It’s a soundtrack I return to time and again, Jesper Kyd’s Darksiders II. Jesper has a unique sound that’s virtually impossible to confuse with any other composer, yet just when I think I’ve figured him out, he ends up writing something like Darksiders II.
So what makes a composer great? It’s all in the detail: small musical actions that elicit a reaction in the listener, which quite possibly could be no reaction at all.
To my ears, Jesper introduces me to a new world with each soundtrack or album he makes. He creates an individual universe for each project that rarely, if ever, strays from whatever norm he’s established.
Take Darksiders II. In the first track, “Maker’s Theme”, we’re introduced to the main elements of that universe. Immediately, we hear Celtic overtones both in the melody Jesper wrote and the instrument he wrote it for, the whistle. Then, a heartfelt violin solo that’s accompanied by harp and other plucked strings. It’s an intimate sound, one that is reminiscent of folk songs.
All is well and good, and then Jesper becomes even more Jesper at 1:22, and we go somewhere else. At around 1:54, he brings back the harmonic structure established in the beginning, always with that pulsing rhythm. Jesper is always true to rhythm and motion in his music.
He’s kind of a rhythm genius, really, in my totally biased opinion.
It’s something you vividly hear in the next track, “Into Eternity”. It’s like a waltz in a daydream. The vocals are absolutely amazing (Jesper has worked with Melissa Kaplan on many occasions, and that would be because she’s fricking amazing. She’s all over Assassin’s Creed II & Brotherhood).
I mean, listen to her sing this. And be sure to pay attention to when Jesper kicks in the bass at 1:25. There are a lot of composers I would love to watch write some music, but Jesper is so totally at the top of that list. Not that any composer would ever want anyone watching them. It kind of sounds creepy now.
You’ve gotta experience “Story of the Makers”. I’m going to completely nerd out about this one, but I recommend listening to the track before you continue reading. Seriously; it takes two minutes and twelve seconds. Listen
Now that you’ve listened to it to explain to you why the business that happens from 1:29 – 1:39 feels so sad, and sounds so beautiful and right. So Jesper starts with all this quintal and intervallic harmony that only partially resolves, and those partial resolutions have tension, or dissonance, in them. I’m talking about notes that don’t necessarily sound wrong, but they seem to want to go places other than where Jesper puts them.
Harmony has rules. I don’t mean rules as in “this chord can’t follow that chord”, although those rules exist too, depending on which century or hemisphere we’re discussing. By rules, I mean the physics of sound and the harmonic series and such, and how we’ve trained ourselves (since the 17th century) to expect certain notes to follow others. I’m talking about tonality. Like, if I play you the first seven notes of a major scale, you will want to hear the eighth (unless you suffer from amusia). True story. Holy crap let’s get back to Jesper.
So he suspends all these notes (aptly called “suspensions” in music theory) so that the harmonies kind of melt into each other; it’s a smooth process. At 0:49, we get our first hint at a melody, which again, doesn’t resolve. But at 1:29, something magical starts. It’s the beginnings of our first real cadence, an actual dominant chord (1:35) that goes to a tonic chord at 1:39. And that chord at 1:39 feels so good because it’s the first time Jesper resolves anything leading up to it.
Honestly, I don’t even know if Jesper can read music. It’s irrelevant. If he does or doesn’t, he writes what he hears.
On to “The Corruption” and its steady rhythms. And, of course, it gets super cool. Jesper tricks us a bit here, by flipping things around. Just try to follow the pattern, which he establishes at around 0:38. He flips it at 1:37. Unexpected, simple and awesome.
Listen: The Corruption
Oh, but it just gets better, that track. The anthem! Jesper ramps up this anthem to start at around 2:31 (the piano chords). It actually starts at 2:52. Goosebumps every. time. Then the rhythm at 3:14. I want to, like, stand on a mountain holding a lighter in the air, hugging my sister or something like that.
One more, and then I’ll leave you to discover the rest of Darksiders II.
It’s a short one, and it’s a track Jesper says he never thought would end up in the game. It was an improvisation – almost an afterthought. And that spontaneity is effervescent from the first to the final note. I have to stop myself from repeating it too many times in a row or I start to feel all weird, like someone will somehow notice that I’ve listened to it 27 times.
My favorite part in this particular track happens at 1:09. Again, this is a tiny detail in the large scope of the soundtrack. So tiny. But stopping everything for that tiny rhythmic motive draws a listener in. You notice it. And it’s right.
I’ve left you an entire second disc of Darksiders II to discover for yourself, and I cannot recommend it enough. Whether you’ve been a Jesper fan from the early days of Hitman, or you’re discovering him for the first time, this is a pretty great place to start.
Emily Reese is an on-air host for Classical Minnesota Public Radio. She is also the host and producer for Top Score, Classical MPR’s podcast about video game soundtracks, and created MPR’s Listening to Learn series. She earned an undergrad certificate in music education and jazz studies from the University of Colorado — Boulder, and a Master’s degree in music theory from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Emily lives in Twin Cities with her cats Atticus, June Bug and Lee, and loves gaming, with or without friends.