Horn Original Soundtrack
Horn Original Soundtrack
August 13, 2012
Download at Bandcamp
Looking at many of 2012’s end-of-year video game awards, it’s abundantly clear that not only is the quality gap between mainstream and independent games disappearing, but that this fortunate fact is also recognised by more and more gamers and awards juries. While the two big indie award winners of 2012 were Journey and The Walking Dead episodes, another game that could claim to close gaps — this time between console and mobile games — was Horn. A 3D iOS action-adventure by developer Phospor Games Studio, Horn was based on the Unreal Engine 3 and led many impressed reviewers to comment upon how the game’s graphics and depth rivalled console games, similar to 2010’s groundbreaking Infinity Blade.
Fortunately for game music fans, Phosphor Game Studio’s ambition to create an AAA game for the mobile / iOS market extended to Horn‘s soundtrack as well. To write the game’s soundtrack, the developers brought Austin Wintory on board, who had recently completed his work on Journey — a score that would turn out to become one of 2012’s highest acclaimed game soundtracks. For Horn, Wintory was given the chance to record with a live orchestra — probably a first for a mobile game — and the budget allowed for a recording with the Hollywood Studio Symphony and several soloists.
While Wintory was working on a tight timeline for the project — with only one month for all composing, orchestrating, recording and mixing — he sought to create a characteristic and individual musical universe for Horn. According to Wintory, he wanted the game “to feel very light on its feet”, to which end he deployed several upper-range solo instruments such as flute, penny whistle and ocarina, as well as violin-dominated orchestrations. Furthermore, to underline the earthy and organic feel of the medieval-styled title, Phosphor Games suggested to infuse the game’s music with a Celtic influence, without turning it into a “full blown Irish or Scottish score”. Similar to his approach to Journey, Wintory decided to play “around with those [Celtic] colors, but otherwise score without any particular ethnic agenda.” Coinciding with the game’s release, Horn‘s soundtrack was released in August 2012 via Wintory’s Bandcamp page.
The world of Horn, with its woodlands and overgrown stone buildings that lie in ruin, is a rugged world still filled aplenty with the beauty of nature, and Wintory’s approach captures this ambiguous relationship exceedingly well. To musically represent this balance of live and decay, Wintory uses relatively light and sparse orchestrations with a strong focus on various solo instruments. Some of these instruments, such as the viol de gamba and the zither, imbue Horn with a sense of ancient history, as both instruments are associated with pre-classical era music. This impression of witnessing the remains of times gone by is further strengthened by the always tasteful inclusion of Celtic elements, which steer clear of folkloristic cliché.
Through its skilfully conceptualised orchestrations, Horn plays quite differently from most other fantasy scores, but that’s part of its appeal: instead of grandiose symphonic outbursts and noble heroism, the score is filled to the brim with a rustic, folksy vitality that still leaves enough room for warming melodicism. The opening track “Horn” manages to define the game’s special musical and emotional world straight away. Beginning with a bed of delicate plucked sounds coming from the acoustic guitar, zither and harp, The track introduces a lilting ocarina melody — which will turn out to be the main theme — before the melody taken over by the viol de gamba with its sinewy timbre. It’s an ingenious demonstration of the title’s balancing act between beauty and starkness in the context of a colourful fantasy score: “Horn” presents the score’s somewhat melancholic, lovely main theme on instruments whose earthy rather than lush timbres give the melody both bite and roughhewn charm.
This dichotomy inherent in “Horn” dominates the album as a whole, and while not every listener will warm to the score’s comparatively harsher elements, Wintory uses the contrast between melodic beauty and weathered sounds and textures to charge the title with a tension that makes it a fascinating listen from start to finish. However, game music fans expecting a soundtrack as embracing and warm as Journey need to keep the following in mind: while Horn is governed by the same emotional restraint that made Journey‘s carefully placed climaxes such an enrapturing experience, this title is a headier, more abstract affair that might take a couple more listens to sink in, due to the score’s rugged nature and zen-like spiritual inclinations. Particularly the album’s mid-section slows things down to explore less melody-focused terrain in imaginative and involving fashion.
This tendency is apparent early on “Reynes in Ruins”, where the viol de gamba is the sole melodic element, left to perform a mournful solo against vivid percussion rhythms. In a sign of what’s to come, Wintory doesn’t fail to develop the cue during its relatively short running time, in this case when the percussion rhythms shift from menacing to hopeful and almost uplifting. Wintory’s keen sense for atmospheric, albeit minimalist textures also helps Horn when it’s at its most tense and barren, such as on “Westernesse” and “Execution”, both languid, moribund pieces and potent reminders that the game’s world often enough is a bleak, but still intriguing place.
And so, even when Horn becomes more subdued, it’s never monotonous, thanks to the organic development of many cues and Wintory’s creative orchestrations. There’s an undercurrent of spirituality that runs through both Journey and Horn, but on this album, it takes on a more eerie form, often expressed through ocarina soli that are mixed just far enough into the background that they seem to emanate from a mystic, faraway place. This beguiling otherworldliness makes “Suddene” and “Through the Mountains” emotionally powerful experiences, despite (or maybe because) of their sparseness. “A Glimmer of Hope” develops this atmosphere further thorugh its ritualistic polyrhythms on wood percussion and another unearthly ocarina solo, both elements balanced with an emotive rendition of the main theme. “The Great Wise One” is another splendid example of Horn‘s mystical bent, but also underscores that no matter how ethereal the score might get at times, there’s also no shortage of liveliness. At the beginning of “The Great Wise One”, Horn‘s often overcast atmosphere is cast into effective string dissonances over percussion, zither and harp, taking the soundtrack’s music into a more metaphysical realm than previous compositions. But then suddenly, the music bursts forth in a blaze of joy, with rushing woodwind lines and an energetic quotation of the main theme on strings.
Other compositions are equally successful at marrying contrasts — again, the artistic prerogative that runs through all of Horn. “Cuthbert” is one of the score’s most emotionally complex and rewarding compositions, moving from an adagio formed by counterpointal string lines to a wistful section for tin whistle over chromatic zither chords — a tremendously evocative way to conjure sparseness and insecurity, before an optimistic rendition of the main theme on strings caps off the piece. “The Pygon Curse” equally moves from shadows into the light, opening with ominous orchestral layers and a lonely acoustic guitar ringing across the soundstage. Then strident string rhythms take over and built into a determined, sprightly passage that sends the hero off onto his journey. Like other tracks on the album, “The Road Forward” puts a melodic penny whistle solo against a guarded, low-key orchestral background, here dominated by the use of repetitive figures that showcase another method to create the image of a barren world, all before a bright finish for ocarina and strings. A more melodic expression of the same feeling of melancholy is found on “An Empire of Stone and Steel”, which combines acoustic guitar, viol de gamba and zither for a touching depiction of a fallen empire, once more highlighting how emotional restraint can be all the more moving as long as it’s back by strong melodies.
This varied picture is completed by those occasions where Wintory gives free rein to Horn‘s cheerful tendencies, particularly towards the album’s end. Amid the title’s generally reserved pieces, these sanguine compositions and their bouyant melodies truly get a chance to shine and jolt the music into action. After the album’s moody mid-section, “Bound in Stone” is a rapid change of pace with its jig-like rhythms and spirited viol de gamba lines — on this occasion, the Celtic elements don’t provide a sense of history and melancholy, but instead make the music dance. The sprightliness of the rhythms is helped by the animated wood percussion section, and the cue climaxes in barnstorming fashion when the solo flute brings the music’s energy to a head and leaps into dizzing, tempestuous runs.
After the oppressive interlude of “Westernesse” and “Execution”, “The Final Trial” then returns to the vigor of “Bound in Stone”, quoting both the main theme and the bouncy string figures and runs of Bound in Stone”. The piece then builds into the whole score’s most dense and colourful passage, bringing together the full orchestra and all of the soloists for music that is absolutely overflowing with energy and joy. Similar to Journey‘s penultimate and equally stirring cue “Apotheosis”, once the forward movement of The Final Trial” has reached its apex, the music turns almost silent to predictable, but still impacting effect, leaving only a solo instrument and sparse accompaniment. Once more, the ocarina calls from far away in the album’s definitive goosebump moment, as if bidding farewell, and a peaceful rendition of Horn‘s main theme on strings then leads the composition to its fulfilling conclusion.
While this would be as perfect a time as any to close Horn, the final track “Yours to Name” still makes a convincing argument to be the album closer, as the composition returns the main theme in its lushest rendition, giving the melody a rousing breadth that feels fully earned after the long journey it has made since its first intimate occurrence on “Horn”. Indeed, as a crucial ingredient that ties together Horn‘s many shades and contrasts, its main theme appears on the majority of the album’s compositions, proving its versatility in both introspective and adventurous moments, and withstanding its many repetitions — even though the theme sometimes comes close to feeling overplayed. Nevertheless, its full-bodied rendition on “Yours to Name” makes the soundtrack satisfyingly come full circle.
Of course it’s sheer coincidence, but Horn was released around the same time as Matt Uelmen’s Torchlight II — both fantasy scores that eschew most of the genre’s conventions to present an individualistic take on the genre. Like Torchlight II, Horn is a multi-faceted score that still manages to tie its various building blocks into one coherent whole that rewards focused and repeated listens. If anybody required proof that Wintory’s success with Journey wasn’t a one-off occasion, Horn is another another showcase of the composer’s abilities to concoct imaginative orchestrations that perfectly convey a game’s location and atmosphere. In this game, Wintory has achieved his aim to create an individual and characteristic sound world, one that feels both ancient and vital, combining mystical inclinations, a sense of adventure, and, above all, a feel for the rugged beauty of the game’s medieval carved-in-wood-and-stone world. It’s an impressive balance that Wintory achieves between these competing moods, helped by a strong, adaptable main theme that is woven into most compositions. Few game scores in 2012 have woven as potent a spell as Horn and, once more, Wintory manages to transport the listener into a fully-formed, remarkable musical world all of its own.
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Posted on August 1, 2012 by Simon Elchlepp. Last modified on August 1, 2012.