IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey Soundtrack, Jeremy Soule, 2009
IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey arrived at the tail end of the World War II game genre’s huge popularity. As such, game music fans had witnessed many different approaches to underscoring this most devastating of armed conflicts. Especially Michael Giacchino‘s oeuvre had been a potent display of how to put war into music in various ways.
Jeremy Soule hadn’t worked on a WWII game before Birds of Prey and the same year’s Order of War. However, his fantastic action material on Total Annihilation had a militaristic ferocity and soaring momentum that made him a logical choice to score a flight combat game such as Birds of Prey. True, the game itself didn’t add anything new video games’ depiction of the clash between Allied and Axis forces. However, Soule’s IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey soundtrack found an approach both novel and rooted in the composer’s previous works.
What Soule attempts is to monumentalise the conflict he’s underscoring – even more so than Giacchino’s Medal of Honor: Frontline. In many of his previous scores, Soule displayed his classical ambitions, realised to varying degrees of success. The IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey soundtrack is Soule’s most obvious attempt to write a score in reference of classical music’s great masters. It’s a very lofty ambition, particularly for an artist whose oeuvre is characterised so often by atmospheric meanderings. However, Soule pulls off this unexpected feat and writes a work of astounding weight and import.
From “The Engagement” onwards, Soule shows that he is far more interested in achieving a sense of overwhelming awe and grandeur, rather than putting into sound the dizzying motion of combat planes darting through the skies (something that Giacchino’s Secret Weapons Over Normandy was concerned with). Birds of Prey moves at a comparatively slow pace, not trying to impress through agitated energy. Instead, it establishes a majestic presence that feels unstoppable in its heroic might. Such monumentalism comes with its own set of dangers though, as the border separating the sublime and the ridiculous is thin. Thankfully, Soule manages to stay on the right side of the divide.
What precisely is the shape of the classically-inspired sound Soule aims to emulate? Interestingly, on Birds of Prey he deviates from most other ambitious orchestral game soundtracks. These often dazzle with their complexity, be in their textures, themes or other areas. Soule walks down a different path. He bases the majority of the IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey soundtrack on constantly churning string ostinato rhythms. On top of these, he layers positively towering brass fanfares and melodies, interspersed with beautiful woodwind interludes. It’s an approach clearly derived from Anton Bruckner’s symphonies, whose influence is most clearly felt on “Theatre of the Delusionary”.
This method is a risky one to adopt. In the wrong hands, it could easily result in monotonous, dreary orchestral bombast. And it’s precisely here that Soule triumphs, as he manages to mimic his role models to perfection. In the way these compositions shape their motifs, melodies, rhythms and harmonic progressions, they do sound like the real deal – romantic orchestral works written for the concert hall.
While Birds of Prey lets the brass do almost all of the heavy lifting, this focus never becomes an issue. Soule manages to call upon a never-ending supply of genuinely rousing material. Actually, on few game soundtracks does the brass section get to shine as much as here. The difference is staggering when comparing the quality of the brass writing here to that of many Remote Control-inspired game scores, where this instrument group is often called upon to evoke drama and gravitas in disappointingly lazy fashion. The IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey soundtrack is nothing less than a master class in how to write for brass.
For proof of the enormous effect that Soule’s approach yields, head straight to “Valor and Triumph”. The piece confronts the listener with what might be the most memorable and bold theme of Soule’s career. His supremely powerful invention is a proud brass melody that has the force of a battering ram. “Valor and Triumph”, in its tremendous sweep achieved through its tidal rise and fall, points to another characteristic of classical music that Soule smartly adopts here: an unwavering sense of careful, unhurried development.
While Soule’s patience characterises the entire album, “Code of Honor” is the best demonstration of this virtue. The track builds over its entire running time from a faint choral opening and tentative French horn melody. It gradually becomes more and more emotional, before it reaches a solemn, deeply-felt climax. “Theatre of the Delusionary” paces itself equally well, quieting down after its thunderous start and building again. Still, the piece delays the big pay-off until the composition’s very end, to cathartic effect.
With this magnificently realised feeling for development also comes a true sense of dynamism, as Soule clearly realises that evocations of musical bombast also need downtimes to make their full impact. There are many examples of when Birds of Prey‘s robust action cues realise it’s best to temporarily quieten down. Take “The Hunt”, which surprises with tender passages for solo cello. It’s yet another example of the chances Soule is willing to take on this album, and the heights to which they can propel his work when he’s at his best.
This playlist is a curated selection of music from the soundtrack album.
- 01 - IL-2 Sturmovik March Jeremy Soule 3:29
- 02 - The Engagement Jeremy Soule 3:28
- 03 - The Hunt Jeremy Soule 4:05
- 04 - Code of Honor Jeremy Soule 4:34
- 05 - Rain Ghosts Jeremy Soule 3:30
- 06 - The Great Death Mistress Jeremy Soule 3:13
- 07 - Theater of the Delusionary Jeremy Soule 5:28
- 08 - Chariots of Endearment Jeremy Soule 3:16
- 09 - Hammer of Defeat Jeremy Soule 2:41
- 10 - Valor and Triumph Jeremy Soule 4:45
- 11 - Lament for a Pilot Jeremy Soule 1:04
- 12 - Victory Jeremy Soule 0:41