Gears of War was a best-selling first-person shooter for the Xbox 360 noted for its captivating gameplay, stunning visuals, and apocalyptic story. Epic Games demanded a suitably powerful and atmospheric soundtrack to complement the game. They hired Unreal series veteran Kevin Riepl for the project, providing him with his first mega solo project at that time. To achieve a suitably epic tone, Riepl scored a series of militaristic main themes and aggressive action themes for full orchestra. Orchestrators Tim Simonec and Chris Tilton ensured the music was as functional and emotional as possible while the Northwest Sinfonia offered a solid performance. However, the core of the score was actually defined by eerie ambient themes that blended all sorts of orchestral and digital forces in a novel way. While largely effective in the game, does Sumthing Else Music Work's soundtrack release have quite the same impact on a stand-alone basis?
The main theme instantly establishes a dark and dramatic tone of the game. The introduction is typical cinematic ambience, but memorably presents the first fragments of the rasping main theme on strings and brass. Dominated by martial percussion and industrial effects, the backing adds some much-needed grit and reinforces the 'gears' concept. From 1:11, the composition enters an anthemic section, but is a curious twist on cinematic conventions given just how dissonant and thunderous the material is. While the track revolves around the same melody throughout its 4:30 playtime, there is plenty of emotional variety and Riepl certainly demonstrates that he can offer elegant orchestral transitions. The main theme continues to receive quite a bit of attention throughout the gameplay, whether in the edgy infiltration-style cue "Jacinto Prison", the alarming action theme "Fill'er Up at Chap's", or the soothing credits roll reprise at the end of the soundtrack, and proves extremely adaptable under Riepl's skilful fingertips despite its fundamental simplicity.
"14 Years After E-Day" demonstrates how Riepl creates haunting futuristic ambience through digital means. Most of the track assembles one to three note figures from a number of forces — muted trumpet, ethnic flutes, low brass, timpani rolls, and synth vocals — in an almost random way. Perhaps more fascinating is the way the track evolves from near-silence into an imperial march as the figures become more regularly integrated and a deep martial string motif is punctuated. Themes with less definite build-ups such as "Embry Square" and "Stay in the Light" certainly fascinate and petrify with their sporadic use of all sorts of orchestral, ethnic, electronic, and percussive features. However, they usually feel more like sampling experiments than anything particularly profound. Extended techniques such as the prepared piano in "Entering the Tombs", col legno bowing in "Tomb of the Unknowns", or an excess of tremolo and overblowing in "Oh the Horror" will certainly be alien for those unfamiliar with them, but will be perceived more like superficial clichés by most others.
The more effective ambient tracks are those that offer relatively smooth soundscapes rather than random collections of novel figures. Low-key tracks such as "Ephyra Streets I", "Fill'er Up at Chap's", and "Imulsion Mines" blend so well into the dark scenery that gamers may be fooled into thinking there is no music there at all. They nevertheless subtly add to the mood and environmentals while inspiring the occasional chill and shock. Their worth in terms of stand-alone listening will very much depend on the attention span of the listener. Some will debate whether they are even music at all. One of the more appealing tracks out of context is "Locust, Wretches & Kryll". This mixes a lot of elements together once more, including uncompassionate brass, earthy percussion, woodwind ululations, and electronic undertones. However, the elements are integrated so smoothly compared to "14 Years..." that they seem so right in combination with the enemy-infested landscapes. The effect inspires so much anxiety and prepare gamers to panic in the face of the impending action.
Riepl took a largely orchestral approach for the action themes. "Attack of the Drones" certainly creates a sense of being in the heat of the action and the Northwest Sinfonia's brass section demonstrates their brute strength interpreting the militaristic material; however, what really gives the theme its substance are other elements, such as the turbulent chromatic progressions from the strings, the fragile flute interludes, or the eventual segue into the main theme. Most others seem inspired by orchestral underscoring used in a variety of action and horror movies. There are number of themes, such as "Fish in a Barrel" and "East Barracade Academy", that are quite frustrating in their adherence to elephantine scoring methods. However, there is usually something that saves most tracks from mediocrity, whether the thematic dashes of "Ephyra Streets II", extreme rhythms of "Miserable Wretches", or the swarming woodwind runs of "Locust Infestation". "Train Ride to Hell", in particular, represents a spectacular climax for the soundtrack, incorporating rasping, haunting, anthemic, and serene passages into one orchestral epic.
Overall, Kevin Riepl did a good job with the Gears of War score. While he was heavily influenced by cinematic conventions, he hardly spared the title of exuberance or creativity. There are several definitive successes, such as the title theme and "Train Ride...", that stun listeners with their thematic substance, emotional variety, and smooth transitions. The ambient material meanwhile ranges includes fascinating hybrids, seamless scene-setters, and superficial hotchpotches. While these pieces usually work in context, it'll require a tolerant listener to handle them on the soundtrack release. Overall the Gears of War score is certainly best appreciated within the game, given everything is written to seamlessly integrate with the scenery and action. However, those looking for a dark atmospheric score should consider looking into Sumthing Else's album release.
While much of Gears of War 2 was continuous with its predecessor, its soundtrack took a radical change of approach. Epic Games decided they wanted an approach closer to Hollywood, so appointed Steve Jablonsky as the lead composer. Jablonsky was considered an ideal chose for the project given his years of experience at Hans Zimmer's Remote Control Productions and his work on action flicks (Transformers) and horror movies (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) alike. In spite of his virtuous efforts on Gears of War, Kevin Riepl was demoted to additional music composer and didn't feature in the soundtrack release at all. Another major change was the choice to record with an orchestra and chorus at Skywalker Sound instead of the Northwest Symphonia. Did the approach pay off?
The score for Gears of War 2 is led by setpieces more than its predecessor. The opener "Return of the Omen" quietly sets the tone for a cinematic epic. There are similarities to the Gears of War soundtrack with its ethnic woodwind ululations, martial snares, and deep string motifs. This time, however, the melody is presented on chorus — an element largely absent in Gears of War — while brassy elements are very subdued. The melody is less dissonant than Riepl's, conveying the bittersweet personal feelings of the protagonists rather than the brute aggression of war. In addition, the soundscaping is quite a bit more stereotypical with its cinematic elevation and considerable reverb. The second piece "Hope Runs Deep" helps to reinforce Jablonsky's main theme and demonstrates many of the tones to expect from the soundtrack. It opens in a reflective way with a soprano interpretation of the main melody and similar instrumental elements to the opener. From the 1:25 mark, the track evolves into a military anthem building increasingly dramatic renditions of the melody on chorus and brass. The peak at 2:50 is certainly derivative, but so elegantly achieved that it might inspire some tears, while the final minutes are ideal for commemorating the fallen. The result is as powerful and beautiful as Remote Control Productions' other centrepieces, though many will be troubled by its utter lack of individuality.
Jablonsky nevertheless brings a much-needed personal quality to the series' scores. "Green As Grass" is functionally successful as an ambient track, slowly building up rhythms and forces following the minimalistic introduction towards a militaristic climax. However, the track gains a very human core about a minute in with the presentation of a melody on resonant and heartrending strings. Unlike its predecessor, cinematic music is no longer used to simply complement the scenery and dramatise the events, but actually depict the emotions the protagonists are feeling. This is true for many of the action themes too. In particular, "Expectations" reflects sheer brutality with its dissonant brass leads and rapid unrelenting passages. Between all the panic and tension, however, things briefly quieten to give way for a striking trumpet solo that perfectly captures the character's resolve to fight for their lives. Moments like these really take the listener by surprise and transform tracks from commonplace ones into personal highlights. Dominated by the tragic cries of an operatic soprano, "With Sympathy" is probably the most evocative cue of them all. Even in the middle of this elegy, however, the weighty orchestration makes clear that the epic war has to continue. The music itself is very clichéd and melodramatic, but the emotional effect is nevertheless comparable to some of Gladiator's best and demonstrates once again just how much the chorus brings to the soundtrack.
There are numerous situational action cues at the centre of the soundtrack. These are potentially the bane of the release, rarely lasting more than two minutes and lacking the personal qualities of the centrepieces of the soundtrack. At least they still exhibit high production values and attention to detail, though. Tracks such as "Armored Prayer", "Racing to Extinction", and "Hold Them Off" are initially very plain rhythmically focused militaristic tracks, though Jablonsky's audacity to really layer up the forces and emphasise the rhythms ensure they soon become explosive in both pacing and timbre. Others such as "Bedlam", "Hell Breaks Loose", and "If They Can Ride Em" seem filled with the aggression and malice of the enemies with their rasping brass and choral chants. Amidst all the instrumental consistency, it's also refreshing to hear some experimentation. "Frenzy", in particular, is a curious twist on Remote Control conventions; it truly suits its name with its unstable juxtaposition of urgent choir chants, crisis string work, and industrial percussion. That said, some of the experimentation is even more superficial than that of Gears of War and is merely welcome as a novelty. Even the plain electronic support of "Insurmountable Odds" sounds refreshing after so many plain orchestra and chorus efforts. Within the Gears of War soundtrack, however, it would sound pretty unremarkable.
The variety offered by the action tracks is arguably not enough. While most individual tracks are accomplished in and out of context, the collective experience is too samey. At least there are several ambient tracks to break up the action cues, though their effects are somewhat limited. "Building Thunder" and "Landown" are stereotypical examples of Remote Control's approach to subdued underscoring; they're principally composed of some electronic suspensions and percussive backing, but gradually punctuate string notes, brass motifs, and even the occasional exotic infusions. The result complements the dark scenery in the game while gradually building up tension. Out of context, however, they're hardly as gritty or impacting as Riepl's tracks from Gears of War. What's more, the tendency for the soundtrack to otherwise be fast and furious throughout prevents a particularly convincing dramatic arch from being established. This makes the conclusion especially underwhelming in contrast to its predecessor. "March of the Horde" is a little interesting since it seems to unite many of the anthemic, action, and ambient elements of the soundtrack into one brooding blend. However, much of "Finale" seems superfluous after all the other chorus and orchestral pomp; it's only when Jablonsky reprises the main theme that listeners will realize that it's a big deal, but even then it sounds almost identical to "Hope Runs Deep" and thus is hardly an original highlight.
The appointment of Steve Jablonsky to score Gears of War 2 was a mixed blessing. On the one hand, he brought some of the most emotional moments to the series with his personal approach to underscoring and focus on striking centrepieces. In addition, almost all the tracks work fittingly in context given his efficient yet elegant Hollywood approach to using orchestra and chorus. That said, the stand-alone soundtrack release lacks on several levels. While the individual pieces are usually fine, the collective experience isn't as dramatic or entertaining due to the abundance of samey action tracks and absence of any gritty ambience. It may have been better for Jablonsky to have created the centrepieces while Riepl could have refined his Gears of War style for the rest of the music. What's more, the soundtrack really lacks an individual identity given Jablonsky largely emulates the approach of Remote Control Productions' major film projects. Those looking for progressive or unique music will therefore want to throw the album in the trash can. Nevertheless, Gears of War 2 - The Soundtrack is still one of the better Hollywood-style game scores out there and will inspire a lot of strong memories from those who played the game.
In the recent tidal wave of nostalgia for all things from the 1980s, there has been a curious undercurrent flowing along. You may have noticed how many bands are now covering music from Nintendo games such as Mario Bros. or Zelda. Those NES melodies are popping up everywhere, from a beatboxing flute player on Youtube to ironic cadenzas in rock music. It is strange how melodies produced through simple tone generation are now regularly translated into either acoustic music or, in some cases, back into more sophisticated digital music.
It is doubly interesting to me because the level of video game music has risen drastically in the past decade. Full-scale symphonic scores are now the norm for major platform releases along with recognized voice talent. These features have made many video games immersive experiences akin to movies. In fact, the quality of the games has gotten to the point where they are regularly featured in public discourse and movie reviewers are even discussing whether or not video games should be considered art along with other forms of multimedia.
However, when Gears of War was released late last year and subsequently became the first break-out title for the X-Box 360, few were evaluating its artistic merits. Instead, players and reviewers were heaping praise on the gameplay and graphics of the third-person actioneer and the sheer entertainment value of fighting with Marcus Fenix and his Delta Force as they seek to destroy the Locust Horde's network of underground tunnels on the planet Sera. The reviewers were right – the gameplay does pull you in quickly, and for the hours it takes to finish the game, you are fully on Sera, oblivious to the outside world.
Part of any contemporary game's success rests in the music. As in a movie, the score works to create a physical connection between viewer and image, and, as in a movie, game designers usually turn to the symphony orchestra to create the game's sound. It is a smart choice; the symphonic sound, though anachronistic in a setting such as Sera, is culturally embedded to accompany the visuals crafted by the designers at Epic Games. It works as a quick shorthand to emotional engagement.
Kevin Riepl is a new voice among game scores. For the past few years he has done additional music for a number of television and game projects, especially for Epic Games's Unreal Tournament series, but Gears of War marks his first major project. To sonically map out the game's world, he turned to many clichés of the horror and action movie genres. In his score you will find all the marches, heavily metallic percussion, ripping horn lines, and eerie digitally-produced sounds floating over a steady drone that you could possibly desire. Riepl obviously knows the established musical tropes and puts them to good use. Consider the opening "Gears of War." The track starts with a steady beat in low strings underneath which metallic sounds jangle as percussion hits on every downbeat. Slowly, a repeated pattern grows in the brass, endlessly repeated and augmented throughout the track at it expands in dynamic and orchestration. It is an effective way to hammer home the score's main theme while generating tension, but is the kind of exercise that doesn't need four and a half minutes.
My main complaint with the score rests in that last feature – its length. Video games are most unlike movies in the amount of time they occupy. A movie takes between an hour and a half and three hours while many games last for ten times that amount. As a result, the standard forms of musical development lifted from Romantic-era concert music fall apart and new forms have to be discovered. Most game scorers focus on the ambient, and Riepl does as well, but outside the game environment, massive amounts of ambient music, made to be heard while the brain is actively engaged elsewhere, grows tiresome.
Still, Riepl does have a fine ear for manipulation of texture. Consider "Locust, Wretches & Kryll," which is on the CD right after my favorite track title, "I Will Kryll You" (Riepl certain does have a good sense of humor). The track opens with a high synth sound that morphs as though it is being heard underwater. Over that sound, percussive hits bounce back and forth between the right and left channel, effectively disorienting you as a listener. Riepl quickly establishes a percussive ostinato and places a slow-moving brass melody over it, but those initial sounds continue in the background, creating a deliberately and deliciously creepy atmosphere that screams of claustrophobia and cold sweats. And at two and a half minutes, the cue does not overstay its welcome, establishing its mood and leaving you in it as it finishes.
Overall, Gears of War is the type of music that works wonderfully in context, and therefore serves to remind game players of good times had while playing, but outside of the game's world, become repetitive. But Riepl shows that he has the chops for game composition, and I feel he will quickly become one of its stars. I'll certainly be interested to hear what he's done with Huxley, scheduled for release later this year.
Composer: Kevin Riepl
Direction: Mike Larson and Cliff Bleszinski
Orchestration and Conducting: Tim Simonec
Additional Orchestrations: Chris Tilton
Performance: Northwest Sinfonia
Concert Master: Simon James
Recording Engineer: Steve Smith
Copyist: Gregg Nestor
Score Prep: Chad Seiter
Music Editing: Alex Levy
Music Mixing: Paul Lani
Recorded at: Bastyr University in June of 2005
Original Composition: Kevin Riepl
Orchestration: Tim Simonec, Chris Tilton
Conductor: Tim Simonec
Performance: Northwest Sinfonia
|1.||Gears of War||04:31|
|2.||14 Years After E-Day||02:55|
|4.||Attack of the Drones||02:08|
|6.||Fish In a Barrel||02:56|
|7.||House of Sovereigns||05:33|
|9.||Entering The Tombs||01:18|
|10.||Tomb of the Unknowns||01:33|
|11.||Ephyra Streets I||03:02|
|12.||Ephyra Streets II||01:42|
|14.||Stay in the Light||02:02|
|15.||Chap's Gas Station||01:24|
|16.||Fill 'er Up at Chap's||02:16|
|17.||I Will Kryll You||02:37|
|18.||Locust, Wretches & Kyrll||02:22|
|20.||East Barracade Academy||02:04|
|21.||The Fenix Estate||01:42|
|24.||Running With Boomers||02:52|
|25.||Oh the Horror||01:34|
|26.||Train Wreck - Locust Theme||01:40|
|27.||Train Ride To Hell||03:56|
|28.||Gears of War Reprise||03:01|
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Latest update: 30.04.12
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