No matter how you look at it, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow was always going to be a controversial game. Designed as a reboot of the long-running franchise in order to reach a larger audience, Lords of Shadow isn't part of the original series canon and was developed outside of Japan by Spanish company MercurySteam. Furthermore, the game turned out to be one of the few 3D Castlevania titles, and focused a lot more on action than on the Metroid-like adventure structure that other recent Castlevania games were based on. Such a conscious, clean break from the beloved franchise's past was bound to be met with scepticism, if not outright hostility by many Castlevania fans. Once the game was released in October 2010, it received generally favourable reviews by gaming publications, but only time will tell if Lords of Shadow will usher in a new era of Castlevania titles.
Given that Castlevania's music and its recurring themes form an integral part of the franchise, similar controversy predictably surrounded Lords of Shadow's soundtrack. Would the score for this reboot dutifully pay homage to the considerable musical legacy of the Castlevania franchise? Would the soundtrack integrate styles and themes that score collectors had come to associate with Castlevania's music? Lords of Shadow's producer David Cox tried to alleviate fans' fears by stating that the game's soundtrack would feature themes from previous Castlevania titles. Some time before the game's release then, Spanish film composer Oscar Araujo was announced to create Lords of Shadow's score. A virtual unknown to game music fans, Araujo had scored a number of Spanish films and the video game Blade of Darkness. But only his music for The Appeared, a horror film set against the backdrop of the atrocities committed during Argentina's military dictatorship of the 1970s and 80s, vaguely indicated his suitability for musically re-launching this particular 25-year old game franchise. At least, Lords of Shado's audio production values were never in question. The game's characters were voiced by actors Robert Carlyle, Patrick Stewart and Natasha McElhone, among others, while Araujo was given a 120-piece ensemble, including a sizeable choir, to work with. The much anticipated results were released as a bonus CD that came with the game's Collector's Edition.
Well, to get this out of the way: no "Vampire Killer". No "Bloody Tears". No "Bloodlines". In fact, no musical references to previous Castlevania soundtracks at all are to be found on the soundtrack release for Lords of Shadow. Interestingly, Araujo doesn't make much of an effort to establish new themes to take the old fan favourites' place either. Certainly, there's "Belmont's Theme", but that track turns out to be somewhat of an oddity on Lords of Shadow. After a dark introduction of sustained deep strings chords, an uncharacteristically animated violin figure that is more lively than anything else on the soundtrack chimes in. This ostinato figure is soon joined by a similar motif on the flutes, both instrumental groups perfectly interlocked in elaborate counterpoint. While these melodic elements increasingly intertwine, rising horn chords in the background make themselves known. The composition then goes on to layer more and more orchestral groups, including full brass, on top of the already complex composition. It's a constantly building, rousing composition that highlights Araujo's intelligent orchestral writing. But it simply doesn't feature much material that would lend itself to being reworked on other cues on the soundtrack and thus serve as a theme. Not surprisingly, the material heard on "Belmont's Theme" doesn't make an impact on the Lords of Shadow score as a whole.
Also, there's none of the hard rock or faux-Baroque elements that gave other Castlevania scores their distinct nature. Instead of the eclecticism of, let's say, Michiru's much loved Symphony of the Night, Lords of Shadow sports one of the stylistically more consistent soundtracks in the franchise's history. Making full use of the amassed forces at hand, Araujo creates a larger than life, almost operatic, orchestral sound full of Gothic overtones that accommodates both furious battle hymns and elegiac string statements. Not that such stylings haven't been part of previous Castlevania scores, but the exclusive focus on such material and the sheer scale on which the drama at hand is presented make Lords of Shadow somewhat of an oddity among Castlevania soundtracks. Rarely does the mood lighten on this score — instead, an air of tragedy and battling overwhelming odds is almost constantly present, partly due to the large role that the choir plays. Massive vocal forces can be heard on the majority of tracks, and together with the emotionally charged orchestral onslaught that accompanies them, Lords of Shadow often sounds closer to epic film scores than to previous Castlevania soundtracks.
What to make of this refusal to adhere to the series' musical foundations? It's worth pointing out that another recently released franchise reboot, Medal of Honor, equally ignored the series' previous musical entries. But the case is more difficult with Lords of Shadow, considering how many titles and albums the Castlevania franchise now spans, with themes like "Bloody Tears" having become sonic trademarks of the franchise. On the other hand, one might argue that the series' musical identity has always been subject to changes during the decades (try to find traces of hard rock on Castlevania's NES incarnations), and that the world doesn't necessarily need yet another arrangement of "Vampire Killer". Without turning this review further into a discussion about the necessity for thematic coherence among a franchise's musical entries, let's say that your appreciation of Lords of Shadow depends on what you want from your Castlevania soundtrack. If you insist on hearing the familiar themes and musical stylings that have come to define in many fans' minds what a Castlevania score should sound like, stay away from Lords of Shadow. If you're happy for the franchise to try something new — if not groundbreaking — give Lords of Shadow a listen and you will discover one of the most engaging soundtracks released in quite a while.
As hinted at above, the cues on Lords of Shadow can be roughly classified either as action tracks or as string-heavy, mournful adagios. Both categories of cues benefit from Araujo's masterful writing for orchestra, which constantly creates colourful and amazingly dense orchestral texture. Araujo also makes sure that the emotional thickness of the score never becomes overbearing or tacky by carefully modulating the music's bombast. What also helps is the fact that every composition goes through a multitude of build-ups and changes in mood and orchestration while always remaining coherent, with seamless transitions between different musical segments.
Araujo's capabilities first come to benefit the combat cues. "Besieged Village" opens the album on an imposing note and establishes the stylistic blue print similar album tracks will follow. The music is carried by martial rhythms that provide a steady yet varied pulse and alternately rhythmic or swirling violins. Over these, the composer lays heavy brass statements that are captured in all their forceful glory, and majestic, slower-paced choral melodies that most effectively contrast with the frenzy around them. Despite their prominence on the album, the choir vocals never becomes overbearing — Araujo's varied writing for the ensemble keeps their sounds fresh. Herein lies another of Lords of Shadow's musical strengths: Araujo is careful to not let the action music degenerate into mere sonic wallpaper. Particularly praise-worthy is his writing for brass. This orchestral group does most of the heavy lifting on these pulse-pumping compositions and rarely sounds anything but commanding and grandiose. But as is the case with the choir, the material the brass performs and especially the skill with which this instrumental group is layered and incorporated into the thick orchestrations keeps its constant use appealing.
Other instances on which the battle cues not only display Araujo's ability to write orchestral powerhouses, but also to imbue them with personality, are numerous. Both "Hunting Path" and "The Warg" benefit from quieter, spiritual sections for almost a capella choir that serve to heighten the mood and make the inevitable return to the action material all the more effective. Equally noteworthy is how "The Warg", after this serene choir interlude, gains in intensity when more and more brass and choir layers are added on top of the pounding percussion before the track ends with triumphant fanfares. "The Swamp Troll" and "The Ice Titan" are similarly well developed and effortlessly sustain their extended running times, despite being stylistically similar to the action tracks that have proceeded them. "The Swamp Troll" is one of the few cues on Lords of Shadow that briefly incorporates that bitingly dissonant material that so many horror scores rely on, but the focus is still on the battle between strings, brass and choir, while the percussion's march tempo provides structure and impetus. "The Ice Titan" adds a wailing solo soprano over its opening, relentless violin ostinati — barely audible, but still present enough to create a sensation of eeriness. The following orchestral onslaught is underpinned by a persistent lithe percussion rhythm that despite all the noise around it always remains present and adds some welcome lightness to the dramatic proceedings.
Obviously, such dense orchestral writing benefits greatly from accomplished recording and engineering, and Lords of Shadow doesn't disappoint in this regard. Only very rarely does the orchestra sound less than lifelike — the cymbal crashes on "Carmilla" are a bit flat — and the recording finds the perfect balance between vividly rendering each instrumental group and a powerful overall orchestral sound. Helped by superior acoustics, "Final Confrontation" then manages to crank the intensity up a notch on the already spectacular, earlier action tracks. Relying on heavier, more martial rhythms to underscore the hero's final battle, the track features all the hallmarks that have made previous combat cues on Lords of Shadow so impressive and brings them together in a six-minute final boss piece for the ages. Details like the fiery trumpets and atonal brass figures between 1:20 and 1:30 add more variety to the formula, and the cue ends with a heaven-storming climax when a confidently forward striding choir melody leads the way to victory over battling orchestral forces whose density is positively Mahlerian.
Offering respite from this ruckus are a number of slower cues that aptly underscore the sadness and tragedy at the heart of Lords of Shadow's narrative. As with the action tracks, these compositions are largely made out of the same cloth, but varied enough to hold the listener's interest. They're also gorgeously melodic and feature richly romantic, dark-hued string melodies that are touching without every veering into overwrought drama. "The Dead Bog" is the first such composition on the soundtrack and many of the positive things that have been said about Araujo's battle material apply here as well. The piece is fluidly orchestrated and displays an admirable sense of development. Its opening, foreboding deep string textures develop into an impassioned string melody underpinned by sad horn calls. The track then culminates when pounding timpani drive forward the choir's grave melody, and a sense of epochal tragedy becomes palpable.
While the action tracks are dominated by brass and percussion, it's now the strings taking centre stage and turning tracks like "Waterfalls of Agharta", "Agharta" and "Maze Gardens" into emotionally charged laments. Fortunately, here Araujo remembers as well to keep things varied and adds numerous colours to the string-dominated orchestral palette of these compositions. "Waterfalls of Agharta"'s initial, fragmented string figures are brightened by the silvery sounds of a tinkling harp. "Labyrinth Entrance" makes effective use of woodwind soli during its opening with a plaintive clarinet solo, and later through a hopeful flute over a two-note oboe ostinato. Unfortunately, it's also the only track on the soundtrack that doesn't entirely convince on a structural level — that false stop at 1:03 after an exquisite opening minute is just jarring. Still, the composition succeeds as a lush description of a haunted, yet gorgeous location full of history.
And then there are those tracks that establish a more ambivalent atmosphere, such as "Cornell", on which the choir for once gets to perform some piano material in generally lighter textures. Ranging from moments of dread to feelings of elation, "Cornell" is one of the atmospherically richest tracks on Lords of Shadow and features such captivating details as a nervous, dissonant solo violin figure at 3:00 that subtly threatens the harmonic stability of the developing string melody. And "Castle Hall" is one of the few compositions that evokes an openly ominous mood, which is further enhanced through the repeated use of a gong and through the choir being placed more distantly than on other tracks. In conjunction with less hyperactive than usual brass fanfares, the resulting, more stagnant textures fitfully underscore a grandiose, yet creepy hall.
When the soundtrack moves towards its conclusion and salvation comes within Gabriel Belmont's reach, the music brightens up accordingly and allows for some Major key injections. Particularly "The God Mask" with its ascending string and choir melodies displays such comparatively lighter moments. "Laura's Mercy" heightens the feeling of redemption further through the use of a ravishing solo violin and celestial female choir. Tinged with heart-rending sadness and yearning and only 1:37 minutes long, "Laura's Mercy" is a perfect example of how much variety can be packed into such a short running time. The track opens with chaotically layered, whispered choir vocals, before a harshly dissonant orchestral crescendo leads to an eruption of soaring brass fanfares. Female choir and solo violin later segue into the score's most unabashedly romantic melody, before the solo violin concludes the piece. Bringing the album's emotional journey to a close, the aptly-title "The End" then negates the blossoming sense of hope through another moving adagio, especially when the string's opening melody segues into a bitter section adorned with brass fanfares, tolling bells and merciless timpani, all announcing the fateful conclusion of Gabriel's mission. If you're looking for proof that Arajuo's ear for detail and the album's magnificent recording go hand in hand in enhancing the music's emotional impact, look not further than a short passage at 2:06. Just when the string's melody is about to finish, a single chime of a bell can be very faintly heard beneath the string textures. But the bell's sound persists longer than the dying strings and slowly emerges from the soundscape, until it's the only instrument left, and when the chime then dies, the feeling of finality is subtle, yet overwhelming.
If there's anything to criticise then about Lords of Shadow's soundtrack, it's the album sequencing. It's not a serious problem, but the soundtrack's playing order tends to lump together a good number of the battle tracks at the beginning, followed by several slower compositions. And particularly the latter ones can't help but feel a little bit same-ish after a while, a feeling that is no doubt increased by the music's constantly heavy atmosphere. Again, the compositions offer more than enough variation within themselves to prevent this occurrence from becoming a major setback. But some listeners might find their attention flagging, or will be turned off by the absence of brighter moments on the soundtrack.
Like the game, the soundtrack to Lords of Shadow will elicit divided reactions from fans. Indeed, no material from previous Castlevania titles is included and not many of the series' trademark musical stylings are to be heard on this album. But look beyond these things and you will find a soundtrack whose inherent musical qualities simply can't be denied. Araujo creates a score of truly symphonic proportions that will grip you from the very start and won't let you go until the last note has died down. Constantly displaying his ability to write overwhelmingly rich pieces that always flow naturally, Araujo makes sure that every element of this soundtrack clicks with the listener. The battle material is downright spectacular and brings down the house on numerous occasions, while the more solemn compositions never fail to tuck at the heart strings. Capped off by an exemplary performance by both the music ensemble and the album engineers, Castlevania: Lords of the Shadows is one of the 2010's most impressive soundtracks. Let's hope that we hear more from Araujo in the near future, and that Konami will issue this soundtrack in a wider release as soon as possible.