December 6, 2011
Buy at Bandcamp
Novum Initium is the latest charity album produced by video game composers during 2011. Proceeds from this release go to the Sweet Relief Musicians Fund — providing financial assistance to career musicians struggling to make ends met while facing illness and disability. While the cause is not as compelling as albums dedicated to tsunami relief and cancer relief, it is still a significant one. Just recently, Star Wars and Sly composer Peter McConnell discussed with us his health problems and financial nightmares after getting Lyme Disease. Even those disinterested by the cause have reason to check out the album. Featuring an all-star lineup of Western composers and vocalists — under the direction of Mass Effect’s Sam Hulick and Dead Space’s Jason Graves — the album features 18 diverse and well-produced tracks.
Album producer Sam Hulick sets a reflective tone for the release with “Lionheart”. The introduction draws listeners in with richly shaped violin and cello phrases performed above sombre piano chords. The piece incorporates increasingly elaborate orchestration as it approaches its impressive climax. While the piece isn’t exceedingly original, it is genuinely touching and beautifully produced. Modern Warfare 3‘s Brian Tyler develops this sound further in the subsequent track, a pensive adagio written for piano trio. Like its counterpart, the track inspires listeners to search deep into their feelings and consider themes such as illness and hardship, as well as a new beginning.
That said, there is plenty of diversity featured elsewhere in the album. Neither slow nor orchestral, Neil Goldberg emphasises industrial beats and thrashing guitars on “Consequence”. Tom Salta’s “Trouble in Chinatown” is a compelling fusion of elements from two of his representative works — the traditional instruments of Red Steel with the dense beats of the original album 2 Days or Die. Among several vocal themes, “Awakened” from the multitalented Otto Cate is an alternative rock piece reminiscent of Silent Hill’s centrepieces. Aubrey Ashburn certainly showcases her versatility with her abstract melancholic vocals here — quite a shift from her elvaan hymns on Dragon Age. Among other oddities, BioShock’s Garry Schyman shows his humorous side with his whistle-focused country piece, Fallout’s Inon Zur incorporates Amazonian vocals and instruments into “Underwood”, and Doom’s Ed Lima injects a light folksy flavour to “Versailles”.
In many ways, the development of the album resembles that of a video game score. Jason Graves’ “Adrenaline” shifts away from soothing tones of the openers in favour of intense action. With its stabbing strings and booming timpani, this track could easily be used in a Dead Space sequence — channeling the sound the nevertheless versatile composer is best known for. Slow ambient items such as the aforementioned “Underwood”, Chad Seiter’s “The Maelstrom”, and Mick Gordon’s “House of the Vine” are more suited for portraying scenery, but are each so detailed and different that they still satisfy on a stand-alone level. It’s clear these artists used this album as a basis for musical exploration and, in doing so, release some fascinating experiments. In contrast, Trevor Morris’ “Shadows and Light” and Neal Acree’s “Chrysalis” fit the album with their fantasy influences, but both lack the development to be major highlights.
The bold action-packed sound typically associated with Hollywood’s game composers comes into focus at the climax of the album. “Lacus Turbatus” from God of War’s Gerard Marino and “Espionage” from Star Wars’ Mark Griskey throw listeners into dark territories. The cinematic build-up of the latter is especially impressive, albeit quite unsuited for an original album. “Left-Hand Path” thereafter is an incredible example of the ultra-modern fusions orchestrator Cris Velasco and electrifier Sascha Dikiciyan produce when they collaborate. However, the climax of the album is reserved to another experienced duo — Christopher Lennertz and Timothy Wynn — with “Bullseye”, a full-blown military anthem for orchestra and chorus. Clearly no budget was spared when recording this one. The experience closes with a ballad from Jack Wall and his wife Cindy Shapiro. While probably the cheesiest addition to the album, it refocuses the album on the health theme with charming lyrics such as “But there is hope in pain, I’m with you”.
With few exceptions, the artists’ offerings on Novum Initium are creative, accessible, and emotional. Many convey pain and healing, while others explore uncharted territories like a video game would. That said, some are so abstract or cinematic in nature that they seem unsuited for an original album — perhaps outtakes from other productions — and this can result in a jagged listening experience. Regardless, the pieces are so well-produced — from composition to mastering — that they come together to form a very polished product. For those that enjoy Western game music, the individual highlights here should make the overall experience worthwhile. And whether treated as a charity album or a concept album, this release is bound to provoke imaginations.
Do you agree with the review and score? Let us know in the comments below!
Posted on August 1, 2012 by Chris Greening. Last modified on August 1, 2012.