Gears of War 3 The Soundtrack
Gears of War 3 The Soundtrack
Sumthing Else Music Works
September 20, 2011
Buy at Amazon
Cue snappy remark about yet another game starring burly space marines. But fair enough, Gears of War is arguably the genre’s most popular specimen and has established a franchise that so far has sold more than a staggering 11 million copies. And with almost two million pre-orders in the US alone and once more excellent reviews, Gears of War 3 even looks to surpass its predecessors’ gargantuan sales. Although Gears of War 3 closes the story arc that began with the original Gears of War, it’s a pretty safe bet then that we’ll see a continuation of the profitable franchise in the not-so-distant future.
Steven Jablonsky, one of Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control cohorts, had taken over from Kevin Riepl for Gears of War 2‘s score. One of film music’s rising stars, Jablonsky’s profile had received a further boost since Gears of War 2 through his music for the two Transformers sequel films and the The Sims and Prince of Persia franchises. More often than not, however, his works remain divisive due to what many soundtrack fans regard as regurgitations of the same basic R/C style of scoring, while other fans defend his scores fiercely. In any case, Jablonsky’s recent scoring activities certainly increased interest in Gears of War 3 — and the fact that the game was one of 2011’s most anticipated titles didn’t hurt either. In a press release, Jablonsky emphasised that “there is a ton of depth to the game’s characters”, which allowed him “to dig deeper musically”. He added that his work on Gears of War 3 “was like scoring a summer blockbuster” (for better or worse, some will add). Not surprisingly, Jablonsky’s score received a generous digital release that clocked in at almost 80 minutes.
In a way, this is pretty simple: if you enjoyed Jablonsky’s score for Gears of War 2, you’ll like this one as well. If you didn’t enjoy Gears of War 2 — or Jablonsky’s Remote Control-style works in general — then you’ll lose interest in Gears of War 3 twenty minutes into the album. But what if you’re among those who are new to the franchise’s soundtracks and expect them to reflect the games’ status as some of the most revered next-gen titles? Well, you’d be sorely disappointed, as there’s really nothing in Gears of War 3 that sets it apart from any other synth-orchestral “summer blockbuster” score of the past ten years.
Very early on, Gears of War 3 makes clear that it’s essentially going to deliver more of the same of what was already heard in Gears of War 2. The second track “Gears Keep Turning” marks the return of Gears of War 2‘s muscular main theme and is essentially a rehash of that earlier soundtrack’s “Hope Runs Deep”, only without that cue’s stirring build-up and flexible dynamics. “Gears Keep Turning” disappointingly takes a more straightforward approach and only in its second, more fluid presentation of the main theme brings some variation to its predictably anthemic nature. That lack of originality comes to characterise the soundtrack as a whole and the album comes across as a simple extension of Gears of War 2‘s score — and that work was already a mash-up of recent film action scoring clichés. To an ever large degree, the same goes for Gears of War 3.
The score for a first-person shooter lives and dies by the quality of its action tracks and Gears of War 3 ends up on the more moribund end of the spectrum. The battle cues on the title exhibit all the hallmarks of the polarising Remote Control sound that has come to dominate much of Hollywood’s blockbuster film scoring: a focus on brawny, pretty simple rhythms that come courtesy of an expanded brass and percussion section, garnished with some pulsating electronics and insisting string ostinati to fill the higher registers of the music (somebody please tell these composers that it’s actually possible to write interesting string ostinati and not just agitated “da-da-da-da-da”!) And no, girly woodwinds are still not allowed to interrupt the constant flow of testosterone. The music’s orchestration emphasises the bass region — remember, it’s all about sounding powerful and “epic”. To that end, a choir is sometimes added to the ensemble, but in most cases only to double the brass and percussion sections’ rhythms.
All this is packed up in a recording mix that adds so much reverb to every instrument section that the music becomes a blur of noisy textures whose origin — synthesised or live — is impossible to tell. The resulting loss of vivacity is not the only problem here though. Gears of War 3‘s mix pushes gain levels so high that several cues exhibit distortions during volume spikes (the opening of “Loss of a Leader”, the soprano-aided climaxes of “Fury of the Tempest”, “Full Circle”). This will depend on how good your playback equipment is though — my Sony Walkman went okay, but my laptop badly struggled with the cues listed. And what’s with that odd crackle that accompanies the opening electronic beat of “Last Resort”? Considering Gears of War 3‘s immense production values, these technical shortcomings are a sore disappointment.
These deficiencies contribute to Gears of War 3‘s biggest problem: its samey nature that carries over from Gears of War 2 and that sees the music relentlessly repeating the same formulas, and not even with much success. Jablonsky increases the intensity of Gears of War 2‘s battle tracks by piling up even denser, if not more complex layers of forceful percussion rhythms and driving strings. But the timbres and rhythms Jablonsky creates are rarely intricate, memorable or simply powerful enough to impress. Compare any action piece here with a similarly punishing track like Trevor Jones’ “You Have The Power” from his Dark City score and Gears of War 3‘s lack of ‘wow’ factor that it strives for so hard becomes apparent. There’s no doubt that the battle cues do a reasonable job as rallying war cries and that they are easily palatable as such on a one-off basis. However, hearing track after track of these unchanging, overbearingly militaristic tropes becomes a wearing exercise in patience. This also makes the album feel front-loaded — what begins entertaining with “Stalk City” turns into background noise an hour later on “Gasbag Airways”.
The monotonous nature of the action tracks is exacerbated by their often trudging tempi that turn these pieces into marches rather than pulse-pounding frenzies. Hurting the combat cues is also a lack of melodies which is somewhat surprising, given that pleasingly harmonious, simple melodies are a mainstay of Remote Control score. But outside of occasional renditions of the main theme, melodies are thin on the ground during the battle pieces and rarely come in any other shape than “slow, portentous brass chord progressions” that want to sound important and dramatic without making an actual effort. Reinforcing this dearth of hummable melodies is the fact that Gears of War 3‘s entertaining main theme goes by somewhat underused. After its generic statement on “Gears Keep Turning”, it returns in satisfyingly dramatic shape on “Stalk City”, but then appears only infrequently and doesn’t add much to “A Fine Mess” and “Last Resort”. Even the final action track “Fury of the Tempest” quotes the theme only in fragments at the start instead of using it to its full potential as “Fathoms Below” does when it pits the resilient melody against hammering rhythms. To the album’s credit though, it finishes with the main theme’s most victorious and sweeping rendition on “Finally a Tomorrow”, a composition that makes the most of the melody’s heroic nature. Outside of the main theme, there’s practically no thematic material on Gears of War 3. The ethnic-sounding ululations that opened Gears of War and Gears of War 2 return here as well and funnily are now the closest the Gears of War franchise has to an identifiable signature sound, but the motif isn’t used in any way that would enhance the score’s structure.
There are hints at inspiration here and there on the action tracks: “A Fine Mess” has some aggressively blaring trumpets that Jablonsky starts to layer creatively with the choir before dropping them again after a few seconds; “Corpser Ambush”‘s violin configurations are a bit more elaborate than the usual chopping rhythms the strings perform; “Deadland Dance” and “Ashes Fall Down” are appropriately intense and stirring in their final thirds; and “Fence House Suicide Pills” surprises with harsher rhythms that finally add some edge and grit to the proceedings. But in the end, only “Fury of the Tempest” attains the dramatic heights Gears of War 3 “final showdown” scenario is aiming for, even though its building blocks remain simplistic. Fortunately, “Fury of the Tempest” is more cleverly structured than its predecessors and turns out to be the roller-coaster ride that an final action track on an FPS soundtrack should be. It’s telling that, on both this title and its predecessor, the music is at its most effective when Jablonsky relies on female voices that can soar above the pounding orchestral onslaught and create some tension through this contrast.
The action music’s lack of subtlety and creativity is carried over into the few more emotional cues that probably underscores the game’s characters’ “ton of depth”. If so, then these are pretty superficial folks. The melodies on the slower compositions are supposed to tug at the heartstrings, but often enough, they feel merely self-important and overwrought — and the bass-heavy mix of the album certainly doesn’t help here either. There’s not much sense of sorrow to the hackneyed melodic material on “Loss of a Leader” or “Forever Omen”, although things do improve a bit with “Father and Son” and its less lazy string chord progressions. Again, the music works best when it adds angelic soprano vocals on the surprisingly restrained “Restless”, the start of “Live for Me” (before the track descends into more dull pounding), and the dramatic outburst on “Full Circle”. The latter turns out to be one of the few genuinely emotional moments on the album, even though some will find that the music goes over-the-top during this passage. Pity also that it’s proceeded by a string-heavy opening to the composition that so desperately tries to be solemn, it borders on self-parody. “Hanover’s Favorite Son” suffers from the same problem, with its proudly patriotic strains so earnest and yet basic in delivery that the piece’s overzealous finale walks a very narrow tightrope between “rousing” and “close to cringe-worthy” — and undoubtedly there will be staunch proponents of both views.
There’s also some underscore pieces to be found on Gears of War 3, but they’re not much more than fillers between the action tracks and they disappear towards the album’s end. These cues fall into two categories: either they’re generic tension-builders with their subdued rhythmic pulse and swelling brass chords (“Meanwhile Below Deck”, “High Seas Tension”), or they turn more ambient to evoke eerieness through the use of dissonances and ominous, sustained synth and orchestral chords. Only the chaotic pizzicati around 1:15 into “Ghost Town” and the whirring string clusters halfway through “Those Aren’t Stranded” provide these pieces with a modicum of character.
It’s instructive to compare the scores for Gears of War 3 and Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine, given their similar genre and the fact that they’re being released on the same day. And on pretty much all fronts, the latter comes out on top. Both works don’t feature particularly unique action writing, but at least Space Marine doesn’t pound you into submission with its oh-so-manly militaristic pomp as mercilessly as Gears of War 3 does — if you think 80 minutes aren’t a long time, this album will make you reconsider your assessment. Gears of War 3‘s recording mix is a blurry mess that swallows a lot of the details and character the compositions might have had, and it’s a far cry from Space Marine‘s vivid orchestral sound. And while both soundtracks want to inject some emotions into the slaughter they underscore, Space Marine‘s melodic writing is at least one notch above Gears of War 3‘s mostly banal tunes. Gears of War 3 only narrowly avoids a lower score on the strength of a few better developed action tracks, the continued use of vocal elements carried over from Gears of War 2, and some successful applications of its main theme. If you liked the predecessor, there’s no reason not to get this soundtrack as well, and it’s rah-rah aggression is digestible in small doses. But as a whole album, it’s just too much of the same old, same old.
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Posted on August 1, 2012 by Simon Elchlepp. Last modified on August 1, 2012.