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Medal of Honor Rising Sun Original Soundtrack :: Review by Simon Elchlepp

Album Title Catalog No.
Medal of Honor Rising Sun Original Soundtrack Recording 899020
Medal of Honor Rising Sun Original Soundtrack iTunes


After previous entries into the Medal of Honor franchise had mined the European battlefields of World War II, EA Games correctly decided that it would be a good idea to make some changes to the well-worn formula. And what better time to shake things up, given that consumer goodwill towards the franchise had hit an all-time high with the best-selling Medal of Honor: Frontline. Medal of Honor: Rising Sun would then take place in the Pacific and highlight the fight between American and Japanes forces. The resulting game, however, proved to be a disappointment, yielding the franchise its first critically derided title and arguably marked the beginning of Medal of Honor's decline as the reigning king of console first person shooters. Still, probably based on the above mentioned gamer goodwill, Rising Sun sold like hotcakes and ultimately clocked in sales of more than four million.

Most of the key production personnel of the previous Medal of Honor games parted way with EA Games before development on Rising Sun began. This included composer Michael Giacchino, who to many soundtrack fans had come to define how video game scores should sound through his groundbreaking works for previous Medal of Honor titles. Not surprisingly, speculation on who should replace Giacchino — or rather who would be adequately able to do so — run rampant. In the end, the job went to a composer whom not many people had on their lists: Christopher Lennertz, who up to that point had mostly worked on television projects. However, his compositions for films like America and Saint Sinner had shown him to be capable of composing rich and dramatic music with a strong sense of patriotism.

Highlighting that EA well understood the contribution of Giacchino's orchestral music to the success of earlier Medal of Honor games, the 120-member strong Hollywood Studio Symphony was booked to record Rising Sun's score in a a first for a video game. The game's soundtrack was first available only as a promotional disc, but still made it into the hands of a number of online score reviewers, who generally greeted Lennertz' creation with much enthusiasm. Furthermore, the soundtrack netted Lennertz an award for Best Original Score at the 2004 Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences Awards. It took until 2005, however, for EA to release Rising Sun's music to the public at large as a digital download, together with a bunch of other Medal of Honor scores.


So how much of a change does Lennertz bring to the sound of the Medal of Honor universe? Well, the foundations of Rising Sun's soundtrack are the same as on Giacchino's works: a rich orchestral sound deeply steeped into late-romantic classical music stylings that are so well-known to score collectors and whose masterful application endeared Giacchino's Medal of Honor scores to many fans. Looking beyond this general similarity, there are a number of differences that give Rising Sun its individual character — for better or worse.

Lennertz was fully aware of the daunting task ahead of him: writing a score that could compare to Giacchino's stellar efforts while also breaking new ground, due to Rising Sun no longer being set in Europe and featuring a new cast of protagonists. One of the results of this shift is the fact that the much loved themes that had structured previous Medal of Honor soundtracks would take a backseat to new thematic material or disappear entirely. And so, the classic, 'old' Medal of Honor main theme is only heard once, in the final seconds of "Hymn to Brothers Lost", which closes Rising Sun's score album. The Nazi motif makes a brief, but all the more cheeky appearance in "Nazi Disguise / Shima's Speech" that in its light-heartedness pokes fun at the motif's sense of bombast displayed on Medal of Honor. And then there's the seemingly immortal Tank motif from Medal of Honor, which is heard here on "Tank March", albeit not with the primal brutality as on Medal of Honor, Underground and Frontline.

In place of these themes and motifs, Lennertz establishes a new main theme on the album's opening track "Main Titles". It's a bold and proud brass melody with a less solemn feeling than Giacchino's original theme and its mutations on later scores. More optimistic than previous main themes, Lennertz' creation exudes Americana and gung-ho patriotism from every pore, although in its in-your-face chutzpah, it's more predictable than Giacchino's main theme and also not quite as memorable. At least on "Main Titles", this doesn't matter much though, as the new theme is presented in a lavishly orchestrated track whose richness of moods and orchestral timbres stands with the best of Giacchino's Medal of Honor tracks.

Delving further into the score, it quickly becomes apparent though that Rising Sun is considerably less thematic than any of Giacchino's album-length Medal of Honor scores. For starters, no other primary theme beside the main theme is established — not even for the game's antagonist, Japanese admiral Shima. And while the Japanese forces do receive a musical representation, this is achieved through particular orchestrations, not dedicated thematic material. Considering how thematically intricate Giacchino's soundtracks for the franchise are, this development comes as a disappointment. Additionally, Lennertz' main theme doesn't make much of an impact on the score as a whole. Certainly, the melody is quoted several times, for example on the sumptuous march that is "March on the Temple" and intelligently as counterpoint to orchestral crisis motifs on "We're Hit!" But more often than not, the theme is heard only in snippets and without much effect, as evidenced by its renditions on "Natives are Restless", "Carrier Deck" and "Tanaka's Death / The Hanger". Hardly ever is the main theme given enough space to dominate the musical proceedings and in combination with its slight lack of character, its strains fail to tie the score together to the same degree as Giacchino's use of themes did.

When focusing on the score's single tracks instead of the album as a whole, however, this circumstance isn't too important though, due to the sheer amount of energy on most cue and the density of Lennertz' orchestral writing. His skills at creating enormously colourful orchestrations is at times dazzling and turns even short action cues like "PT Attack", "Saving Pearl Harbour" and "Passing the Nevada" into rip-roaring orchestral powerhouses. Elsewhere, "Elephant Battle" is a standout among battle tracks due to the prominent role Lennertz assigns to the tubas in this both playful and brusque composition. These pieces, and many other on Rising Sun, are also kept fresh through the number of twists and turns the compositions take. Rarely do more than 30 seconds pass on Rising Sun without Lennertz throwing new melodies, rhythms or orchestral layers at the listener.

While in lesser hands, such a cornucopia of musical colours and shapes might result in a jangled mess, most of the time Lennertz manages to keep things coherent and ensures that his compositions flow nicely, despite the many directions they go in. "Singapore" effortlessly builds from a stealth atmosphere, evoked by chromatic woodwind motifs and background string dissonance, into a powerful combat track that is however less melodic than other battle music in keeping with the track's initial, rather loose musical material. Later, the cue shifts to lighter, almost whimsical action music. "Stalking the Caves" starts as a romantic string andante before introducing march elements, which subside to make way for allegro string pizzicati, which are later overlaid with heroic brass lines — and that's only the track's first minute! True, not every track is a seamless listen. "Burma" somewhat jarringly switches from more action tones to a sweeping, almost dance-like string melody against woodwind and vibraphone accents, and then back again. And while the eye-winking quotation of the Nazi theme on "Nazi Disguise / Shima's Speech" will bring a smile to seasoned Medal of Honor score fans, its near-sprightliness clashes with the following, menacing brass ambiance.

But these are isolated occurrences and on a track-by-track basis, Rising Sun is never less than entertaining, with hardly a dull moment and no filler material in sight. Even those action tracks which barely breach the one minute mark are so dense that they're quite substantial compositions. Lennertz' orchestration also ensure that the various East Asian ethnic instruments used to communicate the game's Pacific setting are always included tastefully into the musical textures. Mind you, these ethnic sounds, first introduced on "Main Titles", don't imprint Rising Sun's music to the degree one might expect. Shakuhachi, koto, taiko drums, erhu and others are heard at numerous points of the score but, quite often, they only make a brief appearance and merely add colour, for example on "Singapore", "Tanaka's Death / The Hanger" and "The Sewers". On other tracks, such as "Deep in Guadal Canal", "Burma" and "Shell Shock", these world music elements are used to create moody music of an understated, yet attractive nature, usually in the form of atmospheric ethnic woodwind soli against a dissonant string backdrop or disjointed orchestral motifs. Even then, these East Asian influences are often brushed aside in the course of the tracks they're included on, usually in favour of more frenzied battle music. On "Jungle Swarm", this is quite jarringly the case when after almost three minutes of beautiful exploration of exotic sonorities, the orchestra forces its way back into the picture with more fortissimo material. All told, the ethnic elements on Rising Sun add variety to the music and provide a limited sense of location, but they aren't incorporated often enough to put their mark on the soundtrack as a whole. Ultimately then, they fail to significantly differentiate Rising Sun from previous Medal of Honor scores.

What does set Rising Sun most strongly apart from Giacchino's Medal of Honor soundtracks is glimpsed at first through a look at the album sequencing, which fits 31 tracks on a 60-minute release. Not surprisingly then, most cues on this album are on the short side and usually less than half as long as compositions on previous Medal of Honor scores. The result are a number of pieces that don't have enough time to develop and go anywhere. Witness how "Slash Temple" starts out with a promisingly propulsive motif akin to similar constructs on Medal of Honor. Only this time, the track for which the motif forms the basis is only a minute long and thus the motif simply subsides when the cue finishes, way before it is musically being worked through in any meaningful way. In conjunction with Lennertz' often frantic orchestrations and changes in direction within one piece, the listener is then confronted with a majority of cues that don't seem to follow so much their own internal musical logic, but rather sound like cinematic underscore that needs to follow every whim of the movie it accompanies. Don't expect to hear the big dramatic arcs and rewarding build-ups of Giacchino's more self-sustained Medal of Honor scores. The pleasures that Rising Sun provides are of a momentary nature and as mentioned above, it entirely succeeds in entertaining the listener on a track-by-track basis. But by the end of the album, it's difficult to shake the feeling that Rising Sun consists of a number of magnificently composed vignettes — a collection of colourful dots that don't quite come together to form one coherent image, but still an impressive sight to behold. All these weaknesses — a certain lack of personality due to the spare use of the score's main theme and its ethnic material, the short running time of most cues, and the fact that most compositions are action tracks and thus stylistically quite uniform — ultimately lead to the different compositions blurring into each other.

In all fairness though, some tracks do offer satisfying developments. The initial atmosphere of Americana in "Philippines / Zero Attack", provided by a noble trumpet solo against warm strings, is most effectively interrupted by rude brass interjections and circling violin crisis motifs. And penultimate track "Take Off / Finale" adds wordless choir to the turbulent orchestral material to work its way to an adequately spectacular climax. Also, Lennertz does help matters by crafting some emotional compositions that heighten the score's sense of drama. It's particularly on these pieces that the choir makes itself heard, adding solemnity to "Requiem for the California" and "A Prisoner's Eulogy". Both tracks are elegiac compositions, carried mainly by the strings and wordless choir, and they certainly feel appropriately dignified, without reaching the breathtaking quasi-operatic heights of "Arnhem" and "After the Drop". The album's final track, "Hymn to Brothers Fallen" is stylistically similar and does its title justice. While the melodic material for the choir isn't particularly creative here either, the piece turns out to be the soundtrack's most moving composition and closes the album on a high note.


Filling in what were some of the biggest boots in video game music history, Lennertz tackles the challenge at hand with unbridled enthusiasm and turns his first Medal of Honor score into a success. He successfully balances the conflicting demands of staying close enough to the franchise's established sound and providing a new musical perspective for the game's new setting. Hewing closer than Giacchino's works to cinematic score conventions, Lennertz' compositions brim with energy and are chock full of orchestral details and colour. There's hardly time for the listener to catch breath, so dense and action-oriented are most of the soundtrack's pieces. Some skillfully integrated East Asian influences provide relief from the splendid orchestral onslaught.

On a more superficial level then, Rising Sun is a thrilling listen. However, once one looks beyond the qualities of single tracks and instead at the album as a whole, some of the music's weaknesses become obvious. Many tracks are too short to develop their ideas and try to cover this over by constantly throwing new musical ideas at the listener. Also, the score's new, slightly anemic, main theme and the East Asian elements don't impact as much on the score as they should to provide it with a stronger sense of identity. Medal of Honor: Rising Sun succeeds as a collection of many barnstorming moments, but it doesn't offer the rewarding listening experience more unified works like Giacchino's Medal of Honor soundtracks provided. But make no mistake, Rising Sun is a strong entry into the series of Medal of Honor soundtracks and never less than an entertaining listen.

Overall Score: 7/10