SpellForce -Songs of Winter- Official Soundtrack
SpellForce -Songs of Winter- Official Soundtrack
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When SpellForce: The Order of Dawn was released in 2003 by German publisher JoWood, it soon proved popular with PC gamers due to its rarely seen mix of action role-playing and real-time strategy elements, which were applied to a fantasy world called Eo, filled with the genre’s usual suspects (dwarfs, elves, orcs, trolls etc.). As it turned out, a franchise was born, with a sequel, several add-ons, and even a number of books based on the SpellForce universe being published in the following years.
The first add-on to see the light of day was SpellForce: The Breath of Winter. Released in 2004, its story centred around the kidnapping of first-born elven maid Cenwen and the chaos that ensues in Eo. Just like with The Order of Dawn, Pierre Langer and Tilman Sillescu of German game music production company Dynamedion were drafted to provide the game’s soundtrack, which was later released in two versions. Publisher JoWood made The Breath of Winter’s music available on their website for free — unfortunately as low-quality variable bitrate mp3s (around 138 kbps). It remains open to discussion if this misguided decision was made to save on server traffic and the resulting bandwidth costs. Alternatively, collectors can get the soundtrack as a free bonus when ordering two other albums from Dynamedion’s Sonicminds online store.
This review is based on the low-quality digital download. Why review that version, and not the arguably sonically superior CD release? Firstly, since the digital download was made available on the game publisher’s website, it is just as much an official soundtrack release as its physical counterpart. More importantly, given that the digital download is much more readily available for soundtrack collectors worldwide — as of June 2010, Sonicminds only delivers items to locations in Germany — listeners are a lot more likely to encounter the music of The Breath of Winter in its digital version. All this means that the reader has to proceed with caution, and take this review, particularly criticism of the release’s sound quality, with a grain of salt: there’s a higher quality version of the soundtrack out there, but it will be difficult to attain for international score collectors outside of Germany.
Appropriately underscoring The Breath of Winter’s world, the game’s soundtrack exudes a consistently wintry feeling. This atmosphere is evoked on the one hand through the compositions’ orchestrations, which prominently use solo harp, glockenspiel, female choir voices and slowly pounding timpani. In general, the composers put the focus on the lower ranges of the (synth) orchestra, highlighting the deep strings and brass, while the woodwind in particular take a backseat. Secondly, the soundtrack relies on static textures and slow-moving melodies to conjure an ambient, rather oppressive mood befitting a world that is in danger of being covered forever in snow and ice.
However, this doesn’t mean that the soundtrack of The Breath of Winter is entirely non-thematic. On the contrary, the album’s opening track “Cenwen” presents the game’s main theme as a vocal melody for German singer Talia, who performs in what seems to be an invented, elvish-sounding language. The main theme is a measured, stately soprano melody that both communicates majesty and innocence well, and in a flawless performance, Talia imbues the theme with an appropriately operatic pathos, particularly when the synth strings swell up at 1:20 and 2:00. The orchestral backdrop is rather perfunctory, with the string pads providing harmonic support rather than any counterpoint, but the piece perfectly sets the mood for the remainder of the soundtrack and turns out to be one of the album’s highlights, due to the inspired and moving main theme. It is reprised in “Credits”, which gives the melody to the solo violin. Sadly though, the piece loses some points when for the most part, it turns out to be nothing more than a straight reprise of “Cenwen” — apart from its closing section, when the piece quiets down to a duet for solo harp and Talia, who performs new material.
Talia appears one last time on the album’s closing cue, “Return of Cenwen”, which gives her voice a more removed, echoey, and supposedly ethereal, sound, placing the composition pretty close to the new age genre. This observation is enforced by the prominence of tinkling sounds — courtesy of light chimes and a solo harp — within the piece’s orchestration. The impression is not an entirely positive one, however, with the timpani and harp being placed forwardly in the mix and clouding the musical textures occasionally. And the track’s end — a suddenly swelling, tense crescendo that comes out of nowhere and is then abruptly cut off — is downright bizarre and misplaced.
Outwardly lyrical moments like the ones provided by the main theme are quite rare on The Breath of Winter and mostly mark their mark on two shorter tracks. “Mirraw Thur” begins with a fetching violin solo, but unfortunately becomes less interesting when violin melody is reprised in an overly bombastic passage for full orchestra, and at one minute, the cue is too short to actually submit its promising material to any meaningful development. “Tirganach” has singer Talia returning against soft strings and cascading piano figures and in the process creates a more convincingly rhapsodic composition, even though again, her pleasing voice loses some of its presence through a rather echoey sounds.
As alright hinted at above, the album’s sound quality is hardly outstanding, but it’s certainly not a game breaker either. Some of the longer, ambient tracks would benefit from more sonic nuances to give the chilly ambiance they’re creating richer shades. But the majority of the music on The Breath of Winter doesn’t rely on densely layered material with tons of orchestral detail, which would likely get lost in a lower-quality bitrate release. In other words: the synth sounds on The Breath of Winter aren’t particularly impressive (and certainly show their age), but they’re adequate and do their job.
The slightly mushy sound that is prevalent throughout the album does become problematic however during orchestral climaxes, which turn into big washes of indistinct sounds, and the fact that these outbursts are underpinned by sheer volume rather than melodies only exacerbates the issue. Case in point: “Freeing of Fial Darg”, which opens with ambient underscore that is soon overlaid with harmonious brass chords, string tremoli and a tenor choir that is almost too quiet to be heard. A horn melody leads the piece into a section for mighty brass, timpani and female choir, driven forward by snare drums, but the material these massed forces perform consists of undistinguished chord progressions, rather than any memorable melodies. “Into the Abyss” gives the same impression of being merely adequate, instead of truly interesting: after more of the same underscore the listener finds throughout the album (deep strings, standard horn chords, occasionally swelling timpani), high-pitched strings prepare an orchestral outburst. But even though metal percussion is added to the surging brass chords, agitated violins and female choir, it all feels directionless, and the track ultimately fizzles out after it has nowhere else left to go.
Somewhat surprisingly, the album’s longer tracks prove to be some of its most interesting ones, despite the fact that extended ambient compositions often struggle to justify their running time. Not here though, due to the composers’ skilful use of varying instrumentations and frequently changing textures, which holds boredom at bay. For example, the mood on “Enchanted Plains” remains icy and subdued throughout most of the composition, apart from another generic orchestral climax in the cue’s second half. But around 1:00, a light passage for pizzicato strings and soft xylophone sounds subtly changes the tone of the composition, before the music becomes more agitated at 1:45 when tremolo violins enter the stage. The deep strings at 2:25 would greatly benefit from a crisper sound, but a later duet for harp and triangle, as well as a rare oboe solo, are delightful and add some colour to the orchestral palette. Ultimately, “Enchanted Plains” doesn’t make a case for why it has necessarily has to finish only after seven minutes have passed, but it remains a pleasant listen.
Similar things can be said about other compositions of the same ilk. “Nevershade Frontier” opens with a heavier, more ominous mood than “Enchanted Plains”, evoked by downcast, suspended string chords, resonant, lonely chimes, and snippets of an oboe solo. The musical material the horn section gets to play is rather bland, and a false stop and start at 2:10 hurts the composition’s flow, but at least the cue re-starts with a touching melody for solo violin. Things get even better when Talia returns to perform another rendition of the main theme at 2:47, leading into a soaring statement of the theme backed by the whole orchestra to make for a rare emotional highlight. “Winter Deep” lets some rays of sunlight shine on the frozen lands of Eo, starting with a surprisingly light string melody and a flute accompaniment. Even though the mood darkens at 1:49, the dark clouds pass and the second half of the piece is marked by a greater focus on solo instruments, particularly woodwinds, who get to shine in a number of extended passages that are perfectly integrated into the soundscape. The track turns out to be the best of the longer compositions on the album and would be an unqualified success, if it weren’t for another one of those generic brass outbursts in the cue’s second half, although the brass material is slightly more distinctive than on other occasions.
While these longer tracks successfully apply their ambient approach to an orchestral palette and keep the listener intrigued throughout their extended running time, a couple of shorter, stylistically similar tracks fail to do so. “Grims Betrayal” [sic] presents more chilly ambient underscore that only sets itself apart through the inclusion first of synthetic female solo vocals, and later of a female choir. However, the material they perform is bland, and the piece’s thin textures don’t do much to elicit interest. “Lost in the Cold” twists the same type of underscore and gives it a more spooky edge through swelling timpani, haunting synth pads, tinkling glockenspiel and clichéd string tremoli. All these musical means are suitably effective, but they’re also hackneyed and applied without much artistry or structure. “Claiming the Shadow Blade” fares better, due to its well-handled juxtaposition of moods: a harsher orchestral backdrop, now including metal percussion, clashes with the chiming sounds of a harp and a glockenspiel. Later, ear-catching tension arises between ethereal female voices and quietly menacing orchestral material. Nice little touches like an arrhythmic harp figure at 1:40 make this composition even more attractive.
For a game like The Breath of Winter, one would expect to hear some rousing action tracks as well, but the album is remarkably thin on such material. There are only two tracks that can be qualified as combat cues, and their quality varies. “Attack on Fastholme” has all the requisite pounding percussion, deep string jabs, brass and choir, but there are no melodic hooks whatsoever, the composition is too short to actually go anywhere, and worst of all, none of the synthesised instruments have a powerful enough sound to carry the composition and convey any sense of danger and urgency. “Aryn’s Battle” then is a marked improvement, its insisting opening string rhythm more commanding than anything in the previous action track. Although the composition is formula driven as well (ostinato string figures, rhythmic brass and choir abound at the start), its later brass melody is nicely underpinned by several layers of contrapuntal material, courtesy of swirling violins and deep string rhythms. All in all, it’s quite stirring, and the track’s only weak spot are its less-than-lifelike cymbal crashes, which have absolutely no delay and sound irritating.
The soundtrack for SpellForce: The Breath of Winter is a collection of mostly pleasant, but rarely outstanding compositions. Apart from the rapturous main theme, nothing on this album warrants an unqualified recommendation. That being said, the soundtrack evokes a consistently wintry atmosphere through its rather ambient, oppressive soundscapes, which fortunately only rarely turn into dull stretches of orchestral rambling. Instead, particularly the album’s longer compositions are sufficiently varied to merit the listener’s attention and perfectly set the mood, even though none of them are truly spectacular.
The album’s biggest flaw is the fact that quite a bit of its material is bland and indistinct, particularly during some of the shorter compositions which, without much variation, rely too strongly on formula driven underscore. Problematic are also those cues that feature the soundtrack’s trademark big, but forgettable orchestral climaxes, which also suffer from a washy sound that lacks punch. Outside of these orchestral outbursts though, the sound of the album’s digital release is adequate. Most likely, it will be much improved on the physical CD release, although it’s doubtful that the difference would be significant enough to result in a better overall rating. All in all, the music of SpellForce: The Breath of Winter is a modest success — and since it’s available for free on the publisher’s website, there’s no reason not to sample it — but this soundtrack is overshadowed by the musical achievements of later SpellForce titles.
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Posted on August 1, 2012 by Simon Elchlepp. Last modified on August 1, 2012.