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World of Warcraft Soundtrack :: Review by Simon Elchlepp

World of Warcraft Soundtrack Album Title: World of Warcraft Soundtrack
Record Label: Blizzard Entertainment
Catalog No.: S7221154 (Physical); iTunes (Digital)
Release Date: November 23, 2004; September 4, 2008
Purchase: Download at iTunes


It's no exaggeration to state that World of Warcraft has proven to be one of the most influential and successful computer games of all time. Unleashed upon the world in November 2004, World of Warcraft was hardly the first of its kind, as MMORPG staples EverQuest and Ultima Online had already been around for several years before its release. But World of Warcraft, meticulously crafted by lauded game developer Blizzard Entertainment, managed to break into the mainstream to a degree that most computer and video games could only dream of. With more than a staggering eleven million monthly subscriptions, the game didn't only attract the adoration of RPGs' 'traditional' fan base (male gamers between 14 and 25), but instead reached far wider target demographics, including casual and female gamers.

As a consequence, World of Warcraft not only became a successful computer game, but soon turned into a pop-cultural phenomenon that was regularly featured and discussed in mass media outlets, which otherwise would rarely show interest in computer game culture. Several years after the game's release, the mere name "World of Warcraft" has become familiar to millions of people who have never played a computer game in their lives (to demonstrate the magnitude of the title's achievement: ask a random person on the street if they've heard of Halo or Call of Duty, then ask them about World of Warcraft.) No wonder then that the World of Warcraft universe, by August 2010, spans several expansion packs, board games, comic books, and a film version to be directed by Sam Raimi of Spiderman and Evil Dead fame. And of course one of South Park's most iconic episodes, "Make Love, Not Warcraft".

With such a level of popularity, it's no surprise that World of Warcraft's soundtrack would be the focus of much attention from both gamers and soundtrack collectors. To create the game's score and the sounds for its manifold locations and races, Blizzard veteran Glenn Stafford (Warcraft II, Diablo, Starcraft) was supported by a composing team consisting of Jason Hayes, Tracy W. Bush and Derek Duke. Interestingly enough, the score was first released only as a bonus of the game's collector's edition, before it was made widely available as a digital download in mid-2008, together with five other Blizzard soundtracks. Since the MMORPG's release, its soundtrack has remained a popular stable among fans of fantasy-styled game scores, and some of its compositions have become part of the repertoire of high-profile ensembles performing game music, such as Video Games Live and PLAY! A Video Game Symphony.


The score album for World of Warcraft is organised in four blocks: World Themes, City Themes, Ambient Music, and Intro Cues. The World Themes open the soundtrack, and unfortunately, despite their indisputable inherent quality, they're also the least interesting bunch of tracks on the album. Stylistically the most stereotypical compositions on the MMORPG's soundtrack, most of the time these pieces stick pretty close to clichéd fantasy-soundtrack scoring conventions: a preponderance of march rhythms, driving string ostinati, appropriately heroic brass progressions, and a general reliance on a big, powerful sound. The cues' orchestrations and the general mood they convey mostly remain the same, and the fact that they've been programmed back-to-back in one pack doesn't help matters.

That being said, the familiar formula is applied with obvious skill and panache. Opening tracks "Legends of Azeroth" and "The Shaping of the World" offer nothing that score collectors haven't heard before in pretty much the same shape on other soundtracks. Both tracks rely heavily on march rhythms, over which circling violin ostinato figures and swelling brass chords are layered. Both compositions predictably tone down the initial bombast for a lyrical interlude in their second third, whose tender sounds are courtesy of solo violin, woodwind melodies and harp flourishes, and even some short female vocals. And both cues also abandon this more relaxed mood to ramp up the volume again and hit home with an outburst of orchestral power. But they also feature rich orchestrations which generate both a lush, pleasing sound and sufficient counterpoint to justify repeat listens.

And the cues showcase some nice instrumentational details which prove that their creators put some thought into their work. When "Legends of Azeroth" picks up the pace again in its last third, its propulsive forward drive is created and greatly intensified by duelling rhythmic figures in the antiphonally placed first and second violins (one section on the left stereo channel, the other one on the right). And the more optimistic march elements of "The Shaping of the World" are made more colourful through the inclusion of xylophone sounds. Equally, "Echoes of the Past", after a brief flirt with lighter textures, soon returns to rely on resonant percussion, string ostinati, and male wordless choir to reach a foreseeable grand climax. But the piece also has the grace to layer some woodwind soli into its thicker-growing textures to avoid staleness.

No epic fantasy score would be complete without imposing choral sounds, and of course, World of Warcraft delivers in this regard, although the quality of the results vary. On "The Shaping of the World" and "Echoes of the Past", the wordless male choir is included just as a textural addition that helps to create a bigger sound. The choir first takes the spotlight on "A Call to Arms", and not in a particularly good way. The synthetic nature of the choir is obvious right away, due to its watery sounds that completely lack the necessary power to drive forward the stereotypical march section the choir accompanies. The track's opening turns out to be much more interesting: droning strings and the distant choir vocals create a palpable feeling of anticipation, before a resonant solo cello is given some room to breath and plays an expressive melody. "Seasons of War" fares better, already because it features a real choir. But it also uses vocal elements not for rhythmic war cries. Instead, its initial cooing female choir and timpani rolls segues into a solemn, medieval-flavoured passage for male choir, over which another, more flowing choir melody is laid. The music's feeling of almost religious gravitas and fervour make "Seasons of War" the most impressive composition on the soundtrack so far, even though the later, inevitable march section isn't quite the stunning conclusion to the grandeur that has proceeded it.

The one cue among the World Themes to thankfully break their overall stylistic mould is "Song of Elune", although the piece is predictable in that it gives the night elves exactly the sonic identity one would expect. A smaller-scale instrumentation, involving harp ostinati, vibraphone, droning double bass chords, and wind/rain sound effects, evoke a nocturnal, haunting atmosphere, which is capped off by an ethereal alto voice. The change in mood and musical texture pays off when the ubiquitous ostinato string rhythms return in the cue's second half; this time around, they sound fresh and more effective due to being implemented in a new sonic environment.

The score really comes into its own on the following City Themes and Ambient Music compositions. The orchestrations become more varied and atmospheric, the overall ambiance of the soundtrack turns less one-dimensional, and ultimately, the soundtrack turns out to be more successful when it portrays the colourful and mysterious places of Azeroth, instead of trying to overwhelm the listener with images of battles and warfare. Some of the City Themes again deploy intentional predictable sounds, but at least the listener now gets several kinds of well-executed clichés, instead of just one. The Humans' city of Stormwind is given an expectedly majestic character through mighty choir vocals and noble brass and string melodies, but also features a passionate, almost operatic male choral outburst at 1:36 that is equally surprising and positively stunning. "The Undercity", capital city of the Undead, sounds appropriately spooky, due to ominously swelling brass, pounding timpani, and a flurry of disquieting, whispered vocals, although the latter become a bit obnoxious and obvious after a while. Most interesting is the extensive use of percussive col legno battuto sounds, produced by hitting the violin's strings with the wood of the bow, and their unexpected timbre increases the sense of eerie unease. Later in the course of the composition, disembodied synth choirs and effectively layered sound effects prevent the rather ambient track from becoming stale.

"Orgrimmar" — yes, you guessed right, the orcs' capital — is one of the soundtrack's outright failures. It is happy to trot along to more march rhythms and booming percussion with only minimal garnishing that is applied without much discernment. "Ironforge" also partly suffers from a lack of ideas, albeit to a considerably smaller degree than "Orgrimmar". One of those composition to rely on simple, but determined rhythms for percussion and choir, "Ironforge" features another tuneful middle section after a martial start. Some welcome variation is introduced when the march elements are reduced to drums and monotonous double bass accents, against which the composers then pit resonant xylophone, distant female choir notes, and even a trumpet solo to evoke an unexpected feeling of forlorn loneliness.

And then there are two City Themes that venture into stylistically new terrain, at least within the context of this soundtrack. "Thunder Bluff" has a subtle, yet distinct ethnic edge through its string chord progressions, exotic woodwind and use of tambourines. All these produce a warm, earthy atmosphere, which is only fitting for the capital city of the Tauren. After an awkward segue, the track's second half highlights solo instruments — cello, violin and several woodwind — to a much greater degree than most other material on the soundtrack. Not only is the melodic writing for these instruments accomplished and produces an attractive, emotionally ambivalent mixture of colourful mystery and resigned grandeur. The solo instruments are also intelligently layered and produce intriguing counterpuntal textures.

"Darnassus" might be the soundtrack's stylistically most unusual piece. Like "Song of Elune", the composition portrays the night elves, and goes even further than that composition in its distinct orchestration. The track's otherwordly feeling, courtesy of synth choir, thunderous hand percussion patterns, and purposefully synthesised-sounding brass fanfares, is soon contrasted by spectral, almost harsh layers of synth washes. Throughout its running time, the cue remains fascinatingly ambiguous through the fact that most of the suspended, chromatic synth chords remain unresolved. The searing finish, which adds an eerie, wordless male choir to the proceedings, closes a cue that feels more like Vangelis than fantasy score, miraculously without breaking the soundtrack's continuity.

The Ambient Music tracks largely repeat the same pattern that the listener has seen with the City Themes. The music mostly remains intriguingly ambivalent. "Elwynn Forest", for instance, features more scenic sounds and lyrical melodies, performed mostly by soft woodwinds, to paint the image of an idyllic, yet vast forest. At the same time, piercing sustained violin chords remind the listener that danger might be lurking just around the corner. Only a misplaced trumpet solo at the end diminishes the joy this cue provides. "Stranglethorn Vale" offers even more ethnic sounds than "Thunder Bluff", with its didgeridoo backdrop and a plaintive solo for an Asian-sounding flute. "Felwood" and "Tanaris" are both ominous, foreboding compositions that rely on harmonically unresolved, swelling and ebbing synth layers. In the case of "Tanaris", it doesn't amount to much more than vaguely unsettling background music. "Felwood", on the hand, fortunately chooses to top the synth layers with the occasional plinking harp or brief ethnic flute call, which go a long way towards carrying the track through its running time.

"Burning Steppes" meanwhile sounds just like one might expect upon hearing the title. Slow-moving, oppressive brass layers, tense string chord progressions and an appropriately cavernous sounding male choir all do their job in telling the listener that he faces vast, scorching lands, although the choir lacks sufficient presence in the piece's climax to drive the cue home. Instrumental creativity is provided in spades by "Shimmering Flats". Glinting string and horn chords give way to a descending, chromatic string figure that clashes with layered woodwind melodies against a bouncing rhythmic backdrop, before nervous string tremoli and echoing horn calls lure the wondering listener further into WoW's world. A trumpet solo and bright violins ultimately bring a Major key resolution, whose optimism is all the more effective after the previous, uncertain mood.

And as with the City Themes, there's one track among the Ambient Music cues that is guilty of dullness and should have been left of the soundtrack. "Duskwood" fills its more than six minutes of running time with rather haphazardly combined ambient elements, of which only the occasional string pizzicati and a repetitive oboe figure later on incite some short-lived interest. Otherwise, it's all sustained violins chords, lone piano notes and spherical synth layers. The other long-winded Ambient Music cue, "Dun Morogh", turns out to be vastly superior. During its seven minutes, "Dun Morogh" generally downcast, tragic mood doesn't change much, but again, the string-heavy orchestration is skilfully handled and provides sufficient counterpoint to never let interest flag. It's a constantly beautiful, sometimes moving track with some stand-out moments, such as a bitter-sweet duet for harp and oboe at 2:30, or a melancholy cello solo at 5:05. The composers even manag to tastefully incorporate duduk and hand percussion towards the end of the cue.

If there's one weakness that mars the generally favourable impression the City Themes and Ambient Music cues leave, it's the repeated signs of structural problems. This becomes blatantly obvious in "Teldrassil", another atmospheric, colourful Ambient Music track, which in less than four minutes features not one, but two false stops. And when the peaceful conclusion comes in the shape of a gentle violin melody over regal choral sounds, it's all the more disappointing that the piece just fades out, instead of finding a satisfying conclusion. Similarly, "Stormwind"'s rousing choir melody, impressive as it is, just peters out, as if the composers had an idea for the start of a great tune, but didn't know how to complete it. As mentioned, the flow of "Orgrimmar" and "Thunder Bluff" is interrupted by less than subtle segues from one segment to the next. And "Legacy" shifts abruptly from lush orchestral bombast to Oriental material.

These irritating changes are likely due to World of Warcraft's nature as an MMORPG. As co-composer Jason Hayes pointed out in an interview, scoring a game in which the player might spend hours on end in the same area is an immense challenge, which will be very difficult to meet with completely through-composed compositions. Still, there's a marked discrepancy between tracks on this soundtrack that flow quite effortlessly, and others which display the problems described above, which makes for a sometime jarring listening experience.

Tucked away at the end of the album are what the soundtrack calls Intro Cues. These are effectively bonus tracks and, luckily, they're all long and substantial enough to not feel like throwaways, but they don't exactly seem essential either. Highlights include "Moonfall", with a moving flute solo against floating, airy female choir, "Temple" and "Sacred", which manage to summon the requisite religious aura within their short running time, and "Graveyard", a composition for choir with minimal orchestral accompaniment. The echoing layers of female and children choir voices, drenched in sadness while calling from another world, are mesmerising. Unfortunately, the album ends with the heavy march rhythms of "War", which is the one cue that shouldn't end by simply looping, but it does so to simply anti-climactic effect.


It's a well-known platitude, but in the case of World of Warcraft's soundtrack, it's worth restating: don't judge a book by it's cover or in this case, by its first few cues. World of Warcraft's score begins as another one of those epic, booming fantasy soundtracks that fans of the genre have come to expect, although there's a case to be made for it being one of the earlier game soundtracks to deploy this type of powerful, overly martial sound. However, soon the soundtrack opens up and incorporates a multitude of moods and orchestral colours that convincingly portray the different races of World of Warcraft and the huge world they inhabit. Particularly on the more orchestrally-minded tracks, the composers demonstrate their obvious skills through varied orchestrations and skillfully created counterpuntal layers. And when they turn their hand on some less traditional material — particularly when synths are incorporated into the music — the composers' experiments are usually successful and add to the score's appeal, enhancing the music while not breaking the overall atmosphere.

Unfortunately then, the spell that World of Warcraft casts upon the listener is broken by some less-then-stellar compositions and a number of cues that fail to convince on a structural level, be it through unnecessary false stops, abrupt changes in style, or uninspired closing bars. These deficits make World of Warcraft's soundtrack a score that doesn't quite live up to its slightly inflated reputation. But it still remains an easy recommendation for fans of the game and admirers of symphonic fantasy sounds, and it certainly is a worthy aural accompaniment to one of the biggest games of all time.

Overall Score: 7/10