Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Destiny Score Review

Check it out... if you're a fan of Salvatori and O'Donnell's previous work with Bungie, and appreciate their efforts to expand their horizons in regards to synthetic instrumentation and ambiant composition

Skip it... if you were never a fan of Bungie's Halo scores, and do not enjoy scores with a heavy mixture of both synthetic components and organic, orchestral instrumentation, both with their individual ups-and-downs

"Even taking into consideration the negatives, there are portions of orchestral grace, majesty and brilliance. There are dazzling themes at hand. Impressive instrumentation. Exceptional composition."

Leading up to release, one could very well have considered Destiny 2014's most anticipated video game, due to the big-name production and distribution studios behind the project, the highly extravagant budget that extended into the multiple hundreds-of-millions of dollars, and the tremendously well received gameplay demos during the numerous video game conventions of the year. Bungie, the production studio behind the sprawling Halo video game franchise, were those in charge of the conceptualization and realisation of the world, gameplay and story of Destiny, and had been working on the game for an estimated 9 years prior to its initial release that occurred just recently (in terms of this reviews initial posting), and are to be working on improving and expanding the new and vibrant universe they have constructed far into the near future (Bungie has estimated that regular updates and DLC launches shall be released for Destiny consistently throughout the next decade; a level of dedication to a single title that few developers would risk to show). Upon release, unfortunately, gamers were split; whilst nearly the entirety of those who purchased the game have seemed to have appreciated the familiar controls, gameplay and astounding aesthetic qualities incorporated into the title, many found the storyline lacking in intrigue or finesse, and found some of the missions and fight sequences entirely derivative. It's rare to see the gaming community this thoroughly split in half, both sides boasting of genuine arguments for-or-against the game and its assets; though one aspect of the production and title has been indisputably received with positive acclaim, that being the score, composed by Michael Salvatori, Martin O'Donnell, C Paul Johnson and Paul McCartney, with primary contributions hailing from O'Donnell and Salvatori, who have been collaborating with Johnson and McCartney since 2011 to develop melodies, concepts and leitmotifs for the game's music. In context, the score has already been hailed as a masterpiece by a number of video game review sites, apparently accenting the action on screen to a wonderful degree, as well as aiding the emotion and wonder exhibited by locations and individual characters. 

One should anticipate this though, for O'Donnell and Salvatori have been working together for a large number of years, and their work for previous Bungie endeavors has generally seen great feedback from both the gaming and scoring communities, both of whom have often embraced the large and sprawling orchestral grandeur that the two commonly display throughout their compositions. Destiny proves to be another one of the numerous collaborations between O'Donnell and Salvatori, though influences ranging from former Beatles member Paul McCartney to Bungie sound designer C Paul Johnson riddle this new installment into the career's of the primary composers. This collaboration of unique minds has been long in development, and for those in-game, such effort is most certainly revered and appreciated; its impact within context is undoubtable, according to many. Outside of this aforementioned context, though, one may find issues that usually don't plague the Salvatori and O'Donnell Bungie ventures, though it is certainly not to be believed that Destiny is without merit, for it most certainly is worthy of such. The vast and expansive fictional universe that Destiny inhabits is represented well by a great assortment of themes, instrumental decisions and recording techniques implemented by the composers and sound designers, so congratulations are in order; this score's outstanding variety is, mostly, undeniable. The wide quantity of genres undertaken is initially and immediately applaudable, though upon closer examination, the entirety of this two hour and eighteen minute long release is not as wholly varied as one would desire or imagine. The first eight or so cues on the album establish a range of thematic ideas and melodic capacities that the score hints will come back into play later on in the album; unfortunately, past this point is where the score starts to fade in relation to its variation. Nevertheless, these opening eight cues feature some of the finest video game music of the 2014 season, each featuring a wide array of initially exciting themes and instrumental incorporation's. The opening piece, 'The Traveler", introduces us to the primary theme of the score, a fanfare-like trumpet phrase, primarily three notes in length; it's quite David Arnold-like in its sound and timing, reminiscent of Arnold's Americana displayed in his fantastic Godzilla and Independence Day scores, and even somewhat reminiscent of Zimmer's Spider-Man theme that was utilized within The Amazing Spider-Man 2. This opening cue runs us through a number of different emotions and musical styles that will all be explored in more depth later on, from aggressive percussion loops (in this instance, these loops appear to great effect), to heroic brass, to fast and well-arranged string runs, to fantastic clarinet and oboe use. And one must not forget the choral component, a shining beacon of emotion, hope and range, perfectly representing the futuristic and awe-inspiring locations and size that Destiny boasts of possessing. It would not truly be a O'Donnell and Salvatori collaboration without this range of assorted instrumental techniques and styles, and it certainly makes for an entertaining and immediately enthralling opening to an album which promises to have much more to follow.

Apart from the second cue, 'The Fallen', the next seven cues prove to be equally or greater in quality than the initial offering, heavily supporting the notion that the hype for this title was well placed. Whilst 'The Fallen' boasts of irritating and lifeless ambiance and percussion loops, the cues after such include some astounding uses of instrumental variance and beauty, everything carefully constructed for maximum effect. 'Excerpt from the Hope' utilizes both gorgeous male and female choirs, intertwining them with light and effective ambiance and woodwinds, producing a chilling and highly successful atmosphere, full of scope and ethereal beauty. 'Excerpt from the Ecstasy' introduces what one could consider the ecstasy theme, before having this leitmotif ostinato to a rousing set of climaxes with instruments ranging from trumpets to flutes, from strings to clarinets, all of their inclusions worthwhile and mesmerising. Other various motifs appear in the cues 'Warmind' and 'Guardian', both displaying aggressive percussion riffs that work to drive the cues forward, as well as well executed violin, cello and trumpet work; 'The Tower' instead reprises one of the motifs from 'The Traveler' and successfully integrates ambiance to entrance the listener and forward the enthrallment experienced. All these cues, though, must bow down to the exceptional 'The Last Array', an action cue of the highest standard, whose structure is relatively predictable yet still immensely entertaining and enjoyable to listen to. The percussion is frantic, the strings texturally superior to anything on the album come before, and the brass commands presence and attention; it's an action cue of epic proportions. It introduces a five note horn theme, as well as a string bridge composed of six primary notes, both of which are collated together numerous times to form a near-seven minute long cue. If this doesn't hold promise for what is to come, than nothing will; in terms of action scoring, this is some of the finest of the year.

Unfortunately, the variation and enjoyment ceases for a brief portion of the running time afterwards, and then fluctuates in quantity throughout the final half of the album, resulting in a mixed bag. From the cues 'The Collapse' to 'The Great Unknown', ineffective and droning ambiance, combined with sound effects of an unnecessary nature, persist in devaluing the quality of Destiny as an album. 'Tranquility' is probably the least enjoyable piece in this range of cues, implementing a guitar with a strange amount of reverb that doesn't seem to contribute to the establishing of a location, emotion or anything of value. Add to this an assortment of piercing electronics and atmospheric droning, and you have a track that boasts of few redeeming qualities. The album picks itself up shortly, thanks to another few 'Excerpt' tracks which, according to a number of sources, originate from O'Donnell's Music of the Spheres album, which is to be released later on this year; the album will consist of fifty minutes of additional music, except the cues included were those composed before O'Donnell had any extensive gameplay to specifically compose for. It's more or less an arrangement of ideas, emotions and wonder that will, based on the excerpt cues listed within this initial release, leave many a listener highly impressed. The cues 'Excerpt 1 from the Rose' and 'Excerpt of the Tribulation' occur shortly after the aforementioned disappointing tracks, reigniting the hope that Destiny will continue its outstanding ways of before and depart from the hopelessly unimpressive electronic loops that cease to amaze. Unfortunately, a consistency is lacking from here on out, as the composer credits change in-between cues; what I believe is O'Donnell's music hits all the right notes and emphasizes scope, variety and beauty, utilizing a wide range of methods to achieve all these, whilst the supposed Salvatori contributions range from disappointing to plain obnoxious and painful. The percussion that the latter composer implements in the hindmost half of the album quite often lacks energy and force, and this leaves many of the action cues feeling under-powered in their execution. 

Not all of what I suspect are Salvatori works underachieve in their intentions; there are some strange orchestral-rock-hybrids in store that manage to entertain for their first few inclusions. 'Dust Giants', 'Ishtar Sinks' and the outstanding 'End of the Line' work in this element of collaboration between different genres, and what results is some energetic, captivating and compelling instrumentation that involves some fantastic drum kit work. Regrettably, this technique tires by the end of the score, with some of the latter cues that utilize this style failing to evoke any energy; the cue 'Chronologies' a key example of such. Another strange effect that is prone within cues of both Salvatori and O'Donnell's primary contributions is that of an overuse of the reverb and electronic percussion effects, which are often completely unnecessary in most contexts. We've seen that you can effectively use percussion and kit to drive a piece forward guys, whether the cue is synthetically-based or not, so the use of artificial percussion is quite puzzling. But the reverb effect is often the most infuriatingly overused and poorly executed technique of the score; whereas it often elevates the scope of some of the earlier pieces, it soon becomes gimmicky, and its addition to the score lessens as the running time wages on. This combined with the occasional one dimensional usage of the synthetic component of the score makes for some hysterically disappointing cues which degrade the quality of an otherwise fantastic score. Most of this synthetic music feels like filler, inserted to elongate the length of the album when it could've easily have been taken out. One could argue that many a video game album has filler music, and should be forgiven substantially for its inclusion; I did rate The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim highly, despite its inclusion of numerous filler tracks. The difference between Skyrim and Destiny, though, lies in the fact that most of the slow filler music that inhabits the former score still possesses strong and enjoyable melodies, themes and instrumental usages, whereas much of Destiny's slow and droning portions hold little material to keep me entertained entirely. 

Of course, there are good portions of electronic usage, such as in the cues 'The Stranger', 'Temple of Crota' and 'The Hive', with that latter suggestion questionable as it wasn't overtly impressive. These aren't as common as I'd like, but what we lack in decent synthetic cues we have in orchestral grandeur and pieces showcasing such. Whilst much of the vibrant and colourful variety-filled orchestral music is included at the beginning of the album, there is much entertainment to be had during the latter half of the release; the cue 'Siege Dancers' features a wonderful brass theme, as well as an array of metallic percussion that instantly reminded me of Drago's theme from How To Train Your Dragon 2, and a positive comparison to that piece of work is always a good thing. The aforementioned 'End of the Line' has a relatively predictable structure in regards to its build and climax timing, but what makes the cue exceptional is all in the instrumental execution and energy; the strings are absolutely relentless and power-filled, the brass full of peril and drama, the bass drum exciting and addictive. I even heard inspiration from Gladiator and Conan the Barbarian, which are again two exceptional comparisons to be made to any score. But it's the two final pieces on the card, however short in length, that steal the show and represent the crowning jewel for this often mixed bag of an album. 'Excerpt from the Union', the first piece in this pair of ingenuity, like the vast majority of 'Excerpt' cues, reigns as a supremely enjoyable and well executed track. The brass is hectic and all over the place, and it's infectiously good. The strings traverse so much ground it's absolutely insane, fluctuating in volume constantly and moving up and down octaves of notes as if it's nothing. The flutes flutter about, adding more speed to an already incredibly fast-paced piece of music. The choirs add scope and height to a cue filled with such already. Various motifs of increasing speed and intensity, all with an air of heroism and wonder, explode within, and what we are left with is one of the best cues of the year; that is until 'All Ends Are Beginnings' gets underway, with its snare drum rolls, heroic and yet slightly saddening brass, filled with both achievement, bravery and remorse, and beautifully executed high pitched strings. It all combines for a cue of great emotional dexterity, which whilst lasting but a short period of time (barely a minute and a half), concludes the album in the most satisfying of ways, far better than any action cue could've. 

So perhaps yes, the score isn't as filled with perfection as one would desire for an album from Salvatori and O'Donnell, generally masters of their craft (that of epic video game scoring). But that isn't to discount the numerous good that is done here; pieces which may very well be nominated for the Best Cue award by the end of the year appear in Destiny more than once, which is something I can't say for many scores released within 2014. Nevertheless, various electronics and synthetic portions devalue somewhat significantly an otherwise brilliant score. Aimless and droning ambiance appears to be a constant within this season of film and video game scoring, with No Good Deed, Gone Girl and Destiny all fitting into this category, some more so than others. One should certainly not consider Destiny a score of the same calibre as either No Good Deed or Gone Girl though; this is a far more enjoyable, better executed and well-conceptualized piece of music, that should be appreciated by a far greater portion of the scoring community. Will it win or receive nominations for awards come end of year, part the aforementioned Best Cue prize? I find it incredibly unlikely; it doesn't even seem to have the slightest of chance in the Best Video Game Score category, with Child of Light, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2, The Banner Saga and The Elder Scrolls Online already dominating the contention field. I'm not truly disappointed with this effort though, and few should be; there are portions of orchestral grace, majesty and brilliance. There are dazzling themes at hand. Impressive instrumentation. Exceptional composition. And even taking into consideration the negatives, I can still deem this a good collation of music, as it took me to another world for a good portion of its running time, and encapsulated the scope of a world the size of Destiny's with impressive efficiency and grace. You can purchase Destiny on Amazon or iTunes, here and here.