Leaf Me Alone (David Fenn)

Cover
Cover

The Ludum Dare is an indie video game competition that challenges participants to come up with a functioning game in an absurdly small amount of time. The “Game Jam” category allows a developer team only 72 hours to make a game, and the August 2013 Ludum Dare Jam winner was a simple browser game called Leaf Me Alone which followed the adventures of a tiny forest denizen seeking a place to rest. It was developed by a team of two, Mark Foster and David Fenn, and Fenn wrote the game’s score which was later released for sale as a standalone product.

Fenn uses a surprisingly sophisticated set of synths for his music, lending it a very organic sound despite the game’s 8-bit NES-era aesthetic. It is also strongly thematic, with a fetching pastoral melody appearing right from the outset in “Home,” one which has a feeling of Greig or Copeland about it but most strongly resembles the beautiful Viva Pinata score by fellow UK developer Grant Kirkhope. The theme returns both in whole and in fragments throughout the album, but is most gorgeously rendered in “Night,” which features stunningly synthesized woodwinds passing the theme back and forth over a bed of peaceful piano and mallet washes. “Night” is easily one of the finest video game music pieces of 2013 and worth the price of the album by itself.

The other tracks in the main score are all largely very attractive as well, with a variety of sounds and tempos all incorporating the same organic and melodic aesthetic. “Tree” and “Sky” both feature warm melodies, while “Mountain” and “Temple” are more percussive and troubled. The brief “A Place of Rest” and “A New Leaf” bring the album to a soft solo piano close, the latter giving one last interpretation of the main theme. The main score is rather brief, only 15 minutes, so the album is rounded out by a series of six remixes by various artists, and it’s there where the album stumbles somewhat. The remixes rely far too heavily on overused and trendy sounds like record scratches and generally muddy the simple and charming originals more than they offer a meaningful reinterpretation; the electronic sounds so common to modern remixery are a particularly bad match.

Leaf Me Alone is a very strong score and comes recommended, especially “Night.” However, while it is available on the composer’s Bandcamp for the low price of $3, the fact that half of the music is inferior remixes does hold the album back from a top rating. Even so, it is a musical journey well worth taking for anyone who considers themselves a fan of pastoralism or Grant Kirkhope, and “Night” is an absolutely essential purchase (the song can be had on its own for only 50ยข). Hopefully Leaf Me Alone is a sign of great things yet to come from a rising talent.

Rating: starstarstar

Advertisements

Aiko Island (Sean Beeson)

Cover
Cover

A puzzler for the iOS from developer Iceflame, Aiko Island was an entry into the post-Angry Birds genre of physics puzzles. It brought a few innovations to the table, like a colorblind mode and the deep integration of cookies at every level of gameplay, and was well-reviewed by those able to locate it amid the explosion of similar iOS games in the early 2010s. Perhaps the game’s most distinctive feature, though, was a lush score by composer Sean Beeson, a veteran of similar indie and iOS projects.

For a game about fuzzballs in bright primary colors chasing down cookies, Beeson’s Aiko Island score is unusually sweeping and powerful, with a full (synthesized) orchestral sound complemented with a (synthesized) choir. It’s music that seems most suited to an epic fantasy adventure, and it is highly rewarding once listeners get past the seeming tonal mismatch between the score and the game. More than anything, the music is reminiscent of Jeremy Soule’s approach to game scoring in the 1990s during the beginning of his career: a combination of excellent synths, sweepingly ambitious melodies, all applied in a lush and slightly ambient manner that wouldn’t be out of place in a fantasy film or TV miniseries.

The album can be broadly divided into epic and more quirky tunes, though it never approaches the level of Carl Stalling parody cartoonishness that the game’s art style (and its genetic relationship to Angry Birds) might suggest. The opening “Aiko Island” sets the more epic style in motion with racing strings offset against bold brass and a distant choir, a style that’s replicated with bolder woodwinds and choral work in “Enchanted Seasons” and with a strident string presence in “Chip off the Blocks,” all of which use the game’s primary thematic construct. Other pieces, notably “Ye Olde West,” take the sound to a more triumphant and heroic mode. The same building blocks are turned to whimsy in “Blue Timbers,” which tackles the same theme with a gentle combination of voices, pizzicato strings, and malleted percussion for a flight of Elfmanesque fantasy. “Aiko Beach” brings a woodwind sound with a faint calypso vibe while the longest piece on the album, “Ice Dream Spires,” takes a more deliberate tempo with icy percussion effects to bring about a dreamy and contemplative sound. There are a variety of other styles as well, like the waltz in “Dance of the Cookie.” Throughout it all, the album maintains an ethereal and quasi-ambient tone that’s very affecting and displays many of the strengths of Soule’s musical style (though without succumbing to the bloat that occasionally mars that composer’s later works.

The Aiko Island sountrack is available on the composer’s Bandcamp page, and with over 30 minutes of music at an asking price beginning at only $3, it’s a steal. Provided listeners can distance themselves mentally from the tiny cookie monsters in the game, the album will provide an excellent companion to masterpieces like Icewind Dale or Guild Wars.

Rating: starstarstarstar

Dragon Age II (Inon Zur)

Cover

Dragon Age: Origins was Canadian role-playing game developer BioWare’s massively successful attempt to begin an original series of fantasy role playing games, free from the licensing constraints of their previous fantasy works like Baldur’s Gate or Neverwinter Nights. Less than sixteen months later, in early 2011, the developers followed it with Dragon Age II. While financially successful, the sequel had a disastrous reception among fans, who balked at the game’s stripped-down mechanics, frequent re-use of environments, far narrower scope, and wanderingly unfocused storyline. With many of the game’s issues laid at the feet of its short development time and seeming anxiousness to ape Bioware’s hit Mass Effect 2 from the year before, the developer was forced to let the series lie fallow until 2014 in order to take a more leisurely approach to developing a follow-up that wouldn’t alienate so many of the fans they had made with the first Dragon Age.

Israeli composer Inon Zur had written a stately but dull score for the first game, albeit one with occasional flashes of color and beauty, and he was asked to return for the sequel as well. As one of the only consistent elements between the two games–which otherwise featured completely different characters, settings, plots, and themes–Zur returned to work using many of the same tools. He retained singer Olivia Orr (replacing Aubrey Ashburn) for vocal portions of the score (though there was no mention of the Northwest Sinfonia Orchestra in any of the available materials) and tackled the task of tying together the vastly disparate games and glossing over the sequel’s weaknesses.

Zur’s main theme from Origins returns, appearing in the “Main Theme” at the beginning of the album, though it is secondary to an expression of the next major theme that is introduced, the “Hawke Family Theme” that appears there and in the next track. The titular Hawkes are given music that seems like a mutation of the stunning “I Am the One” from the original game, played mostly on strings, and it’s attractive music. The vocals are somewhat lacking in “Main Theme” compared to the resounding ones in the prequel, but they suffice; at their best in “Rogue Heart,” the music approaches the heights of the best pieces of the original.

If his original themes are not as extensively employed as they might be, Zur at least keeps the building blocks of his music rather similar: a full orchestra and choir and sparing use of wordless vocals. Solo violin and guitar have a more prominent role, while, the vocals have been dialed back considerably, with the result that “Love Scene” seems like a paler version of the original with a slight Latin lit to it. Blaring but aimless brass continues to be a mainstay as in “Arishok,” with the instrumental depth and choral aspects failing to compensate for the music’s drab lack of engagement, especially during battle.

The lively “Tavern Music” provides a bright spot, as does the innovative use of string technique and vocals in “Fenris Theme.” But the feeling of drab greyness from the original is oppressively present throughout many of the tracks from “Viscount” to “Kirkwall Nights.” Once again, Zur seems content to provide music that seeks to remain firmly in the background despite its thematic strengths. The complex album history of Dragon Age II doesn’t help: while customers who bought the special edition of the game were treated to an album rivaling the length of the original E.A.R.S. release of Dragon Age: Origins, everyone else had to make do with a mere 30 minutes of music on the official album. Two supplemental 30-minute releases came later, but other than triple-dipping Dragon Age fans, there seems to be no rhyme or reason for the decision, as the subsequent albums feature the same problems (or worse) that the main release does.

Inon Zur succeeded in bridging the gap between the vastly different settings and gameplay elements of the first two Dragon Age games, but at the expense of continuing to write music that, despite some high points, is still frightfully anonymous as a listening experience on its own. Like Origins, it is a missed opportunity with all the pieces in place but the composer unable or unwilling to combine them into an engaging whole. EA and BioWare evidently felt the same way, and they parted ways with Zur for Dragon Age: Inquisition, choosing instead to employ Trevor Morris from Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control studio to bring his sound from The Tudors and The Vikings to the table. There are probably enough highlights in Zur’s work for the first two games to make a decent 30-minute compilation, but neither album is able to stand well enough on its own to go toe-to-toe with many other fantasy scores for video games, and that fact has to be regarded as a disappointment.

Rating: starstar

Dragon Age: Origins (Inon Zur)

Cover

After leaving the licensed Dungeons and Dragons and Star Wars settings of Neverwinter Nights and Knights of the Old Republicbehind, Canadian role-playing game developer BioWare spent much of the 2000s establishing their own original universes. While they had significant success with the science fiction Mass Effect and wuxia-inspired Jade Empire, fans waited almost six years for BioWare to unveil its own straight-up fantasy IP. 2009’s Dragon Age: Origins was a smash success, a canny melding of a deep and expansive story with a memorable and diverse cast which often felt like the best parts of the old Baldur’s Gate served up for the HD generation.

The previous fantasy offerings from BioWare has been scored by Michael Hoenig and Jeremy Soule, but as both composers had parted ways with the company by 2009, Israeli musician Inon Zur was retained to pen the new score. Zur, a veteran of scoring for TV and video games witha resume stretching to the 1990s, had worked with BioWare once before, on the Throne of Bhaal expansion for Baldur’s Gate II, and he had also scored the tangentially related Icewind Dale II and a number of entries in the long-running Lineage II and Everquest II series of online role-playing expansions. In short, Zur brought a distinguished pedigree in interactive fantasy scoring to the table, and with vocalist Aubrey Ashburn and the Northwest Sinfonia Orchestra at his disposal, the composer had an opportunity to create an epic and cohesive fantasy adventure score.

The album starts in the most resounding way possible, with Zur unleashing Ashburn singing a mournful dirge (apparently in a language created for the game) before piling on layers of the symphony orchestra in a muscular rendition of his main theme for the titular track, “Dragon Age: Origins.” The same is true of the following song, “I Am the One,” which expands Ashburn’s mournful vocal theme to full length, adding uilleann pipes, dulcimer, and guitar in a truly moving piece of music. The album presents an earlier “High Fantasy Version” and a later “Dark Fantasy Version” of the song; they lyrics and delivery are essentially the same, but Zur’s orchestra has a far bolder presence in the latter at the expense of portions of the guitar and pipes. Especially compared to the embarrassing songs in BioWare’s earlier Mass Effect, the marriage of Zur’s melodies and Ashburn’s voice and lyrics are extremely impressive.

Sadly, the opening tracks establish a level of quality and engagement that Zur is unable to sustain. He maintains his theme as heard in the opening track across all of the subsequent music, preferring to sound it on deep and growly horns, but even with constant support from the Sinfonia and a choir, his later music is often drab and grey, preferring to churn in the background without the boldness that characterized the introductory songs. The music is functional enough, and there is often a resounding depth in the recordings (a clear influence from Howard Shore’s original Lord of the Rings work), but despite the continued presence of his main theme, Zur’s work is very much like Shore’s Lord of the Rings stripped of its passion and melodic complexity.

The music Zur writes for the origin stories of each type of main character–six in all–is perhaps the best example of the score’s malaise. Tracks like “The Common Dwarf,” “Mages in their Chantry,” or “The Dalish,” squander the power of the Sinfonia and its choral accompaniment with sonic wallpaper and the barest hints of the powerful themes Zur and Ashburn debuted earlier. Reviewers at the time commented on how powerful the individual origin stories were, but the music accompanying them is simply an anonymous morass of brass, percussion, and wordless vocals. It’s not clear if the extremely backgrounded nature of the music was an intentional decision on Zur’s part or that of the producers, but it makes for a tedious listen in the lengthy album.

There are exceptions, mostly in the album’s more militaristic moments. “The Ruins of Ostagar” gives the title theme a militaristic workout with full orchestral and choral backing; “The Deep Roads” is able to effectively incorporate Zur’s theme into an effective action piece, while “The Betrayal” is able to add a layer of desperate emotion atop Zur’s often cold thematic constructs. Other action music is unable to make as much of an impression: “Attack on Denerim” manages to sap tension though its extremely deliberate pace, while the atonal percussive cacophony of “The Battle of Lothering Village” undermines its more traditional and promising choral parts. And despite raising a considerable ruckus, “Challenge an Archdemon,” the final battle theme, is unable to integrate Zur’s themes and instrumentation into a rousing finale.

Zur’s music is at its most effective in moments of peace that give Ashburn’s theme pride of place. “The Party Camp” reprises the music from the opening tracks with a bittersweet choral sweep, while the warm and triumphant “Coronation” gives the narrative melodic closure. The real highlight of the album’s tedious middle sections, though, is “Leliana’s Song” which adapts the style of “I Am the One” into a stunning vocal performance with a light guitar and choral backing. One can’t help but get the feeling that Zur erred greatly by not producing more music in this vein and incorporating it more fully into his underscore, as it’s exactly the dash of strong color missing from much of his drab material.

EA Games’ E.A.R.S. division put out a 60-minute album of Zur’s score in 2009, distributed solely in a digital format. Despite the lack of time restrictions, the album nevertheless has its share of problems: none of the tracks loop, often cutting out seemingly abruptly at loop points, and many of the stronger tracks were left off entirely. Most of Zur’s engaging music for the city of Denerim failed to make the cut, the sprightly vocal tavern music was left on the cutting room floor, and much of the field and combat music from large areas of the game was omitted as well. Worst of all, a full vocal theme with Ashburn’s voice for the game’s romance segments isn’t on the album either.

The success of Dragon Age: Origins led to a franchise–as BioWare had clearly hoped, given its title–with Zur returning as composer for the disappointing Dragon Age II, though he would be replaced by Trevor Morris for the third game in the series, Dragon Age: Inquisition. Inon Zur certainly wrote material that worked well in the game, and his collaborations with Ashburn are generally outstanding, but his music ultimately doesn’t translate well to a solo listening experience on par with the best fantasy scores for video games. It has to be regarded as a missed opportunity.

Rating: starstar

The Monuments Men (Alexandre Desplat)

Cover

With a cast that had 5 Oscars and 17 nominations, and a little-known but deeply important true World War II story about artworks being saved from Nazi looters by a ragtag team of Allied conservators pressed into military service, director-star George Clooney’s The Monuments Men had an impressive pedigree. Yet the film was unable to overcome a wandering focus and lack of narrative drive, feeling like a Cliffs Notes version of a longer film and becoming a critical disappointment despite a healthy box office take. Despite all the Oscar gold among the cast, the film wound up delayed to an undemanding late winter release date from its original statuette-friendly slot.

French composer Alexandre Desplat was one of the busiest composers in Hollywood during the early 2010s and brought his own impressive collection of Oscar nominations to the project, collecting his sixth (for Philomena) when The Monuments Men was still in theaters. Desplat had worked with Clooney once before, on the low-key political thriller The Ides of March in 2011, and they apparently hit things off so well that not only did Desplat return to score The Monuments Men, he also appeared onscreen in a cameo. Quite possibly the longest and most involved composer cameo in recent memory, Desplat’s turn as the French Resistance fighter Emile not only revealed a bit of acting talent but resulted in one of the film’s funniest lines (“You speak English? Speak English.”) while Desplat thanks Clooney in the liner notes for convincing him to “play a Frenchman in a beret.”

The music is a fascinating fusion of several distinct styles, and a lot of your appreciation for the score will hinge upon how well you can reconcile the disparate elements within it. There are echoes of classic war movies scored by the likes of Elmer Bernstein or Malcolm Arnold, white-knuckle militaristic action music very much in the mold of 1980s John Williams, and of course Alexandre Desplat’s distinctive personal style with his fondness for waltzes. It is an odd enough collection of influences that the score sometimes feels rather schizophrenic, though the composer is to be commended for how well its disparate parts hang together.

Arnold and Bernstein’s influence is felt most overtly in The Monuments Men‘s main theme, heard most prominently in the jaunty “Opening Titles,” “Basic Training,” and “End Credits.” A bouncy and upbeat march with a somewhat more serious interlude, Desplat uses the theme to great effect in the film’s lighthearted and more comic moments, and its whistled rendition at the end of the album is a direct reference to Arnold’s famous interpretation of the “Colonel Bogey March” from The Bridge on the River Kwai. The more serious interlude is inserted in many of the more dramatic tracks as well, with downbeat and solo piano versions of the main melody accompanying many scenes of struggle and strife as well.

For the villainous Nazis (and, to an extent, the rival group of Soviet treasure hunters) Desplat uses a menacing brass motif that informs the latter half of “Champagne,” “The Nero Decree,” and other scenes of artistic destruction and villainy. John Williams’ brassy Nazi fanfare from Raiders of the Lost Ark is perhaps the most apt influence and comparison, though Desplat never really sets the Monuments Men theme and Nazi/Soviet motif against one another in quite the same way. The basic parts of the motif are also twisted into a pompous and amusing waltz in “Stahl’s Chalet” for one particularly tense scene late in the picture.

Lover of waltzes that he is, Desplat sneaks another in as well, this one serving as a theme for Cate Blanchett’s underwritten character and her low-key love-hate relationship with Matt Damn’s Monuments Man. Debuted in the first half of “Champagne” and given its fullest expression in “Claire & Granger,” the waltz is lovely but sadly never seems to come into its own and lacks an entire track unto itself like the main theme and villainy motif. One wishes for a John Williams-style concert arrangement of the theme to give it more breathing room as a result.

Finally, the score does contain some wonderful all-out action music, and it’s here that Williams’ influence is the most keenly felt. In several spots, but most extensively and notably at the beginning of the lengthy “Finale,” Desplat gives himself over to brass-heavy action writing that’s thrilling in the same way as many of Williams’ early 1980s scores as well as later attempts by other composers (like Michael Giacchino in Medal of Honor: Frontline). It is a thrilling if rather brief addition to the hour-long album, and a much better marriage of Desplat and Williams’ stylistics than the earlier Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was.

Whether through his music or his acting, Alexandre Desplat proved himself essential to The Monuments Men, and if the production was disappointing or a missed opportunity, he at least can be said to have taken full advantage and produced one of his most straightforwardly enjoyable scores of the 2010s. Sony Classical put out an album with virtually every note of Desplat’s score to coincide with the film’s early 2014 release, and included Nora Sagal’s rendition of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” from one of the film’s key attempts at character drama (it’s certainly performed with old-fashioned gusto if nothing else). Even with its occasionally schizophrenic swings from mood to mood and genre to genre, The Monuments Men is still an accessible music from a period dominated by Desplat’s darker and more troubled music for Oscar bait films.

Rating: starstarstarstar

Spore Hero (Winifred Phillips)

Cover

Developer Will Wright, the mind behind the venerable SimCity franchise, had big plans for his first game project in years. Spore (2008) promised to allow players to guide the evolution of a new species from single-celled organisms to spacefaring colonizers, providing an impressive scope and lots of pre-release hype even though reviewers found many of the individual parts to be shallow or underwhelming. Though Spore itself required a PC to run, publisher EA had its Montreal arm cook up a spinoff for the then red-hot Nintendo Wii console. The resulting Spore Hero (2009) melded some of the mechanics of the original game with bigger emphasis on plot and exploration, and attracted decent notices–especially in comparison to the horrid shovelware that would eventually undermine the Wii as a platform.

The original Spore had a much-touted “procedural music generation engine” supposedly crafted by ambient musician Brian Eno of all people, though actual set tracks were contributed by a handful of Maxis staffers including Kent Jolly and Sim series veteran Jerry Martin. Spore Hero, with its more linear and Zelda-like structure, demanded a more traditional and cohesive score, and for that EA Montreal turned to composer Winifred Phillips. Phillips had worked with a Will Wright property before to great effect in SimAnimals earlier in 2009, and Spore Hero represented a leap forward in terms of visibility and player base.

Phillips anchors her score with a main theme introduced in the first track, a delightfully quirky melody with a number of clever orchestrations and pastoral touches that, appropriately, wouldn’t sound out of place in SimAnimals. It’s a malleable idea that crops up in many places throughout the score as hints or counterpoint, even in the relatively militaristic and straightforward concluding track “Hero Theme.”

There are a number of concessions to the sci-fi theme of Spore Hero, primarily in the use of spacy synth textures throughout many of the tracks like “Critters,” which layers on ambient washes with quasi-theremin effects straight out of a 1950s drive-in, or “SporeZone,” which flits between electronic textures and more organic music highlighted by what sounds for all the world like an electric sitar or mandolin, or “Sporeexplore,” featuring electric beatboxing. They’re joined by a diverse set of much less science fiction instruments, like the mouth organ, giving the most lighthearted songs an interesting feel of the pastoral with a layer of sci-fi glitz at times and one of wholesome Americana at others. It’s a creative and often engaging blend, if slightly schizophrenic at times.

The action music tends toward relatively lighthearted romps with dashes of darker colors, often interepersed with fragments of the main theme or David Newman-esque flights of fancy. Tracks like “Monster Mayhem” and “Beast Brawl,” full of manic tonal action and specialty gag instruments aplenty wouldn’t be out of place in one of Newman’s comedy projects or an animated short. At its darkest, in “Nemesis” and “Spore War,” the action music adds choral and electric guitar textures, the latter culminating in an aggressive and distorted version of the main theme that manages to be engaging, straightforward, and yet simultaneously slightly silly.

Overall, Phillips largely succeeds in merging seeming disparate parts–quirky specialty instruments, SimAnimals pastoralism, synth textures, and moments of straightforward action–into a cohesive whole. There are some places where the synthesized instruments let her down, particularly in the brass section (a recurring problem with synthesized scores of all kinds), and some places where the various pieces don’t quite gel. But it’s still highly enjoyable music on the whole, with something to offer fans of all the genres on display in a tonal package with a consistent central musical theme.

The music from Spore was never released in any form, but Phillips was able to release an hour of highlights from her Spore Hero score as a digital download not long after the game’s release (available from iTunes here). The success of Spore Hero would lead to further assignments for Phillips, movie adaptation Legend of the Guardians and stealth series spinoff Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation among them, and if it doesn’t quite reach the same heights of innocent joy that SimAnimals scaled, it is nevertheless a highly quirky and engaging listen.

Rating: starstarstarstar