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Medal of Honor Underground Original Soundtrack :: Review by Simon Elchlepp

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


After EA Games had landed an astounding critical and commercial success with Medal of Honor, a sequel was only a matter of time, especially with this particular publisher. Work on a new title in the fledgling franchise began immediately and less than a year after the release of Medal of Honor, Medal of Honor: Underground made its way onto store shelves in October 2000. Fortunately, it was another quality effort, again greeted with enthusiasm by critics and gamers, ensuring that a new franchise was born indeed. Keeping in tune with Medal of Honor's premise of pushing the thematic boundaries of its genre, Underground introduced another novelty to the world of first-person shooters. Not only would the game be (relatively) historically accurate, but it also featured a female protagonist: Manon Batiste, based on real life French resistance fighter Helene Deschamps Adams.

Michael Giacchino's excellent work on Medal of Honor had justifiably created a ruckus not only within the circles of game soundtrack collectors, but also in the score community at large and had alerted many soundtrack fans to the creative potential of game scores. There was never a doubt then that Giacchino would return for Underground. Creating the score to Underground in just thirty days, Giacchino again worked together with the Northwest Sinfonia, this time 75 members strong, and also with a local boys choir of about 25 singers. And as with Medal of Honor, Underground received a lavish album release that puts most other scores releases to shame, with words from the composer and album's producer, plus track by track commentary. Unfortunately, this physical album release is now out of print, but Underground remains available from all major music download stores, minus a one-minute bonus track that was included on the physical album.


After Medal of Honor took the soundtrack world by surprise, the pressure was on Giacchino to deliver a worthy successor that would live up to the high standard the first instalment had set. But not only that: after Medal of Honor stylistically had strayed very close to John Williams' work for the Indiana Jones films, Underground would show if Giacchino possessed an artistic voice of his own, or if his success with the first game had 'only' been a matter of superbly recreating a successful formula. Fortunately, Underground proved that Giacchino was in no way a one-trick pony.

After taking into consideration the change of location and protagonist from Medal of Honor to Underground, Giacchino and the game's producers justifiably decided to discard Medal of Honor's main theme for this instalment. In its place, Giacchino wrote a new theme for Manon that was tailored to her national background and her personal view of the struggle against the Nazi forces. What is carried over from the previous score, however, is the imposing Nazi theme in order to highlight that "the Nazi element was to be a global threat in the ongoing Medal of Honor series", according to Giacchino. The distinctive theme even gets to open to the soundtrack on "May 10th, 1940 (Main Theme)". Given that it was in fact the Nazi theme that came to dominate Medal of Honor's soundtrack, it was certainly the right decision to include it in Underground's soundtrack and make it the one element that tied both scores together. This mix of old and new themes also represents a good balance between thematic continuity and fresh elements that give Underground's score its individual flavour.

What then of the new main theme? From a structural point of view, the theme displays Giacchino's increasing compositional sophistication. Each Jimmy Patterson and Manon Batiste are represented through two musical ideas that either represent a general sense of patriotism, or the their more intimate feelings and emotions as individual soldiers facing the enemy. The difference lies in how this dual nature is conveyed musically. On Medal of Honor, Jimmy's two themes were separate entities without any smaller-scale motifs or other musical structures tying them together. On Underground, Manon's two themes actually develop out of the same musical cell, an ascending two-note motif. After these two notes, variation "A" of the main theme, as Giacchino has referred to it in interviews, leads into a Major key and conveys a feeling of national purpose, similar to Medal of Honor's main theme, albeit less solemn and clad in lusher orchestral tones. Variation "B" of the main theme, on the other hand, leads into a minor 6th chord, ending on a more thoughtful note. According to Giacchino, the reason for this structure of the main theme was that he "wanted a theme that could convey one emotion at a particular moment, and then a completely different emotion the next without having to rely on two completely different themes." And he certainly succeeds: the two variations of the theme are similar enough to increase the thematic coherency of the score, but at the same time they're sufficiently different to establish their own identity and communicate the appropriate mood. This ingenious musical construct is complemented by what the CD liner notes call the 'resolve theme', a swelling, ostinato two-note motif that "represent the moments where Manon is called upon to steel her nerves and gather the courage to continue on with the fight." (Giacchino) The motif is simple, but suits its purpose all the better for it, given that it's supposed to represent Manon's determination to carry on in the chaos of battle — something a longer-winded melodic line might have had trouble conveying.

All these thematic elements are presented on the opening track "May 10th, 1940 (Main Theme)". And not only does the cue introduce the new themes, but it also heralds the new emotional direction that this score will be taking. After the furore of the Nazi theme has subsided, a lyrical horn melody is heard against harp accompaniment — sounds that were unheard of on Medal of Honor. Soon, the horn is joined by an accordion, which is not exactly an original way of alluding to the game's Paris setting, but it gets the job done without sounding overly hackneyed. These luscious orchestral sounds prepare the listener well for the proud and romantic strains of variation "A", which is heard on violins. The compositions turns even more colourful when the delicate voices of the boys choir chime in. Giacchino chose the choir "to portray the innocence of a country taken over by evil" and the young boys' gentle sounds certainly form an emotionally charged juxtaposition to the violence of the Nazi theme, particularly later on "The Battle of Monte Cassino". The piece closes with a rendition of the main theme's "B" variation on solo cello, another instrumentational choice that sets the score for Underground apart from its predecessor.

The characteristics exhibited by this opening track are found throughout the soundtrack. After the orchestral assault on the senses that Medal of Honor was, Underground sees Giacchino greatly expanding the emotional range of his compositions and developing a more individual artistic voice. Not only are the compositions on Underground richer in orchestral colours, but also more subdued and varied in their mood. Certainly, Medal of Honor knew very well when to tone the action down a little bit and integrated stealth elements into the music. But on Underground, these elements become far more dominant than ever before. And this is only suiting, considering that the music underscores the actions of the French resistance, who couldn't hope to beat the Nazis forces through open confrontation, but instead had to rely on covert operations and hiding in the shadows.

This new stylistic direction is most obvious on "Streets of Paris", whose strains accompany Manon's secret journey through Nazi-infested Paris, hidden in a truck. Appropriately, the music is understated and evokes a constant sense of dread and tension through its eerie violin glissandi and buzzing, chaotic string notes, while the musical material is the most fragmented of the whole Medal of Honor franchise so far. However, the composition demonstrates that when going for sparser textures, Giacchino very occasionally strips down his pieces too much. As a result, "Streets of Paris" for most of its running time feels like merely efficient atmospheric underscore that doesn't do much to entice interest on a stand-alone base. That is, until the piece erupts into an unexpected return of the Nazi theme when the truck in which Manon's brother lies hiding is blown to pieces by the Nazis. This outburst of tragedy is answered by a rendition of the "A" variation that is both passionate and despairing, and emotionally immensely powerful. An altogether more rounded and satisfying result of Giacchino's more atmospheric approach follows right after with "Among the Dead". Again, the mood is eerie, but this time, the composition doesn't rely mainly on the same instrumental group. Instead, it deploys alternately spooky and ethereal choir, ominously pounding timpani and foreboding metal percussion in the background. Showcasing the resourcefulness of his orchestrations, Giacchino quotes its "B" variation on noble horns against atonal strings and soft female choir. The composition continues to pitch its melodic material against the unsettling orchestral backdrop and creates an aural tapestry that's as rich and fitting as the album's opening cue. "Passage to Iraklion" conjures an equally portentous mood, partially again by contrasting the "B" variation with a threatening, albeit this time more restrained orchestral backdrop. The track is noteworthy for its rendition of the Nazi theme on quiet woodwinds for a change, and for the way the composition blossoms in its second half into richer, string-heavy textures.

Despite all this introspection, this is of course still the score for a first-person shooter and as was to be expected, Giacchino delivers first-rate action material in spades. To his immense credit, he injects his battle tunes with the same sensibilities as his quieter compositions and keeps the score's sound coherent. "Fleeing the Catacombs" is the album's first action track and displays the same hallmarks that characterise the whole album: greater changes in dynamics and orchestration than on Medal of Honor and a leaner overall sound. Like on Medal of Honor, the action cues are effectively variations on a sub motif that's stated at the beginning of each piece. But on "Fleeing the Catacombs", this motif is rather a theme — a melody that's considerably more tuneful than the sub motifs on Medal of Honor. And while the piece is driven forward by string ostinati just like its brethren on Medal of Honor, the strings' rhythmic impetus is hardly as relentless as on the previous score. While a cue like "Fleeing the Catacombs" might then lack the sheer punch of let's say "The Radar Train", it makes up for this through its greater sonic variety and lighter sound that gives single instruments more room to breath and climaxes the chance to truly stand out. To hear an example of this, witness the intertwining renditions of the sub motif of "Fleeing the Catacombs" on several solo instruments at the track's beginning, and the gushing reprise of the same melody that closes the piece in truly cinematic fashion. The same light touch is applied to "Escape from Casablanca", which like Medal of Honor's "Rjuken Sabotage" is effectively a scherzo, but is far less overpowering than that earlier composition. Tinged with Mediterranean touches in the percussion section and through some characteristic string chord progressions, "Escape from Casablanca" is constructed around a bouncy motif that, even when quoted on brass, is rather energetic than imposing. Don't get this wrong: this music is still exceedingly well-composed and will get your pulse racing, yet it just does so with different means than Medal of Honor did. And if you still crave for the sound of that score's action material, "Beneath the City" will quench your thirst with its constantly full-on, thickly scored bravado.

If anybody still doubts after these tracks that Giacchino's action writing still yields outstanding results despite his new approach should be pointed to "The Motorcycle Chase", the album's most stirring action track. Comparisons to William's "Scherzo for Motorcycle and Orchestra" from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade will be inevitable, but as with "Rjuken Sabotage" on Medal of Honor, the fact that Giacchino manages to create an equally mercurial composition as the maestro is worthy of praise. The way the cue's rhythmic sub motif is seamlessly combined with quotes of the "A" variation and the Nazi theme is impressive and the vivid sounds of the pizzicato strings that accompany the motif's first rendition demonstrate the album's exemplary recording. The composition's development includes a passage for thunderous, unaccompanied percussion forces before the cue grows more and more frantic with ever thicker textures until at last, the resolve motif leads into the score's most triumphant reprise of the "A" variation against turbulent counterpoint — a moment of boisterous orchestral bliss. The other track that dramatically highlights Giacchino's prowess as a composer is "Panzer Blockade", the most impressive composition on Underground when it comes to the use of musical themes. Not only does the cue briefly allude to the menacing, lumbering material from Medal of Honor's "Panzer Attack" before developing its own aggressive four-note brass motif to represent the steel beasts. "Panzer Blockade" also showcases how the different variations of the main theme, together with the resolve motif, can build a gripping dramatic arc within a composition and give insight into the mind and emotions of the game's protagonist. After a yearning quotation of the "B" variation on solo trumpet against a hammering orchestral backdrop, the music segues into the resolve motif on swelling strings that keep on building. Despite being mercilessly attacked by other instrumental groups, the motif finally erupts into a rendition of the "A" variation, showing how Manon has overcome her fears and found her will to fight the overwhelming enemy forces.

The greater orchestral palette of the soundtrack isn't only highlighted by the lush romanticism of "May 10th, 1940 (Main Theme)" and the Mediterranean strains of "Escape from Casablanca" and "Labyrinth of the Minotaur". Giacchino's attempt at creating more atmospheric compositions particularly finds its outlet in "Last Rites" and "The Battle of Monte Cassino". Both pieces are departures from the composer's signature style up to this point, yet still neatly fit into Underground's score. Taking inspiration from chorales by Johann Sebastian Bach and 5th century Italian monastic chants to mirror its location of an Italian monastery taken over by the Germans, "Last Rites" successfully captures a sense of divine calm. Its dark opening string chord progressions do recall Medieval music via 20th composer Henryk Gorecki and underscore the solemnity of the place, before the piece opens up with a surging violin melody and a return of the boy choir. Still, the feeling of serenity remains under threat through dissonant string chords lurking in the background. The following track "The Battle of Monte Cassino" weaves the heavenly sound of the boy choir into an action track that returns to the massive sounds of Medal of Honor, but this time increases the music's emotional impact through the contrast between floating choir vocals and flurrying orchestral surroundings. This battle between musical forces makes "The Battle of Monte Cassino" one of the album's highlights, particularly when the spine-tingling boy choir is set against brass outbursts at 2:52. Additionally, the music's heightened drama further realises one of the aims Giacchino had already pursued with Medal of Honor: to present World War II not as a mindless shooting spree, but to make sure the gamer is emotionally invested in the fate of the game's protagonist.

As on Medal of Honor, the album ends with a couple of pieces what are effectively bonus tracks. Again, we find a variation of the album's opening track that offers no significant changes. And again, the listener gets a period-style original composition, in this case "Each Night He Comes to Me". The track's written in the style of a 1940s chanson that one would have heard in Germany and France at the time. The song's lyrics tell the story of a woman who recalls her happy life with her husband who has fallen in battle, but still haunts her in her sleep. The female vocalist's slightly husky tones beautifully emulate the style of a 1940s chanson with its elegantly controlled melodrama and the relatively sparse orchestration tastefully complements the vocal melody. While the period jazz at the end of Medal of Honor felt tacked on, Underground already featured more atmospheric and pensive compositions before "Each Night He Comes to Me" turns up on the soundtrack's playlist. Its melancholy sounds then actually feel like a genuine piece of the soundtrack and not like a jarring inclusion. It remains debatable why a German singer was chosen for a song with English lyrics when the game is centered on a French female protagonist, but this doesn't change the fact that the cue is a quite touching close to the soundtrack. And the song's German version "Er lässt mich niemals allein (OSS Radio Broadcast)" even improves on the song's original version, due to slightly less clumsy lyrics, which were probably first penned in German and then translated into English.


Medal of Honor: Underground impressively proves Giacchino's versatility. In no way a simple rehash of Medal of Honor, Underground still offers pulse-pounding action cues, but at the same time adds a swash of new moods and colours. Cues like "Among the Dead" and "Last Rites" are haunting compositions that display Giacchino's talent at crafting more introspective and atmospheric pieces, which always maintain the listener's interest. This greater variety carries over into the action tracks as well, which are just as exciting as those on Medal of Honor, while allowing for greater contrasts and changing dynamics. Giacchino's handling of thematic material remains highly impressive and continues to set a benchmark for other game scores, orchestral or not. And while Underground may take a couple more spins than Medal of Honor to reveal all facets of its more understated nature, the listener is amply rewarded with compositions full of intriguing nuances and emotional highlights like "The Battle of Monte Cassino". Ultimately, Medal of Honor: Underground shows Giacchino immensely growing as a composer and feeling confident enough to not constantly overwhelm the listener for impact, but instead let quieter tones do the talking.

Overall Score: 9/10