Easily one of the most anticipated Western RPGs of this current console generation, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim followed five years after its revered predecessor Oblivion had been released. The general hype around the game built up throughout 2011 and finally culminated on November 11. Sales figures easily surpassed those of million-sellers Oblivion and Morrowind and, about a month after the game's release, stand at almost seven million copies. The game's critical reception was equally ecstatic, with many publications declaring Skyrim a sure-fire contender for Game of the Year. Japanese magazine Famitsu even handed out its first perfect score for a Western game. The title took the free-wheeling RPG gameplay that the Elder Scrolls franchise is known for to new, dazzlingly complex heights, but early buyers also had to put up with a range of sometimes game breaking bugs (and the occasional backwards-flying dragon).
As highly anticipated as the game itself was Jeremy Soule's score. Soule's soundtracks for Morrowind and Oblivion still remain favourites among many game music fans, although both scores have been frequently accused of being too short to properly accompany their vast games. Fortunately, this issue was less of a problem in an album context that detached Soule's music from the games, and particularly the former remains one of Soule's better high-fantasy scores. In any case, nobody could accuse Skyrim's soundtrack of being too slim: some days before the official announcement, a glitch on Soule's online music store DirectSong revealed that Skyrim's soundtrack would be sold as a gargantuan four CD release.
Inevitably, the already considerable buzz around the score went into overdrive. This was one of game music's biggest composers, writing what might be the longest album release in Western game history for the next instalment of the most popular Western RPG franchise. At the same time, discussions arose around the soundtrack's considerable buying price of $30, which necessitated the question: was such an extensive release of Skyrim's music justified from a musical point of view or was it rather a way to cash in on people's excitement?
So, is Skyrim the glorious, genre-defining entry into the Hall of Fame of Western game music that so many hoped it would be? The answer is frustratingly ambiguous: sometimes the title comes close, but ultimately it misses that lofty mark by a mile. How's that? During most of its running time, Skyrim plays like an extension and slight variation of Oblivion's semi-ambient style: pieces slowly unfold, led by lovingly crafted, languorous melodies that are usually provided by strings or solo woodwind. The mood is generally calm and grave, sometimes tending towards solemn expressions of understated grandeur. A gentle ebb and flow softly carries the compositions to their conclusion, which is usually not far from there they started. The title distinguishes itself from its predecessor through its chillier tone that dutifully reflects the game's setting, usually through the addition of icy, floating female choirs. But the generally mood of the score remains as lyrical as on Oblivion, even though it's less pastoral. Orchestral textures are quiet static, orchestrations and dynamics remain similar throughout the album and the atmosphere within pieces rarely changes much. Arguably, all of these features are fitting to portray the game's wondrous, frozen landscape, but they also result in a graceful, yet indistinct fog of sounds.
This soothing, meandering tone was already present on Oblivion, but Skyrim can rely on stronger melodic material than its predecessor. Soule's melodic talents were the predecessor's redeeming factor and they also save the day here, at least to a degree. While you won't walk away whistling many of Skyrim's melodies, they are more substantial and emotional than those on the previous score. Try a cue like "The City Gates", and you'll marvel at the care with which Soule has layered the composition's drifting string textures. And you'll also be taken by the constant stream of beautiful melodies that radiate warmth and hope. "Distant Horizons" and "Frostfall" are similar highlights that pack a greater emotional punch and are more engaging than most of Oblivion's compositions. Not every single one of the more romantically inclined pieces is as gorgeous as these examples, but few compositions sound less than pretty. The music's also helped by an album sound that is completely synthesised — apart from the vocals — but sounds as life-like and direct as you could wish for.
Another component that returns from Oblivion is a feeling of otherworldliness that permeates the compositions. Occasionally surfacing on the predecessor, Skyrim's icy realm has not surprisingly inspired Soule to accentuate this quality and create a greater number of quiet, vaporous tracks. While a sense of quiet wonder runs through all of the title, this emotional response is often heightened and turns into a feeling of spirituality and even mysticism. Those cues that try to don this meditative guise are of a more ambient nature than the fully orchestrated tracks. It's particularly these tracks that add choral forces, albeit in a subdued manner, as the vocals' solemn demeanour is supposed to reinforce the music's mystical allure.
However, Soule's track record on these sparsely orchestrated compositions is patchier than on the more full-bodied compositions. There are occasions when a composition does create an almost dream-like atmosphere. "Under an Ancient Sun", with its iridescent, elusive string harmonies, evokes intoxicating sensations of a primordial state of being. "Standing Stones" and "Masser" are almost as successfully in distilling the score's esoteric tendencies when they rely on ethereal choir melodies set against introspective orchestral layers. On these cues, the funereal pacing achieves the intended trance-like effect. But on more than enough occasions, these ambient cues fail to provide the intended atmospheric effect and, as on Oblivion, stretch their limited material too thin. "Death in Darkness" and "Shattered Shields" are the worst offenders — mumbling, sometimes barely audible tracks that don't work at all outside of the game. Other pieces like "Into Darkness", "Beneath the Ice" and "Shadows and Echoes" are competent mood-setters, but hardly remarkable and feel like filler. "Night without Stars" introduces some dissonant tones that give the music an unexpected creepy touch, but the cue finishes all too soon and this more acerbic facet of Skyrim's score goes sadly unexplored.
But that still doesn't explain why Skyrim should fall dramatically short of expectations. The devil is not in the detail, but in the overall picture. Taken on their own, many compositions on the title are fetching, sometimes even ravishing. But after a while, you'll be confronted with the discovery that piece after piece paints a similar mood with the same orchestral colours. There's simply not enough variation to sustain the album's running time — and on a massive release such as this, that's one big issue. As described, there's some variation in the music's emotional expression, but it's ultimately not enough to prevent the score from turning into a pleasant but dull drag.
Apart from some exceptions, the lack of development within pieces and throughout the whole album, and the constant adherence to slow tempi and serene atmospherics become infuriating after a while. There's hardly anything on disc two and three that hasn't already been said on the first CD (the fourth disc is another story altogether). But Skyrim just keeps on going, never developing any kind of dramatic arc that would give you an indication that it's actually going somewhere and not just rambling on and on. In fact, disc three feels more scatter shot than its predecessors, with more filler material than the previous two CDs. The result of the soundtrack's almost constantly floaty nature is that you'll sometimes feel as if you're listening to three hours of gorgeous underscore. But wouldn't have one hour of such music already been enough and you could have saved yourself a good bit of those $30 you spent on the four-disc release?
In all fairness, there are some compositions that do feature a degree of development, for example when "Solitude" subtly shifts from forlorn to gently uplifting through some elating choir vocals. And on even rarer occasions, a cue will exhibit a striking idea that breaks the soundtrack's immoveable, deep-frozen mould. "Imperial Throne" is one of Skyrim's most affecting compositions through its haunting solo violin lines that intertwine over a growling bass drone. But such more original pieces remains exceptions and for almost all of the score's three hours, Soule keeps on applying the same enticing formula and in the process runs it into the ground.
One shouldn't forget the handful of folksy tunes such as "Winter's Tale" and "The Bannered Mare" that manage to mix up things a bit with their gentle hand percussion rhythms and acoustic guitar melodies. These tracks are hardly raucous tavern-singalongs and although they introduce new instrumental colours, their subdued manner robs them of some of their energy. But at least such cues highlight that are ways to explore the world of Skyrim through different instruments and orchestrations, all while maintaining the score's overall stately mood. In the grand scheme of things, these slightly livelier tunes may provide some relief through their rustic charm, but it's still not enough. It doesn't help matters that half of these tracks are grouped at the beginning of disc three, instead of being sprinkled throughout the score to create a more varied album flow.
But what happened to the action tracks? That's a valid question, given that the first of Skyrim's pieces that was released to the public was "Dragonborn", which refashioned the Elder Scrolls main theme as a roughly-hewn, determined warrior chant. But while "Dragonborn" gets to open the album and makes an impression right away through the sheer barbaric force of its male choir, it's also a most misleading start to the album, as this vividly aggressive mood rarely returns. Only a few cues on the title qualify as battle tracks, and spread across three hours, their presence is even more diminished than on Oblivion, making Skyrim the least varied of all Elder Scrolls soundtracks.
Those few action tracks are all made from the same cloth: urgent strings, building brass chords, some pounding timpani, and choir. Strangely though, while the choir is obviously supposed to increase the compositions' drama, the voices are often enough mixed too far into the background to really make an impact. This flaw is obvious on "Death or Sovngard" and "Steel on Steel", but becomes particularly frustrating on "Blood and Steel": you can guess that the choir's different lines are actually quite intricately layered, but they're buried beneath the timpani and rasping brass, and only achieve part of the imposing effect they could have. "Watch the Skies", sequenced towards the end of the album, seems like a revelation, simply because suddenly the choir has presence again. The other issues plaguing the choral forces are imprecise intonation and lack of rhythmical precision, for example on "Death or Sovngard" or "Watch the Skies". In general, Skyrim uses well-worn ingredients to create action cues that range from unfocused and uninspired ("Tooth and Claw", "Caught Off Guard") to functionally rousing ("Watch the Skies", "One They Fear", "Blood and Steel"), without ever matching the intensity of "Dragonbord". While Skyrim's battle tracks are more convincing than Oblivion's short vignettes, they appear too infrequently and are too patchy in their quality to significantly ease the general dullness of the listening experience.
Another factor that underscores the album's lack of shape is the dearth of thematic material. Yes, the Elder Scrolls main theme appears right at the start on "Dragonborn", although its forceful rendition presses it into a rhythmic straight jacket that arguably robs it of its original character. The motif appears again ad verbatim on "One They Fear" and returns on a handful of other occasions, for example as a woodwind melody on "City Gates", now closer to its incarnation on Morrowind. But even more than so than on Oblivion, these isolated occurrences are not nearly enough to provide any thematic cohesion, and Soule doesn't introduce any new thematic material to fill the gap. In the past, the composer has often been able to create a convincing score without relying on recurring themes. But for a soundtrack as long and meandering as this one, some recognisable earmarkers would have been most welcome. And the only time that Skyrim elaborates on existing thematic material in an interesting way is when the male choir on "Sovngarde" presents a slower, graver version of the main theme that communicates the starkness of the game's world through previously unexplored means.
The release's fourth disc hasn't been discussed yet, and that's because its content is quite different from what's on the other CDs. Disc four is filled with just one composition called "Skyrim Atmospheres" that runs for a whopping 42 minutes. Given these circumstances, it's not surprising that this cue is even more ambient than similar compositions on the previous three CDs. Floating, usually harmonious synth drones are set against nature sounds (chirping birds, wind, waves etc.) — it's basically one long new age cliché. Don't expect any suite-like arrangement of previously introduced material or melodies, or any notable development — it's all sounds like one of those sleeping-meditation albums. But it's unlikely that you spent $30 on this multi-disc release because you're suffering from insomnia.
Skyrim's soundtrack release is a massively frustrating affair. Like Oblivion, this score is easy, smooth experience that charms the listener with its strong melodies. The score even surpasses its predecessor in this regard and holds many engrossing, sometimes ravishing compositions that convey an understated sense of grandeur and melancholic. Skyrim's wintry world is brought to life through a few careful changes that Soule introduces, such as the inclusion of light female choir. Ambient compositions play a bigger role here than before, but while they're less consistently convincing than the more fully-orchestrated pieces, they produce a reasonable number of highlights.
Alas, these improvements over Oblivion are all for naught, because Skyrim magnifies its predecessor's biggest flaw: a generally monotonous atmosphere that endlessly wallows in a sense of stateliness and gravitas. Taken on their own, most pieces are attractive, but by the third hour of Skyrim, there's a good chance you'll be bored by the score's rarely changing mood and instrumental colours — it's all serene, elegiac and leisurely paced, and it stays like that for three hours. There's only a handful of action tracks and, while they're again more convincing than their equivalents on Oblivion, they're not enough to sufficiently liven up the album.
Had Skyrim's music been condensed to one generously filled disc showcasing only its highlights, it would have been one of 2011's stronger releases. But spread over almost three hours, the music is a mix of melodic beauty and tedium just like Oblivion and is even further removed from Morrowind's richly varied sounds. And let's not forget a fourth disc that's filled with one long exercise in ineffectual mood setting that no one asked for. Ultimately, you end up with a soundtrack release that in its unnecessary desire to cover all of Skyrim's music feels like a cash-grab designed to make the most of fans' frenzied anticipation.