Dante’s Inferno Original Videogame Score
Dante’s Inferno Original Videogame Score
February 9, 2010
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Being pitched by developer and publisher EA Games as one of the company’s biggest titles of 2010, Dante’s Inferno met with great anticipation within the industry and among video gamers. A marketing campaign that included a fake protest against the game’s religious content by supposed Christian fundamentalists during E3 2009 only served to increase the game’s profile, although it’s open to debate if this was achieved in a way that actually benefited the product. Released in January 2010, the game met with lukewarm sales and reviews, which frequently pointed out that Dante’s Inferno appeared to be not much more than a decent God of War clone with great art design.
While EA Games’ investment in Dante’s Inferno ultimately may not have paid off, there’s no doubt that the developer didn’t spare any expenses when it came to creating this triple A title. This included the game’s soundtrack: multi-award winning composer Garry Schyman was given the chance to record the game’s music at Abbey Road Studios in London with the 65-piece Philharmonia Orchestra and the 40 members of the Metro Voices — both ensembles doubtlessly among the best in the film and game score world. Schyman was joined by the game’s audio director Paul Gorman to create a score that successfully captured the otherworldly, terrifying setting of Dante’s Inferno. Scoring hell is probably one of the most interesting creative opportunities a composer can receive — a feeling Schyman echoed in several interviews. So does the soundtrack for Dante’s Inferno indeed provide the listener with an extraordinary listening experience?
One point that Schyman repeatedly brought up in interviews just before and after the soundtrack’s release was that he found scoring Dante’s Inferno a very challenging task, since he felt that the game’s soundtrack called for a unique style of music that matched the game’s extravagant visual style. In his words, he (and one would assume, his scoring partner Paul Gorman as well) tried to capture “the scary, grotesque, beautiful, and tortured sounds of this world.” What they came up with isn’t necessarily unique, but certainly highly original, especially within the world of game soundtracks. Fans of both modernistic 20th century classical music and horror film soundtracks will encounter a fair share of scoring techniques that will be familiar to them: harsh brass cluster, strings that sound like a swarm of angry insects, an emphasis on different kinds of percussion, with melody taking a backseat to layers upon layers of exquisitely organised orchestral mayhem.
However, what sets Dante’s Inferno apart from other soundtracks that more exclusively rely on this kind of orchestration is the integration of more readily accessible material, which harkens back to late 19th century/early 20th century classical music through its colourful, complex orchestrations and heightened sense of emotional response. In another interview, Schyman expressed his fondness for both Witold Lutoslawski and Gustav Mahler, and it’s tempting to regard the soundtrack for Dante’s Inferno as a successful amalgamation of some aspects of these composer’s personal styles. The result is a soundtrack that mercifully doesn’t just try to scare the listener into submission, but instead equally fascinates, sways and instils fright. The album’s second track, “Donasdogama Micma”, early hints at the described combination of styles by opening with a choir melody that expresses religious grandeur, before giving way to a more avant-garde, non-melodic use of the choir which now provides bitingly dissonant layers of sound. Bringing together horror and beauty within the score, the music’s emphasis is still firmly on the terror that the underworld’s inhabitants and visitors experience, but the described mix of musical elements turns what might have ended up a simple horror score into something much more awe-inspiring. If one was looking for a succinct description of the genre that this soundtrack falls into, the term “operatic horror” seems most appropriate, also considering how prominent vocal elements are throughout the album.
Going into this soundtrack — and before knowing who scored it — I was fearing two things: that the score might a barrage of relentless orchestral noise, and that it would suffer from an over abundance of “epic” choruses that were supposed to convey the imposing atmosphere of the game’s setting. And indeed, almost every track on the album features human voices in some kind of shape or other, certainly a rare occurrence within the world of game soundtracks. However, Schyman’s and Gorman’s enormously varied use of the vocal forces at their disposal ensures that one will hardly regret the prominent place they’re assigned to within the album’s soundscape. Eerie soprano solos, half-spoken, half-shouted choral outbursts, electronically manipulated whispers, ethereal melodies for female choir… the list goes on and on, and it soon becomes clear that Schyman’s and Gorman’s use of human voices is leaps and bounds ahead of what most of their peers in the field have displayed so far. Comparisons with Jerry Goldsmith’s Omen trilogy are inevitable, which testifies to the composers’ achievement that is this soundtrack.
Going further into the score, one quickly realises that it is heavy on combat tracks, most of them scored by Schyman. And it seems safe to assume that he had a blast writing and conducting these pieces, all of them manifestations of unleashed orchestral and choral power, with percussion that in its emphasis on stomping rhythms and sheer power takes on a tribal quality. Not only this action material, but the whole soundtrack benefits from the large range of percussion instruments deployed and their constantly inventive use, both in regards to instrumentation and rhythm.
“Dante, Casarma Treloch” is a prime example of the combat tracks found on Dante’s Inferno. It’s a powerful march which has the choir switching between shouting words and singing operatic melodies, featuring an absolutely restless, frenzied orchestration which includes both more abstract and ‘conventional’ elements (such as big brass melodies). The track is a supremely visceral experience and maintains a stirring forward momentum. “Minos” and “Cerberus” are similarly impressive, with dense orchestral textures and an amazing amount of musical details to be found in every second of the music, meriting repeat listens (and a good set of headphones). Especially during “Minos” and its passages for almost tribal sounding choir, I couldn’t help but feel slightly reminded of the choir sections in John William’s score for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom — before Schyman inserts another passage of modernistic, dark orchestral chaos.
While Gorman’s contributions to the soundtrack focuses on musical material of a different kind, his two action tracks impress as well. Somewhat more conventional in their layering of instrument groups than Schyman’s compositions, “Bleeding Charon” still amazes by evolving into a plodding march with a hair-raising, majestic slow choir melody and syncopated metal percussion on top. “The Harrowing” benefits musically from its use of a ghostly choir over layered brass and bizarre percussion effects, some of which are placed very close to the listener’s ear within the track’s soundscape.
As impressive as all of these rip-roaring combat tracks are when taken on their own, the further one ventures into the soundtrack, the more obvious it becomes that they are all stylistically quite similar, resulting in diminishing returns especially during the album’s second half, which is more battle music-heavy than the score’s beginning. One can only be blown away so many times by the action material’s orchestral and choral onslaught before a slight fatigue sets in. The problem’s not that the listening experience becomes overly monotonous; the music’s textures are easily dense and varied enough to sustain interest, and there’s a sufficient number of pieces spliced in between the action tracks to convey different emotions. But the album’s initial “wow” factor wears a bit off over time, slightly restored when “Battle with Adraman” deviates from the established formula and places a female choir floating above the chaotic orchestral accompaniment.
Another problem that becomes obvious through the soundtrack’s action material is the lack of a feeling of development. “Babalon Ors”, presumably the final boss battle theme, tries its best to provide a suitably epic close to the soundtrack’s action material, but is just doesn’t quite there — not because of an inherent lack of quality, but because the music has already been so grand and dramatic from the start. It just doesn’t get much bigger than “Dante, Casarma Treloch”, which is the album’s fourth track, and after that, the soundtrack doesn’t have many more places to go in terms of orchestral bombast, which makes it all the more difficult for the composers to convey the feeling that the game’s hero is facing bigger and bigger challenges. In a similar way, considering that the game is based on a narrative that centres on the protagonist’s descent into more and more horrifying depths — and even divides that journey into discrete steps, e.g. the nine circles of hell — it is surprising that the soundtrack doesn’t convey this trajectory. Instead, it’s pretty much hell from the get go, and although the soundtrack provides enough sonic variety to make the netherworld a multi-faceted place, there’s no feeling of coming closer and closer to the root of all evil and depravity.
These are hardly fatal flaws that bring the soundtrack down — rather, they make the difference between “amazing” and “masterpiece”. Dante’s Inferno comes tantalisingly close to the latter, thanks in no small part to Gorman’s contributions, which largely can be put into two categories. The first one consists of pieces that set the choir — singing consonant harmonies for once — against a percussive orchestral background. This combination proves most effective in tracks such as “Above Archeron”, with an a cappella choir expressing quiet sorrow, later joined by different kinds percussion (including metal instruments), or “Crossing the Styx”: the choir’s clean vocal harmonies offer a rare glimpse of hope and redemption, which is very much needed after the almost relentlessly bleak music that preceded it. The choir is pitted here against high pitched violins and other uncanny orchestral noises, and later against stomping drums and sounds of rattling chains — another effective display of the composers’ instrumental creativity.
However, the majority of Gorman’s pieces can be best described as music that sets different vocal forces against an orchestra that is treated as a producer of creepy sound effects (as opposed to providing melodies or harmonic structures). Think of a lusher version of the more dissonant portions of Eliot Goldenthal’s soundtrack for Alien 3, and you’ll get a good idea of what to expect here. The album’s first example of this particular style is “Path to Minos”, which uses a disembodied, whispering male voice, placed very closely to the listener’s ear, accompanied by an effectively creepy, multi-layered, disjointed orchestral background.. The same formula is used in tracks like “Flaming Tombs”, and while the album’s sound engineers do their best to give the listener the impression that there’s a monster right behind them, whispering incomprehensible words and sound in their ears, the vocals can’t help but feel a little bit cheesy in their “look at how scary I am!” obviousness.
While Gorman provides quite a number of such tracks, the originality of the sound effects he coaxes out of the ensemble and the way he manipulates these sounds digitally makes for constantly engaging listening. He also knows how to vary his approach sufficiently to keep things interesting. “Philopator” is given an eerily spacious sound through a distant choir and lightly chiming claves. “Hall of Gluttony” is one of the soundtrack’s stand out compositions, opening with the sound of a very deep saxophone, which is later joined by a bass choir singing long, sustained notes. According to interviews, Gorman used this particular kind of bass saxophone to convey a feeling of disgusting corporeality (following the age old tradition of musically representing obesity with low instruments). His approach is hugely successful, with the piece exuding a bizarrely intimate feeling through its claustrophobic, oppressive textures. “Cocytus” features more droning saxophone sounds, while a female soprano and whispering voices in the background greatly add to the track’s ominous atmosphere. Only on one occasion, Gorman — and the soundtrack itself — stumbles, when “Abominable Sands” stretches this ambient formula over almost four minutes. At this point of the soundtrack, the listener will have already become quite used to the album’s sonic palette and will feel that the piece drags on a bit — an impression that’s enforced by a false stop in the middle of the composition.
However, this is the only track on the album that might qualify as filler material (and only barely so), which is an indication of the soundtrack’s quality. All in all, Gorman’s contributions to the score greatly enhance its impact by providing some much needed variety through atmospheric breaks from Schyman’s dense orchestral pieces. At the same time, Gorman’s compositions easily fit into the soundtrack’s overall musical style and thus strike a perfect balance between creating stylistic coherence and adding something new to the album.
Some of the soundtrack’s standout compositions are those pieces that are most daring in their combinations of moods and musical genres, and thus can’t be easily categorised musically, usually to utterly fascinating effect. Schyman has chosen “Storms of Lust” as his favourite track on the album, and it’s easy to see why: its darkly romantic, ebbing and flowing string and soprano melody is mixed with pounding drums and retains an almost waltz-quality quality. The mood changes from seductiveness to an expression of outright lust when trombones and horns are added for the composition’s intoxicating climax. Following this marvellous piece, “Whores of Babylon” mixes a propulsive rhythmic orchestral background, driven by percussion and brass snares, with blood curling female screams. Again, this use of vocals for very obviously frightening purposes and the effect it achieves lie somewhere between “genuinely scary” and “a bit over-the-top”, depending on the listener’s preferences. Still, the composition greatly entertains, later incorporating a cleverly orchestrated march section.
“Beatrice Taken” proves emotionally highly effective through a foreboding flute solo and a layered tenor choir at the beginning, skillfully foreshadowing the drama about to unfold. “Arphe (The Descent)” and “Second Circle” turn down the music’s near omnipresent creepiness to convey the game’s setting’s macabre fascination. “Arphe (The Descent)” articulates a feeling of descending into the unknown perfectly through an eerie violin solo (sporting a thin, but very appropriate sound) over slowly shifting, unsettling choir harmonies. The same violin sound makes a welcome return in “Bella’s Secret Revealed” over mournful, suspended trombone and horn chords, now conveying utter loneliness. “The Second Circle” emphasises Hell’s strange, otherworldly beauty through a soprano solo, chiming claves, and majestic, interweaving melodies for strings and woodwind that highlight the composition’s excellent orchestration. The reduction of the track’s instrumental palette to solo harp and violin tremolo accompanying the solo soprano towards the composition’s end is chilling and makes the listener slightly regret that there are not more of these supremely atmospheric expressions of twisted wonder to be found on the album.
Finally, the album’s closing tracks offer Schyman the chance to create some of the score’s most emotionally accessible material. “Redemption”, with its ethereal choir over a lighter orchestral texture, later growing to a grandiose statement of victory, fitfully evokes feelings of elation and triumph, although the track’s harmonically ambiguous ending and the concluding, darker-hued track “Donasdogame Micma Decepto” tantalisingly leave the question open if evil has been truly defeated or not (and probably serve to set up a possible sequel).
Mission accomplished: Schyman and Gorman have succeeded in creating an extraordinary experience that takes the listener on a visceral roller coaster ride. Stylistically highly original, the score consistently impresses through its successful melange of horror and more romantic or operatic elements. The atmospheric tracks convincingly depict Hell as a place that is both terrifying and awe-inspiring, while the combat tracks are as complex, dense and stirring as they come. A touch more variation in both the style of the action material and the album’s level of intensity, which basically starts at full tilt and has some trouble topping that in its later parts, would have made this soundtrack an instant classic. As it stands, it is one of the most intriguing and fascinating scores game music has produced in a while and shows how many more creative venues are still there to be explored by game composers who deploy orchestras to create their scores. Schyman’s and Gorman’s work on Dante’s Inferno perfectly complement each other, and Schyman further cements his reputation as one of game music’s most interesting and innovative composers. In addition to all this, the lavish care showered on the album’s recording bears fruits: the performances by the orchestra and the choir are pitch-perfect, no matter how difficult the compositions are, and the sound recording is no less impressive. If you’re looking for a gripping listening experience and are not afraid to venture into potentially unknown musical territory, the soundtrack to Dante’s Inferno is a must-own.
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Posted on August 1, 2012 by Simon Elchlepp. Last modified on August 1, 2012.