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BioShock 2 Official Score: Sounds from the Lighthouse :: Review by Simon Elchlepp

BioShock 2 Official Score: Sounds from the Lighthouse Album Title: BioShock 2 Official Score: Sounds from the Lighthouse
Record Label: 2K Games
Catalog No.: Promotional
Release Date: February 9, 2010
Purchase: Buy at eBay


After the resounding critical and commercial success that was BioShock — the game sold around three million copies on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 — a sequel was inevitable. Despite scepticism among gamers and reviewers if a continuation of the story around the haunted underwater city Rapture was necessary, given how self-contained the first game's storyline was, BioShock 2 met with equally rapturous (no pun intended) reviews.

Considering how important the game's music was in setting up the mood in BioShock, and how much the atmosphere evoked by the game contributed its success, it was no surprise that Garry Schyman was drafted to continue his work for the BioShock franchise. Equally, it hardly came as shock when Schyman announced in interviews that the soundtrack for BioShock 2 would largely follow its precedessor's musical style, with some refinements and instrumental additions made to the music. This time around, fans didn't have to wait for more than two years to enjoy Schyman's work through a proper soundtrack release, as had been the case with BioShock. Instead, the Schyman's score (along with an album containing the songs featured in the game), was released with the limited edition of BioShock 2, containing almost every track from the game and even some that hadn't been used, while carrying a price tag of US$100. More interesting than discussions about price and release strategies are the questions: how does Schyman's work would compare to his outstanding compositions for the original game, and in how far it would differ from the previous album's style?


The term that Schyman used most frequently to describe the differences between his scores for the the two BioShock games was "refinement", implying both a consistency of style and a number of smaller changes — maybe even improvements? — made to the existing formulas in order to provide a sufficiently "new" listening experience. And it soon turns out that this description certainly true: listeners familiar with BioShock's soundtrack will readily feel at home in this haunted, mysterious, densely orchestrated soundworld, still recorded in a very resonant acoustic and featuring a fair share of that 20th century classical music-style modernism that made the first score such a distinct and fascinating listen. Equally, upon closer inspection, it quickly becomes obvious that Schyman has introduced a number of quite significant changes, most of which work to the soundtrack's advantage.

While Schyman has produced another score that no one will mistake for easy listening, the outright horror elements of the first soundtrack, which functioned as a counterpoint to a number of poignant solo violin and string orchestra performances, have been toned down somewhat and are less aggressive than before. An exception to this and a reminder of the thorniness of some of the original soundtrack's orchestral textures is "Big Sister On The Move", which plays like a showcase of various dissonant scoring techniques for string orchestra, including aleatoric elements, a busy introductory section for violins playing cascades of quarter tones, and some absolutely horror-inducing, layered string glissandi, all of which aptly represent the game's antagonist.

But this outburst of dissonant, throat-grabbing writing for orchestral forces is to be found hardly anywhere else on the album. Instead, when trying to unnerve the gamer (and listener), the soundtrack rather chooses to convey unease than outright horror by taking a mellower, ambient approach, best characterised in pieces such as "The Abyss", "Entrance To Eden" and "That Symbol On Your Hand". This time around, the orchestral dissonance is more subdued and doesn't so much jump at the listener, but rather creeps up on her — or at least that's what the music tries to achieve. Closer now to common underscoring techniques for horror movies than to early/mid 20th century classical music, these tracks can't help but feel a bit anonymous. They're certainly effective and well scored — there's always a lot of orchestral details to discover in Schyman's compositions — but they fail to impress to the same degree through their originality and outright viciousness as the more dissonant moments on BioShock's soundtrack, or Paul Gorman's similarly styled compositions for Dante's Inferno do. Equally, a feeling of "I've heard that before" — which was almost completely absent from the first game's score — emerges in "Eleanor's Darkness", which switches from a frantic, acerbic opening section for violins to a slowly building march, with requisite heavy percussion and a mighty trombone melody. However, despite the track's stylistic familiarity — only the shrill violins layered on top of the percussion and brass add some sonic uniqueness to the track — it is still most entertaining to listen to.

But these more ambient tracks, such as "Ten Years Later" not only take a different approach towards creating an atmosphere of creepiness, but herald other musical changes as well. While the the solo violin in BioShock almost uniformly communicated melancholy by representing the tragic aspect of the game's backstory through restrained, but singing melodies, the rather tense violin solo in the second half of "Ten Years Later", one of the album's introductory tracks, signals a change to the first soundtrack's blueprint of "heartbreaking (solo) strings against wildly dissonant orchestra".

And indeed, one will find that this particular style, which became BioShock's musical calling card — due to its utter originality and Schyman' superb execution — is largely absent from BioShock 2's soundtrack and has instead been modified in several ways. There are still quite a number of exquisitely written violin solos to be found on the soundtrack, but every once in a while, they're paired with a solo cello, and both instruments enter into a dialogue, musically representing the game's two protagonists and the bond between them: the Big Daddy that the gamer ends up controlling, and his Little Sister. "Pairbond", the album's first track, elegantly introduces this new musical approach by starting out with melodic material from BioShock's main theme, before then veering of into a different direction, with the solo violin playing against an orchestral drone, and the cello entering a few moments later. It's an inspired choice to portray the game's main characters, and while this instrumental combination doesn't crop up as often on the soundtrack as one might think, Schyman's penchant for writing marvellous string melodies makes every occasion on which we hear the two instruments sing together a feast for the ears.

Particularly the album's closing track, "Eleanor's Lullaby", is breathtakingly beautiful in the sense of farewell it communicates, even adding a solo flute — another innovation within BioShock's musical universe. This may actually be the most straightforwardly lyrical cue Schyman has written so far. The only problem with the described two pieces is their overly resonant sound, which — like in the first game — appropriately enough communicates a feeling of both vastness and loneliness, but here obscures the more voluminous sound of the cello, but also some orchestral details in "Eleanor's Lullaby". Given the excellent production values of the production, this occurrence is somewhat puzzling. It bears mention that in these two pieces, the threatening dissonant orchestral background, against which the solo instruments were pitted in the first BioShock score, almost disappear, further changing this soundtrack's atmosphere from that of its predecessor.

Another way in which BioShock's musical trademark style is twisted in the game's sequel is through the new role the solo violin takes on within the album's soundscape. Apart from a virtuoso solo in "Spliced Aphrodite", the violin mostly contributed an air of melancholy and tragedy to the proceedings on the first game's soundtrack, as mentioned before. Interestingly enough, the orchestra's principal violinist gets a similar chance to shine in BioShock 2's soundtrack: "Out The Airlock", after a calm start, with the solo violin playing against the backdrop of an ostinato glockenspiel arpeggio, erupts into a frantic allegro part, which is set against an adagio solo for cello. Overall, the track conveys the alluring mysteriousness of the ocean and the threat of its watery masses miraculously well. But this time, there are more facets to how the violin solos are deployed. This becomes most obvious in "Cell Block", which adds a wordless male choir to the orchestral palette. Starting out as a march with a very interesting syncopated rhythm and trilling trumpets, the composition becomes even more gripping when the solo violin starts sputtering a series of angry, raw, sometimes staccato notes and chords, completely shedding all pretensions of providing the track's melody, as would have been the case in BioShock. This time around, the modernist sound elements are not only to be found in the orchestral accompaniment, but instead make their way into the solo instruments' material as well. The violin solo in "Persephone", set against an initial tremolo in the deep strings, sounds more haunted than melancholic, and the same goes for the solo string instruments in "Lockdown March".

This artistic decision signals BioShock 2's readiness to explore musical areas between thorny dissonance and mourning sadness. By mellowing the dissonant orchestral accompaniment and at the same time making the solo instruments contribution more abrasive, the soundtrack is far less dominated by the tension between two musical styles which are diametrically opposed in their emotional expressiveness. Instead, the score catches the listener's attention through a more unified, still highly original style of music that lends itself better to permutations and experiments than the rather rigid (but fascinating) formula BioShock was based on. The described pieces for solo instruments are some of the highlights of the soundtrack, offering more than a fair share of sonic surprises which keep the listener engaged and enthralled. And it only gets better.

With the overall style of the album less rigidly depending on two opposite musical forces, it is better able to incorporate new instruments and sounds. And you can count on Schyman to make the most of this opportunity. He adds a number of new instruments, such as a saxophone, a flute, a piano, a glockenspiel and a harp to the score's soundscape and assigns them solo roles to greatly enhance the soundtrack's sonic variety and enables the music to express a more varied atmosphere. Especially the addition of the saxophone to the orchestral ensemble proves most inspired, considering that the instrument is hardly ever used in classical music, and how effective it proves in the way Schyman inserts it into the music's texture.

The instrument is first introduced in "Cult of Lamb", adding an equally bluesy and eerie feeling to the composition through the decidedly non-melodic, sometimes almost distorted-sounding material it plays. Although the instrument may appear an unlikely choice to represent Rapture ten years after the original game and the events taking place there now, it greatly adds to the track's mysterious — rather than horrifying — atmosphere, just like the creepy, brief sounds provided by the flute. "Grace Under The Ocean" equally benefits from the new instrumental mix in its evocation of the ocean's weight through a claustrophobic soundscape: kicking off with a steady, resonant pizzicato accompaniment by a single double bass (another invocation of blues styles on the soundtrack), the composition features a foreboding violin solo, more spectral saxophone playing, flurrying flute sounds, a slowly plodding rhythm and some orchestral dissonance far in the distance, teasing the listener, but too far removed to be graspable. BioShock 2's soundtrack hits a creative high when it pairs the layered saxophone sounds with wailing, despite the resonant acoustics surprisingly earthy female vocals on "Welcome To The Drop" and "Under The Tracks", with the vocals adding a jazzy element to the soundtrack, exploring ever new moods that still fit nicely within the soundtrack's mysterious, haunted overall atmosphere (I couldn't help but feel reminded of Pink Floyd's "The Great Gig In The Sky" when listening to those two tracks). "Welcome to the Drop" furthermore features a unusually spacious sound through amorphous, dissonant orchestral chords in the background, while "Under The Tracks" feels less oppressive due to a lack of such a dissonant orchestral backdrop. Instead, the cue relies on a rather ambient soundscape, which includes a number of sounds effects, such as a constant, light buzzing sound which wanders between the stereo speakers.

The solo harp and the glockenspiel make their presence first known on "Waking Up in 1959 (Multiplayer Main Menu)", the first instrument providing ostinato arpeggios against a dark orchestral background during the composition's threatening introduction, while the latter instrument is later set against another violin solo. Both instruments' delicate, fragile, yet foreboding sounds make them ideal additions to the score's particular soundworld and showcase how Schyman's manages to refine his formula through the addition of new instruments. Especially the glockenspiel demonstrates how Schyman still injects his compositions with the emotional ambiguity that made his score for BioShock a masterful work — only this time, he evokes this ambiguity through different means and in different shapes, deploying a bigger variety of instruments and using them in original ways and combinations. In "Drained Memories", the initial violin solo and the following interchange between the solo violin and the dissonant orchestral material is made all the more captivating through the glockenspiel accompaniment, which gives the track an emotional expressiveness that is difficult to pin down or to put into words — at least one reason why the listener will return frequently to this track. In general, the glockenspiel adds a welcome feeling of childhood and innocence to the music, but at the same time, the instrument's resigned melodies and the eerie music surrounding it suggest that these hopeful feelings are nothing but nostalgic, and that youth and innocence have been long lost.

After BioShock's showpiece extraordinaire, "Cohen's Masterpiece", Bioshock 2's only composition for solo piano, "How She Sees The World", couldn't be more different from its flashy predecessor. A simple, wandering, ascending piano line develops into a touching, subdued composition marked by light textures. However, more recording problems become obvious during this track: again, the very resonant acoustics veil part of the piano's melody, to the point that single notes almost sound distorted, highlighting the necessity for greater clarity in the recording. Additionally, at several points, one can clearly hear the performer making noises (breathing in etc.) — not the only time this occurs, since performance noises can also be heard at 1:53 in "Big Sister On The Move". Why they were kept on the soundtrack release remains open to speculation; maybe they were supposed to add immediacy and intimacy to "How She Sees The World", and listeners may perceive them this way, but I personally find them too intrusive to achieve this effect.

One of the most well-publicised differences between the two BioShock soundtracks was the later score's greater focus on combat material. While the action material in the first BioShock score was only recorded after the orchestra recording sessions had finished and the game designers realised they'd need music for the gamer's encounters with the enemies, in BioShock 2 there's a much greater number of combat tracks, and they're all fully orchestrated. On the one hand, this makes for a greater variety of moods throughout the soundtrack — at least in theory. Unfortunately, most of the action material, apart from "Protecting His Charge" and "Send Him Howling Back To Hell", is crammed together at the end of soundtrack, and when played back-to-back, these tracks reveal their similarities in sound and thematic material rather quickly. Often built either on insisting two-note crisis motifs, or rapid, descending triplets, all these cues are entertainingly frantic, and "Escape" builds to an impressive climax powered by the aforementioned triplets in the violins, metal percussion, chaotic brass and more of the wordless male choir — although the recording robs this part of the piece of some of its power through a distant, muddy sound. But ultimately, there's not much distinguishing each of these pieces, and the fact that they, like the rest of the soundtrack, tone down the dissonant elements, costs them a good part of their individuality, which — different than with most other tracks on the album — is not compensated for through the introduction of new instruments or other musical elements. To take up a comparison I made in my earlier review on BioShock's soundtrack: while that game's action scoring evoked Elliot Goldenthal's Batman scores, BioShock 2 seems to have lifted its combat tracks right out of these films' soundtracks.


Without having played the game, it is difficult to make a statement about if the soundtrack for BioShock 2 mirrors the game's narrative and location as perfectly as was the case with the first game. However, what is plainly audible is that Schyman has found the perfect balance between sticking to the soundworld he created in the original score, and adding enough new elements to make BioShock 2's score more than a expertly crafted rehash of its predecessor. He makes significant, but always tasteful changes to the original soundtrack's atmosphere and orchestral palette, which result in a more colourful score that, for the most part, is just as fascinating as the first game's music. BioShock 2's soundtrack may be slightly less unique, but it is still stylistically highly original and may actually prove more accessible to game music fans through its smaller emphasis on abrasive dissonance. The only things keeping this soundtrack from attaining the same perfect score as the first game's soundtrack are some technical quibbles regarding the sound recording, and the fact that some of the ambient and action material, while still very good, is not as stellar as the rest of the album. But these are no more than minor issues: BioShock 2 is another artistic triumph for Schyman, who in some regards indeed improves on his much-hailed previous work.

Overall Score: 9/10