Soundtrack Month: “Breach” (Mychael Danna)

Breach is an understated gem, both as a movie and a score. While the film can be quite tense at times, its soundtrack mostly reflects the plotting, devious side of a spy gone awry. Mychael Danna is a master of methodical, swelling orchestral arrangements, foreboding harp introductions, and angsty piano solos (quite a lot in this case). A few pinches of tasteful programming keep the momentum going. What more do you really need for setting a sad mood?

 

Soundtrack Month: “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring [The Complete Recordings]” (Howard Shore

This probably appears to be an excessively obvious choice, but it’s still worth considering if you really haven’t listened to it yet.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy had some of the longest soundtracks in recent years. In an age when a 100-minute movie is considered long, only Bollywood soundtracks boast a longer average duration than those for LOTR. While the standard-length albums are a fair representation of the scores, there’s a great deal more to glean from this extended cut.

The Complete Recordings version of this soundtrack is notoriously difficult (and expensive) to obtain – not to mention the fact that it cannot be legally purchased as a download to date – but YouTube bootleggers have been universal in their belief to share a good score with the world…and they have a point. This might be the longest soundtrack you ever listen to, but it might also be one of the most worthwhile ones you find for a very long time.

One of the things that struck me about this score is how un-orchestral it can feel. Many soundtracks feel like they’re scrambling for arrangements that sound suitably sophisticated. Instead, this one just looks like music that happened to be recorded with an orchestra. Some of it would sound fantastic on a swarm of half-tuned ukuleles. It’s grand stuff but rarely grandiose. Considering the effort and scale involved to make such a soundtrack, everyone involved made it look incredibly easy in the finished product. You’re more likely to find restful moments than busy “adventure” ones. It’s sweeping but inviting. It’s exciting and awing without also being sugarcoated. It’s also 16 years old but still feels as fresh as morning dew.

If you can’t find something amid this huge landscape – foreboding choirs, thrumming double basses, noble horns – to spur on your writing and general creativity on, you might want to get your head examined.

 

Soundtrack Month: “Dragon Age: Inquisition” (Trevor Morris)

Fantasy RPG games always run the risk of being too abstract or too dense to be approachable. Yet some well-wrought character development and a knockout soundtrack kept the world of Thedas grounded and more than a little palatable in this third installment. Trevor Morris (yes, his second appearance on this blog this month) managed to keep a balance between intrigue, excitement, and melancholy.  Too many “let’s go save the world with swords” stories go straight for the jugular and try to make every musical cue heavy and loud – in short, “action” music. That’s fine for combat sessions, but the calmer moments of landscape exploration or cinematic cutscenes need something a bit different. There are plenty of haunted but rational moments to mine from this lengthy album, to which I give a hearty bravo.

 

Soundtrack Month: “Fringe: Season 1” Michael Giacchino, Chris Tilton, & Chad Seiter)

Fringe was one of those sci-fi shows that almost – but not quite – wanted to laugh at itself now and then. Armed with speculative science and just enough gunplay to seem like an ordinary mystery thriller at times, it initially grew a legion of fans by being daring and borderline grotesque – and seemed to keep said legion by maintaining those same standards throughout the series’ life.

The soundtracks had very conventional composing habits presented in an edgy way. Sawed jabs of string instruments and endless layers of guitar pulses were prominent throughout, along with a healthy dose of understated but extremely effective percussion. The occasional intelligent piano flourish kept the sound from becoming too hard. If you’re writing any sort of fiction reliant on tension and momentum – espionage, noir, mystery, even horror – this should just about do the trick.

Soundtrack Month – “Skyrim Atmospheres” (Jeremy Soule)

How does one easily sum up a fantasy game world as expansive as The Elder Scrolls? You don’t. While the franchise was always known for a staggering (and occasionally unmanageable) amount of objectives, quests, and hidden surprises, Skyrim was especially praised for its landscapes and especially free-form world. Seven years after its initial release, it still garners praise, even with its amusing and often morbid bugs (including this one). Some people even turned to modern gaming specifically for the charms of this title, which allows your character to be anything from a stealthy assassin to a hopeless kleptomaniac to a noble fighter of dragons – or just an outdoorsy type on a hunting trip or alpine hike.

Jeremy Soule, the composer wiz behind several TES installments, went out with a bang on this one. The Skyrim soundtrack contains enough material to warrant 4 discs for its physical CD release. Why so many, you ask? I must assume that the developers expected – nay, demanded – that players wander and explore as much as quest. If you’re going to spend that much time in a game, you might as well have a healthy variety of music.

While the overall score’s sound is honestly a matter of taste (there are as many brassy or monotonous moments as there are heartfelt and melancholic ones), the Atmospheres portion is deliciously meandering and does indeed set the atmosphere. Numerous fans have used this 40-minute treat as a sleep, study, or meditation aid for years (I highly recommend playing some nature or rain sounds over it for that extra lulling touch). While the rest of the soundtrack needs whittling down for first-time listeners, every minute of Atmospheres is approachable without having a context first.

Soundtrack Month: “Vikings: Season 2” (Trevor Morris)

Vikings is a fascinating, unsettling, and frequently brutal series, but it’s also bar none for strange atmospheres. The music is no exception. Trevor Morris (with more than a little help from some neopagan enthusiasts) mixed beat programming, ambient thoughts, and a variety of unique solo instruments together to get the mysterious cocktail that is Dark Age Scandinavia.

The thing that gets to me about this album isn’t so much a particular track or melody as the sheer seamlessness running through most of it. Since most of the tracks have similar or connected thoughts (not so much themes as vague framework), the shrill and jarring strains of a primitive bone horn are offset by the soothing low saw of a proto-hardinger fiddle and plenty of synthy drones.

It might or might not be for you, but it’s worth trying if you’re seeking something genuinely different.

 

 

 

 

Soundtrack Month: “The Golden Compass” (Alexandre Desplat)

While The Golden Compass as a movie made some disruptive and dividing waves among viewers, the soundtrack is delightful. I don’t always understand Alexandre Desplat’s music (especially when  the moments in this score when an army of pianists play through a section at the same time – talk about organized chaos!), but the balance between classic epic excitement, tranquil afterthoughts, and evocations back to childhood is robust. You probably won’t like everything on the soundtrack (I don’t), but you ought to find at least one likeable track. For orchestra nerds, one highlight includes contributions from Skaila Kanga, a harpist of such a high caliber that her skills (and superb harp) have been used for sampling libraries around the world.

 

 

 

Soundtrack Month: “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” (Nicholas Hooper)

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince has a strange place in both the film  franchise and book series. Gone is the startled, biting darkness that Order of the Phoenix so masterfully covered. Harry and those around him are both grimly resolved to fight chaos and irrecoverably entrenched in teen angst. The movie’s overall vibe is dark meditation. The score is suitably textured and moody (it even resembles dark ambient at times), though it isn’t without a few witty bright spots. Choirs, very much in the back seat for Phoenix and even somewhat absent in Goblet of Fire, roared back with a vengeance in this score. Weeping strings pair well with angelic treble voices and tasteful percussive touches. If you want a good mope in full orchestral glory, go for this album.

Ashot Danielyan – “Warm Night in Cold Moscow”

If you’re craving splendid pedal effects and tranquil chords, look no further. The style is almost (but not quite) New Age, except that the texture enjoys shifting around in a more free-form way and allows a little room for mystery and shadows. Songs like this charmer make me especially happy that ambient piano is still alive and well in all corners of the world.

Ivan Black – “Narcissus Reflection”

Some off-kilter (but polite) ambient/atmospheric for your consideration. This song has a much more “manufactured” flavor than the usual fare you’ll find here, but I felt that it was deserving enough to share because it always conjures up some kind of imagery for me when I listen to it – and what’s the point of music if it doesn’t make pictures in your head?

Friday Album: Cryo Chamber Dark Ambient Mix {Free Album Download}

https://cryochamber.bandcamp.com/album/dark-ambient-of-2015

Cryo Chamber is an independent microlabel specializing in ambient and dark ambient artists, especially instrumental ones. Dark ambient music is typically bleak (and is basically goth culture’s meditative cousin or half-sibling), and yet – as I’ve mentioned before – it can be restorative for overall focus and concentration. (I don’t know about the rest of the writing world, but no matter how many foolproof habits and routines I piece together, I always need another backup plan)

Dark ambient music is often devoid of beats and shrill tones, so despite a heavy influence from various electronic sources, it can actually feel more organic than some live instruments. It’s rarely in a hurry to go anywhere and mainly cares about the journey and the saga therein. It is typically melodic, but in a wistful context. It’s often quiet (despite the frequent use of layering, sampling, and excerpting) and has a methodical tempo.

All of these factors add up to a cocktail with potentially infinite refills…especially if your writing leans in a melancholic or pensive direction.

Cryo Chamber periodically has free album-length mixes available, including this one. If you want something different, try this one.

 

 

Jeremy Soule – “Crystal Oasis”

This is formal, official soundtrack material, but it doesn’t have any stuffy ensemble touches and instead veers into tranquil electronic atmospheric…almost. It’s a bit cheerful compared to the usual fare I bring you, but variety is important sometimes.

Excerpt from “Lord of the Rings Online” Ambient Soundtrack – “Old Forest Drone”

A delicious drone – just because. Unfortunately, I cannot enlighten you on the artists or composers involved because most of the ambient music for LOTRO was created somewhat anonymously (this is an official track, but the game devs didn’t make a point of openly bragging about the music team). It’s slightly possible that this is not the true name of the track, but at least it’s out there for posterity and enjoyment.