In a year where Zelda is a prevalent subject on many people’s minds, Hero of Time (Music from “The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time”) arrives at a very opportune moment. But there is more than good timing to generate interest in this release. Besides Hero of Time having the backing of the Materia Collective, both its primary and some of its secondary creative forces were also behind the very well-received Twilight Symphony. Add in the extra scrutiny that tends to accompany anything funded by Kickstarter, and what you have is a release with considerable expectations to live up to. By and large, it does live up to them. Koji Kondo’s original compositions sound amazing in a live orchestral setting, and Eric Buchholz and his fellow arrangers give these pieces a new vitality and energy to accompany the move to a new musical setting. Even when I wasn’t fully convinced by some of the creative decisions, the love that these musicians have for the Zelda series was readily apparent, and I came away from Hero of Time suitably impressed and fulfilled.
A good starting point is with Twilight Symphony. The music there is fairly faithful to the original compositions, but it’s also experimental, rearranging many songs to have extra sections and complexity that suit the symphonic setting and make them stand better as individual pieces. The same is true of Hero of Time, but in comparison I found this release to be considerably bolder and more experimental in its rearranging efforts. Part of this is probably due to the fairly short length of the stylistically diverse tracks from Ocarina of Time, how integral many of these pieces are to the game’s identity, and to the shorter length of the game’s soundtrack (compared to Twilight Princess). Unlike the later games, one (imaginably) couldn’t get away with a more literal rearrangement of the songs from Ocarina of Time.
Buchholz and co. take a variety of approaches to dealing with these barriers, some more creative than others. A minority of tracks, such as “Hyrule Field,” “Princess Zelda,” and “Spirit of the Valley,” remind me of Twilight Symphony, in that they are more literal and sound fairly close to how one would imagine the songs from Ocarina of Time in an orchestral environment. They’ve been extended and are more elaborate, but no drastic moves are taken to add extra shades of complexity or additional emotive angles to them. They have the same well-defined characters that fans remember and love. This is in no way meant to criticize them (indeed, these are among my favourite songs on Hero of Time, and they measure up quite favourably against their counterparts on the 30th Anniversary Concert), but rather to highlight the comparatively conservative approach taken in transporting them into this environment.
Many smaller pieces from the game are arranged together to form cohesive wholes whilst the arrangers adopt musical ideas and phrases from other games in the series to flesh tracks out. “Hero of Time,” for example, begins with a dreamy and majestic rendition of Ocarina of Time’s title theme before building up in a roaring and heroic rendition of the Zelda series’ iconic main theme. Similarly, “Fateful Morning” begins with an airy and peaceful movement that could be described as a meeting between “Hyrule Field” and the Kakariko Village theme from Twilight Princess, before gradually building towards an oppressive and foreboding atmosphere that portends future strife. Other pieces combine smaller, thematically related songs together. “Memories of the Forest” is one such track, merging one of the game’s Ocarina pieces with the music of the dungeon that playing said Ocarina piece would warp you to in the game. Finally, another approach is more apparent at a conceptual level: a number of pieces, such as “The Legendary Blade,” “Seven Years,” and “Courage, Wisdom, and Light,” underscore a string of sequences and moments from the game, telling a story rather than being strictly locational (although Zelda fans will easily identify where/when individual pieces within these tracks play in-game). “The Legendary Blade,” for example, covers the sequence of events from Zelda and Impa fleeing Hyrule Castle to Link acquiring the Master Sword, or at least that’s how I understood the piece.
These different and especially creative approaches to rearranging have many positives and, occasionally, some negatives attached to them. It helps to distinguish individual tracks and keeps things diverse and engaging, both across the release’s seventy-five minute length and within the pieces themselves. The music nerd in me was really impressed by the team’s imaginative approach to reworking the originals, sometimes in drastic and surprising ways. For me, “Dark Waters” is an especially noteworthy track. It is a solo piano piece featuring some dazzling musicianship and thoughtful utilisation of silence and ambience, but I’m particularly fond of how it still retains the exotic and mysterious atmosphere of the water temple and infuses that with the melancholy of the temple’s companion Ocarina piece. The icing on the cake is the heavy amount of reverberation that lends the whole track an appropriately aquatic dimension; the descending arpeggios are like drops of water slowly trickling down.
Occasionally, however, the Zelda purist in me was slightly disappointed by some reworkings, feeling that something vital in the original music had been lost. From a technical perspective, I admire the minor key rendition of the iconic Kakariko Village theme in “Village of Shadows,” but although it is a stirring and dramatic piece, in my weaker moments I find myself wishing that the theme had stayed in a major key, especially since the arrangers aren’t afraid of embracing harsher musical elements. However, “Feast of the Dragon” is probably the main piece I have misgivings over. The boss battle music from the Death Mountain dungeons forms part of the track, but in order to make it cohere better with the other movements it is reworked into a softer and slower piece of suppressed frenzy. As a result, it sounds more like a horror encounter than a heroic fantasy battle. It gradually builds in volume but quickly fades away, and it doesn’t reach a suitably epic climax. I was impressed but sadly not fully engaged or moved, as even if it retains the feeling of terror, it loses the feeling of battle and adrenaline that was constitutive of those gaming moments. I tend to like this musical approach, but perhaps it was applied to the wrong track(s). If nothing else, I commend the arrangers’ boldness in experimenting with the original music.
These are very minor criticisms, though, and overall I greatly enjoyed this release. There were a few points during Hero of Time’s crowdfunding campaign where I wasn’t confident that it would reach its funding target. Having listened to the release from beginning to end quite a few times, I’m very glad that Buchholz and his fellow arrangers managed to reach their goal. The complications surrounding the commercial release of Twilight Symphony were quite unfortunate, so to see these talented musicians still persevere and put out something of such high quality is heartwarming. Despite my small misgivings, Hero of Time is a remarkable achievement and a captivating, thrilling (and sometimes surprising) listening experience from beginning to end. For the amount of music you get, the thoughtfulness regarding which tracks were covered, the quality of the arrangements and performances, and the sound quality of the recording, the price is reasonable as well. Along with Twilight Symphony, Zelda fans owe it to themselves to check this out. Maybe just tell the Zelda fanatic within you to keep an open mind!