Review Summary: Though hints of amateurism are abound, the Black Mesa soundtrack shows years worth of work and refinement. Paying proper nostalgic tribute to the vibes of the game franchise while remaining unique.
First commenced in 2004 after the release of the revolutionary video game Half-Life 2, the then dubbed “Black Mesa Source” (later shortened to “Black Mesa”) non-profit project sought to give the previous and first installment in the Half-Life game franchise a complete graphical overhaul using game developer Valve’s Source engine. Half-Life had been released 8 years prior to its successor, so the capabilities of the engine over that amount of time had increased to ground-breaking levels. The idea was to enhance Half-Life’s gaming experience to the drastically superior level of Half-life 2 by adding more detailed textures and modernizing the game physics engine, and then releasing it as a free downloadable mod of Half-Life 2 that required the Source engine to play.
Ending up being in development for 8 years itself, the team behind the project most likely gradually thought over time to go ahead and give every single area of the game a make-over, pushing the boundaries of a game mod’s bar of standard. This resulted in the end product containing elements such as completely new and original voice-work, and most notably, an original score of its own. The makers of Black Mesa most likely would have originally planned to retain the original Half-Life score music by Valve composer Kelly Bailey, but as more time passed and the project became even more of their own, it would only seem appropriate to create score music of their own.
Joel Nielsen, the man in charge of Black Mesa’s sound effects and design was tasked with creating the original score for the mod as well. Having no experience with composing score music before, Nielsen has had as much time as required without deadlines to put together his vision of a satisfactory score that meets fans expectations. Thankfully, all the commitment and effort put into the project shows in his score, which results in an incredibly impressive debut score album for a non-professional composer especially.
Nielsen has managed to hit the nail on the head in making a score that embodies the true essence of the Half-Life franchise and its legacy. The game franchise has always been heavy on scientific themes, and Black Mesa source never fails to reflect upon this with an array of whirling electronic beats, beeps, and noises found in both its ominous ambient tracks, and its guitar-driven, battle-paced action anthems, which all comes together in a varied and satisfying balance.
At 30 tracks, the score generously features every bit of music from the game mod. Tracks are named after the levels in the game that they are heard in, and while there’s not much variance in the names for these tracks - “Surface Tension 1“, Surface Tension 2“, “On a Rail 1“, “On a Rail 2“ etc. - one shouldn’t be mislead, as the numerous themes for specific levels are all distinguished from each other, but retain a central feel to them that is distinct to the different game environments they take place in.
The soundtrack also features “remixes” of certain level themes that are essentially more heavily distorted and chopped up versions of the level’s theme’s, featuring the usage of backmasking, and seem to resemble decay metaphorically speaking. These different takes on the same tracks shows that Nielsen is full of ideas, and likes to take apart and reconstruct his work, and the album benefits from this by turning out to be a quite curious listen.
Tracks are heavily layered, and while they pay tribute to the spirit of Half-Life through electronic noise, Nielsen doesn’t come up short on including musical elements that give the Black Mesa score a unique sound of its own. More chugging and rock-oriented guitar riffs, grooving bass lines, and even orchestral elements such as pianos, and violins most notably, sprawl across the pieces, resulting in a loud and graceful collection of songs.
Though with all it’s impressive pros, there are also cons. This music is definitely powerful and attention-grabbing, impressive for a novice to the art such as Nielsen, but this aids the score as much as it hurts it. The soundtrack is very enthusiastic and excited, but this energy hardly fits Half-Life as well as Kelly Bailey’s somber and rusted industrial-esque score did. Nielsen’s lack of experience in composing score music can also start to show on the technical side of his compositions. While the songs are decorated with gorgeous aspects, their core structure is basic and simple progression, and it can become repetitive and cumbersome, though this is scarce, and it is only a minor flaw.
It has its issues, but a first attempt at a new field is bound to be a bit rough around the edges. Black Mesa’s original score is a skilled and impressive soundtrack for one that was made independently and with no budget, and with all the years of effort it shows, it is easily on the same level as the soundtracks for even bigger game franchises.