Bogged down by unrealistic expectations brought on by developer Lionhead Studios’ hyperbolic pre-release commentary, the original Fable wound up disappointing for what it was not despite being a relatively solid (and often quite funny) game in its own right. One of the entries in Sumthing Else’s Xbox catalog, Fable also represents something of a rarity (though it is becoming more and more common): a major film score composer working on a video game. In this case, Danny Elfman, famous for his work with Tim Burton, was brought in to write the main theme, while Russell Shaw, composer of Black and White, was drafted to flesh it out into a complete score.
Elfman has worked in this way many times before, contributing themes to Pure Luck, Novocaine, and Heartbreakers, among others, but his main theme has much more in common with his then-contemporary Spider-Man and Planet of the Apes scores. Dynamic, percussion-heavy, and with a full choir, the theme is built around a malleable 7 (or 8, depending on the variation) note theme that captures the darkness inherent in the game’s concept without servicing the fantasy aspect too much. The approach is light-years away from Lord of the Rings, and is perhaps more suited to a superhero, but manages to fit very well.
Russell Shaw clearly studied Elfman’s body of work and adopted the composer’s signature motifs for several cues in his score. “Oakvale” is orchestrated and performed like a cue out of Edward Scissorhands, for example, while “Arena” features Elfman’s trademark ascending brass notes. On the whole, though, Shaw limits himself to referencing the “Fable” theme, which is heard in one form or another in virtually every track on the disc.
Shaw’s own musical voice comes to the fore in tracks like “Temple of Light” and “Bowerstone”. “Temple” is the only synthesized track on the disc, and features a mystical, distant, almost new age feel, while “Bowerstone” is a quirky plucked-string delight that evokes an upper-class, uptight atmosphere. The latter especially would go on to influence Shaw’s scores to Fable II and Fable III, which took on increasingly Victorian mannerisms even as they first minimized and then discarded Elfman’s original theme.
The album does suffer from more than its share of dud tracks, however. “Lytchfield Cemetery,” for example, is atmospheric and plodding — good for setting a mood but of little use outside of the game. And the final two tracks, taking up almost a fourth of the total running time, are extraordinarily dull Gregorian chants. I normally cherish choral elements in soundtracks, but the chants found in Fable are repetitive, shrill, and totally uninteresting, and they end the disc on a very weak note.
Overall, there is much reason to recommend the album — Elfman’s theme, Shaw’s original work, and variations — but the number of dull dud tracks brings the album down considerably. Elfman completists, and anyone who enjoyed Lionhead’s other scores, will probably get the most out of a purchase. The best solution for casual enthusiasts may be to seek out the digital reissue and avoid the weakest music altogether.