||Catalog Number: N/A
|Released On: March 24, 2015
|Composed By: Justin Bell
|Arranged By: Justin Bell
|Published By: Obsidian Entertainment
|Recorded At: Unknown
01 - Eora (Title Theme)
02 - Encampment
03 - The Harbingers Doom
04 - Dyrwood
05 - Gilded Vale
06 - The Lover Cried Out
07 - Skaen
08 - Oldsong
09 - Their Hearts Grew Bold
10 - Defiance Bay
11 - The Fox and the Farmer
12 - Ondra's Gift
13 - Brackenbury
14 - Crashed Upon the Shield
15 - Dyrford
16 - Woedica
17 - Twin Elms
18 - Elmshore
19 - Burial Isle
20 - The Dragon Thrashed and Wailed
21 - Shadow of the Sun
22 - Engwith
23 - The Endless Paths I
24 - The Endless Paths II
25 - Come Soft Winds Of Death
26 - Road to Eternity (Ending Credits)
It's difficult to discuss Pillars of Eternity (PoE) without comparing it to the Infinity Engine (IE) classics that inspired it: it's because of said inspirations that I backed PoE during its crowdfunding campaign! For many, including the fine people at Obsidian, these games provide a lens through which to make sense of the game. By understanding the ways in which their legacy is reverenced or departed from, we can better appreciate PoE's distinguishing virtues. The same applies for the music, and such comparisons are (for me at least) especially helpful.
In a Kickstarter update, Justin Bell conveniently summarized the sound of the (Forgotten Realms-based) IE games that provide the model for his own composing: "their music combines tropes found in European folk and pre-Renaissance modal music, and mashes that together with modern day orchestration techniques and film music aesthetics." This fairly general description is probably applicable to many other fantasy RPGs, but in broad strokes, it characterises the music of Michael Hoenig (Baldur's Gate 1 & 2), Jeremy Soule (Icewind Dale), and Inon Zur (Baldur's Gate 2: Throne of Bhaal and Icewind Dale 2), quite accurately. However, the model's generality provides freedom to emphasise certain musical features over others. Hoenig often establishes a strong medieval character, whilst Soule and Zur generally embrace the cinematic. Though Bell recalls Soule more than Hoenig, his music, like theirs, fits the model while having its own character: a sound that is more personal and intimate, focused on atmosphere and mood.
A clear structural difference (that Bell discusses in the update) concerns the track lengths. The pieces composed for the IE games are generally quite short, written to either loop continuously (such as during combat) or play periodically between (sometimes long) stretches of silence and environmental ambience. BG2, for example, has mean and median track lengths of 1:35 and 1:21 respectively, and some of these are separate game tracks mixed together. This approach has its payoffs in game but is a mixed experience outside of it: often the next song starts just as you were becoming engrossed in (some detail of) the previous one. PoE, on the other hand, has mean and median track lengths of 2:51 and 2:32, which promises to better sustain listeners' interest outside of gameplay.
With this structural change comes some stylistic ones. Although I don't mean to over-generalize, many pieces from the IE classics seem designed to directly engage listeners due to their short length. Strong rhythms and catchy melodies are frequent. In contrast, Bell's priority is in establishing an introspective and reflective atmosphere, suited to the game's story, above all else (this is where Planescape: Torment seemingly has an influence). As such, the music feels more personal and sounds considerably less grandiose and assertive than the music of the IE games: neither quite as melodically driven, nor as epic, animated, and explosive.
Instead, as if taking advantage of the extra time, the music progresses slowly both harmonically and temporally. Melodies often revolve around long, single sustained notes, chords, or arpeggios, before the music continues. The absence of percussive elements and a regular pulse on some pieces augment the sense of slowness. Regular breaks of silence interspersed between phrases contributes to this sense whilst, in conjunction with some unconventional song structures, also evoking a feeling of mystery as pieces' progressions aren't straightforward to predict. Dynamically, Bell leans to the softer side. Pieces begin and conclude quietly, and gradual crescendos and diminuendos are frequent. Instruments slowly rise and fall as families of instruments retreat and sub out for one another before eventually uniting.
This gradualist approach makes the triumph of when the orchestra plays in roaring unison all the more epic, such as after the buildup on the inviting opening piece "Eora," or on the triumphant and dramatic closing track "Road to Eternity." Overall, though, the music is reserved and lacks the straightforward vitality and adventurousness that characterized a fair portion of the IE games' music. These compositional tendencies give the music a generally sleepy, mysterious, impressionistic, dreamlike, almost detached quality. In these respects Bell's work probably bears a closer resemblance to Soule's work for The Elder Scrolls series, particularly Morrowind's exploratory pieces.
Despite this umbrella of dreaminess, Bell's formula is effective at enabling the music to articulate all the moods and concepts required by the game: uncertain and apprehensive ("Encampment"), sprawling and majestic ("Twin Elms"), somber and reflective ("Gilded Vale"), peaceful and enchanting ("Dyrford"), mournful and foreboding ("Skaen," "Engwith"), or some combination of these ("Dyrwood"). This lower-level variability is partly explained by Bell's management of the breaks of silence between musical phrases. Sometimes they enter more naturally as instruments slowly trail away, or more suddenly with a surprising halt. Sometimes they're short, as if the instruments are simply taking a breath, whilst other times they're longer, as if they are holding it. But they never simply prolong pieces. They always provide opportunities, which Bell always takes, to reinforce and continue exploring previously introduced themes, or transition towards the next space of conceptual terrain. If nothing else, for me the soundtrack displays the expressive power that these breaks can have.
Some pieces abandon these distinguishing features in favour of a straightforward approach that embraces the game world's medieval/renaissance influences. "Defiance Bay" and "Ondra's Gift" are pleasant and peaceful songs, driven by a harp that maintains the tempo and sets a medieval tone for the strings and woodwinds to augment. "Oldsong" strikes a nice balance by replacing the harp with chimes that establish a meditative otherwordliness for the orchestra to hauntingly swell over. Meanwhile, the medieval spirit is most strongly exemplified in the charming and accessible tavern pieces, with "The Fox and The Farmer" easily being the most jovial and bouncy album track, whilst "The Lover Cried Out" is a mournful dirge featuring Bell on guitar. So some pieces do slightly break the formula, but ultimately they're still in keeping with the soundtrack's overall spirit.
The combat tracks are a very different subject. There's no denying that these energetic pieces strongly resemble those of PoE's inspirations. In an interview, Bell explains that some of these are very deliberate tributes designed to capture the IE games' vigor (though I don't think this includes Planescape: Torment). I can confidently say that Bell succeeds here. To give one example, "The Harbingers Doom" has the same rhythmic pattern and a similar melodic/harmonic progression to BG2's "City Battle I." Bell also adopts Hoenig's technique of having multiple instruments carry the melody (which is particularly obvious on "Crashed Upon the Shield"). This added oomph to the melodic hooks enhances the combative atmosphere. As someone who fondly remembers the IE games, I enjoyed these tracks and found the resemblances to the past amusing. Others might be less amused, but, if nothing else, Bell achieves his goal.
There is something idiosyncratic about a soundtrack that jumps from sounding near-identical to its predecessors to merely resembling them in a very general sense. This outcome seems fairly probable given the tight balancing act Obsidian needed to perform. PoE's players will likely appreciate this, and for this reason, I think the ideal listeners are the game's fanbase (though I think the music is enchanting enough to also attract non-players). At the same time, I can imagine some fans might've wanted a more consistent middle position, for example by recalling more of the adventurous spirit and the melodic and rhythmic liveliness of the past games' soundtracks without going as far as the combat tracks do in paying tribute, and on this basis come down harder on the release's dreamier and ambience-focused sensibilities (especially if they weren't keen on this musical focus to begin with). With this in mind, I would recommend listeners who place great importance on those factors to think carefully (and listen to the samples!) before purchasing.
One minor complaint I have concerns the absence of certain tracks. Some exclusions are justifiable: as much as I dig the character creation theme, I doubt many others would sit through over nine minutes of sleepy orchestration. On the other hand, tracks with greater thematic significance, such as Thaos' theme or the Caed Nua pieces, seem like appropriate inclusions. In fairness, Bell has generously uploaded all of the missing pieces to Soundcloud (including those from The White March expansions), and those included on the soundtrack easily surpass those that aren't. However, since this is a digital release, it would've been nice to have some of these available at higher audio qualities, and those with completionist tendencies (such as yours truly) might be slightly upset by some of the omissions.
Overall, I got a lot from this release. When I backed PoE, I made sure to pledge (more than) enough to get the soundtrack, without really considering my expectations. I probably only wanted to re-experience that intangible joy felt when playing through the IE classics over and over, and since those games had great music that enhanced their atmospheres, presumed that the same would apply here. I can't say for certain whether I got what I initially wanted: there are things I loved about Hoenig's and Soule's compositions that aren't particularly audible here. But when the experience was over, I was satisfied with what I heard. The music's stranger, less conventional qualities surprised me. I appreciated how Bell paid tribute to PoE's past without being completely beholden to it. And as a fan of music that prioritises mood and atmosphere, I was constantly engaged. Not everyone will enjoy this release, but Bell does enough differently to make it worth considering, and for daydreamers and those with reflective sensibilities, this is a very easy recommendation.
Reviewed by: Francis Li