ASSASSIN’S CREED: SYNDICATE – Austin Wintory
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
The ninth entry in the main series of Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed video games, Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate is one of the most eagerly-awaited game titles of 2015. Set in London in 1868 during the Industrial Revolution, the story follows twins Jacob and Evie Frye as they navigate the corridors of organized crime during the Victorian era. The story relates to the overarching narrative of the entire series, which primarily revolves around the rivalry between two ancient secret societies – the Assassins and the Knights Templar. The Fryes are members of the Assassins, seeking to take down the Templars who occupy the majority of the positions of power in society, and are aided in their quest by notable figures of the era including Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Florence Nightingale, and even Queen Victoria herself.
The Assassin’s Creed series has contained some of the most innovative and ground-breaking music in the history of the game music art. Composers such as Jesper Kyd, Lorne Balfe, Brian Tyler, Olivier Derivière, Elitsa Alexandrova, Chris Tilton, and Sarah Schachner have contributed to the series’s musical identity over the years, but for Syndicate the producers turned to 31-year-old Austin Wintory, who broke new ground in 2013 when he became the first ever video game composer to be nominated for a Grammy, for his critically acclaimed score for Journey. Despite the level of acclaim Journey received, that game was very much an “indie” title that came from way out of left field. Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, on the other hand, is a mainstream blockbuster, and is by far the most high profile assignment of Wintory’s career to date, with expectations on all sides. Wintory responded to the challenge with an absolutely superb work on all fronts, which somehow manages to blend 19th century chamber music with classical dances and even a sextet of murder ballads, and make it an appropriate musical accompaniment for an action video game about assassins.
In interviews, Wintory describes his music as being simultaneously inspired by both the personalities of Jacob and Evie, and the contradictory world of Victorian London. He says, “the twins have this wonderful confidence, almost arrogance,” and that for them “a fight does not represent a genuine life-or-death epic battle – it’s more like a cat playing with a mouse, and enjoying the dance – which is why you hear the waltzes.” He also says he tried to capture the dichotomy of London in that period, which was the pinnacle of civilized society, class and manners, but also contained a rough, dangerous underbelly of rogues, pickpockets and murderers.
The centerpiece of the score is the main theme, first heard in the opening cue, “Bloodlines.” Initially heard on solo piano, it gradually grows to encompass the score’s two main instrumental concepts: the combination of Sandy Cameron’s violin and Tina Guo’s cello. A lyrical, but slightly sorrowful theme, it features in different guises throughout the score, forming the backbone of numerous cues, being heard in full, in fragments, and with instrumental variations. Several subsequent performances are notable as prominent restatements, but the score is structured such that almost every cue features the theme somehow, even if it’s just with the subtlest allusion to the chord progressions, with the merest whisper of a distant piano (as in “Soothing Syrup”), or in the airy tones of a cooing Elfmanesque choir (as in “Cathedrals of Steel”).
The violin and cello performances continue through the score, sometimes with one of the instruments performing solo, sometimes together in a duet, and often accompanied by the orchestra. The way the two soloists play off each other, and feed off each other’s energy, is one of the score’s defining elements, and in many ways mirrors the relationship between Jacob and Evie in the game itself – each is fully capable of functioning individually, but they are usually better together. Cameron’s spiky, aggressive violin solos are reminiscent of Hans Zimmer and the way he depicted the manic energy of Victorian London through his Sherlock Holmes scores, whereas Guo’s cello captures the darkness, the more melancholy and emotional aspect of the story.
The action sequences are structured like traditional classical dances, full of movement and energy, fleet of foot and light of touch. Cues like “The Dance Begins,” “Danza Alla Daggers,” “Waltzing on Rooftops and Cobblestones,” the buoyant “Top Hats and Sword Canes,” the flamboyant “Assassin Two-Step,” the flighty and vivacious “Ballet of Blades,” “A Gauntlet Scherzo,” the “Hooded Allegro Vivace” with its jangling tambourines and festive brass, and “Bloody Presto Con Brio,” are spellbinding, and wholly unconventional. It’s not just the fact that the pieces are structured like dances, but that Wintory somehow achieves his desired effect with a minimum of instrumental fuss. These aren’t cues which batter you into submission; they are stripped down, almost minimalist, with just one or two lead instruments – usually the violin or the cello, but sometimes a flute or a piano – leading the small chamber orchestra up and down scales, through deceptively difficult passages, tiptoeing through the notes with the careful intent of a thief vanishing into the shadows. You can hear every note, every gesture and inflection from every instrument, and as such they all have something to say. It’s quite breathtaking.
Another notable element of the score is the religioso vocal performance of soprano Holly Sedillos of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, who lends her cut glass angelic tones to pieces like “Peace and I Are Strangers Grown,” “Destruction’s Our Delight,” “Death is Now a Welcome Guest,” “Great Minds Against Themselves Conspire,” and “Too Dreadful a Practice for this Open Air,” the latter of which incorporates a variation on the melody from the traditional English hymn “Abide With Me”. Elsewhere, other cues feature especially prominent instrumental passages, including “It’s All Business, Mr. Frye” with it’s unexpected harp solo, the playful and woodwind-enhanced “Everyone Has a Price,” the deep and deadly basses of “You’ve Stolen Your Last Shilling,” the more abstract and glassy tones of “Take Your Bow Knave,” and the devilish “Darling What a Night” with its bright trumpet solos and clattering percussion. It all rounds out with the showstopping “I Would Have Created a Paradise,” a furious piano piece featuring a strong performance of the Bloodlines theme, and around which the violins, cellos and trumpets whirl, in a demented dance of chaos and death.
However, possibly the most creative aspects of the score are the six ‘murder ballads’ Wintory wrote in collaboration with the brilliant Australian comedy-folk-rock trio Tripod, comprising Scott Edgar, Simon Hall, and Steven Gates. The songs are intended to be the musical soul of London’s seedy underbelly, tuneful ballads which you would hear drifting out of Whitechapel’s whorehouses or Lambeth’s pubs, celebrating and lamenting the recently departed with songs that are hilarious but macabre, with wickedly cunning lyrics, beautifully melancholy melodies, and a twinkle in their proverbial eye. They sound like songs from Steven Sondheim’s sequel to Sweeney Todd, crossed with Monty Python, and are absolutely fantastic. The vocal performances are rough and unpolished, with the appropriately bawdy tone of an old fashioned Cockney knees-up; I’m especially fond of “The Late Pearl Attaway”’s polite apologies from beyond the grave, the gleeful bloodthirstiness of “The Tale of Twopenny,” the socio-political revenge fantasies of “Feasting on a Lord,” and especially the contemplative and poetic “Underground,” bitterly ruminating on the lot of the working class, and their destiny to end up under the feet of the aristocracy, both literally and figuratively.
Scores like Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate are, for me, perfect examples of just how sophisticated and literate the world of video game music has become in 2015. Contrary to the beliefs of too many of my peers, game music has entirely moved on from the simple 8-bit chiptunes of the 1980s and 90s, but it is also no longer the sole domain of thunderous orchestral scores for 150 pieces and an hour of non-stop action music. That Austin Wintory was able to write a score with this sort of elegance and classicism, while also writing a series of wholly unconventional music hall songs, for the same project, and most importantly, making it work, is a positive reflection of the industry as a whole. Game designers take chances, embrace unconventionality, allow for experimentation, and encourage innovation. Bravo to everyone involved – especially Austin Wintory, whose stock just continues to rise higher and higher with every score he writes.
Buy the Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Bloodlines (1:53)
- London is Waiting (2:45)
- The Dance Begins (2:02)
- Peace and I Are Strangers Grown (1:45)
- Soothing Syrup (3:21)
- Give Me the Cure (written by Austin Wintory, Scott Edgar, Simon Hall and Steven Gates, performed by Tripod) (2:01)
- Danza Alla Daggers (3:10)
- The Churning Seas of London (1:58)
- It’s Business, Mr. Frye (2:47)
- The Late Pearl Attaway (written by Austin Wintory, Scott Edgar, Simon Hall and Steven Gates, performed by Tripod) (1:35)
- Everyone Has a Price (1:44)
- Destruction’s Our Delight (1:40)
- Waltzing on Rooftops and Cobblestones (4:51)
- Cathedrals of Steel (2:03)
- You’ve Stolen Your Last Shilling (1:37)
- The Tale of Twopenny (written by Austin Wintory, Scott Edgar, Simon Hall and Steven Gates, performed by Tripod) (1:43)
- Top Hats and Sword Canes (1:42)
- Men Have Become Monsters (2:13)
- The Assassin Two-Step (1:45)
- Too Dreadful a Practice For This Open Air (1:39)
- Take Your Bow, Knave (3:40)
- Feasting on a Lord (written by Austin Wintory, Scott Edgar, Simon Hall and Steven Gates, performed by Tripod) (1:47)
- A Ballet of Blades (2:22)
- Great Minds Against Themselves Conspire (1:22)
- A Gauntlet Scherzo (3:16)
- London Will Soon Be Rid Of Your Chaos (2:11
- Darling, What a Night (2:53)
- Jokes Jokes Jokes (written by Scott Edgar, Simon Hall and Steven Gates, performed by Tripod) (1:16)
- Hooded Allegro Vivace (2:57)
- For Those We Loved (2:03)
- Death is Now a Welcome Guest (2:02)
- Bloody Presto Con Brio (3:25)
- So Much For a House Call (1:41)
- I Would Have Created a Paradise (5:17)
- Underground (written by Austin Wintory, Scott Edgar, Simon Hall and Steven Gates, performed by Tripod) (3:16)
- Family (1:55)
Running Time: 86 minutes 08 seconds
Ubisoft Music (2015)
Music composed and conducted by Austin Wintory. Orchestrations by Austin Wintory and Susie Benchasil-Seiter. Featured musical soloists Sandy Cameron and Tina Guo. Special vocal performances by Holly Sedillos. Recorded and mixed by Steve Kempster and Jake Jackson. Album produced by Austin Wintory.