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Gears of War - The Soundtrack :: Review by Chris

Gears of War - The Soundtrack Album Title: Gears of War - The Soundtrack
Record Label: Sumthing Else Music Works
Catalog No.: SE-2035-2
Release Date: July 31, 2007
Purchase: Buy at Amazon | Download at Sumthing Digital


Gears of War was a best-selling first-person shooter for the Xbox 360 noted for its captivating gameplay, stunning visuals, and apocalyptic story. Epic Games demanded a suitably powerful and atmospheric soundtrack to complement the game. They hired Unreal series veteran Kevin Riepl for the project, providing him with his first mega solo project at that time. To achieve a suitably epic tone, Riepl scored a series of militaristic main themes and aggressive action themes for full orchestra. Orchestrators Tim Simonec and Chris Tilton ensured the music was as functional and emotional as possible while the Northwest Sinfonia offered a solid performance. However, the core of the score was actually defined by eerie ambient themes that blended all sorts of orchestral and digital forces in a novel way. While largely effective in the game, does Sumthing Else Music Work's soundtrack release have quite the same impact on a stand-alone basis?


The main theme instantly establishes a dark and dramatic tone of the game. The introduction is typical cinematic ambience, but memorably presents the first fragments of the rasping main theme on strings and brass. Dominated by martial percussion and industrial effects, the backing adds some much-needed grit and reinforces the 'gears' concept. From 1:11, the composition enters an anthemic section, but is a curious twist on cinematic conventions given just how dissonant and thunderous the material is. While the track revolves around the same melody throughout its 4:30 playtime, there is plenty of emotional variety and Riepl certainly demonstrates that he can offer elegant orchestral transitions. The main theme continues to receive quite a bit of attention throughout the gameplay, whether in the edgy infiltration-style cue "Jacinto Prison", the alarming action theme "Fill'er Up at Chap's", or the soothing credits roll reprise at the end of the soundtrack, and proves extremely adaptable under Riepl's skilful fingertips despite its fundamental simplicity.

"14 Years After E-Day" demonstrates how Riepl creates haunting futuristic ambience through digital means. Most of the track assembles one to three note figures from a number of forces — muted trumpet, ethnic flutes, low brass, timpani rolls, and synth vocals — in an almost random way. Perhaps more fascinating is the way the track evolves from near-silence into an imperial march as the figures become more regularly integrated and a deep martial string motif is punctuated. Themes with less definite build-ups such as "Embry Square" and "Stay in the Light" certainly fascinate and petrify with their sporadic use of all sorts of orchestral, ethnic, electronic, and percussive features. However, they usually feel more like sampling experiments than anything particularly profound. Extended techniques such as the prepared piano in "Entering the Tombs", col legno bowing in "Tomb of the Unknowns", or an excess of tremolo and overblowing in "Oh the Horror" will certainly be alien for those unfamiliar with them, but will be perceived more like superficial clichés by most others.

The more effective ambient tracks are those that offer relatively smooth soundscapes rather than random collections of novel figures. Low-key tracks such as "Ephyra Streets I", "Fill'er Up at Chap's", and "Imulsion Mines" blend so well into the dark scenery that gamers may be fooled into thinking there is no music there at all. They nevertheless subtly add to the mood and environmentals while inspiring the occasional chill and shock. Their worth in terms of stand-alone listening will very much depend on the attention span of the listener. Some will debate whether they are even music at all. One of the more appealing tracks out of context is "Locust, Wretches & Kryll". This mixes a lot of elements together once more, including uncompassionate brass, earthy percussion, woodwind ululations, and electronic undertones. However, the elements are integrated so smoothly compared to "14 Years..." that they seem so right in combination with the enemy-infested landscapes. The effect inspires so much anxiety and prepare gamers to panic in the face of the impending action.

Riepl took a largely orchestral approach for the action themes. "Attack of the Drones" certainly creates a sense of being in the heat of the action and the Northwest Sinfonia's brass section demonstrates their brute strength interpreting the militaristic material; however, what really gives the theme its substance are other elements, such as the turbulent chromatic progressions from the strings, the fragile flute interludes, or the eventual segue into the main theme. Most others seem inspired by orchestral underscoring used in a variety of action and horror movies. There are number of themes, such as "Fish in a Barrel" and "East Barracade Academy", that are quite frustrating in their adherence to elephantine scoring methods. However, there is usually something that saves most tracks from mediocrity, whether the thematic dashes of "Ephyra Streets II", extreme rhythms of "Miserable Wretches", or the swarming woodwind runs of "Locust Infestation". "Train Ride to Hell", in particular, represents a spectacular climax for the soundtrack, incorporating rasping, haunting, anthemic, and serene passages into one orchestral epic.


Overall, Kevin Riepl did a good job with the Gears of War score. While he was heavily influenced by cinematic conventions, he hardly spared the title of exuberance or creativity. There are several definitive successes, such as the title theme and "Train Ride...", that stun listeners with their thematic substance, emotional variety, and smooth transitions. The ambient material meanwhile ranges includes fascinating hybrids, seamless scene-setters, and superficial hotchpotches. While these pieces usually work in context, it'll require a tolerant listener to handle them on the soundtrack release. Overall the Gears of War score is certainly best appreciated within the game, given everything is written to seamlessly integrate with the scenery and action. However, those looking for a dark atmospheric score should consider looking into Sumthing Else's album release.

Overall Score: 7/10