Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: The Game (James Hannigan)

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2009’s Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince solidified director David Yates’s control over the trillion-dollar franchise. The last of the six traditional Potterverse movies, before the strange bifurcated finale, the film had major script problems that not only kept it from being as engaging as its predecessor but forced the following Deathly Hallows Part 1 to go through a series of bizarre narrative contortions in addition to its focus on camping. The film’s score was singled out for particular criticism, with Nicholas Hooper’s subtle music being partly jettisoned by Yates in favor of material from the previous film.

Needless to say, it was a sure bet that a game adaptation would be forthcoming. Sure enough, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince appeared on the release calendars opposite the film. With both the director and the composer of the previous movie returning for the first time since 2002, the game shares a similar sense of continuity, with James Hannigan returning to the series, cementing himself as Jeremy Soule’s successor as Hogwarts’ composer in residence.

It becomes clear from the outset of the album that Hannigan is interested in maintaining thematic continuity between his scores. The opening “Return to Hogwarts” features creative mutations of the composer’s original themes from Order of the Phoenix, with both the friendship theme and the darker menacing/mischief theme combined as a suite. If the new adaptations aren’t quite as soaring as the previous ones, they do an excellent job of tying the scores together in a way Soule never quite managed. The friendship theme is given a full performance at the end of the album as well, moving away from the flighty and optimistic into a quiet and downbeat arrangement that’s incredibly moving.

The themes are less prominent in Hannigan’s sequel outing, integrated more subtly into the music and with significant sections absent them entirely. The album highlight “Race Ginny,” for example, cleverly integrates a fragment of the friendship theme into its midsection while relying on a unique piece to carry its first third. Hannigan seems to be trying to find a middle ground between Williams’ theme-driven music for the films and Soule’s largely themeless work for the first four games; he takes another page from Soule in some other aspects of the score, including some lengthy sections of ambiance across the varied “Wandering” cues.

As before, the music runs the gamut from serious (“More Potions”) to silly (“Fred and George Return”), always keeping that delicate magic touch no matter the setting. The action music is once again a highlight, though perhaps not without some reservations. Tracks such as “Slytherin Combat” soar to triumphant heights unequaled in previous Potter scores, but there is also some weaker music as well, with “Bellatrix” and “Fenrir Battle” recalling some of Soule’s weaker action efforts.

As with the previous game, Hannigan was allowed to adopt some of John Williams’ themes from the original film and a few incidental Soule compositions were recycled. And, as before, all of the Williams adaptations were left off the official album. Luckily, though, Half-Blood Prince also continues the fine production evident in the previous score — the album presentation is superior, with crystal-clear sound, well-mastered tracks, and a pleasing flow with the hideous flaws from the Soule albums a distant memory. Nearly an hour of music is present as well, making this the lengthiest Potter game score to date.

Half-Blood Prince was another extremely strong entry by Hannigan. The composer repeated his previous achievement and wound up turning in music that was superior to Nicholas Hooper’s film score. If the album isn’t quite as consistently excellent as its predecessor, it was still an incredibly strong entry. Astonishingly, Hannigan’s score was released months before the movie or game appeared, the only album in the series thus far to become available so early. Perhaps this, and the incredible weakness of Hooper’s film score, were what led to the official album being pulled only a few months later, around the time that the film hit theaters. All other Potterverse game albums were yakned at the same time, leaving the narrow window of only a few months for fans to acquire the music legally.

Half-Blood Prince would also prove to be the final Potterverse game album of any sort after EA squelched the previous releases. While Hannigan would return for the final two games in the series, their emphasis on third-person action meant that the scores were not only unreleased but far inferior. Hopef

Rating: starstarstarstarstar

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Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: The Game (James Hannigan)

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In keeping with the overall trend of the series, 2007’s film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix saw a still-darker tone, yet another person in the director’s chair, and another composer providing the music. New director David Yates made the right decision in trimming much of the overstuffed fifth Potter tome for the screen, yet in bringing he old collaborator Nicholas Hooper along to score he sharply divided fans, with many claiming that it was far weaker than John Williams’ or Patrick Doyle’s efforts for previous films in the series.

Interestingly, this situation carried over into the inevitable video game adaptation of the film, which saw a composer other than Jeremy Soule take up the baton for the first time. Soule had scored all four previous games with an inventive and magical sound that eschewed John Williams’ iconic themes. Despite being very poorly represented on album, they had been quite popular with fans. Taking over from Soule for Phoenix was veteran composer James Hannigan, who had a diverse career in game scoring but for whom the Potterverse assignment represented a real breakthrough.

For the first time in the game series, Hannigan was given leave to use John Williams’ iconic themes for the movie series in the game’s score for the first time. The game would ultimately feature Hannigan’s arrangements of Williams’ themes, his own original music and motifs, and tracked-in leftovers from Soule’s four scores. With such a mishmash, it was easy to expect Hannigan to underperform — especially as compared with Soule, one of the most popular VGM composers in the business.

Fortunately, Hannigan was able to strut his stuff in an impressive fashion, creating a work that paid homage to both Williams and Soule while retaining his own voice. Indeed, one could argue that Hannigan’s compositions and extended use of Williams themes outshone those Nicholas Hooper, who only used fragments of the Harry Potter themes and was criticized for underplaying the film’s more dramatic moments by fans.

The score unveils its primary themes in the first few tracks, beginning with “Welcome to Hogwarts.” A sweeping “friendship theme” of sorts debuts there, and is malleable enough to be reworked into a love theme (“Cho and Harry”) or action cue (“To Catch an Owl,” easily the highlight of the album). A darker theme, with shades of Williams’ troubled Prisoner of Azkaban, is heard alongside it, reappearing whenever the action turns serious as in “Dumbledore and Voldemort.” “Dolores Umbridge” introduces a third main theme, an insistent, swaggering four-note theme similar to a tag often used by James Horner.

Such thematic richness is well-matched by the very clear sound of the music; performed by a live ensemble, the depth in the recording is excellent. This is especially notable when the score turns to serious action; Hannigan’s music sounds suitably enormous in this context even when it’s not quoting a theme as in the savage “Inquisitorial Squad.” Given the weakness of Hooper’s action music for the film version of Phoenix, one could very well make the case that Hannigan drastically outperformed the film music itself.

That’s not to say that lighter music is neglected; there’s a delightful sense of magic and mischief in cues like “Courtyard Frolics,” often scored with a waltzlike swagger that may have been inspired by Patrick Doyle’s music. With the possible exception of the troubled, ambient “Encounter with Malfoy,” there really are no weak songs to be found. The sound quality is uniformly excellent; Hannigan worked with the same Philharmonia Orchestra Soule used alongside the Slovak National Symphony Orchestra and the Pinewood Singers. But while the budget had forced Soule to rely on his usual crystal-clear synths for much of his score, Hannigan’s work was almost completely acoustic.

Hannigan’s score for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was released as a digital download a few months after the game hit store shelves in 2007. None of the adaptations of Williams’ music from the game were present on the album for contractual reasons, and this was a mixed blessing: while it put Hannigan’s original music front and center, it also meant that, as with the Soule albums, the music was frustratingly incomplete. At least the clipping problems from the earlier releases was solved — Hannigan’s music was well-mastered and attractively presented with a generous 50 minutes of music. It was a well-produced album, offering stunningly clear sound, so it was a terrible shame that EA yanked the album from circulation in 2009 alongside its Potterverse holocaust. Aside from promotional snippets on Hannigan’s website, the score is totally unavailable legally.

It’s a shame, because Order of the Phoenix is a revelation. Hannigan proved his abilities in the genre and outpaced both Nicholas Hooper and Jeremy Soule to provide not only the finest Potterverse game score to date but one that tops the music present in the movie. The lack of Hannigan’s adaptations of John Williams’ themes is regrettable, but this album is still one that should be in every fan’s collection if it were still available. Until then, play the game, rip the music yourself, or listen to samples on Hannigan’s site and mourn for the unjustly obscure fate for such a terrific piece of fantasy adventure scoring.

Rating: starstarstarstarstar

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

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.

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Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: The Game (Jeremy Soule)

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As one of the most popular literary series in modern memory, it was always a given that Harry Potter would see a flurry of media adaptations from movies to games. And sure enough, Electronic Arts put out a game version to coincide with the 2001 release of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to cinemas worldwide. Its reviews were middling, much like the film’s, playing best to fans of the book and young children. And, like the film, it launched a series of Potterverse games that lasted to 2011’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 and beyond.

John Williams’s score for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was a late-career masterpiece, and his theme for the character is perhaps the maestro’s last great theme to embed itself firmly in pop culture. With Williams himself quickly losing interest in the franchise, there was never any question of having him create an original score for the game, but there was a strong likelihood that his music would be chopped up and repurchased. Surprisingly they bucked this expectation and EA turned to Jeremy Soule, who was in the midst of a career renaissance, for their music. After his well-received score to Icewind Dale in 2000, Soule was suddenly a hot commodity, scoring dozens of RPGs and fantasy games in the following years. Due to rights issues, Soule wasn’t allowed to use any of John Williams’ themes from the big-screen Potter; while his music tries to exist in the same world of whimsical fantasy, the melodies were all his own. The music was so highly regarded that unofficial game rips made from the PC version’s audio files were soon in circulation amongst fans.

The official album opens with a resounding rendition of Soule’s “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone Theme,” a piece that seems equally inspired by Williams and Edvard Grieg over its bombastic first half. Oddly, the theme doesn’t appear much in the rest of the album, with Soule preferring to rely on a consistent tone rather than thematic development. The same atmosphere of overbearing wonder returns in several other tracks, most notably “Story Book,” which adds a light choir to provide an undercurrent of menace, and the concluding “Happy Hogwarts.”

Tracks that accompany scenes of mystery and suspense are less engaging, with the dissonant “Dark Hogwarts” and “Devil’s Snare” falling prey to Soule’s tendency toward troubled ambience. Action cues like “Malfoy Fight” or “Troll Chase” similarly fail to convey the magic from the better pieces, with plenty of percussive hits but not much depth. The balance of music is such, though, that the weaker music is generally balanced out by the better, with strong statements of whimsy and wonder prevailing over more pedestrian action music.

Unsurprisingly, Soule’s music went unreleased when the game came out in 2001. However, in late 2006 EA unexpectedly released portions of Soule’s Potter scores as digital downloads via iTunes. Sadly, the iTunes release of Sorceror’s Stone is deeply flawed. While the sound quality is better than that of the rips, the tracks are short and unlooped, leading to jarring transitions more befitting an amateurish gamerip than an official product. The track titles were apparently pulled from Soule’s original files, leading to odd situations where a “part 2” is on the album with no corresponding “part 1”. At 21 minutes, the official product is quite short and missing a considerable portion of the music composed for the game, including some of its best tracks.

Perhaps this is why, in late 2009, Electronic Arts and its E.A.R.S. music label pulled most of their released Harry Potter video game music from circulation. This makes the downloadable soundtrack for Soule’s Sorcerer’s Stone officially unavailable once again and a collectable curiosity–if indeed such things can exist in the digital age. In the end, Soule acquitted himself well with a score that has some considerable highlights, especially in its full form as heard in-game. But in many ways it’s music that serves as a blueprint for what was to come in his later Potter scores — and, indeed, music from Sorcerer’s Stone would be tracked into all future Potter games, even those scored by James Hannigan. Soule fans should definitely seek it out, but the only official album’s drawbacks and lack of availability make it impossible to recommend. Perhaps someday the music will get the release it deserves; until then, fans will simply have to buy the PC version of the game and make their own playlist with a little elbow grease and an audio editor.

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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

Aiko Island (Sean Beeson)

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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: Origins (Inon Zur)

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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

Icewind Dale (Jeremy Soule)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: The Game (Jeremy Soule)

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By 2005, the Harry Potter feature films were becoming darker, soapier, and more critically lauded. A fourth film in the series was never in doubt, nor was a video game to accompany it. For the first time in the series, someone other than John Williams composed the music, and one might have expected game series composer Jeremy Soule to bow out as well. But Soule had never used Williams’ themes, preferring to develop his own, and he returned for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, providing a sense of musical continuity absent from the big-screen version of the story.

Soule’s score doesn’t have much in common with Patrick Doyle’s music for the film, and he continued his practice of coining an all-new title theme for the game and then ignoring it in the subsequent underscore. The “Goblet of Fire Theme” is cut from the same cloth as the others, with a shade of the twinkling personality and chorus of the second and third games. It’s easily the highlight of the music, as well as one of only two pieces that exceeds two minutes in length.

The remainder of the music, as with Soule’s other series scores, is linked by his distinctive personal style. Far more than any of the others, in album or fan-made game rip form, Soule’s Goblet of Fire is an ambient score. Soule can work very well in this style; the beautiful “Greenhouse” and “Greenhouse 2” cues work a subtle kind of magic and are highlights. But there is also copious filler, such as “Ambient” or the twin “Spooky” tracks near the end, which are curious choices given what was left off of the brief album yet appears in-game and in the aforementioned fan rips.

Much of the rest is wildly inconsistent, ranging from the light Celtic beat of “Irish Campsite” to the bizarre creaky vocals of  “Erk Voice Piano.” The action music, as heard in “Erk Creature” and “Dragon Challenge” is serviceable but often underwhelming especially considering the thunderous action music Soule provided for the other Potter games he scored. Part of the problem is the short length of most of the songs: most are under a minute in length, and none are looped as they often were in the game itself.

Initially there was no album for Soule’s Goblet of Fire work, although fan gamerips soon abounded. A year after the game’s debut, EA released an album of score as an iTunes exclusive digital download, alongside Soule’s music for the first three Potterverse games and his Quiddich World Cup. Poor production values plague these releases, which were seemingly thrown together with little quality control. While Goblet is missing the jarring hard stops found in earlier albums, many of the suites are still badly assembled and padded with silence. Worse, the short running time (only 25 minutes) leaves out some of the very best music from the game, such as the Death Eater attack.

That is not the most perverse fact about this score, either. In late 2009, Electronic Arts and its E.A.R.S. music label pulled most of their released Harry Potter video game music from circulation for reasons which are still unclear. Soule’s work for Sorcerer’s Stone, Chamber of Secrets, Prisoner of Azkaban, and Quiddich World Cup were all removed from Amazon and iTunes. While flawed, and assembled with the same seeming lack of care and considerable musical omissions as Goblet of Fire, the removed digital albums were the only legitimate source of music from the games aside from fan-made game rips or purchasing the PC games to assemble such a rip oneself. Worse, James Hannigan’s astonishing, well-produced score albums for Order of the Phoenix and Half-Blood Prince, both infinitely superior to Nicholas Hooper’s work on the films, were removed from circulation at the same time. Of the six Harry Potter game scores released (Hannigan’s Deathly Hallows scores were released after the takedown and never had an album release), only Goblet of Fire remains available to purchase at Amazon. As with the takedown of the rest of the music, no explanation for this bizarre circumstance is forthcoming.

Goblet of Fire is ultimately among Soule’s weakest work in the franchise, a curiously muddled effort made worse by the poor album presentation. Without a consistent style, and with such short tracks, it ultimately fails as a listening experience. Fans should know that they will need to supplement the music with fan-made rips and make some edits, but even in complete form the music largely fails to impress. As Goblet is also Soule’s last Potter score before handing off the baton to James Hannigan, and it’s unfortunate that the album couldn’t provide a better sendoff to his involvement in the series. But its strange status as the last remaining legitimate album of Harry Potter game music means that it is worth sampling, if only to get a glimpse of the wider sonic world of which customers who failed to buy in time were deprived.

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