reviews Alan Wake Soundtrack (9/10)

Alan Wake Soundtrack album review by (Marius Masalar)

“While film buffs enjoyed INCEPTION as a late-summer exploration of dreams, gamers have already had some time to delve into ALAN WAKE, a remarkably story-driven affair developed by Remedy Entertainment and published by Microsoft Games on the Xbox 360. In a nutshell, Alan Wake is a thriller that follows an author struggling with writer’s block as he copes with the disappearance of his wife and other bizarre happenings while on vacation in the small, isolated town of Bright Falls. The setting is extremely reminiscent of Silent Hill, and the story’s episodic narrative is just as deeply involved with psychological twists and turns. It is a distinctive game, full of cinematic and complex situations, and its musical score follows suit. PETRI ALANKO, the little-known Finnish composer for the title, describes this first foray into game scoring as “the easiest tough job ever.”

“Alan Wake” (1) begins with a dreamy atmosphere, lulling us into the sleepy world of Bright Falls and the story ahead in an unassuming and modest manner. The music demonstrates a sense of patient sophistication; it waits, it introduces, and then it delivers. By the time the plaintive piano and cello come in late in the track, you are already being absorbed by the mood. “A Writer’s Dream” (2) forgoes the electronics in favor of the string section that will play a huge role in the musical landscape of the game. A magnificent crescendo tapers off into electronics before giving way to the piano again at the opening of “Welcome to Bright Falls” (3). The stunningly majestic theme that is introduced during this cinematic cue is sadly not reprised in such a powerful manner ever again, but it makes enough of an impact to stay with you.

Having brought us into the world of ALAN WAKE, the composer now settles into a comfortable ambient cue, “Vacation” (4); a final vestige of untroubled peace before the plot begins to thicken. The solo cello and quiet piano once again reprise their roles as harbingers of themes and beauty in the score. As the electronics re-enter in “Cross That River” (5), there is a definite sense that something is unraveling quickly. A thudding rhythm and uneasy strings twist into a tense textural middle before regaining momentum and throwing us into “Waking Up to a Nightmare” (6). Another gorgeous cello solo soars over the piano and string ensemble, replacing tension with drama. One of the standout cues on the album is “The Clicker” (7), a scintillating cue where the piano and strings develop the main thematic material a bit further. “Deerfest” (8) is a comparatively unremarkable track that drops the energy back down and then, almost cautiously, builds to a surprisingly wrenching solo cello statement of the main theme.

At the midway point, we find the oddball cue of the score. Clocking in at nearly eleven minutes, “Taken by the Night” (9) seems like it ought to be a show-stopping tour-de-force track. But while it is certainly competent and in keeping with the mood of the rest of the material, it is actually nothing but an extended section of gameplay ambience, with occasional deep rhythms fading in and out amongst the tinkling piano in the distance and the synth textures swirling around it. For the listener, it is an overly long and uninteresting lull in the experience of the score. Luckily, “On the Run” (10) brings some tension and interest back over its own sizable six-minute length. Vicious string figures and groaning synths lead to an unleashing of dissonance throwing us into the album’s second, more active, half.

“Mirror Peak” (11) is a spacious action track with a sense of grandeur built into its sparse instrumentation and percussion. It yields to one of the score’s more memorable themes, “Tom the Diver” (12), a track that has a decidedly more classical feel to it for the most part and wouldn’t sound terribly out of place in one of BioShock’s more dramatic moments. It is an undeniably lovely piece of music either way. As important aspects of the story reveal themselves, “The Night It All Began” (13) once more revisits the main theme in a poignant manner, with unsettling slides and runs creeping menacingly beneath. “Bright Falls Light & Power” (14) continues expanding the mood into what is by now a truly rich and cinematic texture: one that combines a tasteful ambient element with beautiful thematic instrumental portions, often all the more moving for their restrained nature.

On the tail of things, “Hunters” (15) brings the score’s action material up a notch, though — as is true for the whole game experience — the element of action is never really the focus of the experience. Which is why “The Well-Lit Room” (16), with its significant nod at the material introduced in “The Clicker” (7) and other thematic cues, feels so satisfying. “Water Pressure” (17) is unfortunately placed since it interrupts the soft ending created by the two tracks around it; nevertheless, it is a strong piece and a solid climax for the album’s action material. “Departure” (18), the closing cue, is where ALANKO really lets loose with the thematic elements. It is a fitting end for a story much more sophisticated than most games can boast, and more than that, it is a sweeping piece of music.

If there is an aspect of ALAN WAKE that is difficult to fault, it is the music. Even the licensed tracks in the game are spectacularly chosen and fitting for the context, which is fairly uncommon. PETRI ALANKO’s score falters only occasionally, and never enough to ruin what is undoubtedly one of the better game music experiences of the year. While its restraint and patience may bother those who are unused to subtlety in game scoring, ALAN WAKE is one of the most tasteful and stirring offerings in recent memory and merits every bit of the attention it’s been getting.”

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