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.

Friday, 14 August 2009

Permanent Death, Episode 7: A Mysterious Packet

CIA Special Analyst Perry Gerling was part of the African Attaché, and as such regularly received reports from a number of field operatives. One particular operative was late in reporting and he grew anxious waiting.

After several days of silence, he was about to consider reporting the field agent as missing when a package arrived on his desk in a yellowed envelope. It looked like it had travelled half-way round the world in someone’s back pocket. Inside was a long telegram (2 pages) from his field agent and a series of surveillance photographs.

Gerling pulled out the surveillance photographs and leafed through them.

It was clear that Singh was regularly getting his hands dirty, but as to whether he was still on-the-job was another matter. He grabbed a pen and a pad from his top drawer and scribbled a note for a return message. "Maintain distance and surveillance. END OF TELEGRAM." He wondered whether Washington would notice the expenses being racked up by his special surveillance project but he Gerling thought it was worth the risk. Washington still didn't know that Singh had - potentially, he was quick to add to no one in particular - gone rogue. He looked over a few more of the photos.

Yes it was going to be worth the extra hassle of justifying the diverted resources if it mean he could give a definitive answer to Washington. Singh would show his hand sooner or later, he knew that much from experience.

"This just won't do." He said, tossing aside the photographs and rocking back in his chair. At this rate, he considered, he was likely to get a posting back Stateside some time around the turn of the next decade.

At least one agent was still taking orders.

Friday, 7 August 2009

Permanent Death, Interstitial: Suicide

I have a confession to make. I’m considering suicide.

No, not in real life, don’t be ridiculous, I have everything to live for. But I must admit that after however many times through Far Cry 2 that it’s been I’m struggling to come up with the will to keep playing, much less to feverishly muster the kind of creative energy necessary to whip an oddly paced and narratively boring experience into something worthy of your attention. (Because you’re worth it)

It’s weird, though, to think about killing oneself. How does one go about doing so? I’ll admit that my mind on occasion wandered, somewhat morbidly, to considering what would happen if I jumped in front of that rapidly approaching train. Or if I climbed over that railing and began the lengthy plunge to the ground from a great height. Or if I just let my car drift across the lane and into the path of that oncoming truck.

It’s a kind of morbid fascination that I think we all share – and one that sees its most common outworking in the rubbernecking we do when we drive past that fatal accident on the highway. We drive slow and stare because we are imagining that it is out body lying twisted and crushed in the metal, bleeding to death. We wonder what that would feel like. What it will look like when it’s all over – does it really go dark and quiet like Hollywood would have us believe?

In Far Cry 2, I know exactly how it will look – The Face of Death is a menu screen. I have the benefit of knowing what it look’s like in advance, and that it is a real let down. I sincerely hope with all my might that the real thing is much more eventful.

One way in which Far Cry 2 actually is like real life is that I have no idea how it will happen, however in contemplating my virtual ‘suicide’ it has made me realise that it is entirely within my power to avoid the same fate as Nels. By deliberately choosing to make it an awesomely spectacular moment of singular glory and brio I could avoid the ignoble end of death-via-automobile. I’m not sure I could bear that ending after investing as much of my time as I have in this strange exercise. But unless I want to off myself I guess I’m stuck leaving myself open to the possibility.

Okay, you can relax now. I’m not going to kill off Qurbani Singh without reason. Even if that would suit the story better.