Thrilling Human-Machine Dynamics
Producer Geoff Barrow, also of Portishead, and composer Ben Salisbury are no strangers to each other. In 2012, the two collaborated on Drokk: Music Inspired by Mega-City One. While the album was originally intended to soundtrack the 2012 film Dredd, the music served as an “outsider’s perspective” to the British sci-fi comic Judge Dredd. Writer Alex Garland, who penned the script for Dredd, knew he wanted these dark sonic moods on his new film, so he enlisted the duo to score his directorial debut, Ex Machina. In order to fully grasp the story of the sci-fi feature, Garland pushed the two to begin working early, having them read the script before the team had begun filming. Over a ten-month grind, Salisbury and Barrow successfully envisioned the film to pair with a perpetually tense soundtrack that hisses, pulsates and drones.
The film Ex Machina (out in U.S. theaters on April 10th) follows a computer programmer as he is seduced by a specimen of artificial intelligence named Ava. Track titles follow the film’s narrative, referring to characters by name and opening with “The Turing Test,” a glacial, low-rumbling number named after a test that measures a machine’s intelligent behavior. Salisbury and Barrow reflect the human-machine dynamic by employing stringed instruments as well as electronic equipment.
Among the human-like tracks are “Ava” and “Skin” with their delicate, drip-dropping ethereal celeste playing melodies, of which more than resemble Brian Eno’s genre-defining Ambient 1: Music For Airports. Elements of contemplative post-rock emerge on “Falling” and “Out” as trickling guitars induce a soft-focus introspection.
Yet, throughout the album, long gaps of near-silent stillness induce anxiety in the listener. The track times are long enough to allow a rise and fall between musical moments. Demented and nauseous, “Hacking / Cutting” sends shivers with elongated samples of brass instruments using Paulstretch software and culminates in John Carpenter-esque synth stabs. Elsewhere, the back end of “The Test Worked” drops to a three-chord movement that, after nearly seven minutes of motionless fog, expresses the satisfying nature of solving a puzzle.
From his days in the exemplary trip-hop group Portishead, Geoff Barrow applies everything he learned about paranoia and drama to this soundtrack. Ex Machina weaves in and out of the placid and the abrasive, waxing and waning before introducing the next musical passage, all within the same track. However, the bonus disc contains shorter tracks, little vignettes and ambient interludes that better suit the traditional OST format. The only bonus track that exceeds the three minute mark is the album closer, cryptically titled “The Beginning.” And that is what Ex Machina does so well, fostering little pockets of mystery that grow into threatening omens. In this way, Ex Machina is unforgiving; even after an ephemeral ambush of thick, throbbing synths and chilling scrapes simmers down to a quiet glow, the thrill of its return is ominously felt.