Medal of Honor Original Videogame Score :: Review by Simon Elchlepp
Once one of Electronic Arts' flagship franchises, the Medal of Honor series of first person shooters saw its fortunes declining rapidly after 2003 entry Rising Sun. Faced with diminishing sales figures and an increasingly hostile response from game reviewers, EA decided to do pull the same trick that has become standard operation procedure for game companies and Hollywood studios alike in such situations: a franchise reboot was initiated. Part of this makeover was the decision to shift the new Medal of Honor's time and location from the European and Asian front lines of World War II to the Afghanistan invasion through US forces in 2001. It's safe to assume that this move was more than just a bit inspired by franchise competitor Call of Duty, whose sales figures had rocketed to record heights after going through a similar relocation to more contemporary theatres of war.
Understandably, game music collectors were excited at the possibility of Michael Giacchino or Christopher Lennertz continuing the series' groundbreaking musical heritage. But the fact that two of the game's preview trailers were set to songs by nu metal band Linkin Park was an indication that the game's soundtrack would follow the game's overall stylistic shift. Finally, EA announced only weeks before Medal of Honor's release in October 2010 that film composer Ramin Djawadi had landed one of the most high-profile composition jobs in recent game music history and had created the soundtrack for the new instalment of the franchise.
Djawadi's appointment elicited a predictably divided reaction among score collectors. Djawadi, a member of Hans Zimmer's Remote Control Productions, had previously contributed additional music to films such as The Time Machine, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, and Batman Begins, before going out on his own with Iron Man and Clash of the Titans. Particularly the latter two soundtracks met with decidedly mixed reviews. Adding to the growing trepidation among some Medal of Honor score fans was the fact that the often predictable musical stylings of Djawadi's previous works seemed to be completely at odds with Giacchino's and Lennertz' rich orchestral music. And Djawadi's announcement that the soundtrack to the new Medal of Honor would sound like a "Hollywood action movie on steroids" certainly didn't help much. In late September 2010, almost 60 minutes of Djawadi's score out of a total of 100 minutes composed for the game were released as a digital download.
Believe it or not, but Djawadi's Medal of Honor score is a work that in some ways is full of surprises. A number of score collectors probably anticipated an album chock full of pounding action tracks in the formulaic mould of many other Remote Control works. Instead, Medal of Honor's soundtrack is split evenly between such material, and measured, emotional compositions that wouldn't have been out of place of previous Medal of Honor scores (if it weren't for their more simplistic orchestrations and melodic constructs). In interviews, Djawadi made a point of emphasising that he and the game designers wanted to push the gamer's emotions instead of simply providing the expected ethnically-tinged action music. And indeed, Medal of Honor features a good number of melodically attractive, string-heavy compositions that provide the bulk of the soundtrack's thematic material and imbue the score with a sense of gravitas few listeners would have expected.
"Heroes Abroad" presents the soundtrack's main theme, an ascending five note string figure, intended by Djawadi as a "strong, emotional tune". Its feeling of patriotism is less pronounced and cheery than was the case with Giacchino's Medal of Honor main theme. Instead, Djawadi's simpler, more heavy-going concoction seems to underscore defiance in the face of the knowledge that the mission ahead will take its toll on everybody involved. The theme's soaring, anthemic qualities serve the soundtrack well whenever the motive appears and gives listeners an easy melodic hook to latch onto. What makes "Heroes Abroad" truly a standout track however are a number of other factors, for example the mournful duet for solo violin and cello just before the main theme enters, or the way the theme is worked through increasingly denser, counterpointal textures towards the end of the composition. Culminating in a passionate climax, "Heroes Abroad" turns out to be a composition that can hold its own against Giacchino's and Lennertz's contributions to the series.
This main theme, however, turns out to be the score's only thematic and melodic element of note, and not surprisingly, no themes from previous series titles are carried over. The main theme is reprised on "High Ground", which turns out to be one of the few occasions where the score's harmonious string orchestrations are coupled with the rhythmic ostinato elements that will come to dominate the soundtrack's action scoring. More typical is the mix in which the track's opening ethnic solo instruments are recorded. Their echoing sounds effortlessly evoke images of arid, foreign landscapes, without resorting to folkloristic cliché. "The Summit" hints at the main theme among a sea of sustained string layers that move from elegiac to more uplifting towards the end of the cue. Its static string textures, harmonically pleasing as they are, are also symptomatic for the soundtrack's tendency to rely on atmosphere, instead of melody or thematic material. In a composition like "The Summit", this approach works reasonably well, despite the track's lack of depth. But by the time "All Rounds Expended" comes around towards the end of the album, the slowly building string layers and the melodrama they carry with them has become a bit old. And the simplistic melodic material that peppers the cue in its last minute is equally tiresome and too similar to the main theme's emotional expression.
Some of the album's quieter material introduces new orchestral colours to avoid a similar fate. "Final Extraction" mixes its string harmonies and their slightly heavy-handed sense of both loss and nobility with a chiming electric guitar figure and later with the wiry sounds of an ethnic acoustic guitar. "H-Hour" finally tweaks the string section's material and deploys a greater amount of dissonances to create a more foreboding mood. The tense atmosphere is only increased through thumping, echoing percussion hits and nervous interjections from a scratchy ethnic fiddle. All of this make for a great aural depiction of the player's mission coming to its fateful end. But the most interesting addition to the ensemble are the vocal elements heard on "Falling Away" and "Wiyar". Performed by the same tenor, the pieces highlight very different, yet equally effective ways of incorporating his voice. On "Falling Away", the tenor's vocals are skillfully multi-tracked to achieve the effect of a choir whose ghostly melodies float above the ambient musical backdrop. The feeling of detached sadness that permeates the vocal melodies is most effective and surprising on a soundtrack that many thought would contain not much more than dumbed-down action tracks. The beginning of the closing track "Wiyar" isn't quite as striking, but still doesn't fail to move the listener when the main theme is performed a capella by a single tenor voice in very reverberant acoustics. Unfortunately, the rest of the composition fails to build on the initially spiritual atmosphere and ends on a rather pedestrian note with more expansive string chord progressions.
Throughout all this, various ethnic, middle-eastern string and woodwind instruments form part of the ensemble, but seldom take the spotlight. Their inclusion seems like a logical choice for a game that's set in Afghanistan, and considering that such ethnic elements have become part of the trademark Remote Control sound, their appearance on the Medal of Honor score is even less of a surprise. While their use on numerous film soundtracks often turns them into a mere aural cliché, on Medal of Honor they add colour and earthiness to the compositions and give them an edge that is sometimes missing from the more conservative string-based orchestrations. The mix of Western and Eastern elements is demonstrated soon enough on the album's opening track "From Here". The music's sparse ethnic textures slowly emerge, before hand percussion rhythms help the piece settle into a steady groove, while ethnic woodwind and acoustic guitar sounds are laid on top. When the score's main theme on strings is laid on top of this rhythmic background, the effect is similar to other Remote Control works, but the music is still effective and adequately sets the scenery. As is the case with the strings' musical material, the ethnic instruments' contribution to the soundtrack is atmospheric rather than melodic, but their intoxicating timbres are perfect for conjuring captivating, moody backdrops. It also helps that Djawadi is willing to write material for the ethnic solo instruments that is quite thorny and keeps the listener on the edge of the seat. The agitated, jagged solo violin lines on "The Time Is Upon Us" are a gripping example of this technique that successfully gives the compositions some bite.
Thus, while sometimes a bit formulaic, the lyrical compositions on this soundtrack are surprisingly dominant and strong. Unfortunately, it's the score's other half the action material that is greatly disappointing. While the lack of melody is already obvious in the score's andante material, its orchestral colours and pleasing harmonies still retain the listener's interest. And there's always the main theme popping up every now and then. The action tracks can't fall back on either of these two strengths. The main theme all but disappears once the battle begins, and instead, the compositions almost exclusively rely on driving rhythms, usually courtesy of ethnic percussion and string ostinati. Introduced on "Watch Your Corners", the latter ones are by far the soundtrack's most obnoxious element. These string ostinati are consistently uninteresting, both in regards to their chord progressions and the chopping rhythms they perform, and simply a lazy method to convey a sense of urgency. "Watch Your Corners" also highlights the absence of development that plagues the action material. Again, this problem also existed on the more atmospheric, slower compositions. But it becomes much more of an issue when what you hear is mostly unappealing, and you wish for some musical change to take place. Sadly, the only way these pieces know to develop and go anywhere is by simply raising the volume, or by speeding up the string ostinati an approach that becomes tiring pretty quickly.
Tracks like "Streets of Gardez" and "Paint'Em Up" then simply pass by without making any mark, likely effective during the in-game experience, but sounding aimless and dull on a stand-alone basis. One might be tempted to say that these pieces follow the well-established pattern of other Remote Control action tracks, with their overreliance on tired, simple rhythms. But this comparison isn't quite accurate to Medal of Honor's detriment. While other compositions by Remote Control composers at least work as guilty pleasures, due to their energetic, muscular sounds, the action material on Medal of Honor relies on the same, relatively small ensemble as the calmer pieces. And these limited forces simply don't create enough of a ruckus to engage the listener. In other words: the action tracks on Medal of Honor are just not loud and forceful enough to make their unsophisticated elements work as rousing statements of action and power. This is all the more astonishing, considering Djawadi's already quoted statement about this score being like a "Hollywood action movie on steroids" if only that were the case.
To Djawadi's credit, he does know that he needs to bring some variety to these compositions, but hardly any of the measures he takes yield tangible results. The grungy, heavily processed electric guitar on "Taking the Field", "Paint'Em Up", and "WFO" may add a generic edginess to the music, but isn't nearly commanding enough to impress anyone. Occasionally, the guitar will also provide some very simple melodic motives that are rather irritating than stirring. The harsher industrial rhythms on "Taking the Field" and the hip-hop influences at the start of "Thirty Seconds Out" equally mix up things, but to no great effect. Still, they're a lot better than "Enemy Down", an embarrassing bag of nu metal clichés that fly right in the face of the score's pretentions at being emotional and tragic. Hint: when you want to create a score about war that's all deep and dramatic, don't include a song with lyrics like "Know your enemy / Beat your enemy down / Stand up, face up / Everybody down".
As on the slower-paced tracks, the more prominent the ethnic elements, the more interesting things get. While the ethnic elements are simply part of the propulsive textures on most action tracks, sometimes they're given more room to breath and shine. After the hamfisted hip-hop rhythms on "Thirty Seconds Out" die down, an ethnic solo fiddle takes centerstage and plays some of its trademark evocative material, while the rhythms around it intensify and create some of the more interesting action sounds on the album. Sadly though, this stretch of the composition hints at an eruption of rhythmic power that never materialises. On "Send In the Rangers", the rugged solo violin lines return over the standard urging rhythms, increasing the tension manifold through their high-pitched, desperate cries that battle the relentless pulse underneath. Similarly, "Hunter-Killer" demonstrates how much more interesting the action material becomes once additional, not purely rhythmic elements are introduced. Here, it's the simple inclusion of some minor-key string harmonies, and while they're hardly original, they nicely underpin the cue's finishing climax to give it increased resonance.
Djawadi's score for Medal of Honor is far from the musical disaster that some of his detractors might have expected. While the music is clearly stylistically different from Giacchino's and Lennertz's scores, and predictably a lot closer to a work like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, Djawadi proves that his approach can generate winning results. This is particularly the case on those surprisingly beautiful, harmonious tracks that feature the score's pleasing main theme. Uncharacteristic for a first-person shooter score, it's the slower, more emotional material that proves most rewarding. And while not all these tracks are particularly complex, the skilful inclusion of ethnic and vocal elements makes for some moving moments, for example on "Falling Away".
If only the action tracks would entertain to the same degree. Instead, they're mostly a bunch of generic, nondescript string ostinati and ethnic percussion rhythms, utterly lacking in punch, rhythmic intricacies or development. There are hints at how such material could work when the incessant rhythms are contrasted with snippets of melody, like on "Send In the Ranges" and "Hunter-Killer". But for the majority of their running time, the action cues show a disconcerting lack of inspiration that prevents the score from ever really flowing smoothly. All in all, this soundtrack is a considerable musical step back for the Medal of Honor franchise, but it's not without merit.
Overall Score: 6/10