01 - An Oath, Until The End
02 - The World is Breaking
03 - Faces to the Wind
04 - Minds like Streams and Streams like Minds
05 - A Path through the Skies
06 - Under the Black Banner
07 - Only Snow can Shield the Sun
08 - Blades Yearn for Courageous Blood
09 - Promises of Sanctuary
10 - The Endlessly Grasping Bogs
11 - Descended from Fire
12 - Dragons in the Mud
13 - Deep into the Rocks
14 - Even the Trees can Smell your Blood
15 - To the Skies
16 - Children of the Fallen
17 - Broken Shells
18 - From the Shouting Rocks, his Eyes finally Opened
19 - Paths Part
20 - The Twilight Flight
21 - With Eyes to the Endless Sun
22 - Walls like Mountains
23 - More Stars Tonight than Last Night
24 - Threads Unweave
25 - Our Steps, To the Night
From the album covers featuring soldiers marching in single file across a wintry landscape, to the opening bukkehorn notes, The Banner Saga 1 and 2 have unsurprisingly similar soundtracks. If you're acquainted with the first release then you'll be well prepared for what's offered here. However, the transportation of the soldiers from nocturnal plains to bright mountain peaks signals change. Austin Wintory ensures that this latest soundtrack continues and evolves from the previous one by pushing strongly in a particular artistic direction. In turn, the music is simultaneously more rewarding and challenging.
Combining a traditional orchestra with instruments like the bukkehorn establishes the music's sonic identity and strong roots within the game's setting: both have a robust Scandinavian influence. (Surprisingly, the didgeridoo also appears but without "muddying" the Scandinavian character.) These factors are further enhanced by the beautifully sung Icelandic vocals. (In addition to performers from the last soundtrack, Wintory recruited Icelandic folk band Árstíðir for vocal duties.) The performances give many songs an integral warmth and intimacy, particularly on the sparser folk songs that are once again interspersed between the grander orchestral moments. This point also surely accounts for part of the music's otherworldly beauty, at least for listeners not from Scandinavia.
However, where its predecessor gently began with a majestic invitation, The Banner Saga 2 opens with the sounds of war. The drums and the opening bukkehorn command, rather than invite, the listener. Complementing this is a stronger emphasis on the brass sections. Woodwinds move to the background, and their soothing melodies are welcome when they appear, but their prominence is generally owed to the fluttering effect they create that, combined with the full orchestra, generates a mesmerizing dissonance. An obvious example of this is the opening of "The Twilight Flight." Along with stronger and more prominent drones, the overall result is a harsher (though equally impressive) second offering.
From the beginning, Wintory establishes an unrelentingly somber atmosphere. Virtually every song is written in a minor key, and even the peaceful tracks don't provide moments for happiness so much as respite or reflection. Because the cathartic release of a track in a major key never arrives, tension and suspense constantly builds until horns and drums explosively announce a battle's arrival, only to rebuild again as the march continues. However, the music can be passionate and animated just as often as it is cautious and reserved. Some of the best pieces are a dynamic combination of both. "The Endlessly Grasping Bogs" is a good example, with playful woodwinds interrupting the droning violins and horns. A draining trek through the unforgiving wilderness almost starts to resemble a dance.
Although largely somber, the music also expresses hope, if not joy. This arises subtly in "Descended from Fire." One could imagine musicians performing this piece for people retiring around a fire as they drink away their sorrows and reflect on tribulations endured and forthcoming. As strings and an accordion drone over a simple drumbeat, a tenor mournfully sings (in Icelandic):
From fire came balance,
from smoke came peace.
Understanding the lyrics clarifies the poetic mixture of emotions articulated and demonstrates how vocals, when properly utilized, can contribute to a soundtrack. Those eight words could also describe the soundtrack's overall tone: hope for the future, resilience in the face of adversity, and recognition of loss. Perhaps the strongest expression of these sentiments is in the closing track, "Our Steps, to the Night." Largely a choral piece, the singers chant as if performing a eulogy before drums and strings beckon triumphantly to raise one's head and continue onwards.
When the somber mood breaks, however, things can become truly explosive. "Threads Unweave" exemplifies this. All of the tension and suspense generated across the album leads to this six and a half minute monster, and Wintory's subtle innovations are powerful. Although written in standard 4/4 time, notes often don't land cleanly on each count: it feels like the music is frantically switching time signatures. The controlled chaos renders the piece disorienting and difficult to follow (unless you count along) as instruments howl and violently clash with one another: it's as if listeners are in the middle of a real battlefield, rather than the music playing to their heroic fantasies. It's equally brutal and brilliant. Eventually the carnage begins to die: instruments retreat, a chorus intones solemnly, and then the orchestra returns for one final roar. And finally, silence. Wintory's management of structure and timing sets a powerful precedent for the musical articulation of violence, making this among the soundtrack's finest moments and easily better than its companion piece on the previous album.
I've aimed to describe the music in broad strokes and mention noteworthy tracks, but like its predecessor, this album is best consumed whole (and, if you have the time, in succession with the first soundtrack). The listening experience is richer when you detect melodic motifs recurring and reworked in different contexts, or when you appreciate individual pieces fitting together like episodes within a wider tale. The latter is augmented via the percussion simulating a marching procession and creating an impetus to push forward. Pieces feel like stories regaling the journey's different parts, even (perhaps especially) when drums are absent. For this reason, the percussion is the album's unsung hero, and Wintory deserves high praise for his approach to rhythm.
The music isn't consistently easy listening, but anyone wanting something genuinely unique in a genre that often leaves little room for innovation cannot ignore this. This soundtrack is every bit as good as the previous one, if not better. Together they offer a singular experience. I can't praise this release enough. Expectations for The Banner Saga 3 must surely be very high.
Reviewed by: Francis Li