Checking the Score: DOOM

Checking the Score is a feature about video game music, composers, musicians and tools of the trade.

OK so…technically…this could count as cheating given that the original game (not the original original that is) came out last year, though the rules do state that it’s my obligation to cover a soundtrack for a game released over the past thirty-or-so days. So with DOOM finally hitting the Nintendo Switch earlier this month — and with everything considered, turned out to be a fairly enjoyable port, perhaps this is the best time to really dive into why the soundtrack has struck such a chord (no musical pun intended there, I swear). After all, not only did it walk away with our Best Soundtrack award last year, but admittedly, nearly a year and a half after its 2016 release on PS4/Xbox One/PC, Mick Gordon’s work on the first-person shooter’s glorious, modern-day return, is one that is still impactful but intriguingly packed with nuances and details.

While that may be an accolade that modern-day production and the rise of digital recording could grant itself, it would have been easy for 2016 (or 2017 in the Switch’s case) DOOM to simply retread the original’s mirroring of metal mentality. Of becoming a reflection of a reflection of that same outspoken, rebellious, attitude that gave 1993 DOOM its musical grittiness and unapologetic edge. Sure there’s plenty of that exertion and focus on dynamic shifting that punctuates a lot of DOOM’s sound. Guitars are just as dysfunctionally heavy with their loud stabs of staccato here and manic riffs there. But even when Gordon lets but a solitary bass string hammer at the track’s heart in all its distorted, fuzzy goodness, the advent and inevitable revolution of electronic music (on top the additional methods of electronic synthesis, be it analog, FM, modular or a wild combination of such) means that everything else going on around the music isn’t left behind.

DOOM Screenshot
This is where DOOM absolutely nails it when it comes to the idea of music elevating a moment in a specific video game, to looking/feeling more than just an assembly of pixels and back-end programming. A lot boils down to the ways in which Gordon flips the usual conventions of traditional composition on its head. The first instance comes with the priority he places with particular sounds, layers, instruments. Where it’s often the case that string-based instruments — guitar, bass, violin etc. — fit the role of guiding the track’s melody or chord progression and the percussion (physical or otherwise synthetic/pre-programmed) is but the rhythmic accompaniment, there are many instances in DOOM where the roles are reversed. Tracks like Rip & Tear, BFG Division, Ultraviolence, Vegacore instead place the guitar leads almost in a position of dictating pace and tempo with the drums forcing their way through like standard notation.

Whether it’s the thunderous clash of some, or the quieter if still textually-rich sections that chirp and bleep away in the backdrop for others, the percussion is what dictates the pitch, frequency and priority key that the track is played in. Percussion at times showing even more divergence and richness in timbre, no matter the presence or placement of guitars; drums often deciding when and where the next hefty passage will take place. Which leads us onto the second point and one that underscores Gordon’s philosophy of not smothering a given moment or set-piece in too much sound. Or rather, too many different/separate “things” going on at one time. Allowing one’s mad-scientist nature to come to the forefront as notes are let loose among the circuitry. As he’s previously shared when going into more detail about the methodology behind the music, DOOM’s use of electronic production — and manipulation as a result — is more than some desperate need to distance one’s self from the notion of “metal” or purely guitar-based genres in music.

The most prominent element in DOOM’s soundtrack isn’t its guitars or its crescendos — or the ways it so dramatically sways from a would-be verse to would-be chorus and back again — but rather its very use of such things like effect pedals, modular synthesis and side-chaining to make even the most basic of samples, sound like something far more depth-inducing. Of playing, for example, four F notes but then feeding that through a daisy chain-like series of pedals and effect processors — ultimately turning a stagnant quartet of notes into a crushed, distorted, but wholly more interesting concoction of noise, static and differing frequencies. Gordon isn’t afraid to indulge with post-processing and while the set-up may visually look like an indecipherable mess of 1/4″ wiring and modular racks of buttons and dials, sending a simple note through, say, a distorter…then a phaser…then a bit-crusher…then another distorter…and finally an end compressor…confusing as it may seem, transforms (disfigures perhaps, to pick a fittingly apt descriptor) a sound into something far richer and texturally diverse.

DOOM Screenshot 2
The beauty and charm with electronic music production is not knowing what’s going to come out the other side and while you may lose yourself — perhaps get confounded — in the options at one’s disposal (more time spent with the dials and knobs than actually thinking up a decent chord or series of notes to begin with), this chaotic unraveling of sound is a perfect match for what modern DOOM represents. DOOM is more than just a return to the pre-21st century philosophy on first-person shooters. More than a rejection of modern-day’s indulgent snottiness to instill purpose, reason or some deeply-embedded emotion into its delivery. And while that rejection let’s itself be known through the Doom Marine’s body-language and actions, Mick Gordon’s efforts can also be perceived as a rejection in of themselves. Rejection not just for the same principles, but also of past DOOM itself. Of going beyond the rinse-repeat gameplay loops — enter a room, kill demons, move on — to deliver a more graphic and visceral quality to its set-pieces.

The original DOOM wasn’t afraid to litter its corridors with dead corpses and spacious areas with little-to-no cover, but Gordon’s music is much more disorderly, much more rebellious and anarchic to that notion a game requires a set structure of verse-bridge-chorus — going one level deeper, that these sections need some directional melody or harmony to keep everything in check. Little here is kept in check; sounds spark off in numerous directions, electronic noises come and go, filling the listener’s spatial hearing from all sides, punctuating in a series of low and high frequencies. It’s this refusal to conform with a set structure that ties into the unapologetically rampant nature of DOOM’s combat. The environments don’t dictate or otherwise deny you the liberty of movement and Gordon’s arrhythmic design reflects the freedom players have to sprint around a level — taking demons out with short-distant weapons, long-distant weapons or with their own fists.

DOOM Screenshot 3
People may have associated genres like rock and metal to DOOM’s musical aesthetic beforehand, but the series has always been tinged by that hybrid of industrial, technical proficiency with the rawness of organic tones to its all-round design. As smothering and as artificially-hollow some modern-day production can be (least if you listen to Top-40 chart radio nowadays for long enough), DOOM’s soundtrack pulls the technological brute force the series had always held to the forefront. Focused less on creating memorable lead melodies or chord progressions — that may well just be C/F/G/Am in superficial disguise — and instead bringing to light the monstrous caliber that electronic production can have, even with something as simple as a lone strum of a bass string. Mick Gordon’s enthusiasm for the more technical and engineered side of production is clear to see with DOOM’s soundtrack.

It’s a sound that blurs the line between order and chaos, but succeeds because of the overwhelming exhilaration and tempo players immediately feel when thrust into combat. Perhaps it’s an aid when you yourself occasionally dabble with synthesizers, effect modules and hours simply jamming to the “sounds” emanating from one’s speakers. For those with zero interest/time, however, DOOM’s diverse use of space and pacing — on top of its ample post-processed sound — underscores how far last year’s marvel was willing to break from the mold of not just contemporary shooters, but its own legacy. There may have been references and nods to past tracks, but Mick Gordon’s work doesn’t at all seem interested in dignified flashbacks and it’s this unshackled if unruly liberty that, even now, signals DOOM’s sound as one of the most interesting ensembles, sonically and constructively. And with the Switch rendition, you can take it with wherever you go — rip and tear until it’s done…or at least until your Switch runs out of battery.

To dive even deeper into the wonderful world of video game OSTs, be sure to read our complete Checking the Score series.