SID MEIER’S CIVILIZATION: BEYOND EARTH – Geoff Knorr, Griffin Cohen, Michael Curran and Grant Kirkhope
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth is the latest installment in Sid Meier’s extremely popular Civilization video game series, in which players build a civilization from the ground up, taking turns to try to positively affect their civilization’s cultural, intellectual, and technical sophistication by conducting research, building infrastructure, and in some cases waging war against neighbors. In Beyond Earth – as the title suggests – game play takes place in the future, and in outer space. This is the 20th official entry into the Civilization series since it debuted in 1991 on the Super Nintendo, which has been consistently praised for its innovation, graphical design ideas, and music.
The music compositional duties for Beyond Earth were split between four composers. 62 minutes of score was composed by Geoff Knorr, the lead composer for the Firaxis Games company which produces the Civilization series, and who has received a great deal of critical acclaim for his work on previous Civilization games. 57 minutes was composed by Griffin Cohen, a young New York-born composer, who is one of Firaxis’s other in-house audio designers and composers who specializes in electronic music. An additional 27 minutes of score was composed by Michael Curran, one of Firaxis’s other in-house composers. Finally, 20 minutes of score was composed by Scottish-born BAFTA-nominated composer Grant Kirkhope, a game music veteran best known for his work on such popular games as GoldenEye, Banjo Kazooie, Viva Piñata, and Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, and several of whose works are listed in Classic FM’s Hall of Fame.
Performed by a full orchestra in Prague – and recorded at the Rudolfinum’s Dvořák Hall, no less! – Beyond Earth is massively impressive from start to finish. Geoff Knorr’s work takes up the majority of this promo album’s gargantuan three-hour running time, and his music is consistently superb. Beginning with “The Seeding,” which features a beautiful solo cello part, Knorr’s pieces capture perfectly the scope and vastness of space. Gorgeous orchestral textures represent the journey of humanity, hopeful and expectant; electronic accents speak to the technology at work in building the futuristic civilizations; and angelic voices illustrate the sheer scale and magnitude of the cosmos, and the sense of awe and wonderment felt when confronted by its immensity. Calmness and serenity permeate cues such as “Beyond Earth” and “The Lush Planet”. A larger sense of scope reveals itself in cues such as “Beauty in the Eye of the Orbiter,” the soaring “Our New World,” and the wondrous “A New Beginning,” mainly through a more strident brass section. “The Fungal Planet,” “Acclimation” and “Promethean” all revisit the spectacular solo cello performance from the opening cue, which pleases me immensely as I’m a huge fan of that instrument’s haunting, poignant timbre.
More kinetic action music appears in the powerful “Destroyer,” a very impressive cue which takes thematic ideas from earlier in the score and combines them with strong rhythmic orchestral ideas and a contemporary electronic undercurrent that puts some of today’s most successful film music action practitioners to shame. However, the most notable parts of Knorr’s contributions are the religioso duo “Lux Perpetua” and “Benedicite,” which mixes the orchestra in with a much more prominent choir to truly spectacular effect. The mixed-voice choir adds a whole new dimension to the score, and reveals a true lyricism in Knorr’s writing that packs a mighty emotional wallop. When the choir and cello combine in the sumptuous “Xenomalleum” and the album’s conclusive cue, “The Future of Mankind,” the effect is sublime.
What’s interesting to me is that, throughout the score, you never get a sense that Knorr is ‘ripping anyone off’. There are a few vague hints of Brian Tyler, possibly James Newton Howard, maybe a little bit of Cliff Martinez in the synth textures, and some allusions to the better proponents of Hans Zimmer’s style-du-jour, but it’s never overt, and you never get the sense that the producers of the game gave Knorr a stack of popular film music hits and said “do that”. Knorr’s work is very much his own, and this is a very welcome development.
Michael Curran’s work is very much in line with Knorr’s, continuing the lush, orchestral style established by the lead composer, although Curran’s pieces seem to be a little more introspective, rather than the in-your-face majesty of Knorr’s work. “The Arid Planet,” “Planetfall,” “Alien Shores,” and the magnificent “Deep Space,” are solemnly noble, with slow string and brass passages in combination with lightly rhythmic electronic ideas that evoke feelings of wonder and reflection. “Earth’s Ambassadors” and “Xenomancer” are his most impressive cues; they have a power-anthem vibe to them, especially when the choir, electronic percussion and string ostinatos kick in, coming across as something Steve Jablonsky or Ramin Djawadi might write on one of their best days. “O Muse,” meanwhile, has all the imposing choral might of a Basil Poledouris score, eschewing the more soothing choral textures elsewhere in the score for something bold, anthemic and inspiring.
Unfortunately, Griffin Cohen’s pieces are the least appealing to me, on a purely aesthetic level. His compositions – mostly the ones with the suffix ‘Ambient’ – are just that: extended ambient textures and sound effects, mainly for synths, which drone on for almost an hour in total. I’m sure these cues are important within the context of the game – not everything can be huge action cues or ooh-ahh space music – but they drag the album down significantly, adding a huge chunk of time to an already very long release, and don’t really do much for the listening experience. Unless you are more interested in ambient electronica than you are in the more traditionally orchestral textures, all of these cues can be safely excised from your playlist without the listening experience suffering whatsoever: in fact, for me, their removal actually makes the album better and more coherent, with a consistency of style and tone throughout.
Perhaps the most memorable aspect of the score is Grant Kirkhope’s contribution, which almost manages to steal the entire show in just 20 minutes. His five cues are the most cinematic of all the cues on the album, and are the most carefully-structured, building and developing ideas as they progress to maximize their emotional impact. Kirkhope’s pieces also have the most interesting orchestrational ideas; the lovely woodwind hues of “Solar Collector,” the New Age-y electronic ideas and explosive brass fanfares in “Dogmatic Engineering, ” the energetic and complicated string writing in “Xeno Titan,” and the magnificent choral outbursts in “The Signal,” are all resplendent. “Deep Memory” is Kirkhope’s tribute to the “Binary Sunset” cue from the original Star Wars score, with all the excellence and passion that comparison implies. There are some hints of his pastoral work from the 2006 game Viva Piñata, as well as his more potent orchestral action writing from 2012’s Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, in several of his cues, especially in the way he uses woodwinds and strings to evoke a sense of idyllic calmness, but to me this shows Kirkhope to be a composer who is comfortable in his own skin, confident in writing for large orchestral ensembles, and who is developing a musical identity of his own.
It is becoming increasingly apparent to me that the video game industry is now consistently providing the emotional, thematic, orchestral music that first drew me to film music in the 1980s and 90s, even more so than the actual film music industry is. Budgets tend to be bigger, restrictions fewer, and game developers and designers are not afraid to allow their composers the freedom to be as expressive and elaborate as they want to be in the music, free from the ‘less is more’ thinking that Hollywood music executives seem to currently espouse. Despite it’s daunting running time, Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth is one of the most impressive game scores I have heard in quite some time, and really reinforces the fact that we should be increasingly looking to game composers – especially people like Knorr, Curran, and Grant Kirkhope – for the music we all grew up loving. I’m not quite sure how this epic, theme-filled, emotionally powerful score fits in with a mouse-led, point-and-click, turn-based computer game, but it certainly makes me want to go out and play it, such is the music’s influential appeal, and that’ s possibly the biggest endorsement of all.
- The Seeding (3:04) – Knorr
- Beyond Earth (4:36) – Knorr
- The Lush Planet (2:29) – Knorr
- The Lush Planet – Ambient Early (3:32) – Cohen
- Beauty in the Eye of the Orbiter (4:51) – Knorr
- Destroyer (5:52) – Knorr
- The Lush Planet – Ambient Middle (3:51) – Cohen
- Lux Perpetua (4:26) – Knorr
- Benedicite (4:08) – Knorr
- The Lush Planet – Ambient Late (3:48) – Cohen
- Our New World (4:42) – Knorr
- The Fungal Planet (3:12) – Knorr
- The Fungal Planet – Ambient Early (3:38) – Cohen
- Acclimation (4:58) – Knorr
- Promethean (4:20) – Knorr
- The Fungal Planet – Ambient Middle (3:41) – Cohen
- Xenomalleum (4:17) – Knorr
- The Fungal Planet – Ambient Late (4:01) – Cohen
- A New Beginning (4:57) – Knorr
- The Arid Planet (2:24) – Curran
- The Arid Planet – Ambient Early (4:13) – Cohen
- Solar Collector (4:43) – Kirkhope
- Dogmatic Engineering (4:23) – Kirkhope
- The Arid Planet – Ambient Middle (3:20) – Cohen
- Xeno Titan (4:45) – Kirkhope
- The Signal (2:43) – Kirkhope
- The Arid Planet – Ambient Late (4:08) – Cohen
- Deep Memory (3:46) – Kirkhope
- Planetfall (2:09) – Curran
- Planetfall – Ambient Early 1 (4:24) – Cohen
- Alien Shores (4:22) – Curran
- Sky Mine (3:23) – Curran
- Planetfall – Ambient Early 2 (3:46) – Cohen
- Earth’s Ambassadors (3:52) – Curran
- O Muse (3:12) – Curran
- Planetfall – Ambient Middle (4:09) – Cohen
- Deep Space (4:33) – Curran
- Planetfall – Ambient Late 1 (4:27) – Cohen
- Xenomancer (3:12) – Curran
- Planetfall – Ambient Late 2 (3:36) – Cohen
- Solid State Citizen (3:03) – Cohen
- The Future of Mankind (6:41) – Knorr
Running Time: 167 minutes 33 seconds
Firaxis/2K Games Promo (2014)
Music composed by Geoff Knorr, Griffin Cohen, Michael Curran and Grant Kirkhope. Conducted by Andy Brick. Performed by Prague Filmharmonic Orchestra. Orchestrations by Geoff Knorr, Griffin Cohen, Michael Curran and Grant Kirkhope. Recorded and mixed by Jan Holzner. Album produced by Geoff Knorr.