The Lord of the Rings Online -Riders of Rohan- Official Videogame Score
The Lord of the Rings Online -Riders of Rohan- Official Videogame Score
October 9, 2012
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Launched in 2007, The Lord of the Rings Online took the logical step of building an MMORPG around one of the richest fantasy world ever imagined to let gamers explore Middle-earth in more depth than previous, more action-oriented LotR games had allowed for. Right from the start that was The Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar, developer Turbine managed to deliver the goods and in following years released several expansions that were all met with critical acclaim. In 2012, Turbine published the title’s fourth expansion pack, Riders of Rohan, which showed the developers moving away from some of the game’s core design elements and introducing new features such as mounted combat – more than befitting the game’s focus on the brave Rohirrim. Once more, reviews and fan reaction were favourable, which promised more adventures to follow in the near future.
Music-wise, Riders of Rohan marked the return of Chance Thomas to the Lord of the Rings Online franchise, after his strong work for Shadows of Angmar and Mines of Moria, and his absence on Rise of Isengard. Thomas’ involvement with Lord of the Rings games reached back all the way to his days at Sierra Entertainment in the late 1990s, when he spent two years of research to turn Tolkien’s work into music. Later, as the Music Director of Vivendi-Universal’s Lord of the Rings game series, Thomas found himself in the challenging position of defining the sound of Middle-earth and ensuring that the games released during his tenure would stick to a set rule of stylistic guide lines. Safe to say then that more than any other game composer, Thomas has become the quasi-custodian of music based on Tolkien’s revered body of work.
While Thomas’ work for the franchise has rarely escaped comparison with Howard Shore’s acclaimed soundtracks for Peter Jackson’s trilogy of films, this was even more so the case with Riders of Rohan. Aware of the popularity of Shore’s Rohan theme and at the same time of the necessity to create a suitable Rohan theme of his own, Thomas said in an interview: “Shore’s theme was so perfect in the film. The only way I could approach such a task was to think about Rohan in broader terms than the movie presented.” A composer who has worked on many pre-existing franchises throughout his career, Thomas was well-familiar with the challenge ahead, choosing to delve into Tolkien’s description of Rohan’s people and history to formulate his own individual musical response to Tolkien’s writing: “Rohan is a rugged, hardy country. These are hardy people, sort of based loosely on Anglo-Saxon people. They’ve had some glory in the past, but right now is not so good. So I’ve got to convey an idea of faded glory, an idea of breadth, expanse, strength, and power.”
The fruits of Thomas’ labour were released as a digital album across retailers in October 2012 – a first for his Lord of the Rings Online work, after the soundtracks for Shadows of Angmar and Mines of Moria had only seen the light of day on the games’ collectors’ and pre-order editions. Thomas also posted several of Riders of Rohan‘s compositions on his website, accompanied by in-depth analyses of the pieces. In 2013, one of the soundtrack’s pieces, “Eored”, was nominated for Best Original Vocal (Choral) at the annual Game Audio Network Guild Awards.
Does Thomas’ manage to write a score that can not only hold its own against Shore’s music, but also walk the tightrope between sounding original and not breaking too far from established tradition and expectation? Throughout most of Riders of Rohan, Thomas does indeed succeed. “Riders of Rohan”, which introduces the score’s theme for the proud horse people, quickly highlights the relationship between Shore and Thomas’ work. Both are cut from the same cloth, communicating a sense of Anglo-Saxon heritage through the use of Celtic instruments, particularly solo fiddle. However, that similarity is due to the fact that both composers are faithful to Tolkien’s description of the people of Rohan, leaving little room for deviation. While both composers also choose to emphasise the wide expanses of Rohan’s green meadows and a sense of restrained nobility, Thomas’ theme feel more weathered, with an undertone that’s both proud and mournful. To quote Thomas once more, it’s indeed the “idea of faded glory” that echoes most strongly in his music for Riders of Rohan, and it imbues the soundtrack with a nostalgic sense of yearning that is touchingly realised.
Thomas’ manages to underscore the many facets of the people of Rohan and their history in a number of subtle pieces such as “Theme For Rohan”. The Celtic solo fiddle not only gives the music an appealing, earthy sense of location (Old England in this case), but also evokes an authentic sensation of Medieval music that carries the gravitas of centuries gone by. Rohan’s theme, played on the fiddle and moving along in triplets, puts into music the majesty of this part of Middle-earth, but equally communicates stoic pride, quiet endurance and a hint of tragedy. The use of Celtic instruments for a score like Riders of Rohan might seem like a bit of a no-brainer, but such a perfect fit still wouldn’t be worth much if Thomas’ didn’t repeatedly coax some gorgeous melodies out of his solo instruments that include uillean pipes and penny whistle. It’s worth pointing out that the Celtic sounds on Riders of Rohan are decidedly more rustic than their dulcimer counterparts on soundtracks like The Witcher or Heroes of Might and Magic IV, or even Thomas’ own music for Shadows of Angmar, back then written for the Shire and the Hobbits. It’s only fitting that “Boromir Seeks the Ring” returns the Shire/Hobbits theme from Shadows of Angmar‘s “Hills of the Shire” in a rendition that seems almost drained of all life. It’s a more extreme example that fits the occasion of Boromir trying to take the ring from Frodo – Riders of Rohan‘s Celtic strains are usually far from dreary, but neither are they filled with sweeping heroics — that job get done with aplomb by album opener “LOTRO Legacy”, a seamless recollection of material from earlier instalments. Instead, what’s often palpable is a muted sense of loss, clad in bittersweet melodies and contrasted with a feeling of calm nobility.
Riders of Rohan is most effective then when it ravels in the beauty of its quite static, undemonstrative explorations of Rohan’s ambivalent state, with its associated Celtic instruments giving the soundtrack not only stylistic focus, but also a sufficiently individualistic character to set the soundtrack apart from other fantasy scores (although some comparisons with Austin Wintory’s excellent Horn are inevitable). Another strength of Riders of Rohan that goes hand in hand with the pieces’ blend of moods is their frequently strong but subtle development. Towards its end, “Theme for Rohan” swells into a prouder rendition of the Rohan theme, but still remains somewhat uncertain in its apparent victory, with the dangers of the present still looming large everything. “Shadow of Argonath” is equally ambiguous, opening with a hesitant quote of the Gondor theme heard in earlier Lords of the Ring Online scores. Its evocation of waning grandeur is moving, as are its unsuccessful attempts to assertively rise. The music turns hopeful when the Gondor theme is quoted more confidently on penny whistle and uillean pipes, according to Thomas symbolising Frodo and Aragorn, and a return to past glories through both characters. As on “Theme for Rohan”, the music remains cautious though and a low drum and dissonant violins in the background keep things hanging in the balance. “Heart of a Hero” features a warmer, quietly flowing performance of the Gondor theme that is immensely alluring. “Calm Before the Storm” is another album highlight that includes a new instrument to add more rustic warmth to the proceedings: an acoustic guitar that prepares the track’s transition into a romantic, broad melody for penny whistle and full strings, and later on continues to perfectly underscore the composition’s delicate, heartfelt strains.
Anxiety about what the future might bring is brought to the fore more directly in a number of compositions that address the conspiracies threatening Rohan. Again, Thomas nicely plays with musical contrasts to get the point across. “Horse Lords of Norcrofts” begins on a forceful note with a proud horn motif and rhythmically pronounced, almost stomping male choirs àla The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim‘s “Dragonborn”. The piece turns more interesting when it leaves its fantasy bombast behind and introduces another melody, shadowy and uneasy, particularly when performed by high-pitched strings while a nervous fiddle throws in chaotic motifs. Thomas explores the corruption and intrigue that exists in the realm of the Norcrofts further on “Corruption and High Treason”, where the fiddle plays “Horse Lords of Norcrofts”’ horn motif in downbeat fashion that lets is almost succumb to the conspiratory atmosphere surrounding it. Underscoring shady proceedings, “Corruption and High Treason” – like later track “Fog of Wormtongue” – plays more like underscore than most other tracks on Riders of Rohan, but remains sufficiently melodic in its description of treacherous dealings. Again, the acoustic guitar adds welcome colour to “Corruption and High Treason”, and at the end of the piece subtly includes shades of the Rohan theme to prepare the cue’s move into a brighter, more optimistic finale. Interestingly though, it’s ultimately the Gondor theme that’s reprised more often on the album and shapes it to a greater degree than the Rohan theme, which makes fewer showings than one might expect.
Closing out the collection of quieter tracks on Riders of Rohan are two pieces that add yet more shades to the album by infusing it with a sense of mystery. Of the two, “The Entwash Vale” is easily the more successful one, its combination of an elegantly meandering cello motif with wordless, layered female vocal lines a reminder of Thomas’ own “The Dance of Mystery and Intrigue” from 1997’s Quest for Glory V: Dragon Fire. The mix is as intoxicating as it was back then, as the piece creates an eerie, hypnotic pull. “Fangorn”, on the other hand, doesn’t dish up more than routine ghostly underscore with its sustained violin dissonances, ominously rumbling drums and uncanny, shimmering metal percussion sounds.
If Riders of Rohan consisted only of such slower-paced compositions, it would probably get an almost unqualified recommendation. However, this being a fantasy MMORPG, there are also bound to be some action tracks around, and this is where Riders of Rohan goes astray. The ingredients for most of these tracks are well-familiar: militant deep string motifs and muscular brass chord progressions, powered here by an array of leather hand percussion instruments that tie in with Riders of Rohan‘s down-to-earth character. Unfortunately, much more often than not, the strings’ rhythms feel staid and predictable, only occasionally creating excitement. Over the mostly standard pounding orchestral backdrop, Thomas layers appropriately energetic instrumental motifs or has the male choir perform deep warrior chants that are captured by the album recording with resounding force. But as becomes particularly obvious on the album’s longer battle cues such as “Urgent Errands” and “Learning to Fight”, neither the rhythms nor the perfunctory motifs and brief melodies layered on top help the pieces develop much direction, causing to tracks to plod along with mostly only their volume and force to show for themselves. Things become more stirring when Thomas introduces elements that can actually hold a cue together for a certain amount of time, such as when the male choir is given more expansive melodic material to perform in the second half of “Learning to Fight”, or when a crescendoing whirlwind figure in the violins around the 2:00 mark on “Urgent Errands” seems to point at exciting things to come – although these unfortunately never materialise.
On the shorter action tracks, the problem isn’t so much a lack of cohesion, but rather these compositions’ brevity and lack of substance. These pieces also tend to be sequenced into the second half of the soundtrack, which in conjunction with the thin “Fangorn” causes the album to run a bit out of steam towards the end. These tracks are built from the same building blocks as their longer brethren, but at usually just over a minute, they don’t have much space to go anywhere and develop meaningfully – an impression that is reinforced by the fact that a track like “Horse Und Hererinc” simply loops and fades out. “Ecgbracu” and “Orc Encounter” feel like mere fillers – particularly “Orc Encounter”, which doesn’t do much more then present the curious, very low timbre of a sort of horn over expectedly rough percussion. The lack of space for development is particularly apparent on “Boromir’s Last Stand”, which ends with a lonely rendition of the Gondor theme announcing Boromir’s death, but the music’s emotional potential is partly squandered as the piece is too short to elaborate on its forlorn sentiments. “The Conflict Comes” and “The Eored” are equally too short, but feel less insubstantial than other brief action tracks. “The Conflict Comes” gives the choir some melodic material to work with and adds a strummed acoustic guitar to the rhythm section. “The Eored” deploys both male and female choir in expertly arranged interplay and deserves its G.A.N.G. Award nomination, but it’s still frustrating to think that this powerful piece of music finishes after 68 seconds. The best of the pack is “Struggle for the Ring”: freed of the rhythmic shackles of the heavy-handed deep string rhythms, the turbulent music finally takes flight, with its rhythms and orchestration more flexible and energetic. There’s even another brief quote of the Shire/Hobbit theme to spot for long-time fans of the MMORPG.
Two compositions try to bridge the gap between the languorous landscape cues and the driven action pieces, to mixed results. “Learning to Ride” initially sets its soft hand percussion rhythms against soli for fiddle, uillean pipes and penny whistle that occasionally explore the Rohan theme and are only interrupted sometimes by what Thomas has dubbed “the riding motif”, a determined deep string motif that returns throughout the score and is supposed to “convey a lively sense of galloping motion”. However, the motif feels a bit too too heavy to successfully paint the image of horses racing across the plains. “Learning to Ride” still benefits from the Celtic instruments’ innate melodicism, but when the track switches into a higher gear at 2:03 to underscore the “transition[…] from the timidity of learning to the joy of roaming freely”, the cue simply produces more decisive renditions of the somewhat militaristic riding motif that doesn’t evoke many sensations of either joy or roaming freely. Speaking of which, “Roaming Free” suffers from the same problem – there’s a good number of beautifully expansive melodies to be found in this piece, but they have to compete with the intrusive deep string rhythms that don’t to much else beyond sounding resolute.
The Lord of the Rings Online: Riders of Rohan can quite easily be divided into two parts. The majority of the album is made up of measured tracks that make the most of their Celtic-influenced orchestrations, producing several moving melodies and capturing the various aspects of the people of Rohan and their history. A weathered sense of grandeur and nobility, mixed with shades of nostalgia and regret, flows through these cues, and it’s to Thomas’ credit that he not only nails the psychology of this part of Middle-earth that finds itself at a crossroads, but that he also wraps these concepts up in music as beautiful as this. While these slower-paced cues remains quite reserved and stoic, they subtly develop and reveal new shades to the three themes that run through the score. Less impressive are the battle tracks, most of them either too short to have much appeal or bogged down by inconclusive development and scoring clichés that too often relegate these compositions to sonic wallpaper. Still, with its production values never in question, Riders of Rohan remains a safe recommendation for fans of fantasy scores or Celtic music.
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Posted on April 7, 2014 by Simon Elchlepp. Last modified on April 7, 2014.