Grammy-nominated composer Austin Wintory is back, and he’s back with a mission: complete the trilogy.
I cannot imagine the kind of pressure that sits on a composer when trying to score music for the epic conclusion of an epic story. Did John Williams wake up in cold sweats when he was composing the score for Return of the Jedi? Did Howard Shore’s hands shake while conducting recording sessions for Return of the King? I have no idea. But I imagine the pressure to have a strong finish is quite real in these situations.
In my first listen to The Banner Saga 3 soundtrack, I listened without having played the game. I had my experience with the first two titles as context, but I tried to focus on the music in its own right. It was a kind of cerebral experience, studying which instruments were used, what techniques and genres were put into place, and perhaps most important, how did this soundtrack differ from the first two?
Then I played the game itself. Which, for the record, is a heart-rending masterpiece.
Returning to the soundtrack, I found that the additional context imbued new life in the music. And I mean that in a very specific, detailed way. I felt that the decorative trills and unexpected, passing tones from various traditional instruments served to represent such parts of the final game as — and I’m not exaggerating when I say I feel this wholly and deeply — 1) the number of clansmen that find their way into the walls of Arberrang, 2) every last ounce of Willpower exerted on the battlefield, 3) the footsteps of Iver and his unlikely allies in their daring march to save a dying world. The little details of the game itself are also the little details of Wintory’s score.
The strange and meandering themes are all beautiful in their own right. And, often, the music that lacks percussion is the music that Wintory conducts with fantastic use of rubato. Many of the melodic tunes are reminiscent of the period of orchestral music that straddles late Romantic era and early Modern era, but without any influence from the French impressionists. If anything, I am reminded of such great composers as Dvořák (Czech) and Sibelius (Finnish).
The major melodic themes are oft carried by a gloriously-loud solo instrument — whether wind, brass, or strings — and they tend to reference motifs from within this score or borrowed from the two previous entries in the Banner Saga trilogy. Most of the fast-tempo pieces are heavily accompanied by drums.
And then there are the handful of vocal tracks … lovely, painful, unforgettable. Multiple vocalists appear on the soundtrack, with a special nod to Eivør for the end credits theme “Only We Few Remember It Now.”
Speaking of that lovely song title … do take a look at the tracklist. Like the previous Banner Saga entries, TBS3’s tracklist contains some very interesting track titles. Many of them are actually titles to the game’s chapters, and others are statements made by characters, whether in dialogue or soliloquy. Each track title is a phrase … like a thread in a larger story, a statement that holds its own but makes more sense when considering the whole over the parts. My favorite song title? I would have to give it to the song that is also the chapter 21 title in-game, “With a Mighty Grief That Was Ours and Theirs.” Fun fact: that particular composition is the only one to break the ten minute mark, with a total time of 11:40. Most of these songs are long, and feature multiple parts. Depending on how you play the game, you may not hear all of the soundtrack in a single playthrough, so that’s all the more reason to explore the soundtrack separately.
And please, dear reader, make no bones about it: while this music is beautiful, it is rarely beautiful in the way a flower is beautiful. This music is also harrowing, frightening, even irritating. The full range of emotions are represented, even as the many warriors in TBS3 tend to repress those emotions in an attempt to survive another day. May you, too, survive another day, and find that narrow path to something you can call “victory” in your own life, with this strange and wonderful music as a guide.