I'm not sure whether I had high expectations for the music of Mass Effect 3. Safe to say, it wasn't as good as it could or should have been, but that it's not bad by any stretch of imagination, it even came with a single track that'll surely be remembered.
Released long enough ago for the world to must be saved at this point (unless you’re in the UK like me in which case it was released today), Mass Effect 3 concludes the epic space opera saga of commander Shepard, saviour of the universe, a relatively miniscule organic being foiling the plans of a race of massive semi-robotic space aliens. This is the third time she’s saved the human race, only now she’s up against creatures that by rights are large enough to have a group hug and call themselves a planet.
That’s the game, however. What about the music? Well, I’ve previously expressed my mild discontent with the fact that Jack Wall would not return for the finale. Instead, we’re treated to the music of relatively famous film composer Clint Mansell, responsible for one of the most over-used tracks in cinema history, Lux Aeterna from Requiem for a Dream. My personal opinion on his work is uninteresting, primarily owing to the fact that I don’t have one. He’s not been a frequent figure during my travels, but perhaps his score for Mass Effect 3 will change that?
Clint Mansell the composer
Let’s not be predictable and talk about Pop Will Eat Itself, instead let’s talk about something that most people haven’t already laughed at. Did you know that the picture to the right was taken by Clint himself in front of his bathroom mirror and the background is faded to white to hide the fact that otherwise you’d be able to tell that he wasn’t wearing any pants?
That hilarious (and disappointingly fabricated) story aside, the man had his film scoring debut with π (that’s Pi for those of you who either don’t speak Greek or didn’t take mathematics in school) although his subsequent fame arose arguably because of the aforementioned Lux Aeterna and its effect on pop culture (i.e. excessively dramatic YouTube videos and certain Swedish radio shows that shall go unnamed).
Where as I could probably spend five paragraphs talking about every circumstance in which Jeremy Soule was caught not wearing pants, I don’t know much about Clint Mansell’s work. My only other impression of him comes from Black Swan, which quite competently reused some of Tchaikovsky’s themes in a modern sense (Though, people only watched that one for the lesbian kiss. Wow, welcome to the internet, guys.).
According to the Mass Effect 3 Collector’s Edition Soundtrack, Clint Mansell is only responsible for two of the tracks, Leaving Earth and “An End, Once and for All” (which he co-wrote with Sam Hulick). The rest of the music is attributed to Sam Hulick, Christopher Lennertz, Cris Velasco, Sascha Dikiciyan and Faunts. The saying “Too many cooks spoil the broth” should be ringing in your ears at this time, but these guys have worked on the previous instalments in the franchise and their music is thematically even enough.
Mansell’s work does stick out somewhat, however. The two aforementioned tracks are both beautifully evocative, well-written and better mixed than the others. Leaving Earth in particular is very beautiful owing a delicately simple yet emotionally powerful chord progression.
On the whole
Mass Effect 3 follows very much in line with the previous two instalments, mixing ambient textures and arpeggiated synths with orchestral elements, primarily staccato and sustained strings and a whole lot of sweeping brass portato. ProjectSAM’s Symphobia is responsible for a lot of the orchestral instruments (this is particularly noticeable in the opening of tracks such as Defeat).
Technically, the score isn’t quite as good as I would expect from such a huge production. The mixing is often really dry, creating a wall of sonic separation with the nicely warm synths and the cold strings. A lot of the violin lines lack confidence and become rather stuttered owing to Symphobia’s lack of legato transitions. Also, and some of you should know this already by know, I personally am not a fan of Symphobia’s generic sound. Usually, you’ll hear composers layering other libraries on top or using a combination of EQ’s and reverbs to bring out a bit of character from the sound but here, the samples are used almost as-is.
Where did the melodies go?
It would seem as though the combination of Mansell’s very light involvement and the lack of Jack Wall has removed the previously melodical focus of the score. The Mass Effect melody (You know the one, from Suicide Mission.) has one short appearance and apart from one short melodic line in the beginning of “Stand Strong, Stand Together” and the ending to I Was Lost Without You. there are very few memorable melodies to be found. Granted that the franchise’s musical focus has been quite firmly placed on ambience, textures and arpeggiated synths, there were still good melodies in Mass Effect 2, even in some of the combat themes.
Instead of melodies, we do have some really gripping synthetic ambiances, such as the one in Prothean Beacon. When I first read the name, I of course read “bacon” instead of “beacon”, which did bring some unpleasant imagery to mind. The music featured in the multiplayer is an excellent example of this genre of Sci-Fi action music, featuring relentless ostinatos that crawl back and forth across the measures, and by that I mean that they sometimes start on a weak beat.
This piece is arguably the entirety of Clint Mansell’s involvement. While its core chord progression is evident in some of the other tracks by the other composers, they’re not only stylistically different but when all is said and done, they’re just simply not as good. Listen to the track here.
This is the very evocative set of chords that are repeated throughout the entire track. If you have a deep, warm piano at home, you’ll probably enjoy playing it a couple of times. Originally, I was planning to make a piano arrangement of Leaving Earth but it doesn’t have any melodies and it doesn’t have a central theme. It’s basically just a chord progression with some other harmonic elements layered on top, which I suppose is a bit disappointing.
However, it is a truly evocative piece (evocative enough to use the word evocative another couple of times) and goes so well with the scene(s) from the game, not to mention the character of the setting.
I don’t want to say this, but because of integrity and all that stuff, I feel forced to. BioWare, you have disappointed me. By rights, you should have brought both Jack Wall and Clint Mansell aboard and had them collaborate on all the tracks. I was really hoping to be treated to a solid bunch of really memorable melodies, interesting rhythmic figures and chord progressions.
So, as a final word, the Mass Effect 3 soundtrack isn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination, but it could and should have been so much more than that. The blood-pumping, dramatically powerful and almost tearfully strong final fight music The End Run from Mass Effect 2 sits high atop the offerings of the final instalment. One thing I don’t get is why they didn’t include some of the really great cinematic music that’s featured in the game. The released OST doesn’t do the in-game music justice.
All the best,