Conquering 20 Years
Conquering 20 Years
December 13, 2012
Buy at Official Site
Not many Western game music composers can look back on a career as long and storied as Frank Klepacki. To celebrate 20 years of working in the business, Klepacki decided on a creative concept to commemorate the anniversary: “I came up with the idea of going back to the very beginning of my career and writing a different song for every era / game type with the authentic instruments of the time periods I composed them.” This made Conquering 20 Years a particularly interesting release in Klepacki’s discography – the majority of his game score albums focused on the Command & Conquer franchise, while most of his solo albums featured variations upon that franchise’s “Rocktronic” style. Conquering 20 Years then promised to highlight those aspects of Klepacki’s work which had been little heard before outside of the games. 21 years after the first game that carried his music (Eye of the Beholder II: The Legend of Darkmoon) had hit shelves, Conquering 20 Years was made available via Klepacki’s website and other online music stores.
With a concept as sprawling as that behind Conquering 20 Years, what determines the album’s success is the breadth of its stylistic reach, and of course how well all the different pastiches are executed. On both accounts, Klepacki shouldn’t face many issues, given his proven ability to work in an impressive number of musical genres, and the consistent quality of his output (disregarding Viratia for a second here). And indeed, during its first two thirds, Conquering 20 Years is a blast, a roller coaster ride through the history of Western game music, or at least through part of it. The chronological order of the compositions on the album allows listeners to witness the evolution of Western game music, as exemplified by Klepacki’s career. Particularly those score collectors who are mainly familiar with Klepacki’s work through his Command & Conquer soundtracks are in for some surprises on Conquering 20 Years, straight off the bat. Opening track “8-Bit Dragons” delivers exactly what the title promises and showcases a side of Klepacki’s work that hasn’t been captured on album before. Oh-so classic chiptune arpeggios open the track before adventurous melodies start to unfold over a march rhythm. The track feels indeed like a cut from a first-rate 1991 NES RPG and not only replicates the NES hardware sound perfectly. “8-Bit Dragons” also manages to cram a lot of ideas into its short running time and wrings the maximum amount of counterpointal action out of its three channels – just like the best 8-bit soundtracks.
One particular achievement of Conquering 20 Years is to put the spotlight on Klepacki’s fantasy scoring, which dominated much of his early game music output, but which on album sadly has only been captured on 1998′ The Music of Lands of Lore: Guardians of Destiny – and that collaboration with David Arkenstone focused on atmosphere more than on melodies. “Magical Caverns”, reminiscent of the better parts of Klepacki’s Young Merlin, shows a different and entirely winning approach to fantasy game music. Moody synths pads, echoing drums and heavy string chords deliver the sensation of wandering through a sombre cavern, while tinkling glockenspiel lines, light bell strikes and woodwind melodies – chromatically layered to striking effect – are an enchanting counterpoint to the darkness surrounding them. This combination of different timbres isn’t unique, but it’s executed well enough to evoke a fetching atmosphere of both mystery and whimsicalness. “Medieval Forest” is even better, using a live acoustic guitar as its foundation over which the track then layers delicate melodies from various solo instruments, including violin, flute and harpsichord. The careful interplay between the different instruments is quite exquisite and produces a number of very touching moments, particularly at the end when all solo instruments are brought together in one final surge.
Another surprise that’s waiting on Conquering 20 Years‘ first half is “Sazerac Saloon” – a stylistic diversion that few, if any Klepacki fans would have seen coming. The cue is a bouncy ragtime piano piece whose style will remind many listeners of the kind of musical accompaniments written for silent movies. “Sazerac Saloon” is light hearted and initially fun, but it’s also easily the most divisive track on the album, and because of its rarely changing mood and timbre grows a bit old before it has run its course. Entirely more expected is what listeners are served on “Android Dreams”. Even those soundtrack fans unfamiliar with the fact that Klepacki scored the 1997 Blade Runner PC game will know what’s coming their way just by reading the song’s title. Clearly recalling Blade Runner‘s opening titles, “Android Dreams” so perfectly recreates the film’s trademark sound and its ebbing and swelling synth pads, both majestic and melancholic in nature, that the sensation of déjà vu occasionally threatens to overwhelm the listening experience and to diminish “Android Dreams”’ value as an original piece of work. In the end though, there’s no question that this particular style of music which worked so marvellously in 1982 is still immensely attractive when reprised with as much care as here – “Android Dreams”’ glistening finale is one of Conquering 20 Years‘ best moments.
Increasing the colourful nature of the album’s first two thirds even further, “Players Suite” shows Klepacki at his swinging best, moving away from the old school funk of his other 2012 solo release Here At Last to write an effortlessly cool, gritty funk song. Opening with minimalist instrumentation and riffs that manage to sound intriguing rather than repetitive, “Players Suite” builds into a second half that grows bigger and bigger, powered by a fantastically groovy, steely bass line that is distorted into a buzzing, forward rolling wall of sound. It’s a funk piece unlike any other that Klepacki has previously released on album, and it shows that Conquering 20 Years offers not just pastiche, but also meaningful extensions upon well-known aspects of Klepacki’s style.
The chronological order of Conquering 20 Years also has the welcome effect that listeners can witness the evolution of Klepacki’s “Rocktronic” sound that made his Command & Conquer scores so popular. It all begins with “Control The Spice”, the album’s Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty homage. Almost entirely composed of futuristic synths, a persistent, pulsating bass line opens the track while agitated ostinati creep closer. Then rock drums kick off with a martial beat and the track takes off, turning from effective background music into an anthemic sci-fi battle tune, perfect for an RTS game with its empowering, constantly evolving melodies. “Control The Spice” rather cautious mix of synth and rock elements becomes more creative and varied on “Commanding Forces” (no points for guessing which game is supposed to be evoked here). Hip hop rhythms enter the ring and lay the ground work for an aggressive rhythmic undergrowth that faces off against expansive synth melodies, similar in mood and sound to those found on “Control The Spice”, but catchier and much more rhythmically minded. Expanding successfully on both elements of its equation during its running time, “Commanding Forces” achieves a similarly rousing effect as “Control The Spice”, but is considerably heavier and punchier. “Chaotic” keeps refining this style of music, upping the hard rock quotient to create another highly entertaining genre hybrid – Klepacki is fully in his element here. Interestingly enough though, the live instruments still sound a bit light for such aggressive music. Rather than an actual shortcoming, this characteristic is likely another, more subtle reference to the way game music sounded at a particular stage in the past. Case in point: “Marked And Targeted”, which shows Klepacki’s Command & Conquer sound in its full maturity and presents its mix of hip hop, electronica and hard rock in a vibrant, powerful sound.
What characterises the first two thirds of Conquering 20 Years is a sense of dynamism, buoyed both by a feeling of discovery and exploration, and by the constant evolution of the music presented. Unfortunately, the album’s closing 20+ minutes lack this quality, as the music starts to become homogeneous and variable in quality. “Smackdown” fares best – it’s not quite as dark as the metal tracks on Klepacki’s solo album Awakening of Aggression, but otherwise it’s cut from the same cloth: a mid-tempo cue whose pummelling rhythms and steam rolling guitar riffs create a massive sound that feels almost claustrophobic. The sense of familiarity is lessened by a well-judged breakdown around the two-minute mark into an interlude backed by hip hop rhythms, a twitchy synth pulse and some eerie melody leads, once more displaying Klepacki’s ability to mix different genres into a surprising (and surprisingly coherent) whole. The same manoeuvre works less well on “Crank”, which begins as an energetic hard rock track with galloping rhythms and enthusiastic riffage – before the song abruptly discards all that and re-emerges with deep, compressed club beats and other techno elements recalling Klepacki’s solo album Virtual Control. These sounds were hinted at during “Crank”’s beginning, but the change is still too sudden and forced. Neither portion of “Crank” is lacking in quality, but it’s difficult to fathom why these two tracks were combined into one.
Things take a surprising turn with “Foreign Dialect” – another excursion into sounds not previously explored on Klepacki’s albums. It’s essentially a duet for drums and rock organ that’s delightfully difficult to categorise. At times playful, aggressive (particularly during a passage for hammering double bass), vivacious, hovering between rock, funk and jazz, and just a bit disorienting – befitting its title – “Foreign Dialect” is Conquering 20 Years‘ most adventurous and original composition. Shame that it’s followed by the album’s most formulaic track. Klepacki has always had a tendency to choose titles for his compositions that one might either regard as pragmatic or just obvious and unoriginal. But in the case of “Rainy Day”, the music is as clichéd as the song’s name. Playing like a sappy 80s soft rock ballad, a weeping electric guitar – playing some disappointingly thin material – is predictably paired with an introspective piano and some saccharine solo synth strings that sound less than convincing. Arguably, this is a style that Klepacki hasn’t explored much on his albums – the only point of reference in his body of work would be Viratia‘s closing track “Viratia Reprise”. That in itself doesn’t make “Rainy Day” any more interesting though, since there are loads of better examples of this particular style of music out there.
Finally, “Epic Destruction” wants to be just as in your face as its title suggests, and reprises “Smackdown”’s metal stylings while adding choir vocals and (synth) orchestral elements. Clearly, the intention is to close the album on as big a note as possible, in the style of Klepacki’s career best “Credits UAW Remix Suite” from Universe At War: Earth Assault, but “Epic Destruction” only gets there part of the way. The metal portion of the song is as competently written as usually, but doesn’t stand out much either, while the choral and orchestral parts feel like simple, perfunctory window-dressing. The drum solo starting at 2:30 is supposed to be cheekily indulgent and part of “Epic Destruction”’s attempt to be a sweeping album closer that’s fun for both listeners and the composer himself – but the solo also stops the music’s momentum just when the track should rev up. Ultimately, “Epic Destruction” goes out with neither a bang nor a whimper – not quite a conclusion worthy of such an extensive, ambitious career retrospective.
In a way, Conquering 20 Years is an experiment, and for the most part it’s a successful one. There are not many other – if any – albums out there in Western game music quite like it, but Klepacki rewards listeners’ curiosity with an impressively varied work, displaying his mastery of many, many musical languages even more so than on previous albums of his. From 8-bit chiptunes to romantic fantasy music, languorous, yearning sci-fi dreams, stripped down funk and various incarnations of Klepacki’s famous “Rocktronic” sound, Conquering 20 Years‘ first two thirds are outstanding in both stylistic breadth and quality of output. That changes somewhat towards the end of the album, which is marked by less assured song writing and a narrower palette. It’s that final album stretch which stops Conquering 20 Years from being the career capstone that it wants to be, but it’s still a strong album worthy of purchase – and here’s to hoping Klepacki will take another shot at the same concept in 2022!
Do you agree with the review and score? Let us know in the comments below!
Posted on April 23, 2014 by Simon Elchlepp. Last modified on April 16, 2014.