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Gears of War 2 - The Soundtrack :: Review by Chris

Gears of War 2 - The Soundtrack Album Title: Gears of War 2 - The Soundtrack
Record Label: Sumthing Else Music Works
Catalog No.: SE-2053-2
Release Date: November 25, 2008
Purchase: Buy at Amazon | Download at Sumthing Digital


While much of Gears of War 2 was continuous with its predecessor, its soundtrack took a radical change of approach. Epic Games decided they wanted an approach closer to Hollywood, so appointed Steve Jablonsky as the lead composer. Jablonsky was considered an ideal chose for the project given his years of experience at Hans Zimmer's Remote Control Productions and his work on action flicks (Transformers) and horror movies (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) alike. In spite of his virtuous efforts on Gears of War, Kevin Riepl was demoted to additional music composer and didn't feature in the soundtrack release at all. Another major change was the choice to record with an orchestra and chorus at Skywalker Sound instead of the Northwest Symphonia. Did the approach pay off?


The score for Gears of War 2 is led by setpieces more than its predecessor. The opener "Return of the Omen" quietly sets the tone for a cinematic epic. There are similarities to the Gears of War soundtrack with its ethnic woodwind ululations, martial snares, and deep string motifs. This time, however, the melody is presented on chorus — an element largely absent in Gears of War — while brassy elements are very subdued. The melody is less dissonant than Riepl's, conveying the bittersweet personal feelings of the protagonists rather than the brute aggression of war. In addition, the soundscaping is quite a bit more stereotypical with its cinematic elevation and considerable reverb. The second piece "Hope Runs Deep" helps to reinforce Jablonsky's main theme and demonstrates many of the tones to expect from the soundtrack. It opens in a reflective way with a soprano interpretation of the main melody and similar instrumental elements to the opener. From the 1:25 mark, the track evolves into a military anthem building increasingly dramatic renditions of the melody on chorus and brass. The peak at 2:50 is certainly derivative, but so elegantly achieved that it might inspire some tears, while the final minutes are ideal for commemorating the fallen. The result is as powerful and beautiful as Remote Control Productions' other centrepieces, though many will be troubled by its utter lack of individuality.

Jablonsky nevertheless brings a much-needed personal quality to the series' scores. "Green As Grass" is functionally successful as an ambient track, slowly building up rhythms and forces following the minimalistic introduction towards a militaristic climax. However, the track gains a very human core about a minute in with the presentation of a melody on resonant and heartrending strings. Unlike its predecessor, cinematic music is no longer used to simply complement the scenery and dramatise the events, but actually depict the emotions the protagonists are feeling. This is true for many of the action themes too. In particular, "Expectations" reflects sheer brutality with its dissonant brass leads and rapid unrelenting passages. Between all the panic and tension, however, things briefly quieten to give way for a striking trumpet solo that perfectly captures the character's resolve to fight for their lives. Moments like these really take the listener by surprise and transform tracks from commonplace ones into personal highlights. Dominated by the tragic cries of an operatic soprano, "With Sympathy" is probably the most evocative cue of them all. Even in the middle of this elegy, however, the weighty orchestration makes clear that the epic war has to continue. The music itself is very clichéd and melodramatic, but the emotional effect is nevertheless comparable to some of Gladiator's best and demonstrates once again just how much the chorus brings to the soundtrack.

There are numerous situational action cues at the centre of the soundtrack. These are potentially the bane of the release, rarely lasting more than two minutes and lacking the personal qualities of the centrepieces of the soundtrack. At least they still exhibit high production values and attention to detail, though. Tracks such as "Armored Prayer", "Racing to Extinction", and "Hold Them Off" are initially very plain rhythmically focused militaristic tracks, though Jablonsky's audacity to really layer up the forces and emphasise the rhythms ensure they soon become explosive in both pacing and timbre. Others such as "Bedlam", "Hell Breaks Loose", and "If They Can Ride Em" seem filled with the aggression and malice of the enemies with their rasping brass and choral chants. Amidst all the instrumental consistency, it's also refreshing to hear some experimentation. "Frenzy", in particular, is a curious twist on Remote Control conventions; it truly suits its name with its unstable juxtaposition of urgent choir chants, crisis string work, and industrial percussion. That said, some of the experimentation is even more superficial than that of Gears of War and is merely welcome as a novelty. Even the plain electronic support of "Insurmountable Odds" sounds refreshing after so many plain orchestra and chorus efforts. Within the Gears of War soundtrack, however, it would sound pretty unremarkable.

The variety offered by the action tracks is arguably not enough. While most individual tracks are accomplished in and out of context, the collective experience is too samey. At least there are several ambient tracks to break up the action cues, though their effects are somewhat limited. "Building Thunder" and "Landown" are stereotypical examples of Remote Control's approach to subdued underscoring; they're principally composed of some electronic suspensions and percussive backing, but gradually punctuate string notes, brass motifs, and even the occasional exotic infusions. The result complements the dark scenery in the game while gradually building up tension. Out of context, however, they're hardly as gritty or impacting as Riepl's tracks from Gears of War. What's more, the tendency for the soundtrack to otherwise be fast and furious throughout prevents a particularly convincing dramatic arch from being established. This makes the conclusion especially underwhelming in contrast to its predecessor. "March of the Horde" is a little interesting since it seems to unite many of the anthemic, action, and ambient elements of the soundtrack into one brooding blend. However, much of "Finale" seems superfluous after all the other chorus and orchestral pomp; it's only when Jablonsky reprises the main theme that listeners will realize that it's a big deal, but even then it sounds almost identical to "Hope Runs Deep" and thus is hardly an original highlight.


The appointment of Steve Jablonsky to score Gears of War 2 was a mixed blessing. On the one hand, he brought some of the most emotional moments to the series with his personal approach to underscoring and focus on striking centrepieces. In addition, almost all the tracks work fittingly in context given his efficient yet elegant Hollywood approach to using orchestra and chorus. That said, the stand-alone soundtrack release lacks on several levels. While the individual pieces are usually fine, the collective experience isn't as dramatic or entertaining due to the abundance of samey action tracks and absence of any gritty ambience. It may have been better for Jablonsky to have created the centrepieces while Riepl could have refined his Gears of War style for the rest of the music. What's more, the soundtrack really lacks an individual identity given Jablonsky largely emulates the approach of Remote Control Productions' major film projects. Those looking for progressive or unique music will therefore want to throw the album in the trash can. Nevertheless, Gears of War 2 - The Soundtrack is still one of the better Hollywood-style game scores out there and will inspire a lot of strong memories from those who played the game.

Overall Score: 6/10