Sunday, 23 August 2009

Assassins Creed Official Soundtrack - A Review

If you’ve only recently joined SLRC, since the start of the Permanent Death story perhaps, you might not know that SLRC started life as a music and videogame blog. We don’t do reviews very often here at SLRC (conveniently, if you ever wish to see that change, feel free to commission me) but today sees a reprisal of an earlier trend in reviewing the music for a videogames – this time it’s Ubisoft’s 2007 title Assassins Creed that gets a thorough once-over.

As a brief aside, this will be my last post for a few weeks as I’m taking a break and dropping off the grid for a few days. I’ll probably be back in late September or early October and will hopefully be recharged and ready to take on the rest of the Permanent Death saga. Enjoy!

The album sets the tone at the opening, introducing in the first track solo voices singing in Arabic over arab-esque scales, as well as chanting monks drenched in reverb evoking cavernous Middle Ages cathedrals. Vocals are an important part of the sonic palette of the Assassins Creed soundtrack and provide a sonic element that aims to capture the unique historical period of the game.

The listener is treated to sparing splashes of flutes and piano melodies underpinned by Arabic style light drum percussion. The major feature of the track ‘Flight through Jerusalem’ is a lament sung almost operatically, and placed in a middle distance giving the sense of being heard from across a city – perhaps the singer is crying out over the rooftops at dawn or dusk. A Middle Eastern guitar-type instrument and a string section carry much of the underlying harmonic content of the song.

The following few tracks on this admittedly rather short album – totaling up to around 40 minutes of music – re-introduce more traditional orchestral instruments to contrast with their ethnic co-players; timpani, drums, tambourines, string and brass section stabs, all make appearances in the first third of the album.

The aptly named ‘Spirit of Damascus’ piece uses what sounds like a background of giant steel-works percussion and the metallic timbre works is stark contrast to the fore-grounded Middle Eastern guitar. The mix and meeting of uncommonly related instruments as heard here mirrors musically what would have been a ‘cultural melting pot’ in the particular area of the middle east Assassins Creed is set in. The meeting of Christian and Islam; West and East, would have produced both clashes and unique opportunities for art and expression. That, and a lot of fighting, obviously.

The piece trails off, and ends far too quickly for such a beautiful track, with a synth bed that evokes the monkish chants on previous tunes. The following track, ‘Trouble in Jerusalem’ (a much longer piece at 4minutes) reprises the steel-percussion of ‘Damascus’ and adds Bootmen-style stompy percussion. A synthetic almost sub-audible bass acts as a powerful counterpoint to the breathy, cloistered monk-ish whisperings in (presumably) Latin on the track ‘Acre Underworld’. The use of harsh-cuts and sample loops that remind one of a broken record at the beginning gives the track a uniquely ‘electronic’ feel, utilizing an effect that cannot be easily replicated without modern technology. It is also possibly the first most prominent artificial sound on the album, or at the least, the fist piece that leans more towards using artificial and created sounds than organic or acoustic ones.

The composer, Jesper Kyd, is a great employer of non-acoustic instrumentation, and electronic instruments and synths alternately shimmer and glisten and stutter throughout the album. The most stand-out use is on the track ‘Access the Animus’, a supremely long piece clocking in at nine minutes and which contains a plethora of razor sharp glass-like samples. Additionally, some kind of synth or sample has been manipulated to sound unnervingly like a leopard or jaguar's roar – appropriate imagery for a piece entitled ‘Access the Animus’ with its title a homonym for “Animism”, a philosophical, religious or spiritual belief common in many non-urbanised, non-westernised civilizations, often accompanied by a reverence for animals (particularly large and powerful ones such as big cats). Admittedly it’s a tenuous connection, but it’s also one I can’t help to make – it really sounds like a jaguar or other big cat to my ear. In addition to being one of the longest pieces, ‘Access the Animus’ also marks the mid-point of the album.

The short piece ‘Dunes of Death’ makes use of metallic percussion and flute or pan-pie sound-alike instruments and also brings back a few splashes of melody on the piano.

A big feature of this album is that many of the towns have specific themes or sound-palettes. For example, Jerusalem-themed tracks almost always employ monks and male choirs, appropriate imagery for the cities strong religious significance to both Christianity and Islam. Compare and contrast with the piece ‘Masyaf in Danger’ which uses none of the same vocal elements, using only a light sprinkling of female synth voices.

The third from last track, ‘Mediation Begins’, has at it’s core Arabic percussion, a steel-stringed Arabic guitar-like instrument, and a melody played on a pipe-flute instrument all sounding so much like a group of street performers. The band fades in and at first the scene could be any of a thousand street corners in the Middle East, however a bed of synth and reverb-soaked synthetic sounds soon appears to underpin the group. The effect, and it is one that is used in many of the pieces, is the juxtaposition of normal surface appearances with underlying tensions and fears – another musical metaphor perhaps for the cultural tensions of the historical period.

‘Meditation of the Assassin’ has almost no organic or instrument sounds. The return of the nearly sub-audible bass from earlier in the album along with ominous whispers and out-of-place, non-harmonic dissonant electronic noises gives the piece a strong sinister feel. The brief appearance of wind chimes is far from reassuring and only further adds to the eeriness of the piece. A quiet Arabic guitar struggles vainly against the overpowering bass towards the middle and end. The final song ‘The Bureau’ is a bit of an anti-climax for an album sprinkled with such a number of great moments.

Overall, the album hangs together quite well, however it is dominated somewhat unflattering by the 9-minute long track ‘Access the Animus’ which, despite covering a variety of rhythmic and instrumental feels throughout its duration, still feels like it drags too long. Add to this the fact that some of the more intriguing pieces are overly short and the album is left feeling lopsided and uneven. It does, thankfully, avoid the common pitfall of other videogame soundtracks and avoids any awkward song transitions or strange stops and starts.

Ultimately, however, if the listener does not have the same level of positive associations with the music generated through playing the actual game of Assassins Creed as I acknowledge I have, I think it would ultimately prove a largely unsatisfying listening experience.

The Assassins Creed Official Soundtrack, is composed by Jesper Kyd and has a running time of 40:37.


Anonymous said...

Elliott Richards said...

Ben, the next time you manage to read this, I wanted to ask if you may want to perhaps check out Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising. It's an Open World, Free Roaming, Tactical First Person Shooter in a Modern Warfare setting.

It's set on a real Island on the North Coast of Japan, called Skira Island.

The Island is 220 square kilometers in size. You and I both know that's almost five times the size of Far Cry 2's World!!

The setting of the Island is most probably fictional, and inaccurate to the Islands real setting. But I believe the developers confirmed that the in-game Island is to the same scale/size of the real Island!!

The game is alot more free, because it doesn't hold any restrictions like Far Cry 2. You actually have interesting vehicles in a wider variety for this game. There are also weapons that are customizable and upgradeable with weapon attachments. And there is an endless list of equipment you can carry with your soldier.

It also comes with a Mission Editor for the PC players only. It's used to create your own missions. You choose where you Spawn, where the AI spawns. You choose your objective, and so on.

It makes the game less repetitive, although you wouldn't honestly expect it to be.

There's a really in-depth and impressive Squad System to check out, too.

There's only one issue with the game, and that is - with such a large scale island - you would expect some serious efforts to make the Multiplayer have alot of players! Sadly, it's only a 16v16. Now yes, that's alot of people, but for such a large scale island, us fans were expecting the developers to push for numbers around the 50 mark.

But this is only with much thanks to APB, a new game coming eventually to Xbox 360 and PC. It's promising over 100 players online in one match. It's set in an urban City, similar to that seen in GTA IV. It's a completely online shooter with a deep customization feature that allows each player to be SO unique, that it'll be hard to actually see the exact same model online.

That game is breaking boundaries for Online, but Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising is breaking boundaries in so many other areas (with realistic features), that Online became less of a focus.

Fortunately, as you'd expect, they're splitting the Island up into specific hotspots. These places will be good for intense action and chokepoints. It'll also (assumably) be set around the more interesting scenarios on the Island (as alot of the Island is hills of Grass, Trees and Foliage).

I thought you may like it, because I think this game would easily defeat Far Cry 2. They're not quite on the same boat. Far Cry 2 is more of a one-man-army Game as a Mercenary. This is an Army game where you'll be with a Squad, and an Army of Soldiers. Also the locations are very different. Africa restricts you to rusty old vehicles, and weapons.

Let me know what you think!