ParaWorld Original Soundtrack
ParaWorld Original Soundtrack
Buy at Sonicminds
Another real time strategy game to populate the PC game market, ParaWorld tried to set itself apart from other entries in the genre through a story set up that seems like a bizarre attempt to cram as many fan favourites as possible into one game narrative (“A game that has dinosaurs, Vikings, ninjas, robots, and desert tribes going to war? Sign me up!”). Endowed with impressive production values, the game failed to transcend its generic RTS gameplay roots and garnered rather lukewarm reviews and sales, which ultimately led to developer SEK closing its gates.
The project proved more successful for Pierre Langer and Tilman Sillescu of German game sound production company Dynamedion, who were drafted to create ParaWorld‘s music. The game’s budget allowed for a fully orchestral soundtrack, including choir and several ethnic instruments. Dynamedion’s involvement in the project proved to be a watershed for the company: the game’s main theme was awarded the G.A.N.G. Award for Best Instrumental Main Theme at the 2007 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, and brought Dynamedion attention from American game developers, leading to their work on Stranglehold and Mortal Kombat.
It was up to Langer and Sillescu to musically make sense of the game narrative’s convoluted parallel universe setting. Certainly, the number of different factions in the game and their respective ethnic background offered more than ample opportunity to embellish the music with varied and exotic instruments. But at the same time, stylistic coherency needed to be kept to avoid turning the listening experience into a mere hodgepodge of sounds. Langer and Sillescu successfully walk the tightrope and integrate the musical representations of the different warring tribes into a cohesive orchestral soundscape, which turns out to be quiet different from other Dynamedion soundtracks. ParaWorld‘s music is quite far removed from the generally sunny atmosphere that permeates the company’s works for the Settlers and Anno franchises and rarely leaves the minor key. And while Dynamedion’s Drakensang albums showcase a generally darker-hued atmosphere as well, those games’ music isn’t presented with as much force and sheer orchestral power as here. Generally, the compositions on ParaWorld‘s soundtrack put the emphasis on the bass region of the orchestra, generating a slow, heavy sound that fortunately is varied enough to sustain the album’s generous running time of almost 80 minutes.
The soundtrack’s first track, “Titan”, then presents a somewhat misleading idea of what’s in store for the listener. Its colourful orchestration, including ethnic woodwind and percussion as well as a quiet interlude for flute against harp and string tremoli, early displays Langer’s and Sillescu’s compositional chops, which will ultimately carry the soundtrack to success. However, through the imposing presentation of the malleable four note main theme, first played on lower strings and brass, then triumphantly by violins, the track evokes a swaggering sense of high adventure in wide open, exotic lands that will only return sporadically throughout the album. For example, when the main theme is reprised only a short while later in “Heroes”, it’s mainly quoted by the low strings, rarely heralding heroic, swashbuckling deeds, but rather alluding to the vastness of the land and the testing challenges ahead. And when stated one last time by slow brass on the album’s final track, “Titan Revisited”, the theme takes on an unexpected air of sadness. What’s already obvious on “Titan” and fortunately here to stay throughout the whole album, however, is the very good recording of the orchestra and of the various solo instruments, all embedded into a realistically reverberant concert hall acoustic.
Both tracks, “Titan” and “Heroes”, are marked by musical lines and tones that develop organically and sustain the five minute running time of the latter remarkably well, without the need to take recourse to outbreaks of grand drama to keep things interesting. Indeed, the first few tracks of the album give their musical ideas a remarkable amount of space to breath and to establish a particular ambience, showcasing an expansiveness one rather finds in film than in game music. This is particularly the case with “Northland”, the first track to musically represent the Norsemen tribe. Compared to the pieces composed for the game’s other factions, the Norsemen are not so much represented by particular specialty instruments, but rather through the use of quite static orchestral textures — an approach that often results in a rather subdued, at time barren, but always atmospheric musical landscape. The opening of “Northland” is a prime example of this particular aura, particularly during its slow-burning start and a close for resonant chimes, haunting, distant male choir and an ethnic flute ostinato. Things aren’t universally bleak though, with an emotional passage for flute and divided violins after a brass outburst at 1:45. The male choir returns on “The Norsemen”, making it the most readily recognisable sonic identifier of the warriors from the North — although this time around, the choir exudes forcefulness by shouting syllables as if marching into battle. Again, a feeling of musical expansiveness is created through a long-winded musical motif that is repeated and varied a number of times by different sections of the orchestra.
More overtly colourful is the desert clan’s musical material. “Savannah” throws an impressive number of exotic sounds at the listener — oriental string instruments, heavy hand percussion, and even electronically manipulated, sufi-like male vocals — and combines these with the soundtrack’s overall sombre, heavy mood to create an intoxicating mix of flavours. Particularly this track highlights how successfully and tastefully the ethnic elements are integrated into the orchestral soundscape. The composers fortunately forego musical clichés through their focus on the speciality music instruments — instead of just having the traditional orchestra playing oriental-sounding chord progression — while never disrupting the soundtrack’s general ambiance in the process. Small details like the arrhythmic hand drums accompanying a violin melody reminiscent of Lawrence of Arabia help immensely in sustaining the listener’s interest, just like the track’s engaging melodic material, which will be reprised and transformed into a march in “Dust Riders”.
The game’s Eastern, vaguely Asian tribe is first scored on “Dragon Clan”, and right away announces itself as one of the highlights of the soundtrack, with a duet between a female soloist and a Chinese flute, surrounded by jagged, agitated orchestral material, whose emotional ambiguity will mark all tracks representing this faction. Again, the ethnic elements are integrated perfectly into the orchestral texture, and the track’s beautiful main melody receives a more expansive treatment when played by the violins against the female soloist later on. Finally, the game’s baddies, a society of corrupt scientists building robots, makes its first appearance in “The SEAS”, which focuses on powerful march rhythms, metal percussion and a generally more monolithic sound than the other factions to communicate both the society’s sinister intentions and its mechanic creations. Among all factions, the SEAS receives the least interesting sonic identity, slighter on original orchestrational ideas or intriguing tone colours than other comparable tracks.
ParaWorld‘s soundtrack holds a fair number of action cues, and while this battle material has been the weak spot on other Dynamedion soundtracks, here the listener will remain constantly entertained by the orchestral pounding. Tying in with the album’s general atmosphere, the combat music is rather forceful than uplifting and generally relies on displays of orchestral might. “Battle of the Brave”, like the other action cues, benefits from the punchy orchestral recording that renders its recurring fanfare motif excitingly vivid. While the fanfare is continuously taken up by either the brass or violins to provide a melodic hook, insisting percussion and string rhythms push this intelligently layered piece forward.
The different tribes’ ethnic musical identities are reflected in their respective battle tracks. Most intriguing among these are the Asian-influenced compositions, which have the strongest ethnic flavour, usually due to the inclusion of a Chinese solo flute. The instrument is remarkably well integrated into the orchestra’s comparatively disjointed, frenzied material, no matter if left alone to play a solo in “Dragon Fight”, while the orchestra falls silent, or when battling against rallying brass calls and decisive strings to create a dense web of counterpointal orchestral layers in “Wartimes and Dragons”. Oriental sounds enhance “Battle in the Dust”, which proves to be a nice change of pace and one of the soundtrack’s best battle cues: it’s a much lighter action track than many others of its ilk, with a bigger role for the violins, which are now equal partners of the mighty brass. They are accompanied by infectious, almost catchy hand percussion rhythms and ethnic woodwind soli. “Riders at War” is light on speciality instruments, but is nicely embellished by trilling woodwinds figures and syncopated percussion rhythms. The Norsemen and SEAS battle tracks sport a less individual sound — the occasional bellowing male choir adds even more heft to the music on “Battle of the Norsemen”, while “SEAS at War” mixes in some metal percussion — but they’re all orchestrated”Well, apart from “Dinosaurs Attack”, which tries to apply the more static textures of other Norsemen tracks to battle material, to not much avail: the rhythms are too schematic to really stir the listener, and the music ends up sounding aimless.
While compostion-wise, the ParaWorld soundtrack truly shines, it’s the album sequencing that proves somewhat problematic. After presenting the music for the different clans and some of their battle tracks, the album groups together a number of rather short pieces, none of them longer than 90 seconds. And while some of these compositions go through a number of changes in mood and instrumentation during their short running time and are not too monotonous in themselves, most of them struggle to establish an appealing musical identity and tend to blur into each other. The ominous atmosphere created by a descending woodwind melody against violin arpeggios at the beginning of “Water Temple” is soon brushed aside by a more generic brass outburst, but some oriental elements retain the listener’s interest. “Arena” and “The SEAS Attack” deliver more martial material which by now is well-worn. Equally, “Entry to Walhalla” and “Walhalla” revisit the Norsemen tracks’ solemn sounds to adequately communicate a sense of wonder, without offering much innovation. The most interesting of this bunch of short tracks is “Amazons”, which conveys an intense jungle atmosphere through an ensemble that almost exclusively consists of ethnic instruments (South American reed woodwinds over hand percussion). However, the reverberant concert hall acoustic feels a bit odd for this particular ensemble — a more intimate recording sound would have been more fitting.
A second group of shorter tracks is assembled towards the end of the album, and they make for a more interesting listen, adding some sprinkles of colour. This goes particularly for “Holy City”, with its light, soft violins at the beginning and uplifting melodies for strings and brass later in the proceedings. The cymbals sound a tad watery, but ultimately, the track is a well-timed occurrence of some Major key music. “The Walls” and “The Temple” present familiar material — marching sounds in the first, foreboding low string chords in the second piece — but benefit greatly from juxtaposing these sounds with various choral elements. And “Scientists” reports the only sighting of nearly humorous material on the soundtrack during its middle section for harp, string pizzicati and light chimes.
The album ends memorably with another group of longer, exceptionally atmospheric tracks. “Forlorn North” and “Icewaste” increase the feeling of standing in an icy wasteland even beyond what previous Norsemen tracks imparted. After steel guitar sounds are heard against a diffuse background of constantly pounding timpani, “Forlorn North” is dominated by a haunting ethnic flute solo, whose mournful tones are given additional emotional impact through the reverberant acoustic. And even when string ostinati are later mixed into the orchestration, the music retains its aura of introspection and sadness. “Icewaste” takes the static textures of previous Norsemen tracks to new extremes and only needs a small number of orchestral ingredients at a time to create a fascinating ambient composition that still includes enticingly emotional snippets of melody for celli and double basses. Brightening up the downbeat mood, “Dangerous South” quotes the oriental sounds once more in their lightest incarnation so far, marked by a charming ethnic flute solo and plucked oriental string instruments — without going so far as to undermine the soundtrack’s constant exploration of grittier sounds.
ParaWorld‘s soundtrack skillfully straddles the balance between implementing various different musical influences and maintaining a coherent musical identity. Langer and Sillescu manage to musically make sense of the game’s absurd narrative and create a sombre, but colourful soundtrack. They’re helped immensely by the orchestra’s flawless performances and a recording that imbues the compositions with the power they need to make an impact over the whole course of the album’s running time. This goes particularly for the battle tracks, which impressively avoid redundancy and truly turn out to be entertaining orchestral powerhouses. Juxtaposing these compositions with some longer-winded, lingering location cues, ParaWorld‘s soundtrack can lay claim to successfully delivering on both atmosphere and orchestral ruckus.
The soundtrack’s only real issue lies with the album sequencing, which lumps some of the shorter tracks together, to the effect that they pass the listener by without making much of an impact. Mixing longer and shorter tracks in the album sequencing, or just leaving out some of the briefer compositions would have increased the impression the music makes even more. Still, this is highly recommended orchestral fare, and unlike many other Dynamedion soundtracks, it’s officially available (at online store Sonicminds).
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Posted on August 1, 2012 by Simon Elchlepp. Last modified on August 1, 2012.