BioShock Infinite Collector’s Edition Soundtrack
BioShock Infinite Collector’s Edition Soundtrack
March 26, 2013
The first two BioShock games had firmly established the franchise as the thinking man’s first-person shooters, layering their thrills with philosophical musings that mixed dystopic visions and ruminations on Ayn Rand’s ideas of Objectivism. Praised for its superlative storytelling, BioShock — in many ways building on the foundations of 1999’s System Shock 2 — became both a cult title and a massive sales success. BioShock 2, released two years later, was equally well received, but couldn’t help but feel like a bit of retread. Much was riding then on BioShock Infinite‘s ability to innovate in a similar way as BioShock did four years earlier. There was certainly no question that BioShock Infinite‘s thematic ambitions were at least as lofty as those of its predecessors. Wrapped up in a storyline that took the concept of American Exceptionalism as its starting point, BioShock Infinite‘s narrative was set in the floating city of Columbia in 1912, treating once more weighty subjects such as racism, religious fundamentalism, and the concept of destiny. This was AAA-game making at its most self-consciously striving to be “serious art”, and while not all commentators agreed that BioShock Infinite successfully straddled the divide between serious exploration of its ideas and blood-soaked FPS-action, critical reaction was as overwhelmingly positive as with BioShock. Praise was once more directed at the game’s gorgeous art direction, and its excellent storytelling.
Just as ambitious as most other aspects of the first two BioShock games were their soundtracks, composed by Garry Schyman. His score for BioShock turned out to be a highly original melange of dissonant, aleatoric mid-20th century Classical music, and exquisite violin soli inspired by Alban Berg’s violin concerto. The music’s high-brow nature was not only an ideal fit for the game and its narrative, but it also contained some of the most moving melodic material found on a Western game soundtrack in the year of its release. BioShock 2 carefully expanded the successfully established formula, introducing new solo instruments and tonalities to the franchise while providing necessary continuity – after all, BioShock 2 was set in the same location as the previous game. Now that the BioShock games took to the skies with Infinite, a new musical approach was needed – or, as Schyman put it in an interview: “For BioShock Infinite, because it’s so different in content, location time and characters, the direction was to compose something very different […] You might say I was influenced by the original BioShock score in the sense that I didn’t want it to sound anything like it.”
As on the first BioShock though, it took a while to find the right musical language to accompany the BioShock Infinite‘s stylised high-concept world. While BioShock‘s temporal and geographic setting greatly influenced Schyman’s work and contributed to its highly individual nature, Infinite was less inspired by the music of the time the game was set in. Schyman once more: “I wasn’t conscious of any real world inspiration, but I was inspired by the game. I was inspired by the characters and the setting.” Upon closer inspection, this potentially surprising avoidance of music-historical ‘correctness’ – a term that’s of course highly relative already when applied to BioShock – makes sense though. Schyman is correct in stating that “popular music of 1912 […] is not particularly emotional to our ears in 2013.” The other two possible options that could have referenced 1912’s music – late-romantic orchestral lushness or 12-tone music – would have either taken Infinite to dozens of other game and film scores, or back to the discordant world of the first two BioShock titles.
Ultimately, Schyman found the sound he was looking for by scoring Infinite with small string ensembles of just up to 10 players, moving away from the orchestral approach of the first two BioShock soundtracks. According to Schyman, he chose this unusual approach as the small ensembles “had a sort of homespun intimate quality”. Starting early on Infinite and given lots of time to experiment, Schyman wrote most of the music in the last 7-8 months of composing and had the rare opportunity to record draft versions of his compositions with a live ensemble, to see whether he was going into the right musical direction. Unfortunately, the fruits of Schyman’s labour were once more difficult to obtain for many game music fans – as with BioShock and BioShock 2, an album holding the game’s source music was released commercially, but Schyman’s original music was only made available as a collector’s edition item.
That was a lengthy preamble, but some context is needed with a score that’s as highly anticipated as Infinite and that its creator announced as “almost […] an “anti-score” in the sense that it avoids the clichés of most film and game soundtracks”. Let’s start with the big picture. Infinite resembles BioShock 2 in its impressive ability to both innovate and maintain stylistic continuity. While Infinite is certainly quite different from its predecessors, there are also several connecting aspects: the string-focused orchestrations; the continued move away from BioShock‘s solo instruments vs. orchestra juxtaposition, already initiated by BioShock 2; Schyman’s astonishing ability to write immensely moving melodies that never turn sentimental; and, resulting out of all this, music that feels profound and expressive, dominated by a sense of inward emotionality.
Still, listeners will first become aware of what sets Infinite apart from its predecessors. The crenscendoing, rising string dissonances that catapult “Welcome to Columbia” into treacherous skies are a throwback to earlier BioShock scores, but then the piece segues into a sparse piano solo with a vintage touch. The aching melancholy that shaped the instrumental soli on BioShock and BioShock 2 returns here as well, but – like many of BioShock Infinite‘s emotions – it has been tempered, turned into something nostalgic and even a bit hopeful. This application of subtle changes to the franchise’s musical framework already governed BioShock 2 and continues here, still guided by Schyman’s impressive musicianship. Listen to “Lighter Than Air”, Infinite‘s first truly striking composition: a mesmerising, peaceful violin solo is set against a scuttling background of nearly ungraspable string harmonies and chord progressions that form a soft, but harmonically unstable backdrop that is positively unearthly. The ensemble’s ambivalent sounds beautifully balance the calmly reassuring violin melody, a skilful reworking of the traditional Christian hymn “Will The Circle Be Unbroken”. Running at less than two minutes, “Lighter Than Air” is almost endlessly fascinating, a prime example of how fill a short composition with enough unshowy substance to have listeners come back for repeat listens.
Other pieces on Infinite are just as captivating in their subtle mix of conflicting moods and atmospheres, coming together in seamlessly shaped pieces that make particularly the first half of the score a small wonderland of musical discoveries – with some exceptions. “Lutece” captures the complex nature and motivations of two of the game’s protagonists through a change from a droll march for accordion and strings to ghostly waltz melodies over slowly shuffling pizzicati. Eerie solo violin and cello chords slowly grow into more elaborate melody lines, their gloominess reminiscent of Infinite‘s predecessors, but disposing with their sense of claustrophobia. “The Girl in the Tower” is short, but its light-footed string figures and another beautiful violin solo – hopeful rather than yearning – make the piece a worthwhile addition to the album. Later on the album, “Lions Walk With Lions”’ leaden opening mood is interrupted by an almost mischievous passage for xylophone and string pizzicati, but the piece’s surprisingly carefree spirit is effectively undercut by the track’s recording that creates a purposefully hollow sound. Infinite‘s first half also presents the score’s emotional centrepiece, “Elizabeth”. Written for the game’s mysterious female protagonist, the composition is another showcase of Schyman’s outstanding melodic sensibilities. Of all pieces on Infinite, this one comes closest to sound like classical chamber music in its string quartet-inspired orchestrations. A heavy-hearted cello melody opens the composition, while the persistent pizzicato rhythm in the background gives the music the feel of a dirge. However, the cello solo grows more passionate and is soon coupled with an equally moved viola solo, continuing to communicate the music’s new found hope, and Elizabeth’s determination to escape her circumstances. Like Infinite‘s best parts, “Elizabeth” is quietly powerful, full of confidence of its power to touch listeners with relatively minimal means – and correctly so.
At the same time, the greater restraint that Schyman imposes on his melodic material might also alienate game music fans that cherished the heart-melting beauty of the solo violin and cello melodies on BioShock and BioShock 2. Make no mistake, Infinite has as much power to move its audience, albeit through sometimes different means than its predecessors, admirably defying a simple repetition of BioShock and BioShock 2‘s approach. Still, occasionally the greater austerity that reigns throughout Infinite‘s melody-focused compositions comes close to turning the music somewhat monotonous – and unfortunately, the pieces suffering from this issue are grouped together in the album’s second third, which is one of the reasons why Infinite loses some steam during its mid-section. “Family Reunion” and “The Girl For The Debt” are composed with a keen ear for detail and interesting harmonies, but they can’t help but feel slight in their hushed, subdued atmosphere. “Back In The Boat” is more melodic and emotionally affecting, but still not up to the standards of the album’s stronger cuts. And cues like “Unintended Consequences” and “Let Go”, despite their fine, tragic melodies, leave a slightly bitter taste, as one can’t help but wish that these tracks would run longer than just a single minute.
This problem of flagging momentum is exacerbated by the soundtrack producers’ decision to include source music on the album – a first for the BioShock series, whose musical in-game atmosphere had always relied on carefully compiled, period-specific pieces. However, on BioShock and BioShock 2, these cues had been kept separate from the original score. On Infinite, these source pieces pop up here and there, and to mixed results, particularly given that they’re considerably longer than any of Schyman’s original compositions. One can’t fault “Will The Circle Be Unbroken – Choral Version” too much – it’s presented in classic shape as a religious, pious hymn, performed by a soulful female solo voice and quiet background choir. The cue’s appearance early on the album is a bit off-putting, as the music is so clearly at odds with previous BioShock scores, and most of Infinite itself. But while the composition isn’t outstanding from a musical point of view, it works at least thematically within the game’s narrative context, fittingly underscoring Infinite‘s antagonist and his fundamentalist Christian world view. Furthermore, the hymn’s lyrics address not only the game’s dystopic setting (“Is a better home awaiting / In the sky, in the sky?”), but also the game’s theme of fate and whether it can be broken through free will. Lastly, Schyman manages to work the hymn’s melodies into a couple of other tracks (“Welcome to Columbia”, “Lighter Than Air”) to connect the hymn with the rest of the whole.
More problematic are “Rory O’More/Saddle The Pony” and “Solace”, whose stylistic incompatibility with the rest of Infinite hurts the album’s flow, which has already suffered from some of Schyman’s shorter and relatively inexpressive compositions. “Rory O’More/Saddle The Pony” is a merry Irish jig for solo violin, piano and accordion that is given a oldtimey, crackly sound. The piece is mildly entertaining, but it’s too long and more than “Will The Circle Be Unbroken – Choral Version”, it works on a thematic rather than musical level – and presented without the game’s narrative context as on this album, the piece has next to no impact. “Solace” is another vintage piece – a solo piano rag time composition by Scott Joplin, which again is appropriate for the game’s setting, but isn’t particularly expressive taken on its own and runs on for too long. All in all, Infinite‘s most severe issue is a lack of direction and substance that sets in during the album’s mid-section, and the result is a score that is less consistent than its predecessors.
Fortunately though, Infinite comes back to life just in time for its finale, and actually achieves a more impacting album close than either of its predecessors – ironically despite its sometimes meandering album flow. “AD” features a lively solo violin part over energising string rhythms that create an unusually optimistic forward drive, but that is the last sign of Infinite‘s hopeful tendencies. On “Smothered” and “Baptism”, Schyman wields his melodic gifts and his ability to effectively understate the emotions at the heart of Infinite to quietly devastating results. “Smothered”’s chromatic cello solo on top of another dirge-like rhythm is hauntingly pained and stark. This is how minimalism can successfully convey a piece’s atmospheric substance, and magnify it to a degree that more emotionally overt music couldn’t. “Baptism” continues in a similar vein, as it opens with an elegiac, rising string melody that dissolves into whining string textures, opening a portal to new worlds full of potential – and then this door is slammed shut by a hammering piano chord that leaves no doubt that it’s all over. The piano solo which then closes “Baptism” is far colder and forlorn than its counterpart that opened the soundtrack on “Welcome to Columbia” and indeed, “Baptism” caps off Infinite by taking the sense of loss that runs through the score to its crushing conclusion. After this emotionally draining climax, the serene, resigned mood of closing track “Will The Circle Be Unbroken – Full Version” is all the more poignant. This time rendered with a folk music touch by a light female solo voice and acoustic guitar, the hymn and its sparse nature continue the album’s sense of defeat and farewell, particularly through the composition’s lyrics (“One by one their seats were emptied. / One by one they went away. / Now the family is parted. / Will it be complete one day?”). Soloist Courtnee Draper at times tries too hard to wring every single drop of emotion from the hymn’s lyrics, which results in some awkward pauses and phrasing, but otherwise, “Will The Circle Be Unbroken – Full Version” turns out to be an unlikely, but fulfilling close to the soundtrack.
What’s left to discuss? The action tracks, of course, which tie in with the rest of the soundtrack in an unexpected way. During these compositions, the sense of devout spirituality that is evoked elsewhere through the “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” hymn tips over into ritualistic aggression, Columbia’s religious leaders and their followers showing their violent reaction to intruders. All battle cues on Infinite are powered by vividly captured hand and metal percussion rhythms, hammering mercilessly away in the background, sometimes in growing, polyrhythmic layers that are plain invigorating in their visceral nature. It’s on these pieces that Infinite‘s album recording and mix deviate most strongly from the spacious sounds of BioShock and BioShock 2. The percussion strikes on “The Battle For Columbia I” almost sound like gun shots, well-aimed punches to the guts. The same close and crystal clear album recording ensures that the relatively small string ensembles are able to create an intimidating wall of sound, with every bent note, every tortured glissando captured in its full dissonant glory to ensure listeners feel like they’re right in the middle of the sonic maelstrom.
On most battle tracks, Schyman mixes the relentless percussion rhythms with horrifying squeals and nightmarish atonalities produced by the string section, which is called upon to display a cornucopia of unusual performance techniques, highlighted by the frenzied flurry of martello strings in the second half of “The Songbird”. The lasting impression left by the sheer aggression of the music is heightened by the absence of any rhythmic direction within the string sounds – the resulting crazed ferocity of the music is a much more horrifying depiction of menace and chaos than Dead Space 3 managed to evoke with significantly larger musical forces. However, “The Battle For Columbia III” and “The Battle For Columbia IV”, while still convincing in their strength and vitality, are a bit less impressive, as the strings now don’t envelop the percussion strikes in gruelling dissonances, but rather simply double the percussion rhythms in unison. However, the biggest issue with Infinite‘s action cues is the same that befalls other compositions on this score – they could leave even more of a mark if many of them weren’t so short.
BioShock Infinite, Schyman once more manages the delicate balancing act of broadening the aural palette of the BioShock universe, without losing sight of its trademark sound. Infinite maintains the franchise’s reputation for intellectually and emotionally satisfying music with a penchant for adventurous explorations of harmonies and tone colours. Schyman’s melodic instincts proof largely intact and provide many moments of astounding beauty, even though the music is more restrained than on previous BioShock scores. Whether BioShock Infinite‘s soundtrack is indeed unique, as intended by Schyman, is up for discussion, but it’s certainly one of the more original Western scores to appear in a while. Particularly the first half of the album contains a number of compositions that showcase a striking emotional complexity and maturity, while the soundtrack’s finale is arguably more affecting in its sense of tragedy and finality than the climaxes of previous BioShock scores. Meanwhile, those score collectors looking for the franchise’s thornier sounds will find them aplenty on Infinite‘s impressively punishing action tracks.
Sadly, Infinite‘s settles for “great” rather than “outstanding”, due to a couple of issues that add up. A handful of tracks feel too short or austere for their own good, despite the fact that Schyman still manages to squeeze a good amount of musical substance into these compositions. The album also temporarily suffers from a lack of momentum and focus, not only due to the number of short cues that sometimes feel a bit like filler, but also because of the inclusion of period-specific source material that stylistically is very much at odds with the rest of the album. Better handled is the musically and thematically successful integration of the Christian hymn “Will The Circle Be Unbroken”. Ultimately, Infinite is less than the sum of its parts, but most of these parts are still deeply fascinating and moving.
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Posted on March 21, 2014 by Simon Elchlepp. Last modified on September 28, 2014.