- Composed by Michael Giacchino, Christopher Lennertz and Ramin Djawadi
- La-La Land Records / 2011 / 546m
A novelty when it was first released in 1999, Medal of Honour (sorry – I will be typing the word so many times, if I attempt to not use the British spelling then my small brain will become fried) was a first-person shooter game which put the player in the throes of battle in Europe towards the end of the Second World War. It was an instant success and inspired countless imitators and sequels (the series to date has thirteen games in it). There was much critical acclaim and that extended to its score, by a young composer named Michael Giacchino, just making his way in the business. It paved the way for the thriving orchestral game music industry we have today, made a star of Giacchino and has been hugely popular ever since. In 2011 La-La Land Records put out a mammoth eight-disc box set of music from the series. I have decided to review the represented scores separately and in chronological order (which isn’t quite how they are presented, in order to make them fit more conveniently onto a smaller number of discs).
The legend goes that the game that started it all was dreamed up by Steven Spielberg, who had the idea while making Saving Private Ryan and got Dreamworks Interactive on the case; and that it was Spielberg who insisted that the game should have an orchestral score. Step forward Michael Giacchino, just 31 at the time and with a handful of game scores behind him (including a couple of movie tie-ins for Dreamworks, The Lost World and Small Soldiers). He had a few months to craft his score, which was performed by the Northwest Sinfonia in Seattle.
The score begins with the superb main theme, rousing and undoubtedly slightly militaristic but above all passionate and emotional. It’s a wonderful theme, appropriately respectful and dignified while being a Grade-A piece of entertainment. What struck a lot of people at the time was: have we found the heir apparent to John Williams? Giacchino displays a considerable orchestral flair throughout the score, clearly taking inspiration from Williams’s classic style for the various “battling Nazis” sequences in the first and third Indiana Jones scores. Orchestration and performance are both first-rate – and the score is an absolute belter.
The main theme occurs several times but apart from the tremendous finale, “The Jet Aircraft Facility”, it is frequently in little motivic fragments; a second theme (for the Nazis) is heard just as prominently during the main body of the score. This is where the Williams influence is most heavily felt from a melodic point of view, the theme closely related to the famous “Scherzo for Motorcycle and Orchestra” in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade; it’s given its fullest arrangement in the barnstorming “Assault on Fort Schmerzen”, one of the score’s many action highlights.
Indeed, action has a massive part to play here. Structurally, again the Williams inspiration can be heard (“Desert Chase” and “Airport Fight” from Raiders of the Lost Ark another two influences that are fairly plain to hear) but really, who cares about that? It’s a brilliant way of writing action music, one that has been heard surprisingly rarely in film music (surprising because of Williams’s huge popularity) and Giacchino’s use of the style is spot-on here. Truly, every track is of high quality, but a few do deserve a special mention – “The Radar Train” and “Rjuken Sabotage” are two outstanding takes on the Nazi theme, the latter in particular possessing a rambunctious energy that makes it a real standout amongst standouts.
This is a masterpiece, really, each cue a perfectly self-contained three or four minutes, beautifully constructed, and when put together it makes a stirring and incredibly entertaining package. I can’t help but be reminded by some of Joel McNeely’s similarly Williams-influenced film scores of the 1990s – which is no bad thing at all – in that it channels the legendary composer’s spirit in such an enthusiastic and entirely professionally-done way that it’s almost like listening to the great man himself. Arguably, the video game format allowed Giacchino to do all these tremendously-structured cues without having to worry about the little scene-specific things in films and television that offer challenges to musical coherence. The score started a juggernaut, video game music becoming hugely popular afterwards, and it couldn’t be easier to see why. It’s just first-rate music.
The first sequel was actually a prequel, with Underground following the tale of a young woman in the French resistance. With the theme from the first game being very much composed from the perspective of the central character – an American soldier – Giacchino decided he couldn’t reuse that for this game, though the Nazi theme does reappear.
The score’s moving main theme is introduced in “May 10th, 1940” – with a touch of local flavour provided by the accordion, a moving section for boys’ choir and of course the big orchestra, it manages to be both fairly sweet (in its more intimate moments) yet also infused with a dashing heroism and an incredible nobility. It’s one of the most impressive pieces of Giacchino’s career, setting the tone for the score to come, which is cut from the same cloth as the first one but with a nicely distinct feel of its own.
It has perhaps a slightly more “mature” sound (which is not to say the first one is in any way immature, I just can’t think of a better word) – slightly darker, more intense. After that magnificent opening theme, “The Streets of Paris” is tense, slightly jagged, much closer in feel to a gripping thriller than a dashing war story. Because the story of the game is much more about covert, small group against the giant machine type operations, the score has at times a more introspective feel – it is certainly never “small”, but a few cues have that “calm before the storm” feeling.
That said – there’s an awful lot of action music here too. “Fleeing the Catacombs” is an early highlight, clever hints at the Marseillaise duelling with the score’s main theme. Even better is the cue which follows, “Panzer Blockade”, which does again have those hints of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade to it – the scale of the piece is seriously impressive, the orchestra given a tremendous workout, the tremendous spirit of the main theme once more shining through during its appearances. “Labyrinth of the Minotaur” is a rollicking track, little orchestral flourishes all over it and that leads to another great piece, “Ascent to the Castle” not all-out action but instead a focused piece of dramatic storytelling with some wonderful Williams-like melodic interludes.
“Last Rites” is something very different (though slotting impressively perfectly into the album’s flow), a dark elegy with liturgical-sounding choir, a very moving piece. It’s not long before the action’s back – “The Motorcycle Chase” is an absolute blast, frantic and gloriously exciting; “Returning to Paris” is darker, edgier, no less impressive for it; the finale, “Beneath the City”, is one of the best cues of all, fluid and rousing and a tremendous way to bring things to a close. Underground is a bit like the older, uglier relative of the first score – it’s more hard-edged, less “nice”, but adds a distinctly emotional side at times. Whereas the first score was consistently brilliant, the second does have a few tracks which have a slight “filler” feel to them, so it can’t be considered in quite the same bracket – but it still packs quite a mighty wallop and is seriously impressive.
The third game of the series brought it to PC gamers for the first time (the previous two having been console-exclusive) and in doing so, recycled elements of both of them, alongside some new material from the forthcoming console game Frontline. Because of that, the game was (quite naturally) tracked with music from the first two games, with just 18 minutes of new music composed by Giacchino, spanning five tracks on the fourth disc of the La-La Land set.
It does have a new main theme, a stirring one cast somewhat from the same mould as Williams’s The Patriot; the melody isn’t quite as memorable but it’s a rousing piece. “North Africa” introduces an entirely new element, some tribal percussion (which I have to say I don’t think is heard very often in North Africa) ushering in the piece, which goes on to feature some staccato action rhythms, impressively atmospheric but not tremendously exciting.
“Schmerzen” returns to more familiar action territory, but it has a slightly “grander” sound than had been heard in the previous two games’ scores, darker and more aggressive. “Sniper Town” pushes this even further – there’s a slightly gruesome feel which undoubtedly fits the reality of the situation more closely (and Giacchino has himself admitted being slightly uneasy about some of the “fun” music he wrote for these games) and it’s gripping stuff, but inevitably rather less entertaining. “Tiger Tank” is the closest the score comes to the kind of gung-ho spirit of the first and (apart from the main theme) is the most enjoyable cue as a result. Allied Assault is a brief score, not as entertaining as the composer’s full-length ones in the series, but still consistently high quality and with a couple of tremendous tracks.
Soon after the release of Allied Assault on PC, a new entry in the series came on PlayStation 2, XBox and Gamecube (the first entry in the series for those consoles). Frontline returned to the point of view of the first game’s Lt Jimmy Patterson and the action begins during the D-Day landings. Giacchino’s outstanding main theme is introduced in “Operation Market Garden” after a noble version of the first game’s theme, itself making a welcome return; the new theme plays like a requiem, a heavenly choir accompanying the orchestra in an impressively mature way. It’s a simply outstanding piece of music, no surprise by this stage of the series, but there’s a new sound here – somehow more “grown-up”. The truly impressive thing is that Giacchino maintains that feeling through the score and it plays as being very respectful yet works entirely successfully as a piece of entertainment.
After the opening piece, the score is divided into five different subsections, three or four tracks each, representing the different strands to the game. The “Storm in the Port” sequence opens with the slightly ominous strains of “Border Town” (including the now-familiar Nazi theme) before we really get to explore the new sound in “U-4902”, a terrific piece of suspense that becomes more and more gripping, low-end strings, muted trumpets and a snare drum maintaining a constant momentum with the higher strings providing individual moments of colour. The score becomes much more up-front in “Shipyards of Lorient”, an intense action track which is much more gritty but no less enjoyable than those in the earlier scores. (Simplistically speaking, the sound has moved on from Indiana Jones to the action style heard in the Star Wars prequels.)
The “Needle in a Haystack” segment begins with a moving solo vocal in “After the Drop”, again with that elegiac feel of the opening theme, the full choir joining in as the piece progresses. It’s so beautiful and so serious, so carefully respectful – strained, anguished, really rather haunting. – an exceptional piece that would be quite at home in one of the great WWII movie scores. “Kleveburg” is a darker piece – easy to imagine it accompanying harrowing images of a soldier wandering around a battlefield strewn with bodies. “Manor House Rally” is a delightful piece, classically-formed, strings orchestrated beautifully; it builds throughout on a little motif and is brilliantly exciting. The action continues in “The Halftrack Chase”, which has a more martial feel to it (and a different melody) but is otherwise constructed in a similar way.
“Nijmegen Bridge” proves to be a rather sombre opening to the “Several Bridges Too Far” segment, before “The Rowhouses” takes the feel slightly towards that of a gothic horror score, with a somewhat macabre theme introduced in its opening moments – it turns into another terrific action theme. Then comes one of the most arresting pieces of music in the whole Medal of Honour series, the outstanding “Arnhem”, another tremendously moving orchestral/choral blend, whose six minute length allows for an unusual degree of musical development. A solo choirboy introduces the melody which gradually grows through the orchestra and choir – it’s a calm, tranquil piece punctuated by rousing moments of emotional directness, quite fantastic.
The ten-minute “Rolling Thunder” section sees the tension build through a couple of tracks before being unleashed in almighty fashion in the tremendous “Sturmgeist’s Armoured Train”, little cells of music being developed individually, fluidly intermingling to great effect. The final suite, “The Hornet’s Nest”, has a slow-burning opening in the form of “Approaching the Tarmac”, clearly signposting danger ahead; then “Clipping Their Wings” opens with a moving passage for strings, increasingly urgent brassy outbursts shifting the mood and gearing everything up for the spectacular big finish, “Escaping Gotha”. It’s a breathlessly exciting piece of music, one hell of an action track, the kind of thing that will make film music fans of a certain persuasion want to leap into the air in delight. It’s so intricately orchestrated and performed, so gleefully melodic, it’s just a treat, one of the finest John Williams-style action cues you’ll ever hear.
Frontline is definitely a more mature score than the first two in the series: it’s barnstorming, spectacular stuff for the most part but not in quite the same way, with more of an edge to it, less cheerful heroism. The album is long but very well-drawn, Giacchino carefully plotting a course through the drama. It’s right up there with the first one as one of the finest video game scores you’ll ever hear, a superbly-crafted work with some surprisingly moving sections and no shortage of excitement.
By the time the fifth game came around in 2003, Michael Giacchino was busy with other projects (he was well into his tenure on Alias at the time, and had also accepted the challenge of scoring the opening game in another franchise of video games set initially in the Second World War, Call of Duty) and generally a new development team was in place, so he did not return to work on Rising Sun, which shifted the focus to the Pacific theatre. While at the time those people who had become such fans of the composer’s work may have been disappointed, to be honest it was a case of the king is dead, long live the king because Christopher Lennertz – fresh from his much-praised score for Saint Sinner – stepped into his shoes and did a fantastic job of building on the musical foundations laid by his predecessor.
You just know that things are going to work out just fine within moments of the main title piece starting, snippets of the Giacchino theme appearing but also a full-bodied new one by Lennertz, with a hint of Japanese colour provided by some ethnic instrumentation accompanying the orchestra. While it’s clearly in the same musical world – and you can still hear the John Williams genesis – you can certainly also hear that this is a different composer bringing his own stamp onto Medal of Honour.
If anything, it is closer in feel to the first score in the series, with its dashing heroism, than it is to the slightly more refined Frontline. All the ingredients you want to be there are there – and they’re there pretty soon. “Stalking the Caves” is an absolute rip-roaring action track, not long after “Requiem for the California” a moving elegy. One new thing is the ethnic flavour – hinted at early on in the main title, developed further in various tracks later, such as the intense taiko drumming of “Taiko Brigade” or the gorgeous, earthy sound of the erhu in “Burma”; and I find the later “The Sewers” with the battery of percussion joined by a shakuhachi to be curiously endearing.
I love the slight comic hint to “Elephant Battle”, with its prominent role for tuba. Contrast that with the more serious, flowing “March on the Temple”, a tremendous action track. “A Prisoner’s Eulogy” is a moving feast of a cue before an old friend is heard in spectacular style in “Nazi Disguise / Shima Speech”, Giacchino’s Nazi theme making a delightful cameo (and there are several other terrific action tracks, notable for their furious energy and frantic pace). “Incoming Aftermath” is another lovely choral piece, full of emotion. The other big highlight is the finale, the moving “Hymn to Brothers Lost”, a gorgeous piece which perhaps unsurprisingly evokes fond memories of Empire of the Sun‘s “Cadillac of the Skies”.
Rising Sun isn’t quite as good as Giacchino’s best two scores for the series but is as good as the rest. The main difference is that structurally it is more like a film score, for some reason – many of the cues are much shorter, several under a minute, which doesn’t happen in any of Giacchino’s but happens in all of Lennertz’s and there’s a slightly more bombastic dynamic to the recording. Inevitably that does lead to a slightly more piecemeal feel to the whole thing, which prevents quite the tremendous dramatic flow that graced Giacchino’s; otherwise this is top notch and taken on its own terms, Rising Sun is an admirable accomplishment and an important part of the series as a whole, a Hollywood blockbuster-style score with numerous spectacular moments. (Some bonus tracks from the score are included on disc eight.)
Six months after Rising Sun came out on consoles, Pacific Assault was released on PC – a similar game but slightly reworked for the format. (A game for the Game Boy Advance, Infiltrator, came out in between and didn’t feature an original score.) As a result, much of Lennertz’s previous score was reused, but he was engaged to write a small amount of additional material. This is more restrained and more intimate than Rising Sun, beginning with the superb Aaron Copland-style warm Americana of the main theme, easily the standout track here.
The rest of the score is made up of generally very short cues (the whole thing only lasts 15 minutes but includes 14 cues) – it is warm, noble and very enjoyable despite its brevity. The short cue lengths is an issue because there’s just so little time for development, but the warmth of so many cues is very appealing (“Reunion” in particular is gorgeous). The score generally alternates between that and some action material, but even that has a more intimate sound than Rising Sun. It’s a bit of a footnote in the series as a whole really because there’s so little of it, but it’s a nice vignette which plays nicely while it lasts.
Game number eight returned Medal of Honour to the European theatre (including North Africa) and Lennertz was back, with a more substantial score this time. The 33-minute soundtrack album that was released at the time is included on disc four of the La-La Land box, but there’s over 40 minutes of additional score included on the bonus disc (it seems a bit odd that they didn’t combine them into a single programme, but perhaps there were contractual limitations). The game was written by John Milius, a great friend and collaborator with Basil Poledouris, who was actually something of a mentor to Lennertz, which gave the experience even more meaning to the composer.
The composer describes his score as being “more serious” and that certainly comes through. While perhaps for Rising Sun Lennertz had decided to stick very much within the parameters established by Giacchino, it feels in European Assault that he decided to go in a slightly different direction. I’d describe the score’s sound as being if anything more “epic” in nature, perhaps closer to the kind of orchestral music you might hear in a more modern blockbuster than Indiana Jones (if such films were to actually feature orchestral music).
The main theme, “Dogs of War”, sets the scene nicely – it’s longer-lined, more deliberately-paced, more the sort of music that stirs from within than without (if that makes any sense – which it probably doesn’t). Action arrives immediately afterwards in “Operation Chariot” – the free-spirited sound of Rising Sun is nowhere to be found – this is more muscular, grittier – and just as entertaining. (I suppose this is to Rising Sun what Frontline was to Giacchino’s first.) “Casualties of War” is a mature, moving piece with a gorgeous violin solo – I wouldn’t characterise Lennertz’s music for the previous two games as not being grown-up, but this absolutely feels more grown-up. Action does dominate, as usual – it has a slightly jagged feel, lots of horns and trombones. It’s constructed beautifully, always riveting – this one feels like such a coherent piece of work.
After the thunderous “Redball Express”, a diversion into Russian choral music arrives in “To Stalingrad” which will satisfy all fans of that style of music. “Clearing Tobruk” is a piece of dark action that’s fantastically entertaining; it’s similar in style to the darker moments of Williams’s Star Wars prequel scores (and to be frank, just as good as them). “North Africa” goes through some suspense material before an aggressive section of initially string-led action, building up to a particularly exciting climax. “The Desert Rats” is an interesting piece the way it goes through several ideas in its relatively brief running time – there’s a tiny little snippet of the Giacchino main theme, what sounds like nod to Jerry Goldsmith’s Patton, a brief hint of Arabia – it holds together surprisingly well. “Russia, 1942” is similarly brief, but with a more singular purpose this time, a beautifully fluid piece of action music with more than a hint of that epic sound I mentioned.
“Battle of the Bulge” opens calmly with an impassioned reading of the score’s main theme, there’s a brief return for Giacchino’s Nazi theme, and you keep expecting the cue to explode into life in a way that it never quite does, but actually Lennertz develops things very nicely and it’s an impressive piece. The finale is “One Man Can Make a Difference” and it’s infused with a massive amount of heroism, drawing the original album programme to a close. European Assault is another superb entry in the series, one with a distinct sound of its own; it’s very rewarding, very impressive.
The series continued with a couple of games which didn’t feature any original music – 2006’s Heroes for the PlayStation Portable, then 2007’s Vanguard for the PS2 and Wii. People got a bit of a surprise when the soundtrack was released for the latter – it featured selections from Giacchino and Lennertz’s previous scores in the series, but also what appeared to be some new tracks – in fact these were from the (at the time) forthcoming Airborne, which marked the series’ debut on the new generation of consoles and the unexpected return of the composer who started it all. By this time his fame had grown considerably – to the plaudits he had received for his earlier game scores, he was adding many new ones for Lost, The Incredibles, Mission: Impossible III and the rest.
Of course, he grew a lot as a composer during that time and from those experiences, and that is very much in evidence in the opening track, which alternates his now very familiar main theme for the series with his new one for Airborne, which is very nice and all but at first seems somehow entirely forgettable (but it soon begins to plant itself firmly into the memory banks with its increasingly impressive variations as the score progresses). Then the change in the composer really becomes apparent when the action starts up (and it barely stops after that) in the second cue, “Operation Husky”. The gung-ho Williams style has gone almost completely now, replaced by this composer’s own action style. In the liner notes he talks about how he wanted to create the sense of chaos that went with the the kind of missions the paratroopers at the heart of this game did in real life – dropping from the plane, not knowing what is going to greet them, often being thrust immediately into conflict. Echoes of the Lost sound are here – the darkness and danger, the low winds and percussion contrasting with the high strings. Here also for the first time in the Medal of Honour series is the exceptionally dry recording dynamic that the composer so mysteriously favoured through this period of his career, which adds an extra layer of murkiness to proceedings.
The lack of colour was clearly deliberate and I’m sure entirely appropriate, but it does undoubtedly make Airborne less immediately entertaining than his previous works – it requires slightly deeper examination to uncover its treasures. Fortunately those treasures are there and there are indeed many thrills to be found. “Gunfight in the Ruins” is a spectacular action piece, so energetic and so frantic, so intricate too in its orchestration. The following “Operation Neptune” has a fantastic variation on the main theme, martial and striking. “Unblocking Utah” is a little more like Giacchino’s earlier scores in the series, all rousing and blood-pumping; and this more free-flowing style continues into “Operation Varsity”. “Sniper Showdown” is a serious piece of action music: the brass section gets one hell of a workout, the whole thing is so spectacular.
The lonely trumpet version of the main theme in “Dropping Into Nijmegan” is a lovely touch. The seven-minute “Wreckage of Nijmegan” is a dramatic piece, initially contemplative but it really rallies into something spectacular. I think it’s the longest cue in the whole series of games and it’s just beautifully-drawn. “Taking Out the Sighting Tower” sees an outpouring of heroic sounds, brassy and ballsy and thrilling; then “Paestum Landing” brings the score to a soaring conclusion. The album closes with a wonderful end title piece, one last glorious rendition of the fantastic main Medal of Honour theme. (A small amount of additional material is found on the box set’s bonus disc.) Airborne takes a little longer to appreciate than Giacchino’s other scores for the series but ultimately it’s worth spending the time with it, because it proves to be a slow-burning success, boasting a number of brilliant moments. There is a handful of cues that I could live without, but otherwise the high quality has been maintained in what has (so far) proved to be the last grand orchestral score in the series.
Airborne wasn’t tremendously successful and, after the release of Heroes 2 shortly afterwards, it looked for a while like the long-running series may have finally run out of steam. However, inspired by the success of the Call of Duty franchise (which was ironically initially inspired by Medal of Honour) with its move into a more modern arena in the tremendously successful Modern Warfare, EA Games followed suit by shifting the action forward and relaunching the action in the modern day conflict in Afghanistan. The first Modern Warfare game had been scored by Stephen Barton and Harry Gregson-Williams and the second by Hans Zimmer and Lorne Balfe so there was no great surprise when Ramin Djawadi was announced as the composer for this. Obviously his score would be absolutely nothing like Giacchino’s or Lennertz’s and it’s fair to say that the announcement wasn’t met with an outpouring of joy from the film music community.
And indeed, his score is nothing like the others, and it sounds completely out of place on the box set. Having said that – if you put the other scores behind you (as you must) then it’s actually not bad at all. It’s very modern, it goes without saying – there’s a small group of live strings but otherwise it’s all electronics, percussion and a handful of ethnic instrumental solos. In the liner notes there is talk from the producer of the score being “epic” which is curious – I’d have thought that its whole point is that it is very intimate and avoids that kind of “epic” feel very deliberately. It is in fact a seriously mature work – the sort of thing you’d hear in a modern thriller, but benefiting hugely from the way it was composed (as a set of self-contained tracks which are all intended to stand on their own feet) and its biggest surprise, which is the frequent injection of emotion from the strings.
Take a piece like “Heroes Abroad” – it’s a moving piece, dignified and respectful and sounding genuinely heartfelt – not a melody you’ll remember afterwards, but it’s all very well done. It’s a shame the choir in “Falling Away” is sampled because that removes a bit of the music’s impact – especially in the context in which it appears, it’s quite profound really. Sure, there are times when things do descend into what I suspect many feared the whole score would be like, looped percussion and bland and anonymous synth pads, but those moments are rare enough that they can easily be forgiven and forgotten (in fact it’s not hard to do the latter at all). The more hardcore rock sound of “Taking the Field” and a few others is a bit of a shock at first, but ends up being very effective.
The album as a whole does run out of steam a bit (it is so samey that even the original hour-long programme – bolstered here with nearly 20 minutes of additional cues – feels a bit too long) but there is a compelling narrative running through it and I have to say my fears for the score turned out to be entirely unfounded. It’s thoughtful music, the product of an intelligent design, sounds perfect for what it’s mean to do and is probably the most impressive thing I’ve ever heard from Djawadi.
Rating: *** 1/2
There is some spectacular music here. The four full-length scores by Giacchino and the two by Lennertz are all at the least very, very good and two of Giacchino’s are absolutely exceptional and the two shorter ones by those composers both have something to offer. Most surprisingly, while it has a completely different sound, even the Djawadi score is impressive and will exceed many people’s expectations. This is a wonderful box set, beautifully presented with a booklet of liner notes by Dan Goldwasser. Video game music has come on so far – many sceptical critics (including, I am ashamed to admit, myself) didn’t give some of these scores the credit they deserved at the time of their releases. A big reason game music has seen such a spectacular rise in both quality and popularity is due to Medal of Honour. Full credit to Giacchino for being the pioneer and to Lennertz for continuing that legacy. There is some truly special music included in this box, which has sold out from the label but at the time of writing is still relatively easy to find elsewhere – and very reasonably priced. If you love thrilling, grand old orchestral action/adventure music then you can’t go wrong with this release which is simply exceptional. (Since this box set was released in 2011 there has been one more game in the series, Warfighter which was a direct sequel to the 2010 game and also scored by Djawadi, but for now at least it would appear the series has come to an end.)