SpellForce 2 -Sounds of the Shadows-
SpellForce 2 -Sounds of the Shadows-
Buy at Sonicminds
After the mix of RTS and role-playing elements in SpellForce: The Order of Dawn and its two add-ons had proven popular with players worldwide, German publisher JoWood released the game’s sequel, SpellForce 2: Shadow Wars, in 2006, to considerably greater critical acclaim then its predecessor. What most reviews failed to pick up on though, was the revolution that had taken place in the game’s audio department.
As with previous SpellForce titles, German game sound production company Dynamedion would create the game’s soundtrack. This time however, after four year of waiting for a German developer to hire a live orchestra for a game score, Pierre Langer and Tilman Sillescu of Dynamedion were given the budget to record the first orchestral soundtrack for a German game. Having always insisted on the additional impact and emotional quality that a real orchestra can bring to a game score — as opposed to orchestral samples — it’s no wonder then that Langer and Tilman still look back with fondness and pride on the soundtrack for SpellForce 2 and its recording sessions.
The music for the game proved to be a watershed for Dynamedion, in particular, and the German game industry in general. The following years would see a number of German developers adorning their games with an orchestral soundtrack, and a good amount of that music would be created by Dynamedion, which in turn went on to become Europe’s leading studio for game soundtrack compositions and sound design. This way, the score for SpellForce 2 turned out to be hugely influential, and was made available in two incarnations. A soundtrack CD, SpellForce 2: Sounds of the Shadows, was part of the game’s Collector’s Edition and contained 69 minutes of music. Sounds of SpellForce would combine 50 minutes of SpellForce 2‘s soundtrack with some cues from the game’s add-on, SpellForce 2: Dragon Storm. Fortunately for game score collectors, this compilation saw a commercial release and can be ordered at online music store Sonicminds.
The aim for the composing duo of Langer and Sillescu was to retain the characteristic SpellForce sound both artists had established with previous soundtracks for the franchise, while taking the music “to a higher and more fantastic level”, as Langer stated in an interview. And nowhere does this become this ambition — and the fact that it was realised successfully — more apparent than on the album’s first track, “Shadowsong”. The best thing about the soundtrack for SpellForce: The Breath of Winter was its soaring main theme, performed by German singer Talia, and Dynamedion made the wise decision to bring her back for SpellForce 2. “Shadowsong” then displays some revelatory similarities with and differences to previous SpellForce scores. As on The Breath of Winter’s opening cue, the measured melody Talia flawlessly performs has an air of grandeur and sadness about it and is sure to move listeners. But what unlocks this piece’s potential and pushes the composition into the realm of the truly operatic is the fact that this time, the orchestral material doesn’t simply underpin the vocal melody, but instead offers some counterpoint and is much more detailed and colourful.
Another example of how Langer and Sillescu use vocal elements to greatly heighten SpellForce 2‘s already majestic mood is “Dun Mora”, whose soft, discreet orchestral backdrop, with gentle horn chords, harp sounds and a bed of strings, only serves to highlight Talia’s contribution to the song. And while one might justifiably call the way her angelic vocals are layered derivative — it sounds like Langer and Sillescu are channeling Enya’s material for The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring — the result is nothing short of breathtakingly beautiful (at least for fans of this particular vocal style). The composition’s enormous impact is only lessened by the frankly bizarre sound of the male choir in the piece’s first half — the ensemble sounds as if it were performing in a small cave, which unfortunately hurts the music considerably.
SpellForce 2‘s overall sound isn’t much of a departure from what both moviegoers and gamers have come to expect from entries into the high fantasy genre. The fact that Langer and Sillescu gave the different cultures that populate the game’s fantasy world a characteristic sound through particular orchestrations only ends up enforcing this observation. Consider Sillescu’s declaration in an interview, stating that the “elves have a very fragile and sad main theme […] the Human race has a very proud and medieval-influenced main theme […] The Orcs theme instead is very archaic and destructive, with much tribal percussion and very dark “orc” choirs.” That sums it up perfectly, and highlights that the sonic identities of the different races in SpellForce 2 don’t offer too many surprises. Furthermore, the Orc material is given unexpectedly short thrift on the album: only two briefer compositions feature the tribal sounds described by Sillescu. On “Karash”, the orcs’ savage nature is evoked through a preponderance of heavy percussion instruments, march rhythms, and those orc-ish sounding choirs, which consist of shouted, rough syllables, given added heft through a very wet sound mix. “The Clans!” uses the same effective, albeit clichéd elements, but features richer orchestrations and slips some more irregular rhythms into its textures. A combination of light female choir and orc vocals after the track’s midway point yields intriguing results, but isn’t explored in any greater depth.
But while the score can be safely classified as “classic fantasy music”, what matters here is the fact that the familiar content is presented in a surprising format and executed exceedingly well. The soundtrack’s crown jewels are a number of tracks that clock in at between six and over seven minutes. On these compositions, the music possesses a symphonic breath game music rarely achieves, a characteristic Langer described as “European”, which supposedly gives the music sufficient room “to breath and to develop”. Fortunately, while it’s obvious that Langer and Sillesu approached their dream project with great ambitions, the music’s detailed, carefully crafted orchestrations show that both composers carried their aspirations out with a clear mind: never is the music overwhelmed by the orchestral bombast overenthusiastic composers might churn out when they’re finally given an orchestra to work with.
The classical sheen that Langer’s and Sillescu’s approach imbues some cues with is apparent already on the album’s first lengthy track, “Freedom”, albeit to a lesser degree. Representing the Human race in SpellForce 2, the composition maintains a feeling of tragedy and fate weighting heavily on the humans. Predictably, the strings do most of the heavy lifting here, and although the piece always remains tuneful and attractive, its timbres remain too similar to truly justify its extended running time — although the sounds of an ethnic solo violin brighten up the composition once in a while and nicely ground its thick textures. A mini-climax for yearning strings towards the end is effective, but it’s doubtful that five minutes of preparation at a plodding pace would have been necessary to achieve that effect. The melodic material presented in “Freedom” is reprised in “Sevencastles”, which presents the eminently listenable theme in a lighter atmosphere on solo oboe.
The other three long tracks, however, are all unqualified winners and display an astounding level of symphonic development and drama. “Plains of Chaos” makes expert use of woodwind-heavy orchestrations to oscillate between sounding downbeat, ominous (witness the glockenspiel at 1:10, or the choir climax at 2:20) and uplifting, for example when the brass brightens up the mood with some comforting chord progressions at 1:30 and 4:50. The composers’ knack for vivid sonic textures and their mastery of the compositional flow of a piece are admirable — that violin forte melody at 4:50 kicks in at exactly the right point in the course of the track. The uncertainty of “Plains of Choas” is gone on “Oblivion” and makes room for a sense of silent wonder at SpellForce 2‘s fantastical world. Talia returns for a reprise of her earlier material, and as before, her voice evokes both fragile beauty and loneliness. The initial feeling of awe briefly dissolves when the music shifts into a heavier section, dominated by rising, pressing violin arpeggios, and driven forward by a percussive piano. At 4:30, the music turns mournful, before taking off and floating in mystical spheres, carried by a light female choir and Talia’s wordless, siren-like vocals, performed in her highest register, while the orchestral background slowly dies away. In its dramatic changes of atmosphere, “Oblivion” proves to be the soundtrack’s most cinematic composition.
Finally, “Shadowplains”, through its focus on the brass, is the most dramatic long track, its gloomy opening occasionally interrupted by snippets of melody and hymnic woodwind chords providing a shimmer of hope. Soon, deep strings accents angrily interrupt imposing brass progressions over and over again, and a solo trumpet over nervously fluttering strings continues the musical confrontation. But the piece also knows when to quiet down for a duet for harp and glockenspiel after 3:50, which is later joined by a sad cello melody. If one were to look for proof for Langer’s and Sillescu’s ability to create an intoxicating musical arc, “Shadowplains” would be the proof.
No fantasy soundtrack can be complete without battle tracks, but SpellForce 2 only features a relatively limited number of such compositions. Their orchestrations are rich and varied enough to not pound the listener into submission — instead, they turn out to be rousing battle cries. “The Shaikan” and “The Realm” are impressive displays of orchestral ferocity and cleverly counterbalance a constant forward pulse with melodic outbursts of drama, for example when the violins take centre stage in “The Shaikan” around 2:00. Particularly “The Shaikan”, at four minute a relatively long action cue, benefits from Langer’s and Sillescu’ grasp of constantly changing dynamics, which effortlessly carry the composition. “Attack of the Nightblades” is more straightforward — and a bit formulaic — with its incessantly pounding timpani and ostinato string rhythms, over which metal percussion and a wordless choir are layered. After this slightly repetitive start, the composition carries its almost mechanical drive and energy into a vast, stirring climax, which has the deep brass play heavy accents against swirling violins and soaring choir and horns.
As entertaining as the battle tracks are, they also highlight the fact that the orchestral recording is good, but hardly in the demonstration bracket. The orchestra on SpellForce 2 would greatly benefit from a punchier, more powerful sound, and a listen to “The Shaikan” shows why. The horn fanfares at 0:40 are a bit on the feeble side, and the cymbal crashes after 0:55 sound downright tinny and lifeless. And the bewildering choir acoustics on “Dun Mora” have already been mentioned. Certainly, the recording is far from ruining the listening experience, but the muffled sound sometimes puts a damper on the spectacular musical material.
There’s a good number of shorter tracks on the album, most of them pleasant, but forgettable and too brief to really go anywhere. The most interesting of the whole bunch is “Hawkeyrie”, which in its 79 seconds evolves from a stately introduction to a dramatic brass climax. “Sorvina” features frantic crisis material, while “Fireforge” and “Dragh Lur” are heavy on throbbing statements of rhythmic power. “The Mines of Underhall”, underscoring the dwarfs’ underground city, has a similar feeling to “The Clans!”, minus the harsh edge of the orc vocals and with an additional sheen of grandeur in its brassy middle section.
If there’s one problem with the album release of SpellForce 2, it’s that it feels a bit top-heavy. “Desolation” would have been a perfect album closer: it does its title justice with an appropriately mournful sound that once more highlights the soundtrack’s serious nature. After the one minute mark, the music evolves into a stirring statement of defiance in the face of grief, with its rising brass figures against unrelenting violin ostinati, before the track falls back into darkness. Aggressive timpani and swelling brass chords attack flowing string melodies in the cue’s second half, but the musical conflict is ultimately decided in favour of the forces of light, when this four minute mini-drama closes with a rapturous string melody.
Unfortunately, six more tracks follow, and none of them are essential. “Dun Mora Instrumental” and “Shadowsong Instrumental” are, well, instrumental versions of previous tracks, with the voice parts given to various solo instruments and orchestral sections. Of course, it’s still attractive music, but none of these two compositions offer anything new. At least, the elimination of the weird choir in “Dun Mora Instrumental”, with its melody given to the violas and celli, is an improvement. Four more cues, labelled as bonus tracks, follow, and they impressively demonstrate that it’s only a good idea to indulge the listener with additional content if that content is actually good. Far removed from the theatricality of the rest of the soundtrack, the bonus tracks consist of mostly ambient underscore that is probably effective within the game, but falls flat when presented outside of that context. “Uram Gor” is representative of this type of material: its looming brass chords and violin tremoli over distant, booming percussion suitably communicate impending dread, but make for a boring stand-along listen. Thus, the album release of SpellForce 2 disappointingly ends on a down note, after having reached such stellar heights before.
Langer and Sillescu admirably succeed in realising their dreams of a dramatic, Hollywood-like fantasy sound on SpellForce 2: Sounds of the Shadows. Recording the music with an orchestra reaps benefits not only through a fuller, richer sound, but being able to paint with this vast array of tone colours obviously inspired Langer and Sillescu to write material that is much stronger than what listeners heard on previous SpellForce soundtracks. The album’s longer tracks alone justify seeking out the album: there’s not one wasted moment on compositions such as “Plains of Chaos” and “Oblivion”, which are perfectly developed and almost feel like small symphonic tales. They are complemented by equally varied, powerful action tracks and Talia’s vocals, which turn each of the compositions she appears on into emotionally charged highlights of the soundtrack.
SpellForce 2: Sounds of the Shadows only narrowly misses a higher mark then due to a less than optimal recording, some merely adequate shorter compositions, and particularly because the album’s last few cues — instrumental versions of previous compositions and superfluous bonus tracks — either only retreat familiar ground, or simply don’t even come close to the standards set by the previous compositions. It’s a shame not to give an album that features often downright dazzling music an unqualified recommendation, but in the end, the best-of compilation Sounds of SpellForce remains the better way to sample the music of SpellForce 2.
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Posted on August 1, 2012 by Simon Elchlepp. Last modified on August 1, 2012.