Fable II (Russell Shaw)

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2008’s Fable II stepped up to the plate with diminished expectations. Few of the original’s lofty promises were met, and anticipation has been rather muted, especially in the face of a game shipping with some of its primary features still unfinished. Still, it managed to overcome much of that skepticism to meet a warm reception, and remains the series title that comes closest to the developer’s goal. The project did allow a second collaboration between Russell Shaw and Danny Elfman, though, which was tantalizing in view of the impressive (but somewhat untapped) potential evident in the first game.

The original Fable disc was undermined by some questionable choices (such as devoting nearly a third of its running time to dull Gregorian chants), but had some very strong cues, headlined by a muscular Danny Elfman theme. Unfortunately, Elfman doesn’t provide a new theme for this outing; while his original was perhaps a bit too superhero style in its straightforward presentation, Russell Shaw’s softer and more lyrical arrangements really brought out the best in it.

Nor is there any large-scale presentation of the original Fable theme. It’s heard only in fragments in two tracks. Despite this, the opening “Fable Theme” promises a great deal; a music-box fragment of Elfman’s theme leads into an explosive choral section that sports just the right hint of 19th century flair for the game’s setting.

“Bowerlake” introduces a strong Celtic aspect into the game’s soundscape, though without resorting to a whirligig sword dance and with an emphasis on mood and texture. That same sort of magic is extended in “Westcliff,” which also offers one of the few robust statements of Shaw’s new theme in its darker second half. “Marcus Memorial” is cut from largely the same cloth, but refreshingly also offers an arrangement of one of the original game’s best themes.

Still, there’s a considerable amount of filler to be found. “Shadow of Evil” is little more than five minutes of choral moaning, while “Wraithmarsh” is little but churning and empty ambiance, with only another music box snippet of Elfman’s theme to liven it up.

In the end, Shaw doesn’t use Elfman’s theme much, and despite a promising start, fails to produce a new one to take its place. This means that the thematic backbone which anchored the previous score is broken; while certain textures are carried over, the music feels less cohesive than the original. As with the first score, many of the tracks impress, but the music still fails to hold together as a cohesive listening experience — one step forward, and one step back.

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Fable (Russell Shaw)

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Bogged down by unrealistic expectations brought on by developer Lionhead Studios’ hyperbolic pre-release commentary, the original Fable wound up disappointing for what it was not despite being a relatively solid (and often quite funny) game in its own right. One of the entries in Sumthing Else’s Xbox catalog, Fable also represents something of a rarity (though it is becoming more and more common): a major film score composer working on a video game. In this case, Danny Elfman, famous for his work with Tim Burton, was brought in to write the main theme, while Russell Shaw, composer of Black and White, was drafted to flesh it out into a complete score.

Elfman has worked in this way many times before, contributing themes to Pure Luck, Novocaine, and Heartbreakers, among others, but his main theme has much more in common with his then-contemporary Spider-Man and Planet of the Apes scores. Dynamic, percussion-heavy, and with a full choir, the theme is built around a malleable 7 (or 8, depending on the variation) note theme that captures the darkness inherent in the game’s concept without servicing the fantasy aspect too much. The approach is light-years away from Lord of the Rings, and is perhaps more suited to a superhero, but manages to fit very well.

Russell Shaw clearly studied Elfman’s body of work and adopted the composer’s signature motifs for several cues in his score. “Oakvale” is orchestrated and performed like a cue out of Edward Scissorhands, for example, while “Arena” features Elfman’s trademark ascending brass notes. On the whole, though, Shaw limits himself to referencing the “Fable” theme, which is heard in one form or another in virtually every track on the disc.

Shaw’s own musical voice comes to the fore in tracks like “Temple of Light” and “Bowerstone”. “Temple” is the only synthesized track on the disc, and features a mystical, distant, almost new age feel, while “Bowerstone” is a quirky plucked-string delight that evokes an upper-class, uptight atmosphere. The latter especially would go on to influence Shaw’s scores to Fable II and Fable III, which took on increasingly Victorian mannerisms even as they first minimized and then discarded Elfman’s original theme.

The album does suffer from more than its share of dud tracks, however. “Lytchfield Cemetery,” for example, is atmospheric and plodding — good for setting a mood but of little use outside of the game. And the final two tracks, taking up almost a fourth of the total running time, are extraordinarily dull Gregorian chants. I normally cherish choral elements in soundtracks, but the chants found in Fable are repetitive, shrill, and totally uninteresting, and they end the disc on a very weak note.

Overall, there is much reason to recommend the album — Elfman’s theme, Shaw’s original work, and variations — but the number of dull dud tracks brings the album down considerably. Elfman completists, and anyone who enjoyed Lionhead’s other scores, will probably get the most out of a purchase. The best solution for casual enthusiasts may be to seek out the digital reissue and avoid the weakest music altogether.

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