Call of Duty Official Soundtrack Sampler
Call of Duty Official Soundtrack Sampler
October 29, 2003
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In 2002, after the release of Allied Assault and Frontline, which arguably took the Medal of Honor franchise to its zenith, a significant number of EA personnel who had worked on the two games left the company to form Infinity Ward. Their first game was, unsurprisingly, a WWII-themed first-person shooter, albeit one designed with a bigger focus on immersing the gamer into the intensity and terror of fighting the Nazi forces. Little would anybody at Infinity Ward now that the resulting game, Call of Duty, laid the foundations for one of the biggest franchises in video game history.
Having worked with Allied Assault’s producer Peter Hirschman since Jurassic Park: Lost World, it was no surprise that Michael Giacchino departed EA and the Medal of Honor franchise as well to score Infinity Ward’s first game. But although, or maybe because, he was about to create yet another WWII first-person shooter score, Giacchino and the game’s producers decided on a musical approach that would clearly set Call of Duty apart from Giacchino’s much-revered Medal of Honor soundtracks. In interviews, Giacchino mentioned how in discussions with army veterans, they would tell him about their feelings of being dropped into utter chaos beyond their control when fighting on the battlefield. Accordingly, in these interviews, Giacchino described Call of Duty’s musical direction as a move away from Medal of Honor’s sense of heroism and bravado, towards a less-melody based, grittier sound whose action music “are hyped up, unpredictable and scary textures”. The 48 minutes of music for the game were recorded with a full symphony orchestra, but never received a commercial release. The only way interested score collectors can get their hands on the soundtrack for Call of Duty is through a 39 minute bonus CD that came with the game’s Deluxe Edition and has become a collector’s item since.
The first thing that greets the listener is the title theme’s buzzing, furiously descending string figure of 16th notes that after some repetitions ends with two brusque staccato notes. There’s no doubt that, right from the start, Giacchino confronts the listener with the fact that this is not another Medal of Honor score. Giacchino described the opening string motif as a “very primal and simple thing” that purposefully rejects the more elaborate thematic structures of the Medal of Honor scores and indeed sounds like “there’s a huge behemoth coming towards you.” The following violin melody is much tenser than similar melodic passages on Giacchino’s Medal of Honor soundtracks and soon descends into the disjointed, clanging style of action music that will come to dominate Call of Duty. However, it’s not all just sound and fury. After 2:00, a gushing violin melody suddenly sweeps the tension away and while conflict soon looms again, the piece remains rather calm for a while. There’s also a melodic idea that will, together with the opening harsh string figure, return throughout the soundtrack. This brass-driven motif carries an air of stoic purpose that works exceedingly well when placed against the returning orchestral assault towards the end of “Call of Duty”. However, this simple, six-note motif — three notes ascending, three notes descending — also needs the underlying dissonances and swirling strings as counterpointal structures to generate interest, since it’s rather plain in its even progression. Still, it works well as a beacon of light against attacking musical forces and turns “Call of Duty” into the album’s definite highlight, a composition that’s both visceral and elating.
Shame then that the reminder of the album mostly discards this fetching contrast. Instead, the score focuses on the more dissonant and disjointed sounds that opened “Call of Duty”. As Giacchino stated, Call of Duty‘s pieces aren’t driven by melodies, which will quickly make the music less attractive to a number of listeners. Instead, the very propulsive battle cues rely on relentless ostinato elements and violent rhythmic motifs that quickly succeed each other. Don’t expect much development of ideas — Giacchino’s aim to depict the chaos of war makes this impossible and validates his new approach, which deploys smaller-scale musical structures. Melodies do occasionally appear, but they’re almost always cut short. It’s not as if the music’s a mess of wildly clashing ideas though. The action tracks are all tied together by their immense forward drive and sheer forcefulness. The focus on these action tracks is squarely on the bass region, while the string players either chop away or play endless cascades of frantic arpeggio figures as if their lives depended on it.
“Eder Dam” is a good example of how such an approach can yield effective results: its unabated string onslaught is as energetic as it is claustrophobic and drives forward the piece with almost frightening tenacity. Both the orchestra players and the album recording rise to the challenge and do this music justice, and Giacchino doesn’t forget to spice up things further, in this case with atonal, layered trumpet calls after 1:15, which are a potent and unnerving touch. And while there’s not much melodic content to cling to, it’s easy to appreciate the mix of muscular rhythms, rasping brass and churning deep strings — at least at the beginning of the album. Thus, “Pathfinder”, “Countryside Drive” and “Below Deck” don’t have much that sets their combat sounds apart from each other. But these pieces coast by on the power of their thundering sounds and actually resemble a slightly more brutal version of John William’s recent action writing. Later, however, the album steers into more atonal, acerbic waters and takes on a stylistic identity of its own.
That identity is not without problems, though, and it doesn’t take long for the way Giacchino’s applies his non-melodic approach to wear thin. Again, there’s nothing wrong with mostly discarding melodies — actually, it’s still a fresh approach among orchestral video game scores. The problem is that when relying on more disjointed sounds, a composer will have to find other means to distinguish the different pieces, and this is where Call of Duty falters. Certainly, Giacchino is too accomplished a composer to not inject his action tracks with at least some sense of personality. The atonal trumpet calls of “Eder Dam”, the col legno string rhythms on “Sewers Under Stalingrad”, the unnerving dissonant woodwind runs over arhythmic brass slaps in the middle section of “Stukas and Flakvierlings”, the slower tempo and pounding rhythms of “Tanks a Lot”… in fact, almost every battle cue contains some details that aren’t to be heard anywhere else on the album. But these flashes of colour remain just that — details that don’t change the overall character of the pieces. And after a while, the constantly downbeat atmosphere and the mostly monotonous character of the music becomes draining.
The fact that most tracks segue into each other and play like extended suites of 10-20 minutes only reinforces the feeling that the cues become nothing more than a wall of raging sound. The two motifs presented on “Call of Duty” only help matters to a degree. The motifs do re-appear throughout the soundtrack, but the nervous string motif simply becomes another rhythmic figure among many, and the noble second melody appears only occasionally. The exception from the rule of sameish action music is “Taking Stalingrad”, which only slowly picks up steam, instead of just exploding into a frenzy, and with its decisive string march rhythms conveys the feeling of a slow, painful advance into enemy territory. The piece also marks the thematically most interesting moment on the album. After a grave double bass introduction, the first, ascending phrase of the heroic motif from “Call of Duty” returns several times on horns against disorienting violin glissandi. But now, such straightforward renditions of the phrase alternate with performances of the same phrase with the third note descending, bending the theme’s hopeful strains into something more despairing and creating the tension that most of the album sorely lacks. Later, in an showcase of inspired orchestration, the whole six-note theme is played by the tubas against high-pitched violins.
The other fundamental problem with this soundtrack is that while Call of Duty‘s score is indeed unpredictable and occasionally showcases some nightmarish moments, as Giacchino intended it to be, the music isn’t all that fear-inducing and out there. Yes, later pieces sometimes deploy a liberal dose of dissonance and throw some unusual orchestrations at the listener. But don’t expect this to be an early precursor to the cacophonies of, for example, Dead Space — there’s nothing on this album that will haunt you in your sleep. Instead, listeners familiar with recent, rhythmically propulsive Hollywood score action writing will hear a somewhat harsher version of such sounds here — a whole lot of it. Seen in the context of more recent game scores that equally focus on dissonant musings — the above mentioned Dead Space or BioShock — Call of Duty is actually rather tame harmony-wise and conservative in its depiction of chaos.
Truth be told, there are contemplative moments sprinkled throughout the soundtrack and they offer welcome relief. Some tracks manage to incorporate more melodic or moody passages without breaking the overall sombre atmosphere of the soundtrack, and more frequent inclusions of such material would have greatly helped to give this soundtrack more interesting shades. “Pathfinder” opens with an atmospheric introduction that sees orchestral fragments, some melodic, some rhythmic, fluttering around a constant, ominous marching beat from the timpani. Despite the scarcity of material, this passage builds up tension well and has the listener on the edge, waiting for the inevitable orchestral outburst. “Approaching the Tirpitz” is another album highlight and sounds like nothing else on this soundtrack. Its strength is a darkly wondrous, chromatic violin melody that is played against tinkling chimes and rich deep string harmonies, creating a heady mixture of allure and anxiety. Throughout the piece, the melodic material remains chromatic and thus highly ambivalent, drawing the listener in but never promising security or a safe arrival.
Two other pieces, “Red Square” and “Pegasus Bridge”, have the sweeping string material from the title track’s middle section returning. “Red Square” is a quite straightforward reprise of the main theme’s romantic sounds, but heightens the sense of determination and patriotism to Medal of Honor-like levels. “Pegasus Bridge”, as the album’s closing track, is more noteworthy, also because of the compositional intention behind it. According to Giacchino, the piece is supposed to be a reflection of the prayers of a soldier, who has to hold a bridge against advancing enemy forces while waiting for reinforcements. Coming after the tumult of previous tracks, “Pegasus Bridge”‘s attractive lyricism makes it is a great piece to close the album. Its delicate string tones, both nostalgic and yearning, are richly satisfying and can measure up with Giacchino’s Medal of Honor adagios. Curiously though, another reason why this composition works so well as the album’s last track is because it feels more like a thoughtful reflection and less like a desperate prayer, since apart from some dissonance thrown in at the end, there’s not much darkness to be found on this cue.
Call of Duty does represent quite a dramatic change of direction from Giacchino’s Medal of Honor scores and showcases that, fortunately, there’s more than one approach to score a WWII first-person shooter. Giacchino’s abrasive, propulsive and altogether much darker creation has quite a bit going for it. When taken to extremes like on “Eder Dam”, the sheer relentlessness of the music can be exhilarating. Giacchino’s melodic inventions on this album aren’t always first rate, but make for an efficient counterpoint to the orchestral clamour surrounding it and sometimes even create moments of soothing beauty. Some nice orchestrational details are sprinkled throughout the pieces and particularly the moodier, atmospherically ambivalent moments display Giacchino’s creativity.
However, all that is not enough to overcome the fact that too much of the album consists of action tracks that simply fire on all cylinders, all the time. And while the listening experience is not as monotonous as it could be, after a while it becomes difficult to tell much of a difference between yet another chaotic piece and the fury that has come before. For Giacchino’s non-melodic approach to be less mind-numbing, more variety would have been necessary — or more consistently innovative orchestrations, since most of the time, Call of Duty doesn’t sound as scary or unpredictable as Giacchino might have intended. There are undeniable highlights on this album, but as a whole, it’s a rather dreary experience. In case you’re interested in Call of Duty, think twice if you really want to spent the elevated prices this soundtrack commands these days on Amazon and eBay.
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Posted on August 1, 2012 by Simon Elchlepp. Last modified on August 1, 2012.