By 2002, Frank Klepacki had firmly established himself as one of Western game music's leading composers, particularly through his work on the Command & Conquer franchise, which had allowed him to display his skills at bending and hybridising different musical genres into exciting and original compositions. At the same time, Klepacki had an extensive background of performing and composing non-game music, having played an active role in the music scene of his home town Las Vegas since the mid-90s. His activities there included his stints in alternative progressive rock band I Am and in funk/soul band Home Cookin', both of which featured Klepacki on drums. In addition to this, Klepacki had also produced albums for several Las Vegas bands.
Considering all this, it was no surprise that Klepacki would eventually go solo, releasing his debut album Morphscape in 2002, just after Command & Conquer: Renegade had hit store shelves. According to an interview with SEMO, Klepacki felt that “the popularity of several C&C soundtracks had given me a name and a style people were identifying with me.” Additionally, over the years he had gathered a collection of songs – “songs that I composed for fun, ideas I never finished, or themes I'd brought in from home thinking they might fit one of our games but was rejected etc.” Putting these songs together and releasing them on one album made perfect sense then. Another important aspect of Klepacki's undertaking was the internet's growing role in helping independent musicians distribute their music in the early 2000s, with online music shopping becoming a fixture of the music business. Setting up his own website with the help of a friend and signing up with an indie distributor allowed Klepacki to release Morphscape and launch his solo music career. Morphscape remains available from Klepacki's website, both
Released just after Command & Conquer: Renegade by a composer whose name was – and still is – closely tied to the Command & Conquer franchise, the first question to pop into most readers' minds will be: how much does Morphscape sound like Command & Conquer? The not very surprising answer: quite a lot, but that's of course not really an issue, given the quality of Klepacki's output for that franchise. His trademark eclecticism is in full force on Morphscape and most of the time, the results are impressively coherent. Klepacki's well-established mix of rock or funk elements with electronic sounds already greets listeners on the second album track “Blaster”, which offers the same galvanising electro funk heard on C&C tracks like “C & C Thang” or “Industrofunk”. Klepacki clearly knows how to lay down drum and bass grooves that are both smooth and pushing, while adding a metallic edge to the funk basis of the track that makes it all the more exciting. “Morphunk” tackles the same formula and alters it to shift the focus to the synth melodies layered on top of some of Morphscape's best rhythms, which now sometimes venture into hip-hop territory. All these elements create a track that's still punchy, but at the same time more laid-back in its strutting, self-assured grooves.
Another element whose return Command & Conquer fans will welcome with open arms are Klepacki's hard rock guitars, which first appear on “Freaks From Within”. Starting out as a subdued electronic track – perfect for a C&C sniper mission – “Freaks From Within” remains entertaining due to the energy of a gritty hard rock guitar riff that helps the track build until synth hits and choir join in, growing the cue into a full-blown rock anthem. Throughout its running time, “Freaks From Within” captivates by seamlessly changing back and forth between its two contrasting moods. “Defunkt” is the album's most hard rock-focused piece with a no-nonsense riff and drum beat, but the cue could really do with a punchier mix. Adding to the track's issues are the glitchy electronic sounds that Klepacki mixes in, once more attempting to bring together rock and synth sounds. However, “Defunkt” is one of the few occasions on Morphscape where the genre crossover fails to convince completely, since the electronic bleeping often distracts from the guitars. It's still a solid composition where rock and electronic music often work nicely together, but “Defunkt” is ultimately one of Morphscape's lesser cues. For a demonstration of how to do pull off the same experiment more successful, one only needs to wait for the next and final track on Morphscape, “Virus”. Arguably one of the album's highlights and blessed with a significantly more powerful sound than “Defunkt”, “Virus” uses dance beats rather than “Defunkt”'s rock rhythms to power its guitar riffs, but both sound worlds harmonise perfectly with each other and keep pushing the track forward into a soaring, rocking finale that closes Morphscape on an enthusiastic note.
The last style of music that carries over from Klepacki's Command & Conquer scores are the synth-only cues. One such track – “Morphscape” – opens the album, but turns out to be a slow starter. Running at more than five minutes, “Morphscape” develops fluidly and takes the listener through a number of moods, but while its slightly 90s-retro tinged synths remains atmospheric, it's never really clear where the journey is going and the piece fails to truly take off. In its focus on rather mellow atmospherics, “Morphscape” is somewhat reminiscent of Red Alert's more cinematic underscore pieces, which turned out to be that album's least interesting aspect. Still, “Morphscape” is an improvement over those cues and thankfully, the album picks up the pace after “Morphscape” with “Blaster” and “Freaks From Within”, leading into “Cybertek”, a straightforward, solid techno track with an in-your-face beat that provides sufficient grit amidst the cue's futuristic synth atmosphere. Less convincing is “Cosmic Lounge”, which mixes hip hop grooves with sound samples and a relaxed lounge atmosphere. This is another track whose ingredients don't mesh too well – the synthesised vinyl scratches and other sound effects become overkill at some stage rather than adding complexity, and the obnoxious squeaking synth leads directly run counter to the idea of spaced out relaxation that flows through at least some parts of the track.
There's no question that Morphscape offers a similar variety of styles and influences as Klepacki's Command & Conquer scores, mostly brought together with consummate skill. At the same time, that similarity also means that Morphscape feels like an extension of Klepacki's work for the best-selling RTS franchise, not quite as original as Klepacki's best genre fusions on Red Alert 2 or as experimental as his underrated score for Tiberian Sun. This is hardly a big issue, given how colourful Klepacki's music is and that only few game composers attempt the mix of genres that he pulls off, but don't expect Morphscape to shine much light on new sides of Klepacki's talent. The one truly original and unexpected track on Morphscape is “Gonna Rock Yo Body”, which mixes minimalist 70s dance rhythms with vocoderised vocals and synth string stabs. Both effortlessly cool and lovingly embracing disco music's cheesiness through its lyrics and string attacks, “Gonna Rock Yo Body” is a multifaceted genre mix that few would have expected from Klepacki, who finally presents music that couldn't have featured in any of his game projects. “Mode One” stretches the boundaries of Klepacki's trademark style less than “Gonna Rock Yo Body” does, but it still manages to bring something new to the table through its 80s-inspired new wave electronica. The cue benefits from catchier melody lines and beats than the album's other electronic tracks, and the big melody hooks that it delivers during the chorus are a welcome surprise.
It might seem like a facile way to sum up Morphscape's appeal, but there's no question that if you're a fan of Klepacki's Command & Conquer scores, you will most likely also enjoy Morphscape (unless you expect more of Tiberian Sun's powerfully atmospheric ambient musings). Klepacki's debut album brings to the table the same delectable mix of various genres – rock, dance music, house, funk, hip hop – that characterised his Command & Conquer scores. Not all of the genre bending on Morphscape works perfectly – “Cosmic Lounge” and “Defunkt” are no complete misses, but they still stumble. More often than not though, Klepacki mixes styles to winning results, be it the hard rock-meets-dance beats assault of “Virus” or the energising electro funk of “Blaster”. There's not much here that fans won't have heard already on various Command & Conquer albums, but at least “Gonna Rock Yo Body”'s smart disco homage hints at new talents that Klepacki hasn't displayed before. Overall, Morphscape is a solid debut album that will be of interest not just to Command & Conquer fans.
Freaks From Within
Gonna Rock Yo Body