Torchlight II Original Soundtrack :: Review by Simon Elchlepp
2012 saw the release of Diablo III, one of the most heavily anticipated sequels of the year and a commercial juggernaut. Ironically enough, maybe its strongest competitor for the crown of "Best 2012 Dungeon Crawler" was a game developed, amongst others, by the creative minds behind Diablo and Diablo II: Torchlight II. The first Torchlight game, released in 2009, had been hailed by critics for its ability to capture the essence of the first two Diablo games. After his work on the original game, former Diablo composer Matt Uelmen naturally returned to score the sequel. However, this time the circumstances were more favourable, as Uelmen was given significantly more time to compose the game's soundtrack. Due to Torchlight's commercial success more than a million copies sold Uelmen was also given the budget to record once more with the Slovak National Symphony Orchestra (after Diablo: Lord of Destruction and World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade). However, he chose to only deploy the orchestra's strings and a big percussion section. These orchestral recordings would be combined in the final mix with Uelmen's own live guitar performances and synthesised sounds, both classical and non-classical.
In interviews leading up to the game's release, Uelmen described how his score would follow the demands that the game's larger scale, with multiple towns and dozens of dungeons, made on the music. In his words, Torchlight II's score was "much more like the work I did in Diablo II and The Burning Crusade, in that I am trying to emphasize a sense of progress and travel as the backgrounds change." His score would also incorporate Middle-Eastern and Asian cultures to address the game's "around the world" feel, but would aim to do so in subtle ways rather going "too over-the-top". To verify these claims, game score collectors had to be either lucky or at the right place at the right time: copies of Torchlight II's album were given out at E3 2012, and to 25 fans chosen at random via Facebook.
Torchlight felt like a semi-successful experiment, pointing in new creative directions while drawing upon Uelmen's recognisable style, but it failed to explore its fresh ideas to consistently strong results. Torchlight II, on the other hand, is not only an impressive achievement from start to finish, but it's also Uelmen's best score to date and brings the chracteristics that have made his past work so distinctive to near perfection. The general formula is similar to the artist's previous soundtracks: languorous, flowing pieces that mix orchestral, synth and rock elements to create a potent atmosphere through their subtle blend of timbres, rather than through hummable melodies. It follows suit with another collection of genre-crossing mood-setters, but manages to rival the emotional and timbral complexity of Uelmen's previous career highlight Lord of Destruction and sustains that level of quality over a full album, as opposed to just 22 minutes.
Indeed, Uelmen has managed to transfer the refined orchestrations of Lord of Destruction onto the orchestra/synth/rock ensemble that he has deployed on most of his albums. The composer brings together atmospheric instrumental lines and synth pads in even denser layers than before and the results are more subtle and creative, surpassing his previous work in this style. This intricately shaped wall-of-sound ensures that the mood throughout the soundtrack remains quite heavy and borderline oppressive, courtesy also to the constantly cavernous acoustics. However, this quality never suffocates the music since it deploys a stunning variety of instrumental colours, never threatening to run out of steam towards the end of the album like the similarly languid Diablo II. This sheer lushness of sound doesn't come as a surprise if one looks at how Uelmen's music has developed from Diablo to Lord of Destruction, but this tendency reaches new heights here, bolstered by a greater fondness for melodies that already made its mark on Torchlight. The fact that all of the score's disparate elements come together in a coherent whole is not only a testament to Uelmen's compositional skills, but also to his studio wizardry. All this results in a score that does a marvellous job at evoking a vast fantasy world through bold new colours.
You might dip anywhere into Torchlight II's offerings to find proof of its qualities, but the second album track "Enclave Morning" is a perfect spot to highlight the soundtrack's strengths. Its sense of peace that comes with its calm woodwind lines is given a slightly otherworldly bent through some shimmering violin crescendi and the echoey acoustics. Throughout its running time, its impressionistic, constantly shifting orchestrations bring together a rarely-heard variety of moods and emotions in one cohesive whole that doesn't lose sight of its goal to evoke the dawn of day in a fantastical world. Its predecessor had displayed similar creativity in its orchestrations and how it combined disparate ambiances, but only on a number of album highlights. This score, on the other hand, sustains its allure throughout all of its 73 minutes, dishing up ever new combinations of colours which ensure that the music, despite its measured pace, remains intriguing and never stands still. Two other prime examples of how well Torchlight II's compositions develop are "Curse of Ember", which slowly moves from heavy rhythms and clanging metal percussion fit for the track's mine location into an uplifting passage that's literally a beacon of light in the sombre depths surrounding it; and "Ever Deeper", another subterranean piece that packs a stunning number of ideas and hues into its three minutes to create the kaleidoscopic image of an underground world that defies easy classification or description.
Obviously, Torchlight II's wealth of colours is due in no small part to the game's bigger scope and "around the world feel" that Uelmen addressed. There are no fewer than three different 'snow/ice' location tracks "Ice", "Winterwell" and "Snow Falling on Bleeders" but they all find original ways to underscore the chill and sometimes menace of their locales, ranging from the mix of grinding electric guitar riffs and tinkling glockenspiel on "Winterfell" to the majestic horn solo and almost playful triangle ornamentations on "Snow Falling on Bleeders". "Temple Steppes" is expectedly arid, but never monotonous, driven by its immaculate merging of music and sound effects, and the carefully placed splashes of colour provided by the weighty orchestral strings and various guitar soli. The piece is capped off by one of Uelmen's trademark tribal rock drum patterns that is appropriately stark. Speaking of which, while the drum rhythms sometimes felt overused and simplistic on Torchlight, its successor remedies that problem through more interesting rhythmic patterns and a more judicious use of the instrument's booming sound. "Slavers" reprises the Western twang that was found on Torchlight's "Mines", but does so in a more satisfying manner, while "Djinn" is one of the tracks that elegantly integrates Middle-Eastern sounds, which on this cue are brought together with growling electric guitar riffs in an unexpected, but effective pairing.
All this variety doesn't mean that Torchlight II doesn't travel into the murky depths that Uelmen explored so well on his Diablo scores. The majority of the album's last third is devoted to more sombre compositions, after "Defiled" and "Vulture Pass" have already ventured into more despairing sound earlier on the album. While the album loses some of its beguiling effect during these morose, more monochromatic compositions, the music retain captivating and is just as atmospheric as the rest here. Hollow guitars ring out over the bleak soundscapes of "Wasteland", while the sense of despair that reigns supreme on "Desolation" is rendered more emotional through horn cries and sustained, piercing woodwind notes against relentless drum patterns. "Bog" maintains interest through its lone flute melody lost among howling deep synths, and "Vault" turns surprisingly empowering through its synth pulse and the resulting sense of forward motion, capped off with an optimistic piano line. Best of all is "Mummified", which moves its busy, disorienting string pizzicati just far enough into the background for them to turn into an unsettling source of sounds that is difficult to grasp. Uelmen then layers deceptively cheeky pizzicati on top of dissonant sound effects and creepy percussion another feat of clever composition and studio engineering. In between these gloomy pieces, "Oasis" offers some brief, ethnically-tinged respite, although its hand percussion rhythms and weary woodwind melody signal that there's no easy escape from the dangers surrounding this resting place.
Orchestra lovers eager to hear more of this side of Uelmen's writing, particularly after Lord of Destruction, need to keep in mind that the orchestra is only one of many ingredients in Torchlight II's amazingly organic sound mix, if a prominent one. Still, Uelmen puts the orchestral forces at his disposal to great use, especially relying on the rich, full-bodied sounds of the Slovak National Symphony Orchestra's strings. Captured vividly and often put upfront in the album mix, the strings imbue the music with classically-minded lustre, and it's no wonder that many of the game's most memorable melodic moments are carried by the orchestral strings. This romantic heft is established right away on opening track "Torchlight II Title Theme" through a luscious solo cello melody. The track's classical weight is further increased by a turbulent, stringent string passage that installs the score's sense of heaviness and magnitude. Later on, the orchestral strings shine on the melancholic strains of "Enclave Dusk", as well as "Zeryphesh Morning", where beautiful, pensive string chord progressions are made even more intoxicating when merged with an exotic orchestral background that incorporates the sounds of a Guzheng. The album's midway point is marked memorably through "Echo Pass" and "Camp Evening", whose free-flowing string melodies capture every bit of wondrous majesty that flows from their mountainous locations. Finally, the serene string inserts on penultimate track "Camp Down" bring appropriate weight to the end of the journey through Torchlight's mysterious, enchanting world.
Torchlight II feels like both a summary and the culmination of Uelmen's work so far: it combines the languid, gloomy, yet varied synth layers of Diablo II, the amazing breadth of emotions and moods found on Lord of Destruction, and the increased melodicism of Torchlight, and blends all these into one of the best Western fantasy game scores in recent memory. Its heartening to see that after a relative dearth of outstanding Western fantasy game soundtracks, the genre gets a shot in the arm through not one, but two scores Torchlight II and Austin Wintory's Horn within the space of just two months. This title is Uelmen's most colourful, varied score yet, a sprawling work that never stands still and constantly comes up with new combinations of timbres and moods, yet remains focused. Throughout the album, there's always something in Uelmen's assured mix of orchestral, synthesised and rock elements that captures listeners' imagination, as long as they pay close attention to the music's intricacies. Sequenced carefully and without breaks between tracks, Torchlight II makes even its shorter tracks necessary parts of its kaleidoscopic whole, maintaining a steady flow that perfectly simulates the player's progression through Torchlight's fascinating locales. It gives the big, world-spanning sound so characteristic of large-scale fantasy games an original, impressionistic makeover that is thoroughly impressive. Let's hope this score finds the number of admirers that it deserves and travels beyond the boundaries set by its limited distribution.
Overall Score: 9/10