From the leader of Saturday Night Live’s band, to his collaboration with David Cronenberg, to the Lord of the Rings series and its prequel trilogy, Howard Shore’s career as a film composer has constantly led him to new and interesting places. However, few would have guessed that, a year after his double Oscar win for Return of the King, Shore would turn his energies toward writing the music for a Korean MMORPG that was never released overseas.
But that’s exactly what happened with SUN: Soul of the Ultimate Nation. The project came about when Shore was in Russia, looking for a way to collaborate with the National Philharmonic of Russia and the National Arts Choral Society of Moscow; the producers of SUN just happened to contact him at the same time. As a result, Shore wrote an hour of music for the game based on preproduction artwork and utilizing the full talents of the orchestra, choir, and renowned theremin player Lydia Kavina.
The result is an enormous symphonic sound very similar to Shore’s Lord of the Rings, with one key weakness: the music lacks the thematic cohesion and structure of Shore’s film works. Thunderous tracks like “Menace of the Army Wings” and “Empire Geist” provide a wall of noise and the distinctive flavor of Shore’s orchestrations, but without any central thematic material, they simply become sound and fury that signifies little. There is some ethereal choral work in “The Epitaph” and elsewhere that is effective in an ambient sense, but still lacks the strong thematic backbone found in so much of Shore’s Lord of the Rings.
There’s a significant amount of theremin material, arguably the strongest music on the album, as in “Night of the Crescent Moon;” the instrument is played in a way that evokes a human voice more than the traditional spooky sound associated with the instrument. Kavina’s playing is easily the highlight of the album, and the closest that it comes to establishing any sort of thematic cohesion. If there are any other such links, they are subtle enough to pass easily without notice.
In the end, Soul of the Ultimate Nation is undeniably a disappointing work. While featuring Shore’s trademark sound and an enormously talented group of performers, the work winds up being very difficult, dense, and disorganized. Though lofty expectations may play a part in this disappointment, it’s hard to shake the feeling it was a missed opportunity for all involved. Available as an import for years, the album was reissued in 2012 and is easy for Shore fans to seek out.