Since The Elder Scrolls first went from “cool” to “wildly popular” in 2002 with its third installment, Morrowind, the singular provider of the series’ soundscape has been Jeremy Soule. Soule is a talented composer, someone who can provide quality and quantity in equal measure. He stepped us his game significantly in the past few years, as he delivered incredible music for both TES V: Skyrim, and the MMORPG Guild Wars 2. Those two soundtracks were released 8 months apart. Both soundtracks featured over four hours of music.
For whatever reason, Zenimax decided not to include Soule for their foray into Elder Scrolls’ MMO-dom. Well, they asked him to write the title theme, which re-uses melodies and motifs from throughout the series (and especially Skyrim). Zenimax instead decided to entrust the score of TESO to a relatively unknown name: Brad Derrick.
Despite his lack of reputation, Derrick is no slouch. He composed the music for Warhammer Online, which, though it never had a soundtrack release of its own, was quite good.
It seems that Derrick’s imperative for this OST was to attempt to imitate and/or emulate Soule’s trademark style as best as he could. He is, many times, on the mark. At other times, the music feels too sparse: less like Elder Scrolls, more like Myst.
At the end of the day, the truth is that deep down in my gut, I wish this album had more Soule. This flies in the face of what Soule himself has said about his own work, and the work of composers in general. To quote, at length, from an interview I conducted with Soule in 2009, Soule says:
There’s a misperception out there that composers have a “style” and that more than a few of us are like idiot savants that don’t know how to put notes together in too many combinations. I suppose it’s a way that people process information in general about life擁n these mental shortcuts and reductionist assumptions. But what’s worse is that many people simply attribute a clever composition to being a result of luck. I guess to non-musicians, the creative process might seem to be very random and (perhaps) frightening as this music seems to just appear out of thin air. However, there is a method to the madness in music. I can engineer music just as someone at Boeing might engineer an aircraft. Right now, I’ve been busy making Top Ten hits for the Japanese pop market with my partner Jeff Miyahara so there really isn’t anything that is jarring to me in terms of creativity. I actually changed how I described myself to people on myspace to the term of “musical practitioner” as this really is true. I’m sure I feel like most composers in that I know music theory inside and out and can basically analyze any composition on Earth and tell you what elements make it tick.
I’m not a professional composer. I cannot argue with Soule, and I’m likely out of my depth when I say that Soule has a “style” that others cannot achieve, that there’s something magical and not entirely scientific or technical about the craft of music-making. But here I am, multiple listens into this 150-minute score, and I’m left longing for something more true to the franchise — the experience — that Soule and Bethesda have built up to this point. Brad Derrick is a talented composer; he’s using all the right instruments, melodies, harmonies, and so on to “fit” the world of Tamriel. But it’s still missing… something I can’t describe. I’m left without words. Listen to the samples yourself, compare them to the works in Morrowind, Oblivion, and especially Skyrim. And then, ask yourself if I’m wrong. Because I’m fairly certain that there’s something to be said for my gut instinct, and that this soundtrack could be better with further involvement from Mr. Soule.
Before I close this overview of TESO’s soundtrack, let me make note of some special compositions.
Rik Schaffer — whose work includes Gothic 3, Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines, and more — contributed two songs to this soundtrack: “The Heart of Nirn” and “Northpoint Nocturne.” Both are on par with the softer pieces Brad Derrick wrote, and perhaps come even closer to the high standard set by Skyrim. It comes off as less “generic Hollywood,” less “Lord of the Rings-lite” than Derrick’s weaker tracks.
Finally, we have the closing track, written and performed by Judith de los Santos, better known simply as “Malukah.” She is a Berklee grad, and she got her start professionally by posting her own covers of popular VGM themes on YouTube. Her performance of “The Dragonborn Comes” (from Skyrim) currently has 12 million views, and there’s no doubt that Zenimax came to her knowing she could make something special for TESO. Indeed she did: “The Beauty of Dawn” has the same trappings as the popular video, namely the haunting vocals and beautiful guitar work. It’s a fitting tribute to the series, the game, and to the fans who have made this franchise so popular.
Currently, the TESO soundtrack is available via Amazon MP3 and iTunes. Perhaps someday it will also receive a limited edition physical print. And, certainly, there’s the strong possibility of expansion content soundtracks. Depending on TESO’s success in the market, perhaps Zenimax will turn to Soule for some more quantity. At the same time, I do not want to rule out Brad Derrick’s contributions. He has the talent to be a rising star himself, and I’m open to seeing what he does next.