Total Annihilation Soundtrack, Jeremy Soule, 1997
There’s no doubt that real-time strategy games peaked in popularity during the second half of the 1990s. Their commercial success was kickstarted by the hugely popular Command & Conquer and Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness. For a few years, RTS games were all the rage (not that the genre is dead now). As a result, a glut of similarly-themed products soon hit the shelves. Differentiation – either by quality, innovation or style – became paramount for more ambitious developers.
Total Annihilation was the lucky case of differentiation through all those three markers. It didn’t rewrite the rule book, but made many tweaks that updated genre conventions in smart ways. And while its look wasn’t too different from the hordes of Command & Conquer clones, its music easily stood out. For that, gamers could thank Jeremy Soule, who back in 1997 wasn’t yet the star composer he is now. To set the game apart, Soule proposed a live orchestral soundtrack – nearly unheard of in 1997.
It was a gamble that paid off. Reviewers and gamers praised the Total Annihilation soundtrack and it’s easy to see why Soule’s work met with such enthusiasm. Total Annihilation doesn’t waste a second and dives head first into the action. From the moment “Brutal Battle” kicks off with a propulsive brass motif that sounds like the starting gun to a fierce space battle, it’s obvious that Soule’s idea to write a Star Wars-style score was an inspired choice, realised with immense amounts of panache and verve.
Indeed, the Total Annihilation soundtrack plays like music underscoring hundreds of spaceships whizzing furiously past each other. What it doesn’t really sound like is two lumbering armies clashing in battle. But that Total Annihilation is more dramatic than almost any other RTS score is also its greatest asset. After all, it’s hard to imagine music that could get gamers fired up more effectively for combat.
Total Annihilation is clearly the work of a young composer seizing with unbridled enthusiasm the opportunity to write for live orchestra (it’s worth pointing out that this soundtrack could hardly be more different in tone to Soule’s previous major work Secret of Evermore). The score’s first half is a constant hotbed of orchestral activity. It’s led by wonderfully frenetic brass material that balances the music’s potentially oppressive martial character with moments of soaring heroism. The sheer amount of orchestral activity can be quite dazzling in its restless motion. Breathlessly cascading strings and an endless supply of cymbal crashes lend frenzied rhythmic support to the brass melodies and fanfares.
It’s an exhausting listen, but in the best possible way. After each track, you’ll first need to catch your breath and reflect on the whirlwind that has just passed. The fact that Total Annihilation‘s action tracks are on the short side does nothing to diminish their appeal. There is so much happening within these two-minute compositions that few listeners will find reason to complain.
None of this is to suggest that Soule’s approach here lacks finesse or subtlety. Just when the brass motif that opens “Brutal Battle” threatens to turn monotonous, Soule changes the piece’s direction seamlessly by throwing in one of the most triumphant melodies of his career, before making a piano the main protagonist during the track’s middle section. Throughout the Total Annihilation soundtrack, xylophone or piano double the brass lines, adding colour – not weight – to keep textures agile.
“Ambush in the Passage” begins at a more dignified, calm pace before revving up the tempo, while “The March Unto Death” exemplifies Soule’s classical inspirations most clearly and in striking fashion. The track begins with a string melody and rhythmic support figure reminiscent of a symphonic, early Beethoven-era Allegro. Soule manages to perfectly combine this unexpected stylistic choice with the late-romantic orchestral furor surrounding this segment.
However, it is impossible to fully discuss the Total Annihilation soundtrack without mentioning its second half. It’s here where listeners find the music written for quieter moments. Soule translates these occasions into dreary dirges, featuring little in terms of melodies, instead relying on pained, uninspired textural work. It’s a jarring transition, leaving no emotional middle ground between undisputed victory and utter defeat and desolation. The terribly artificial, hollow sound of the high-pitched, sustained string chords ruling most of these compositions doesn’t help. Just sample the strings on “Licking Wounds”, which sound like a faint imitation of the real thing.
As a whole then, the Total Annihilation soundtrack is a frustrating experience. However, its first half is a thrill ride, full of unfailingly rousing, enthusiastic music of outstanding quality that ultimately makes the score impossible to ignore. Just look past the album’s downcast mumblings and enjoy 16 minutes of some of the most rambunctious action music ever written for a video game.
- 01 - Brutal Battle Jeremy Soule 3:23
- 02 Fire and Ice Jeremy Soule 1:14
- 03 - Attack!!! Jeremy Soule 2:35
- 04 - Warpath Jeremy Soule 2:00
- 05 - The March Unto Death Jeremy Soule 2:40
- 06 - Ambush in the Passage Jeremy Soule 2:25
- 07 - Forest Green Jeremy Soule 2:18
While this is a great review of a truly great soundtrack, I feel the need to address some of the criticism leveled at the duality of the soundtrack, which stems from how the soundtrack was incorporated into the game. While TA was not the first game to use CD Redbook, nor was it the first game to have dynamic music, it was one of the first to incorporate both concepts. While playing the game, the engine would decipher how much “activity” was going on in the game, and had an index of the tracks by activity level. It knew that the most battle-heavy tracks were 1-4, and that the least were 12-16, etc. It would then, at the end of playing a track, determine how much activity was happening and select the next track out of the corresponding grouping. Ergo, the soundtrack was arranged on the disc based on a game engine parameter, and not for ease-of-listening as as whole musical collection, as this author is criticizing.
This also brought about a very unique quirk of the game; once you were in battle, all of the on-disc assets were already loaded, meaning you could safely remove the disc. If you did so, you would simply have a no-music game. Or, perhaps more interestingly, you could then insert your own music CD, and the game would happily carry on executing the same activity parameter based track selecting. If you really wanted to, you could even make your own playlists based on activity level and follow the template of the original soundtrack.
Simon Elchlepp says
Firstly, thanks so much for such an insightful comment! I wasn’t aware that Total Annihilation combined Redbook audio and a dynamic score in this really creative way – thank you for all that information.
You are correct in that the review (and arguably the whole website) looks at game music in a context it wasn’t written for – outside of the game and on a standalone basis. Lots has been written about the pros and cons of this approach – my main reason to choosing it is feasibility (as it would be impossible for me to play all the games I’m reviewing the music for, to appreciate the music in-context). I’m definitely aware that the approach I’ve taken ultimately has its drawbacks and that my reviews are just one way of looking at the music – but hopefully they still generate some good insights. On a side note: I really like the concept behind Total Annihilation’s dynamic music that you describe, although it still feels like the music is either really busy or really subdued – there don’t seem to be many gradations going from one extreme to the other.
Dynamic music in games represents a really interesting conundrum when trying to discuss it outside of the game (in a similar way as one discusses say movie soundtracks). Arguably, dynamic music is where game scores can really establish their unique nature, setting themselves apart from their forebears (again, movie soundtracks etc.) However, it’s also really hard to discuss such music outside of the game context, because the dynamic nature of the score is of course completely lost. To some degree that’s maybe also why there are often complaints about more recent game music being less memorable/melodic etc. Maybe that’s because the music was written to work well in a context where it needs to be able to change at any time and adapt to what’s happening on screen (not suggesting that dynamic music can’t be memorable – but it’s hard to write long, expressive melody lines for your piece if you need it to switch direction at the drop of a hat).
Lots of food for thought… thanks again for raising all these salient points!
Tristan Blanchard says
Total Annihilation blew my mind for two reasons, while discovering the game as a kid.
One, the full 3D graphics, never seen in a RTS game before (maybe I am wrong on this one, but at least that’s how it was advertised in France, back in 1997).
Second, the soundtrack. I was already aware of the composition of classical music in video games at the time (the HoMM and Wing Commander series, to name a few), but to hear some in a RTS game was totally new for me. I was more used to the groovy-pretentious (in a good way) tunes from Command and Conquer, or the epic-medieval scores from Warcraft II. I soon found the idea to be totally awesome. Actually, this soundtrack made me realise that I liked classical music as much as any other genre (it was kinda hard to admit back then, for a twelve year-old kid^^).
I must say I agree with David, and his comment about the more peaceful tracks. I think they blend very well into the game, when the pace slows down a bit. Except that If I remember correctly, the transitions between the two styles were sometimes quite sharp, cutting a score at the worst possible moment with a fast fade out. You almost wanted to make a battle last longer, just to hear the end of the track ^^
That being said, the tracklist order of the soundtrack feels odd. I would have imagined a pattern like “One brutal track, one quiet track, one brutal track…” and so on. Maybe this would have better reflected the in-game ambience (battle, then repairs and new constructions, then another battle…). Or maybe not.
Simon Elchlepp says
Thank you as always for your thoughtful comment and for sharing your personal experience with the game. That’s great to hear that Jeremy Soule’s plan of setting the game apart by using a live-orchestral soundtrack worked! I imagine that for many Western gamers playing Total Annihilation, it would have been the first time they heard a orchestra in a video game and it would have made a big impression. Also, that’s a wonderful story that the score helped you discover classical music! Often, people find their way to classical music via film scores (Excalibur, in my case) – but of course, these days games will be just as important in familiarising young people with classical music.
Thank you also on your comment on how the calmer tracks play in-game. You’re pointing out a really interesting conundrum that is particularly relevant to the earlier days of gaming when interactive sound engines were fairly primitive and compositions came as fully-shaped entities, not in layers – how do you transition from one cue reasonably smoothly to another? It’s a really interesting problem that persist until this day.
You’re right, the track order doesn’t help things – lumping all the quieter pieces in one block doesn’t make for a very exciting listening experience. On the other hand, having all the action cues in one spot creates a nice, succinct chunk of great battle music!
There’s something missing from this discussion, and it’s the piece often simply called “Total Annihilation Theme,” which isn’t on the game CD as redbook. It’s the background music to the opening animation and I think it’s the best in the piece, with a huge triumphant theme on trumpet and horns. It could be described in much the same way as you describe the first half of the score, with soaring strings.
Your friendly neighbourhood site has it under the title I mentioned and it’s well worth 92 seconds of your life.
Simon Elchlepp says
That’s awesome – thanks for that, I had no idea that track existed! Yes, it’s a great theme and works beautifully has a curtain-raiser for what’s in store – really sets the scene. Glad you pointed it out.