Icewind Dale (Jeremy Soule)

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After the shuttering of Squaresoft America’s game development arm after Secret of Evermore, composer Jeremy Soule was forced to find work elsewhere in the industry, spending several years writing overachieving music for Humongous Entertainment’s children’s titles like Putt-Putt Travels Through Time. His impressive score for Total Annihilation from the same company in 1997 led to more work in a largely serious vein, though, and 2000 saw him hired for the fantasy adventure game Icewind Dale, a Dungeons & Dragons licensed product from Black Isle Studios.

Unlike many game scores, past and present, Soule’s music for Icewind Dale (aside from the relatively few battle themes) was not written to loop; each piece is self-contained, and played at regular intervals with periods of silence in between. Because of that, and because of the score’s multitude of themes, it often plays more like a Hollywood film score than game music. Interestingly, the most prominent theme in the score, and the one many players will remember, is all but ignored in Soule’s later development: “Icewind Dale,” the aggressive, pounding theme from the game’s title screen.

Soule offers up a variety of themes and gives almost all of them variations in other tracks. For example, the noble theme for the game’s first town, Easthaven, is aired in “Easthaven in Peace” before being twisted into a the dark, minor-key “Easthaven in Pieces.” “Kuldahar,” the warm, new-agey theme for the game’s hub town, is similarly transformed into a dark and pounding battle track later on in the score, as well as a theme of mystery and discovery in “The Heartstone Gem.” A broader “adventure theme” runs throughout the score as well, appearing in the “Theme of Icewind Dale,” “Arundel’s Home,” and the game’s end credits suite, among others.

Perhaps the most prevalent theme in the score, first heard subtly as counterpoint in “The Tale of Icewind Dale,” is a thunderous theme of foreboding and evil for the creatures of Dorn’s Deep. It roars to the forefront in “Lower Dorn’s Deep,” given a full gothic workout with apocalyptic choir and organ. It’s given an outing in both of the final boss battles, too, starting each of them as a portentous brass fanfare before moving into the body of the work. The theme appears in hints and fragments elsewhere, as well as softer and more mournful modes as in “Svirfneblin Refugee Camp” and even the heroic triumph of “Success.”

Throughout the score, Soule relies entirely upon his own sample library to produce a robust fantasy sound that, for many listeners, will be all but indistinguishable from a live orchestra (albeit one with a rather “wet” mix). By and large, it is the straight, if slightly ambient, orchestral and choral sound that listeners may recognize from Soule’s later projects, but some tracks like “Drums of the Dead” and “Lysan’s Lair” use electric guitars in counterpoint as well.

Soule’s score isn’t perfect, by any means; as with many of his later works, there are some tracks that shade off so far into ambiance that they’re largely unlistenable when divorced from the game. Depending on your patience for ambient musical wanderings, songs like the fourth bonus track, “Frost Giant Cave,” and others may try your patience. The generally short length of each individual track, though, and the many interconnected thematic fragments from other songs buried in even the dullest music, make this a relatively minor problem.

Icewind Dale would cement Soule’s reputation as a composer for fantasy video games, and his resume would be enhanced by titles like the Harry Potter videogames, the Elder Scrolls series, and Guild Wars in the decade that followed. While there was no CD released for Icewind Dale at the time of its publication, a disc was eventually pressed for a special edition of the game (packaged with its expansion packs, also scored by Soule); this remains the only legitimate source of the music, though the bundle is cheap and widely available. Whether experienced in-game or on the CD (which includes 10 additional unlabeled tracks as well as its posted contents), Icewind Dale is a perfect introduction to Jeremy Soule’s fantasy scores and a fine jumping-off point for anyone who wants to explore his oeuvre.

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Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (Julian Nott)

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Originally released 1989-1995, the Wallace and Gromit claymation shorts were utterly charming and original. They helped the Bristol-based studio ink a distribution deal which would see it produce several motion pictures over the next several years, including Chicken Run and Flushed Away. In between, Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, the cinematic debut of the previous shorts’ stars earned rave reviews did swimmingly at the box office, despite the amount of time that had passed since the original short cartoons debuted.

Following the pair to into theaters was composer Julian Nott, who scored the original three Nick Park shorts, giving them a bouncy theme and plenty of manic slapstick energy. However, Nott was not the only composer attached to the project: the movie posters (and, somewhat disgustingly, the film’s main titles) also carry the “music produced by Hans Zimmer” credit, with no less than four of Zimmer’s Remote Control/Media Ventures collaborators listed as co-composers. DreamWorks, which has a long-running relationship with Zimmer’s studio, had turned to them to score Chicken Run and exercised its control over Aardman by having Nott write themes and motifs which were then passed to a team of RC/MV composers to be fleshed out into a full score.

This process is similar to the one employed by Zimmer himself, but luckily, the score for Curse of the Were-Rabbit steers clear of the pitfalls that normally affect Remote Control/Media Ventures scores: there are no watered-down themes, and no inappropriate over-reliance on synthesizers and male choirs. This has been true of several other animated films with an RC/MV pedigree, like the aforementioned Chicken Run or The Simpsons Movie; it seems that, with a strong thematic backbone and a studio mandate to produce old-fashioned thematic orchestral music, the RC/MV process can produce strikingly lively music for animation.

In fact, despite some confusion over what Nott did and did not write for the score, the music is remarkably true to the spirit of the original shorts, and even retains their theme while introducing a bevy of new secondary motifs. Were-Rabbit deftly moves from rousing, bouncy action cues to full-blown gothic music, complete with pipe organ with ease, incorporating a choir as well. Despite the cross-genre movement, the album is consistent in its light tone, and there’s little mickey-mousing. A highlight is the rousing “Dogfight,” which whips up a full-blown orchestral ruckus, supporting performances of the score’s themes with excellent brass and percussion.

Despite the pre-release fears, there’s nary a Remote Control/Media Ventures fingerprint to be found in Curse of the Were-Rabbit. The album is a consistent, infectious listen from start to end without falling prey to the clichés that can infest animation or slapstick writing. Highly recommended for anyone seeking a fully orchestral and choral expansion of the fun and lighthearted music for the Wallace and Gromit shorts, especially considering how rare the promotional albums with scores from the original shorts are.

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