Released on the height of the popularity that WWII-themed games were enjoying in the early 2000s, Secret Weapons Over Normandy was an arcade-style flying simulation. Travelling different theatres of war, the player got to face off against the elite squadron of German fighter pilots, known as Nemesis, and against the forces of the Japanese Empire. Reaping decent reviews upon its release, the game was graced by another Michael Giacchino score for a WWII game. For Secret Weapons Over Normandy's soundtrack, Giacchino reunited with the forces he had already worked with on the Medal of Honor series and Call of Duty: arranger Tim Simonec and Seattle's Northwest Sinfonia. The 76 piece orchestra was enhanced by a 50 person choir and a 10 person Taiko drum ensemble, with the additional percussionists brought in to add authentic musical colour to the game's missions taking place in the Pacific.
Almost all of the 90 minutes of music that Giacchino created for Secret Weapons Over Normandy found their way on an album release that still ranks as one of the most lavish in the history of Western game music. Highlighting Giacchino's elevated standing after the success of his Medal of Honor soundtracks, film score label La-La Land Records released Secret Weapons Over Normandy as a double-album. This was a very rare sight for any kind of soundtrack and certainly unheard of for a Western game score. On the second disc, buyers would find some short bonus tracks and more importantly five behind the scenes movies, including footage of the recording sessions and of Giacchino explaining the intricacies of his score. All this was accompanied by a CD booklet with extensive liner notes. Unfortunately, this physical release has now gone out of print and, at least as of February 2011, Secret Weapons Over Normandy hasn't been re-released in any other format.
Says Giacchino on his website: "This score has turned out to be one of the hardest projects I have worked on to date. It's contained the most music, and frankly the most notes I've ever written for anything. I think it's fair to say that 75% of the music cues came in at about 5 minutes and were at tempos never slower than 140 and as fast as 165. That equates to many, many measures of music." That's not only a fairly accurate description of Secret Weapons Over Normandy, but also a good hint at why this score is both captivating and tiring. After Call of Duty's acerbic stylings, Giacchino returns to his grand-scale, harmonically pleasing writing that arguably endeared his Medal of Honor scores to so many fans. If one were to draw more parallels to Giacchino's Medal of Honor soundtracks, Secret Weapons Over Normandy could be described as a return to the original Medal of Honor's ballsy gung-ho attitude, channelled via Medal of Honor: Frontline's superior grasp of orchestral colours and penchant for expansive compositions, but without Frontline's sense of tragedy. This will at least partially be due to the game's arcade-like nature, which didn't require a score of operatic emotional range.
Interestingly though, despite the obvious stylistic differences, there's one characteristic both Call of Duty and Secret Weapons Over Normandy share. They're frantic walls of sound that assault the listener almost constantly. Secret Weapons Over Normandy sees Giacchino stretching the full-blown, rich Medal of Honor sound to the breaking point. Never before has the composer piled up orchestral layers to such a degree, never before was he so happy to play different melodies and rhythms in counterpoint to each other and let them clash. If there's one thing you won't find on this album, it's restraint: Giacchino simply lets rip with balls-to-the-walls action material that could hardly be any more bold and exuberant. In a way, this is quite self-indulgent music, but at the same time, it's fascinating to see a young composer at the height of his game, trying out how far he can push his own limits.
As hinted at by Giacchino himself, what listeners get is an album that almost from start to finish throws as much raucous action music as possible at then. There are few moments when the music is not in full-on bombast mode — it's mostly during the brief introductions most cues open with that the music leaves fortissimo territory. "Battle of Britain" is an early example of this hyper-charged style of action writing, which at this point at the album is great fun in its grab-your-throat aesthetic. And the end run of the album, starting with "Stealing the ME262" up to "Normandy Coast" ramps the intensity up even further. It's important to note that although the sonic assault hardly ever lets up, Giacchino is too accomplished a composer to let it all descend into meaningless sound and fury. Stylistically reminiscent of 1940's war movie scoring, Giacchino's soundtrack packs an amazing number of ideas, colours and themes into each cue and pulls the different elements together in some exceedingly well-developed pieces. There's more than enough substance to back up the brash, brass-driven style. It's interesting to compare Giacchino's approach onSecret Weapons Over Normandy to Christopher Lennertz' work on Medal of Honor: Rising Sun. Both soundtracks are similar in the sense that they're a flurry of quite spectacular musical ideas. But while on Rising Sun, this kaleidoscope of colours was organised in short vignettes, Giacchino gives his compositions enough room to satisfyingly develop and make a bigger impact impact. A flawless performance and recording is integral to a successful presentation of such highly complex music, and Secret Weapons Over Normandy doesn't disappoint in this regard, with the orchestra and choir admirably navigating their way through even the trickiest passages.
The only real problem is that there's something like too much of a good thing. And at over 68 minutes, Secret Weapons Over Normandy is like a delicious, oversized chocolate cake that you'll start devouring at first and struggle somewhat to actually finish. Even the boisterous Medal of Honor knew when to slip some quieter, but no less tense, action tracks into the mix. Secret Weapons Over Normandy starts at 95% and, after that, doesn't have too many places left to go to up the ante. Giacchino certainly tries his darnedest and as mentioned, the pieces at the end of the album are even denser than earlier compositions. But by that point, the effect is rather that the music becomes overbearing instead of overwhelming, hitting the listener too often over the head with colourful, but ultimately conservatively scored orchestral mayhem. Admittedly, "Normandy Coast" does manage to lead the album's finish to a suitably imposing climax when the main theme's most victorious, spine-tingling rendition is backed by stirring, wordless choir. But when the music subsides, chances are you'll be as impressed as you'll be tired.
The quite frequent interjections of local colour into the score then aren't only nice additions to the orchestral palette, but also instrumental in keeping the music from becoming stale and monotonous. Sure, tracks like "Stalingrad" and "East Prussian Factory Run" are just as noisy as most other cues on the album, but they're painting their frenetic sonic images with different colours. "Zuara" is the first such track and turns out to be one of the most interesting compositions on the album with its North African-styled, quicksilver flute leads, which are backed by resonant, yet lithe hand percussion. The lively nature of the folkloristic elements meshes well with the franticness of the orchestral sounds, which are slightly modulated here to incorporate unusually expansive string melodies. Other tracks incorporate ethnic material equally well. "The Siamese Coast" and "Midway" respond to their Pacific setting by including taiko drums and fortunately, Giacchino resists the temptation to use these instruments to simply crank up the volume. Instead, he uses the taiko drums both to power "Midway" over its six-minute running time and provide an to intriguing rhythmic bed that accompanies "The Siamese Coast"'s more homophonic textures. The shadowy introduction of "The Siamese Coast", in particular, with its harmonically ambiguous string lines and mysterious French horn melody, is enhanced greatly by the sounds of the drum ensemble.
The inclusion of Japanese musical elements provides another comparison point with Rising Sun, which is also set during the battle between American and Japanese armed forces in the Pacific. Rising Sun more overtly included Japanese sounds, but mostly kept them apart from the orchestral material surrounding them. Secret Weapons Over Normandy more freely mixes ethnic and traditional orchestral elements — very tastefully so — and creates a more coherent listening experience. Also, one can't help wonder if Secret Weapons Over Normandy answers that nagging question what Rising Sun might have sound like had Giacchino continued to score the Medal of Honor games.
Finally, there are the choral sounds of "Stalingrad", "East Prussian Factory Run" and "Fjords of Norway", communicating these missions' icy settings. As with the taiko drums, Giacchino proves his versatility and good taste through his immensely skilful writing for this ensemble. On "Stalingrad", the choir is not surprisingly used to add even more unabashed bombast, and is appropriately introduced by extended, rising and falling string legato figures that are almost hysteric and frankly a bit comical. But "East Prussian Factory Run" opens with a men's choir singing a quiet yet rhythmically pronounced melody against a minimal orchestral backdrop and proves instantly memorable. And the quieter, majestic strains of "Fjords of Norway" make it one of the album's highlights. The sounds of war are kept at bay by a sense of chilling wonder that is obvious already in the cue's wondrous introduction for bewitching flute ostinato and serene female choir. The general feeling of awe doesn't prevent suspense from building in the background over a timpani drone and a relentless rhythmic string motif. The second half of the track is given to more action music, but the ensuing choral climax is one of the most satisfying moments on the album, due to the fact that the cue spent more time than usually on building up to this outburst.
What also helps immensely in keeping the listener interested is the dense web of themes that Giacchino weaves on Secret Weapons Over Normandy. And as with everything else on this album, his themes follow a "the more, the better" approach. In fact, this might be the thematically most complex score Giacchino has ever written. There's of course a patriotic main theme that's quite memorable, if not exactly subtle in character. Still, the way it oozes triumph and fighting spirit makes it an effective sonic marker each time it appears. And it appears a whole lot of times, much more often than the different Medal of Honor main themes did on their scores. Pretty much every track features the main theme in some version or another. Fortunately then, the theme proves versatile enough for Giacchino to bent it into many different directions, so that it can for example function as a lyrical counterpoint to the action material at 2:09 on "Dunkirk Harbor".
Then there's the theme for the German Nemesis flying squad, first heard at 1:03 into "Dunkirk Harbor". It's an aggressive, fast fanfare-like motif that's certainly effective, but it doesn't possess a huge amount of personality, particularly when compared with the commanding force of Giacchino's Nazi theme for Medal of Honor. Like the main theme, the Nemesis theme finds its way into most tracks and this turns out to be a good idea, given that Secret Weapons Over Normandy's sprawling soundscapes need a good amount of recurring thematic elements to ensure the compositions remains cohesive. Also, the different themes on the soundtrack improve the music's flow by repeatedly standing off against each other and creating some tension that keeps the music from rambling.
Giacchino also introduces several secondary themes that appear only on a number of tracks, but are no less interesting than the two primary themes. There's a pentatonic theme for the Japanese forces, introduced on "The Siamese Coast" on horns backed by taiko drums. In its even, straightforward progression, the theme recalls not only Call of Duty's main theme, but also paints the image of enemy forces moving forward in plodding, single-minded motion. The theme is not as interesting as other folkloristically-tinged material on the soundtrack, but it sounds sufficiently exotic and forceful. "Midway" is then driven forward by the main theme, the Nemesis theme and the Japanese theme all clashing in ever new combinations. Another recurring secondary theme is heard on "The Rescue of Pauline", a surprisingly flighty violin melody that lights up things for a while and speaks of the joys of soaring through the clouds. How effective these themes can be when they're played off against each other is demonstrated later on "Copenhagen", when the Pauline theme follows a particularly brutal rendition of the Nemesis theme and breaks the suffocating atmosphere created by the latter theme's ferociousness.
And to make the soundtrack thematically even denser, Giacchino reaches back to a technique he deployed so effectively on Medal of Honor. He mixes his primary and secondary themes with motifs that are particular to one track and around which that cue is built. As with the secondary themes, the examples are many. On "Zuara" for example, that cue-specific motif is the exotic flute melody that not only introduces the North African elements into the track, but also returns throughout the piece. "Fjords of Norway" relies more heavily on its recurring basic theme and keeps on circling around a propulsive string motif over which the track builds into its explosive second half.
Secret Weapons Over Normandy shows Giacchino at his most deliciously excessive. Compositions are packed to the brim with massive, yet finely detailed sounds; bits and pieces of numerous primary and secondary themes whiz past the listener; and everything is held together by an inextinguishable sense of heroic bravado that won't allow anything that doesn't perspire on a truly grand scale. Giacchino makes sure that the orchestral onslaught is organised in well-developed pieces that often rely on either ethnic elements or impressively written choral material to gain their individual character. And they certainly need to try hard, because monotony turns out to be Secret Weapons Over Normandy's biggest problem. Every composition is a marvellously fun, raucous listen, but only "Fjords of Norway" deviates substantially from the all-out-action formula pretty much every other track on the album follows. Some moments of repose could have turned Secret Weapons Over Normandy into a soundtrack of similar stature as Giacchino's early Medal of Honor scores. As it stands, it's a good 70 minutes of some of the most dense orchestral action material written in the past decade. Maybe just don't try to tackle it all in one go.