Black Sails – Season One Thoughts

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The first season of Black Sails has come to a close and I admit I’ve fallen behind on my weekly blogs keeping up with the twists and turns, both narrative and musical. Here are my final three video blogs for the season, presented in a single blog entry.

First up, “Singers of Sails” introduces our pirate choir bellowing out a rowdy rendition of the theme in the Opening Title sequence. The group is comprised of myself, Brendon Small (creator / star of Metalocalypse and the band Dethklok), Brendan McCreary (Young Beautiful in a Hurry, singer / songwriter of BSG & Defiance) and Doug Lacy (who has played with McCartney, Billy Joel, Oingo Boingo and countless others).

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I also discuss why I brought Doug in to record various sea shanties, including the infectiously catchy “The Golden Vanity,” the track that closes out the soundtrack album. (I’ve seen “The Golden Vanity” pop up on a few reviews of the record as a stand-out track, which makes me happy I included it. I think the song is the perfect dessert after you’ve listened to the album from the beginning.)

“Singers of Sails”

For Episode “VII.” I dedicated the whole video blog to the song that is featured near the end. A major character plot point is revealed during a flashback set at the tavern. In the background, a rustic pirate ensemble plays a bouncy rendition of the traditional tune “The Parson’s Farewell.” After the shocking reveal, we cut to the present day, and the score takes over, transitioning the humble song into a full-blown rock arrangement.

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This moment stands alone as the only place in the first season where the overdriven rock elements from the Main Title sequence break into the narrative underscore. The first time I watched this episode, I was stunned by the character reveal, I didn’t see it coming at all. Right away, I knew I wanted the music to amplify the shock I knew the audience would share with me. I could think of no better method than quickly transitioning from a modest little acoustic ensemble, to a blasting heavy metal band, complete with hurdy gurdys, Uilleann bagpipes and distorted guitars.

“The Parson’s Farewell” features Paul Cartwright on mandolin and fiddle.  Watch this guy’s fingers.  He’s on fire.

“The Parson’s Farewell”

For the final video blog of the season, I journey back to my first day on the job. This recording session took place even before principal photography began. There was no footage to score, and I had yet to even begin my research of music from the period. This session was me diving into the deep end of the pool.

I assembled some of my favorite musicians I’d worked with before, including Chris Bleth (woodwinds), Paul Cartwright (mandolin / fiddle), Ira Ingber (guitars) and M.B. Gordy (percussion). I picked up the accordion and was ready to rock. That day, we met our music history consultant, Adam Knight Gilbert, and he changed our lives!

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As you can see from this footage, Adam’s energy is boundless. He brought a ton of old music documents and books, and showed us how the shanties, work songs and popular songs of the era survived in written form, frequently in notated liturgical music. He knew the winding history of the melodies, showing us how a bouncy jig like “Captain Kidd” was adapted into a lyrical ballad like “Wondrous Love.” He taught us how to tweak our performance techniques to sound more period. In short, he whipped us into shape.

Of course, we didn’t always adhere to his rules. Frequently, after learning how to play a piece properly, I would then insist we do something that didn’t fit the period at all. These alterations are what give the source music more edge and character, and are what allowed me to shape the sound of the score I would eventually write.

Even though this video is from my first day working on Black Sails, I saved it for the finale because it is just so much damn fun.

“The Pirate Band”

As I’ve said from the beginning, my approach to Black Sails was different than anything else I’ve ever composed. Though a handful of melodic themes weave through the narrative, they ultimately take a secondary position to other aspects of the music, such as color, mood and groove. Over these past few weeks, I’ve found I had to adjust my approach to blogging as a result.

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When I blog about Da Vinci’s Demons or Battlestar Galactica, I feel like I’m enhancing the viewing experience for my readers. I reveal the structural framework within the score that connects every theme, every sound, every instrument. With Black Sails, I’ve always had this nagging sensation that scene-by-scene analysis in my blog entries would have the opposite effect. The narrative is layered and complex - the fun for the audience is in keeping track of the various alliances and betrayals. The score’s job is not to follow specific character threads, but to create a general sense of the time and place, to evoke the period while firmly rooting the series in a gritty, amped-up, contemporary style. Sure, there are variations of themes, interesting harmonies and recurring rhythms throughout the score, but to know about them doesn’t really enhance your experience.

This is why I’ve relied primarily on the video blogs as a way to introduce you to the most exciting aspects of this score: the sounds, the attitudes of the musicians, the instruments, the voices, the lyrics and the profound impact the process had on me as an artist. So, I hope you watch the series, enjoy it and listen to the record, hearing how it all pieces together.

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With last Saturday’s broadcast, the first season has come to a close. I’ve heard from fans, friends and family alike that the series caught them by surprise, exceeding expectations. This is no surprise to me: I’ve loved the show from the moment I saw the first rough cut. The twists, deaths, betrayals and alliances had me riveted as I scored each episode. I am thrilled that now the world has caught up on what I’ve known for such a long time: Black Sails rules.

There are plenty of new blog entries coming up, starting with this weekend’s premiere of Da Vinci’s Demons Season 2, and some very special episodes of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. that are not to be missed! As always, thank you for reading and following me on this journey.

-Bear