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The Settlers Paths to a Kingdom Original Soundtrack :: Review by Simon Elchlepp

The Settlers Paths to a Kingdom Original Soundtrack Album Title: The Settlers Paths to a Kingdom Original Soundtrack
Record Label: UUbisoft
Catalog No.: iTunes
Release Date: July 12, 2010
Purchase: Download at iTunes


Marking the most recent entry in the perennially popular The Settlers franchise, Paths to a Kingdom: Paths to a Kingdom was released in early 2010, to generally more positive reviews than its predecessor. Unfortunately, it was marred by Ubisoft's attempt at integrating DRM into its titles, requiring the user to be constantly connected with the Ubisoft servers when playing the game, even in single-player mode. Soon after the launch, users worldwide experienced problems connecting to the servers, often rendering the game unplayable.

More positive news was the fact that German game music production company Dynamedion was drafted again to provide the soundtrack, just as with the previous two Settlers titles. However, some new musical elements were introduced into the score: a full choir was added for several tracks, and the soundtrack would include a number of songs, composed by British-Latvian singer/songwriter Kariina Gretere. The album's opening song "Hero Within" provided the score's main theme, around which Dynamedion's composers then went on to craft the remainder of the soundtrack. Ultimately, no less than eight composers were involved in the creation of the score.

Before delving into the musical details of the soundtrack, a word about the availability of the score and its different incarnations. The game's physical limited edition contained the score on a CD with 20 tracks. However, to the joy of soundtrack collectors, the score for the game was released some months later as a more complete 27 track digital download on iTunes and Amazon. The latter will be reviewed here.


In all likelihood, not every soundtrack enthusiast rejoiced when it was announced that the soundtrack for Paths to a Kingdom would include a theme song. And they would be forgiven for such a reaction, given the patchy artistic history that the inclusion of more or less pop-inspired songs into game or film soundtracks has — sometimes it works, more than often enough it doesn't and the songs just feel tacked on. Not so in this case. Tilman Sillescu and his composing team ensure musical coherency between the song and the rest of the soundtrack by using the song's primary melody as the score's main theme. They're helped in this endeavour by the fact that vocalist and composer Kariina Gretere has crafted a versatile melody that works well as a vocal melody, but which can also easily be adapted for various orchestral renditions. The theme flows graciously, while still possessing the adequate breath to carry the sometimes massive orchestral pieces. And as was the case with The Settlers: Rise of an Empire, this main theme will be quoted throughout the soundtrack in bits and pieces, rather than verbatim.

The melody is first presented in the soundtrack's opening cue, "Hero Within". Gretere possesses a lovely voice that imbues the music with an appropriate mix of lightness and pathos, and which will remind listeners of songstress Loreena McKennitt. After a dreamy, new-agey opening with a soothing keyboard backdrop, the song incorporates orchestral and later even choral elements skilfully, conveying a fantasy atmosphere that is both mystical and grand. The orchestra and choir never become overbearing, and Gretere's vocal melodies, whose origin lie in folk rather than in pop music, take some unexpected twists and turns. A particular highlight — here and in other songs — are Gretere's layered vocals in the track's second half, which create a duet-like effect and some gorgeous harmonies, and the only snag is that the cue fades out when it's at its most beautiful.

Just as classy is Gretere's other contribution to the soundtrack, the following "Ever After", which retains a poppier, earthier feeling, while still including some orchestral elements. Delightful melodies for a solo renaissance flute and light hand percussion add a welcome, unobtrusive period touch, and the song's finish is moving, with a rising and falling, memorable melody and Gretere's lyrics that speak of homecoming after a long journey. Both songs are reprised at the end of the soundtrack album: "Hero Within Revisited" presents the main theme with a light pop lilt, while "Ever After Revisited" becomes a piano ballad which perfectly highlights Gretere's impassioned performance, particularly when the aforementioned "homecoming" melody is reprised. All in all, the songs on Paths to a Kingdom are an exemplary showcase of how to incorporate such non-classical material successfully into an orchestral soundtrack.

Moving on from Gretere's compositions, listeners will soon realise a number of changes from the previous The Settlers soundtrack. While the score for Rise of an Empire boasted a convincing sound mix that presented the lush orchestral textures with sufficient clearness, Paths to a Kingdom features a drier, closer recording, which highlights single instrumental groups to a greater degree, imbuing the sound with a crispness that is exemplary. This becomes particularly important in light of the fact that the majority of compositions here rely on sometimes lighter, sometimes weightier string rhythms, which fortunately always remain fresh and are given the necessary presence within the soundscape. At the same time, in tune with Sillescu's statement that for Paths to a Kingdom, he and his team wanted to a sound "that is not too epic or big", Dynamedion's composers go for a lighter, more agile overall tone. Thus, the album recording perfectly realises the composers' creative intentions.

Gone then are the previous soundtrack's luscious, pastoral hymns, and ethnic overtones — this score is firmly set in the green meadows of a generic, medieval Europe. "New World's Dawn" heralds the tweaked style: the music still paints an idyllic image, but the aforementioned light string rhythms give the music an energy and vitality that was largely absent on Rise of an Empire. A number of beguiling woodwind soli are laid over the orchestral background, which occasionally shifts to more openly lyrical passages for soft strings. While light dance rhythms were already included in some cues on Rise of an Empire, they were usually assigned to particular percussion instruments — on this soundtrack, they are performed by the whole orchestra. This focus on sprightly musical material becomes even more apparent on the following track, "Ancient Dawn", which integrates a short violin solo, and "Hearts to Steel", which opens with layered string pizzicati and bouncy woodwind soli — again, the recording couldn't be more vivid. Later, the track alternates between this rhythmically pronounced material and more melody-focused sections in ever new combinations and orchestrations.

Indeed, this is another change from the previous game's soundtrack. While that score already boasted impressive orchestrations, Paths to a Kingdom goes above and beyond in this regard. The orchestral palette deployed is more traditional than in another 2010 Dynamedion release, Drakensang: The River of Time, but within this particular musical framework, the composing team achieves near perfection. Hardly ever will fifteen second of a composition pass without an absolutely seamless change of instruments, atmosphere, rhythm and so on. Despite a running time of usually less than three minutes, most compositions are the equivalent of an eventful journey that constantly holds new, pleasant surprises. Meanwhile, the density of musical layers and amount of counterpoint found on this album are up there with the most distinguished orchestral soundtracks — both game and film.

As a result of the phenomenally varied and fluid orchestrations, the musical drama emerges more organically from the sonic surroundings than on Rise of an Empire. While that soundtrack sometimes awkwardly juxtaposed rhapsodic orchestral material with frenzied action tracks, these two opposites are brought together more successfully this time around through various means. On of these is the tweaking of the ever present string rhythms, which on "Working Apart" and "We Are Broke" become more incisive and faster to convey urgency. Despite focusing on rhythmic drive, these tracks never become as prosaic as the action material on Rise of an Empire. Instead, they remain involving at all times, be it through the inclusion of beautifully melodic moments, such as a statement of the main theme on strings in the second half of "Working Apart", or instrumentally creative moments. For example, at 2:36, "We Are Broke" switches effortlessly from percussion and brass driven grandeur to layered harp ostinati against heavy percussion, before insisting string rhythms are pitched against this rarely-heard ensemble. "Money Rules The World" is another prime example of how to combine action material with a lighter atmosphere, integrating delectable woodwind melodies with thumbing percussion and outbursts of orchestral majesty. "Dark Defeats" remains one of the album's few tracks that evokes a more menacing mood, with its high, sustained violin chords and layered, nervous string and woodwind figures, which are shorter and more agitated than what we've heard before from these instruments. Still, even this expression of impending threat fits perfectly into the album's musical flow.

When the music carries its intention to rouse the player and prepare him for battle more openly on its sleeve, it becomes obvious that the album recording presents the orchestra less as a richly detailed wall of sound (as on Rise of an Empire), but instead as a combination of perfectly balanced instrumental groups. In other words: while the crisp recording greatly benefits the soundtrack's many light-hearted moments, it also provides an amazingly powerful, yet transparent sound during orchestral climaxes. This time around, the action material is also less frantic than before, but instead sets itself apart from the more bucolic compositions surrounding it through slower tempi and lofty, but never overly bombastic sounds. "Dragon Hoard" opens with that classic orchestrational set-up so often found in combat tracks — harmonious brass against string ostinati — but here, the brass is so cleverly layered, so majestic and uplifting, while the string rhythms are powerful, yet inobstrusive, that the well-worn formula works perfectly. "Together We Stand" is the soundtrack's most martial cue, due to its reliance on march rhythms, which are overlaid with a pleasant, but somewhat non-descript string melody. Fortunately, the piece becomes more interesting when it calms down to include pensive material for horns and strings against a flute ostinato, before it integrates string pizzicati into a return of the opening marching sound. And "Thief of Time", at the appropriate volume level, with rattle your room's walls, such is the force of the spectacularly recorded percussion section. Still, the track doesn't only rely on sheer force to make a point — the percussion instruments are layered in intriguing rhythms that keep things interesting and will make the listener deplore the fact that the composition is rather short.

Gretere's contributions are not the only vocal elements on the soundtrack. A number of compositions include a full choir, and Dynamedion's team applies its knack for fabulously varied and colourful compositions here as well, which turns each of the choir pieces into another score highlight. "Divine Power" initially combines the choir (singing in Latin) and march rhythms, but still cares enough to throw in a quick flute solo, before slowing down and shifting to a passage full of staccato rhythms for choir and percussion. The choir acquits itself splendidly here and performs with utmost precision — praise that has to go out to every musician on this album. Even when the choir is added, the soundscape is never clogged up with ostentatious textures, but instead remains finely balanced. Here as on "You Fight", the choir reprises the main theme, but on the latter track, the theme's versatile nature is highlighted when it is transformed into a hymnic declaration of victory. Starting out as a relatively straightforward, stirring march with wordless choir vocals, the piece builds towards the end, when the choir's rendition of the main theme is passed on to the violins. The composition reaches even greater heights and climaxes in a spine-tingling close that has the trumpets playing a triumphant motif, gradually joined by more boisterous brass and the choir, while the surrounding string textures become thicker and thicker. By contrast, "Golden Gems" integrates the choir into less declamatory material when a rendition of the main theme on solo flute is backed by a humming male choir, before the piece then erupts into a glorious statement of the main theme for sopranos and altos, backed by the full orchestra.


In short: within the realms of traditionally orchestrated, fantasy-styled game music, it doesn't get much better than this. Dynamedion's mastery of the wonderfully varied orchestrations results in multi-faceted compositions that reward many repeat listens, while the album's flow strikes the perfect balance between stylistic consistency and sonic variety, seamlessly incorporating Kariina Gretere's tuneful, atmospheric songs. Every single track is a delight to listen to, chock full of musical details and an energy that will make any listener smile more than once, just like the soundtrack's melodies will stick with him for days to come. The technical aspects of the album are impressive — in fact, this has to one of the best recorded and performed game soundtrack albums in history. Just like the soundtrack for Drakensang: The River of Time, released only a month before, Paths to a Kingdom improves in every regard on its predecessor and promises great things to come from Dynamedion's composing team in 2010 and beyond. If you're only faintly interested in orchestral soundtracks, be it film or game, don't walk, but run to your computer, and get this marvelous soundtrack.

Overall Score: 10/10