While it's true that the commercial fortunes of the Red Faction franchise had been waning for a while, publisher THQ felt that there was still enough gas left in the tank for another series entry. And indeed, 2011's Red Faction: Armageddon received a significant marketing push, including trailers for the game screened in movie theatres. It all wasn't to much avail though, as the game trailed its predecessors' sales and, in July 2011, THQ CEO Brian Ferrell officially declared the franchise finished. Maybe another linear third-person shooter that scored good, but not outstanding reviews, wasn't what even loyal Red Faction fans were looking for, let alone gamers at large.
The genre shift that occurred between Red Faction: Guerilla and Red Faction: Armageddon from sandbox shooter to more straightforward corridor exploration coincided with a new musical focus. Following Guerilla's three-hours-plus score of action-packed orchestral/electronic hybrids was Armageddon's more restrained, ambient score, written by film composer and sound director Brian Reitzell. Previously a drummer for punk band Redd Kross, Reitzell's credits include Red Riding Hood, 30 Days of Night, and Sofia Coppola's films, including what's probably one of the most controversial film soundtracks of recent years, Marie Antoinette. In interviews about Armageddon's music, the BAFTA-nominated artist described his enthusiasm for the game's alien Mars setting, which coincided with his desire to create unique musical textures and soundscapes through handmade music that didn't rely on third party sample libraries. Armageddon's score was released in May 2011 as a digital download, confusingly in two different versions with the same name. A 12-track version of the soundtrack was released via iTunes and Amazon, while the Sumthing Digital download of Armageddon includes three album-only bonus tracks. This review refers to the iTunes/Amazon album.
As Reitzell's film score credits suggest, his music for Armageddon is more interested in intricate layers of electronically manipulated instruments than in catchy melodies or thematic development. This precedence of atmosphere over structure is by no means a problem, but on Armageddon, this stylistic choice generates two different kinds of music that wildly differ in how enjoyable they are.
Let's get the less convincing parts of the album out of the way first. About half the tracks on Armageddon, making up about 20 minutes of music, are amorphous, flavourless ambient noodling. Granted, Reitzell shows himself an expert at twisting instruments' sounds and subtly changing their character. But that alone doesn't make the music intriguing enough, particularly when comparing it to the vastly superior ambient cues on other recent scores like inFamous 2. After all, what good is it if "Cavern" truthfully evokes the image of a cavernous location if that location happens to be boring? A slightly abrasive synth chord echoes in the distance, brief snippets of percussion pop up here and there and languid synth washes waver in the background, all to not much effect. As on Alice: Madness Returns, there's no sense of threat or any other strong emotional response in this music, just a generic feeling that the space this music describes is kinda ominous. Only the dissonances in that endlessly echoing chord gives the music a modicum of character.
"The Specialist" continues in a similar vein, now with some gongs and piano chords thrown into the mix against the droning synths and a collage of occasionally appearing sound effects. It's reasonably effective at the beginning, but after four minutes of running time, the lack of originality in the music's ingredients and their application becomes painfully obvious. At least some carefully inserted, more dissonant elements like nervous violin tremoli enliven what's otherwise standard horror film underscore. Fortunately, these lacklustre ambient pieces are often on the short side and serve as interludes between the album's more substantial compositions. And even though "Madmen's Sermon" is hampered by its hackneyed presentation of conflicting harmonious episodes and dissonant intruders, the mere occurrence of that contrast at least briefly captures the listener's attention. "Burial Shrine" does a better, more subtle job at contrasting ethereal tones and distorted sound effects that perturb the soundscape just enough.
But all in all, these interludes still slow down the momentum that the album's more interesting pieces create, to the degree that Armageddon's soundtrack album provides a very uneven listening experience. Nowhere is this better highlighted than on the album's final track, "Waiting". Closing a soundtrack that contains a fair share of compositions that were intriguing, not least on a purely emotional level, "Waiting" has no clue how capitalise on these strengths and bring the score's more interesting elements together for a satisfying conclusion. Instead, the piece drones on for a bit more than two minutes, closely following blueprint the blueprint of "Cavern", before it just fades out in anticlimactic fashion. It's almost the polar opposite to the album's promising and stylistically similar opening "Overture". Again the music mainly consists of floating synth weaves. But this time, Reitzell infuses them with some emotionality, in this case a softly aching sense of melancholy, more than fitting to paint the image of Mars as a distant, strange place.
Reitzell's more successful pieces flourish on the interplay and tension between different musical forces that characterises them. The first essential ingredient are a cornucopia of rhythms and instruments performing them. Reitzell's background as a rock drummer shines through on these often lengthy pieces, whose rhythms strike exactly the right balance between sufficient variation and hypnotic repetitiveness that creates a magnetic pull for those who are ready to listen closely. It helps that Reitzell adapts different approaches to the rhythms around which he constructs these tracks. On "Swarm", the rhythms have a tribal quality to them certainly helped by the exclusively wooden percussion while "Red Faction" has more industrial beats at its heart. "Unlikely Allies" switches from rock-based percussion to dance-like beats midway through the track. And "Breathe" uses strummed acoustic guitar chords as its rhythmic base. The surprising but welcome inclusion of such an intimate instrument in the sci-fi context of this score showcases Reitzell's intent to describe Mars as a remote, lonely place, and that the composer is ready to explore various ways to communicate this image.
On top of these intriguing rhythms, Reitzell places various synth layers and sound effects that not only work fine as counterpoint to the music's propulsive elements, but are also attractive in their own right. Much more than on the more ambient tracks, these atmospheric elements possess a character of their own. The opening track's wistful sentiments are recalled on "Unlikely Allies" and "Red Faction" and are even more effective here when the melancholic synths and distant female solo voice of "Red Faction" are contrasted with the cue's relentlessly pushing beats. Similar feelings are evoked through the chiming guitar figures on "Breathe", which together with the acoustic guitar backing make the piece reminiscent of Clint Mansell's score for The Fountain. It's not all sepia-toned yearning though, as the ever so slightly disconcerting, cheeping synth figure that wanders across the stereo field at the beginning and end of "Unlikely Allies" proves. Here as on "Gnashing of Teeth", with its emotionally ambivalent melodic figures, Reitzell displays his attention to detail, his fondness for small motifs that when inserted carefully into a track lend it an attention-grabbing edginess without striving too hard for attention.
On these pieces, both melodic and rhythmic elements are also deployed to develop these cues sufficiently, despite their static nature. Examples include the breakdown in the middle of "Red Faction" that only leaves the drums and a beeping synth figures; the addition of more and more synth textures throughout "Breathe", for example an extreme low bass drone; and the way the rhythms of "The Swarm" become busier towards the cue's end. Only "Gnashing Teeth" is less satisfying in this regard. At eight minutes, it stretches the music's generally minimalist approach close to its breaking point. It still provides enough emotional depth to maintain interest though, even if it starts to feel a bit long at times. All this is captured in a warm sound that comes courtesy of Reitzell's quoted fondness for handmade music and analog synths. The organic quality of many pieces helps to heighten the emotional response they elicit and one can't help but wish that the whole album would resonate with the listener, and not just two thirds of it.
Red Faction: Armageddon is a frustrating, if ultimately rewarding listen. On the hand, there are a number of lengthy compositions that make up the majority of the album and which fittingly score the game's sci-fi setting while still sounding fresh. Reitzell's skills as a drummer allow him to come up with a bevy of captivating, occasionally hypnotic rhythms that form the base of these cues. Increasing the rhythms' appeal, their sounds are creatively manipulated, as on "The Swarm" with its exclusively wooden percussion instruments. Around these propulsive elements, Reitzell weaves a web of entwining synth layers and sound effects that not only communicate the idea of Mars as a lonesome, foreign place, but also the dangers that lie in waiting in this new land. But then there's also the mostly flavourless ambient compositions that start and finish without going anywhere and which never develop the same appeal as their more developed brethren on the album. Fortunately, these pieces are often merely interludes between the more interesting, longer tracks, but they're still enough to banish the spell that Reitzell's more carefully crafted pieces cast. But even so, more often than not, on Red Faction: Armageddon Reitzell realises his stated goal of creating "soundscapes that can put you in another world just by putting on a record." If you enjoy your futuristic game scores with some creative sounds and timbres, give this one a listen.