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The Banner Saga (Austin Wintory)

February 2, 2014

Cover_BannerSageTHE BANNER SAGA

Austin Wintory, 2013, Austin Wintory
29 tracks, 70:52

Austin Wintory’s score for the game “Journey” has been (and still is) monumentally successful. It feels like “The Banner Saga” has got something to live up to. Can it deliver?

Review by Pete Simons

WINNER “Best Video Game Score”, 2014 Synchrotones’ Soundtrack Awards.

What is it?

“The Banner Saga” is a ‘role-playing game inspired by Viking legend. Hand-painted landscapes portray a world eerily suspended in perpetual twilight. Cities and towns begin to crumble into chaos. Heroes abandon their hearths and homes to traverse the snowy countryside, gaining allies along the way to help battle a strange, new threat.‘* The game was developed by Alex Thomas, Arnie Jorgensen and John Watson; and funded through Kickstarter. Young, upcoming and incredibly talented Composer Austin Wintory, whose “Journey” from 2012 became the first-ever game score to be nominated for a Grammy Award, wrote the orchestral score.

What does it sound like?

“The Banner Saga” sounded ‘Nordic’ to me even before the Icelandic vocals appear (and before I realised that the game tells a story of Vikings. I’m not big on games, so I’m not usually familiar with what’s out there). There is something about the chords, but also about the sparseness of the orchestrations that make it feel Icelandic. The opening cue “We Will Not Be Forgotten”, for brass only, brought back memories of Björk’s “Selma Songs”. What follows is a score that is driven by woodwinds, brass and solo violin; with some percussion and the aforementioned vocals.

It’s a noble and lengthy theme, the one from “We Will Not Be Forgotten”‘. And there is also a shorter 4-note motif that re-appears many times, first in “No Tree Grows to the Sky” I think. I say ‘I think’ because Wintory is incredibly adept at creating variations on his themes to the point where you’re no longer sure whether something is a new melody or a variation upon a variation. Once you lock on to it, you’ll hear it virtually everywhere (for example in the violin solo in “Cut With a Keen-Edged Sword”, the woodwinds of “Huddled in the Shadows”, etcetera). It makes for a strong, uniform listening experience.

What’s interesting, though you may not immediately notice it (though you will now), is that there is no string section here. There’s a solo violin (performed by Taylor Davis), but that’s it. The score ‘misses’ the instant warmth that a string section can provide. It seems appropriate considering the wintry settings. Search for pictures of “The Banner Saga” and you’ll notice a colour scheme that is dominated by blues and greys. The music seems to reflect this. By comparison “Journey” sounds a lot warmer, and its visuals are dominated by warmer colours, particularly orange. The string section is not really missed on “The Banner Saga” (hence the quotation marks earlier), as Wintory more than adequately compensates for it through masterful writing for winds and brass; beautifully performed by The Dallas Winds.

There are a number of vocal tracks that, even more than the instrumental ones, root the score in Nordic tradition. “No Tree Grows to the Sky”, “There Is No Bad Weather”, “An Unblinking Eye” and closing tracks “We Are All Guests Upon The Land” and “Onward” for example. The latter two also reprise the opening theme; and quite stirringly so. Credit should go to vocalists Peter Hollens, Malukah and Johann Sigurdarson. Adding to the authenticity is a strumming sound (likely Mike Niemitz’s prepared electric guitar) as well as a bandoneon of some sort. There are also subtle parts for synths and didgeridoo, would you believe it?

There is a classical and mature quality about this music. If it weren’t for the many, relatively short cues, you could be forgiven for thinking this was a concert work or a ballet. Don’t get me wrong (…always a great precursor to a dodgy argument…), but often the music feels as if it was written by someone older (Wintory is only 29 at the time of this review). There is a sensation of wisdom here. Wintory seems to understand that, in spite of current trends, less is more. Perhaps this is a lesson he’s learned from Jerry Goldsmith?

For those interested in action-orientated cues will find a few gems here, but don’t expect anything like the current norm. “Embers in the Wind” reprises the opening theme and combines it with brass clusters, staccato trumpet patterns and some percussion. Wintory often makes use of staccato phrases. Mostly rhythmic and organised, but sometimes leaning towards aleatory. “The Egg Cracks” and “Into Dust” come to mind. It’s a very effective technique to create a sense of tension, perhaps even chaos. Having listened to John Corigliano’s “Circus Maximus”, as per Wintory’s recommendation on his BandCamp page, I can see where he got the inspiration from.

A particular album highlight is the 10-minute “Of Our Bones, The Hills”. At varying times it recalls Jerry Goldsmith (the shaker rhythms and robust horn performances), Howard Shore (the deep fat brass stabs) and John Corigliano (the frenzied patterns across the brass and winds). As odd a comparison it may be, I suspect that fans of “First Knight”, “Lord of the Rings” and “The Matrix” will all find something to enjoy here. And that’s even before it arrives at an absolutely stunning finale, combining ethereal vocals with strident percussion and, eventually, more stuttering brass phrases. Again, almost aleatory but not quite. This is pretty darn epic.

Is it any good?

Wintory’s “The Banner Sage” is a fascinating and mesmerising work. It sounds authentic, mature and wise. No doubt, Wintory has done his homework and understands the minimalist essence of Icelandic music. The melodies are beautiful and gratefully form the backbone to the score; yet I don’t expect anyone to come away from this humming them (certainly not straightaway). It’s an interesting score, primarily due to its slightly off-kilter orchestrations. There’s an appropriate austerity and bleakness to it, considering the subject matter and locales. What “Banner” shares with “Journey” is this artisan and artistic approach to videogame scoring. Where it differs is in its colours – quite literally where the games’ graphics are concerned. It resulted in “Journey” sounding warmer (through its reliance on the cello) and arguably being more easily gratifying; whereas “Banner” would benefit from a few further listens. It’s one that may require a little more time to grow. It is beautiful and most definitely a work of art in itself, but it is not the easiest score to sit through, especially with it clocking in at seventy minutes. I think there is a stronger shorter album in here. Its slight atypical sound and style, combined with its deliberate pace, may not be to everyone’s taste. Still, it is an incredible work. A great piece of music that sounds every bit as intriguing as the game looks.

Rating [3.5/5]

Tracklisting

1. We Will Not Be Forgotten 00:45
2. How did it come to This? 02:47
3. No Tree Grows to the Sky 02:41
4. Only the Sun has Stopped 01:20
5. Cut with a Keen-Edged Sword 03:31
6. Huddled in the Shadows 03:02
7. There is no Bad Weather 00:58
8. Teach us Luck 00:32
9. No Life Goes Forever Unbroken 02:49
10. Little Did They Sleep 02:10
11. An Unblinking Eye 01:05
12. Thunder before Lightning 02:49
13. Embers in the Wind 01:25
14. A Long Walk Stills Our Hearts 01:20
15. The Egg Cracks 02:02
16. Three Days to Cross 02:03
17. Walls no Man has Seen 01:55
18. Strewn Across a Bridge 06:03
19. Weary the Weight of the Sun 01:49
20. An Uncertain Path 02:09
21. Into Dust 02:43
22. On the Hides of Wild Beasts 01:22
23. From the Table to the Axe 01:15
24. A Sunken City 01:42
25. Our Heels Bleed from the Bites of Wolves 01:59
26. Long Past that Last Sigh 02:45
27. Of Our Bones, The Hills 10:18
28. We are all Guests upon the Land 02:21
29. Onward 03:11

Additional Information & Availability
Austin Wintory’s BandCamp page.
* The Banner Saga’s Wiki page.

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