Thursday, January 15, 2009

Moria Soundtrack Review

Original Sound Version has posted a review of the Mines of Moria soundtrack. You can find it here:

I have posted below my full review of this soundtrack as well:

I believe it to be among the finest video-game music ever conceived. Here lies the terrible dichotomy. While I absolutely adore the orchestral music by Chance Thomas, I find the synthesized themes that dominate inside Moria to be unbearably brash and over-pronounced. I don't mean to discredit Stephen DiGregorio here, as he has written some first-rate pieces for Shadows of Angmar. This is a flaw in implementation more than in composition. The type of music that DiGregorio has written simply does not suit the MIDI/synthesized instrumentation, and would likely sound fine with acoustic instruments and the full dynamic range that they are capable of. Lastly, the problem is compounded by the fact that whomever assigned these various tracks to spaces in the game world tremendously favored the synth over the true orchestra, and as such, hearing Chance's music while playing is much too rare an opportunity.

I don't want to end on an overly negative tone, so I will once again reiterate how spectacularly successful Chance is at capturing vital images from the words of Tolkien and bringing them to life. My one wish in this regard would be for Turbine to have the money to pay him full-time to flesh out the entirety of their Middle-earth.

Here is the track by track breakdown:

1.) The Hollin Gate: This, of all tracks, works perfectly to capture an air of mystery, and of impending wonder. The violins on the repetitive fourths play over a very simple bass line, but it manages to evoke so much in the way of atmosphere. The first glimpses of the primary Moria theme can be had in this track. Its situation in the Walls of Moria subzone is a good choice, however it is unfortunately alternated with some of the synthetic music, and is interrupted by combat.

2.) A Journey in the Dark: This is the theme that greets you as you enter Moria for the first time. It is likely the most substantial iteration of the primary Moria theme to be had in the whole soundtrack. The wandering violins are back, but this time they accompany a lush full orchestral pronouncement of the Theme. However, said theme always ends a minor step up from where you think it ought to, illustrating how all is not well in the Dwarf Kingdom. Heavy low brass are more prominent here than in the previous track, as is a voiceless choir.

Some players will encounter this theme for the first time while doing the 'Fall of Moria' session-play instance. Here it repeats, to the credit of the designers. Sadly, in the Great Delving, it only plays upon entering the subzone each time, and then the game cycles the synth music. It is also interruptible by combat, a poor decision that plagues many of the new areas in the expansion.

3.) Drums in the Deep: True to its name, this track begins with ominous drums, followed again by low brass, and an urgent, racing string line on the cellos and basses. What follows then is an almost John Williams-esque action piece, punctuated by heavy use of minor third chords at odd intervals. Just after 1:30, a fantastic vocal section interjects, with Dwarvish chanting. During the churning string sections, a metallic anvil clang can be heard, evoking a Holstian feel. At 3:10, the track winds down in a somewhat artificial manner -- it could have gone on repeating its prior sections for another two minutes, and not overstayed its welcome. All in all, a splendid action piece which would suit many a dungeon-fight sequence.

4.) Khazad-dum: Beginning with an eerie modern cinema-ambiance, quickly the bass vocals join to add even more foreboding before the Orff style chanting at 1:30. The chord progression at 2:00 may seem a bit contrived, but it works, unlike the swift transition to the ending of this piece. (Though the ending bars are themselves quite good.) What I notice most about this track is how it seems abbreviated. In Nud-melek, in the game, there is a piece which cycles that appears to be an extended version of the introduction to this piece.

7.) The Golden Wood: Lothlorien, the beautiful home of the Lady Galadriel, and Lord Celeborn. Suitably instrumented with strings, flute, oboe, and a harp, with french horns for backing, and an ethereal female choir, this is perhaps the crown jewel of the Moria soundtrack. The Moria theme itself has more than one iteration here, but with a major ending instead of minor, and the pleasant variations seamlessly flit in and out of the forefront. This piece reminds one of the classical fairy-tales of old, and could not be better-suited to its ingame home. Near the end, a beautifully pure flute rendition of the Moria theme threatens to bring moisture to one's eyes, before timpani and chorus bring this piece to a majestic close.

8.) Archers of the Galadrim: This militant and relentless piece begins with some tribalesque drums, and ushers in a staccato string part which persists throughout the entire track. Here and there punctuated with the odd harp strum, there is also an overlayed female vocal track which works well to offset the rigidity of the rest of the piece. Overall, it does a good job in reminding one that the peaceful tree-dwellers can indeed be very dangerous. Ingame, the only place which I have heard this so far is upon first entering the Merrevail chamber in Eastern Durin's Way. It is entirely possible that it is used in some instance spaces I have yet to explore, however.

11.) The Falls of Nimrodel: Breaking out into the light at last! Interestingly, I believe this piece may be used only in the night-time track for the Dimril Dale.* Nevertheless, once it arrives, it gently issues forth its melodious themes on the harp. The orchestra patiently waits for its chance to crescendo, but then slowly fades as the harp beautifully descends to the last note. This is an excellent piece for ambiance, as it passes on the more concrete themes of the previous tracks, and musically replicates the sound of gently flowing water.

*As an update, this piece alternates with 'The Golden Wood' in the Dale, and synth music plays at night. This may well change in Book 7, when the entirety of Lothlorien is unveiled.

15.) Flame of Udun: This piece is accompanied nearly the entire time with a catchy drum cadence, which reminds one of the tribal orcs much moreso than its namesake. The orchestra, with its fleeting piccolo trills, and heavy trombone and horn chords, reminds one of something between an action thriller and a contemporary western. The tone chances dramatically at the entrace of the male chorus. Drama builds to a head, and this section could almost warrant association with the being of Shadow and Flame, but then the previous action music re-engages. No discredit to the piece whatsoever, but this would be a most excellent theme to associate with the Orcs, rather than the Balrog. This track is used brilliantly in the instance: The Forges of Khazad Dum.

17.) Hour of Doom: Taking its cue from earlier tracks, this piece presents the Moria theme in a subtle, but engaging fashion, before it builds and builds to what might be called an end-credits theme. It is unfortunately brief, but Hour of Doom sounds appropriately like the ending of a symphony.

I would rate Chance's music a 9.4/10, suffering only from its brief nature. Unfortunately, the pre-dominance of the synth music by Turbine's in-house sound department, and the extremely sparse application of Chance's music ingame prevent me from awarding the soundtrack itself a high mark. You will notice that I did not include half the tracks in this review, and with good reason.

I hope that Turbine realizes the error of its current track assignments, and corrects them in a coming audio pass. It would truly be a shame to let such wonderful and thoughtful themes go to waste.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Some notes on the Misty Mountains:

The density of Giants in all locations in which there are giants, especially Iorbar, is far too high.

Giants are an excellent candidate for the application of directional inductions, such as those found in Moria. These large creatures would not be able to 'turn on a dime' to target a clever player dodging their blows. This would also drastically reduce the monotony of 'giant-farming.'

The Crag-hawks or hendrevail are also much too dense, as are the bears just prior to Gabilzan.

Worms and snowbeasts are also guilty of unnatural density on the slopes leading up to Helegrod.

These areas need to adopt a more Forochel-like approach in their creature spawning patterns.