If you're not familiar with the music I went over in Part 1, you should probably go have a quick look and listen.
The rest of this post is behind a cut for potential Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 spoilers.
Mass Effect 2: the opening titles begin, and we are staring, frightfully close-up, at a multicolored sun. A woman who we soon learn to be Miranda is discussing Shepard... with The Illusive Man. He is the beginning and the end of this game, the would-be puppet-master pulling all the strings. Of course, he doesn't have all the strings available to him, and that's where much of the drama comes from. But we get ahead of ourselves.
The music, however, tells us this story in a hundred ways. The Illusive Man, it says, owns everything about ME2. He is always there behind the scenes. And nothing, in this game or in Shepard's mission, will be easy to define or to pin down.
More important than any theme from Mass Effect, in Mass Effect 2 we begin straight off with The Illusive Man.
Ideally the player finds these two minutes unsettling and mysterious. This track is quite literally designed to throw the player off-rhythm. Shepard the Alliance Marine had a way of behaving from the first game. She had a team, she had the Normandy, and she had a hero's theme.
That's all gone now. The Normandy is most decidedly wrecked and Shepard literally went down with her ship. (Or worse, actually: outside of it, with a hole in her suit.) Two years and an unimaginable amount of cash have gone into rebuilding her and bringing her back to life through the Lazarus Project. And who is behind that decision? A man we can't pin down, not even musically.
The theme from Mass Effect was a calm 3/4: three beats in a measure, easily counted and easily followed. Easily marched to, too, and that's actually important. It's literally straightforward, and you can take the Alliance into battle with it.
The Illusive Man, however, is not so easy to pin down. The entire piece is rhythmically irregular. It's mostly written in 7/8, and the thing about odd prime numbers is that they don't subdivide neatly. When a piece is in seven, the individual beats themselves come out feeling uneven, because they're grouped in twos and threes, rather than in the twos or threes we are more accustomed to hearing in most music. Thus: off-kilter.
The great thing about "The Illusive Man" is that even in the constraints of an irregular meter, it refuses to settle into a single rhythmic pattern. Every time you get comfortable with it, it changes again. The breakdown of the track runs roughly like this:
- From 00:10 - 7/8, in the following combination: (1-2) (1-2) (1-2-3) / (1-2) (1-2-3) (1-2)
- The second half of the pattern can also be read to play (1-2-3) (1-2) (1-2)
- From 01:09 - 7/8 alternating with 9/8 in pairs, in the following combination: (1-2) (1-2) (1-2-3) / (1-2-3) (1-2) (1-2) (1-2)
- At 01:50 - 7/8 and 9/8 alternating still, but in this combination: (1-2) (1-2) (1-2-3) / (1-2-3) (1-2-3) (1-2-3)
- At 01:51 it resumes the pattern of 7/8 alternating with 9/8 in pairs, in the following combination: (1-2) (1-2) (1-2-3) / (1-2-3) (1-2) (1-2) (1-2)
I'm harping on this point for a couple of reasons. One, admittedly, is simply that it's unusual and I enjoy it. But the main reason is that it pulls against all the rules we have been taught to expect in our film and game music. It's ambiguous: the 7/8 and 9/8 have the same number of actual eighth note beats as a pair of 4/4 measures (like the Star Wars main theme) would. But the music doesn't flow that way and instead breaks up its rhythm in a more winding, hard to follow pattern.
In a very broad and generalized sense, musical ambiguity in scoring conveys moral or character ambiguity. We like marching rhythms for our heroes and save irregular meters for our villains. The orcs and Uruk-Hai in Lord of the Rings march in 5 (1-2-3, 1-2): you can imagine them dragging misshapen legs behind them as they go. Meanwhile, heroes tend to have rhythmically straightforward themes.
Now, here's the Mass Effect 2 theme:
Yes, it's thematically very closely linked to the Mass Effect theme, though opening in a different key. But the ME theme was in 3/4, which breaks down into having 6 eighth notes per measure in three sets of two: (1-2) (1-2) (1-2). You can prominently hear this pattern in the original theme at the 00:59 mark. However, this Mass Effect 2 music is mainly in 7/8. It adds one extra beat, running (1-2) (1-2) (1-2-3) and throws us off our rhythm.
|He's illusive AND elusive, but don't mix the two at him.|
But even then, this piece does to us what his theme does, and changes the rhythm on us as soon as we get comfortable with it as it stands. From 01:26 to 02:40, it reverts to a regular 3/4, momentarily bringing us back to the relative peace of the first game and also calling up its elements: the Citadel, the Alliance, and so on.
Shepard's not with the Alliance in this game and despite being on version 2 (bigger, badder) of her own Normandy, you're really not supposed to forget it. All of her ship-board outfits are Cerberus uniforms. Her crew is a Cerberus crew. Her faithful allies (Tali, Garrus, Wrex, Ashley / Kaidan) from the first game are all taken aback by this to varying degrees, and Shepard's reception in places she might formerly have been welcomed is... chilly.
Everything has changed for Shepard, as she (involuntarily) left the Alliance behind and woke up as a Cerberus asset. Including her theme. It's now tinged with two overriding, inescapable elements: (1) the Illusive Man's influence in all things, and (2) the drama laid upon her by the game's structure (no-one's ever come back from the Omega 4 relay before, so we'll have to be pretty badass to manage it).
In fact this theme music is mostly drawn from "The End Run" and "Suicide Mission," which are, as in-game events, exactly what they sound like.
These themes play when all of the pieces are set and the final battle is in motion. Your crew are recruited and they are as loyal as they are ever going to get (damn Miranda). You are up against Collectors, the agents of the Reapers, and there are no more second chances. This is where everything's come together, and the music in a way reflects that.
I love how many different tones are represented in this pair of tracks, and how they help summarize the feel of the plot by their point in the game: this is a battle, there's no doubt about that, and it's Shepard's battle. But the Illusive Man is still there (in all of the 7/8 material) as are reminders about what she's really fighting ("The End Run," 01:26 - 01:42). Also for whom she's fighting: versions of the plinky descending notes from the first Mass Effect ("The End Run," 01:43 - 01:47; "Suicide Mission," 02:09 - 02:43) more-or-less represent the Citadel, the Council races, and the good guys in general.
It also doesn't get bigger than this. There's a full chorus, combined with all of the brass, strings, and percussion that earphones can hold. (This is, not coincidentally, why I like it so much.) For taking your ship into that debris field, for taking your team on a probably one-way trip into the Collector base, and for meeting the human Reaper, you need suitably badass orchestration. (One wonders, then, what music for "unite the whole galaxy and fight back thousands of Reapers" will have to sound like.)
And then the track ends with that solo trumpet. Although everyone made it out of the Suicide Mission alive for me (I thought for sure I'd lose disloyal Zaeed and possibly reckless Jack), I like the mournful call there for those who don't come back.
There is a lot more to write about the music in both Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2. There will be a part 3 to this discussion, in which we examine how the Normandy is given character, the influences and borrowed phrases we hear (particularly in ME2, because they keep leaping out at me), other uses of irregular or conflicting rhythms to create tension, and other cool bits and bobs in general. I wanted to keep part 1 and part 2 as two halves of a more straightforward comparison of how the main themes are manipulated to tell the story so everything else has gotten bumped. Look for part 3 to run in a week or so.