Historically speaking, it seems like MMORPG soundtracks have not received nearly as much discussion and recognition as their offline counterparts, and that’s a darned shame, because there is so much MMORPG music out there and so much of it is really good! Perhaps it’s a demographic thing—apparently most players turn the music off—or perhaps we haven’t cultivated an expectation for good music in online RPGs like we have with console RPGs. With the release of Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, I think we’ve started to see this turn around. In fact, Final Fantasy XIV is one of two MMORPGs that won my interest with the sterling reputation of their soundtracks. Since this isn’t a review of Final Fantasy XIV, you’ve probably guessed by now that the other game is Lord of the Rings Online.
LOTRO’s soundtrack was composed and arranged by Chance Thomas with additional contributions by Stephen DiGregorio, Harry Chase, and Brad Spear. The game was released in 2007 to universal praise, and one feature that was particularly well received was the excellent soundtrack. At the time, it was the only MMORPG soundtrack I knew of that actually managed to generate some critical recognition. Unfortunately, that soundtrack has not been consistently available for the last ten years. Portions of the score were offered as preorder promotions and collector’s edition bonuses, and a much larger selection of the soundtrack was briefly made available online by the developers, but this is the first time in years that you can easily purchase a generous portion of this game’s music.
So was it worth the ten-year wait? Well, technically it hasn’t been ten years for the entire thing. This album is a “greatest hits” collection, lovingly compiled by Chance Thomas, which draws from the original game and its first three expansions, the last of which was released in 2012. The album does not present this material in order of release, but skips from region to region on a meandering musical tour of Middle Earth.
And what a wonderfully varied tour it is! Thomas’s orchestration lusciously evokes some of the most iconic locations in Middle Earth. “Moria” draws the listener in with choir and mid-tempo string passages, then broadens the arrangement into something more majestic, then concludes with a few ominous minor intervals. The track makes you feel like you are walking through a dark tunnel, emerging into the ruined grandeur of Moria, then looking with trepidation into its darker depths. Really, this region of Middle Earth contains some of the album’s strongest and most thematic work. One could string “The Hollin Gate, “Moria,” “Drums in the Deep,” and “Khazad-Dum” into a musical suite that echoes the Fellowship’s perilous adventures through Moria.
Impressively enough, Thomas manages to find distinctive thematic touchstones for all of the peoples and places of Middle Earth. In “Tears of Nimrodel” and “The Grey Havens,” he uses harps, strings, and solo vocalists to convey the delicate and bittersweet beauty of elven society. In “Theme for Rohan,” he uses mournful violins, Irish flute, and stately percussion to represent the proud but desperate Rohirrim. “Hills of the Shire” and “Party in the Shire” achieve a distinctly hobbitty feel by dialing the orchestration way back to let a small ensemble of flute, guitar, and fiddle carry the melody. One of my absolute favorites, however, is “Song of the Dwarves.” This is partly because it lays down a motif that manages to work its way into most of the Moria tracks, partly because the Baruk Khazad bit is a wonderful reference to the original text, and partly because the track’s Gregorian style chant is oddly prescient of “Far Over the Misty Mountains Cold,” which we would hear years later in the first Hobbit film.
Speaking of Peter Jackson’s films, I can’t deny that this soundtrack frequently bears a strong resemblance to Howard Shore’s fantastic score for the original trilogy. That’s not to say this is a derivative work, though. Tolkien’s books are rich with musical references, and his races are roughly analogous to real world cultures with their own musical traditions. Considering the nigh-absurd amount of research Thomas put in before he even started composing his own score, it’s no surprise that his music and the films frequently arrive at similar destinations. While the instrumentation is often familiar, the differences lie in Thomas’s composition style. Shore’s work was certainly thematic, but Thomas’s score is absolutely saturated with recurring motifs and variations. At times, it almost sounds like a John Williams soundtrack, especially in the brassy bits. However, despite all of my comparisons to other film composers, one of the most intriguing aspects of this album is that it does not sound like a film score. Sure, the building blocks are the same, but the way they are arranged is different. It’s a little more cohesive, a little less incidental, and perhaps a little more classical. Many of the orchestral tracks feel like they could slot right into an opera or ballet.
And after all this, I still haven’t mentioned my favorite track on the album, which is undoubtedly “The House of Tom Bombadil.” On a technical level, it’s perfect. It has a gorgeous central melody, the arrangement is balanced throughout, and it effortlessly transitions from small ensemble to orchestra and back to small ensemble in less than two minutes. The melody also makes a triumphant return in “LOTRO Legacy,” which is essentially the game’s main theme. Really, that’s enough to make me love this track, but it also rings true on a conceptual level. Not only does it represent the titular character’s joyous hospitality, but it perfectly captures the humble kind of heroism that motivates hobbit gardeners to venture forth on perilous quests, as well as the joy of returning home afterward. I must confess I wish the track was longer, but I also have to admit that there is something slyly Tolkien-esque about the album’s best music being wrapped up in a tiny package.
Unfortunately, I do have one significant (if unfair) point of criticism on this soundtrack. I want more music. I have only dipped my toes in The Lord of the Rings Online, but even that’s enough to tell you that there is a lot of great music that you won’t hear on this album. Perhaps someday beleaguered LOTRO fans will finally get a full soundtrack release, and it will be an epic five-disc monstrosity, beautiful and terrible as the morning and the night. Treacherous as the sea! Stronger than the foundations of the earth! All shall love it and despair; the ONE SOUNDTRACK TO RULE THEM ALL!
Even if you have no investment in The Lord of the Rings Online or the fiction that inspired it, I still highly recommend you give this soundtrack a listen. The music is just that good. Even non-gamers will find much to appreciate here. However, if you are a fan of Tolkien and his world, then you really must purchase this album right now. Chance Thomas’s compositions are right on par with Howard Shore’s work. Although I’ll admit that I was a little disappointed we only got a “best of” collection, I am very grateful that this music is finally available to purchase. Not only is it an excellent video game score, it’s a loving tribute to one of our most cherished works of modern literature. If we ever get a full soundtrack release, then I have no doubt that it will be the grandest, richest, and simply best musical representation of Middle Earth we have ever received.
This review is based on a free digital review copy provided to RPGFan by the publisher. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer’s opinion of the album.