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Civilization V Original Soundtrack :: Review by Chris

Civilization V Original Soundtrack Album Title: Civilization V Original Soundtrack
Record Label: 2K Games
Catalog No.: 31818-7
Release Date: September 21, 2010
Purchase: Buy at eBay


Michael Curran and Geoff Knorr put a tremendous amount of effort into all aspects of the audio of Civilization V, but perhaps their crowning achievement is the original music. While the series has featured effective use of licensed music for some time, its original music has largely been superfluous, as testified by the uninspiring soundtrack release for Civilization IV. On Civilization V, the composers change that by offering a range of nation themes that enhance the identity of each nation, add interactivity throughout the gameplay, and, above all, serve as entirely satisfying music on a stand-alone basis. Furthermore, they took the series to the modern age by recording these compositions and two headlining tracks with Andy Brick's FILMharmonic Orchestra Prague and a range of world music soloists. The original compositions were compiled together into a two disc album release included with Civilization V's Special Edition for listeners to behold.


The headlining compositions on Civilization V are the main menu and opening music, created by Michael Curran. The opening music blends influences of modern cinematic music with those of romantic symphonists to depict the possibilities of the world offers for civilization. As the composition crescendos from its foreboding origins into a glorious tutti at the 1:03 mark — featuring soaring strings from the FILMharmonic and the glorious chorus in surround sound — it's clear that the game and its soundtrack will take consumers on an incredible journey. The equally ambitious main menu music cohesively hybridises numerous features — from minimalistic repeating motifs, to scenic string melodies, to militaristic brass fanfares, to transient ethnic infusions — to represent the various possibilities the game offers. The FILMharmonic Orchestra Prague are once again fundamental to building a rich and expressive sound that exceeds the series' previous music in every way.

The rest of the soundtrack is comprised of the themes used to represent the game's numerous leaders. These compositions are actually built upon melodies and motifs that are carefully sampled from each nation. The references range from traditional melody fragments to represent the ancient civilizations of Rome and Egypt, to patriotic orchestral anthems to represent imperial England and Germany, to even an old spiritual folk song to represent Gambia. Whether famous or obscure, such references define and distinguish each nation to a considerable degree. Curran and Knorr nevertheless make sure that the fragments are integrated in a mature and understated way consistent with the rest of the soundtrack. For example, the music to represent France is based on Offenbach's iconic Cancan, but its sophisticated orchestrations — one abstract and elevated, the other dark and epic — ensure that the tracks sound familiar yet far from gimmicky.

While still secondary to much of the licensed classical music, these tracks are much more important and well-integrated in the game than the leader compositions on Civilization IV. One impressive feature is the way these themes transition between different orchestrations to represent peace and war. For example, the portrayal of George Washington during peacetime features a stately nationalistic orchestration conveying the founding of a new world nation. The wartime variation is agitated by stabbing strings and other turbulent forces, though still captures a longing desire for peace in its gorgeous interludes. On the other hand, Catherine the Great's themes, inspired by one of Prokofiev's defining ballets, are formidable throughout to demonstrate desires for conquest. In general, the defining fragments are generally less recognisable in wartime due to the more chaotic orchestrations and, particularly in Knorr's case, the use of elaborations, inversions, retrogradations, and other manipulations of the melodies.

Much greater efforts have been put in to creating an authentic sound to represent each nationality compared to earlier soundtracks in the series, and this particularly shows in the various themes used to represent Asian and African civilizations. For example, the dark yet beautiful tones of the Sengoku era are extremely difficult to recreate, especially for Westeners. However, Geoff Knorr's portrayal of the shogun Oda Nobunaga at peace sounds particularly authentic with its traditional tonalities, distinctive textures, and gorgeous traditional instrument performers. The portrayal of China also appropriately focuses on traditional instrumentation and pentatonic scales, yet Curran's approach is otherwise distinct and defies Western stereotypes that all East Asian music is synonymous. Emerging from a deep study of ethnomusicology, such exceptional world music writing is certainly the most convincing and detailed of all video game scores.

However, each composition on the soundtrack is still carefully orchestrated, even when it is predominated by ethnomusical elements. This was an excellent decision as it ensures that the music is tied together to a certain extent stylistically while being carefully integrated with the overall concept of the game. On one hand, orchestrations are partly used to represent the progression and sophistication of civilizations. For example, the doubling of Gandhi's theme with both traditional and orchestral forces creates an especially remarkable sound symbolic of his spirituality, dignity, and pacifism. However, they are also used to reflect the density and drama of war, often in conjunction with heavy percussive elements to represent tribal civilizations like the Aztecs. It is a testament to orchestrator Knorr and conductor Brick that such orchestral elements are so thoughtfully integrated throughout the soundtrack, regardless of the civilization being depicted.


The Civilization V soundtrack represents a massive development in the series' original music. After being in the dark ages for so long, the series' music has undergone a renaissance with rich orchestral performances, authentic ethnomusical elements, and immersive interactive variations. Sound director and lead composer Michael Curran, in collaboration with additional composer and orchestrator Geoff Knorr, clearly put an immense amount of effort into this score and the results pay off. This soundtrack is highly accomplished and, though still very exclusive in its availability, absolutely worthy of stand-alone listening.

Overall Score: 9/10