Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: the Game (Jeremy Soule)

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In 2004, EA released another entry in its series of Harry Potter video games, tying in with the theatrical release of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. The game offered what was expected of it — an interactive take on events in the book and movie — and was as successful as any tie-in could hope to be. In theaters, the third movie saw the first real shake-up in the film franchise, with Alfonso Cuaron taking over for Chris Columbus and bringing with him a distinctly dark aesthetic and a willingness to trim or alter the source material that Columbus had never had. This led to Azkaban becoming the most acclaimed film in the film series.

The game developers, however, remained largely the same and Jeremy Soule returned for a third year as Hogwarts-composer-in residence. As he had with Chamber of Secrets, Soule ditched the title theme he had created for the previous game. This is less of a problem than it could be, since the other two themes he conjured weren’t integrated into the game scores much; they were never as thematic as John Williams’ movie compositions anyway. Soule’s choice here interestingly mirrors the choices Williams made for his final Potter movie score, which largely avoided the maestro’s established themes in favor of new ones. It goes without saying that Soule was not permitted to use any of Williams’s new themes from the film. Still, given the blisteringly strong theme Soule had composed for the previous game, a reprisal would have been welcome.

Soule’s new theme does retain a choral element but returns to the more florid classically-inspired sound from the first game, albeit in a darker form. The album as a whole has a tone closer to that of the film, especially in its presentation of soaring themes for Buckbeak in “Flying Buckbeak” and “Buckbeak Night Flight,” both of which mirror the grandiose “Buckbeak’s Flight” conjured by Williams. The music has a deeper sound to it — possibly the result of better synths — and passages of dark music offset by some incredible vocal work. It’s as if Soule was consciously driving his music in the same darker direction as the film, with less magic but more drama; when the sound works, it’s spectacular.

Sadly, the action music is once again a mixed bag. There are some utterly explosive sequences of choral action in “Dementor Patronus” and “Extreme Patronus” which easily equal or exceed the finest action writing from Soule’s career. But “Glacius Boss” and “Carpe Knight Boss,” among others, return to the ramblingly percussive music that characterized the first game. The cues in general are also very short, with only two of the 26 songs on the commercial album exceeding two minutes.

Soule’s Prisoner of Azkaban, like the others in the series, had no official release to satisfy the cravings of fans for several years. But in late 2006, portions of the score were released to iTunes as a digital download alongside Soule’s other work for the Potterverse. All four albums suffered from a seemingly rushed and muddled presentation of the music, seemingly pulled willy-nilly from Soule’s original files. As with the previous two games, there were enough hard stops and tracks with trailing (or even internal) stretches of silence to make for a frustrating listen. And although 30 minutes of music was on tap, the soundtrack was once again frustratingly incomplete. This might explain why, in late 2009, EA pulled all of Soule’s Potterverse scores from circulation.

Despite all the album problems, Prisoner of Azkaban is another strong Potter effort from Soule. It may not have as many highlights as his previous work for Chamber of Secrets, but when the music is firing on all cylinders, listeners may not even notice. It’s a shame that fans of the composer and the original Williams music have no way to legitimately purchase even the wonky commercial album; as with the other scores, the only route to enjoying Soule’s efforts is to buy the game and crank up an audio editor. Fans can only hope for a proper release someday to allow the music to truly breathe.

Rating: starstarstarstar

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Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: The Game (Jeremy Soule)

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Despite some moviegoers’ qualms, Chris Columbus’s film version of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was a massive $300 million earner. And, as surely as summer follows autumn, it was inevitable that there would be a movie adaptation of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets to follow the success of its blockbuster predecessor. And just as surely, there would be a video game adaptation to follow. Many noted that the film was an improvement over the first, and similar feelings accompanied the game, which opened to generally warm reviews. Returning from the first game was composer Jeremy Soule, whose music for the original had had its share of highlights despite a frustrating lack of availability on album.

John Williams had already begun to tire of the Harry Potter franchise by 2002, and delegated large portions of the music to William Ross. Quite the opposite was true for the Chamber of Secrets video game, as Soule powered up the ideas he had established for the first title, incorporating his original sound alongside some startlingly good new pieces. The Grieg-inspired theme from the first game wass discarded in favor of a fantastic new “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets Title Theme,” which owes less of a debt to other composers while still conjuring the requisite magic. Soule introduced a powerful choral component as well, establishing a thread that extends throughout the official album (and in many tracks omitted from it). Soule reprises the theme in an equally elegant form at the end of the album; listed as an alternate theme, it was actually used for the game’s credits. Like the composer’s theme for the previous game, though, it barely appears in the rest of the music.

The most notable improvement of Chamber of Secrets over its predecessor is the action music. Soule successfully imparts the magical atmosphere and dark choral harmonics of the other music into whimsical tracks like “DADA Action” “Willow Boss” and “Aragog Boss.” “Flying” represents some of Soule’s finest-ever action writing, with a soaring full-bodied orchestral theme that’s equal parts action and wonder, though it’s sadly unlooped on the official album. Soule’s work combines the strength of the previous score (its whimsical character) while addressing its weaknesses, rendering it a better listening experience whether complete or on the mangled album.

Like Sorcerer’s Stone before it, Chamber of Secrets didn’t get an album when it was released. This was rectified to an extent when, in late 2006, EA released digital albums of all Soule’s Potter scores to iTunes. Chamber of Secrets fared much better than the previous album as a listening experience; the transitions aren’t as jagged (though there are still no loops) and the tracks are generally longer, with a several being self-contained. A much more generous 43 minutes of music is provided as well, though some essential music is still missing (notably the thunderous final battle cue with full choir) and a few awkward edits or songs that had 5-10 seconds of silence at the end remain distractions.

Again, this amateurish and incomplete album experience may have been the reason that Soule’s Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was withdrawn from circulation by EA in 2009. While the official album had problems and is frustratingly incomplete, it was the best presentation of Soule’s Potter music out of the four iTunes Potter albums, and the complete score as heard in-game remains Soule’s finest for the series. Therefore, fans are in a tough position: an incomplete and unavailable official release or the bother of finding a copy of the game and manually extracting and looping its audio files for listening. Even so, the effort is worthwhile: if you must acquire one of Soule’s Potter scores, get this one.

Rating:

Melody Muncher (DDRKirby)

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Ludum Dare is perhaps the best-known of all game development jams, challenging teams to create a fully-realized video game on a common theme in as little as 48 hours. Taking its name from Latin “to give a game,” the contest has run since 2002. While the games themselves have long been offered for distribution online, there has been an increasing trend of putting their music out on platforms like Bandcamp or Loudr.

One of the entrants for Ludum Dare 2015 (which had the theme “you are the monster”) was Melody Muncher, a game about a voracious plant devouring all that came before it. Super Mario Bros. from the perspective of the piranha plant, perhaps. Melody Muncher was given a score, composed within the same 48-hour time limit, by Timmie Wong (AKA DDRKirby), who had participated in the scoring of several other Ludum Dare and indie projects.

Melody Muncher takes inspiration from the classic 8-bit sound palette of Nintendo Entertainment System chiptunes, matching the similar aesthetic of the game, while jazzing up the soundscape with more channels and effects than the old grey console could possibly handle. The resulting music has a distinctly retro flair but more than a little influence from later genres of electronic music on the web.

Perhaps most importantly, Wong’s music does a generally excellent job of capturing the potent melodies that made the NES originals classics in their time. Tunes like “Solar Beam” and “Sunny Day” explode with terrific melodies and inventive electronic rhythms, at times reminiscent of Jake Kaufman’s scores in the genre or the terrific (and unreleased) effort by Naoko Mitome and Chika Sekigawa for Super Paper Mario. There’s a good amount of variety too, with tracks like “Song of the Sea” offering a more chill melody and tempo.

Some of the tracks show the rough edges of their extremely short composition times, of course. “Flower Fang” relies a bit too much on electronic dance music cliches, for example. While fun, “Undying” has a distinct,and likely subconscious, echo of many other songs (Smash Mouth’s 1997 groaner Walkin’ on the Sun being the first to come to mind). But in general, the music is highly impressive and enjoyable considering the constraints under which it was created.

A few months after Ludum Dare, Wong released a pair of Melody Muncher albums to Bandcamp: the original soundtrack as prepared for the challenge, and a second deluxe album with later remastered versions of the same songs. Both the basic album and the deluxe album offer a terrific value for the suggested donation amount, and are well worth sampling for fans of innovative NES-style soundtracks.

Rating: starstarstarstar

Vacuum Tube Girls Symphony (Hiroki Kikuta)

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Original music has been composed for video games, films, TV shows, slot machines, and even Dungeons and Dragons campaigns. So why not for trading card games? That’s exactly what Japanese video game industry veteran Hiroki Kikuta did when he wrote Vacuum Tube Girls Symphony. The aforementioned vacuum tube girls are the heroines of a game called Shinukan, a Kickstarter-backed project that billed itself as “The Kawaii Steampunk Android Trading Card Game” and sought to bring a Japanese fanservice sensibility to a milieu dominated by straitlaced games like Magic the Gathering. The game was able to make its $20,000 goal in August 2014 and shipped in June 2015 (Kickstarter projects being rather infamous for their slipping deadlines).

Whether Kikuta was attracted to Shinukan as a commissioned artist, as a backer, or simply as an enthusiastic fan, his Vacuum Tube Girls Symphony accompanied its release as a digital download on the Bandcamp indie music platform. After a long drought in the 2000s, the 2010s had seen the composer back in the saddle with numerous projects, from full-fledged video game soundtracks to guest tracks and arrangements to solo endeavors. Seemingly comfortable in his role as a video game music elder statesman, Kikuta began experimenting with more longform compositions that seemed influenced by the cellular and minimalist structure of musicians like Philip Glass, Michael Nyman, and Stephen Reich. Indeed, Kikuta’s the two most recent solo albums, Pulse Pico Pulse and Integral Polyphony, had been lengthy experiments in that regard, with the latter expressly dedicated to Reich. Those albums, fascinating meldings of the worlds of minimalist concert music and VGM, often strayed rather far afield from the sound that had endeared Kikuta to a generation of gamers.

The Vacuum Tube Girls Symphony represents an even more fascinating attempt to combine Kikuta’s quirky signature style with Reich-style minimalism. Like Secret of Mana +, Kikuta’s legendary experimental arrangement album based on his first video game score, Vacuum Tube Girls Symphony is arranged into a single, 42-minute track that cycles through several distinct movements. From 0:00-4:00, the music takes the form of a string and solo piano duet strained through heavy analog noise to mimic the sound of an ancient 78-RPM vinyl recording, presumably as a nod to the retro-futurism design aesthetic Shinukan embraces and mixes with its fanservice. At 4:00, a full-quality militaristic motif in Kikuta’s signature style emerges, punctuated with the sound of breaking glass as a percussion instrument among the drums and marimbas (an experiment the composer also used in Secret of Mana 2). This builds up to, at around the 7:00 mark, the full blossoming of the album’s primary theme, a glorious brassy statement backed up by a blazing orchestra hits and a full silverware drawer’s worth of unorthodox percussion. Beginning around 13:00, the music switches to a different and much more low-key melody, carried on woodwinds with pizzicato strings and pianos, and very much in the style of the composer’s post-Koudelka works. A percussion phase similar to the first one but stripped of many of the odder instruments comes in at 13:00, particularly similar in its doubled pizzicato and normal strings to Kikuta’s efforts for the Shining series beginning in 2011.

A gentle woodwind melody is cut in with the Shining percussion at 18:00, segueing to a return of the gentler style, this time with a more pronounced and quite lovely theme and veering, at times, into the mysterious and sinister–again, very much in the style of the adult games Kikuta scored between Koudelka and Shining Hearts. The percussion returns by 23:00, serving to add a militaristic edge to the continuing woodwinds before eventually bringing back the Shining Hearts doubled strings for an extended outing. By 28:00, a reprise of the low-key melody from 13:00 has subsumed the percussion and serves as an introduction to the return of the brassy primary theme and its glass-shattering backing at 30:00. Kikuta gives the theme a workout, continuing it to the 38:00 mark, where the scratchy 78 RPM music returns to close out the remaining four minutes.

The use of cellular rhythms, repeated with minor variations, is prevalent at each stage of the work, giving it at times the minimalistic feel that characterizes Glass, Nyman, and Reich, and was the overwhelming style present in Pulse Pico Pulse and Integral Polyphony. But the melodies, the use of percussion, and the employment of doubled strings and pizzicato plucking, is classic Kikuta, referencing works from Secret of Mana 2 to Shining Hearts and all points in between. There’s no denying the minimalism, but there’s also no denying the indelible fingerprints of the composer’s unique style. The only part that seems out of character is the lengthy into and outro, where the simple music is mangled by vinyl filters–truly one of the more tiresome musical devices in use today. Along the same lines, Vacuum Tube Girls Symphony‘s gigantic length does allow for remarkably fluid transitions between the various parts of such a diverse work, but it can be a bit of a bother hunting and pecking for a favorite section (a problem it shares with Secret of Mana +).

Still, the Vacuum Tube Girls Symphony represents perhaps the best merging of Kikuta’s unique rhythmic and melodic sense with his interest in minimalist experimentation to come along thus far. Whether you put it on in the background while playing a game of Shinukan or simply listen to it on its own, it’s a fascinating work. As of this writing, the full 42-minute album is available at Kikuta’s Bandcamp page for $10; his fans and those interested in the techniques with which he experiments will both appreciate what the work has to offer.

Rating: starstarstarstar

Arthur and the Invisibles (Eric Serra)

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French director Luc Besson is nothing if not ambitious, as any quick glance at his filmography will show. But his 2006 feature Arthur and the Invisibles (given the equally off-putting title Arthur and the Minimoys in most foriegn markets) was perhaps his most ambitious yet. Based on a series of children’s books that Besson himself had written, the film was a lavish animated fantasy (about warring factions of tiny fairylike creatures) from a director who had little experience with either animation or fantasy. With a budget of 65 million euros, the most costly French film of all time up to that point, Besson attracted a voice cast glittering with stars in every language dub, from Madonna to Nena and Bavid Bowie to Gackt. Critics, especially those who viewed the film’s US cut, were generally savage to the quality of Arthur’s animation and its seeming resemblence to The Dark Crystal and The Ant Bully, among many others. But the film was a financial success despite this, leading to at least two Besson-helmed sequels thus far.

A Luc Besson film almost inevitably means an Eric Serra score, the two men being longtime friends and collaborators since their early days. With Serra scoring all but a few of Besson’s films, his employment for Arthur and the Invisibles was probably the least surprising feature of the production. Serra himself has often a divisive figure for film score fans, with his background in pop and electronic music often being at odds with what many listeners expect. The controversial score for Goldeneye is of course well-known, but some reviewers also felt that Serra’s lack of orchestral experience hamstrung his attempts to do more traditional scoring in films like The Messenger. On the other hand, Serra’s scores for Nikita, Leon the Professional, and (perhaps the closest film to Arthur in terms of tone) The Fifth Element remain highy regarded.

Interestingly, Serra opted for an almost entirely traditional score for Arthur and the Invisibles, eschewing the sort of jaunty acoustic/electric fusion that had characterized his Fifth Element score. Instead, the composer opted for a traditional orchestral children’s score, complete with the London Session Orchestra and the Metro Voices, both conducted at least in part by Serra himself. While his electronic tools were used, they were strictly relegated to a supporting role in a large-scale acoustic, choral, and thematic whole.

There’s a distinct sense of Danny Elfman’s early fantasy scores about Arthur and the Invisibles,, largely because of the way that Serra (who shares a similar musical background) uses his wordless choir as a potent orchestral color, with cooing children’s voices for the heroes and ominously deep male vocals for the villains. More importantly, Arthur is a very strongly thematic score, with an ebullient theme for the heroic Minimoys in evidence from the very first cue, “The Minimoys Overture.” Presented boldly across a number of cues and in flighty fragments across others, the theme is quite tuneful and attractive, and is integrated into some of the most complex orchestral writing of Serra’s career. The villains of the piece are given a percussive theme of their own, again often with choral accompaniment, and it too is used very robustly across Serra’s score.

In short, the composer is able to provide a surprisingly potent dose of old-fashioned thematic fantasy, with flighty variations on his themes and a near-constant supply or orchestral and choral colors. It’s not innovative by any means, following in the footsteps of past children’s fantasy scores much in the same way that Arthur and the Invisibles itself draws on earlier films. But Serra’s music is presented very robustly and attractively, and his themes are memorable enough, that it’s still a pleasant package regardless. The real difficulty with the score is its structure: 39 tracks for the 68 minutes of Serra’s music on album. With no tracks longer than 5 minutes and many shorter than two minutes, the music winds up feeling rather bitty and stutterstop at times. This is especially true when similar material appears several times in the music, making the lengthy work at times a bit of a slog. There’s no doubt that virtually every note of the score is present on disc; a little judiciousness in combining or rearranging cues might have gone a long way.

Still, it’s hard not to like Serra’s Arthur music. It’s clear that the composer has grown in his orchestral skills since his early career, and he offers a pleasant thematic base for the broad childrens’ fantasy music on display. The commercial album, readily available for a very low price due to the film’s relative obscurity, includes three throwaway songs in addition to Serra’s score. It’s well worth checking out for enthusiasts of fantasy scores, and provides an interesting counterpoint to Serra’s earlier and much more electronic music.

Rating: starstarstarstar

Mr. Peabody & Sherman (Danny Elfman)

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One of the better-remembered segments from Jay Ward’s Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends, the time-hopping and pun-laden adventures of the world’s smartest dog and his adopten son have remained lodged firmly in the American popular consciousness for over 40 years to the extent of even having the monicker of their Wayback Machine borrowed by the Internet Archive. As with many nostalgia properties from that era, Mr. Peabody was not immune to plundering for big-screen remakes by a creatively bankrupt Hollywood, and a motion picture version of his adventures with Sherman were in development hell for many years before the 2014 release of Mr. Peabody & Sherman. The film itself turned out rather well, despite the usual Dreamworks stunt casting, but its spring release date coupled with unexpectedly fierce box office competition served to mute its impact.

As a Dreamworks film, a score from Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control studio seemed as inevitable as a voice cast packed with flavor-of-the-month vocals for Peabody & Sherman. But, surprisingly, the filmmakers turned to Danny Elfman instead. Elfman has surprisingly extensive credits for children’s movies, going back as far as his breakout hit Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, but for many years seemed to be moving away from the weird and wacky music that was at one point his bread and butter. For Peabody & Sherman, though, that sound was back with a vengeance.

One suspects that Elfman got the job because of another movie he scores a few years earlier, also about a young boy and a time machine: Disney’s Meet the Robinsons. And, to be fair, there are parallels between the two works, especially in the energy and saturation of Elfmanisms. But while Meet the Robinsons eventually turned to adventure and had some serious and tragic undertones, Peabody & Sherman remains firmly in fun and wacky territory throughout its entire running time. It’s easily the wackiest thing that Elfman has done since Flubber in 1997, and is perhaps the closest the composer has come to the original Pee Wee‘s manic energy thus far.

The album contains a main theme that appears throughout starting with “Mr. Peabody’s Prologue,” and it gets put through an impressive number of guises, from the playful Nino Rota energy of that first track to a full-on Alfred Newman Egyptian treatment later on. The composer Elfman seems to be looking to for the most inspiration, though, is Carl Stalling: like the late leader of the Looney Tunes, Elfman incorporates fragments of popular public domain tunes into his most energetic pieces, from anachronistic blasts of “La Marseillaise” for Marie Antoinette to blasts of Beethoven for, well, Beethoven himself.

Though the main theme is present throughout, the constant stutterstop Stalling energy of the music might be irritating to listeners looking for a more through-composed and straitlaced style. For Elfman fans, though, the music represents a family reunion of sorts, a gumbo of the most fun and wacky elements from Pee Wee, Flubber the original Men in Black and Meet the Robinsons without its spacy or weighty elements. Compared to Epic or Frankenweenie from the previous two years, both scores full of theme and motion, the silly slapsticky tack that Elfman took is even more notable. It’s enjoyable on a rather different level.

The Peabody & Sherman album by Sony Classical provides a good 40 minutes of Elfman score, alongside a few source songs and tangos as well as a piece in which a stunt-cast Stephen Colbert mocks Mr. Peabody’s musicology skills. It’s a solid product, though American purchasers should beware its incredibly flimsy packaging, which offers nothing to hold the CD in place. For those with a tolerance for vibrantly thematic mickey-mousey music in the Stalling or David Newman vein, Peabody & Sherman is quite the treat.

Rating: starstarstarstar

Elite: Dangerous (Erasmus Talbot)

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Elite was an epochal game for many players on home computer systems, using basic wireframe graphics to place players as starship pilots in an expansive universe. Like many more sophisticated sandbox games, there was no set objective and no endpoint, other than raising one’s rank in combat to that of “Elite.” Countless hours of space combat and trading gave the game unrivaled cult appeal for a whole generation of gamers, to say nothing of inspiring titles like Privateer or Escape Velocity. But the actual Elite sequels were disappointments, with Frontier: Elite II and First Encounters: Elite III both being plagued with technical problems and stiff competition from imitators. The series lay dormant for nearly 20 years after Elite III before a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign successfully raised the money to make a direct sequel on modern systems. Elite: Dangerous has been well-recieved since its debut, though its always-online play (even in single-player) means that those without access to high-speed internet are still left out in the cold.

The development cycle of Elite: Dangerous was such that the project’s audio lead had time to carefully solicit composers for the game through a series of pitches and demos. Ultimately, newcomer Erasmus Talbot was commissioned to pen the score; while he had worked on some iOS games, shorts, and commercials before joining Elite in 2013, it was by far his most prominent credit to date. Talbot brought experience in sound design and implementation to the table, a benefit in working with a game that procedurally changed its music in response to player input, and he was instructed to create a hybrid score that utilized traditional symphonic and choral colors alongside synthesizers and electronic textures. The commission was complicated by the fact that what had initially been planned as a fully orchestral recording for its acoustic components wound up as a largely synth endeavor with live soloists: singers, percussion, some woodwinds, solo horn, violin, and oud were the sum total of live music recorded for the project.

One might have expected overtly synthetic elements to dominate a score about spaceships in space, but Talbot’s music is far less harshly electronic than comparable efforts like Jon Hallur Haraldsson’s EVE Online. Influences from that work can be felt in some of the pulsing and shimmering synths, and the use of world music elements like oud and singer Mia Salazar harkens most strongly back to Paul Ruskay’s Homeworld score. The overall use of ambient texture combined with a number of common motifs is perhaps most reminiscent of Jeremy Soule’s scores in the Elder Scrolls series, but Talbot’s score works these influences together in a way that rarely feels derivative.

Most prominent and surprising to someone expecting the harshness of EVE Online is its thorough use of both synth and live choral elements–“like distant calls weaving in and out
through the vastness of space,” as Talbot says in his liner notes. Singers Salazar and Hannah Holgersson are joined by synth male voices and a synth children’s chorus in a series of the music’s most prominent thematic building blocks based on the various factions encountered in the game. Near and Far Eastern choral textures, African and Middle Eastern tones (though thankfully never to the “wailing woman” level of early 2000s cliche), masculine chanting, and classical European voice elements all make appearances–often in their most wistful and ambient mode.

The game’s battle tracks are its most traditionally symphonic, with rippling percussion and brass added over elements of the more ambient tracks. It’s interesting that the battle music is presented in pieces rather than in suites as is the typical practice with video game music. Rather than slapping together the various parts as they might have been procedurally combined by the game’s music engine, listeners are presented with 30 short songs that represent different combat scenarios at varying levels of intensity (low, medium, and high). It’s a refreshing approach, if slightly bitty in a Thomas Newman way, and it of course means that listeners are free to string together whatever parts they like rather than being chained to a single “frozen playthrough.” But the combat music is also where the limits of Talbot’s budget show the most clearly: he is forced to work with a mostly synth orchestra, and parts of it (especially the prominent brass) sounds terribly fake.

Arguably, the highlight of the effort is the Frameshift Suite, music for high-speed travel and starport landings in Elite: Dangerous. It brings together the vocal, ambient electronic, and acoustic soloist elements of the broader score into a single, tonal, and cohesive whole. It’s the best showing-off of the game’s broader music style to those who may be bored by the Soule-inflected ambience of the exploration music and irritated by the phony brass blasts of the more traditional battle tracks.

Listeners’ response to Elite: Dangerous will likely be predicated on how much weight they give to its various elements. Lovers of ambient but tuneful music, subtle choral effects, and scoring that reflects diverse video game ane cinema influences will probably enjoy it; those looking for a traditional symphonic experience, harsh EVE Online atmospherics, or Hans Zimmer power anthems will probably be much less interested. If nothing else, the game’s commercial download album (a CD is mentioned in the liner notes that apparently never came to fruition) is an extremely generous 140 minutes and 86 tracks for less than $10, meaning that listeners who like only the exploration, Frameshift, or combat music will still have a wide selection. It’s a shame that Elite: Dangerous can’t be played without an internet connection, but its music certainly can, and it makes for a fine experience on its own.

Rating: starstarstarstar

Secret of Mana 2 (Hiroki Kikuta)

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1993’s Secret of Mana had been a hit for Squaresoft, moving the company into action RPGs in a big and innovative way. So the appearance of a sequel two years later was little surprise; what was surprising was how much the development team was able to do with the concept. Designed for cartridges from the beginning, the game–known as Seiken Densetsu 3 or “Legend of the Holy Sword 3”–used many of the ideas the team had been forced to scrap when converting Secret of Mana from CD to cartridge. The game had 6 possible protagonists, each with a branching upgrade tree, and three completely different final dungeons and bosses–to say nothing of a second half that is totally nonlinear. The resulting title, while missing much of the original’s goofiness, was highly praised for its replayability and its expert use of the SNES hardware near the end of that console’s lifespan. However, despite previews and notices that the game would be released outside Japan in late 1996 as Secret of Mana 2, the game never saw an overseas release of any kind. There have been myriad explanations for this, from technical glitches that made translation and certification difficult to the expectation that overseas gamers were finished with 2D games after the debut of the Playstation and Nintendo 64. Whatever the reason, Secret of Mana 2 was part of a sad trend: of the 10 games Squaresoft produced in Japan after Final Fantasy VI/III as part of their creative explosion in the 16-bit generation, only two(Super Mario RPG and Chrono Trigger) saw a foreign release. The only international availability that Seiken Densetsu 3/Secret of Mana 2 would ever know was at the hands of hobbyists who released homemade translation patches for the game.

One of the key facets of Secret of Mana’s success had been its innovative score by newcomer Hiroki Kikuta. His quirky combination of contemporary pop elements and game music stalwarts had been a perfect fit for the game’s variable tone, and his usage of distinct musical styles within his chosen instrument set for the wacky and wistful portions of gameplay remains distinctive to this day. His assignment to Secret of Mana 2 was therefore a no-brainer, and it was the second of thee project he’s complete as a Square staffer. As with the original game, Kikuta programmed his own sound samples rather than relying on synths from a sound programmer; this bore particular fruit in the area of percussion, with rhythmic samples that are among the best, if not the best, that the SPC700 chip could provide. On the other hand, Kikuta worked under a bit of a disadvantage for the sequel: while the previous game had used all 8 channels of sound the SPC700 provided while cutting out musical lines for sound effects periodically, with Secret of Mana 2 one of the channels was given wholly over to sound effects, leaving the composer with only 7/8 of the musical resources he’d had before. He also, for whatever reason, chose to have a much drier sound with less reverb–comparable to the difference between Uematsu’s Final Fantasy IV and Final Fantasy V–which sapped away some of the overriding fantasy atmosphere from the project.

“Angel’s Fear/Fear of the Heavens,” Kikuta’s major theme from Secret of Mana and by far its most remembered element, returns in the sequel. In fact, Kikuta–perhaps responding to the theme’s popularity–integrates it in many more places, albeit never in quite the same vein of wistful wonder that made the original such a knockout. The introduction, “Where Angels Fear To Tread,” opens with rambling pianos before cutting to a high-energy version of the original theme against urgent snare drums–a nifty inversion of the original. “And Other,” the game’s fanfare, uses the theme as sung by synth voices as a stinger to a triumphant outburst. It’s in “Angel’s Fear” that Kikuta really gives the theme a workout, changing the shimmering mallets of the original’s opening for gently rolling pianos before bringing in the main melody on an acoustic guitar. Interestingly, he delays the fourth note of the theme and strings the final three together as a descending triplet, giving the theme a terrific sense of improvisation and intangible “difference” compared to the original. The same arrangement of notes, this time on chimes with acoustic guitar backing, appears in “Breezin’,” one of the concluding suite of tracks. It’s a very low-key and lovely statement that breaks up longer sections of Mitsuda-esque guitar noodling and synth voices, if totally lacking the exuberant energy of the original’s “The Last Truth from the Left.”

Kikuta also makes the intriguing choice to take the final boss theme from the previous game, “Meridan Dance,” and twist it into a dour and militaristic track for the end of each character’s unique prologue as “Meridian Child.” This same mutation of “Meridian Dance” appears throughout several of the more high-energy battle tracks, like “Nuclear Fusion” and “The Sacrifice Part Three” and winds up serving as a thread of its own to hold the score together. Kikuta’s battle themes in general are a much more varied lot for Secret of Mana 2 and are especially notable in their use of synthesized percussion. “Rolling Cradle” features unparalleled (for the SNES) drum rolls and rhythms, while “The Sacrifice Part One” uses the sound of shattering glass as a percussive element and the following “The Sacrifice Part Two” is an all-percussion frenzy combined with fragments of a twisted mallet melody. The pick of the bunch is undoubtedly “Hightension Wire” which exceeds the joyous exuberance of “Danger” in the previous game through the use of backbeats, prominent bass, woodwind accents, and a delightful synth melody. The final battle theme, the previously mentioned “The Sacrifice Part Three,” is another highlight; it’s far more serious than “Meridian Dance” but employs fragments of that theme and aspects of “Angel’s Fear” into a whirling, and lengthy, whole.

“Far more serious” is probably an apt descriptor of Kikuta’s entire score for Secret of Mana 2, in fact, and he uses less of several elements that made the original so goofy: prominent backbeats, quirky melodies, doubled mallets, and so on are in shorter supply. It’s possible that Kikuta wasn’t as comfortable with the level of seriousness the new game demanded, as the music uniformly lacks the same amount of wistfulness and exuberance that the original displayed. In fact, outside of statements of “Angel’s Fear,” there’s little wistfulness to be had at all, and much of the field music that was the source for that or the wackier tracks in the previous game sounds thin and rather uninspired by comparison (the missing eighth sound channel certainly not helping). This weakeness is compounded by the strange arrangement of the album, which clusters the duller field themes on the first disc while stuffing the final platter with the more rewarding battle themes and reprises of “Angel’s Fear.”

Despite this weakness, there’s no shortage of relative gems throughout the score. Each of the six characters gets a motif of sorts, albeit only one and never reprised or varied, and some of these are quite terrific: “Lefthanded Wolf,” for instance, uses growling bass guitar to great effect, and “Raven” is a fun romp with marimba and synth voices. Some of the field themes do a better job than others, with the jaunty bongos of “Damn Damn Drum,” the bizarre ambience of “Weird Counterpoint,” and the delightful marimba and chime dance of “Don’t Hunt the Fairy” as some of the best. The game’s flight theme, “Can You Fly, Sister?” is also a resounding highlight, a soaring piece that builds on, and exceeds, the backbeats and melodic strength of “Flight into the Unknown.” It’s also worth noting that, for better or for worse, all of Secret of Mana 2‘s songs are given plenty of room to breathe: the three-disc album loops each twice, the good and the mediocre, in the sort of expansive album release that Secret of Mana demanded but was never given. It’s also, curiously, available at a reasonable price even from importers, possibly due to overprinting on Square’s part.

Secret of Mana 2 is a curious happening, a mix of material that builds nicely on Kikuta’s elements and flat songs that seem to belie the composer being a bit unfomfortable with the more serious direction the series had taken. For all that, it’s still recommended to anyone that’s a fan of late-era 16-bit music, the original Secret of Mana, or Kikuta himself–just don’t expect it hit the same lofty highs. Secret of Mana 2 represented a career high for Hiroki Kikuta as well, briefly cementing him as the Mana series composer of choice, but it was not to last: after one final project for Square in 1998, Kikuta left the company to helm the ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful Koudelka. The obscurity into which the latter project threw him is one of the bigger tragedies of game music as a whole, but as shown by the continued influence of his Mana songs and themes, and their continual rearrangement and reuse in later games and by fans, his legacy is still secure.

Rating: starstarstarstar

Thor: The Dark World (Brian Tyler)

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Bowing the Thanksgiving after Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World was the second post-Avengers Marvel cinematic universe sequel, and compared to its immediate predecessor it had a very difficult development. Original director Branagh passed on the project, and two more would-be helmers briefly warmed his chair before the studio settled on relative newcomer Alan Taylor, a veteran of several highly-regarded TV series but with a thin film resume. Casting was still another headache, as was writing, and the project turned into something of a revolving door for high-profile comings and goings. It’s a miracle that the final product is as enjoyable as it is, mashing up Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Portal 2, and the original Thor for another tale that is never afraid to let its ponderousness be deflated by its tongue in its cheek. It was successful to the tune of a bit more than its predecessor, but wound up getting lost in the scuffle between the popular Iron Man 3 and the acclaimed Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

The second Thor suffered its share of development problems on the scoring stage as well. Patrick Doyle bowed out with Kenneth Branagh to work on the latter’s disastrous Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit after some early talks, and director Taylor then settled on an unconventional choice: Carter Burwell. The cerebral Burwell was in the midst of his greatest period of box-office success due to his overachieving scores for three of the five risible Twilight films, but it was clear from the beginning that Marvel was nervous about his ability to carry a holiday superhero blockbuster. Indeed, Burwell was unceremoniously rejected from the project as it entered post-production and replaced with the composer who had been the producers’ choice all along: Brian Tyler. Tyler, fresh off his well-received score for Iron Man 3, thus accomplished the Hans Zimmer-like feat of scoring two superhero movies in the same calendar year.

Despite–or perhaps because of–the relatively short timespan in which he had to write it, Thor: The Dark World has many of the same building blocks as Iron Man 3. It combines a resounding theme for the hero with a scoring approach that seeks to merge the Remote Control “wall of sound” characteristics expected of all post-Batman Begins superhero scores with more traditional orchestral modes. Essentially, Tyler does his best to subvert the dominant Hans Zimmer superhero scoring paradigm while remaining outwardly loyal to it, an approach that worked so well for Iron Man 3 that it led to Tyler almost single-handedly taking over the Marvel cinematic universe. As such, the sound is “bigger” in almost every way compared to the original Thor: greater use of choir, a bigger-sounding ensemble beefed up with more synths, and hyperbolic actions sequences that out-rowdy the rowdiest parts of Thor–and, unlike Doyle, Tyler seems completely at home writing in this mode.

Many fans of Patrick Doyle were disappointed that his noble brass theme for Thor was not used by Tyler; stories vary, but either Tyler or the producers were unwilling to pay the re-use fees associated with the theme (and, to be fair, it’s doubtful that Burwell’s rejected score used it either). Tyler’s new theme often gives the primary ascending melody to a gigantic choir set against brass. One can hear some echoes or influences of the original theme within it, and if it’s perhaps not as strong as Doyle’s, Tyler uses it much more consistently and weaves it more deeply into his underscore. A rising secondary phrase within the theme is used almost as much as an accent, again almost always either taken up by or supported by a full chorus.

One of the major problems with the original Thor was its lack of thematic attention to the villains of the piece. With the slightly ridiculous addition of Dark Elves into The Dark World, Tyler does make some basic attempts to portray their depredations. Cues like “Lokasenna” and “Origins” combine a vague motif of snarling menace with a world music approach reminiscent of Tyler’s own Children of Dune with strong echoes of Howard Shore’s epochal scores for his own elves. Loki’s thematic representation is sneaky and subtle with harp accents (“The Trial of Loki,” “Shadows of Loki”), and while it’s certainly more recognizable than Doyle’s efforts at the same, one wishes that Tyler could have developed it into a fuller theme.

Much of the lengthy album is given over to muscular action cues that feature Thor’s theme, or variations thereof, in straightforwardly crowdpleasing fashion. There are no musical winks to the audience for some of the more goofy moments of the film, and no equivalent to the glorious “Can You Dig It?” from Iron Man 3, but it’s always tuneful music crafted with consummate skill. Tyler’s one concession to goofiness is in “An Unlikely Alliance,” where he inserts a brief blast of Alan Silvestri’s theme from Captain America for one of the film’s funniest moments–interestingly, the actual score for Cap’s own sequel has none of the theme, making Tyler’s use of it, in retrospect, a bit of a last hurrah. The album also concludes with one last piece proving Tyler’s increasing grip on the Marvel universe: a whirling, James Horner-esque fanfare for the Marvel logo that combines beats from Tyler’s two Marvel scores.

Much like The Avengers before it, Thor: The Dark World was primarily a digital release, with a physical CD pressing from boutique label Intrada intended primarily for collectors at a slightly higher price point. Unlike The Avengers, though, Intrada’s platter has no extra music; the digital-vs.-physical issue being solely a personal preference in this case. Tyler did fine yeoman’s work on Thor: The Dark World, especially considering the short time period he had to write it and the pre-production teething problems the film had. If his theme for Thor himself is a tad weaker than Patrick Doyle’s, the composer makes up for it with excellent integration of the motif into a score that’s comfortable in its own skin and has a set of stronger–if still somewhat underdeveloped–secondary themes. With 2015’s The Avengers: Age of Ultron next on his docket, Tyler proved with Thor: The Dark World that his ability to please producers and score collectors alike with Iron Man 3 wasn’t a fluke.

Rating: starstarstarstar

Iron Man 3 (Brian Tyler)

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After helming the disappointing Iron Man 2, director Jon Favreau moved on to other projects like the disastrous Cowboys & Aliens and assumed a producer role for the further adventures of Tony Stark in the Marvel cinematic universe. After being revitalized as a character by Joss Whedon’s 2012 superhero smackdown in The Avengers, the plan was always for Iron Man to return for a solo picture, and the job of shepherding that to completion went to actor/screenwriter/director Shane Black. Black, like Favreau, didn’t seem to have the chops for a superhero movie, but he knocked the assignment out of the park, co-writing a screenplay that brimmed with humor and confronted Stark with a memorable villain. Audiences responded enthusiastically, to the tune of 1.2 billion box office dollars and decent critical notices, firmly putting the failure of Iron Man 2 behind the franchise.

Director Black’s only previous film, the whip-smart neo-noir Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (also starring Downey), had been scored by John Ottman. Ottman had superhero chops of his own, of course, but was committed to the nightmare of Jack the Giant Slayer for Bryan Singer. Instead, the producers hired rising composer Brian Tyler, who was in the midst of breaking out into the realm of mega-budget action films at the time. Having parleyed an early connection with Justin Lin into scores for the mega-successful Fast & Furious series and an adaptation of Jerry Goldsmith’s Rambo theme into the ironic slugfests of The Expendables series, Tyler’s feature assignments for big-budget pictures were numerous in the years leading up to Iron Man 3. A fan of the comics from childhood, Tyler was in many ways the perfect choice for producers looking for a new approach to the character.

In fact, the producers instructed Tyler to break from the earlier Iron Man scores by Ramin Djawadi and John Debney by aiming for a sound that was orchestral, thematic, and a bit of a throwback, jettisoning most of the rock sound that had dragged down the previous scores, but nevertheless firmly linking the score to The Avengers and contemporary superhero scores. It was a tall order, but one which Tyler approached with gusto. Right away, from the first notes of the album, listeners can tell that the major problem with Djawadi and Debney’s scores has been solved: Tyler develops a grand front-and-center theme for Iron Man and Tony Stark.

Debuting in the titular “Iron Man 3” at the warhead of the album, Tyler’s theme is bold and brassy with full choral support alongside electronic accents and a few James Horner-style metal hits. It’s not too dissimilar from John Debney’s Goldsmith-inflected theme from the previous film, though there’s no hint of electric guitar and a definite “contemporary” (i.e. Hans Zimmer) flavor to the mix. Tyler essentially worked within the expected sound of a post-The Dark Knight superhero score to produce a theme as close to the grand superheroes of old within that Zimmer-inflected mode and his own musical voice. Most importantly, the theme is presented throughout the film and the soundtrack album in a very old-fashioned way, unlike Debney’s seldom-employed one or Zimmer’s two-note/one-note ostinatos from The Dark Knight. Also, unlike Debney and Zimmer, Tyler isn’t afraid to have fun with variations on his theme, incorporating it into a tender mode instead of a love theme, for instance. By far the best, and most fun, interpretation is in the end credits piece “Can You Dig It?” which sees Tyler twist his Iron Man theme into a joyous and campy go-go mode that strikes the perfect tongue-in-cheek note for Tony Stark and his alter ego.

Elsewhere, Tyler provides plenty of gigantic action music thoroughly suffused with his theme. The arguable highlight of this is the brutal “Attack on 10880 Malibu Point” which mixes an ominous adult choir with slow and deconstructed fragments of the Iron Man motif; it’s a full-on aural assault in the Zimmer Remote Control vein but with a much less simplistic, pounding structure and a far greater emphasis on theme. Tracks like “Battle Finale” offer a far more triumphant variation on the theme with full support from everything at Tyler’s disposal. Tyler is never able to offer a full theme-on-theme smackdown like that put forth by Danny Elfman or John Williams due to the weakness of his villain theme (more on that in a moment) but the action material is nearly always effective in a monothematic Jerry Goldsmith vein.

The score’s weaknesses seem mostly attributable to likely studio mandates for Tyler to ape the dominant The Dark Knight paradaigm in post-2005 superhero scoring. There are several segments of relentless Inception-style brass blasts and thumping Batman Begins “wing-flaps,” often coexisting with much better material. “Dive Bombers,” for instance, accompanies the film’s nail-biting freefall sequence with constant Remote Control puounding before blossoming into a triumphant rendering of the Iron Man theme that foreshadows “Can You Dig It?” The film’s mysterious Mandarin villain and his Extremis associates have a motif of their own, in places like “Heat and Iron” and the self-titled “The Mandarin,” but this is among the most unpleasant music on album, a shrill mush of vague Middle Eastern duduk blasts and shrieking, growling electronics that point to a studio-mandated inspiration from The Dark Knight‘s Joker material.

Due to the success of Iron Man 3 and the working relationship he forged with the producers, the assignment led to Brian Tyler becoming the de facto house composer for the Marvel cinematic universe, replacing Alan Silvestri for Avengers: Age of Ultron and Carter Burwell for Thor: The Dark World. As they had with Iron Man 2, the studio put out two albums: a “music from and inspired by” coaster with none of Tyler’s music and virtually no music heard in the film at all, and a platter with 75:53 of score, the overwhelming majority of what had been written for the project. Though it can occasionally be exhausting in its length, and the murkily unpleasant identity for the villains and studio order to ape Zimmer and his Remote Control associates in places are disappointments, Iron Man 3 still earns a solid recommendation and represent a significant step forward for the franchise after two lackluster scores. Tyler’s ability in working within studio constraints to compose relatively superior scores didn’t go unnoticed, either, and he continues to receive plum assignments in that vein post-2013.

Rating: starstarstarstar