the script, into a world of fantasy, metal, horror and adventure.