Top Gear Rally Soundtrack (N64), Barry Leitch, 1997
After two generally well-received entries in the Top Gear franchise, developer Gremlin Interactive must have felt that the series needed a bit of a shakeup. That was probably correct, given Top Gear 2 had felt like an expansion pack of Top Gear – and considering that these two games didn’t look very different from Gremlin’s earlier Lotus trilogy of racing games. The result was Top Gear 3000 – the original trilogy’s black sheep, with its sci-fi trappings and weapons system. While swiftly forgotten, Top Gear 3000 kicked off the Top Gear franchise’s experimental phase. The results of this attempt to reinvent the series and keep it relevant hit the Nintendo 64 in quick succession: Top Gear Rally, Top Gear: Overdrive, Top Gear Rally 2 and Top Gear Hyper-Bike. Reviews for all these titles were reasonably strong, with critics commending Top Gear Rally for its realistic gameplay and accurate physics.
The Top Gear Rally soundtrack saw the return of a familiar name: Barry Leitch, who had scored the first two Lotus games and Top Gear in the early 1990s. The second half of the decade saw him returning to racing games with a vengeance. After Top Gear Rally, Leitch wrote two (!) unreleased soundtracks for Twisted Edge Snowboarding before penning music for Rush 2: Extreme Racing USA, California Speed and San Francisco Rush 2049. For Top Gear Rally, Leitch took an unusual approach. Rather than emulating CD-quality sound, he used 8-bit samples (“[…] probably the only N64 game ever to use [them]”, Leitch mused in an interview). Like on a 16-bit machine, the samples were produced live off the hardware. This made Top Gear Rally one of the most advanced examples of this production technique due to the N64’s comparatively advanced audio capacities and the number of samples available.
And indeed, Leitch’s approach bears fruit throughout the Top Gear Rally soundtrack – it’s one of the best-sounding scores on the Nintendo 64, with samples that are spacious, vivid and crisp. As such, they perfectly realise the music’s ambitions. These are lavishly arranged compositions that can best thrive on their dense electronic rhythm layers when rendered with clarity and power. The exception to this rule are the sometimes almost painfully distorted rock guitars – a common occurrence on the N64. However, this score’s guitar sounds are way ahead of most other soundtracks on the console that sample this instrument.
The strength of Leitch’s samples allows him to pull off his significantly less melody-focused approach, at least compared to other Top Gear scores. On a cue like “Title Screen (PAL)”, Leitch is able to let his syncopated beats carry the music for sustained periods without having to use much in the way of melodic elements to hold interest. “Mountain”, the score’s most driven and abstract cue, grabs listeners’ attention with its build-up of polyrhythmic, sometimes harsh synth lines. On this occasion, the score’s borderline grating, industrial guitar sound plays in the music’s favour – at times, it’s hard to tell whether the rough chords are synths or guitars. The added grittiness is one of the main features that sets the Top Gear Rally soundtrack apart from its franchise predecessors – fittingly so, given the grimier surroundings these cars have to race through.
While “Mountain” sees Leitch at his most rhythmically playful and adventurous, his work is never less than meticulously constructed. Just witness how he adapts his trademark staccato melody figures into something more skittish and high-strung to suit the track’s twitchy nature. He then carefully and subtly weaves the result – a nervous pulse that suddenly peaks and trails off – into the composition’s fabric.
This attention to detail is just as apparent in how Leitch structures his lengthy track, which all clock in at 6-7 minutes looped. Take “Title Screen (PAL)” – aka “Strip Mine” on the NTSC release before Leitch was asked to create a more aggressive title screen cue for the Japan and Europe versions of the game and simply recycled one of the racing cues. He develops the composition with consummate ease – first, he focuses on melodic development during the track’s first two sections. After the breakdown, the trance beats alone carry the music, contrasting with what’s come before. And once growling guitars back these beats, the music turns more and more urgent, arriving at a spectacularly powerful conclusion – before heading into the loop.
So yes, while the Top Gear Rally soundtrack is far beat-heavier than previous franchise scores and derives a fantastic amount of excitement from its dramatic rhythms, Leitch doesn’t forsake the melodicism that characterised his Lotus works and Top Gear. Instead, he finds a way to organically adapt his melodies to the faster-moving, more rugged musical environment of this score. “Jungle”’s sleek, 80s pop-inspired synth leads are a throwback to Leitch’s previous racing scores, shining like polished chrome. They soar above a rhythmic undergrowth that is very different from his earlier racing soundtracks – several layers of coarse guitars that deliver both melody leads and sludgy riffing. Leitch plays up the contrast between his gliding melodies and the monster riffs underneath to full effect. Synth choral voices add to the melody’s majestic feel, while the simple yet wonderfully effective rock drumming effortlessly propels the cue along and underlines its anthemic tendencies.
“Coastline” also uses rock drums to complement its electronic beats, but in a more creative way. Here, the drums take on a huge, pounding sound that contrasts with the complex electronics and another catchy staccato melody that once more isn’t far removed from what Leitch had written for Top Gear. However, “Coastline” ’s main melodic idea interestingly sounds like something out of Graeme Norgate’s Blast Corps, backed here by intriguingly fidgety electronics. However, Leitch’s best-developed melody arrives on final track “Desert”. As you would expect, the cue is arider and less densely arranged than other pieces, giving a ringing, steely guitar sample sufficient space to evoke the underscored location elegantly.
And then the score serves up its least Top Gear-esque melody – an introspective, tentative creation, progressing almost entirely in two- or three-note steps that usually move downwards. First, Leitch develops the melody for over a minute by splitting it across the two stereo channels and playing with call-and-response patterns. Then he actually manages to twist the initially downcast melody into a surprising statement of determination as it climbs the scale and reaches its defiant yet still passing conclusion, the notes fading away almost as soon as they’ve taken the melody to its peak. On a score that is never short of ideas, it’s the most unexpected moment and further proof that the Top Gear Rally soundtrack is capable of marrying a full-on electronic adrenaline rush with compositional elegance. Like the game itself, the Top Gear franchise’s music successfully enters a new era.
- 01 - Title (PAL) Leitch, Barry 6:20
- 02 - Coastline Leitch, Barry 6:47
- 03 - Jungle Leitch, Barry 6:50
- 04 - Mountain Leitch, Barry 6:54
- 05 - Desert Leitch, Barry 7:02