Battlefield: Bad Company 2 Soundtrack, Mikael Karlsson, 2010
It’s hard to remember much about how Battlefield: Bad Company 2 managed to differentiate itself from the competition. Sure, the game’s reviews were very strong and 12 million sold units is an impressive figure. But thematically or aesthetically, there was little separating Bad Company 2 from the glut of other military-themed first-person shooters. One aspect in which this multi player-focused title stood out from the crowd was the Battlefield: Bad Company 2 soundtrack. After scoring Battlefield: Bad Company, Mikael Karlsson returned to write the Battlefield: Bad Company 2 soundtrack. Karlsson’s involvement in video game music is one of the industry’s more intriguing coincidences. As a successful writer of modern (sometimes avant-garde) classical music, with an impressive body of well-received orchestral works, ballets and operas under his belt, Karlsson seems like an unusual choice to score an first-person shooter.
The link between Karlsson and the Battlefield franchise is Stefan Strandberg, sound director at game developer DICE. Karlsson and Strandberg had met while working in a wine store in Stockholm during their student years. Bonding over their shared love of music, the two collaborated early on, chasing sounds in the fields of Skåne, Sweden. After moving to New York for his musical studies, Karlsson began sending out original compositions to friends back in Sweden. One of those tapes made it into the hands of Strandberg, who now worked at DICE. He suggested to Karlsson to produce a demo for Battlefield: Bad Company. Quickly organising an ensemble of volunteer musician friends, Karlsson recorded the requested demo and some weeks later landed the job.
Karlsson certainly didn’t see any conflict between his usual work on more ‘serious’ classical works and his Bad Company scores. As he put it in an interview: “I can’t imagine that soundtrack composers only get soundtrack ideas, and new music (contemporary classical music) composers never dream of a great pop progression.” And Karlsson’s work in film soundtrack and pop music certainly show him as a composer able to work across genres.
All that being said, the Battlefield: Bad Company score album felt underwhelming. Its compositions were usually too short to develop meaningfully. Yes, some of the score’s timbres were a welcome change from the usual orchestra-enhanced-with-electronics fare heard on many FPS titles. However, the music wasn’t as adventurous and refreshing as the references that Karlsson and Strandberg quoted in interviews (Rachmaninoff, Schnittke, Bartok) would suggest. It didn’t help that the catchy Battlefield theme has always felt more like a Remote Control power anthem. Nothing wrong with that, but Battlefield: Bad Company struggled to blend the tune with its more modernist tendencies.
The Battlefield: Bad Company 2 soundtrack – while stylistically more conventional than its predecessor – is a marked improvement. Ignoring some shorter tracks that feel like filler, the score album’s meat are four substantial orchestral cues. While they run for just over 15 minutes altogether, they are among Western game music’ best developed orchestral works. In fact, particularly “The Secret Revealed” and “The Ancient Weapon” feel like small concert works rather than soundtrack compositions. Karlsson’s background in classical music is consistently manifest in his intelligent handling of orchestral forces and dynamics. It helps that according to Karlsson, “BC2 has a much more developed, cinematic story line than BC1”.
The fun kicks off with the robust “The Storm (Main Theme)”. Its opening gestures – a resilient, solemn trumpet solo over somewhat anonymously driving string ostinati and percussion – have become musical clichés of the FPS genre. But Karlsson establishes his credentials early on. His trumpet lead melody is more long spun and less predictable than the vast majority of competitors in this field.
Countless action game (and movie) soundtrack have tried to mix traditional orchestral sweep with rhythm-focused modern action score writing – far too often to underwhelming results. “The Storm (Main Theme)” is one of the few game music compositions that gets the balance right. The piece never sacrifices varied dynamics and detailed orchestrations for the constant forward surge that this type of composition requires. This is music that flows with an impressive sense of purpose and adventurous enterprise, helped by Karlsson’s smart variations of the opening trumpet melody that help shape the composition. The track’s required sense of heroism never feels cheap and doesn’t have to rely on the tired, simplistic major chord progressions of other action games. Finally, “The Storm (Main Theme)”’s enticing dramatic arc allows its closing thundering brass fanfares to make their full impact.
One of the surprising things about the Battlefield: Bad Company 2 soundtrack is that “The Storm (Main Theme)” is the only composition with the expected militaristic bravado. The other three substantial cues take more subtle approaches. “Snowy Mountains” positions itself on the opposite end of the emotional spectrum to “The Storm (Main Theme)”. It’s a far more abstract, but still accessible composition, due to its immediately striking atmosphere. As the base for “Snowy Mountains”, Karlsson uses ear-catching layers of plodding, resonant string ostinati. The music’s motoric progression remains steady to suggest persistent, constant pressing forward to fulfill a mission in white, barren lands.
At the same time, rhythmic subtleties and additions like busy string pizzicati keep the general mood sufficiently unpredictable and tense. Massive French horn blasts underline “Snowy Mountains”’ stark atmosphere, which is alleviated through measured woodwind melodies. Moments of quiet struggle such as the sometimes pained violin chords after 1:38 complete this pitch perfect location underscore.
If “The Storm (Main Theme)” is the barnstorming opening track and “Snowy Mountains” evokes a particular locale, the remaining two tracks deliver the bulk of the Battlefield: Bad Company 2 soundtrack’s cinematic drama – in remarkably subtle and subdued fashion. Both “The Secret Revealed” and “The Ancient Weapon” surprise with their hushed, nocturnal atmosphere. “The Secret Revealed” moves gears after “The Storm (Main Theme)”’s swagger, opening with a rolling four-note piano motif on flute. The motif’s refusal to harmonically resolve sets the composition’s mysterious, agitated mood. A sense of foreboding flows from a high-pitched violin drone and ruminative deep string utterings.
The melodic material is purposefully fragmented, but still developed intelligently enough to tie the piece together. A brief return of the Battlefield: Bad Company 2 soundtrack’s main theme illuminates the music’s twilit realm. But as performed and recorded here, the theme feels like a distant memory, unable to dispel the prevailing sense of insecurity. Composed with classical sensibilities and making judicious use of chamber music-sized orchestrations, all the tension that “The Secret Revealed” has carefully built up explodes in a towering brass variation of the four-note motif that is suitably awe-inspiring to justify the track’s title.
“The Ancient Weapon” visits similar emotional territory, but with a more melodramatic flair. Karlsson writes a solo violin part that ranks among Western game music’s most fully-developed instrumental soli. By turns delicate, passionate, trembling, intimate, and impeccably performed, the mesmerising solo violin is pitted against thumping percussion and hammered piano chords. Heavy-hearted cello melodies that join the fray later on have a romantic, golden-age warmth laced with black edges.
Compositional subtlety once more leads to emotional ambivalence and intrigue. “The Ancient Weapon”’s solo violin part lacks any continuously flowing, comforting melody line. It refuses to deliver any definitive emotional payoffs, but offers constant allure and fascination. Karlsson’s background in modern classical music shines through once more, allowed to produce far more multi-faceted statements of intent than on Battlefield: Bad Company. Ultimately, “The Ancient Weapon”’s ends on the album’s most emotionally ambivalent, cliffhanging note, receding back into the darkness. It’s a welcome invitation to replay this anything but ordinary first-person shooter score.
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