Best of Western Game Music: Jeremy Soule

Secret of Evermore (Jeremy Soule, 1995)

Secret of Evermore Soundtrack Album Title:
Secret of Evermore Complete Soundtrack
Record Label:
Square
Catalog No.:
SQ207
Release Date:
October 1, 1995
Purchase:
Buy Used Copy

It’s fair to say that a game like Secret of Evermore would meet with less hostility these days. The thought of a Western console RPG is no longer an affront to gamers raised on Japanese genre products. Back in 1995 though, what many Square Soft fans in the Western hemisphere wanted was a localised Secret of Mana 2 / Seiken Densetsu 3. What they didn’t look for was a down-to-earth alternative to JRPGs’ heroic melodramatics. Especially if it was littered with fictional pop culture references and had a metaphysical, light-hearted tongue-in-cheek approach.

And so, Secret of Evermore began its uphill battle. Sadly, its music got caught up in the struggle – entirely undeservedly so. Even decades after its release, perceptions of future star composer Jeremy Soule‘s debut seem highly ambivalent. Grievances raised against the Secret of Evermore soundtrack usually include that there is hardly any music in the first place (the game uses ambient sounds more extensively than any previous console RPG, but there is still close to an hour of melodic material to enjoy); that the score album leaves out too much music from the game and focuses too strongly on one of Evermore‘s time periods (on the contrary, the album does a great job at gathering the majority of worthwhile compositions from the game, which simply happen to mostly feature in the world of Gothica); and that the music is itself unremarkable.

That latter point only holds true if you expect Secret of Evermore to sound like a JRPG. But not surprisingly, its music is as much a departure from genre conventions as the game’s tone and stylistic direction. What’s often overlook is that the Secret of Evermore soundtrack bears one crucial similarity to Secret of Mana. Both works articulate an individualistic way to scoring an RPG. They look for alternatives to the common, late-romantic orchestral sound that the RPG genre seems to attract. Ironically, Soule’s demo tape, which landed him his first composing gig, seemed to follow down precisely this well-trodden musical path. According to Evermore‘s producer Alan Weiss, Soule’s original compositions were a mix of John Barry and John Williams.

Maybe it was at due to the SNES’ limitations that Soule’s music for Secret of Evermore turned out so astonishingly different from his film music inspirations (according to Weiss, the young composer used to work with far more advanced digital sound technology). In fact, the SNES’s sound chip’s constraints may have been a blessing in disguise. After all, it’s hard to ignore that Secret of Evermore is still by far Soule’s most creative and individual work.

Somehow, Soule manages to find a fitting musical equivalent for the game’s peculiar low-key mood and pursuit of realism (that still accommodated Gothic castles and rampaging robot butlers, mind you). As you would expect, there’s little of the RPG genre’s usual high fantasy heroism on Secret of Evermore. No confessional melodramatics here – even the soundtrack’s ‘flying’ cue, usually THE opportunity for an RPG composer to cut loose and write a soaring piece of music, is a fairly subdued, but nonetheless fascinating affair.

Throughout the score, Soule prefers to write for small orchestral ensembles, usually led by intimate woodwind and acoustic guitar soli. These alternate between ‘mysterious’ and ‘quietly spellbinding’ through their cleverly chromatic melody lines, which incorporate folk and jazz influences. There’s a subtlety to Soule’s approach that belies his relative inexperience as a game music composer in stunning fashion. These are compositions with an astonishing amount of emotional ambivalence and complexity. They also show a composer in full command of the expressive capabilities of the instruments he deploys. The overall, dominant mood on Secret of Evermore might be one of melancholy and autumnal lyricism. But sombre menace, quirkiness and ethereal allure hide just beneath the surface, and it takes a bit of patience to unearth the music’s melodic beauty.

Yes, contrary to its reputation, the Secret of Evermore soundtrack features a wealth of wonderful melodies. They might be less hummable than their JRPG counterparts. However, they’re just as rich and maybe even more enticing, heading into unexpected harmonic and rhythmic directions. A final crucial piece of the puzzle is the striking quality of the samples Soule uses. This is of particular importance on a soundtrack that uses so few musical elements – and each one needs to make its full impact. It’s impossible not to marvel at the life-like nature of Secret of Evermore‘s acoustic guitar lines. Even better, the various woodwind instruments heard throughout the soundtrack have a welcoming, warm glow that never fails to beguile.

It might sound a bit like heresy, but detach yourself from the many preconceptions that history has burdened Secret of Evermore‘s music with, and it emerges as one of the best RPG scores written for the SNES. Restrained and sophisticated, the Secret of Evermore soundtrack hits the perfect balance between atmosphere and melodies.

Total Annihilation (Jeremy Soule, 1997)

Total Annihilation Original Soundtrack Album Title:
Total Annihilation soundtrack
Record Label:
Atari
Catalog No.:
N/A
Release Date:
August 7, 2010
Purchase:
Download at GOG

There’s no doubt that the real time strategy game genre peaked in popularity during the second half of the 1990s. Their commercial success was kick started by the hugely popular Command & Conquer and Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness. For a few years, RTS games were all the rage (not that the genre is dead now). As a result, a glut of similarly-themed products soon hit the shelves. Differentiation – either by quality, innovation or style – became paramount for more ambitious developers.

Total Annihilation was the lucky case of differentiation through all those three markers. Years after its release, Total Annihilation is still one of the most fondly remembered RTS games of all time. It didn’t rewrite the rule book, but made many tweaks that updated genre conventions in smart ways. And while its look wasn’t too different from the hordes of Command & Conquer clones, its music easily stood apart. For that, gamers could thank Jeremy Soule, who back in 1997 wasn’t yet the star composer he is now. To set the game apart, Soule proposed a live orchestral soundtrack – pretty much unheard in 1997. Soule’s conviction was strong enough that he proposed to lead designer Chris Taylor to work for free for a year, in case the gamble didn’t pay off.

Thankfully, a pay cut wasn’t necessary. Both reviewers and gamers praised the Total Annihilation soundtrack and it’s easy to see why Soule’s work met with such enthusiasm. Total Annihilation doesn’t lose a second and dives head first into the action. From the moment “Brutal Battle” kicks off with a propulsive staccato brass motif that sounds like the starting gun to a fierce space battle, it’s obvious that Soule’s idea to write a Star Wars-style orchestral score was an inspired choice, realised with immense amounts of panache and verve.

Indeed, Total Annihilation plays like music underscoring hundreds of spaceships whizzing furiously past each other at dizzying speeds. What it doesn’t really sound like is two lumbering armies clashing in battle. But that Total Annihilation’s soundtrack is more dramatic than almost any other Western RTS score is also its greatest asset. After all, it’s hard to imagine music that could get gamers fired up more effectively for combat.

Total Annihilation is clearly the work of a young composer seizing with unbridled enthusiasm the opportunity to write for live orchestra (it’s worth pointing out that it could be hardly more different in tone to Soule’s previous major work Secret of Evermore). The album’s first half is a constant hotbed of orchestral activity. It’s led by wonderfully frenetic brass material that balances the music’s potentially oppressive martial character with moments of soaring heroism. The sheer density of orchestral activity can be quite dazzling in its restless motion. Breathlessly cascading strings and an endless supply of cymbal crashes lend frenzied rhythmic support to the brass melodies and fanfares.

In fact, what Soule achieves here is nothing less than setting a new standard for action score writing in Western game music (which makes the often drab nature of Soule’s battle cues on his fantasy scores all the more puzzling). It’s an exhausting listen, but in the best possible way. After each track, you’ll first need catch your breath and reflect on the whirlwind that has just passed, unsure whether to hit repeat and relive the excitement all over again, or whether to proceed to the next musical jolt of adrenaline. The fact that Total Annihilation‘s action tracks are on the short side does nothing to diminish their appeal. There is so much happening within these two minute compositions that few listeners will find reason to complain.

None of this is to suggest that Soule’s approach here lacks finesse or subtlety. Just when the repeated brass motif that opens “Brutal Battle” threatens to turn monotonous, Soule changes the piece’s direction seamlessly by throwing in one of the most triumphant melodies of his career, before making a piano the main protagonist during the track’s middle section. Throughout the Total Annihilation soundtrack, xylophone or piano double the brass lines, adding colour – not weight – to keep textures uncluttered.

“Ambush in the Passage” begins at a more dignified, calm pace before revving up the tempo, while “The March Unto Death” exemplifies Soule’s classical inspirations most clearly and in striking fashion. The track begins with a string melody and rhythmic support figure reminiscent of a symphonic, early Beethoven-era Allegro. This unexpected choice that Soule manages to combine perfectly with the late-romantic orchestral furore surrounding this segment. It might also be the best demonstration of his creativity on display throughout the first part of Total Annihilation.

However, it is impossible to fully discuss the Total Annihilation soundtrack without mentioning the album’s second half. It’s here where listeners find the music written for moments of (looming) defeat. Soule translates this into dreary, dissonant dirges, featuring little in terms of melodies, instead relying on pained, uninspired textural work.

It’s a jarring transition, leaving absolutely no emotional middle ground between undisputed victory and utter defeat and desolation. The terribly artificial, hollow sound of the high-pitched, sustained string chords ruling most of these compositions doesn’t help. Just sample the strings on “Licking Wounds”, which sound like a faint imitation of the real thing.

As a whole then, the Total Annihilation soundtrack is a frustrating experience. However, its first half is a thrill ride, full of unfailingly rousing, enthusiastic music of outstanding quality that ultimately makes the score impossible to ignore. Just look past the album’s downcast mumblings and enjoy 16 minutes of some of the most rambunctious action music ever written for a Western video game.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Jeremy Soule, 2002)

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets Original Soundtrack Album Title:
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets Video Game Soundtrack
Record Label:
Electronic Arts
Catalog No.:
N/A
Release Date:
August 14, 2006
Purchase:
Not Available

Your video game might be based on a movie blessed with a score by one of film’s most legendary composers. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll end up with a great game soundtrack album. Just look at the disappointing amount of noteworthy material from those Star Wars and Star Trek games that have actually released on album. Legal matters of licensing that limit access to iconic melodies don’t necessarily help things. However, this limitation that can also be encouragement for a composer to find his own inspired approach.

Such is the case with the Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets soundtrack, easily the best of Jeremy Soule‘s five scores for the game franchise. It also benefits from a better album presentation than Soule’s other Harry Potter soundtracks. Only eight minutes of notable material are missing from the album release, which thankfully excises a lot of ruminative underscore. Sadly, in 2009, Electronic Arts unceremoniously pulled almost all of its Harry Potter game scores from online music scores. Frustrating album situation notwithstanding, Chamber of Secrets is Soule’s most satisfying fantasy soundtrack. Yes, that’s a big claim to make, considering his work on franchises like The Elder Scrolls and Guild Wars. But Chamber of Secrets achieves a consistency of quality that Soule’s more bloated score releases don’t accomplish. He doubtlessly deserved his 2004 win of the BAFTA Games Award for Best Original Music for Chamber of Secrets.

Soule’s designation as “the John Williams of game music” has always had more to do with hyperbole and facile comparisons than with actual musical parallels. For example, Soule seems almost entirely disinterested in the elaborate thematic structures that shape so many of Williams’ works. However, there’s no denying that at his best, Soule is able to create a lavish orchestral sound reminiscent of John Williams’ creations in the science fiction and fantasy genre.

It was this similarity in sound that landed Soule the gig on the first five Harry Potter games. On the Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets soundtrack, he shows why he’s the right man for the job. Soule gets the necessary mix of adventure, menace and child-like wonder just right. He crafts the perfect soundtrack for a quest that is light-hearted, but not without dangers and dramatic encounters, set in a colourful world that’s homely, but still of immense scale.

All these impressions come together on the album’s opening track “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets Title Theme”. This title cue evokes the requisite sense of both magic and majestic sweep essential to a Harry Potter score. A substantial choral component gives the music unexpected heft and scope, before the orchestration pulls back to solo piano only. Soule shows his aptitude at handling these swift, fluid changes of orchestration and mood with impressive ease. At the same time, it’s obvious Soule has found his individual musical entry point to the world of Harry Potter, never coming off as a mere Williams rip-off.

What’s most refreshing about the Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets soundtrack is its light touch, and a feeling of affability and charm that is utterly delightful. It also helps that the variety on display on “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets Title Theme” is present throughout the entire soundtrack. The requisite comedy elements make their mark on “The Burrow”, which bounces along merrily without ever turning cloying or childish.

The same goes for “Washing”, which is another composition that makes clever use of the piano to add musical colour. Meanwhile, “House Point Theme” has great fun contrasting regal fanfares with tuba-driven oompah-style humour. In the soundtrack’s liner notes, Chamber of Secrets‘ audio manager Nick Lavier claims that Soule “doesn’t seem to be able to […] very easily […] write light, playful music.” However, based on the winning evidence presented here on album, it’s an issue that Soule overcame successfully.

At the other end of the spectrum are the Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets soundtrack’s action pieces. Despite the odd less than spectacular cue, they manage to outgun the battle tracks on pretty much all of Soule’s other fantasy scores. A comparison with his work for the same year’s The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind proves insightful. By comparison, Chamber of Secrets’ action cues are far more attractive, with no place for stale ostinato staccatos. They also have with a real sense of rhythmic elasticity, never content to rest in one spot for long as the whole orchestra contributes to the light-footed compositions.

Most importantly, there’s a real sense of urgency and verve that turns even short tracks like “Draco” into energising interludes. It’s hard to overstate how much a live orchestra’s vivid sound brings to these compositions. For example, the voluptuous, rasping sound of the brass section on “Draco” is immensely satisfying.

Many other tracks contribute to the variety of textures and moods that makes the Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets soundtrack such a successful work. “Flying” shows Soule at his most spirited and effervescent. Here, the music truly cuts loose, unable to contain its excitement at the wide open skies ahead. “Willow Level 3” is a beautifully contoured string adagio with Wagnerian overtones that displays Soule’s classical inclinations. “Spell Atmos” and its calm solemnity and mystical gestures feel like a test run for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Its feeling of otherworldly wonder and gazing finds its charmingly unassuming equivalent in the gorgeously meandering “Day”. The composition’s hazy, sustained woodwind chords set against piano and celesta are something to savour. It’s a rare moment of absent-minded daydreaming that later Harry Potter scores with higher dramatic stakes don’t allow for.

IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey (Jeremy Soule, 2009)

il2sturmovik Album Title:
IL-2 Sturmovik Music from the Original Soundtrack
Record Label:
DirectSong
Catalog No.:
N/A
Release Date:
November 1 2009
Purchase:
Download at DirectSong

IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey arrived at the tail end of the World War II game genre’s huge popularity. As such, game music fans had witnessed many different approaches to underscoring this most devastating of armed conflicts. Especially Michael Giacchino‘s oeuvre had been a potent display of how to put war into music in various ways.

Soule hadn’t worked on a WWII game before Birds of Prey and the same year’s Order of War. However, his fantastic action material on Total Annihilation had a militaristic ferocity and soaring momentum that made him a logical choice to score a flight combat game such as Birds of Prey. True, the game itself didn’t add anything new video games’ depiction of the clash between Allied and Axis forces. However, Soule’s IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey soundtrack found an approach both novel and rooted in the composer’s previous works.

Curiously enough, the score’s opening track isn’t all that indicative of what’s to follow. Not too interested in introspection or gravitas, “IL-2 Sturmovik March” is an almost jolly call to arms. The track’s old-fashioned opening bugle call heralds the mix of nobility and innocence of spirit that characterises this composition. But this relatively lightweight impression soon passes with the compositions that follow.

In fact, Soule attempts to downright monumentalise the conflict he’s underscoring – even more so than Giacchino’s Medal of Honor: Frontline. In many of his previous scores, Soule displayed his classical ambitions, realised to varying degrees of success. The IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey soundtrack is Soule’s most obvious attempt to write a score in reference of classical music’s great masters. It’s a very lofty ambition, particularly for an artist whose oeuvre is characterised so often by atmospheric meanderings. However, Soule pulls off this unexpected feat and writes a work of astounding weight and import.

From “The Engagement” onwards, Soule shows that he is far more interested in achieving a sense of overwhelming awe and grandeur, rather than putting into sound the dizzying motion of combat planes darting through the skies (something that Giacchino’s Secret Weapons Over Normandy was concerned with). Birds of Prey moves at a comparatively slow pace, not trying to impress through agitated energy. Instead, it establishes a majestic presence that feels unstoppable in its heroic might. Such monumentalism comes with its set of dangers though, as the border separating the sublime and the ridiculous is thin. Thankfully, Soule manages to stay on the right side of the divide.

What precisely is the shape of the classically-inspired sound Soule aims to emulate? Interestingly, on Birds of Prey he deviates from most other ambitious orchestral game soundtracks. These often enough dazzle with their complexity, be in their textures, themes or other areas. Soule walks down a different path. He bases the majority of the IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey soundtrack on constantly churning ostinato string rhythms. On top of these, he layers positively towering brass fanfares and melodies, interspersed with beautiful woodwind interludes. It’s an approach clearly derived from Anton Bruckner’s symphonies, whose influence is most clearly felt on “Theatre of the Delusionary”.

This methodology is a risky one to adopt. In the the wrong hands, it could easily result in monotonous, dreary orchestral bombast. And it’s precisely here that Soule triumphs, as he manages to mimic his role models to perfection. In the way these compositions shape their motifs, melodies, rhythms and harmonic progressions, they do sound like the real deal – colossal romantic orchestral works written for the concert hall.

While Birds of Prey lets the brass do almost all of the heavy lifting, this focus never becomes an issue. Soule manages to call upon an never-ending supply of genuinely rousing material. Actually, on few Western game soundtracks does the brass section get to shine as much as here. The difference is staggering when comparing the quality of the brass writing here to that of many Remote Control-inspired game scores, where this instrument group often tries to evoke drama and gravitas in disappointingly lazy fashion. The IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey soundtrack is nothing less than a master class in how to write for brass.

For proof of the enormous effect that Soule’s approach has, head straight to “Valor and Triumph”. The piece confronts the listener with what might be Soule’s most memorable and bold theme. His supremely powerful invention is a proud brass melody that has the force of a battering ram. A veritable thunderstorm of ferocious brass motifs and irrepressible string rhythms ensues. Then the motif returns in the most assertive manner possible, backed by choral voices, rushing to unstoppable victory. “Valor and Triumph”, in its tremendous sweep achieved through its tidal rise and fall, points to another characteristic of classical music that Soule smartly adopts here: an unwavering sense of careful, unhurried development.

While characterising the entire album, “Code of Honor” is the best demonstration of Soule’s patience. The track builds over its entire running time from a faint choral opening and tentative French horn melody. It gradually becomes more and more emotional, before it reaches a solemn, deeply-felt climax. “Theatre of the Delusionary” paces itself equally well, quieting down after its thunderous start and building again. Still, the piece delays the big pay-off until the composition’s very end, to cathartic effect.

With this magnificently realised feeling for development also comes a true sense of dynamism, as Soule clearly realises that evocations of musical bombast need downtimes to make their full impact. There are many examples of when Birds of Prey‘s robust action cues realise to quieten down. Take “The Hunt”, which surprises with tender passages for solo cello. In an example of clever album sequencing, the mid-section of the IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey soundtrack covers the score’s two most subdued compositions, giving listeners time to catch their breath.

“Rain Ghosts” is a piece of constantly captivating, tense underscore that maintains interest through its clever use of melodic woodwind soli. Following “Rain Ghosts”, Soule’s fascination with classically-inspired orchestral rhythms comes to a head on “The Great Death Mistress”. Easily the score’s most abstract composition, the piece sees different parts of the string section trade constantly evolving ostinato rhythms. It’s yet another example for the chances Soule is willing to take on this album, and the heights to which it propels his work when he’s at his best.

Posted on September 9, 2014 by Simon Elchlepp. Last modified on July 12, 2016.

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About the Author

A former German film student now living in Melbourne, Australia and working at the University of Melbourne's Architecture faculty - and a passionate music lover with an eclectic taste. Specialising in Western game music, I'm here to dig out the best scores Western video games have produced in the last thirty years.



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