Kameo: Elements of Power (Steve Burke)

Cover

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.

* * * *

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.

* * * *

Advertisements

Guild Wars (Jeremy Soule)

Cover

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.

* * * * *