The Dark Eye: Drakensang Soundtrack
Promotional (CD Edition); iTunes (Digital Edition)
August 1, 2008; February 19, 2010
Download at iTunes
The Dark Eye: Drakensang is the fourth computer game spawned by The Dark Eye franchise. For the uninitiated (most likely pretty much everybody outside of Germany), The Dark Eye — or Das Schwarze Auge in its native territory — can be most easily summed up as the German version of Dungeons & Dragons. By far the most successful German pen & paper RPG, The Dark Eye was first released in 1984 and, just like its American counterpart has gone through several incarnations, creating a franchise that encompasses books, computer games, and even a newspaper that updates players on the current political situation in Aventuria, the game’s location.
After three The Dark Eye computer games were released in 1992, 1994 and 1996 respectively, it took game developers until 2008 to publish another game based on the The Dark Eye universe. The Dark Eye: Drakensang, a single player RPG, met with critical acclaim in Germany and garnered several awards, including one for “Best Soundtrack”, and the game’s success in its home country was likely a factor that contributed to The Dark Eye: Drakensang being given a United States release in early 2009. The game’s score, handled by ubiquitous German game sound production team Dynamedion, was initially only available to owners of the game’s Collectors Edition. However, coinciding with the release of the game’s sequel (The Dark Eye: Drakensang – The River of Time) in February 2009, the score was released as a digital download in all major digital music stores, both as a standalone release simply titled Drakensang Soundtrack and coupled with the sequel’s soundtrack as part of the Drakensang Deluxe Soundtrack Edition album.
While several reviews of The Dark Eye: Drakensang did not fail to point out how much the game relies on fantasy clichés and stock characters, its soundtrack manages to set itself apart from other entries in this crowded genre. Instead of deploying that often slightly anaemic large-scale orchestral sound that so many fantasy titles rely on (and which plagued Dynamedion’s own BattleForge soundtrack to a certain degree), Drakensang puts the focus on smaller instrumental ensembles and an earthier, grittier overall tone. In an interview, lead composer Tilman Sillescu described the composing team’s approach as one that aimed at a more “European” sound, avoiding to generate another Hollywood-like score and instead incorporating folkloristic elements, such as flute, acoustic guitar and tambourine. And while the composers managed to skillfully integrate such medieval sounding influences into the score, what is even more striking are its generally dark tone, its absence of epic-style histrionics, and its focus on woodwind solo instruments. Despite some cracks in the soundtrack’s armour, all of these traits make for a refreshing and occasionally fascinating listen. One may speculate in how far this focus on solo instruments was dictated to a degree by the game’s development budget (samples were used for the brass and string sections), but even if that’s the case, the resulting artistic approach yields beautiful results.
Interestingly enough, the soundtrack’s introductory track, “Overtüre”, is one of the score’s lightest tracks and only to a degree representative of the rest of the album. It starts out quietly, with a female solo voice presenting the graciously flowing main theme against harp flourishes and tambourine, before the composition segues into a more full-blown section, led by the brass playing a variation of the main theme and creating that well-known, epic fantasy sound. This, however, is one of the few occasions on which the brass is used to play the heroic melodies and harmonies typical of the fantasy soundtrack genre. When the score approaches such musical territory again, for example in “Hinter den Feuerfällen von Algormosch”, this fantasy sound is twisted into something much darker and foreboding, with the heavy brass providing an air of gravitas and tragedy. This impression is greatly enhanced by some create decisions regarding the cue’s orchestration: its opening seconds could be hardly any more bottom-heavy, courtesy of the track’s focus on the double bass section, and later parts of the piece pit a sole harp against percussion instruments.
Instead, the brass section is rather deployed in its deeper registers to communicate menace. The first such composition, “Keller und Katakomben”, is one of the less remarkable tracks on the soundtrack, with its ambient underscore provided by layers of deep string and brass chords being effective, but hardly outstanding. However, later tracks of a similar ilk contribute some of the album’s signature cues and nicely set the tone for the whole album through their generally dark, but still richly layered moods. “Das Orakel” still takes a rather minimalistic approach to create an atmosphere of sombre mystery through its harp melody (and not just arpeggio) set against throbbing deep strings, gong, quiet cymbal crashes and pounding percussion, but other tracks produce more ambivalent sounds. “Ratten und Bären” is somewhat similar to “Keller und Katakomben”, with its ambient strings and harp accompaniment, but proves more interesting through the inclusion of an eerie solo violin part. “Geister!” creates spookiness through well-known means, including nervous, layered string tremoli, ominous percussion (like all solo instruments recorded in a very dry acoustic) and tinkling vibraphone sounds, but the compositon also adds one of the few majestic horn melodies on the album, emphasising the heroes’ strive and creating an ear-catching tension between the melodic brass elements and the other, more unsettling instrumental sounds.
This mix of moods and atmospheres is most aptly displayed on four tracks that successfully juxtapose musical material of quite different character. “Gefährlicher Handel” displays brief hints of dissonant string figures flashing by, together with menacing low brass chords and drums that seem to resonate from long stretched cave walls, before this collection of scary musical material is interrupted by a lyrical harp interlude. Thundering drums and a very deep bassoon cut short this injection of melody into the track, only for the harp, playing a variation of the main theme, to return. Both the harp and the following clarinet solo are pitted against a dissonant string backdrop, before the percussion closes the piece by hammering it into submission. “Im Untergrund” sets more parts for solo woodwinds against dark, menacing deep strings, with fragments of the main theme providing the melodic material. Again, the clash between the occasional major violin chords or delicate harp melodies with the surrounding, harsh orchestral material makes for a fascinating listening experience.
“Dunkle Geheimnisse” adds female and male choir and deploys them intelligently by interweaving a lighter, but still ominous melody for female choir with plodding accompaniment by the male choir and percussion instruments. The track’s second half, which mixes tinkling chimes and vibraphone with low brass and string chords, woodwind ostinati and ethereal female choir syllables, produces the soundtrack’s most intoxicating moments. “Elfengeist und Nekromant”, finally, conveys an alluring mixture of menace, mystery and melancholy by coupling a plucked metal instrument and metal percussion that sounds like distant bells tolling with with deep percussion, strings and woodwinds, and at a later point with a poignant oboe solo.
As mentioned above, the record combines solo instruments recorded live and closely in a dry acoustic with sampled brass and strings, and for the most part, this approach works fairly well. Indeed, while the strings and brass often lack presence and punch in the higher registers, this is not too much of an issue, given that the music rarely ever goes for the jugulars, and instead remains moody and subdued. Predictably however, the samples’ not completely satisfying quality does become apparent during the soundtrack’s action material, when the strings and brass have to carry a composition by conveying drama and urgency. The string ostinati in both “Blitzende Klingen” and “Tief unter Murolosch” should drive these pieces forward, but sound way too feeble to actually achieve that effect. It doesn’t help that “Tief unter Murolosch” is too short to go anywhere — a problem that also plagues “Ruine Blutberge” — and that “Blitzende Klingen” never takes shape and aimlessly meanders during its running time, never providing anything in terms of melody or rousing rhythm.
Other battle tracks are more successfully in firing up the gamer for combat. “Berg Drakensang” is again too short and amorphous to be wholly convincing, but at least it proves that the deeper brass instrument samples sound sufficiently realistic and heroic if need be. “Drachen”‘s weak string ostinati are overshadowed by an ascending, fanfare-like brass motif, which derives part of its considerable effect from the fact that the brass up until that point on the album has hardly performed such majestic material. After this imposing start, the piece mellows in its second half and lets the solo oboe explore the brass motif further. “Orks!” provides the expected percussion and string accents, but is made a lot more interesting by overlaying this action material with a haunting flute solo — another example of the composers’ ingenuity when it comes to the pieces’ instrumentation, even though it would have been nice to see this composition given the chance to develop and not being cut short after one minute. And both “Schild und Schwert” and “Schild und Speer” make the right choice by focusing more on deep string ostinati and pounding percussion than on wimpy violins. Overall, “Schild und Speer” turns out to be the album most impressive action track: again, it lacks direction, but the piece sounds suitably big and dramatic, adding a deep male choir to great affect to carry what melody there is.
While it’s often preferable to use live instruments instead of samples, combining the two requires careful recording and mixing to bring the two elements together in a coherent soundscape. Most of the time, Drakensang pulls this feat off successfully, demonstrated best on “Prehnshain”, likely the game’s end credits tracks. Several solo woodwind instruments and an acoustic guitar successively play variations of the main theme against a delicate harp accompaniment and a string backdrop that at different times provides lighter textures or a weightier accompaniment. The closely miked solo instruments and the warm, intimate sound they produce are a joy to listen to. Instead of feelings of triumph, the track provides a sense of contemplative, calm closure to utterly enchanting effect.
On a few occasions though, orchestra and solo instruments mesh less well: the percussion in “Geister!” stands out too much from the rest of the ensemble, simply because of its much drier, vibrant sound. The same goes for the tambourine and acoustic guitar in “Tief im Kosch”; these instruments are a great addition to the composition and provide earthiness to what otherwise would have merely been expertly composed, ambient material dominated by sustained deep string chords and harp arpeggios. But while elevating the composition, the tambourine and the guitar also disrupt the carefully built up atmosphere by being placed much more forwardly in the recording than the orchestra, with the result that a single acoustic guitar sounds a lot louder than the whole string section. And why the performance noises between 1:25 and 1:30 and at 2:42 made it into the final mix is a bit puzzling.
While Drakensang offers few moments of respite from the generally downcast mood that permeates the soundtrack, its few lighter tracks are noteworthy additions to the album. “Ferdok – die Stadt am Großen Fluß” paints a welcoming picture of the game’s main location through a warm solo flute heard against hand percussion and a gentle string backdrop. Particularly the tambourine and the solo violin that enter later convey the medieval atmosphere that the composing team around Sillescu was aiming for very well, without succumbing to folkloristic clichés. “Spelunken und Tavernen”‘s delightfully lively atmosphere is carried by a lightly dancing flute melody. Setting itself apart stylistically from all other tracks, “Ardos Residenz” conveys a sense of wonder both through constant harp flourishes and fluttering strings against an oboe solo in its first half, and later on through a stately horn melody that quotes the main theme.
Drakensang‘s soundtrack is by no means perfect. Some of the action material is severely lacking in appeal, and the balance between the live instruments and the orchestral samples isn’t always ideal, occasionally favouring the live instruments too much, while the orchestral sounds lack punch and presence in the higher registers. However, these shortcomings are ultimately compensated for through the dense atmosphere the soundtrack creates by way of creative instrumentation. Drakensang‘s focus on smaller ensembles, often highlighting contributions by the solo woodwinds, and its overall dark-hued mood create an intriguing soundworld that doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but certainly provides a breath of fresh air in the fantasy game genre. If you’ve enjoyed Jeremy Soule’s The Secret of Evermore soundtrack, found that his approach to fantasy scoring has been sadly underused in more recent fantasy game soundtracks, and are now looking for a soundtrack with similar aesthetic sensibilities, then this album is for you. The fact that the score cares to not just state its main theme once and then occasionally quote it verbatim, but instead subjects the theme to some variation through the course of the album is a welcome plus.
One word of advice though: for just $1 (Amazon) or $3 (iTunes) more than what you’d have to pay for Drakensang‘s soundtrack, you get the aforementioned Drakensang Deluxe Soundtrack Edition, which holds twice as much music as Drakensang‘s stand-alone release, making the more expansive deluxe edition the release of choice due to its clearly superior value for money. But in any case, chances are good that you’ll want this soundtrack in one form or another.
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Posted on August 1, 2012 by Simon Elchlepp. Last modified on January 25, 2016.