Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction (Michael Giacchino and Chris Tilton)

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Well-known to many score fans through his participation on film and video game music message boards, New Orleans native Chris Tilton has worn many hats in the industry, from orchestrator to composer to fan. His career has been closely tied to that of his friend Michael Giacchino, who first hired Tilton as an assistant on the hit TV show Alias. Tilton soon found plentiful Hollywood work, orchestrating and composing additional music for many of Giacchino’s big and small screen scores, including a significant portion of the music for seasons 4 and 5 of Alias, Mission: Impossible III, The Family Stone, and The Incredibles.

It was in the field of video game music, though, that Tilton made his biggest splash. His first major solo project, 2004’s Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction, allowed him to create a full-length, fully orchestral score virtually on his own, with impressive results. More high-profile assignments like 2006’s Black would follow; both it and Mercenaries received full soundtrack releases as well.

While Giacchino provided the driving “Mercenaries Main Theme,” Tilton filled out the remaining 55 minutes of music as a solo effort. The main theme, which has a bold aggressiveness that wouldn’t be out of place in a Medal of Honor game, is a staple of the album’s explosive action pieces. Tracks like “Allied Nations” and “Deck of 52” feature the theme alongside terrifically impressive brass and percussion, and the result is better than many of the large-scale cues in modern movies. As befits the game’s setting, there’s often a Bond-style lit to these pieces as well.

The action set pieces are broken up by quieter, but no less impressive, music. Tilton incorporates powerful choral work into “Hidden Valley Bunker” before segueing into string-slashing suspense music, while “For the Motherland,” the theme of the in-game Russian Mafia, features soulful Godfather-like strings. In many ways these suspense tracks are more compelling than the battle music, as the writing is entirely Tilton’s own as he rarely references Giacchino’s theme in them.

If the album has any weakness, it’s that Tilton doesn’t establish themes of his own. The music is strong but Giacchino’s music remains the unifying thread throughout, albeit seamlessly integrated. Though Giacchino and Tilton would collaborate in the future, and given the two men’s close prior working relationship the results were almost always impressive, Tilton was also allowed free rein to write his own themes in many of his later scores.

These qualms aside, Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction is a must for fans of orchestral video game music. In fact, as mentioned above, it’s superior to many pieces appearing in modern action films, and served as a clear announcement of Tilton’s arrival in the limelight of game scoring. With many fine scores since, one hopes that he will one day follow in Giacchino’s footsteps to branch into feature scoring.

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