Sunday, 30 November 2014

Soundtrack Review: World of WarCraft: Warlords of Draenor

Few franchises have musical history as magnificent as Blizzard’s WarCraft. From the very first WarCraft game, 1994’s Orcs and Humans, the series has been producing a powerful, considered soundtrack. Mostly warlike and always brooding, these early scores from the ‘90s lean heavily on marching drum rhythms and repetitive, borderline groovy melodies - a style slowly been left behind as the series progressed. By WarCraft III (2002), the property’s style had expanded to include hauntingly beautiful, ethereal pieces, and an abundance of operatic choir. Not long after that World of Warcraft launched (in 2004) and the series expanded tenfold. And with WoW the sound became more cinematic than ever; big, orchestral and epic. Five expansions later and we bring this introductory overview to a close because we have reached the main subject of my review: World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor by composers Jason Heyes, Glenn Stafford and Tracy Bush.

It seems pointless to wait until the end of this article to say this: Warlords of Draenor is a very good soundtrack. It is truly fantastic. The question is however, how does it stand as a WarCraft soundtrack? Does it contain everything we’ve come to expect from the series, and does it maintain the outstanding musical qualities of past installments? In order to determine these answers, I have devised the five things that I believe make a good WarCraft score a good WarCraft score. I will now tackle each of these in relation to Warlords of Draenor. So without further ado, read on for my five essential elements of a WarCraft score:

  1. Pathos
WarCraft must appeal to the player’s sense of heroism, rousing and calling them to war. Warlords of Draenor passes this test with both hands tied behind its back. War-loving orcs feature at the centre of the new story, so we’re in a world of deep chanting and war drums thrumming. There are tons of epic sized rousing tracks here, in fact most of the score, so there’s no point listing the relevant tracks. Probably chief(tan) in this area however are “Times Change” (3), which feels like a very clear introduction to grand conflict, and “Clan Warsong” (5), which uses some unique instrumentation to create a piece that could easily underscore a gathering army.
“We Will Be Conquerors” (13) is a highlight of the album. It features what I refer to as the ‘Warlords Theme’, a brilliant motif that provides evidence that the greatest music can be deceptively simplistic. The Warlords Theme is slow but powerful, with only a few (very predictable) ascending notes. This track features a rendition with a marching drum beat, the orchestra slowly expanding as the melody is repeated thrice. My theory is that the most engaging element of this Warlords Theme is the restraint it demonstrates - it contains the immense power of an enormous orchestra but only uses it strictly and sparingly. It gives me shivers.
  1. Sentiment
With lore this big, it’d be silly not to call back to themes of past games/expansions/content. Luckily, WarCraft is not silly. Every release has featured a new rendition of a classic theme. A fan pleaser, if you will. Warlords of Draenor doesn’t feature many musical callbacks, but as always the overture is a blend of the old and the new. “A Siege Of Worlds” features many familiar motifs in its 12 minute runtime, most the most rousing is the final one. Around the 10:50 mark begins a magnificent rendition of a WarCraft III theme so glorious that I did admittedly very nearly get tears in my eyes. It feels like it brings the franchise experience full circle.
  1. Shock
Every World of Warcraft expansion soundtrack has included something which, on first listen, sounds utterly insane. It is an element that captures your attention with its wild uniqueness. “Khadgar” (15) opens with several shocking orchestral stabs. This incredibly villainous piece has an impressive audacity which grabs attention effectively and holds it tightly. But again there’s that fantastic restraint. I find it very effective when the composers show the unleashed power of the full orchestra then proceed to use it delicately. “Family” is a heartwarming piece until the second half when it changes entirely into a proud march with deliberately jarring instrumentation including delightfully off-key brass. Actually, it’s really enjoyable and probably also belongs in this next section:
  1. Fun
WarCraft can be a dauntingly serious universe. Luckily the creators understand that it can be refreshing to throw in a joke. So as synonymous as WarCraft is with war, death and conflict, immersion-shattering silliness has also become a recurring element of the series. Warlords of Draenor continues the trend. The second half of “Old Growth” (11) has a hint of farce in its sinister piano-and-g├╝iro melody. “Tides Of War” (19) is a magnificent clincher, unexpectedly ending the soundtrack with a Musketeers-esque shanty - so different in style to anything I’ve heard from WarCraft before that at first it seems totally wrong. Maybe it’s a hint at what we’ll hear next time, and if so I’m chuffed!
  1. Beauty
WarCraft’s world also contains immense beauty, and the music reflects that. These pieces are often tearjerking in their demonstrations of subtlety or fragility in a universe that is oft assume entirely ‘macho’. “Visions Of The Prophet” (6) is essentially a tragic string solo. It tells many stories. The true heart of the album however, can be located right at the heart. “Family” (10) is of a similiar beautiful style, conjuring imagery of campfires and noble tales. A simple drum holds the beat as the strings share the emotion. The second half of the track is a complete reversal in tone, as I’ve already discussed in the ‘Shock’ section. “Ways Of The Ancient Ones” (14) is incredibly beautiful, and arguably the most magical piece. It uses a solo female vocal and a full choir for particularly emotive moments. More than most of the soundtrack this piece feels like it was created for the ‘world’, as opposed to characters or narratives.
I’ve referred to elements I love in a variety of tracks, but should also note that as with past World of Warcraft soundtracks, the first track [“A Siege Of Worlds” (1)] is an overture, featuring a taste of many of the wonders the score contains.
Is Warlords of Draenor the best WarCraft score yet? Probably not. Mists of Pandaria gets a nose ahead in my opinion, but only a nose. This is an incredible soundtrack with an abundant display of creativity which could easily have been discarded in place of a generic sequel. WarCraft has already created one of the most impressive musical worlds ever. They don’t have to prove themselves anymore. They could rehash and reuse if they wanted. But no, with each release they reach higher into the glorious unknown. Draenor is magnificent, and with no clear end in sight to this wave of World of Warcraft expansion packs, I’m excited for where we go next.
5/5 from me.