By 2007, the once mighty Medal of Honor franchise had seen its fortunes decline, due to a string of mediocre games and plummeting sales figures. Medal of Honor: Airborne was yet another attempt to turn the series' fortunes around, this time through the new hook of starting a level by parachuting into it. But yet again, various shortcomings held the game back from reaching its full potential, resulting in disappointing reviews and sales, and Airborne turned out to be the last Medal of Honor game to be released before 2010's reboot of the franchise.
The most exciting aspect of Airborne might then be the fact that Michael Giacchino, who had scored the first four Medal of Honor titles, made his return to the franchise with this game. The news of Giacchino returning had fans of the series and soundtrack collectors in rapture — no surprise, given that Giacchino's earlier Medal of Honor scores had become modern game score classics and ushered in a new era for orchestral game music. In the years since Medal of Honor: Frontline, the young composer had embarked on a successful career in film and TV and secured a number of high-profile scoring gigs, among them Lost, Mission: Impossible 3, and Ratatouille. Expectations then ran high for Giacchino to deliver another spectacular entry into his canon of Medal of Honor works with his assignment for Airborne. Recorded by 80 members of the Hollywood Studio Symphony, the soundtrack was released as a digital download in June 2007, with the iTunes release including two insubstantial bonus tracks not available anywhere else.
It's interesting to note that Airborne remains something of a black sheep among Giacchino's Medal of Honor scores, often left out when fan and critics evaluate his work for the franchise. One reason will be the simple fact that Airborne was released at a time when orchestral game scores had become a much more common sight than when Medal of Honor burst onto the scene in 1999. But another likely factor were fans' expectations about what Airborne would sound like, and the degree to which the music met these expectations — or not. Frontline remains the favourite Medal of Honor for many game score collectors, partly due to its almost operatic pathos. It's safe to assume fans were hoping for a return of this style of orchestral writing. But five years separate Frontline and Airborne, and right from the start of this soundtrack, it becomes obvious that Giacchino has evolved as a composer and has changed the soundscape of the franchise again, just like Medal of Honor's rambunctious action cues were followed by Medal of Honor: Underground's more intimate pieces.
Airborne's sound, in turn, is quite far removed from Frontline's grandiose approach, which might alienate some fans of Giacchino's earlier Medal of Honor scores. On Airborne, the pendulum swings into the other direction with orchestral textures that are more frantic and harsher than on any previous Medal of Honor soundtrack. The melodicism of Frontline is gone for most of the album's running time. Instead, Giacchino focuses on smaller-scale musical phrases and rhythmic elements, similar to his work on Call of Duty, although Airborne never becomes as abrasive as that soundtrack. The score's pronounced rhythmic focus is most clearly expressed through the greater role string ostinati play on Airborne's score, where they power most of the action cues. Certainly, propulsive string writing had already been an essential ingredient on Medal of Honor. But on that soundtrack, the rhythmic figures actually functioned as secondary motifs around which the compositions here built. On Airborne, the string ostinati figures aren't complex enough to carry the same role and instead simply keep pushing the music forward at an accelerated pace.
Another facet of Giacchino's more frenzied orchestral writing on Airborne are the constantly changing orchestral layers and the rather short melodies, which take centre stage less frequently. In a development that stylistically ties this soundtrack in with Christopher Lennertz' Medal of Honor scores, Airborne's music often mirrors certain cinematic conventions and eschews the sustained dramatic arcs that characterised Giacchino's earlier Medal of Honor soundtracks. Still, Giacchino's action tracks, although more disjointed than previous efforts, remain more coherent than Lennertz', also due to Airborne's less colourful orchestrations. Indeed, Airborne's focus on string and brass, with the woodwind often disappearing from the orchestral palette, further distances Airborne from Frontline's lush, symphonic character. Combine these lighter textures with a less resonant recording that results in a drier sound and you get a soundtrack that sports the leanest tone of all Medal of Honor scores up to this point. This fits the music's grittier, less melodramatic character perfectly, but some listeners will find themselves emotionally distanced from the proceedings.
Particularly on the first half of Airborne's score album, this new compositional approach dominates on tracks like "Operation Huskey", "In the Trenches" and "Gunfight in the Ruins". All of these zip along at an impressive speed and are effectively composed action cues that fire the listener up for battle. But their more disjointed nature is a double-edged sword. There's always something new happening and listeners will be well entertained throughout the tracks' running time. At the same time, none of these compositions achieve the impressive dramatic power of Giacchino's earlier Medal of Honor action tracks. Later pieces like "Room by Room" are more coherent and achieve greater impact. And there are some stylistic throwbacks to Medal of Honor that generate some the album's best action material. Both "Das Flakturn" and "Taking Out the Sighting Tower" return to Medal of Honor's technique of building a cue's structure and development around one rhythmic figure. "Das Flakturn" is particularly noteworthy for its use of triple metre, which imbues the track with an unlikely, but wholly effective dance-like lilt that energises the piece and at the same time holds the composition together. Other tracks highlight Airborne's increased militaristic character: "Operation Neptune" is a quite straightforward march that suffers from the absence of woodwind and the rather dull nature of its string rhythms. "Operation Varsity", more grand in sound than "Operation Neptune", fares a lot better and opens up after its rigid march opening to finish with an impressive stand off between a stately proceeding brass motif and sweeping strings.
Despite whatever misgivings one might have about Giacchino's new approach, his compositions are never less than perfectly functional in the best sense of the word (apart from filler track "Following the Demolition Wires") and most of the time will capture the listener's attention. Also, there are some more changes in sound that Giacchino brings to the table and which add some attractive nuances to Airborne's sound. Light hand percussion rhythms are worked into a number of tracks and they shine brightest on the soundtrack's moodier material. "Restoration Temple" is the first track to feature these sounds and employs them in an exotic environment that sounds both North African and jazzy. Brief chromatic melody leads and string motifs create what amounts to colourful stealth music that's similar to some of Medal of Honor: Allied Assault's material. Even more intoxicating is the first minute of "Sniper Showdown", sporting the album's most original orchestrations. A wandering, chromatic string motif provides a basis, however unstable, for the piece to develop on. Then Giacchino chucks in a number of interlocking orchestral sonorities the Medal of Honor franchise hasn't heard before, and they perfectly captures the tense, frightening atmosphere of the situation the piece underscores. Additions like a curiously bouncing three-note motif only increase the allure of the cue and it's a bit of a disappointment when this enigmatic mood is later brushed aside by more militaristic action music.
Later on, "Dropping into Nijmegen" pits its atmospheric orchestral material against the hand percussion sounds for an air of mystery that is nonetheless edgier than mood music on other Medal of Honor scores. Both this track and the following "Wreckage of Nijmegen" take up thematic material from Frontline, which makes perfect sense given that both games include missions taking place in Nijmegen. Apart from increasing the soundtrack's thematic consistency, "Wreckage of Nijmegen" is noteworthy for the fact that it harks back to Frontline's more emotional tones, but at the same time twists them to fit into Airborne's rougher overall sound. There's no wallowing in emotions here like on Frontline's "Arnhem", but "Wreckage of Nijmegen" remains consistently engaging in its comparatively restrained handling of sentimental material and some listeners will prefer this approach to Frontline's theatrics. The more fragmented melody lines don't carry the lengthy piece perfectly and the melodic material is sometimes too thin to warrant its repeated presentation in unchanged form, but the piece's development is still satisfactory and produces rousing emotional peaks.
But what of one of the staples of Giacchino's Medal of Honor scores, his masterful integration of old and new themes? Well, truth be told, Airborne is Giacchino's least thematic full-length Medal of Honor soundtrack. Admittedly, there's no lack of secondary themes. Not every track is built around an individual motif that interacts with the soundtrack's primary themes like on Medal of Honor, but a good number of cues on Airborne introduce individual elements that structure them. For example, "Room by Room" and "Wreckage of Nijmegen" incorporate recurring melodic ideas that carry each piece. And "Sniper Showdown" ear-catching three-note rhythmic motif proves irrepressible during the course of the piece's running time.
Looking at Airborne's primary themes though, one can't help but to feel a bit disappointed. Firstly, there's no theme for the bad guys. Nowhere is the Nazi theme or even allusions to it heard, and while this is somewhat understandable, given that the theme had already played a smaller role on Frontline, it's still a letdown to see that no effort has been made to replace it with another theme. After the antagonists' themes on Giacchino's previous Medal of Honor scores were hugely effective in underscoring the hero's struggle against the German armed forces, Airborne dramatic impact is severely hurt by this lack of a theme that could counterbalance and threaten the music depicting the Allied troops.
Thus, there are only two primary themes on Airborne. The first one is the score's new main theme, like on Frontline a variation of the iconic Medal of Honor theme, and as always it's presented on the album's first track. This time, the new main theme is a faster-paced variation that sounds more determined than its predecessors and keeps the music going at a lively pace when quoted throughout the score. But this variation, while possessing more of a fighting spirit, is also less melodic and memorable then the original Medal of Honor theme. Although the new theme is quoted on the majority of tracks on Airborne, it doesn't make much of an impact due its somewhat anonymous character. This becomes particularly problematic on tracks like "Operation Husky", which mostly rely on the Airborne theme to provide melodic content and to flesh out their rhythm-centric arrangements. Add in the facts that the theme is often presented on thin-sounding brass and that its melody never has to stand off against any opposing musical forces, and you've got a main theme that ties the soundtrack together without being particularly effective.
Interestingly enough, the soundtrack seems to think that the original Medal of Honor theme is better than the Airborne theme as well. While the original main theme appears far less frequently than the new one, the original main theme replaces the Airborne theme during key moments. The first such occasion arrives on "Unblocking Utah", which is the first track on which Airborne's music turns lighter and optimistic. Slowly building over pulsating strings and an expansive horn melody, the uplifting piece segues into an unexpectedly triumphant rendition of the original main theme, which turns out to be just as stirring as on 1999's Medal of Honor. Similarly, penultimate track "Paestum Landing" relies on the original main theme to announce military success and the defeat of the enemy forces. And like on "Unblocking Utah", the original main theme's lush, melodic strains turn the composition into one of Airborne's highlights — and at the same time underscore how much more captivating the original main theme is compared to the Airborne theme. However, this doesn't change the fact that "Unblocking Utah" and "Paestum Landing" are great music. And in all fairness, "Paestum Landing" features one of the more noteworthy renditions of the Airborne main theme after 1:04 when performed by the brass over a purpose-driven string motif.
Things get even better with "Medal of Honor: Airborne (End Credits)", which is easily the best track to close a Medal of Honor score album. Even more than "Paestum Landing", it sees Giacchino returning to the warm, symphonic lyricism of Frontline. Essentially Giacchino's heartfelt goodbye to the franchise that first brought him to prominence, it works through the original Medal of Honor theme, each rendition more moving than the next. It all climaxes with an impassioned secondary theme that caps off things on a heart-rending note. And considering that this was the last soundtrack to feature one of the most well-known themes in all of video game music, the composition does no less than herald the end of an era. It's still telling that the Airborne main theme never makes a showing on the last track of its soundtrack. But when the original main theme is quoted one last time by a solitary trumpet, few will care and many more will quietly wipe away a tear or two.
Score fans expecting Medal of Honor: Airborne to continue the musical direction that endeared so many listeners to Medal of Honor: Frontline should proceed carefully. Airborne displays Giacchino's evolution as a composer since 2002's Frontline and presents a rougher, edgier tone that brims with energy, but which will be a bit short on attractive melodies for some listeners. Not every action track is as stellar as those on Giacchino's previous Medal of Honor scores, due to Airborne's more disjointed nature, but its battle cues still make an impact. While the orchestrations on most tracks are noticeably lighter than on other scores for the franchise, several tracks include new sounds that prove Giacchino refuses to stand still and his experiments, such as the frequent inclusion of hand percussion rhythms, routinely pay off. In terms of thematic content, Airborne is somewhat thin, offering a new main theme that's has a bit of a weak chest. Instead, Airborne has to rely on past glories and the splendour of the original Medal of Honor theme to impress the listener. If Airborne then is a slight disappointment, that's only when compared to Giacchino's previous works for the franchise. In and of its own, it's an engaging soundtrack with a strong militaristic edge and a flavour for experimentation.