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

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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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