Video game music is truly unique in its construction and presentation, because unlike musical scores for films and television, its composer must in many cases develop a narrative to either accompany or drive the game’s story while being careful not to be too repetitive in spite of video games’ recurrent themes. Thus, when composers are able to effectively change their style to meet completely different gaming genres, or continue scoring for similar genres by developing their own work, one can’t help but take notice. My introduction to Jason Graves’s genius was with 2008’s Dead Space, truly one of the most frightening gaming experiences I’ve had to date. So seamless was the melding of Graves’s music with Dead Space’s desolate, terror-wrought environments and action-packed moments that I almost hadn’t been able to recall the music independently at all. 2011’s Dead Space 2 furthered this sense of perfection as Graves evolved his work to create simultaneous fear and loneliness, a sense of which hadn’t been garnered in the first game. Graves’s score for this year’s Dead Space 3 completely turned a corner, abandoning some of the more tense and threatening elements to incorporate bombastic melodies reminiscent of modern Hans Zimmer, lending a life and emotional bond to the Dead Space 3 universe that wasn’t present in either prior outing. And yet in between it all, Graves composed the lion’s share of 2011’s Dungeon Siege III, a wondrous and beautiful score containing so many dense and rich layers of melancholic string orchestration that I questioned many times how the same man could have shattered gamers’ psyches with the work on Dead Space and its sequel.
A little earlier this year, Crystal Dynamics released the reboot of Tomb Raider, as much to the elation of the game series’ longtime fans as action/adventure lovers in general. Perhaps knowing of Jason Graves’s skill to both horrify and enrapture gamers’ musical palettes, Crystal Dynamics chose Graves to weave Tomb Raider’s musical tapestry. Graves graciously accepted the offer and soon made a decision that would make Tomb Raider’s score uniquely effective: the creation of an entirely new “Instrument” made of steel, glass, and fiberglass, which resembled a mass collection of spines, spokes, and makeshift chimes branching out from a lampshade-shaped base. It’s the Instrument which does indeed give Tomb Raider a musical identity, as it frames as much of the score as it furthers alongside richly textured orchestral instrumentation. It’s a staggeringly competent work and indelibly effective.
Tomb Raider begins with “Adventure Found Me,” which showcases the title theme to be used numerous times throughout the score: a redeeming yet harrowing tune that beckons the return of a hero. With second track “The Scavenger’s Den,” the capabilities of the Instrument are introduced, with discordant sounds, dissonant string effects, and creepy, off-kilter melodies. It’s downright chilling and stifles the listener, before strings and horns lend gravity to the Instrument’s frightful nature, and the track closes on a beautiful piano and violin-led version of the Tomb Raider theme. “Exploring the Island” lays out a jungle-like, rhythmic percussion, bringing to mind similar motifs as in that of Michael Giacchino’s Lost, but with far more flexibility due to its layering of numerous percussion types ranging from maracas to bass drums; its ominous pace is equally set by measured swells of strings and horns. “First Blood” begins as a purely emotional, regretful track, where Graves displays his sense of longing and sorrow akin to the more heartfelt work on Dungeon Siege III, but then also manages to incorporate feelings of impending doom when the discord of the Instrument filters in with powerful drumming and low-tuned horns. The track’s ending sequence is also the first to remind of the tactile horror of Dead Space 3 given a more cinematic vibe and perspective, as well as more aberrant cues from Nathan Barr’s Hostel; such is its effectiveness in portrayal of cold, calculating trepidation.
Soon follows one of the album’s highlights, “A Call For Help,” which weaves quick-paced strings and attacks of horns into a pulse-quickening tune, culminating in the first triumphant display of the main theme, before dying out like a blazing fire into smoldering ashes of slow, meandering string work. Halfway through it transforms to an almost tear-inducing and ascending string pattern, then it erupts again into the Tomb Raider theme given Hollywood gravitas and Instrument accentuation. With “The Descent,” the most layered and complex string assembly thus far is presented, made all the more menacing after being joined by touches of the Instrument and hugely more defiant by surgical poundings of drums and horrific chord descents of unified strings and horns. “Paying Respects” begins with inspired, tone-rich notes before evolving into a conclusion of beauty, sorrow, and forthcoming dread, and “On the Beach” continues this emotional setting with delicate harp and string melodies soon dissipated like a metaphorical return to omnipresent reality.
With fifteenth track “The Oni,” the tail end of Graves’s musical journey is set into motion. The Instrument yields unusual sounds similar to gongs and chimes, and the track ends in a crazed assembly of violins, when “Whitman’s Test” presents a backdrop of string-based ambience reminiscent of David Julyan’s The Descent and then cascades into clangs from the Instrument among low horn murmurs. “Scaling the Ziggurat” ends in a triumphant melody before “The Ritual” puts a critically powerful spin on the Tomb Raider theme with a rolling melodic and percussive sensibility. It temporarily mutes before exploding into a skillfully dreadful cacophony, then back again to a soft, almost defeated passage that comes to rest on its own foundation. “A Survivor Is Born” and “The Tomb Raider” end the album, both calm, serene, inspirational, and melancholic tunes representative of titular character Lara Croft’s rebirth as a strong, independent woman in charge of her own destiny.
Jason Graves has once again proven his uncanny range in musical scoring. His intelligent use of the Instrument lends Tomb Raider not only a soulful individuality, but also a tangible, perceptible, ultimately real horror for a character whose story is one of introspection and survival. But the success of Tomb Raider is also due in no small part to Graves’s forging of a deep emotional connection through the power of his compositions, grounding the listener with both sanguine beauty and an establishment of worldly tragedy. Jason Graves’s Tomb Raider is a highly affecting and stylized album that further elevates his already legendary status among video game music composers.