Best of Western Game Music: Frank Klepacki

Essential Listens

Command & Conquer (Frank Klepacki, 1995)

Command_Conquer Original Soundtrack Album Title:
The Music of Command & Conquer
Record Label:
Westwood Studios
Catalog No.:
52145-99011
Release Date:
December 18, 1996
Purchase:
Download at iTunes

Works like the Command & Conquer soundtrack serve as a reminder of times when developers were happy to take risks with their mainstream titles. According to composer Frank Klepacki, the musical references for his soon-to-become classic score included Peter Gabriel, Pink Floyd and Nine Inch Nails. In the end, Klepacki created a kaleidoscopic work, a truly original mix of genres that would come to define the Command & Conquer franchise for millions of gamers. Hard rock, house, hip hop, funk, jazz, psychadelica and industrial rhythms all come together to communicate the game’s militaristic character in unique ways previously unexplored by game music. The musical terrain that Command & Conquer traverses is astounding, and never does it feel like Klepacki is simply copying & pasting from his many inspirations: his synth melodies, oscillating between haunting, oppressive and coldly elegant, are a reminder of his work on earlier Westwood RTS games. Less aggressive than later C&C scores, this album remains a landmark release.

Lands of Lore: Guardians of Destiny (David Arkenstone / Frank Klepacki, 1997)

Lands of Lore: Guardians of Destiny Original Soundtrack Album Title:
The Music of Lands of Lore: Guardians of Destiny
Record Label:
Westwood Studios
Catalog No.:
BL60045
Release Date:
1998
Purchase:
Buy Used Copy

While most game score fans will be familiar with Frank Klepacki through his Command & Conquer output, he also wrote a multitude of fantasy scores in the 1990s. For the second game in the Lands of Lore trilogy, Klepacki teamed up with Grammy Award-nominated new age composer David Arkenstone – and he undoubtedly leaves his imprint on Guardians of Destiny. True, the album is bookended by traditionally orchestral, lush fantasy writing. However, what gives the Lands of Lore: Guardians of Destiny soundtrack its musical individuality is the fact that most of the album consists semi-ambient synth washes. These moody pieces are atmospherically potent enough to keep listeners’ attention, the music evoking a solitary journey through jungles and over lonely mountain tops into sombre, imposing halls. With a focus on instruments such as glockenspiel, didgeridoo, gongs and other deep percussion, the score’s foreboding mood turns increasingly towards the mystical, before “City of the Ancients” takes that inclination and effortlessly transforms it into a bright and hopeful conclusion.

Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun (Frank Klepacki / Jarrid Mendelson, 1999)

Command_Conquer -Tiberian Sun- Original Soundtrack Album Title:
Command & Conquer -Tiberian Sun- Soundtrack
Record Label:
Westwood Studios
Catalog No.:
882720
Release Date:
1999
Purchase:
Download at iTunes

Among Frank Klepacki’s Command & Conquer scores, Tiberian Sun has always been the black sheep. After the roaring Red Alert, listeners must have been expecting anything but what they got with the Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun soundtrack – a work that developer Westwood demanded be “very dark, moody, and not upbeat at all”, according to Klepacki. But think back to Command & Conquer‘s psychedelic, subdued mid-section, and you’ll find that Tiberian Sun is simply an exploration of that atmosphere. It’s true that Tiberian Sun is the franchise’s most ambient, downbeat and mysterious score, mainly consisting of electronica that’s been bleached and parched in the unforgiving heat. What counts though is that the music, despite its gloomy and relatively minimalist nature, is hypnotic rather than repetitive, as it conjures potent images of the post-apocalypse. No less filled with creative ideas than other early Command & Conquer albums, Tiberian Sun continues the franchise’s proud tradition of musical innovation.

Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2 (Frank Klepacki, 2000)

Command_Conquer -Red Alert 2- Original Soundtrack Album Title:
Command & Conquer -Red Alert 2- The Soundtrack
Record Label:
Westwood Studios
Catalog No.:
1427437
Release Date:
October 24, 2000
Purchase:
Download at iTunes

Fan response to Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun‘s surprisingly subdued – but still very strong – score had been somewhat muted, and Frank Klepacki himself is on record saying he was happy to return to Command & Conquer: Red Alert‘s more aggressive styles. That’s exactly what the Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2 soundtrack is: a continuation of Red Alert’s mix of hard rock and electronica, or “rocktronic”, as Klepacki would dub this hybrid trademark style. The difference between Red Alert and Red Alert 2? The latter score is a more consistent and refined work, leaving out Red Alert‘s prosaic underscore. As always, Klepacki’s cues are a constant source of surprising ideas and cross-pollinations – Red Alert 2 includes everything from the euphoric hard rock rave of “Destroy” to “Probing”’s club-ready funk and the playful house/hip-hop melange that is “Motorized”. Red Alert 2 is unpredictable and fun, but it also manages to always stay on target, its ever-present militaristic drive sending players gleefully into combat.

Emperor: Battle for Dune (David Arkenstone / Frank Klepacki / Jarrid Mendelson, 2001)

Emperor -Battle for Dune- Original Soundtrack Album Title:
Emperor -Battle for Dune- Official Soundtrack
Record Label:
Westwood Studios
Catalog No.:
WWEOPS03445AD
Release Date:
2001
Purchase:
Buy Used Copy

For his fourth game based on the hugely popular Dune books, Frank Klepacki was joined by David Arkenstone and Jarrid Mendelson, two artists he had collaborated with before. Each composer would deliver a different soundscape for the game’s three warring factions, and fortunately the resulting album remains coherent and immensely satisfying. The Emperor: Battle for Dune soundtrack aims for a more grandiose sound than the Command & Conquer games, and particularly Arkenstone and Klepacki’s compositions realise this ambition admirably. Arkenstone writes his most hard rock-influenced game score, taking Klepacki’s Command & Conquer style and mixing in long, melodic guitar soli – if real-time strategy ever went stadium rock (in a very good way), this would be it. Klepacki, on the other hand, explores the (synth)orchestral side of his usual genre-mixing palette and creates mini-epics like the seven-minute “Assembling the Troops (Atreides)”. Most spectacular of all are Mendelson’s contributions though, whirlwinds of creatively layered electronic sounds and rhythms that make the planet Dune a beguilingly exotic rather than awe-inspiring place.

Command & Conquer: Renegade (Frank Klepacki, 2002)

Command & Conquer -Renegade- Original Soundtrack Album Title:
Command & Conquer -Renegade- Soundtrack
Record Label:
EA
Catalog No.:
N/A
Release Date:
2001
Purchase:
Download at iTunes

In search of fresh ideas, developer Westwood took its Command & Conquer franchise into first-person shooter territory, hoping fans would follow. The resulting game was good, but didn’t stand out enough against its high-profile genre competitors. Renegade‘s relative obscurity didn’t help the popularity of its soundtrack, but while this indeed isn’t Frank Klepacki’s best Command & Conquer score – that would be Red Alert 2 – the Command & Conquer: Renegade soundtrack nimbly delivers within the boundaries it sets itself. Not surprising given the game’s genre, Renegade is aggressive rather than sprawling and eclectic. The compositions are shorter and snappier, the mix of hard-hitting electronic beats and gritty guitars satisfyingly punchy. Despite its narrower focus, Renegade is far from monotonous. Klepacki’s songwriting skills are once more on full display here, and there are enough tension builders and genre experiments like the twisted 70s homage “Move It” to let the album flow comfortably. Little did we know this would be the last great Command & Conquer soundtrack.

Universe At War: Earth Assault (Frank Klepacki, 2007)

Universe At War -Earth Assault- Original Soundtrack Album Title:
Universe At War -Earth Assault- Original Soundtrack
Record Label:
Petroglyph Games
Catalog No.:
N/A
Release Date:
December 20, 2007
Purchase:
Download at Official Site

It’s instructive to compare Frank Klepacki’s Universe at War: Earth Assault soundtrack with his earlier real-time strategy score Emperor: Battle for Dune. Both titles underscore their three clashing armies with different musical styles, while going for a big, wide screen sound. But where Emperor‘s music rang across the vast open spaces of Dune, Universe at War relies on a near-claustrophobic wall of sound to impress listeners. Over two hours, Universe at War progresses from mid-tempo thrash metal to dark, pummelling electronic beats, and finally adds choir and synth orchestra to climb even greater heights of bombast. It’s a testament to Klepacki‘s songwriting skills that throughout its running time, Universe At War keeps the adrenaline running rather than wearing listeners down, and Klepacki‘s well-known ability to crossbreed different musical genres helps immensely. The effect Universe At War achieves is by no means subtle, but its attention to detail is as impressive as the music is well-crafted.

Honourable Mentions

Command & Conquer: Red Alert (Frank Klepacki, 1996)

Command_Conquer: Red Alert Original Soundtrack Album Title:
The Music of Command & Conquer: Red Alert
Record Label:
Westwood Studios
Catalog No.:
52145-99015
Release Date:
1996
Purchase:
Download at iTunes

The Command & Conquer: Red Alert soundtrack contains the Command & Conquer franchise’s most famous composition (“Hell March”), but its cinematic underscoring is less eventful than Frank Klepacki’s usually excellent genre fusions. Still, as a whole Red Alert is only slightly less exciting than Klepacki’s other C&C scores.

Posted on September 22, 2014 by Simon Elchlepp. Last modified on October 4, 2014.

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About the Author

A former German film student now living in Melbourne, Australia and working at the University of Melbourne's Architecture faculty - and a passionate music lover with an eclectic taste. Specialising in Western game music, I'm here to dig out the best scores Western video games have produced in the last thirty years.



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