Gears of War 4 Soundtrack Review
Released on Oct. 11, Gears of War 4 became the fourth installment in the Xbox-exclusive franchise and the first to not be crafted by original developer Epic Games. The change in creative teams seems to not have had an impact on the game as new developer The Coalition has seen their final product garner “generally favorable” reviews according to aggregator Metacritic. Another new cog in the machine, along with new main characters and the aforementioned different developer, is composer Ramin Djawadi.
The composing duties on the first Gears of War back in 2006 were handled by Unreal Tournament composer Kevin Riepl. His work was one-part horror score while the other half was frenetic, Michael Giacchino-style action music. Also making its first appearance was the series’ trademark sound: an ambient woodwind or electronic effect used in the track “14 Years After E-Day.” The dynamic orchestral action music was also a highlight of the score, and both went towards the Gears “sound”: a place where a horror and action movie score could combine. Riepl was, unfortunately, not long for the series as he would be replaced by film composer Steve Jablonsky for all subsequent entries until Gears 4. Jablonsky, a student and product of Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control Productions (then known as Media Ventures), was coming off of action-packed Michael Bay films such as The Island and Transformers. This was more than likely taken into account when he was hired to produce music for the more action-centric Gears of War 2. While the music produced by Jablonsky was a bit too Zimmer-derivative and not as adventurous as Riepl’s previous contribution, it serviced the game well enough and established him and his assistants as the series’ go-to composers. Thus, with the advent of Gears 4, Jablonsky appeared to be an obvious personnel member to reprise his role. It would not turn out as such.
Enter Ramin Djawadi, another composer from the Hans Zimmer factory that is Remote Control Productions. Djawadi’s star was, and still very much is, on the rise as a result of his involvement with the hit HBO series Game of Thrones. This is a major shift as Djawadi (along with Steve Jablonsky) was long looked upon by film score enthusiasts as one of Zimmer’s weakest protégés. For more proof that his star is burning bright, look no further than his newest completed work: the blockbuster game Gears of War 4. So, how would Djawadi tackle this assignment? Would he incorporate any themes created by Riepl or Jablonsky? Or produce outstanding action music for the many firefights in the game? Or write music to play up the horror elements embodied in the Swarm? The answers to these questions are a bit complicated, albeit extremely basic.
Generic is definitely the word that best describes Djawadi’s efforts in this score. The music he has crafted is neither exceptionally bad nor fantastically good. It simply exists. It does its job and absolutely no more than that. It brings no new sounds to the table while at the same time attempting to force a new theme into the listener’s consciousness. How could a new main theme, easily found in the track “Main Theme”, not bring anything new to the table? Look no further than it’s construct: a four-note phrase that is maddeningly simple with banal orchestration to match. This theme saturates the entire soundtrack and will most likely ensure that listeners and video gamers alike will remember it. They will probably not remember it out of pure fondness, but more so because of its frequent usage.
Gears of War 4 is primarily an action/shooter game and, as such, action cues make up a majority of the track listings. Here was Djawadi’s chance to match or surpass the melodic and rhythmic music heard in the first Gears of War. What does he produce? Passable, workmanlike action music with a strong string section and the typical assortment of sampled percussion utilized by Zimmer-trained composers. The tracks “In and Out,” “Anvil Gate,” and “The Prodigal Son” are examples of this as the string section plays endless ostinatos while the electronically-charged drums are hammered away at. Again, this music is not bad; it is simply music that has been heard before and handled better by Djawadi’s master Hans Zimmer. Add the fact that Djawadi regurgitates similar string ostinatos and chanting from his Dracula Untold score (in the track “Cathedral of Pods”) and one cannot help but feel that that is what the entire soundtrack really is: a tired regurgitation.
There are positives to be heard in this score. The tracks “Recovery” and “Finale” are reminders that Djawadi knows how to write compelling music for an orchestra. However, these moments are unfortunately few and far between. An attempt by Djawadi to tap into the horror elements of Gears is also heard in “Almost Midnight” with growling cellos, a distant piano, and ambient/electronic effects. It is with these moments that the album almost fools a listener into thinking it is better than it is. One need only hear the copied drum loop from 2010’s Clash of the Titans in the following track (“Night Terrors”) to snap back to reality.
The soundtrack to Gears of War 4 is, by all measures, a disappointing effort from Ramin Djawadi. The music is generic and lacks a true Gears of War “sound”. Instead of looking to past entries, Djawadi decided to forge his own sound spearheaded by a new four-note theme. As a result, his output is easily the weakest heard in the series yet. He finishes behind his former collaborator Steve Jablonsky and even farther behind the outstanding work by Kevin Riepl. This is not to say that the album is unlistenable. In fact, at around an hour run time, it is definitely worth a listen. However, listening more than once is not recommended as the weak structure will begin to show through the gloss on this one-trick pony of a score.