The Subtle Variety of Red Alert's Soundtrack
Anyway, here’s Hell March.
If you asked me what kind of music I listened to, during my formative years, I would have replied with something like ‘instrumentals’. That was a fancy way of saying ‘I listen to video game soundtracks’. It’s not abnormal to listen to video game soundtracks from time to time, but here’s the part you really must understand: I didn’t start listening to music with lyrics until I was in my late teens.
Part of the reason for this self-restriction was just how bloody good Command and Conquer’s soundtracks are.
Many a teenage night was spent reading or writing to Frank Klepacki’s electronica scores; Tiberian Dawn (the first game) gives away Klepacki’s hard-rock roots while also making the seminal RTS more gung-ho than it had any right to be. Tiberian Sun is one of the moodiest soundtracks of the era, filled to the brim with atmosphere. Red Alert 2 is an industrio-funk masterwork that deserves a vinyl release more than any other soundtrack off of the top of my head…except for one.
1996’s Red Alert is a fantastic soundtrack in more ways than one. It took the streaming technology of its predecessor and fully utilised it. ‘Hell March’ is the single most iconic piece of music ever made for a PC game. But most of all, Red Alert’s music has variety. I struggle to name another game soundtrack I remember as fondly as this one, even amongst its Westwood brethren.
Following on from the universally positive critical reception of Tiberian Dawn’s soundtrack, Klepacki was on the lookout for a new style. While Tiberian Dawn drew from a ‘wide variety of influences’, Red Alert’s soundtrack would be more consistent. After attempting some out-there inspirations – ‘thrash to rollerskate music’ is a mix I hope happens one day – the Red Alert sound was decided. Klepacki elaborated on this process in 2009:
‘I thought I'd start with some "moodier" pieces and see if that's the general direction they wanted for [Red Alert]. They liked those pieces, and it was decided we wanted to build upon the C&C style I established in the first game, but more industrial and strange.’
Those ‘moodier’ pieces were ‘Face the Enemy’ 1 and 2 , ‘Trenches’ and ‘Run For Your Life’. From here, the 50s B-movie inspiration for the soundtrack becomes obvious. ‘Strange’ is definitely the right word to describe these tracks. ‘Frogger’, ‘Snake’, and ‘Mud’ were the next tracks composed. ‘Frogger’ pulls the reigns on ‘industrial and strange’ from the get-go. It sounds more like mellow installation music than a video game soundtrack, having more in common with ‘Floating’s streetwise beat than anything else on the soundtrack. And yet, it still fits. ‘Mud’ is the same, with its heavy bass befitting the grimy visuals of the game. Klepacki himself is a fan of this track, noting that it has ‘this quirky Nine Inch Nails vibe to it’.
‘Snake’, meanwhile, is much more in-line with the ‘strange’ than its brothers are. Long, harsh notes accompany the same ‘street’ mood that strides in at the halfway point. Other tracks make no such concessions. ‘Groundwire’ – one of my favourite pieces of music full stop – is grungy and atmospheric. ‘Gloom’ would be spooky at a slower speed but settles for sounding swampy instead. ‘Bog’ sounds similar to ‘Mud’, in that they both feature a rumbling chorus that isn’t found anywhere else on the soundtrack.
Atmosphere is on full display in Red Alert and is one of the reasons I love this game so much. ‘Voice Rhythm 2’ is dripping with it, letting in longer suspense amongst its short chords. ‘Wasteland’ mixes garbled radio chatter with deep notes. ‘Underlying Thoughts’ is the love letter to the submarine. I always imagined it as a story of sorts; a Soviet sub prowls the North Atlantic, hits a convoy, and slinks off into the sea from whence it came. Even the menu music is…oh, man. It’s good.
Of course, this is still a Command and Conquer game. What would one of those be without some faster songs? The base game is full of them: ‘Twin Cannon’ is the anthem of the tank, heavy and full of action. The credits music is more in touch with Tiberian Dawn’s sensibilities, as if winking at the player to let them know that they haven’t forgotten who they are. ‘Big Foot’ starts with a gritty beat before giving way to…a construction yard? Perfect music to build a base to.
Hell March is…I mean, it’s Hell March. Originally composed as an anthem to the Brotherhood of Nod, it was promptly snatched up to be the title song of Red Alert. Its origins almost make it sound like a gift from God:
I had no clue this would be an anthem for the series and for the fans. One day I walked in my office at Westwood, picked up my guitar, plugged it in, and that was the first riff I played. I was inspired right away.
Everybody knows the legendary riffs and the German voice sample, but the second half of Hell March is legitimately my favourite part. As the guitar gives way and the marching returns, a techno-styled version arrives. This was created to be a ‘bridging point’ between both halves of the song, but it also served to ease players from Tiberian Dawn’s sound philosophy to Red Alert’s.
It apparently worked, because Red Alert’s soundtrack still gets high praise today. PC Gamer named it the best soundtrack of the year in 1996. It beat out Quake’s also-great soundtrack composed by Trent Reznor – one of Klepacki’s biggest electronica influences. The soundtrack deserves every bit of praise it gets, despite some stinkers from the sequel songs. ‘Radio 2’ delves too deeply outside the soundtrack’s theming, and the straight-up remixes don’t do much better.
Still, the Red Alert soundtrack is absolutely my favourite even after all these years. Variety is the spice of life, and this soundtrack has it in spades. I wasn’t at all surprised, upon reflection, when I realised that my entire music tastes stem from this damn soundtrack. I’m very excited to see what the upcoming remixes for the 2020 remaster sounds like, and ecstatic about the thought of my favourite soundtrack being re-released as a remastered record. But, as said in Red Alert’s intro, time will tell.
Sooner or later…time will tell.