Cloud (Vincent Diamante)

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One of the most acclaimed developers exclusive to the Sony Playstation ecosystem, Thatgamecompany is famous for producing games that stretch the visual, narrative, and artistic boundaries of the medium. Its titles, including Flow, Flower, and Journey. Thatgamecompany had its genesis as a student project in the Interactive Media master’s degree program at the USC School of Cinematic Arts with Cloud, a game about the flying dreams of a bedridden child. Released for free, the title swept a number of indie game awards and downloads crashed the school’s server, paving the way for Thatgamecompany to form around the seven members of the original student dev team.

One of the seven was composer Vincent Diamante, who was at the time a second year Master of Fine Arts student in the Interactive Media Division. With a diverse background including stints as a radio show host, games journalist, photographer, and artist, Diamante would go on to become the audio director for Thatgamecompany and an instructor at USC in his own right. Cloud, though, was his first stab at video game music and sound design to see release.

A purely synthesized score made with Cakewalk Sonar and Miroslav Mini, Cloud nevertheless has a crystal clear sound, bright and resonant, that’s a testament to both composer’s skill in composition and design. The music, even as variable bitrate MP3 files, often sound better than that produced by mega-studios with ten times the budget and a live ensemble at their disposal. And, most importantly, the music beautifully captures the sense of joyousness and serenity that’s so much a part of the game through frequent use of rambling piano lines, litling woodwinds, and powerful strings. When, as in “Fluffy Sweet,” the album’s highlight, the pieces lock together, the effect is breathtaking.

In addition to the overall atmosphere, Diamante uses a central theme that winds throughout most of his Cloud. Debuting in “Title,” the woodwind theme is, like the rest of the music, lilting and gossamer-thin like the cloudscape it seeks to evoke. It’s not dominant in the score, but the theme provides a second thread to tie the work together in addition to Diamante’s distinctive stylistics. Whether presented as counterpoint (“Just About Ready”) or in a more tortured minor key (in the concluding “Reflection”) Diamante’s theme is always a welcome presence.

The album isn’t all smiles and sunshine. “Reflection” plays like an introvert on a rainy day, its strings beautiful but vaguely tragic, and the optimistic main theme is contrasted with troubled piano, harp and woodwinds in “Cycling” to good effect. “Reflection” does make a rather dour ending to the album, which might have been better served by a return to joyful soaring instead. A few shorter tracks in the mix don’t break up the album’s flow much, but there is one outright dud: “Passing By,” a 22-second track of ambient noise. Luckily, true to its name, it passes by quickly.

With both the game and the 30-minute original soundtrack available as free downloads, there’s simply no reason not to experience Cloud for yourself, especially as the music was specifically mastered for its VBR bitrate rather than being compressed. Five years later, Diamante would follow up his effort with Flower, a much lengthier and more ambitious game score cut from the same cloth, albeit at greater length and with a less overt thematic strand running through it. Still, for your money, there’s no better Thatgamecompany-related soundtrack investment than Cloud.

Rating: starstarstarstarstar

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Halo 3: ODST (Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori)

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Halo 3, one of the earlier games on Microsoft’s Xbox 360 console, took the Halo series into a world of greater online connectivity and HD video. It had been a massive hit, comparable in scope to a major blockbuster, and there was no doubt that Microsoft and developer Bungie would continue the series. But rather than seizing on Halo 3‘s deliberately ambiguous ending, the quasi-expansion pack Halo 3: ODST was released instead. Set during the events of Halo 2 in the besieged Earth city of New Mombasa, the game is a quieter and more thoughtful affair (at least by Halo standards) made up of character-based vignettes involving a squadron of the titular Orbital Drop Shock Troopers. Critics and gamers responded favorably, making the experimental, story-based ODST yet another success for Bungie.

By 2009, Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori were well-established as Bungie’s house composers, with their genre-defying fusion of orchestral and choral colors with dance-influenced electronica winning admiration and imitation across the industry. Their return was a given in the years before Bungie and O’Donnell’s bitter 2014 split, but like the rest of the game’s development team, O’Donnell and Salvatori chose to take a more experimental approach to their music by incorporating a variety of more intimate instrumental colors and techniques. In particular, the game’s hub levels, which took place at night and in the rain as a character looked for clues to his teammates’ wherebouts, had a deliberately neo-noir look to them–a look that O’Donnell and Salvatori matched by adding a strong film noir fusion element to their score for the game.

The primary means by which O’Donnell and Salvatori add flashes of film noir color to the score is through smokey saxophone performances by Steve Griggs and Dewey Marler. From the first mournful pulls of the sax set against the sound of rain in “Overture,” the instrument comes to define the best and most unique parts of the ODST score. In “Rain,” the saxophone mingles with traditional strings and piano with only the barest hint of the Halo sound in a cue that could have almost come from a neo-noir film like Body Heat or Chinatown. Other pieces take a more experimental jazz fusion approach, marrying thumping off-kilter percussion and bass with sax blasts and soft keyboarding in “Something Like Sorrow,” and a mix of synth percussion and piano in “Hardoiled” that is perhaps the score’s most brilliantly original two minutes of detective music. All told, O’Donnell and Salvatori assemble about 30 minutes of similar material.

Unfortunately, like Halo 3 and Halo 2: Volume 2 before it, though, Halo 3: ODST suffers from significant album production problems. Once again, the album consists of a “frozen playthrough” in which O’Donnell and Salvatori’s tracks are mixed into lengthy 5-10 minute suites, and there is simply no way to skip to the album’s most original parts without wading through less-inspired material that is more typical of the “Halo sound” one might expect (though the game never actually quotes any themes from the original or its sequels). For instance, the gentle “Rain” is chained to the much more aggressive and electronic “Trailhead” and “Guiding Hand” to form the “Deference for Darkness” suite.

Without gameplay and the game’s audio engine to blend the songs smoothly into one another, the transition simply doesn’t work. Indexing each part of each suite to a separate track would have fit on the same album, but instead listeners are forced to break out an audio editor if they want to pick and choose their tracks. That’s not to say that the remaining 90 minutes of music is bad; O’Donnell and Salvatori’s fusions of orchestral and electronica, its the organic parts performed with the full backing of the Northwest Sinfonia, are often as fun as ever. They just don’t fit well with the new and most interesting film noir material save for a few places, most notably “Overture” and “Finale.”

O’Donnell and Salvatori were able to match the creativity of Halo 3: ODST (within the constraints of its genre) with creativity of their own (within the constraints of what was expected of a Halo score), even if their best material has a sometimes uneasy relationship with the rest on album. Sumthing Else Music Works released a 2-CD set alongside the game’s debut in late 2009 that was readily available in major retailers; with the declining interest in ODST since, the set it easy to find at a reasonable price. Even with the stylistic clash and terrible suite-based production, it remains a worthy listen. O’Donnell and Salvatori would go on to pen music for Bungie’s next two games, Halo: Reach and Destiny, though O’Donnell would part ways with the company after that in a bitter lawsuit.

Rating: starstarstar

Titan A.E. (Graeme Revell)

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After boldly leaving Disney during the latter’s late-70s doldrums, animator Don Bluth and his compatriots made a series of well-regarded films in the 1980s, from The Secret of NIMH to An American Tail to The Land Before Time. But Bluth was unable to capitalize on the films’ success, and his output in the 1990s was a series of box office bombs and creative compromises that eventually led to the bankruptcy of his studio. Hired by Fox to head its new Fox Animation Studios, Bluth’s Anastasia was a Disney-size hit in 1997, with a bevy of Oscar nominations to boot, but Bluth’s second feature for Fox, 2000’s Titan A.E., was not. Despite an innovative visual style combining cel and 3D animation, the talents of a diverse group of collaborators including Joss Whedon and Matt Damon, and an eye-popping trailer before The Phantom Menace, the ambitious science fiction animation never found an audience. Perhaps parents were put off by the violent destruction of Earth in the film’s trailer and opening; in any case, the film was the first in a series of high-profile cel animation adventures to underperform in the 2000s which led studios to move toward 3D as “the format people wanted to see.” Bluth never made another movie, and Fox Animation was dissolved.

Bluth had collaborated with a diverse array of composers in his earlier animation work, from Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner in his 1980s salad days to Robert Folk and David Newman in the 1990s. For Titan A.E., though, New Zelander Graeme Revell was signed to score. Revell had an incredibly diverse career since making his mark with Child’s Play 2 in 1990, dabbling in everything from popcorn fantasy (Power Rangers) to horror (From Dusk Till Dawn) to superheroes (The Crow). In 2000, though, Revell was primarily known as an action composer on the back of efforts like The Negotiator, and it’s likely for that reason Bluth chose him for Titan A.E.. Unlike Bluth’s earlier efforts, though, there was a definite attempt to appeal to a youth demographic from Fox, so Revell’s score was forced to jostle for screen time with an array of banal late-90s rock songs. To help add an electronic edge to the work, Revell also brought on former Tangerine Dream member (and future film composer in his own right) Paul Haslinger as an arranger and synthesizer performer.

With a palette including Haslinger’s electronics and a full orchestra with choir, Revell’s approach to the score is grounded in an overarching theme that he holds to through much of the music. First heard on gentle piano in “Prologue/Drej Attack” and wistful Star Trek brass in “Wow,” Revell puts his Titan theme through plenty of variations similar to the way Jerry Goldsmith often played with his main themes at the time, but none is more satisfying than its massive statements for the film’s biggest triumphs. The first hint of choral majesty in “The Broken Moon” gives way to the film and score’s stunning finale in “Creation/Bob” when Revell lets his theme rip in all its glory with full brassy orchestra, chorus, and Haslinger’s electronic pulses. It’s a stunning statement of sci-fi awe, and one of the finest and most satisfying moments of the composer’s career, finishing out with a tender love-theme rendition of the primary motif for the film’s denouement (and its funniest Whedon-scripted line).

There’s solid orchestral writing throughout the score even when Revell isn’t developing his primary theme as well, like the mournful vocals of “Recovery” or the sci-fi wonder of “Don’t Lose ‘Em.” But, unfortunately, there is also material that’s much less compelling: for many of the movie’s big action setpieces, Revell and Haslinger resort to a pounding series of repetitive and simplistic drum beats (“Hydrogen Forest Chase,” “The Dreaded Drej”) that’s deeply out of sync with the more orchestral parts of the score; perhaps a need to make room and/or fit in with the dreadful 90s-style rock songs led to that approach. Worse still is the music for the alien Drej antagonists and their queen; beings of pure energy, they are represented by Haslinger’s electronics at their harshest and most unrestrained (“Start Running, Keep Running,” “Mother Drej,” parts of “Power Struggle”). The simplistic action and temple-pounding Drej synths simply don’t play nice with the rest of what is otherwise a superior score, dragging significant portions of it down to near-unlistenable levels.

Titan A.E.‘s failure has made it, to date, Graeme Revell’s only animated feature. But his career prospered in the 2000s with a number of science fiction and horror films from Pitch Black to Daredevil before gradually petering out in the 2010s. Thanks to Fox’s ill-fated marketing attempts there was a Titan soundtrack, but it was strictly composed of songs without a note of Revell’s score. Good-quality bootlegs abounded but it wasn’t until 2014 that La-La Land Records put out the complete score as part of a limited edition. While the music isn’t perfect, with an overreliance on harsh electronic textures and being forced to tiptoe around songs, Revell’s grand main theme and especially its outings in the first and last cues make the album worth the effort. Like the film it accompanies, the music isn’t Oscar caliber but remains sorely underrated.

Rating: starstarstar