When I reviewed the 10th anniversary commemorative soundtrack for The Lord of the Rings Online a few months ago, I was very keen to hear Chance Thomas’ work for the new Mordor expansion. However, with such a big release just out the door, I figured it would be a year or two before we received a Mordor release, if we’d receive one at all. Having resigned myself to a long wait, I was completely blindsided when the soundtrack for The Lord of the Rings Online: Mordor was released at the end of October, a mere four months after the 10th anniversary soundtrack! I was thrilled to dive back into Middle-Earth so soon, but I was also very curious to hear how Chance Thomas would tackle the dark domain of Sauron, as the setting provides some unique challenges.
Mordor is one of the most narratively undeveloped regions in Middle-Earth, but we all instinctively know what it looks like: red skies, dead trees, erupting volcanoes, jagged towers, and blasted landscapes. In our collective imagination, it is a monotonously ugly place, and for such a place I expected a monotonously ugly soundtrack. Now, this wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. Dark Souls’ soundtrack is almost unrelentingly bleak, with only a few fleeting moments of beauty, and it works perfectly for that setting. It would have worked for Mordor as well, but Thomas has opted not to take that approach. Instead, I was surprised at how melodic his new compositions are. This album may be consistently grim and perilous, with only a brief ray of hope at the midpoint, but Thomas has not abandoned the heroic and cinematic style he has developed throughout his work for The Lord of the Rings Online.
“Barad-dur,” the album’s first track, functions as a kind of opening statement, providing a sweeping overview of Mordor’s aural palette. It bears a lot in common with Moria’s soundtrack, with plenty of low brass, pounding drums, frantic strings, and choir. This connection is appropriate, considering that Moria is also one of the darkest and most dangerous places in Middle Earth. However, while Moria leaned heavily on men’s choir, Mordor generally sticks to mixed voices, using the higher register to eerie effect. The tracks in Mordor also make frequent use of dramatic contrast, suddenly shifting from brass and percussion to choir or an elegiac melody in strings. Overall, there are enough small changes here to make Mordor more eerie, more unsettling, and unexpectedly more melancholy than what has come before.
Of course, this would not be a Chance Thomas soundtrack without thematic touchstones generously seeded throughout. Seregost, a particularly poisonous region of Mordor, gets the most memorable new theme on the album. It features most prominently in “Lhaereth of Seregost,” where it dramatically emerges from a bed of dark ambient sound. It’s a surprisingly beautiful and sad melody; I could imagine it being repurposed for an elven sanctuary, but I love that Thomas has chosen to place this motif in the heart of Mordor. The darkest and most terrifying track on the album is “Chant for Sauron,” which was also featured on the 10th Anniversary release. The piece starts with a one-two punch of creepy ambient sound and insidious chanting before the full choir erupts onto the scene. The chanting is in the black speech of Mordor, and the melody also makes an appearance in “Barad-dur.” Some classic themes representing the free peoples of the West make triumphant returns in “Coronation of Aragorn” and the “Black Gate.” The former is the most unabashedly hopeful track on the album, with a beautiful rendition of the main theme for the free peoples of the west. The latter reinterprets the same theme in a minor key, layers in the established themes for the dwarves, Rohirrim, and the hobbits, then dissolves into ambient menace. It’s a powerfully thematic piece of music.
Unfortunately, despite Thomas’ commendable effort to create a diverse soundscape for the endlessly bleak land of Mordor, the album still starts to run together a bit as you near the end. “Ugruthkor Captain of the Pit,” “Unleash Terror,” and “Something Evil Rises” almost feel like leftovers from other better tracks. However, the same can’t be said for “Ever On,” the last track of the album. In fact, I was tempted not to mention this track at all so that you all could be as bemused as I was when, after an hour of cinematic orchestral music, I got a catchy 3 minute pop ballad. It’s bright, cheerful, earnest, capably performed and produced, and a little cheesy. It’s a jarring bookend for such a dark album, but as a love letter to the Lord of the Rings Online community, it’s a charming addition.
If you’re new to Chance Thomas’ Middle Earth, I don’t suggest this album be your first stop. Instead, I would highly recommend that you give The Lord of the Rings Online 10th Anniversary Commemorative Soundtrack a listen. If you appreciate Thomas’ style, then you can’t go wrong with The Lord of the Rings Online: Mordor. It may present a significant tonal shift, but it is still a strong continuation of his previous work.
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.