Medal of Honor Vanguard Original Soundtrack :: Review by Simon Elchlepp
Come 2007, the World War II first-person shooter sub-genre had been squarely run into the ground, with dozens of similar games having been released since Medal of Honor had popularised this particular brand of game in 1999. Soon enough then, first person shooters would focus on contemporary conflicts and leave the battlefields of the 1940s behind. Medal of Honor: Vanguard was another entry in the Medal of Honor franchise, which by 2007 had been milked to death by EA through an overdose of average titles. Vanguard didn't improve things and turned out to be one of the worst reviewed Medal of Honor titles, continuing the series' downhill slide that had started with Rising Sun. Several critics pointed out that the best thing about the game was its score and no wonder: Vanguard's soundtrack consisted entirely of music from Michael Giacchino's works for Medal of Honor, Medal of Honor: Underground, Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, Medal of Honor: Frontline, and Medal of Honor: Airborne. Despite all of music being already available on those games' full score albums, Vanguard's soundtrack was released as a digital download, making it the only one of the Medal of Honor compilation albums that is commercially available.
Despite the dearth of new material, Vanguard's soundtrack album certainly had some potential. Given that it covers all of Giacchino's Medal of Honor scores, it could have functioned as a well-rounded introduction to the composer's groundbreaking work for the franchise. And given that all of Vanguard's music is available elsewhere, that's really the only function a compilation album like this could fulfil. But one look at Vanguard's track list shatters the hope it might be a comprehensive musical overview of the Medal of Honor series. Airborne is represented with just three tracks, as many as EP-length release Allied Assault gets. And worse, only one of Underground's compositions makes it onto Vanguard's album. Instead, the track selection focuses on pieces from Medal of Honor and Frontline. Both are doubtlessly excellent works and arguably Giacchino's most popular Medal of Honor scores, but potential buyers have to wonder then: why not just buy the full album releases for those two games and get all of their music, instead of the excerpts presented on Vanguard?
Still, there's no denying that the quality of the music on this album is outstanding. Giacchino exploded onto the scene in 1999 with his score for Medal of Honor, which turned out to be the first video game score to be noticed in the soundtrack community at large and not just within gamer circles. The attention was well-deserved: Giacchino has written a thematically dense, rousing action score that is greatly enhanced by a spot-on performance by the Northwest Sinfonia and a recording that captures their muscular sounds in all their power. The fact that Medal of Honor's score is simply great, rip-roaring fun is well conveyed by the track selection on Vanguard, which is skewed towards the soundtrack's raucous action cues. Particularly "Panzer Attack" and "The Radar Train" are stand outs. The first piece through its unrelenting, brutal secondary motif that would return on future Medal of Honor scores. The second composition is an irresistibly propulsive, anvil-driven creation that perfectly communicates the motoric drive of a massive train. Also, two of the soundtrack's main themes are given sufficient time to shine: firstly the impressively thunderous Nazi theme, a menacing brass idea that leaves an impression each time it appears with its harsh, bombastic tones on "Attack on Fort Schmerzen" and "The Radar Train". And of course, the solemnly patriotic Medal of Honor main theme, which through appearances on later franchise scores has become the series' musical calling card. Presented at length in various disguises on "Medal of Honor (Main Theme from Medal of Honor)", the instantly memorable, hymn-like motif quickly makes its mark through its sheer memorability.
What's also evident on Vanguard's track selection from Medal of Honor is how skilfully Giacchino structures a cue around variations of a secondary motif that's quite short and rhythmic, but still sufficiently melodic and intricate enough to never let the tracks descend into bland sound and fury. "Taking Out the Railgun" is a prime example of how well this approach can work, with the piece carried by an energising cello motif before impressively building when more and more instruments either perform the cello motif, play a variation of it or add invigorating counterpoint. "Attach on Fort Schmerzen" highlights Medal of Honor's mellower side, with its stealth atmosphere based on a tense four note woodwind motif that exudes the fear of dangers lurking in the shadows. The only thing that doesn't get quite as much recognition here is the third primary motif, which embodies protagonist Jimmy Patterson's fight with the enemy forces on a more personal level than the Medal of Honor main theme does. On Vanguard, Patterson's defiant string melody is only heard on "Panzer Attack".
After his success with Medal of Honor, fans were eagerly awaiting Giacchino's score for Medal of Honor: Underground, many of them expecting a return of the first score's sound. However, Underground impressively proves Giacchino's versatility and is in no way a simple rehash of Medal of Honor. While Underground still offers pulse-pounding action cues, at the same time the soundtracks adds a swash of new moods and colours, with a number of haunting compositions that display Giacchino's talent at crafting more introspective and atmospheric pieces that always maintain the listener's interest. A shame then that Underground is only presented by, of all tracks, its only weak spot "Streets of Paris" on Vanguard. Its understated, eerie violin glissandi and fragmented musical material make for adequate mood-setting music, but not much more. Only when the piece erupts into a passionate rendition of Underground's new main theme does the listener take note.
Allied Assault's music featured Giacchino combining the increased instrumental and emotional palette of Medal of Honor: Underground with the large-scale orchestral sounds of the original Medal of Honor. The convergence of influences from both Medal of Honor and Underground is clearly heard in the score's new main theme, presented first on the aptly titled "Medal of Honor: Allied Assault (Main Theme)". True, there are several elements that make the new main theme foremost sound like an extension of Medal of Honor's main theme. However, where Allied Assault diverges from Medal of Honor is in the fact that the theme a less stern, more flowing musical thought which is quite a bit more expansive than the original's main theme. This is particularly highlighted when the new main theme is developed after 1:10 in a sumptuous passage for the whole string section that holds a near-Brahmsian sheen.
Among other selections of Allied Assault in Vanguard, "Schmerzen" highlights this stylistic convergence further. After Underground's lighter, but more colourful action cues, this track sees Giacchino returning to the more bombastic sounds of Medal of Honor, without giving up on the expanded timbral breadth. The cue then is another superbly rambunctious action track. Twice, the new main theme interrupts the orchestral frenzy to announce victory and, particularly, its second rendition at the cue's end against a resolute march backdrop is hugely effective. However, the most interesting selection on Allied Assault comes courtesy of its quieter moments. The ambient-setting music of "Sniper Town" cranks up the edgyness and harsh nature of the dissonant string textures that carried Underground's "Streets of Paris". Combined with snippets of snapping brass and commandingly resonant snare drums and timpani, the more creative string writing on "Sniper Town" constantly keeps the listener on the edge of her seat through means that might be less subtle than its counterpart, but which are considerably more effective.
Medal of Honor: Frontline has become many soundtrack fans' favourite Medal of Honor score, and for good reason, as it surpasses even Giacchino's superb previous works for the franchise. Adding an unmistakable air of tragedy to the proceedings while refining his orchestral approach, Giacchino creates what is no doubt the most operatic and emotional of all Medal of Honor scores, although this aspect is lost somewhat on Vanguard. As with Medal of Honor's track selection, the focus here is quite squarely on the action material. But that doesn't cloud the fact that Giacchino's increasing compositional sophistication allows him to write an album chock full of fully-realised compositions that are amazingly well developed. Never before has Giacchino written such perfectly self-contained compositions like "The Halftrack Chase" that play like musical mini-dramas which run the complete gamut of orchestral colours.
Thematically, the selection from Medal of Honor: Frontline impresses as well. Its main theme is a clever tweaking of Medal of Honor's main theme, which gives the original melody a more serious sheen that is supposed to mirror Patterson's maturation between the earlier events in Medal of Honor and those in Frontline. The second primary theme is for the game's antagonist, SS baron Rudolf von Sturmgeist. Keeping in line with the music's increasingly varied overall nature, Sturmgeist's theme is a lot more malleable than Medal of Honor's harsh Nazi fanfare. It appears on almost whiny brass on "Thuringer Wald Express", before "Sturmgeist's Armored Train" fully capitalises on the theme's mad scientist sensibilities and features it on choir, its hysterical over-the-top bombast absolutely delicious. Set against a spectacular orchestral onslaught on "The Rowhouses", the main theme is stretched to its limits on brass and can hardly hold its own against the panzer motif's force.
Medal of Honor: Airborne then came as a a bit of a surprise to score collectors hoping for a straight continuation of Frontline's stylings and is, in fact, quite far removed from the previous soundtrack's grandiose approach, which might alienate some listeners. Instead it presents a rougher, edgier tone that brims with energy, but which will be a bit short on attractive melodies for some, particularly after Frontline's lyrical strains. The score's pronounced rhythmic focus is most clearly expressed through the greater role string ostinati have on Airborne's score, where they power most of the action cues. These pieces are not always as stellar as those on Giacchino's previous Medal of Honor scores, but they still make an impact. This is well demonstrated by both "Operation Husky" and "Operation Market Garden" (for whatever reason confusingly renamed on Vanguard from its original title "Defusing the Charges"). Both tracks zip along at an impressive speed and are effectively composed action cues that fire the listener up for battle. But their more disjointed nature is a double-edged sword: there's always something new happening and listeners will be well entertained throughout the tracks' running time. At the same time, none of these compositions achieve the impressive dramatic power of Giacchino's earlier Medal of Honor action tracks. But despite whatever misgivings one might have about Giacchino's new approach, his compositions are never less than perfectly functional in the best sense of the word and most of the time will capture the listener's attention.
In terms of thematic content, the selections from Airborne are somewhat thin, offering a new main theme that has a bit of a weak chest. This time, the new theme is a faster-paced variation of the original Medal of Honor main theme that sounds more determined than its predecessors and keeps the music going at a lively pace when quoted on other pieces. But this variation, while possessing more of a fighting spirit, is also less melodic and memorable then Medal of Honor's theme. Although the new theme is quoted on the majority of tracks on Airborne, it doesn't make much of an impact due its somewhat anonymous character. This becomes particularly problematic on a track like "Operation Husky", which mostly rely on the Airborne theme to provide melodic content and to flesh out their rhythm-centric arrangements. At least, Vanguard presents the theme in one of its most pleasing shapes on "Medal of Honor: Allied Assault (Main Theme)". Here, like on all opening tracks of Giacchino's Medal of Honor scores, the main theme is subjected to a number of fluidly interwoven variations.
As far as Medal of Honor compilations go, Vanguard has two distinct advantages: it covers all of Giacchino's works for the franchise and it's readily available via digital download. And as many game score fans will know, quality-wise Giacchino's music is mostly beyond reproach. But herein lies one of the problems of this album, and of all other Medal of Honor compilations. Many game score collectors will already have some or all of the music on Vanguard, which is available on each game's dedicated, full soundtrack releases.
Vanguard then might best serve as a taster for all those who have heard of Giacchino's fantastic work for the series, but aren't quite sure if his lush, symphonic scores are their cup of tea. On this account, Vanguard turns out to be less than ideal. Its track selection neglects Medal of Honor: Airborne and particularly Medal of Honor: Underground, Giacchino's stylistically most experimental Medal of Honor scores. Furthermore, Vanguard does a less solid job than Medal of Honor 10th Anniversary Soundtrack at picking the best tracks from each Medal of Honor soundtrack. All in all, Vanguard gets a mild recommendation at best. It's negligible for everybody who already has some of the scores presented on this album. And everybody who's interested in Medal of Honor's music, but hasn't sampled any of it, is better off taking the plunge into Giacchino's sound world by purchasing one of the full score releases of any of his Medal of Honor soundtracks or the generously priced new box set.
Overall Score: 6/10