My Favourite Video Game Soundtracks - Part 7
In this blog series, I've been delving into video game music I have discovered and enjoyed listening to so much that they have inspired my own music producing, highlighting certain songs in particular. In this, the last blog of the series (for now), we sail out from Norway to steal land from King Aelfred to the sound of early medieval musical instruments blended with synthesisers and vocals from three talented music composers.
Set during the 9th century, you play a Norse Viking who makes their way over to England with a small band to resettle and find allegiances in various counties full of Saxons, Danes, and fellow Norse, while avoiding the anger of King Aelfred. It's a stunning video game with an impressive soundtrack that brings back familiar music composers.
Sarah Schachner is back for the third time as well as Jesper Kyd, not seen since Revelations but, as he is a Dane, his background brings accurate instrument knowledge to the soundtrack. Einar Selvik, a Norse himself, was also brought on board because of his experience in Norse ethnomusicology and lyrical music compositions. As in previous video games of the series which have sailing in, lyrical songs are sung while aboard and Selvik wrote all of these. I mentioned earlier my love of medieval music and these are great examples.
The main theme was written as a collaboration of the three music composers and is another strong introduction to an installment in this franchise. It makes use of traditional Danish, Norse, and Anglo-Saxon musical instruments and mixes them with vocals (by Selvik) and synthesisers to create a very atmospheric song.
'Out Of The North' is Jesper Kyd's first solely composed song of the soundtrack and is a great introduction to Norway, where your character starts the game. This song is emotional, majestic in a way, and full of wonder and exploration; I enjoyed hearing it every time it played while I was venturing through the snowy landscape.
Sarah Schachner's first song on the soundtrack is 'The First Departure', which features various stringed instruments and a pleasant melodic motif. This song is heard as you leave Norway for England and is heard again at moments of exploration around the English landscape. The texture and use of bass synth to add depth make this a great song to listen to.
'Frozen Lands', another of Schachner's stringed songs, is one of the more minimal and ambient songs of the soundtrack so, of course, I love it. The subtle changes in harmony and instrumentation are wonderful and, while the song starts a little dissonant, evolves into something beautiful and calming.
'Bountious Earth', one of Kyd's additions to the album, is an ambient song that occurs when you play a game of Orlog, a traditional Scandinavian board game of the time. The music mixes string instruments, bell-like synths, and stuttered vocals to create an ethereal sound that fits with the cool temperatures and tactical gameplay of the board game. These stuttered vocals can be heard again in Kyd's 'Clouds Over Northumbria', another ambient-sounding song with bells that almost sound like an old clock tower chiming somewhere in the depths far away.
'Valhalla Nights', another of Kyd's songs can be heard at, yes you guessed it, night-time. Another minimal ambient song that uses echoed plucked instruments blended with string chords and reverberated piano. Again, the effect is to create a song that reflects those dark and frozen nights that are illuminated by the wondrous stars above.
'Bifrost', again by Kyd, contains more ambient instruments, this time using bells and vocals to create an ethereal atmosphere before wind and string instruments play a nostalgic melody full of emotion and beauty. The layering of instruments and the way they change is so subtle; I dream of producing music like this.
'The Fate Of East Mercia' is one of Schachner's most obvious songs. I say that because, while the first part of the song is up-tempo with driving strings and vocals interchanging over the top of bass and percussion, it's the latter part that features a bell melody that sounds very similar to what we heard in her music composed for Origins; it is very satisfying for me to hear this as that is my favourite part of Origins' soundtrack.
One of the things I really enjoy about Schachner's composed music is how varied it can be. In one song, it can modulate or change themes and instrumentation several times and then in another it can seem repetitive but subtly builds the texture throughout. 'Trust The Currents' is a great example of the latter. It starts with a Celtic-inspired dulcimer accompanied by a pipe and string instrument which then builds throughout the song with bass synths and percussion.
'Leaving Valhalla' starts with a beautifully sad stringed melody, underlined by bells and a synth drone. Vocals are then added before a whole chorus and percussion join in. This is a song of goodbyes and in such a short space of time (just over one minute), creates so much emotion and atmosphere.
'Kingdom Of Wessex' is a great example of the blend between the Scandinavian and Saxon instruments. English lutes with Celtic themes can be heard at first, then in come the northern strings and Scandi-inspired vocals. It's a great exploration song and one I always stop to listen to when it plays in-game.
Perhaps one of the more frequent songs we end up hearing in the game is 'Ravensthorpe'. This is your settlement's theme and the character is often tasked with going back to this location. I mention this because usually songs heard again and again have a tendency to get repetitive but I find this one to be so nice. Again, it's Sarah Schachner's clever technique at work. The song spends two minutes creating a calm and peaceful soundscape before the stringed melody comes in and it's no bad thing. This is a song that says 'welcome home, despite all the harshness in the world'.
'Nott', another of Jesper Kyd's ambient tracks always plays when you open the map and can also be heard when playing Orlog. I've always loved the minimal music tracks used in the menu screens of these video games and this is, behind Origins and Unity, perhaps one of my favourites. It's so tranquil; made up of reverberated bells and strings with whispers and percussion echoes beneath.
'To The Next World' is a beautifully poignant song by Schachner that uses bells, strings, and synthesisers to create melodic and chordal passages that ebb and flow, creating satisfying changes and dissonant movements. There is a moment in the progression that reminds me of Nina Simone's 'Sinnerman' and I enjoy listening out for it.
'Animus Anomaly' is one of the few solely synthesised songs in the soundtrack. Written by Kyd, it uses a steady pulse and arpeggio-like patterns to move through continuous chord progressions before building tension and texture in the latter part of the song. It reminds me of Kyd's earlier work in the first trilogy of video games and was great to hear for the first time.
'Son Of Fjord' is a progressive wonder. Jesper Kyd starts by creating depth with echoes of distorted vocals, strings, and pipes. Then he brings in the percussion gradually and the instruments to the foreground, increasing the volume as they come. A full minute later, the strings and vocals play the melody. It's a great introduction to a strong song. The texture begins to move away towards the end of the song leaving only percussion and dark vocal echoes; a fantastic four minutes of music.
'The Sceptred Isle', reminds me of Schachner's work on Unity. Her mastery of writing for strings and vocals brings out the medieval musical styles of the times. This is a song that successfully reflects the importance of the Christian church in the Saxon's lives. The chords of the vocals have wonderful depth in the registers used and blend with the strings well.
'New People, Old Empires' is another great example of Schachner's ability to blend different motivic melodies and ideas. The song starts with effected vocals that create a medieval tone with added dissonance. This then changes to the lute and echoed strings, moving the vocals to the background. In come the classic bells briefly here and there, and more synths, vocals, and pipes are added to the texture. The song ends with those same vocals from the start, this time with synth bass beneath and female vocals over the top, creating a richness to the tone palette. Then, three minutes later, it's all over. As I said, truly great music writing.
This progressive style of Schachner's music writing is heard again in 'Knowledge Of The Birds'. It's faster-paced than some of these other tracks I favour but it has a Celtic feel to the way the lute and strings are used that I really like. There's a melodic pattern that is used throughout with counter-melodies and percussive textures interspersed here and there, with a 'gated' effect on the strings too. The fast tempo is further emphasised halfway through when the harmonics are added and more percussive layers fade in. It never truly reaches a climax though and is cut short at the end, which I think is a good touch as it takes you by surprise.
'Ezio's Family - Ascending To Valhalla', the last song of the score, features vocals from Einar Selvik and is written by Jesper Kyd, which seems like a satisfying (and long-winded perhaps) circle. We've had so many different versions of this song over the years in these video games but it's nice to hear Kyd, who wrote the original and made it famous in the first place, produce it again. This is a version that takes the classic motif and adds all the instruments, vocals, and synthesisers used for the soundtrack to create a reflective and ethereal song fit for both the Viking Hall of the afterlife and as an ending to the video game.
THAT'S A LONG LIST OF SONGS
In conclusion, one can tell, just by counting the number of paragraphs, that I have a lot of favourites from this soundtrack. It is perhaps the strongest I've heard so far and, with time, may shift Origins and Unity from their pedestals at the top. There are quite a few other tracks from the album that are great and it's worth listening to them all. As always, you can find these on most streaming platforms to listen to (I tend to favour YouTube).
So there you have it, we've finally reached the end of this blog series, at least for now anyway as I'm sure I'll soon discover more amazing video game music soundtracks. In the future, I'll be writing similar blog series that focus on film and television music but for now, I'll be covering more performance-based topics. See you next time.