If there’s a genre of music I don’t hear often enough in games, it’s the blues. A few titles come to mind that have borrowed the style for a single level or licensed a blues song for a cutscene but very few go all the way with their soundtracks. Even fewer big budget titles these days would dare reach beyond the safety of orchestral bombast that has become the norm. That’s what makes Mafia III (Expanded Game Score) extra special. It comes from a mainstream AAA title in a series whose orchestral soundtracks were already well regarded, bucking the trend of what even fans may be expecting. It’s also an exceptionally listenable album with highs and lows to accompany the drama and action but with a graceful, consistent feel overall.
That consistently cool sound is thanks to the work of composers Jesse Harlin (CounterSpy, Star Wars: The Old Republic) and Jim Bonney (BioShock Infinite, Perception) who stuck to a small staple of blues instruments including harmonicas and hand organs. The traditional blues sounds were expanded and accentuated with the use of flange effects, “step dancer” body percussion and the stellar sounding bowed piano and bowed acoustic guitar. It makes for a unique blues style that’s familiar but with layers of unexpected sounds, interludes of trippy soundscapes and thick ambiance.
The album opens with “New Bordeaux”, named after the game’s fictional New Orleans setting. I picture the cold cello lead and acoustic guitar flying us over the 1960s city and its surrounding wards. Halfway through the blues crash in, setting the tones we’ll hear through the rest of the album. The rough-and-tumble jangle of the acoustic guitar and the soulful wails of the lead guitar wind down into a bass solo and a finale that slides out with an air of trepidation.
Immediately following is “11th Hour Blues” which is like turning a corner from the darker “New Bordeaux” into a blues bar. The track is full of classic blues guitar, organs and electric guitar that ultimately ramp up the tempo through a frantic solo and break back down for a quick close. In contrast is the next track, “From Darkness, A Voice”. As you might expect from the title, it starts with a heavy soundscape of crashes that follows a deep, grumble of electric guitar to find the familiar cello again. That voice subsides into a much faster pace set by the tick-tock flick of a guitar and charging drums. Another break, this time of ominous bass guitar chords, winds us towards the latter half of the song. Here several acoustic guitars pick and whine a forlorn theme that culminates with a stomp of body percussion.
The mix of blues instrumentation with atmospheric flourishes continues with “Going Down Slow”. It opens with a jangly acoustic guitar and a rain stick slide into a slow bassy build up. The electric guitar leads the charge to a harmonica solo and the pair eventually sing back and forth while the percussion keeps a quick, choppy pace. In “No One is Untouchable” the sound grows darker again with a strutting bass and beat. Our cello voice returns again and leads to a stalking, stomping pace of electric bass and clapping body percussion. Though it changes style two or three times the whole song imparts the feeling of being stalked (or stalking) through dark city streets.
You can sample some of the music throughout the gameplay demo above
Returning to the blues bar feel is “Boy Becomes a Man” that sounds as sultry as the name suggests. The beat holds a steady swagger for the guitars, horns, organ and harmonica that mingle back and forth throughout the track. That fantastic blues swagger is carried over to the songs “Crush N Shuffle” and “Shudder N Moan” but blows up for several stellar tracks. “Howl”, “Straight Razor Blues” and “First Man Down” all explode with stabbing horn accents and frantic electric guitar leads. All three are equally my favorite songs on the album and they’re perfectly placed in the tracklist to stand out as high points.
Between those are more slower pieces with a cooler, darker vibe. “For Old Time’s Sake” starts with the jazzy twinkle of piano and brush drumming that is gingerly touched by guitar and bass. It soon drops into something more dire with tinny guitar backing and body percussion. It feels tense throughout even as it shifts from a jazzy spy feel into dusty blues. Equally dangerous and cool is “Freezers and Paper Trails” that rings with great ride cymbal percussion and another growling guitar that ebbs and flows down into a throbbing bassy heartbeat.
Ramping up the tension is “Chance of a Goddamn Lifetime” that uses that cymbal percussion to set a frantic, ticking-timebomb like pace for another layer of growling guitar melodies and twinkling accents. It finally breaks down into a surprise string interlude with sawing notes and wafting passages. Possibly the fallout of all these tense tracks are a trio of songs that ring with somber remorse. “A Kind of Peace” features our cello voice returning as the lead while the brush drumming and twinkle of acoustic guitar play backup. A piano gently plays down to a break as upright bass thumps into the background. The cello then returns for the finale to this heartbreaking yet wonderful piece.
On “5 Years, 3 Months, 18 Days” it’s the acoustic guitar that leads the somber song as almost the only instrument. Sustained notes and runs of cymbals periodically accent the wandering guitar until a darker tone of sawing strings and stabbing guitar establish their place for the remainder. There may be some tension left in the last track but by the album’s closing song, “Only Thing We’re Good At”, there’s nothing but solemn reflection. All of our familiar voices return with the acoustic guitar, cello, and blues guitar singing a drawl rendition of “New Bordeaux” amid discordant acoustic hits, wafting organs and thumping bass guitar. Despite the dour description it’s a beautiful song and a perfect way to end the album which must accompany some serious bad business in the game. It also segues nicely right back into Track No. 1, a loop that I’ve taken several times while continually listening to the album.
Mafia III (Expanded Game Score) is steeped in the traditions of the blues but it isn’t just a blues album. The changes in tone and tempo between the two composers make for a lot of pleasant surprises. Yet it never feels jarring or out of place going from club style blues into darker soundscapes, sometimes within the same song. I attribute that to the skill of the composers as everything, even the ringing silence between each ensuing note, feels perfectly placed and paced.2k Games, Game Music, Game Soundtracks, Jesse Harlin, Jim Bonney, Mafia III, Reviews