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The Settlers Rise of an Empire Original Soundtrack :: Review by Simon Elchlepp

The Settlers Rise of an Empire Original Soundtrack Album Title: The Settlers Rise of an Empire Original Soundtrack
Record Label: Ubisoft
Catalog No.: Promotional
Release Date: September 25, 2007
Purchase: Buy at eBay


In 2007, the sixth instalment in the long-running The Settlers series of city-building PC games, called The Settlers: Rise of an Empire, saw the light of day and brought some new gameplay mechanics to the table, such as changing climates and seasons. However, the simplification of the game's economy simulation elements was perceived as dumbing down by same reviewers. Nevertheless, The Settlers: Rise of an Empire, went on to win six 2007 German Developers Awards, among them Best German Game and Best Soundtrack In-Game-Sound. The game's score was created by German game music production company Dynamedion, who had taken over scoring reigns of the Settlers series with the franchise's fifth instalment, and who were given the budget to craft and record a fully orchestral score. Unfortunately, the soundtrack for The Settlers: Rise of an Empire was only released as part of the game's Limited Edition and thus remains a collector's item.


The soundtrack's first three tracks nicely set the scene for this score release and demonstrate what artistic path the music will take. "Rise of an Empire" builds from a soft beginning, dominated by horn calls and flutes, to a rousing presentation of the game's stately, imposing main theme, on display with all the grandeur of a prodigious fantasy movie theme. The melody is then subjected to a number of skilful variations throughout the track — a pattern that a number of compositions on this soundtrack will follow. What's remarkable about the main theme is its sheer length: this is no simple four note motif, and the theme's long musical arc allows composer Michael Pummell to isolate parts of the melody and quote them in numerous other tracks, without referring to the whole theme. This heightens the score's thematic coherence, without hitting the listener over the head with repetitions of the same sequence of notes over and over again.

Thus, the main theme returns quite a number of times on the soundtrack in various disguises, for example in the following track, "Greenlands", which explores the melody's softer side during a violin solo. At the same time, the composition sports a richly layered sound, full of beautifully developed, interlocking lines for brass, woodwind and strings, and benefits from the injection of a bit of playful energy into the leisurely paced music when backed by string pizzicato rhythms. "Bow to Your Lords" sounds less regal than its name might suggest, but instead creates a soundscape as lyrical as those of the two previous tracks, underpinned by light dance rhythms, which will feature in a number of later cues. Stylistically, the music treads well-worn ground — the similarities in atmosphere and orchestration to Basil Poledouris' "Theology / Civilisation" on the Conan the Barbarian soundtrack are obvious — but that doesn't diminish the joy of listening to this piece, with the woodwind providing some particularly lovely counterpoint during the composition's first minute.

The introductory tracks establish two facts. Firstly, the music is recorded in a spacious, realistic concert acoustic and benefits from a mix that provides both clarity in the densely orchestrated pieces and sufficient punch when the crescendi come rolling in. Only the castagnets on "Southern Realm" sound too quiet, but that's really all there is to complain about recording-wise. Secondly, most of the material on the soundtrack is pastoral and tuneful, conveying a generally relaxed mood — which shouldn't come as much of a surprise, considering what Dynamedion's lead composer Tilman Silescu said about the score for Paths to a Kindom: "Bluebyte chose a very nice and appropriate style — very comic-like. It reminds me a bit of animated movies like Shrek. We tried to create music that is not too epic or big for a friendly setting like this." This equally applies to The Settlers: Rise of an Empire, and while Sillescu describes what is a perfectly valid musical approach, a track like "The Barrow Hills" demonstrates both the merits and dangers inherent to this artistic decision. The composition is another poetic piece of music, which distinguishes itself from previous, similar tracks through trilling flute figures, which are later mimicked by fast violin arpeggios. These, in turn, are set against the track's slower melody to almost Brucknerian effect. At the same time, the composition lacks any tension, built ups, or musical surprises: it's beautifully crafted, but the orchestrations are conservative for the most part, and the music comes dangerously close to being exquisite aural wallpaper. "Alliance of the West" begins similarly to "The Barrow Hills" and provides a slight twist on the previous, harmonious atmosphere by incorporating a colourful, purposefully scratchy violin solo, but again, the track seems to meander without going anywhere.

This is not to suggest that the soundtrack of The Settlers: Rise of an Empire is overtly monotonous. On the contrary, there are a number of approaches the composers take in their attempt to deliver a constantly engaging listening experience. Some of these approaches work, some not so much. The most obvious tracks to inject some drama into the proceedings unfortunately fall somewhat flat: the action material, often presented in rather short compositions, is loud and powerful (sometimes impressively so, as evidenced in the brief "Break the Enemy"), but that's about it. The strings are either viciously jabbing away or playing ostinato figures with great insistence — which on tracks like "Hold the Lines" can actually become quite tiresome —, booming percussion provide forward momentum, and the brass overlays are appropriately dramatic. "Dark Tidings" quotes the game's antagonist's theme on flute against the orchestral clamour to provide some orchestral colour, and "War Treaty" (effectively quoting the main theme on horn) and "Besieged" include some quieter moments. But what the action cues really need to rise above "competently made" status is demonstrated in "March to History". Starting out with a martial string rhythm over a bed of percussion instruments, the cue becomes greatly appealing when a grave, yet uplifting string melody is laid over the busy, forceful orchestral background. More such melodious, emotionally accessible elements would have proven vastly beneficial to the score's action material.

The game's villains both receive their own musical representation, but without any far-reaching musical consequences for the soundtrack. "The Red Prince" presents an adequately slithery, chromatic theme on woodwinds and marks the score's first foray into darker territory, before subjecting the theme to a number of short variations, which are underscored by heavy march rhythms in the cue's second half. It's an appealing theme, but apart from being cleverly quoted in two other tracks that communicate danger ("Blazing Fires" and "Dark Tidings"), it doesn't make much of an impact on the soundtrack as a whole and goes somewhat underused. The Red Prince's right-hand lady, Crimson Sabatt, is scored imaginatively through one of the most interesting variations of the main theme: the once majestic melody becomes foreboding and downright menacing when first presented as on oboe solo over swelling and ebbing string tremoli, and is later passed on to the violins, which play it in dissonant harmonies. Unfortunately, this intriguing mood doesn't seep over into the rest of the soundtrack.

The soundtrack's most obvious attempt at spicing up things is the appropriate scoring of the game's different locations, and the resulting tracks greatly help in making the album's more colourful, without changing the overall atmosphere much. Two compositions represent the game's icier climates, and they're both winners: "Northern Mark" scores chilly temperatures initially through shivering string tremoli, light chimes, harp and an occasionally pared down orchestration. While the track's second half sees the return of the same lyrical material previously found in "Greenlands" and other cues, the mood is slightly more emotional, as witnessed by the reprise of the main theme on solo cello and a pensive string melody at 1:58. "Kingdom of Ice" doesn't do much to convey a particular sense of (Northern) location, but it provides more heart-rending string melodies, which express both melancholy and the vastness of the landscape, before the music dies away in a touching diminuendo, going to on to show what some structure can actually do for a piece. While these ingredients make the composition such a pleasure to listen to, one can't help wishing there were more such moving moments on the album.

More important however in terms of conveying particular locations are the soundtrack's "Southern" sounds, which are comprised of several elements. First, introduced in "Southern Realm", after another rendition of the main theme, are some Latin sounds, courtesy of a flamenco guitar and castagnets. These ethnic elements are carefully introduced into the orchestral tapestry at this point and mostly remain means to merely add some colour to the musical texture. The Latin influences become more prominent — and interesting — on "Land of the Sun", which features a trumpet solo against a rhythmic string pizzicato background. Again, once the trumpet has presented the melody, it passes through different sections of the orchestra, always to delightful effect. Additionally, it's nice to hear some semiquavers integrated into the melody, given that most other melodies on this soundtrack are rather leisurely paced. The most successfully presentation of these Latin sounds is heard on "Serenada", which does away with most of the orchestra and focuses on the Flamenco guitar and evocative flute solos with harp accompaniment, quoting material from "Land of the Sun". The resulting textures are wonderfully delicate and evoke an intimate atmosphere, glowing with warm afternoon sunlight.

Drawing upon quite different musical traditions to communicate a generic "Southern" feeling are those cues which incorporate oriental sounds. "Riders of the Desert" is the first such track, and it sounds just as hackneyedly exotic as one might fear: featuring all the oriental sounding harmonies and scales in the book, the piece presents its long-winding melody first on woodwinds, before passing it on to the strings. It's competently composed and assembled, but certainly doesn't win any prices for originality — just look to "Savannah" on Dynamedion's own ParaWorld soundtrack for a demonstration of how to evoke the Orient with a greater degree of instrumental creativity. "City of Wonders" integrates oriental sounds more successfully, with its opening chromatic harp figure, pizzicato rhythms and an ethnic string instrument, before the track's melody is married to a heavy, booming orchestral background, complete with 'Turkish' cymbals. Both Oriental and Latin sounds are brought together in "Restful Meadows", demonstrating that the composers' concern is not so much cultural authenticity, but rather the creation of the aforementioned, general "Southern" sound. However, lead composer Sillescu is correct when he states that the Settlers games are "not so much following a historical theme, but [are] set in a kind of timeless medieval world, like in fairytales." Consequently, strict historic authenticity plausibly takes a backseat to the creation of a more generic world and sound — and as long as the resulting mixture is as musically winning as it is here, that's certainly fine with me.

These tracks are complemented by a number of compositions which provide additional colour to the soundtrack. "Lord Thord Al' Quaff", "Heritage of Kings" and "The Emperor's Pride" all convey the atmosphere of a medieval royal court through the delicate sounds of harps, light chimes, solo flute and hand percussion. "Drylands" is one of the very few tracks to conjure up an oppressive atmosphere, in this case through through sustained violin chords and downbeat woodwind melodies, before becoming even more stifling when a heavy string melody is juxtaposed against pounding timpani. And "Exploration" takes a more ambient approach, with an atmosphere of mystery emanating from its light choir, high pitched violin tremoli, and oboe ostinato figures.

One particular issue regarding the album sequencing needs to be raised. After the beautiful "Faraway Tales", which would work perfectly as a closing track through its successful combination of orchestral and ethnic sounds, the score release ends with eight short cues, most of them throwaways. What we get is more stereotypical action material, a short statement of the main theme, this time as a touching acknowledgement of loss in "Downfall," and four tracks for male solo singer and harp. Clearly, the composers tried to evoke the image of a medieval bard, sitting by the fireside with his instrument, telling his tales of mighty wizards and warriors. Unfortunately, the result is tainted by two factors: the singer doesn't sound like he's sitting at a fireside, but on a very empty concert stage, and the lyrics — with rhymes and all — fluctuate between cheesy and chuckleworthy. Then again, given the self-consciously light-hearted approach the Settlers games have always taken, this might be intentional. Still, it's an odd close to an album that mostly deals in orchestral grandeur.


When the Dynamedion team is given an orchestra to work with, the results always display their impressive craftsmanship. The Settlers: Rise of an Empire certainly is no exception: the listener is greeted by many beautiful, expertly arranged tracks full of orchestral details that merit repeat listens. The compositions are tied together nicely by a number of different themes. Colourful additions to the traditional orchestral palette, such as the Latin and Oriental sound elements, are usually convincingly integrated into the album's flow and provide variety on an album that is generally low on drama and emotional outbursts. However, the rather workmanlike action material, the odd album sequencing, and the fact that some tracks, beautifully lyrical as they are, ultimately fail to stand out and grip the listener, hold the soundtrack back from attaining higher praise. But even so, this is another strong entry in Dynamedion's growing soundtrack portfolio and should be of great interest for every lover of orchestral game music.

Overall Score: 8/10