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ARK (2017)

British composer Gareth Coker, a relative newcomer to the LA scoring world, made a stunning entrance into the public eye with his critically-acclaimed work on the video game score Ori and the Blind Forest in 2015. Known for his blend of orchestral melodies and unconventional, ethic soundscapes, Coker received nominations for Ori and the Blind Forest from both BAFTA and IFMCA, as well as breakthrough composer of the year from the latter, among other awards. Coker was educated at the Royal Academy of Music in London and University of Southern California. In addition to his video game scores, he has also written music for a number of films, commercials, and music libraries. Ori and the Blind Forest was one of my favorite scores of 2015, and I eagerly awaited what Coker would do next. The recent release of his score for the game ARK: Survival Evolved does not disappoint. The largest project he has done to date, ARK features his blend of grand orchestra with sweeping themes and ethnic, unique soundscapes for the different ‘biomes’ in the game play, and easily rose to the top of my list for 2017 scores as well.

ARK is a high-octane version of games like The SIMS where the player builds his own world inside the setting of the game. Here, that is a prehistoric world with dinosaurs (and yes, dragons) not unlike Dinotopia or the short-lived tv show Terra Nova, maybe with a little of Avatar’s Pandora and some Halo thrown in. In a video about the scoring sessions, Coker explained his approach to the game and the different biomes (watch here). Appropriately, the main theme he wrote for the game is wonderfully adaptable for a variety of settings, soundscapes, and variations, which is one of the scores strongest aspects. It is a beautiful melody, reminiscent to some of the chords in Joel Goldsmith’s Stargate Atlantis main theme. It is also circular in that it easily loops back on itself, which is useful for game play scenarios and Coker’s use of a variety of instrumentations for the thematic statements keep it fresh and interesting, not to mention the broad variety of ways he reworks the theme melodically. A frustration of mine with many video game scores is when the composer writes a stunning main title and engaging theme but then doesn’t use it anywhere in the game, for example Harry Gregson-Williams’ Metal Gear Solid 2 or Lorne Balfe’s Assassin’s Creed 3. Coker uses the theme in every cue. There is quite a bit of music in this game obviously not on the 75-minute album, but Coker stated he tried to put some form of it in every track.

ARK is a giant orchestral score. It astounds me how large the budgets for music in video games have gotten in the past decade, bringing in big name composers and with full orchestra. Coker and team recorded ARK at Abbey Roads Studio 1 over three days, no less, and the result is a huge, sweeping, powerful recording on the scale of Lord of the Rings and John Debney’s LAIR game score. There is so much going on in every track, one could write a detailed description of each cue, but that’s beyond the scope of this review. The point is that this score is complex, beautifully written and performed, and thematic, making it both an exciting and interesting listen. Listen to the main theme multiple times before tackling the rest of the score, get familiar with the theme, because Coker weaves it in all over the place in many different formats and styles of melody, rhythm, and orchestration. If you are curious how the music works in the game, it was used over the game’s announcement trailer that can be viewed here.

One of the highlight cues is the second track, “The Southern Islets” and brings the theme in with a strong but truncated brass statement over swirling strings and light percussion and marimba with acoustic guitar. This is one of the numerous biome soundscapes and the varied instrumentation brings new tones, but the bold theme is never far away. Some of the biomes take on a light, acoustic feel with ethnic flutes like Coker’s Ori and the Blind Forest score. “Shores and Stars” does this and also features a beautiful varied horn statement of the theme. Ethnic flutes define the soundscapes in “Snowbound” and “Snow Thy Enemy” over driving rhythms and brass hints of the theme. “Writhing Swamps” brings in low, droning vocals with the theme stated only as bold chord progressions. Again, Coker does this with his versatile theme in “In Deep Water” where it appears as chords, here over muted sounds for underwater game play. The progression of the theme is played in minor chords over a moving string line in “Slow Steps Forward” for another thematic highlight.

Quite a bit of the score has a militaristic tone for the action sequences. The “ARK Battle March” brings out the theme as an anthem over heavy percussion and choir. The choir also returns in cues like “The Dragon” and “The Overseer”. The latter cue is the penultimate track on the album and the bombastic finale sequence in the game. Coker wrote this piece at 400 beats per minute and it is a sheer wall of sound. Opening with a full choir, this cue then picks up speed into a frenetic string line as the choir chants along over militaristic percussion. Halfway through, the theme comes in in the low brass followed by the single choral statement of it, still at a frantic pace. A new variation comes in with bolder choral and brass statements rounding out the finale cue. “Ascension” continues this but quickly slows to the piano and cello driven pre-theme that opens the main theme track. Here we get another highlight performance of the theme in a very Stargate way in the trumpets over the orchestra and choir.

The “End Credits” close out the album with entirely new music, including more ethnic instrumentation and a new sweeping statement of the theme. The track ends with a final, full statement of the theme with both orchestra and choir, the culmination of the musical ideas of the album and reward for making it through the intricate and complex music on the album. Easily one of the best video game scores of 2017, if not one of the best scores in general, ARK is a triumphant entry into Coker’s growing repertoire. The score is getting attention, and one fan did a really cool metal cover of the main theme that can be seen here. After Ori and the Blind Forest, which introduced us to Gareth Coker, ARK is the score that really shows what he is capable of and hopefully a taste of what we can expect from this up and coming composer.

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