You'd be forgiven for not remembering any computer games heralding from Poland. Or at least you would have been until 2007, when Polish developer CD Projekt released The Witcher, a dark fantasy RPG that garnered strong reviews for its unusually mature take on the genre (and copped some flak for its hilariously gratuitous nudity and sex). CD Projekt's ambitions and investment — to the tune of more than $11 million of development costs — paid off when the The Witcher sold more than a million copies. This in turn prompted the release of an extended edition of the game and an even better-received sequel, which arrived in 2011.
Just as unknown as the game's developer or the property it was based on — a Polish fantasy novel called The Last Wish — were The Witcher's composers, Pawel Blaszczak and Adam Skorupa of music and sound production studio gamesXsound. As Blaszczak wrote in a blog entry about the soundtrack's gestation, it was early decided that the music would be strongly shaped by Celtic, Irish and some other ethnic styles, while not neglecting the gloominess of the game's morally ambiguous narrative. The Witcher's score was originally released as part of the game's limited edition in 2007, before being reprinted for The Witcher Enhanced Edition in 2008. That edition included a second disc with an hour's worth of material from various Polish bands and artists that CD Projekt had invited to write songs inspired by the game. This review refers to the enhanced release, with a discussion of the second disc in the second half of the review.
What makes the first and biggest impression on the listener is the melancholy beauty of many of the pieces on The Witcher. You wouldn't necessarily expect the soundtrack for such a sombre game to be this melodically attractive, but here it is and it will be reason enough for many collectors to hunt down this score album. The enchanting female vocal solo of "Dusk of a Northern Kingdom" that opens the soundtrack will have you hooked and unlocks the door to a colourful fantasy world. That colour emanates particularly from the Celtic and Irish elements that Blaszczak addressed before the soundtrack's release. And the composers' reliance on these ethnic sounds is doubtlessly one of the score's biggest draws. Particularly the frequent inclusion of uillean pipes adds a haunting feeling of longing to many pieces. "River of Life" is the perfect showcase for these tendencies and also the soundtrack's standout track, gently carrying the listener along on waves of gorgeous, yearning melodies on uillean pipes, acoustic guitar, solo cello and harmonised female vocals, backed by a warm synth orchestral background.
The track's free-flowing nature and its enrapturing ingredients are repeated on numerous cues throughout The Witcher and these never fail to leave the listener with a contend smile on their face. Blaszczak and Skorupa sweeten things further by adding some careful, well-applied changes to their winning formula. The calm strains for solo flute and violin in "Peaceful Moments" are given a soft but driving lilt through a percussive accompaniment that gives the piece an entirely appropriate, pop ballad-like character. The glistening melodies of "Silver Sword" are forged from glockenspiel, light chimes and female choir. And "The Dike" and "Withered Roses" let the wistfulness that simmers under the surface of many pieces come forward and turn into outright grief. The opening string motif of the former creates the most overly sorrowful moment on the soundtrack and the flute solo which then enters is stunningly beautiful. Things only get better when noble horns enter around 2:00, offering defiance against despair. Running at a generous seven minutes, "The Dike" is the perfect example of a piece that doesn't require an elaborate structure to sustain itself, but instead can simply rely on the strength of its melodies that are heavy-hearted, yet full of inner grandeur.
Looking closer at The Witcher's track list, the need for this particular strength becomes apparent. There's a good number of pieces that run from five up to eight minutes. And given that the more languorous tracks on The Witcher are rather loosely structured and tend to meander, there was the potential for these compositions to become endurance tests. But no, these cues elegantly sidestep these issues and remain involving listens. "Dead City" starts with lachrymose, ambient synth layers that slowly seep from the speakers like grey fog, setting a desolate atmosphere which is both enhanced and countered by a cautiously hopeful woodwind motif. This combination of a strong atmosphere and melodic moments that enrich the forlorn mood while subtly changing it carry the track through its extended running time. And while both "Dead City" and "The Dike" certainly don't win prices for their slightly rambling structure, it speaks to the composers' sense of development that both pieces end with upbeat finales that overcome the proceeding gloom and yet emerge organically. A similarly finely-tuned interplay between contrasting sounds characterises "The Princess Striga", which oscillates between tense underscore aided by distorted guitar riffs and fierce orchestral outbursts driven by galloping percussion and all too brief majestic choir. Again, the track's loose structure makes it feel that it might as well be half or twice as long as it is without much consequence. But the suffocating atmosphere is so strong and the balance between the contrasting sounds so well judged that this issue is practically rendered moot.
As one would guess by now, The Witcher derives a good part of its attractiveness from its colourful orchestrations that set it apart from many run-of-the-mill fantasy scores. Most strongly felt is the presence of many Celtic instruments such as uillean pipes, flutes, recorders and tin whistle. But vocal elements also come to make their impact on the music and increase its otherworldly beauty when appearing in the shape of operatic female solo voices on "Dusk of a Northern Kingdom", "The Princess Striga" and "Dead City". Elsewhere, choirs are added to the already lush compositions to increase the battle tracks' power, heighten the sense of solemnity and sorrow on "Withered Roses" and "Twilight", or render the oppressive mood of "The Order" even more asphyxiating through the guttural sounds of a deep male choir. Although "The Order" fails to develop sufficient counterpoint to the prevailing heavy ambiance to truly stand out, its ominously pounding timpani and churning double bass rhythms create tension music that is compelling, if not more than that.
And Ireland isn't the only location The Witcher's score travels to. Middle-eastern sounds are integrated into some tracks and while they're not as omnipresent as the Celtic influences, their striking sounds make their mark and are flawlessy incorporated into the score's palette. Muezzin-like vocals float over a sparse harp accompaniment in "Elaine Ettariel", adding another facet to The Witcher's varied use of vocal elements. Duduk and vivid hand percussion rhythms help make "The Princess Striga"'s shifts of tone that much more interesting. And while "An Ominous Place" could have been a mere retreat of "Dead City", the arid tones of a kanun (a Middle-eastern zither) and more hand percussion help paint in shades of stark brown and yellow rather than grey when set against familiar synth washes. Finally, there's also the obligatory folksy dance tunes on "Evening in the Tavern", "Catch Me If You Can" and "Tavern at the End of the World", which are all competently composed and quickly forgotten. And the electronic pulse powering "Prepare for Battle!" simply feels out of place in the soundtrack's organic soundscape.
Speaking of battle tracks, they actually exist in decent numbers, but they still impact the soundtrack less than one might think. It's not difficult to see why: the longest action cue runs a mere two minutes, while most others just make it past the one minute mark. The battle cues then inadvertently serve as pacechangers rather than as compositions in their own right, injecting the usually slow and serious proceedings with some energy. Most of these tracks go for the familiar combination of thundering (and very well recorded) percussion, urgent string ostinati and mighty brass figures and follow this recipe all the way through. These ingredients generate fitfully impressive results on "Mighty" and "Last Battle", mainly due to the music's sheer forcefulness. And Skorupa and Blaszczak sprinkle these compositions with some interesting details, like the fluttering ethnic flute calls on "Prepare for Battle!" and "To Arms (Rebellion)", the metal percussion of "Night Approaches" and "To Arms (Rebellion)"'s slower, monolithic rhythms. But despite the composers' best efforts, it's impossible not to wish that all this driving energy would have been given a greater chance to develop and characterise the soundtrack — and not just pop briefly here and there and then disappear again. And when the composers incorporate the action tracks' sonic power into more varied pieces to heighten their drama, the results are mixed. "A Wolf's Demise" impressively builds from male choir chants and growling double bass chords into an intense choral climax, before ending with a peaceful flute solo. But "A Matter of Conscience" tries to cram too many tonal shifts into one short composition, while "The Lesser of Two Evils" relies so heavily on stereotypical unisono percussion and brass hits set against swirling strings and "epic" choir, you'll think you're watching a trailer for the next summer blockbuster.
The battle tracks' short running time points at another problematic detail of The Witcher's score presentation. The album struggles somewhat to establish a smooth flow, not because of the manifold musical styles it combines, but because of the erratic running times of its pieces. Simply put, compositions on The Witcher are just a bit longer than one minute or they run for than more than five minutes, with hardly any middle ground. And that makes for some jarring transitions between tracks — why are "The Dike"'s languid, hugely emotional strains surrounded by a short dance tune like "Tavern at the End of the World" and a throwaway track like the 23-second "Twilight"? And since most of the briefer compositions are dumped into the album's second half, any tension that has been built up starts to fizzle towards the soundtrack's end. Maybe "Last Battle" simply shouldn't be track six on a 29-track album? Truth be told though, at least do Skorupa and Blaszczak ensure that most of the brief cues on The Witcher feel weighty and substantial enough to not disrupt the listening experience too much.
Another factor that diminishes enjoyment of this soundtrack is the slightly murky album sound, which is particularly apparent on the more lavish compositions like "Peaceful Moments". The issue here is a lack of clear definition in the solo instruments' sound, which is often overly reverberant in a very wet mix that sees musical textures blurring into each other. The often sumptuous melodies would greatly benefit from a clearer mix that clearly separated each instrument group and spread them across the whole soundstage. Unfortunately, this issue of a less than ideal album sound makes itself known right from the start when the vocal solo on "Dusk on a Northern Kingdom" sounds a bit distorted when reaching higher registers. Equally, the brass entering at 0:43 in "Leo's Farewell" feels unnatural in its reverberations and hollow sound.
Given the score's particular ethnic style, it's no surprise then that Celtic elements also feature heavily on the Exhanced Edition's second disc, which opens with another composition by Skorupa. "Tales of The Witcher" is similar to Skorupa's sweet-sounding pieces on the first disc, carried by a ethereal female solo voice and backed by uillean pipes and a violin solo. The most significant change are the higher production values of this composition, now performed by real instruments (or at least they sound more like real instruments than those on the disc one). Another outlet for the omnipresent Celtic influence are of course some lively dance tunes, provided by Duan's "Skellige" and Beltaine's "Bring to the Boil", both full of invigorating rhythms, tuneful melodies for solo fiddle and tin whistle and fast-footed soli performed flawlessly by the musicians. Unfortunately, the production of the latter gives the instruments a weirdly distant and cold sound, which are just about the qualities you don't want in the recording of an acoustic ensemble playing a folk piece. Rimead's "Sentinels of Brokilon" expands upon the earlier tracks' approach and, while keeping the same instrumentation, changes between vivacious sections and reflective, intimate soli for flute and violin. The numerous shifts in tempo and energy keep the track going for its seven minutes and the recording places the instruments an ideal acoustic that's spacious yet immediate. None of these tracks hold any surprises, but they certainly follow the familiar template with joyous elan.
However, there are also some tracks that put a more experimental slant on the Celtic sounds. The way these songs mix different musical styles within one composition is emblematic of an album that ultimately tries to bring together folk, electronica, metal and even reggae. Predictably, in the end the album doesn't come together as a coherent listen, as is often the result with "inspired by" soundtrack releases. Instead, this second disc feels more like a loose collection of songs. The question then is how good these tracks are taken on their own. The results are mixed — sometimes the attempts at combining and reinventing genres works, sometimes not so much. Of the remaining, more left-field Celtic tracks, Lady Aarp's "Tarot" is clearly the better one, fusing a plinking harp melody with electronic beats that have a slightly distorted, vintage sound to them, as if played through on old radio. Interestingly, this odd combination works fine, due to the warmth that characterises both the soothing harp melody and the rich beats underneath. "Sapphire Waters" by Village Kollektiv integrates its acoustic elements less skilful into an electronic framework and just tries to cram too many different styles into one track. And the less said about the vocalists' attempts to add another quirky element to the mix through their decidedly odd "duet", the better.
Other tracks focus stronger on the electronic, industrial elements and it's these songs that provide the most unfamiliar sounds on this album. You think reggae doesn't mesh well with eerie atmospherics? Habakuk beg to differ and serve up an off-kilter reggae track where the syncopated drum rhythms are heavily processed and given tons of echo, as if the band was playing in the belly of a deserted tanker. The weirdly harmonised vocals are given the same treatment, but they can't help sound a bit goofy, particularly due to the singers' odd pronunciation that turns "Hallowed be thy name" into "Hello be the name". Things are patched up by a ghostly yet emotive guitar solo that does wonders for the track's removed but claustrophobic atmosphere. JesusChryslerSuicide walk in similar terrain, with the slowly crawling beats of Throw the Stone" uneasily scuffling under a bed of tinkling, thumping and echoing beats. Resigned, almost spoken vocal lines fill the cold surroundings with a gloomy sense of weariness that is difficult to escape. The track does itself a bit of a disservice by moving to more straightforward, pronounced beats in its second half, but it still emerges as one of the stronger songs on the album.
The same can't be said for Lal's "They Want to Suck". And yes, the puns pretty much write themselves here, although the problem isn't the tinny beats or the actually intriguing, discordant plucked guitar motif ringing in the background. No, it's the endless repetition of the same lyrics ("They want to suck/On the human blood/They want to suuuck"), performed with all the dignity and gravitas of a high school theatre production directed by a 16-year old goth. At least it's unintentionally hilarious. Saving the best — and oddest — for last, Me Myself And I's "Sou-au" is as out there as its title suggests. It opens with layered a cappella vocals going "du-dup-du-dup" and from there it only gets more playful, adding more and more vocal effects, including some creative beatboxing. The song's arguably pretty schizophrenic in its tonal shifts, ranging from zanyness to peacefully drifting calm, but it's never less than fascinating to listen to. And more importantly, it's one of the few tracks that actually realises the interesting ideas that lie at its core.
Since this is an album of music based on a fantasy game, there's got to be some metal. Death metal legends Vader are easily the band with the highest profile to appear on The Witcher Enhanced Edition and with "Sword of the Witcher", they deliver a rock solid track that's more power than death metal — there are even some discreet keyboards at work in the background. The chugging riffs and stomping drum work are nothing fans of the genre haven't heard before on dozens of other albums, but it's all well recorded and comes with a catchy chorus. Skowyt's "Running Away" is equally short and sweet, with its straightforward, fast hard rock that boosts its aggression through some punk leanings. The vocalist's voice is a bit light, but that doesn't hurt the headbanging chorus one bit. "The Witcher Theme" by Believe moves back a bit into folk territory, but the resulting track is less interesting than Believe's neo-prog roots would suggest. With its short length and simplistic structure and melody, "The Witcher Theme" ends up sounding like a mildly original arrangement of a video game tune rather than like a song in its own right. And Rootwater's "Born Again" is another track that wants to bring together too many different ingredients. It's nice if you want electronic and acoustic elements in your metal song, but you shouldn't need a 90 second intro and another extensive outro on a less than five minute long track to force those sounds into your composition.
The Witcher has a lot of things going for it. Its melodic strength surpasses many similarly-styled fantasy scores and is doubtlessly the album's strongest point. The integration of ethnic elements, particularly Celtic sounds, gives the soundtrack a dash of colour and makes its glorious melodies even more attractive by imbuing them with a moving feeling of melancholy and longing. Even though a good number of tracks run for five minutes and more and can't rely on an elaborate structure to sustain themselves, Blasczcak and Skorupa mastery of melody and atmosphere is easily strong enough to hold the listener's interest. The album's often too brief battle tracks don't reach the heights of their lyrical counterparts, but they're satisfying compositions in and of themselves.
What really stops The Witcher just short of being a four star score are the issues related to its album presentation: the extreme differences in running times between tracks which can make for jarring transitions; the odd track order that fails to build up tension during the album's running time of more than 70 minutes; and most importantly the muddy mix of the orchestral synths that doesn't let the album's numerous beautiful melodies shine as much as they could. Still, there's more than enough on The Witcher to wholeheartedly recommend it to fans of lush orchestral soundtracks and several of its tracks will become mainstays on many people's playlists.
The Enhanced Edition's second disc is a mixed bag in more than one sense. Don't expect this album to flow particularly smoothly as it throws folk, metal, electronica and reggae into the mix, sometimes creating genre-defying trips. A few of these are definite wins, with the a cappella experiments of "Sou-au" and the Celtic-harp-goes-clubbing mixture of "Tarot" being album standouts. But more often, songs will feel more like half-baked experiments, collections of potentially interesting ideas that are brought with more enthusiasm than skill. And if you haven't had a good laugh for a while, definitely try "They Want to Suck". The more straightforward Celtic and metal tracks offer few surprises, but execute familiar stereotypes well enough to please. There will be only few people who will enjoy all the different styles present on the second disc — let alone savour every single song on it — so unless you're a completionist dead set on having anything The Witcher-related in your collection, you might as well go with the score-only release.