After Anno 1701 turned out to be a smash with German reviewers and PC gamers in 2006, an add-on for the strategy hit was soon to follow, and in October 2007, Anno 1701: The Sunken Dragon was released. This time, the gamer had to send his ships eastward, coming into contact with the ancient Chinese empire. Reviews of the game emphasised the title's campaign mode, which had been markedly improved over its counterpart in Anno 1701. After having delivered a lush, fully symphonic soundtrack for Anno 1701, Pierre Langer and Tilman Sillescu of German game sound production company Dynamedion returned to score this add-on as well. Once more, the soundtrack was made available only as a bonus of the title's German limited edition.
Anybody expecting a simple continuation of the sounds heard on the score album of Anno 1701 will be surprised to hear that the music for The Sunken Dragon is anything but. Departing from the previous score's consistently upbeat nature, The Sunken Dragon's soundtrack is considerably more multi-faceted and confronts the listener with a far greater degree of emotional ambiguity. Opening track "Eye of the Dragon" heralds this change right away: like on Anno 1701, the score's rolling main theme is presented on horns, but instead of a self-assured, auspicious three-note motif, The Sunken Dragon's main theme is a longer winded, more mature musical thought. This heightened sense of seriousness continues to permeate the piece when the main theme is brought to a passionate climax for full brass and violins, showcasing a majestic sweep that easily surpasses all the drama Anno 1701's attractive main theme was able to summon up. Returning in similar grandiosity on "Foreign Shores", The Sunken Dragon's main theme not so much expresses the hopes attached to departing for wondrous lands, as was the case on Anno 1701. Instead, it conveys a feeling of wonder at the discovery of an awe-inspiring location on the other side of the world, scoring this occasion with an apt sense of gravitas.
That is not to say that the main theme only lends moments of bombast to the soundtrack. "For His Glory" is much more subdued than its name suggests, and follows its opening harp and acoustic guitar textures with a contemplative solo bassoon rendition of the main theme, which turns out to work equally well in this more intimate musical environment. The track then goes through a number of variations on the main theme on various soli woodwind, but these alterations are less creative than the permutations Langer and Sillescu submitted Anno 1701's main theme to on that game's soundtrack. This might be related to the fact that The Sunken Dragon's soundtrack is less thematic than its predecessor, with the main theme playing a smaller role in structurally organising the music. But that is easily forgotten when the theme emerges during such enchanting moments like the duet for solo bassoon and violin at the end of "Call to Ports". And the quicksilvery oboe solo just before that is an absolute delight.
Part of the charm of the score for The Sunken Dragon is the emphasis it puts on smaller ensembles. While Anno 1701 relied on a fluffy, varied wall of sound that most of the time involved the whole orchestra, The Sunken Dragon is content to often let its compositions be carried by only a handful of instruments. This highlighting of chamber-music sized ensembles works wonders for tracks like "The Simple Life", which seems to depict the quiet existence of a peasant, just with the help of resonant hand percussion and solo flute, harp and acoustic guitar. "For His Glory Revisited" — one of the very worthwhile bonus tracks — replaces the original's harp and acoustic guitar with a single vibraphone, which gives the music an ethereal sheen that meshes well with the lonesome bassoon solo. And when the end of the score album arrives, "Nature's Embrace Revisited" delicate, soothing sounds, created by acoustic guitar, solo flute and a melancholy solo cello, turn out to be a perfect album closer.
At the same time, Langer and Sillescu respond to the game's exotic setting with constantly intriguing orchestrations that are more original than most of what the listener heard on Anno 1701. The value of the greater emotional palette the composers work with is most apparent on those tracks that share the same pastoral sensitivities as their numerous counterparts on Anno 1701. Smaller in number this time, the openly lyrical compositions on The Sunken Dragon don't paint the image of green meadows in appealing, broad brush strokes, but instead evoke a more mysterious, but thus also more fascinating location. With a generally greater focus on the bass regions of the orchestra than on the airy tracks of Anno 1701, cues like "Distant Storm" and "Chase the Fox" run the gamut of moods. The former composition, after its opening bucolic atmosphere, pauses for a moving cello melody during its middle section, and then — instead of simply returning to its starting, idyllic material — concludes with elating, yet not out-of-place brass fanfares. "Chase the Fox" combines constant pizzicato string rhythms with light brass fanfares, before passing these fanfares to the violins. These, in turn, underpin an autumnal cello melody, together with short ostinato flute figures. In its peaceful beauty, this music is similar to the general mood on Anno 1701, but at the same time feels more lively, more spirited due to the bouncing rhythmic accompaniment beneath the cues' melodies. Only on "Nature's Embrace" do the composers slightly flounder when after some touching solos for cello, clarinet and flute, pounding timpani and march rhythms interrupt the blissful atmosphere abruptly.
One crucial element of the different soundscape of The Sunken Dragon is the way the woodwind solos are presented. While both the soundtrack of Anno 1701 and The Sunken Dragon give woodwind lovers plenty of occasions to rejoice, the woodwind instruments on the add-on's score are given much more space to let their melodies resonate, now that the instrumental backdrop is sparser and takes up less of the acoustic space. The resulting, more echoey sound adds intimacy and a certain aridness to the woodwind soli and is helped further by a perfectly judged album recording. "Granny's Fairytales" is one of the tracks whose gracefully layered woodwind soli possess an appealing edginess, which gives its pastoral aura rich shades that similar tracks on Anno 1701 rarely showcased.
Since The Sunken Dragon's score is so multifarious, it can successfully accommodate the various different styles of music found on the soundtrack, while ensuring that the album flows smoothly. Not only is the listener rewarded with outbursts of horn-driven grandeur and intimate chamber music, but also with some location and time-specific cues. Given that the game is set in China, the amount of compositions incorporating ethnic instruments is surprisingly low. Only two pieces, both of them reworked on the album's bonus tracks, address The Sunken Dragon's location directly. However, this is excusable, given how well the Chinese instruments are embedded into the orchestral texture, so that they simply become additional colours in an already varied soundscape. In fact, the ethnic material is considerably better integrated than on Anno 1701, which sometimes switched from late-romantic, lavish orchestral textures to hackneyed musical representations of other cultures. It helps that "Eastern Kingdom" and "Ancient City" are packed with ideas and brooding atmosphere. Particularly "Ancient City" fascinates through its thin, static, intoxicating textures and sparse melodic material, which in conjunction with sustained high violin chords depict a strange, mystical place — and that's likely the impression that an 18th century Chinese metropolis must have made on European travellers. Common to both tracks are skillfully layered, ethnic hand percussion, which goes a long way towards making these compositions as interesting as they are. No wonder then that "Eastern Kingdom Revisited" and "Ancient City Revisited" rework the original tracks by adding more such percussion instruments and presenting the compositions in more propulsive, but never monotonous versions.
As on Anno 1701, Baroque sounds are usually heard when the composers aim to underscore royal power or a particular location — usually a Baroque city. Popping up slightly less often than on Anno 1701, this time the Baroque influences not only rear their head as embellishments or single musical elements thrown into the mix. Instead, "Next to the Throne" and "Hail the Nobleman" do sound like original Baroque pieces, and pretty well-composed ones to boot. Both tracks are convincing imitations of a generic Baroque sound, and derive a good part of their charm from the entertaining interplay between expressive sections for different solo instruments, and a lively string orchestra performing more rhythmic material. The resulting gentle court-dance atmosphere is most endearing and creates moments of slender musical beauty. "City Gates" retains this period feeling, while enhancing the instrumental palette to include a trombone and the occasionally tolling bell for an appropriately stately representation of its more relaxed and mellow material.
Finally, the battle cues benefit from the more varied overall sound of the album as well and emerge more naturally from the surrounding musical material. It also helps that The Sunken Dragon's recording improves on the already great job the recording engineers did on Anno 1701. Compositions like "End of Days" and "To Arms" are less than 45 seconds long and don't allow for much development, but the sound of their formidably pounding timpani is absolutely enough to carry these brief cues and leave an impression on the listener. The increased power and vividness of the album recording lets those syncopated orchestral hits on "Shaking Earth", unpredictably erupting like the waves of an earthquake, truly come to live. The two longer action tracks, "Del Torro's Revenge" and "Reign of Terror", are stylistically similar to the battle tracks on most orchestral Dynamedion productions: the percussion section stirs up a good ruckus, the brass delivers stirring melodies, and the strings either get a good workout during the frantic chains of semiquavers on "Del Torro's Revenge", or happily chop away during the energetic, insisting string rhythms of "Reign of Terror". Both compositions even manage to add some colourful flourishes, for example quickwitted harp arpeggios.
Anno 1701: The Sunken Dragon neatly defies expectations many listener might have, given that it's 'just' the score for an add-on. Rising above Anno 1701's already accomplished score, the music on The Sunken Dragon is considerably more varied, richly shaded, and just plain gripping. Langer and Sillescu inject their compositions with a never-ending stream of delightful melodies and orchestrational ideas, which neatly serve to avoid the slight tedium of Anno 1701 charming, yet a bit one-dimensionally cheery pieces. It's the unexpected, yet fitting turns of melody and mood, the contrast between chamber music-sized ensembles, ethnic instruments and orchestral grandeur that makes this album such an engaging listen. None of the tracks is a filler — in fact, not one composition is less than very good, with several cues tending towards the excellent, even the album's substantial bonus tracks. It won't be easy to track this score down; not only did it never get a stand-alone release, but it also doesn't seem there are many people who know about the existence of this album at all. But its characterful compositions are more than worth the effort.