The Darkness II Original Soundtrack
The Darkness II Original Soundtrack
February 7, 2010
Mafioso Jackie Estacado returns to the streets of New York City in The Darkness II, and he’s still possessed by the titular Darkness, a demonic entity that endows Jackie with supernatural powers. And while Jackie has risen through the ranks of the mobsters and is now don of the Franchetti crime family, both The Darkness and the death of his girlfriend Jenny still haunt him, particularly because The Darkness prevented him from stopping Jenny’s demise. A Gothic tale of death and redemption such as this, shot through with its fair share of first-person shooter action, holds much potential for a larger-than-life soundtrack. The first Darkness title had been scored by Gustaf Grefberg, although the game developers had also licensed an extensive catalogue of pre-existing rock and soundtrack music (not including music from glam rockers The Darkness, unfortunately). For The Darkness II, publisher 2K Games decided upon a similar approach, with Timothy Michael Wynn replacing Grefberg.
Best known for his work on the Command & Conquer series, Wynn travelled to Prague to record his score for The Darkness II with the FILMharmonic Orchestra Prague. On behest of the game’s developers Digital Extremes, Wynn didn’t listen to Grefberg’s music for The Darkness until he had almost finished his own work. In a number of interviews, Wynn also described his approach to creating the score’s thematic material: he and Dustin Crenna (audio lead at Digital Extremes) decided to keep the number of themes to a minimum and to focus on the connection between Jackie and Jenny. Unfortunately, Wynn’s score didn’t receive a soundtrack release (or at least it hasn’t so far by April 2012), but his music was made available for review purposes.
Easily The Darkness II‘s strongest point is its thematic material and how Wynn intertwines and develops it. The score’s main theme — Jackie’s theme, if you want — is presented early on in “The Darkness (Theme)” as a languid, seductive five-note melody with an elegant, yet sinister and sad undercurrent to it. Packing a multitude of different emotions in just those five notes, the theme is a striking creation and it easily carries the whole piece, which develops the theme throughout its running time. It’s an alluringly Gothic and emotionally rich start to the soundtrack that hints at redemption through the composition’s closing major key chords. As hinted at through Wynn’s interview statements, Jackie’s theme comes to dominate the soundtrack, and one of the music’s highlights is how easily the theme adapts to different environments. The lyrical melody returns in dramatic form on the album’s first action track “Gateway to Hell”, now sounding more like a harbinger of doom. Beside other adrenaline-driven appearances on the soundtrack’s battle music, the main theme appears in a yearning rendition at the end of “Angelus”. And “Best Served Cold” features one of the main theme’s most interesting variations when a single treble voice states a descending version of the main them, aiming to draw the listener into the Hellish depths that Jackie must travel. Throughout these thematic occurrences, Wynn does an exemplary job at manipulating and twisting the theme’s original melody.
Fascinatingly enough, the second strand of thematic material on The Darkness II — Jenny’s theme — turns out to be one of the variations of the main theme. First presented on “Jenny”, her theme shares several key features with Jackie’s melody. Both start with the same two-note downward step, before continuing with a three-note upward motion. But while Jackie’s theme stops there and remains unfulfilled, Jenny’s motif continues, pensive and not without a hint of sadness, but at least offering closure. Through these compositional subtleties, Wynn does a great job at telling the game’s story through his themes, the close but tragic bond between Jackie and Jenny, and Jackie’s burning need to find peace through Jenny. And it also makes clear that — at least at the beginning of the game — Jenny only exists as a vision of Jackie, growing out of his imagination, just as her theme grows out of Jackie’s. Both melodies recur and intertwine throughout the soundtrack and it can actually be a challenge to tell them apart, particularly when Wynn manipulates Jackie’s theme to a significant degree.
The most obvious recurrence of Jenny’s theme appears on “Together Again”, like “Jenny” a poignant, heavy-hearted piano ballad that adds lush string textures to signify the lovers’ plight and hope. The melodic writing on both pieces is strong and although fellow adagio pieces “Gone” and “Jackie’s Choice” don’t play quite in the same league, their despondent strains further the soundtrack’s emotional weight, mainly through yet more renditions of the main theme. Since Jackie’s and Jenny’s themes are also present on the soundtrack’s action tracks, The Darkness II largely manages to preserve its emotional core throughout the running time of the album. The soundtrack couldn’t finish on a more appropriate note than with a passionate final set of variations on Jackie’s and Jenny’s themes at the end of “Hell”.
The problem is that strong themes and intelligent development of these only gets you so far. This being the soundtrack for a first-person shooter, the majority of the music consists of driving action tracks, and sadly, they’re not very exciting. “Gateway to Hell” opens the party well enough with a barrage of vividly captured percussion sounds, but the soundtrack only rarely regains this invigorating sense of a large-scale battle between the forces of light and dark. Soon, “Gateway to Hell” slips into the formula that will drive most of The Darkness II conflict cues. Bland and seemingly never-ending string ostinato rhythms are combined with slightly more interesting layers of electronic and live percussion to push the music forward. On top of this, Wynn puts some melodic material, but most of its is thin and feels perfunctory, unless it’s a statement of one of the soundtrack’s themes. At least “Gateway to Hell” finishes with an imposing brass- and choir-driven climax, while “Stories” and “Shades of the Dark”, two other early action tracks, benefit from equally rasping, hulking brass chord progressions.
However, particularly the second half of the album suffers from a succession of limpid, samey battle cues, just when the conflict between Jackie and his demons should flare up. “Hunted”, “Echos”, “Dead Carnival”, “Cemetary” and “Best Served Cold” all open with some eerie soundscaping that is reasonably effective, if typical for a game with horror elements — expect creepy sound effects, disembodied vocals and various biting violin playing techniques. But after that, all five tracks — none of them particularly short — launch into the described, less than rousing mix of orchestral and electronic elements. It’s all impressively paced and well-produced, but too derivative to offer much appeal on a stand-alone basis. Particularly the string ostinati get boring quickly and sometimes even become actively obnoxious. If you’re allergic to violins going “da-da-da-da-da-da-da” without much variation, the second half of The Darkness II will give you a hard time. Actually, more interesting than the incessant string rhythms and the mostly non-effective melodic material are the shifting electronic layers underneath it all. That’s not enough to save these ultimately forgettable compositions though. The rhythms of “Best Served Cold” at least muster up some of the fierce energy that most of the other action tracks are lacking, but the music still can’t escape from the clutches of its own repetitiveness.
The last two pieces of the album, “Alley” and “Hell”, exemplify the frustrations that The Darkness II creates. “Alley” starts out with massive brass and choir tones that finally seem to give the album’s second half the scope its supernatural conflict requires, but then the track falls back into more eerie ambiance. “Hell” spends a full two-and-a-half minutes with more ominous ambient tones that by now doesn’t have much of an effect anymore. Then the piece launches into more of the same action formula, but after a stale beginning it manages to make that formula more palatable by adding more instrument layers. These are still quite simple in themselves, but give the composition the added power it needs to close the soundtrack on a satisfying note. It’s no rival for, let’s say the blazing creations on Garry Schyman’s Dante’s Inferno, but it’s definitely a step up from earlier action pieces.
Since is the score for a game that travels to the depths of hell and back, there’s of course also a number of slow-crawling pieces that do their best to create an unsettling mood. As with the soundtrack as a whole, the results vary in quality. Best of the bunch is “The Deep”, one of the tracks that focuses almost exclusively on contemporary elements. Its grinding, relentless electronic rhythms and heavily processed guitar riffs make this cold, industrial piece an effective counterpoint to The Darkness II‘s more emotional compositions. The slightly creepy stealth mood of “Nightstalking” and “Darkling”, courtesy of grungy beats and high-pitched violin chords, does an adequate job at underscoring the quietly menacing aspects of the dark forces lurking within The Darkness II‘s narrative. “Underworld”, on the other hand, struggles to be more than mere underscore and only gets there due to a statement of the main theme at its end. These excursions into the twilight world are only rarely offset by unadulterated major key statements — but that only makes those light-filled moments more potent. The first half of “Angelus” is one particular highlight of the album, with its soothing, uplifting melody lines for violins and light female choir. And after it more or less exactly reprises the mood of “Jennie”, “Together Again” finishes with an elating string-heavy finale that is as moving as anything to the album.
On The Darkness II, Wynn captures the gloomy mood that the game’s narrative asks for very well. More than that, Wynn gives the soundtrack a surprisingly strong emotional core through the extensive use of the game’s moving, malleable main theme and its intelligent development throughout the album. It’s during its melody-driven moments that the score shines, be it through the sadness and regret of “Jenny” or the elegant Gothic seduction of “The Darkness (Theme)”. What brings the album down is the fact that its thematic sophistication is countered by the staleness of its action tracks. These orchestral-electronic hybrids largely regurgitate tired conventions of the genre: monotonous string ostinati, a web of electronic beats and rhythms underneath, and thin melodic overlays from either the brass or violins that rarely achieve anything (if they’re not restatements of the main theme). While effective within the context of the game, these cues struggle to stand on their own, although as on “Gateway to Hell” and “Hell”, they can yield satisfactory results every once in a while. The Darkness II is worth listening to for its highlights, atmospheric core, and thematic intelligence, but it could have been a lot more.
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Posted on August 1, 2012 by Simon Elchlepp. Last modified on August 1, 2012.