Dead Space 2 Soundtrack, Jason Graves, 2011
“The Same. But Different. Yet Better.” According to Jason Graves, those were the words that he stuck above his monitor when composing Dead Space 2. Considering the success of Dead Space’s aural aspects – two BAFTAs and a degree of media attention few game scores ever achieve – Grave’s goal was no doubt an ambitious one. Then again, no matter how ferocious Dead Space’s soundtrack was, there was room for improvement. Graves’ breakthrough work was the equivalent of a horror movie that tries to scare its audience with jump scare after jump scare. And at some stage, watching monsters leap at the protagonist for yet another “boo!” effect gets old.
Fortunately, Graves fixes this and other issues on the Dead Space 2 soundtrack. It is still unmistakably the soundtrack for a very scary game. But at the same time, through a more varied approach to creating unease and immersion, Dead Space 2 clearly surpasses its predecessor. It delivers a surprisingly multi-faceted exploration of the dark corridors of both a haunted space station and of its protagonist Isaac Clarke’s disintegrating mind.
Grave’s creativity and his improved judgment on how to let his music achieve maximum emotional effect are demonstrated right from the start on “Isaac, Are You There?”. Graves implements one key ingredient that allows his music to register with much greater impact than before – contrast. To put it in his words: “It’s the tonal versus the non-tonal, the calm versus the chaos.” And so, “Isaac, Are You There?” opens with the mournful sounds of a string quartet whose grip on tonality soon crumbles, giving way to tortured dissonances.
Arguably, the string quartet doesn’t appear as often on the Dead Space 2 soundtrack as the score’s more traditional components. However, these introspective interludes are of utmost importance to pace the album and they never fail to impress. They’re emotionally powerful, creepy and touchingly communicate Isaac’s loneliness. The first Dead Space didn’t have much more than the threat of someone being swallowed by the terrifying unknown. Now, Dead Space 2 makes us care about that someone.
This sort of emotional involvement is also anchored in the improved pacing of the album’s acidic action pieces. Sample a track like “Titan Station Elementary”, found on the soundtrack’s Collector’s Edition release. Its strategy to open with something decidedly non-horror related – a children’s song – and slowly move from innocence to terror all the more effectively is hardly new. But this measured approach is where Dead Space 2 triumphs over Dead Space and its nearly constant hyperactivity.
It helps these dynamic contrasts immeasurably that Graves’ writing for piano passages has much improved since Dead Space. Now these quieter sections are mesmerising and retain a sense of eeriness so that listeners’ attention never flags. “The Cassini Towers” only requires echoing bell strikes to shape an unfathomable space, before vocals intensify the music’s unsettling mood. Disembodied voices and whispered, indistinguishable words uttered from a close distance evoke tangible, yet uncontrollable dread that erupts into a violent orchestral outburst.
These engrossing stretches of relative calm form a foil against which the frenzy of Dead Space 2‘s action pieces can unfold even better. While fragile, this time Isaac is more in control than in the first game. Consequently, the action tracks on the Dead Space 2 soundtrack are less chaotic and more rhythmically focused than before. On Dead Space, the music often created a head-spinning effect by going in several different directions at once. This time, the pieces’ rhythmic foundation is steadier and more dominant to give the music a recognisable forward drive. Dead Space 2’s action tracks feel like hammers wrapped in barbwire, barbaric unisono rhythms mercilessly striking again and again.
Such rhythmic focus is the hallmark of much anemic contemporary soundtrack writing. Graves’ immense achievement here is to make this sort of thumping action music exciting. Often enough, his combat pieces have the confidence to simply rely on the sheer brutal force of their rhythms. Key to these compositions’ success is the fact that the chords which the orchestra hammers out with manic focus are fiercely dissonant and visceral. Even if this is music that doesn’t dazzle like its predecessor, its uncompromising focus is even more exciting. Rather than constantly trying to stun listeners with disorienting orchestral mayhem, Graves is happy to achieve more with less. And he does so in brutally effective fashion.
And when a funereal rendition of Isaac’s theme concludes the Collector’s Edition’s version of closing track “Lacrimosa” – one of Western game music’s most emotionally and harmonically complex pieces – Graves reveals that he has managed to move all the pieces of the puzzle into the right position to make the Dead Space 2 soundtrack both terrifying and emotionally devastating. It’s an achievement of rare maturity and easily Graves’ career highlight.
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This playlist is a curated selection of music from the soundtrack albums.
- 01 - Isaac, Are You There? Jason Graves 5:16
- 02 - Padded Room with a View Jason Graves 3:11
- 03 - Hospital Escape Jason Graves 2:21
- 04 - Much Ado About Necromorphs Jason Graves 4:36
- 05 - Canonical Aside Jason Graves 1:56
- 06 - Administering Control Jason Graves 2:46
- 07 - The Cassini Towers Jason Graves 3:59
- 08 - Fear of Flying Jason Graves 4:03
- 09 - It Had to be Unitology Jason Graves 5:16
- 10 - Isaac Get Your Gun Jason Graves 1:49
- 11 - Titan Station Elementary Jason Graves 3:45
- 12 - East of the Sun and West of the Solar Array Jason Graves 2:09
- 13 - Awesome Hulk Jason Graves 4:14
- 14 - Start Spreading the Limbs Jason Graves 2:31
- 15 - You Got Nill Jason Graves 4:13
- 16 - The Government Sector Jason Graves 2:41
- 17 - I Only Have Eyes For You Jason Graves 5:01
- 18 - You Got to My Head Jason Graves 4:14
- 19 - Convergence Delayed Jason Graves 3:46
- 20 - Lacrimosa Jason Graves 8:11