SOCOM 4 -U.S. Navy Seals- Original Soundtrack
SOCOM 4 -U.S. Navy Seals- Original Soundtrack
Sony Computer Entertainment America
April 12, 2011
Download at iTunes
The long-running SOCOM series of tactical third-person shooters generated its tenth instalment with SOCOM 4: U.S. Navy SEALs, only nine years after the best-selling franchise had debuted on the PS2. SOCOM 4 tried to shake things up a bit and centred its action in Malaysia. However, like its PS3 predecessor, SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs Confrontation, SOCOM 4 only achieved middling reviews that failed to match the critical acclaim of earlier titles in the series.
For the game’s soundtrack, the developers decided to both make the single-player campaign more cinematic and to have the score take a different direction than other military game soundtracks. Composer Bear McCreary, who had displayed his ability to creatively merge orchestral and ethnic sounds in his work for Battlestar Galactica and Dark Void, embraced this opportunity to break away from “the older SOCOM scores that are a bit too patriotic and militaristic to translate to the modern geopolitical climate.” McCreary threw himself into this assignment and spent two years on creating the score for SOCOM 4, in the end writing a four hour soundtrack. The game’s budget allowed for an authentic live reproduction of the soundtrack’s Asian tones, plus for a sizeable, classic orchestra. Ultimately, some 120 musicians were involved in the score’s recording sessions — an 85-plus member orchestra, a 15-person taiko drum group, a 15-person gamelan ensemble and a group of ethnic-instrument soloists on Chinese and Japanese instruments such as shakuhachi, erdu, guqin etc. Following McCreary’s ambition to create a highly adaptive score that would organically react to the player’s actions and never play exactly the same way twice, the orchestral material was split by the game’s development team to get between 20 and 30 hours of musical variations.
An announcement regarding an album release for McCreary’s score was made only days before the game found its way onto store shelves in April 2011. However, once the news emerged, they were cause for celebration: a generous 75-minute digital album in April would be followed by an even more extensive, two disc physical release from soundtrack specialist label La La Land Records in May. Either way, fans were given ample opportunity to check out what McCreary called in an interview “the most diverse score I’ve ever created.” This review refers to the extended physical release.
“I think we’ve created a game score that is really unlike anything else I’ve heard or heard of.” McCreary himself raised expectations for SOCOM 4 to considerable heights. The good news is that he has all the reason to be boastful. SOCOM 4 perfectly merges its numerous ensembles into a whole that is as creative as it is accessible. McCreary does preserve what he calls “the musical identity of the game, the big orchestral presence” — this is music on an unapologetically large scale that will sweep you along with its at times massive sounds. At the same time, McCreary assigns the Asian instruments such a prominent role in the album’s soundscape that the resulting music indeed has a unique character. It also purposefully reflects McCreary’s concept of a musical dichotomy underlining the game’s narrative about “the west invading the east”, according to McCreary.
This interpolation of different sound worlds is present throughout the whole album and highlighted right at the start on opening track “Theme from SOCOM 4”, which brings together the various ensembles on SOCOM 4. Unexpectedly lush strings quote the main theme after its initial, noble statement on French horns. Meanwhile, taiko drums provide rhythmic backing and the gamelan ensemble’s tinkling chimes adorn the Western ensemble’s melodies. After snippets of electronica and distorted electronic guitar riffs, various ethnic solo instruments get an opportunity to shine and lead this melodic yet powerful composition into another surging rendition of the main theme. Throughout the score then, Western and Eastern sounds remain equal partners, with the ethnic instruments often dominating the soundscape due to their distinct and attractive timbres. These are particularly highlighted when the Eastern instruments perform solo roles against the orchestral backdrop. McCreary’s formidable abilities at fusing classical and exotic (at least to Western ears) sounds are in full force on SOCOM 4 and almost each ensemble and instrument he deploys is applied with utmost skill and variety.
The benefits of the resulting, supremely colourful and diverse soundscape is felt on the whole album, but most clearly on some of the tracks that evoke a brooding stealth atmosphere. What’s often merely functional underscore on other soundtracks here sometimes turns into intriguing compositions, due to the unusual sonic ingredients McCreary uses. “The Fortress” mostly consists of disjointed fragments of material that only come together in the track’s second half. But they hold the listener’s attention because of the addition of Asian hand percussion and gamelan instruments to the usual wailing guitar figures and synth pad layers. Ditto for “Revelation”, whose tense, suspended string chords are complemented by the mysterious sounds of the gamelan ensemble and pounding, foreboding taiko drums. Later, grinding guitar riffs and hammering electronics clash to ear-catching effect with an ethnic woodwind solo.
On more relaxed occasions, the Asian elements provide moments of wonder and respite. “Naga Formation” is the composition that focuses most strongly on the various Asian ensembles — fittingly so, since it underscores a native rebel group in the game’s narrative. The shimmering layers of gamelans and zithers, interjected with resonating ethnic woodwind soli, create a web of intoxicating textures that will have listener coming back again and again. Other instrument groups are more specific to particular situations and characters. First introduced on “Countdown”, gritty, electronic beats set against the hybridised orchestral backdrop characterise mercenary group Clawhammer on “Clawhammer” and “Clawhammer’s Betrayal”. The more aggressive nature of the mercenaries is also represented through the presence of other contemporary sounds, such as the harsh, industrial action rhythms in the second half of “Clawhammer’s Betrayal” and a prominent spot for a guitar solo on the same track. These modern sounds are as seamlessly integrated into the score as the ethnic elements and help to anchor the score in the reality of an early 21st century with its “modern geopolitical climate”. The only element that doesn’t gel perfectly are the discordant guitar soli on “Clawhammer’s Betrayal” and “Turning Point”, where they’re mixed quite far into the background and fail to keep up the tracks’ general intensity. That being said, on a rougher, more rhythm-driven composition like “Onslaught on the Bridge”, the guitar soli fit in a lot better and even lead the track to a blistering climax.
Action-loving soundtrack fans who assume that the focus on ethnic elements and solo instruments means lower volumes need not fear. As on Dark Void, the taiko drums provide their formidably powerful rhythms to a number of floor-rattling action tracks, while the ethnic solo instruments often perform against the raging orchestral backdrop and carry the melody, for example on “Leviathan”. McCreary finds a happy medium between balls-to-the-walls action writing and creating a constant flow of tension and release in his exceedingly well-developed compositions. In their perfectly self-contained nature, these compositions recall Michael Giacchino’s early Medal of Honor scores among comparable shooter soundtracks. McCreary’s masterful shaping of his compositions is most evident on the score’s two longest tracks “Fluid Dynamics” and “The Pursuit of Vengeance”, both of them flowing perfectly and running the gamut of emotions and orchestral colours. It also helps that McCreary taps into a never-ending reservoir of rousing, varied rhythms that power the action cues on SOCOM 4 and put the unimaginative rhythmic background of other action scores to shame (yes, I’m looking at you, Crysis 2). Bold brass, the melody instrument of choice on most contemporary action scores, not surprisingly takes a bit of a backseat on SOCOM 4, but still makes a tremendous impact when this instrument group centre stage on “Turning Point”, “Means to an End” and “Battle for Control.” And that last track’s spectacular climax, as well as the jaw-droppingly intense second half of “The Pursuit of Vengeance”, should be reason enough for action aficionados to pick up this score right away.
The seamless mix of Eastern and Western elements is not the only thing that ties the score together. There’s also SOCOM 4‘s omnipresent main theme, first heard on dignified French horns on “Theme from SOCOM 4”. McCreary claimed in an interview that the “main character’s theme actually changes not only during the cinematics but even as the game goes on.” To a degree, that claim is difficult to verify on an album release that can’t present the music in the same dynamic way as the game. But what’s true is that SOCOM 4‘s main theme is indeed versatile and appears in a great number of guises throughout the score. Later on “Theme from SOCOM 4” performed with a slight Asian flavour by the full strings; transformed on “Fluid Dynamics” from pensive thought on ethnic woodwind to more hopeful tune on the same instrument and emerging on triumphant brass at the end of this composition; more muted and downcast on “Gold Team” and “Razzad’s Tarocco”, uplifting on “Passing the Mantle” — SOCOM 4‘s main theme is very satisfyingly developed throughout the soundtrack and adapts well to each instrument group. And although the theme appears on the majority of tracks, it never feels overused, due to its adaptability and multifarious appearances.
Realising McCreary’s claim that “SOCOM 4 has a much more character-based story than any previous SOCOM game”, the dramatic heft of the album is increased by a surprisingly large number of emotional cues that provide more personal drama than the rambunctious action pieces. These compositions put greater emphasis on the Western orchestra, particularly the strings. Spread throughout the whole album, tracks like “Holding the Trigger” and “Razad’s Tarocco” improve the album’s flow by adding moments of solemn reflection and even tragedy — “Razad’s Tarocco” features a rendition of the main theme on solo trumpet that plays like a hymn for fallen soldiers. The main theme’s melodic qualities are generally put to good use on these moving cues. Meanwhile, the frequent inclusion of such compositions on the soundtrack gives the music enough room to let the drama unfold over the length of the score. Despite focusing more on the orchestra’s string section, these subdued cues still incorporate the same Asian elements as other tracks, albeit in a restrained, yet still effectful manner. The pounding taiko drums on “Razad’s Tarocco” add a feeling of determination against the odds, while the tolling gamelan on “Holding the Trigger” injects the cue’s string-heavy strains with just a slight sense of unease.
The 75 minutes of SOCOM 4‘s digital release were one seamless listening experience. This was due in no small amount to an assured sense of pacing that was evident in the skillful alternation between poignant compositions and exuberant action tracks. The extended La La Land Records album adds another 35 minutes to what was already a generous release — and unfortunately fails to maintain the gripping dramatic arc that made SOCOM 4‘s digital release such a terrific listen. A good part of the blame can be laid at the feet of the new material’s consistently sedate nature. Most of the additional tracks focus on the ambient musings that were prevalent on “Naga Formation”, relying on the sparse application of Asian solo instruments. On the digital release, these subdued interludes remained somewhat in the background. But on this double disc album, they play a much greater role, and not to the score’s advantage.
“Rendevous in the Mountains” and “White Tiger” still perform well as atmospheric underscore, particularly the former composition with its almost playful gamelan rhythms. But even both compositions’ serene instrumental solos can’t distract from the fact that they feel a bit slight and don’t quite weave the same potent spell as “Naga Formation”. And it only gets more problematic on “The Flooded Fields”, “Safehouse”, “Uninvited Guest” and “Benefaction”, who all apply the same ambient formula with only some modifications and stretch it beyond running times of five minutes and more. “Safehouse” and “Uninvited Guest” add either nervously wailing or grinding electronic guitar and “Uninvited Guest” additionally relies on a steady electronic bass pulse, shifting the track’s stylistic focus closer to a tenser stealth atmosphere. But these efforts are not enough to sustain these cues and ultimately, too much of the new material feels like its main purpose is pad the double disc album’s running time. As a result, the frequent interjection of these pieces interrupts the previously deft juxtaposition of character-based drama and roaring action tracks and slows down the whole album. This 110 minute album release then doesn’t feel so much like a drag because of its length, but because of its uneven pacing. In the end, only “Benefaction”‘s second half with its more full-bodied sound and greater emotional heft maintains the elevated standards of the digital release. At least, the new compositions increase the soundtrack’s thematic coherency, with the chiming gamelan motif that closed “Theme from SOCOM 4” returning on the double disc-exclusives “The Flooded Fields” and “White Tiger”.
La La Land Record’s newfound enthusiasm for extended releases of video game scores is hugely commendable and will hopefully lead to many more albums in the future. Unfortunately, “more comprehensive” doesn’t always equal “better”, and SOCOM 4‘s physical soundtrack highlights how much a great album relies on the delicate interplay of several different components. On the excellent digital release, a number of such components came together to form a perfectly realised dramatic arc that grabbed the listener from the start and never let go. On the double disc album, this progression is severely undermined through the inclusion of a considerable amount of somewhat generic atmospheric compositions that work as serviceable underscore, but rarely rise to the creative heights of the rest of the soundtrack.
Make no mistake though, most of the album still consists of great music. SOCOM 4 is the preliminary culmination of McCreary’s tendencies to combine ethnic ensembles, a Western orchestra and electronic elements, and the resulting mixture more often than not is perfectly realised and creates intriguing, sometimes head-spinning music. Aided by a strong, versatile main theme, SOCOM 4 impresses both during its truly amazing action tracks and its more subdued, elegiac moments of character-based drama. Many composition on this score are perfectly developed and the majority of the score has a galvanising sense of unfolding drama that carries the album to a satisfying close. Still, the way this release’s new material slows down the album is enough to turn this five star score into a four star one. Unless you insist on hearing as much music from SOCOM 4 as possible or absolutely need this music in lossless quality, stick with the digital release.
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Posted on August 1, 2012 by Simon Elchlepp. Last modified on August 1, 2012.