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Austin Wintory is a Viking in The Banner Saga (Review)

Austin Wintory is a Viking in The Banner Saga (Review)

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After a highly successful Kickstarter campaign and a very long wait, Stoic Studios has released their debut title The Banner Saga. The dev team was largely made up of ex-Bioware employees, but they knew exactly whom they needed to craft the music for their Norse-set RPG: Austin Wintory.

Yes, the man who blazed a trail, setting new standards for VGM with his incredible soundtrack to Journey (which we gave our top award to in 2012), agreed to write a full soundtrack for this ambitious project. Now the game is out on Steam, and Kickstarter backers such as myself got the game and its soundtrack a few weeks early.

Thus, I’ve had time to digest the contents of this soundtrack, which is available on Loudr and Bandcamp. My thoughts on Wintory’s latest release, after the jump!

First, let’s get something straight: this isn’t a successor to Journey in any meaningful way. The scope of this project, with its focus on Norse culture and mythology, required a very specific style (or styles) of music, and that required Wintory to adapt. Is it still impressive? Yes. Epic? Sure, why not. But is it of the same style as Journey, and is it as succinct a soundtrack? By no means!

The Banner Saga sports a 71 minute magnum opus, most of it recorded by a group of musicians known as “The Dallas Winds.” So it’s a wind orchestra, and they’re from Dallas, TX. And they sound absolutely amazing. I would love to see some footage of recording sessions. Listening to the score over and over reveals one point I cannot stress enough: painstaking care was put into balancing the audio. The mixing and mastering is perfect, especially for this genre. The mixdown isn’t too “wet” or blurred. Silence isn’t feared. There are times when things are sufficiently sparse, often to offer a contrast to moments of peak volume or tension.

There’s a certain intellectual prowess that is revealed in this soundtrack as well. The poetic track titles, such as “No Tree Grows to the Sky” or “We are all Guests upon the Land” fit alongside a pensive sort of composing. Wintory took his composing skills to new heights in some of these songs. In the former track title, for example, Wintory uses sparse (but booming) percussion and adds in a small choir singing what is likely some forgotten Viking language (though it may well be modern Norwegian or Icelandic as far as I know). The melody meanders around a few notes, whether carried by the instruments or the voices. But in its deceptive minimalism is brilliance. Themes repeat themselves. In track 5, “Cut with a Keen-Edged Sword,” a violin seems to bring back those simple melodic patterns of the two prior tracks before it is lost to a cacophonous sea of woodwinds, transitioning to the tension of battle.

The “flurry of woodwinds” technique is found elsewhere, and always to maximum effect. In track 12, “Thunder before Lightning,” the opening seconds show exactly what a skilled composer can do with quick, fleeting bits of polyrhythm before introducing a true melodic theme.

Near the end of the soundtrack, we are treated to a ten minute power-track entitled “Of Our Bones, The Hills.” Across this ten minute suite of music we find some fast-tempo war marches, building and becoming stronger and more overwhelming to the listener, and then a reprieve that may well be a dirge of some kind, featuring male and female vocals. The war drums do not let up, however, and a final push comes from a series of trumpet fanfares that are tonal without necessarily fitting a chordal or modal structure. The technique is brilliant.

And finally we reach my favorite part of the soundtrack, “We are all Guests upon the Land.” It opens with a solo male vocalist, singing in a mournful but serious way. A second person joins in unison, suggesting we are experiencing a chant. Then, a break. And after that! When a third voice joins, it is a female voice, an octave above the other voices, embellishing upon the notes. Then the true chanting (non-tonal, instead shouting or speaking) begins! And something powerful, something primal within my own humanity, wishes to cry out with them. Again, the word that comes to mind is “power.” There is something powerful here.

You need not be a fan of the Grammy-nominated Journey soundtrack to enjoy Wintory’s latest soundtrack. He has proven in the past three years to be a composer capable of true diversity (see, for example, his contributions to Beatbuddy or Monaco to see what other genres he’s mastered!). More importantly, however, if you do choose to indulge in the soundtrack, I hope you do so in tandem with the game. The music is great on its own, but experienced alongside the beautiful visuals and clever gameplay of this great RPG, it is a whole other ordeal. Go for it!

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