Kameo: Elements of Power (Steve Burke)

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Thanks to the Sumthing Else label, western game music has been undergoing a mini-renaissance, with many soundtracks pressed to commercial discs in recent months (at least for Xbox games). Even if you have never played (or heard of) Kameo: Elements of Power, you’ll find the score to be a pleasant surprise, full of symphonic and choral power.

Steve Burke’s compositions are clearly influenced by Howard Shore’s genre-defining fantasy effort in The Lord of the Rings, especially where the chorus is concerned. It’s almost omnipresent, even at low registers, and really shines in tracks like “Hero’s Theme” and “Ice Mountain Onslaught,” lending the ensemble power. The presence of veteran composer and orchestrator Nic Raine is certainly a plus, as is the always-reliable City of Prague Philharmonic. Selected highlights are fully orchestral, while the remainder of the music is synthesized with high-quality samples.

Burke’s own voice, rather than Shore’s influence, is most clearly heard in the quirky, smaller scale tracks. This results in tracks that are slightly off-kilter, but (especially when combined with a female solo voice) uniformly impressive and beautiful. “Enchanted Kingdom,” an album highlight, combines the vocal with a minimal ensemble to produce a stunning lullaby, while “Crystal Cavern” uses that same vocalist to convey a chaotic and quirky feeling, like a maze of reflections in crystal. “The Snow Tribe” continues the quirky sound, without vocal accompaniment, and remains highly enjoyable.

If one had to fault the album, it would be for the lack of strong recurring thematic material, and the tendency (especially in the latter half of the album) for cues to run together and begin to sound alike. “Hero’s Theme” is the closest the album has to unifying thematic material, as it’s referenced several times, but it is never boldly presented other than in its titular track. The music is strongly melodic, though (one of its greatest strengths); it’s just a shame that the gorgeous melodies aren’t generally carried over after their first appearance.

The tail of the album is jam-packed with action cues, but these tend to be very similar: the chorus as backup and color, strong percussion hits, and a large volume of brass. But many of these tracks don’t differentiate themselves well enough to be individually memorable, leaving less of an impression than the smaller-scale compositions. They are, however, most likely to appeal to lovers of orchestral music who may be turned off by the more synth-heavy tracks.

On the whole, Burke’s score is highly enjoyable, and well worth searching out. The album may have some shortcomings, but it is still very impressive, and I hope to see future efforts from the composer find their way to disc. While a generous selection is presented on the CD, fans should note that additional tracks are available as free downloads from the composer’s official website. This includes three long suites and an outstanding “Complete Composer Edition” that features all music not otherwise on the official CD that was composed for the game, along with demos, presentation tracks, and unused content.

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Additional Review of Free Downloadable Tracks

While the 2005 soundtrack release for Kameo: Elements of Power contained an hour of Steve Burke’s music, it wasn’t enough to satisfy fans. Typically, at this point, nothing more would be done by official companies, but Rare has always been generous with its fans. Rather than forcing them to extract the music themselves, or releasing a second album of music, Burke and Rare instead released the music for free.

Gradually updated and expanded over the course of several years, the website tracks represent several additional hours of Kameo material. Some of these tracks expand on the heavy battle themes present on the CD; “Water Temple Battle,” “Final Showdown,” “Castle Fight” and others are solid tracks, though they repeat some of what’s on the commercial disc. It’s easy to see why they were left off, but the music is still worth having.

The website tracks really expand on the moody and quirky aspects of Kameo, though. The warm, sad vocals make a return in “Peace in the Kingdom,” one of the collection’s standout tracks. But the quirky themes prove to be the most delightful, from the wonderfully off-kilter tribal percussion of “Trainer Cave” to the Elfmanesque whistles and chirps of “Mystic Theme.” These songs are by far the most interesting additions, and one has to wonder why they weren’t squeezed onto the commercial disc.

The three suites, each over twenty minutes long, deserve special attention. Consisting of unreleased music from the game as well as alternate themes and demos, they represent a significant investment in listening time but a good payoff: all three are consistently high quality. The first medley expands on the gentle ethereal sound, with both wordless vocals and original songs in the mix. The second layers on the quirk with everything from troll chants to faux-Celtic dances, while the third is a bit of a grab bag that tends toward cacophonous battle music. Some listeners might be upset with the suite format, but the songs are easily pried apart in free audio editors and many of the tracks are too short to stand on their own.

Burke’s “Everything except the Soundtrack CD tracks” download, a whopping half a gigabyte, represents a fascinating glimpse into the production of a video game score. Demos, alternate versions, and unused tracks from Kameo‘s tortured development cycle across three platforms are included. There is perhaps more music here than even the most devoted fan would need, and the tracks are largely unlabeled aside from Burke’s sly commentary. But the thematic development remains strong, and some pieces are fully orchestral or feature live vocal effects. In fact, the dozen or so vocals tracks in the package, most with wordless but live singers, are compelling listens and evidence of Burke’s ability as a choral composer.

The Kameo: Elements of Power website tracks uphold and expand on the terrific sound of the original album, with plenty of goodies for fans who enjoyed any of its facets. Though none of the new music is from the orchestral, Raine-conducted Prague sessions, synth quality remains high throughout. Since the music is free., there’s no reason not to add it to one’s collection post haste.

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Viking: Battle for Asgard (Richard Beddow, Simon Ravn, and Walter Mair)

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Released in 2008 to mediocre reviews, Viking: Battle for Asgard followed an evolving trend in Western VGM and accompanied its Norse heroics with an orchestral score. Composed by Richard Beddow, Simon Ravn, and Walter Mair, the music seems promising at the outset — it’s performed by a real flesh-and-blood orchestra and fits squarely into a genre that’s inspired people like Basil Poledouris and Howard Shore to write some of the finest music of modern times.

The use of a live ensemble is always a plus, often giving a depth of sound that’s impossible even with the finest synths, and Viking: Basttle for Asgard has one of the best orchestral ensembles in the world at its disposal. The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra has been active in re-recording film scores for decades, and has always produced a lush sound.

One has to wonder, though, whether the money was well-spent in hiring the group, for even with the added depth of a world-class orchestra behind it, much of the music is flat, shallow, and uninviting. All the orchestral magic in the world couldn’t breathe life into many of the passages, which tend to meander along more as sound design than music. There’s a lot of uninteresting ambiance to be found, and even the large-scale cues tend to ramp up the noise without much substance.

The music is rather barren thematically, without memorable leitmotifs or figures. It’s desperately missed, as many cues have little tying them together, and would help rein in the rather generic bombast that frequently surges forward. This is exacerbated by the fact that much of the music seems to have originally accompanied cutscenes: surging forward and abruptly cutting off as control is presumably returned to the player.

When it’s at its best, as in “The Battle for Caldberg” and the concluding “Choir of Valkyries,” the music has a lush choral sound that’s not too dissimilar from Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings (which was clearly a major influence on the music). It may not be wholly original, but these gigantic choral pieces are easily the highlights of the album.

Perhaps it’s because, as a collaborative effort between Beddow, Ravn, and Mair, each of the composers is forced to water down their style to fit in with the others. Or perhaps the trio simply provided what was asked for. In any event, Viking: Battle for Asgard is a disappointment, wasting its performers’ time and its creators’ money on a score that would have sounded pretty much the same with only the highlights performed live. There are several other superior takes on symphonic video game music for barbarians; Viking is recommended only to fans of the game and choral fans who may enjoy the 5-10 minutes of Shore-style highlights.

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SUN: Soul of the Ultimate Nation (Howard Shore)

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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.

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