2008’s MMORPG Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures was scored by a relative newcomer, Norwegian Knut Avenstroup Haugen, who found himself with big shoes to fill — artists as diverse and respected as Basil Poledouris and Ennio Morricone have tackled Robert E. Howard’s barbarian milieu with highly-acclaimed music. The composer researched music from all over the world in preparation, and the resulting score heavily features the human voice, that most ancient of instruments. This double disc stand-alone soundtrack is commercially available and there is also a single disc soundtrack available with the Collector’s Edition version of the game.
Haugen skillfully uses his ensemble to create an intimate but suitable ancient sound for the more subtle tracks. Pieces like “Sands of Forgetfulness” and “Damp Barachan Nights” exemplify this more restrained style, which has a restrained, melodramatic beauty. Singer Helene Bøksle lends her voice to several more songs in this vein, including the powerful “Nighttime Journey” which rumbles forward in a style reminiscent of Jerry Goldsmith. Bøksle, who is one of the album’s definite highlights, anchors many of the finest pieces with haunting, wordless vocals.
Not all the quieter music is up to this high standard, however. The latter parts of the album are dominated by a duduk-led Egyptian style, which isn’t as enjoyable as what preceded it. It can be shrill, even stereotypical, at times, and is generally lacking Bøksle’s voice and the earlier themes’ subtle touch.
As music for barbarians, the album contains its share of powerhouse action pieces, many of which seem to be inspired by Poledouris’ music for the 1982’s Conan film. Haugen unleashes massive, triumphant fanfares in “Vista from Mount Crom” and “Echoes of Atlantis,” the latter of which features stunning choral work much like Alan Silvestri’s The Abyss. These pieces, likely composed for cinematics, are some of Haugen’s strongest.
The battle music is suitably apocalyptic with prominent percussion and choral accompaniment. From “Awakening” to the back to back “Stygia – Cimmeria – Aquilonia” run at the end of the album, the action music is rarely anything other than thunderous. While a strength, this is also something of a drawback; the music can be literally overbearing and exhausting at times.
The bonus disc exclusive to the commercially available soundtrack is a mix of styles. Much of the disc is dedicated to the epic combat suites most would expect from such a game. However, the first three tracks are actually rock performances by heavy metal band Turbonegro and are therefore a jarring stylistic shift. Some audiences are likely to enjoy these themes, but they are not compatible with Haugen’s own scores.
Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures is a rewarding listen for people who enjoy massive orchestral and choral works, and it is liberally sprinkled with references to masters of symphonic barbarianism. But it can be a bit of a slog at times, when the relentless battle themes or Egyptian atmosphere become too overbearing. Still, the music is an impressive debut for Haugen, who assembled a crystal-clear recording of live players. Hopefully he will have more opportunities within the industry with such a massive effort behind him.