In honor of this season of non-denominational holiday spirits, I’ve decided to write this week’s Music to Game By about everyone’s favorite non-denominational vanilla Space Marines Codex. For those that haven’t been following the series so far I’ve been forced by Tasty Taste at gunpoint set out on a journey to define the races of the 40K universe with a soundtrack. Stepping away from my duties (largely consisting of seeing just how much I can get away with) over at Dick Move, I’ve been pairing races and music based on loose criteria of a thematic nature. These are the songs that get me excited about a race or that I think they might make or enjoy.
Today we’re just going to be talking about the unnamed chapters of space marines, the DIY chapters. I feel like the various named chapters in the codex (Ultramarines, Salamanders, Crimson Fists, etc) are both diverse and divers enough to warrant their own posts later on. Knowing that, this post is all about cutting to the very essence of the Space Marines and figuring out how to represent them through song.
What can really be said about the valiant space marines that we don’t all know already? They are 8′ tall genetically engineered supermen tasked with defending human kind from the vilest of Xenos threats. Each chapter is a thousand man strong force, capable of being rapidly deployed wherever there is danger to rain down death from above as the ‘Angels of Death.’ Organized under the dogma of Guilliman’s Codex Astartes, the Space Marines are about as close to “good guys” as you’ll find in the not good/bad dichotomized 40K universe. Noble, virtuous, superhuman- the marines have it all. Such power comes with great responsibility, though. They are mankind’s elite, last defense against the growing and endless tide of threats to humanity, fighting a constant uphill battle.
Beyond the obvious, what really strikes me about the Space Marines is their majesty. Simply put, they’re amongst the most majestic icons I can think of in any science fiction universe. Now I promise that even if I have to resort to dusting off a thesaurus, I’ll try not to overuse the majesty angle…. but really, that word sums up my feelings perfectly. Musically, I’m going to be on the hunt for songs that, like the marines, have a larger than life feel to them, while extolling the virtues of fighting the good fight, holding out against the odds, and laughing in the face of danger. I don’t really know any other way to tackle the marines, so let’s just jump right in.
Modest Mussorgsky- “The Great Gate of Kiev”
This has always been my favorite symphonic piece. Yes, it may be a little bit lumbering and heavy-handed, but you cannot deny the sheer power and size of this work. This is the final movement of Mussorgsky’s epic “Pictures at an Exhibition” suite and, if memory serves me, represents the impression left on the composer after viewing a painting depicting a magnificent and mightily huge gate, barring Kiev off from the outside world. There’s a lot more to the whole work which was inspired by an exhibition of artist Viktor Harmtann’s paintings, but you kids all know how to use Google, so I’ll spare you the details. Originally written as a piece for solo piano, the suite has been adapted and arranged by countless composers and artists including Emmerson Lake, and Palmer. The version depicted above is Maurice Ravel’s arrangement and is easily the most performed arrangement out there.
This work holds a special spot in my heart as a percussionist bearing memories of one of the few times I actually enjoyed playing percussion in the symphony. Let’s just say that when a conductor tells you that it’s impossible to strike the gong and bass drum hard enough (simultaneously even) it’s a good day. Usually classical compositions are sorely lacking the percussion department. I have not so fond memories of playing many pieces where a single timpani hit is preceded by 120 measures of rest and followed by another 100 or so measures of rest before a single roll that closes out the piece. The non-chromatic percussion (gongs- yes plural!, cymbals, bass drum, etc) is really what gives this piece a lot of its power and adds that bit of brassy aggression that make me think of war and the Space Marines. The symbolism of power is really what this is about at the end of the day. The mighty gate of Kiev holds out against the outside world, just as the Space Marines hold out against the universe at large. There’s not a lot more to say than that. If this song doesn’t give you a feeling of wanting to go out and defend mankind deep within your chest, then there’s probably something wrong with you.
I’ll come right out and say it: I have a sort of love/hate relationship with VNV Nation. On the one hand they represent everything I hate about the intersection of dance music and industrial (and one of the hands down worst live acts I have ever had the misfortune of seeing- I did not pay $35 to see some guy sing along to a sequenced track while his friend pretends to play drums- they didn’t even have the decency to pretend anything was going on by doing something like putting a real keyboard on stage…), but on the other hand their songs make me want to shake my ass on the dance floor. So conflicting… Oh, I should probably talk about space marines or something, right? This track comes from their most recent album, “Of Faith, Power, and Glory,” which I will begrudgingly admit is one of the best efforts in their nearly 15 year long career. As the album title would imply, the songs evoke the spirit of fighting for what you believe in, defending the weaker, and all of that- stuff that marines are all about. The group’s leader, Ronan Harris denies that his songs are overtly about warfare, but I’m calling bullshit on that. “I carry a sword through a battlefield” indeed (from “Joy” off of “Praise the Fallen”).
More importantly, this song is incredibly dense, driven by ample amounts of bass, giving it a thick feel. The power that this lends the song is much like the might of the Imperium- heavy and all-encompassing. All the while an arpeggiated synth in the higher register gives the song a very regal feel. Being written in a major key, this cut never ceases to get me in good spirits and prepare me to take on the universe, even though I know it’s all stacked against me. Hell, this mentality is even ingrained in the song’s chorus:
“Until the end and back again
Defiant to the last man
‘Til there’s nothing left
To fight against
Unto the corners of the Earth
Defiant to the last breath
Until there’s none left standing
And they shall know no fear….
From the sound track of the oft maligned David Lynch version of Dune, this song (which Lauby was kind enough to remind me of) is a perfect fit for Space Marines. This soundtrack has continually been in my gaming canon for years. I can’t say that I particularly like Toto in any other instance, but for this film score, they really hit on something sublime. As the song begins, there is a low piano ostinato, mirrored by the strings and supplemented by the vaguely film noirish bongo part that is full of tension and menace. Every time I hear it, I start to brace myself for war. I can almost see my enemy’s tanks and lines of troops looming in the distance preparing for a clash. After several triumphant washes of strings, the main Dune theme is presented in a key appropriate to this song. The brief washes of strings show us the first glimmer of hope and underscore our eventual triumph over evil. The reemergence of the Dune theme, however shows that the threat presented by the enemy is all too real and must be put down quickly. Crescendoing to a triumphant climax in the last few seconds of the song, we’re left with a bittersweet and too fleeting glimpse of victory. I have to admit that, though I could listen to it all day, not repeating that last phrase ad nauseum shows a lot of restraint on Toto’s part. That restraint, much like the humility of the Space Marines, is part of what makes that song so good.
That’s it for this week. Any songs that you associate with the Space Marines? Let us know in the comments.