SID MEIER’S CIVILIZATION: BEYOND EARTH – RISING TIDE – Geoff Knorr, Griffin Cohen, and Grant Kirkhope
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
Civilization: Beyond Earth – Rising Tide is an expansion pack which builds on the first Beyond Earth installment of Sid Meier’s extremely popular Civilization video game series, which was released to general acclaim last year. The expansion allows players to embark on new quests on new ‘biome’ planets – including a water planet and an ice planet – as they try to create and maintain civilizations in outer space. One of the most notable aspects of the game was its IFMCA Award-winning, BMI Award-nominated score by Geoff Knorr, Griffin Cohen, Michael Curran, and Grant Kirkhope, which was roundly praised as being one of the most impressive orchestral game scores in many years. For Rising Tide, three of the four composers are back (Curran left development company Firaxis for another company, Stardock Entertainment, earlier this year), and their music builds on the sound of the first game, but adds in new textures, and new ideas. The result is very, very impressive.
As with the first game, the score was performed by a full orchestra and choir at the Rudolfinum’s Dvořák Hall in Prague, under the baton of conductor Andy Brick, supervised by lead composer Geoff Knorr. Georgia native Knorr wrote the bulk of the score, clocking in at just under an hour, and his music is superb. There’s a real sense of scope and majesty in Knorr’s music: richly textured orchestrations, surging string themes, heroic brass fanfares, action music full of energy and forward motion, electronic accents which are appropriately other-worldly, and regular appearances from a full-throated choir, adding to the level of power and emotion. In terms of style, there are vague echoes of Brian Tyler’s Marvel super hero scores, of the Two Steps From Hell trailer music by Thomas Bergerson and Nick Phoenix, and of the better Remote Control action movies scored by composers like Steve Jablonsky and Ramin Djawadi, but it’s interesting to me how Knorr’s personal compositional style is beginning to emerge, after just two scores. The way he uses his synth pulses, the way he structures his contrapuntal writing for orchestra and choir, the way he uses certain chord progressions – he has an individuality and noticeable musical personality, which earmarks him as a composer with a point of view, who doesn’t just ape a temp track.
The best Knorr cues include “Reunited,” which is anchored by a gorgeous cello solo, gradually emerging into a glorious fanfare; “Rising Tide,” which introduces the expansion’s four-note main theme on woodwinds, and slow-builds into a spine-tingling choral finale; “Upon the Expanse,” which uses soothing choral textures and undulating string phrases to evoke the gracefulness and beauty of the ocean; “Dive,” a peaceful piece which revisits the main Rising Tide theme in various settings, and has a sense of anticipation and eagerness; “Tidehunter,” an especially impressive action cue which propels itself forward with a battery of percussion and features a variation on the main theme arranged for violin; and “Neptune’s Glory,” which features a magnificent, dominant performance of the main theme by the choir, augmented by an array of grand orchestral textures and a thrusting electronic beat.
Later, “Immortal” has that heroic, triumphant brass-led sound that would not sound out of place in a historical epic; “Mobius Horn” builds layer upon layer of imposing brass textures; and “Lahar” contains some of the score’s darkest moments, with low brass calls and threatening percussion ideas, offset by thrilling trumpet flourishes. “Primordial Majesty” is indeed a majestic triumph, using transcendent choral accents to give the orchestral lines a sense of awe, while the finale, “Hybrid Champion,” concludes with an elegant, emotional new theme for the full orchestra and choir which resounds with cymbal rings and tubular bells, and has an optimistic, hopeful sense of grandeur and wonderment.
One thing I really like about Knorr’s music is how it allows the main theme to shine. Too many video game scores play like concept albums: they often have excellent orchestral performances, huge moments of power, and impressive crescendos, but never really come together as an actual complete work, with common threads running through the entire score. Rising Tide is the opposite of that. The main theme weaves its way through several cues –it forms the entire core of “Tidehunter,” for example – and allows itself to make a lasting, memorable impact.
New York-born Griffin Cohen, one of Firaxis’s in-house audio designers and composers who specializes in electronic music, wrote 40 minutes of additional music, comprising mainly ambient electronic textures, but highlighting one fully orchestral cue – “The Old World” – which is apparently the first orchestral piece the composer has ever written. As I said in my review of the first score, I just don’t care for the style of Cohen’s ambient pieces; I’m sure they’re very important to the game play, and appropriate in context, but listening to them separately, they just don’t appeal to my taste at all. However his orchestral cue, “The Old World,” is actually pretty impressive, and appears to be a variation on Michael Curran’s “Arid Planet” theme from the first Beyond Earth score, albeit accented with a ghostly, cooing choir and watery Avatar-esque electronic effects.
Finally, just under 25 minutes of score was composed by BAFTA-nominated composer Grant Kirkhope, the industry veteran who has contributed massively popular music to such games as GoldenEye, Banjo Kazooie, Viva Piñata, and Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. Kirkhope wrote music mainly for the Ice Planet setting of the game, and his music is excellent. Kirkhope augments his rich orchestral palette with traditionally ‘cold’ instruments – celesta, glockenspiel, a high pitched choir, crystalline electronic enhancements – to conjure up an appropriately wintry feel, but still keeps the scope and scale of the score at the levels of the rest of the music. A singular melody, superficially related to his “Deep Memory” theme from the first score, runs through all of Kirkhope’s pieces, tying them together and creating a distinct identity for his arctic realm.
The light, fluttery woodwinds and elegant, prancing strings of “Holocene” have more than a touch of James Horner’s Aliens about them. The rhythmic, pulsing string ideas in “Terra Incognita” are fascinating, and slowly emerge into a flighty, free-flowing theme, replete with flute trills conveying a sense of openness. “Ice and Conquest” is an action piece, with booming call-and-response horn chords, a sequence of the same pulsing string ideas from the previous cue transposed to woodwinds, and a menacing, powerful finish that reminds me of Patrick Doyle’s best efforts in the genre. The best cue for me, however, is “Fractal Aquilon,” which takes the theme and allows it to build, gradually, around an array of stirring choral inflections, swooping flutes, and icy glockenspiel textures, before concluding with an utterly spectacular Straussian orchestral crescendo which raises goose bumps on the arms and brings pricks of tears to the corners of your eyes.
My only criticism regarding Kirkhope’s contribution is that there’s not enough of it, and that it plays second fiddle to Knorr’s music, which contains the score’s primary identity in the shape of the recurring main theme. Of course Knorr is the score’s lead composer, and Kirkhope is just the ‘guest contributor’, so it’s appropriate that Knorr should be the one to craft the score’s sound, write the bulk of the music, and develop the main thematic content, but Kirkhope is such a superb melody writer, I wish he would be given the opportunity to be the lead composer for a game like this in his own right, and to write the majority of the music. He showed with his score for Kingdoms of Amalur that he is more than capable of marshaling orchestral forces of this magnitude, and has continued to prove it with his contributions to the two Beyond Earth games. This has nothing to do with the quality of Kirkhope’s music, though, which is just as wonderful as Knorr’s.
As many critics bemoan the lack of orchestral grandeur and thematic excellence in mainstream film scoring, once again I find myself being drawn to video game music as a source for the emotional content that made me fall in love with film music in the first place. Civilization: Beyond Earth – Rising Tide is a magnificent score on all fronts, compositionally, thematically, and emotionally, and is guaranteed to impress even the most jaded film music fan. It’s the equal of its predecessor in every respect, and may actually end up being a more accessible score due to its shorter running time (two hours rather than three), and more obvious prominent thematic ideas. With this score, Geoff Knorr, Griffin Cohen and Grant Kirkhope have cemented their places as three of the most outstanding composers working in the video game industry today, and I can’t wait to see which planets and cultures they go to next.
Buy the Civilization: Beyond Earth – Rising Tide soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Reunited (2:14) – Knorr
- Rising Tide (4:56) – Knorr
- The Abyss (3:10) – Knorr
- The Abyss – Ambient Early (4:54) – Cohen
- Upon the Expanse (4:05) – Knorr
- Ebb and Flow (4:06) – Knorr
- The Abyss – Ambient Middle (4:03) – Cohen
- Dive (3:56) – Knorr
- Tide Hunter (3:31) – Knorr
- The Abyss – Ambient Late (3:52) – Cohen
- Neptune’s Glory (5:00) – Knorr
- The Old World (3:13) – Cohen
- The Old World – Ambient Early (4:36) – Cohen
- Holocene (4:19) – Kirkhope
- Terra Incognita (4:49) – Kirkhope
- The Old World – Ambient Middle (3:57) – Cohen
- Ice and Conquest (4:59) – Kirkhope
- The Dendrite Frontier (5:15) – Kirkhope
- The Old World – Ambient Late (4:13) – Cohen
- Fractal Aquilon (4:21) – Kirkhope
- The Young World (3:21) – Knorr
- The Young World – Ambient Early (3:36) – Cohen
- Immortal (5:18) – Knorr
- Mobius Horn (3:32) – Knorr
- The Young World – Ambient Middle (3:27) – Cohen
- Lahar (5:27) – Knorr
- Primordial Majesty (5:08) – Knorr
- The Young World – Ambient Late (3:55) – Cohen
- Hybrid Champion (5:52) – Knorr
Running Time: 123 minutes 14 seconds
Firaxis/2K Games (2015)
Music composed by Geoff Knorr, Griffin Cohen and Grant Kirkhope. Conducted by Andy Brick. Performed by The Prague Filmharmonic Orchestra. Orchestrations by Geoff Knorr, Griffin Cohen and Grant Kirkhope. Recorded and mixed by Jan Holzner. Album produced by Geoff Knorr.