Wing One -Music From Wing Commander-
Wing One -Music From Wing Commander-
Fat Manor Publishing
August 13, 2007
Download at Official Site
Throughout most of the 1990s, developer and publisher Origin Systems was in the enviable position of having two of computer gaming’s most successful franchises in its stable. Origin’s groundbreaking Ultima series was joined in 1990 by Wing Commander, lead designer Chris Roberts’ sci-fi space shooter that would become an immense success, spanning four direct sequels, several spin-offs and a feature film (which best remains forgotten). A good part of Wing Commander‘s immense appeal was Roberts’ ambition to deliver a movie-like experience that was deliberately modelled on Star Wars, giving players’ the chance to relive something similar to that film’s exciting dogfights and large-scale space battles — only that is was now the gamer who was in control of the conflict’s outcome.
Another ingredient to Wing Commander‘s success were the non-interactive story sequences between missions, which embedded the gun-blazing action into an epic sci-fi narrative. Also, to successfully realise its high-flying ambitions, the title had to create the believable illusion of players’ piloting their own fighters in space, and the game’s back-then amazing 3-D graphics certainly delivered. In the words of author Tristan Donovan in Replay: The History of Video Games, for many gamers Wing Commander “was the first time they had looked at a PC game and been impressed.” Thus, the title underlined “the PC’s transition from dull business machine to gaming powerhouse” and heralded the platform’s impending victory over the likes of the Amiga and other gaming computers.
While Wing Commander‘s graphics certainly dazzled, its music would also receive praise and fame in the years following the game’s release. Origin brought in legendary game composer George Sanger (aka The Fat Man) to create music that would fit Roberts’ brief and play as a cross between Star Wars and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, further emphasising the game’s cinematic ambitions. Sanger, who in his own recollections had worked hard to get the scoring gig, had in previous years worked with a young protégé of his, Dave Govett, on some NES soundtracks. Without any concrete plans to make Govett a co-composer on Wing Commander, Sanger let Govett simply have a go at writing something for the game. Govett, saying that he had a tune in his head since high school that might fit, came back the next day to present Sanger with the now-famous Wing Commander fanfare, as well as the dogfight music. Sanger took the fanfare melody to then shape and diversify it in order to insert the tune in different places throughout the soundtrack.
Wing Commander being a 1990 Western computer game, Sanger and Govett’s efforts weren’t made widely available via a dedicated album release for a long while. Almost seven minutes of the game’s music appeared on 1991 collection Origin Soundtrack Series Vol. 1, although that album was only a very limited promotional or gift release. Finally, in 2007, Sanger released Wing One – Music From Wing Commander, a digital release of the in-game soundtrack, capped off by some bonus tracks and sketches. While not containing every last bit of music that Sanger and Govett wrote for the game, the album holds all the essential cues and only leaves out a number of rather repetitive action tracks and some variations of material that already exists in some shape on the album, making Wing One the definitive soundtrack release for anybody but die-hard collectors.
More than 20 years after Wing Commander‘s release, what remains of the impact that its music made in 1990? Fortunately, quite a lot. Sure, some historic perspective will be necessary to appreciate the game’s true importance, but there’s no doubt that it still remains a very enjoyable score that perfectly fits the game’s space opera format — no small feat, considering the technical limitations of the time. Listening to Govett’s “Fanfare and Theme”, it’s obvious that the game comes closer to being the game score equivalent of John Williams’ Star Wars music than almost any other previous Western game soundtrack. The fanfare itself is a proud, memorable idea that bursts forth with both dignity and enthusiasm. However, “Fanfare and Theme” is more than just its iconic theme — Govett creates a piece with truly cinematic sweep, moving through an impressive number of changes in orchestration, tempo and rhythm. It’s an exceedingly well-developed overture that matches the game’s ambitions every bit and then some. Driven by an appropriately militaristic undercurrent, “Fanfare” nevertheless finds time for a quiet mid-section for a lovely, dignified melody on woodwinds and horns. As symphonic as 1990 chip synthesis allows, “Fanfare and Theme” is easily the score’s standout track. While the rest of the album doesn’t quite reach the same heights, it comes close enough to satisfy.
The engaging sense of drama and grand space adventure that flows through “Fanfare and Theme” is evident throughout the album, with compositions that share its intricate orchestrations and strong development — even though the latter is sometimes the result of the album producers’ efforts. Govett’s “Briefing through Scramble” is a good example of these characteristics, opening with subdued, militaristic tension music that accompanies mission briefings in the ship commander’s office. Instead of just fitfully accompanying the scene with atmospheric underscore, Govett adds a suitably subdued woodwind melody on top of the tense chords to give the music an emotional hook. Due to some clever track arranging that merges several cues into one satisfyingly flowing piece, “Briefing through Scramble” then moves into a quietly heroic passage for the pilots of the Terran Confederation, before the cue climaxes over accelerating snare drums and intensifying fanfares that mark one of the many returns of Wing Commander‘s main theme, as the Terran fighter crafts are launched into space.
Indeed, one of the album’s biggest strengths — and the reason why it’s clearly preferable over any game rips — is that Sanger has arranged the often short original cues into longer compositions for the album release, ensuring that each segment feels like an organic part of a larger whole and rarely superfluous. This particularly benefits the space battle cues, which in themselves hardly go on for longer than a minute. However, arranged as one suite of separate pieces that segue into each other as on Wing One, these cues work perfectly well and feel substantial enough. The battle medley opens with “Defending the Claw”, which despite its brevity and familiar ingredients — sharp violin accents, big orchestral hits, panicky rhythms — is more than a simple danger track and remarkably dense, even adding some woodwind lines at times.
Moving through the bold “Strike Mission: Go Get ‘Em” and the quivering, suppressed tension-building of “Flying to Dogfight”, the battle suite arrives at its climax with “The Great Dogfight”, at more than three minutes the album’s longest composition and certainly its most dramatic, swinging back and forth between moments of triumph and struggle. While initially mainly carried by effective string ostinati and fluttering woodwinds, at 1:07 hammering string chords announce the arrival of a more deadly foe. The composers’ sense for drama and their attention to detail is perfectly demonstrated in the way an elating brass motif emerges to promise victory, only to be thwarted again and again — particularly around 1:30, when the brass motif raises hopes by playing longer than usually, but then it suddenly turns dissonant and falls apart. While “The Great Dogfight” is more convincing through its rhythmic power than its melodic strengths, it’s an engaging piece that ends nicely with a dogged quote of the main theme.
The skilfully constructed dramatic arc that adds to Wing Commander‘s cinematic atmosphere is then found within the compositions themselves, as well in how the tracks interact through the intelligent album sequencing. Indeed, the first half of the album flows absolutely smoothly, from its majestic overture to the launch preparations and into the heat of the space battles, followed by the music that plays upon the gamer’s return to the mothership in “Returning Defeated and Landing”, “Debriefing Unsuccessful” and “Medal Ceremony Purple Heart”. “Returning Defeated and Landing” and “Medal Ceremony Purple Heart” again prominently feature the game’s main theme/fanfare and adapt it skilfully for the occasion. The theme plays in restrained fashion against a solo harp in the surprisingly well-developed “Returning Defeated and Landing”, which only runs for 48 seconds, and then returns in its most anthemic rendition on “Medal Ceremony – Purple Heart”, carrying the piece’s bombast with verve. In fact, Wing Commander‘s extensive use of one central theme that recurs in various disguises throughout the score is another facet of its film score-derived inspiration, and the composers’ consistently skilful and multi-faceted manipulation of the theme is quite extraordinary for a 1990 game score. In fact, Wing Commander holds up well in its thematic complexity and consistency against today’s game soundtracks that rely on a single theme. Of course, it helps that the main theme is both malleable and melodically strong enough to weather its many repetitions gracefully, while the album’s relatively short running time helps the melody to not overstay its welcome.
The album’s enticing arc turns a bit muddy in the album’s second half though, to a degree because there’s not quite enough material left to start a second ‘preparation-launch-battle-return’ cycle satisfactorily, although the music itself remains strong. After the triumph of “Medal Ceremony – Purple Heart”, Wing One abruptly catapults the listener into the alarmed frenzy of “Eject – Imminent Rescue”. After its peaceful close, it segues into “Rec Room”, a laid back, gently swinging piece of light bar jazz that is an jarring shift from the previous space opera dramatics, even though the track is well-composed. The next trip into space fighting the evil Kilrathi follows soon, but only consists of “Dull Patrol” and “Grim or Escort Mission”. The former is a sketch that wasn’t included in the game and the piece does feel somewhat unfinished, but its slightly nightmarish atmosphere, generated through some uneasy chromatic flute melodies, is an interesting addition to Wing Commander‘s emotional palette while fitting into the game’s overall stylistics. “Grim or Escort Mission”, on the other end, only has thirty seconds to run before the music returns to more celebratory debriefing and medal ceremony pieces, which deliver additional renditions of the main theme in appropriately proud fashion.
Still, after some meandering, Wing Commander manages to end on a suitably weighty note to fulfil its storytelling ambitions — well, almost, that is. Intriguingly, Sanger places the music for the hero’s funeral at the end of the album, after all the jubilant medal ceremony fanfares have subsided. Opening with desperate brass calls against grave strings, “Funeral” is the album’s most emotional track and not only features one of the game’s best melodies in its despondent woodwind line, but the cue also manages to subtly insert fragments of the main theme through some bugle calls. “Barracks – Go To Sleep You Pilots” seemingly finishes the main section of the album on an equally melodic, but more peaceful note, melodically just as pleasing as “Funeral”. Its fade out over solo woodwind and harp that evokes feeling of elation would be a perfect close to Wing Commander’s narrative arc. Surprisingly though, Sanger chooses to follow up “Barracks – Go To Sleep You Pilots” with “Eject – Lost in Space”, and the piece’s quiet despair ends Wing One‘s presentation of music from the game on a less wholesome, but arguably more intriguing note that runs counter to the heroics which have dominated the album up to this point. It might also just be a manifestation of Sanger’s irreverent sense of humour that can arguably prove divisive in this particular instance.
Sanger’s cheeky streak becomes more obvious on “Go To Sleep You Pilots (With Original Lyrics)”, one of the album’s two bonus tracks. Sanger’s lyrics first turn the piece into a literal lullaby (“Go to sleep, you pilots / Fight another day”), but later segue into fourth-wall breaking humour (“There’ll be other wars / Now’s the time for snores / Dreaming like you do / When the day is done / And the battle’s won / We’ll play Wing Commander 2!”), and the lyrics sound even funnier when set against the piece’s heroic horn calls. The sarcasm which shines through in Sanger’s lyrical treatment of the game’s militarism (“Sleep / No, don’t push that button / Sleep / That’s a good pilot.”) is a clear link to his later compilation Flabby Rode, particularly that album’s “Nice Day For War”. The other bonus track is “Fanfare – Team Fat Live at the CES show” and presents the Wing Commander main theme in unexpected form: played as a mellow surf rock version by Sanger’s band. The fact that the theme not only works convincingly as a bold space adventure fanfare, but now also as the melody of a warm, melancholic 60s rock song, is further proof of its versatility.
A landmark score finally gets the treatment it deserves with Wing One — Music from Wing Commander. Like the game itself, Sanger and Govett aim high with their soundtrack, going for as close an approximation of John Williams-style space opera that 1990 chip synthesis allows, and they succeed brilliantly. Starting with an instantly memorable, versatile main theme that is woven into the score with impressive dexterity, Wing Commander is a full-bodied, robust soundtrack that underscores both the game’s action-laden space battles and its more introspective moments through pieces that can rely on strong melodies and sophisticated orchestrations. For the most part, Wing One does an outstanding job at arranging the game’s often short pieces into larger suites that flow naturally and brim with drama, filling the formula that the composers follow with verve and life. Only at the beginning of the album’s second half does the tension start to lag a bit, but this is only a temporary and relative weakness. Ultimately, Wing One is the near-definitive presentation of one of PC gaming’s most momentous scores and a must-have for anybody interested in either classic game scores or sci-fi soundtracks.
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Posted on August 1, 2012 by Simon Elchlepp. Last modified on August 1, 2012.