Icewind Dale (Jeremy Soule)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * *


Guild Wars (Jeremy Soule)


One of the few MMORPG’s to successfully move away from the World of Warcraft model, Guild Wars opted for a heavy player-versus-player focus and an episodic fee structure rather than the traditional monthly subscription system. This approach won the game, its subsequent episodes, and sequel considerable plaudits from the industry and players following its 2005 release, and it remains one of the few MMORPG titles to successfully challenge Blizzard on its own turf without directly aping the latter behemoth.

No stranger to epic fantasy role-playing games thanks to his previous experience with Icewind Dale, Jeremy Soule was chosen to score Guild Wars in all its iterations thanks to his previous association with ArenaNet’s Daniel Dociu, who had known the composer in his early Squaresoft days. And while Soule and his brother Julian have produced over dozens of hours of music for the series over the course of its many expansions and sequel, the original Guild Wars remains by far the tightest and most impressive soundtrack of the lot.

Guild Wars continues Soule’s earlier method of creating a strong main theme and supplementing it with strong ambient soundscapes, but is far bolder in presentation and execution than many similarly conceived scores. The central “Guild Wars Theme” is presented at the outset by strings, brass, and a choir and winds in subdued form throughout many other tracks like “Gwen’s Theme.”

However, unlike in many of Soule’s other scores, the main theme is not the most rousing tune. In fact, the very next track, “Autumn in Ascalon,” easily outdoes the main theme in scope and power, marshaling whirling strings and a chorus to tremendous orchestral heights. There are several other exciting, up-tempo tracks near the end of the album, like the jagged, brassy “Guilds at War” and the potent strings of “Hall of Heroes.”

The album also contains many of Soule’s trademark ambient cues, though they are more melodic and ambitious than many similar efforts. “Crystal Oasis” combines soft choral vocals with strings to produce an enchanting, otherworldly sound, while “Tasca’s Demise” weds a soulful violin to descending plucked strings for a wistful, sad feel. “Over the Shiverpeaks” is all a charmingly minimalistic violin and flute duet, and “Eye of the Storm” melds the same leads to a small ensemble to haunting effect.

Admittedly, there are a few tracks that lack much of a punch. “Eve’s Theme,” while evocative, is content to boil and churn without much real personality, and “The Charr” is thematically aimless despite ostensibly representing the villains of the game. Nevertheless, these tracks are the minority, and still fit in well with the sonic tapestry Soule weaves. Those turned off my synthesized orchestras need not worry: Soule continues to lead the industry in the quality of his samples (which are often recorded from live instruments), and most of the time the resulting music is indistinguishable from real orchestral music by all but the most hardened audiophiles.

There are several albums available: a disc that came with the collector’s edition of the game and includes about fifty minutes of score, and a digital download, which includes four bonus tracks and over an hour of music. Both albums are simply stunning in their orchestral beauty, though, and come highly recommended.

* * * * *