In its most base form, composers Ludvig Forssell, Justin Burnett, Harry Gregson-Williams, and Daniel James’s score for Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is the sound of ice, but not of it breaking, nor of it being formed…but the SOUND of it. It’s not something you can photograph or truly gauge with your ear. For some, it’s terrestrial, completely alien, a fogged intonation, a strange drowning sibilate. To others it’s an arrival knell: a sound only known and familiar to those who’ve been immersed in the throes of crippling mental and emotional isolation. Imagine its hollow encapsulation turned to physical echo, its corridor growing larger and longer. This is the frigid tolling that is to be found within much of the Phantom Pain, and it is this cold that is essential to its framework. Grieving and loss often rant indecipherably, their telegraphs exceedingly verbose as the mind becomes consumed and appropriated by schism and brokenness. Lead composer Ludvig Forssell and his collaborators must carefully interpret what little can actually be translated from the scribble, and make sense of what remains available from this dying white noise: this must be a meticulous clarification, a vision, a definitive account of the ordeal, no matter how boreal the chimera. Here is the sound of desolation: how I wish you were here with me now.
But… before we talk about the later acts of The Phantom Pain, we have to make note of its preface. The mere fact that Metal Gear Solid V’s dual acts share closely related passages within the same novel would be of both failure and disservice to Forssell, as his sublime and inordinately pregnant dusk (Ground Zeroes score) requires and deserves separate and magnified praise. The compositions for Ground Zeroes offer up a striking penumbra. This is a finite, panoramic view of the moment where stasis finally fails and all its many delicate supporting mechanisms enter into a state of steady decline: things are simply, irreparably breaking down. Whatever glints, whatever thin parcels the aurora that may have remained are slowly being gagged from above. Withered Peace is the clearest mark of this shift, you can hear it as it stammers loudly, as if it were searching itself for some remedy, some tangible gadget to alter the present course: there’s regret, trembling, and an audible degree of indecision. Conversely, Bloodstained Anthem wholly embraces the boldness of the stygian landscape before it. Forssell’s work needs no anchor, as both these pieces demonstrate his innate and incredible abilities to advocate for both sides of the countered nature of The Phantom Pain. Composer Harry Gregson-Williams’ contributions are encompassed in their entirety within the Ground Zeroes prologue, but despite their brevity, serve as some measure of pavement to bridge the myopic night driving that’s about to take place in the Phantom Pain. She’s Rigged and The Fall Of Mother Base are key components within the full transition, and they do serve as reminders of why exactly Gregson-Williams has been kept on full retainer for some 14 years by Kojima productions. Ground Zeroes stands as a luminous signpost within the Phantom Pain’s many stunning and intricate lines and fractures. But…what of that ice?
Yes, back to that ice. Understand me, when I say that The Phantom Pain’s score is the fullest measure of destitution. If you were hoping for something gentler, some still-water alcove of obligingly arranged reminiscence, perhaps, I’d advise you to look elsewhere. I’d also add that in dealing with the subject matter of The Phantom Pain, doing the above described would be to erase all meaning from the text. While the vinyl for Ground Zeroes walked the scant hairline between the underworld, Phantom Pain’s LP proper dissolves all supporting allegiances with few exceptions. The opening, V Has Come Too, makes gorgeously vivid and painterly Forssell’s muse (Big Boss). Rather than draft him as someone or something fully one dimensional, villain or savior, Forssell instead makes a stunning cast from his fragments of deficiency, his failures, and his malcontent interspersed with what indeterminate good actually remains of the man this far down the wire, and shows us just how teetered our hero actually is. Listen closely and you’ll be able to hear the entire composition attempt to steady itself, a single note at a time, with some notes just under their range, some movements pushing too far to the right, and regular unscripted outbursts are common: conditions change. Without question, V Has Come Too is one of the greatest pieces of music I’ve yet heard in a videogame or film in over a decade, and one of the best pieces the medium of musical entertainment has produced as a whole: yes it’s that good. A Burning Escape runs deeply accented and caliginous strides around even the murkiest lore within the Metal Gear mythos. The wisely uncut full 9 minute duration of Escape is the very anchor of the 1st half of this record and composers Burnett and Forssell’s low agonized crawl give shape to all that the Phantom Pain represents, but these are moments recalled in short flashes without access to the full memory, and no doubt, Forssell and Burnett realize it NEEDS to be this way.
Much of what the Phantom Pain is built around, is madness. Contrary to popular belief, madness isn’t a personal exercise, it’s not one of isolation…it’s shared, collective, and enabled. In the case of Big Boss, his lieutenants, his friends, and all his allies are complicit in his downfall: however much his men may object, they still goad their mentor to continue, and despite objections remain silent. Kept You Waiting Huh? expertly redecorates the Boss, reinstates him to a man in full, his former appearance, but not his former self. Waiting’s celebratory pomp perfectly masks Boss’s intent as Forssell’s multi-part walk on cues for the Boss via Waiting and Afghanistan’s A Big Place offer up both opulent pastoral stretches with enough room for imagined soliloquies, and physical enough that despite the years behind him, Big Boss is a man of undiminished build, undaunted and nonchalant as he reengages his enemy. Forssell intrinsically understands the importance of this moment, and he delivers it with gravitas and aplomb. And still, this is only just the beginning.
Action is of course, a large and core proportion of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, and the things Forssell does with each piece of the script’s call for bullets will no doubt turn heads in sharp approval. Forssell’s treatment of celebrated director Hideo Kojima’s stage is one of the most radical and sharply visceral set-lists to grace a numbered MGS entry. Where Metal Gear Solid 4’s instrumentation was intent largely to pontificate and place every moment under glass and Metal Gear Solid 2’s was a touch too grandiose, Metal Gear Solid V, strips away that penchant of the series to lean on larger and grander orchestration: Encounters here aren’t sanitized, and any ideas you have about the sound of the action being overly, disproportionately produced, or densely populated with a symphony too enormous would be wrong. Forssell is intent to sell his pieces in exact dimensions with much of the fat being left to drain instead of further marinating a dish already fully seasoned. Forssell’s MGS is an experiment, a live improv with instruments strewn about the floor, all plugged and live with microphones. His methodology carries with it this capricious nature that seems to revitalize and re-invent this series very defined, very heavy accent. Take Encounter On The Plains, Metallic Archaea, On The Trail, Drop Off, Parasites, and Unforgiving Sands: each of them are imposing but palatial mutations that collapse and re-atomize with each passing second. Where you begin, you don’t end up. This is purposeful, I can only guess, because Forssell (rightfully) seems intent on dismantling the clarity of these once picked apart and perfectly cued junctions (action cues) . Surely nothing about a real firefight can be choreographed, and clarity itself has no place there: Forssell gets it.
Forssell’s scaled down approach to Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain also allows for more emotion from the personalities that he’s scoring for, with an emphasis placed on room for them to breathe, and time enough to manifest the traits of their character (this includes the environments). Let me be clear: Forssell’s compositions come closest to actually recapturing the feeling of the original Metal Gear Solid album by composer Tappy Iwase. Forssell’s design likewise maintains and even surpasses Iwase’s level of melancholy. OKB Zero ’s broken and fading string-light pageantry is one of the greatest moments of audio in any MGS title full-stop. The exact same could also be said of Shining Light’s, Even In Death and Beautiful Mirage as they bring this series to the point of full circle, similarly awash in the sound of white( there’s that ice again) that once greeted series mainstay Solid Snake as he infiltrated Shadow Moses Island some 17 years ago. In regards to the main vocal theme Sins Of The Father, Forssell deserves further standing ovations as it is probably not common knowledge that the lyrics were of his invention with music by series stalwart Akihiro Honda. It goes without saying that overdue credit goes to spectacular vocalist, Donna Burke, without whom it would be lost.
The Phantom Pain is VERY much Ludvig Forssell’s show, but his collaborating composer Justin Burnett’s contributions are to be applauded for their excellence and their flawless adherence to Forssell’s ultra gritty vision. This is a seamless work that requires you to be able to live inside of it, where even the slightest incongruence would have had the power to remove you from its world: this duo is very tightly knit. Burnett’s Angering Mantis in particular follows the precedent that both he and Forssell set early on with Burning Escape, and exemplified further by Forssell on OKB Zero. Mantis is given ample time, because Burnett knows that for something to be truly frightening, grizzly even, it will take more than a first glance, as both glances and initial introductions can be deceiving, but given a little longer…that’s when the evil sinks in.
Fullest marks and the very highest of compliments go to those artists who can successfully weave the imagery of their LP cover into the tracks on their album. Composers Ludvig Forssell, Justin Burnett, Harry Gregson-Williams and Daniel James have indeed unraveled and decoded all of The Phantom Pain’s many variant 12 inch pressings: their combined inscriptions create a score to best and eclipse all of the series’ past masters. The mere existence of this record adds value and stock to the series of Metal Gear, and imbues its future with the numerous possibilities beyond the ice: a true passing of the torch.
Having fallen in love only 4 times in his life Geno counts Double Dragon as his second and truest love. He has worked in record retail since 2000 and believes David Hayter to be the one true Solid Snake. Currently, he is putting together a band which only perform songs from Street Fighter 3rd Strike.