Ludvig Forssell presents an atmospheric and rather intriguing sound for Death Stranding, with 80s-style synth and ominous orchestra forming a curious but effective musical partnership to create what is truly one of the most fascinating game scores this year.
Haunting synthesizer notes open the score in Once, There Was An Explosion which pretty much immediately establishes a dark, creepy and particularly ominous tone. Other, deeper synth then starts to pulsate in the background, sounding eerily like a heartbeat and gradually increasing in both intensity and volume until the music peaks in an especially ghostly manner with almost whisper-like synth notes. At this point electronic percussion takes the forefront, combining with the now newly-styled aforementioned instrumentation to form a very 80s horror-sounding back half of the cue (think Stranger Things but a bit creepier) before the music then draws to a close.
A rather solemn piano then starts off Alone We Have No Future, with the now 80s-style synth slowly fading in over the course of the track’s opening minute. This and the piano form quite a clash in terms of both tone and compositional style, but an intriguing one all the same. Pensive vocals then arrive towards the end of the piece, leaving things on a particularly gloomy note as the music fades out. Overall, these two cues form a mysterious, bizarre-sounding and at the same time very interesting start to the score, and right off the bat you can tell that this is going to be no ordinary game soundtrack.
Sheer atmosphere pretty much sums up Bridges, where the haunting and creepy tone from the first track returns in full ominous force with low electronics and quiet but rather eerie-sounding vocals. Things then continue in a similar vein initially in Beached Things before full horror descends with deep, dark synth and the return of the pulsating backing notes. The intensity then ramps up considerably towards the end with imposing, fast-paced percussion and loud, descending synth before the music comes to a typically horror-esque, dramatic and rather deafening close. Speaking of deafening, subsequent cue Chiral Carass Culling will pretty much then blow out your eardrums. Ridiculously loud and distorted synth forms the baseline of much of its two and a half minute runtime, with intense percussion and spine-chilling vocals bringing up the background of the final few seconds with the music then coming to a particularly rapid finish.
Things then calm down considerably for The Face Of Our New Hope, with a pensive piano opening the cue before slow and solemn strings arrive a few seconds later. The 80s musical style then returns about halfway through with Blade Runner-esque drawn-out synth notes and light atmospheric percussion. This light new ambience then continues with An Endless Beach, where things are rather (for lack of a better word) chill for the first minute or so. After that, slow strings and a decidedly pensive piano join the fray, changing the tone from almost upbeat to rather solemn and a tad haunting. Vocal-like synth then adds an element of wonder to the final moments of the cue before it then ends. Curiously, the compositional style of the score then changes again with Heartman, with deep vocals in combination with the 80s synth forming the musical majority of the cue in a mysterious yet rather relaxing manner.
Claws Of The Dead marks the album’s return to the horror side of things, a cue complete with high-pitched shrieking strings and particularly ominous deep vocals. Distorted Hans Zimmer-style percussion then joins in at the ninety second mark, and this combined with fast-paced chanting vocals and frantic strings in the back half makes for a pretty terrifying piece of music overall. Slow and rather mysterious strings then open Fragile, with the 80s-style synth then taking a turn for the ominous with a minute or two of pensive and methodical notes. A touch of hope is added in the final minute by somewhat calming strings before the mysterious vocals then return to bring the cue to an almost upbeat end. Any and all hopefulness is then lost however with action/horror track Stick V.S. Rope, where rapid and rather deep vocals come together with imposing percussion and loud, intimidating synth for four minutes of particularly intense score.
Solemnity opens Strands, a nine minute atmospheric setpiece. Slow and rather wistful vocals start things off with soft piano notes taking up the background, before light strings then arrive about two minutes in to inject a small amount of hope into the music before then fading out almost as quickly as they began, leaving the melancholic vocals as the centre of attention. I’d liken this track’s methodology for mood setting to Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer’s Blade Runner 2049, a score where establishing emotion over motif was of similar priority to this one. Hope does emerge briefly again towards the end of the piece in a rather stirring synth-heavy moment, but for the most part this remains a pensive mood setter, and a beautiful one at that.
Hints of the standout cue appear in the back half of Lou, where light and almost optimistic vocals nearly sound like they’re singing parts of it before the track then finishes. Not to worry though, because the cue itself is up next; BB’s Theme. This is a very different piece of music compared to anything heard in the score so far, being primarily vocal in style (shoutout to performer Jenny Plant). Said vocals are pretty solemn at the start, but before long percussion and strings begin to rise in the background, and what was sad now becomes epic. This rather grandiose score continues for a minute or so before it then dies back down to give more attention to the particularly beautiful vocals, which a few minutes later then recombine with the dramatic percussion for the track’s grand finale. Overall, BB’s Theme is an elegant, fascinating and frankly fantastic cue, and one well worthy of the standout cue award.
The album then wastes no time dialing the intensity back up with subsequent track Flower Of Fingers, where near-deafening vocals and deep, powerful-sounding backing percussion provide us with an exceptionally dramatic six minute action setpiece. The fast pace is then continued in Cargo High, where curiously another composer called Joe Corelitz joins the fray with a heavily 80s-style synth action cue, complete with rapid beats and lengthy Blade Runner-esque synth notes. Ludvig Forssell then returns with intensity in Decentralized By Nature, where the action sort of comes full circle with the established 80s beats and distorted Zimmer-style synth. Brief vocals can then be heard towards the end of the track, where the volume ramps up considerably for a particularly fierce finish.
Moody atmosphere makes a welcome return with Chiralium, where light yet solemn synthy percussion and rather mysterious-sounding electronics establish quite a calm and dreamlike setting that is then held throughout the track’s primarily peaceful four minute runtime. Frozen Space continues in a similar vein initially, utilising rather serene vocals and drawn out synth notes for a particularly tranquil first two minutes before the musical intensity starts to increase and the score becomes somewhat hopeful with the 80s-style electronics beats making a brief cameo towards the track’s end. To close out the album, pensive vocals in combination with lengthy synth notes open The Timefall, before ominous and methodical percussion then appear, gradually becoming darker and tenser before the score then stops, ending curiously but not surprisingly on a note of mystery.
Overall, Ludvig Forssell’s score for Death Stranding is a curious one indeed. Ominous vocals and 80s-style synth form the compositional backbone of much of the album, coming together frequently to establish quite a dark but thought-provoking atmosphere for the much anticipated game. There’s very little here in terms of thematic material, but much like with Blade Runner I don’t feel that this is a bad thing, as this score works more as a world-builder and mood-setter than traditional theme heavy compositions. A particularly good example of this is the eight minute Strands, where you really get a sense of how gloomy but at the same time fascinating the world of Death Stranding must be. Of course, the standout cue BB’s Theme is also of considerable note, with Jenny Plant’s vocals being the star of the show there by far.
All-in, a truly fascinating score, Mr. Forssell.
Standout Cue: 18. BB’s Theme