In 2004, World of Warcraft took both the MMORPG and the computer gaming market by storm. But the millions of World of Warcraft gamers would have to wait a fair while until the title's first expansion pack would hit the shelves. Finally, almost two and a half years after World of Warcraft saw the light of day, World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade was released to glowing reviews and an ecstatic reception among gamers. Clearly a sign of the enormous pent-up demand, The Burning Crusade sold over two million copies within 24 hours, becoming the fastest-selling PC game of all time, only to be eclipsed by the next World of Warcraft expansion pack, Wrath of the Lich King. The biggest additions The Burning Crusade brought to the table were two new races, the Draenei of the Alliance and the Blood Elves of the Horde, and the areas these tribes inhabited. For The Burning Crusade, the growing landscape of Azeroth would be scored by a composing team consisting of Russell Brower, Derek Duke, and Matt Uelmen. As with World of Warcraft and a bunch of other Blizzard soundtracks, The Burning Crusade was first available as a bonus of the game's collector's edition, before the score appeared as a digital download in 2008.
The Burning Crusade marks an important stylistic departure from the soundworld of World of Warcraft. Certainly, however, The Burning Crusade occasionally still features some of those particular fantasy score hallmarks that made the soundtrack to the main game both engaging and a bit derivative. Opening track "The Burning Legion (Main Title)" is similar in sound and structure to the cues that opened World of Warcraft: it starts out as an orchestral march with relentless string ostinato figures and robust brass, topped off with some choir garnishing. And after a lyrical middle section, the boisterous march elements return to close the composition in a flurry of instrumental activity. "The Dark Portal (Cinematic Intro)" provides more gothic spectacle, with its slow build up over sustained choir and violin chords, which erupts into another anthemic passage driven by the pumped up choir. What differentiates these two tracks from similar material on World of Warcraft are their richer orchestrations and their consequently more manifold moods, apparent particularly in the lush middle section of "The Burning Legion (Main Title)". Given that there's less of an overload of martial orchestral material on this soundtrack, "The Burning Legion (Main Title)" actually makes for quite an arresting album opener. And the benefits of recording with a real orchestra and choir are apparent both here and on Neil Acree's "The Dark Portal (Cinematic Intro)", even if the choir on the latter piece is placed a tad too backwardly.
But beyond these two tracks, the classically symphonic elements that World of Warcraft was build upon are only rarely glimpsed. Instead of going for melodically clearly defined, through-composed pieces, the composers opt for more languid, moodier compositions with a distinctly ambient character, full of slowly shifting synth layers and the occasional hand percussion support. Intriguingly, the melodic material on these pieces is provided either by a solo cello or an assortment of ethnic solo woodwinds, including duduk, bansuri, shakuhachi and Tunisian mijwiz. The resulting sound is often closer to world music/ambient mixes like Peter Gabriel's Passion album than to late-romantic styled orchestral fantasy music. It's certainly a welcome change of pace for this particular soundtrack genre, and there's no doubt that this 'exotic' (by Western standards) sound is more than appropriate for the depiction of the fantastical lands of Azeroth. Also, these meandering pieces easily blur into each other, and the composers consciously enhance this effect by linking most of the cues with various sound effects (animals, weather etc.). While not the most subtle way of connecting the different tracks, the resulting listening experience feels like the aural equivalent of a long, continuous journey through the various regions of the World of Warcraft — an approach that works quite well, at least in the album's first half.
It is also during this part of the album that the listener encounters most of the album's highlights. The second track, "Shards of the Exodar", already heralds the new musical style, and demonstrates what mesmerising results it can produce when handled with as much skill as here. More minimalist than the ambient compositions on World of Warcraft, the track's opening bars evoke a vast empty space through their chiming, otherworldly synth layers. High-pitched synth chord progressions create a feeling of both mystery and sadness, before a doleful duduk fills the musical space with a moving solo that is perfectly complemented by the synthetic backdrop. Working with only sparse musical means and a mostly unchanging mood during the piece's running time, the composers still manage to create utterly captivating ambient material. "Bloodmyst" takes a similar approach and pits a shakuhachi against another atmospheric synth backdrop, and with considerable success relies on the instrument's aptly explored timbral qualities to engage the listener. A more earthy, yet slightly mystical feel emanates from the warmer synth pads and woodwind lead of "Azuremyst Isle" that is recorded in such a wet acoustic, it almost merges with the washes of sound surrounding it. Such is the harmony created by the music that the water sound effects mixed in at the end of the piece to link it to the next track feel like an unwelcome intrusion. Towards the end of the album, "The Gates Of Ahn'Qiraj" alleviates some of the tedium that its preceding tracks have created and treads the listener to some of the most emotional woodwind material on the album, first sounding like pleading cries against shimmering string pads, and later turning more desperate in the face of ever more threatening synths.
Throughout all this, the overall mood of the soundtrack remains consistent, which is another factor that helps the pieces to blur into each other. Most of the time, the music carries a haunting air of tragedy and sorrow, underlined by the fact that the solo woodwind and cello are often given a very echoing sound that makes them stand alone and in opposition to the wet synth layers around them. Additionally, the solo instruments' organic sounds both increase the appropriately archaic feeling of the music and its emotional impact, which often times makes this score album more gripping than World of Warcraft. When a whole album sports such a consistent atmosphere as The Burning Crusade does, the question then is how much variation the composers can bring to the formula to keep things from becoming dull eventually.
One way to achieve this goal is to inject the music, despite all the prevalent heavy-heartedness, with a good dose of emotional ambiguity. "The Sin'dorei", during its more than six minutes of running time, never becomes tedious, despite lacking any kind of dramatic arc to keep things moving. Instead it's a free-wheeling, rhapsodic composition for solo cello and synth orchestra that is off to an appealing start through a chromatic harp figure whose unresolved intervals establish an aura of alluring uncertainty. The cello solo, in a full-bodied recording, continues in this vein, and the present sense of nocturnal mystery is increased when more orchestral layers are added, including chromatic string pads and unresolved, eerie chord progressions and harmonies for female choir. The change at 4:24 from pounding timpani to a solo flute reprising the cello's material is a bit abrupt, but nonetheless, the piece always sustains its fascinating atmosphere. As on other cues, the orchestra is used to create broad, interlocking textures, instead of finely detailed melodic lines and counterpoint. This style is particularly apparent on "Outland Suite", with its mournful, sustained string chords that do a good job at creating emotion, but which would have benefited from a better defined, less reverberant sound. "Lament Of The Highborne" continues the exploration of "The Sin'dorei"s majestically detached ambiance that fantasy score fans have come to expect when composers musically represent any given elven race. On this cue though, the cello is replaced by a female solo voice, and her beautifully restrained performance, together with more chromatic material for female choir, make for an intoxicating, satisfying album closer.
Other tracks that add some variety include "Origins". Again, it starts out with a tentative ethnic woodwind solo against a slow-moving synth backdrop. But around 1:40, this rather anonymous aural background morphs into swelling Major key synth chords, and some rare rays of sunlight brighten up what's mostly a pretty sombre musical landscape. This brief occurrence of major key harmonies, somewhat reminiscent of the string scoring in Henryk Gorecki's middle and later works, tweaks the predominating downbeat atmosphere into something truly elating. "Silvermoon City" marries World of Warcraft's symphonic tendencies with The Burning Crusade's ambient world music stylings. It combines the lighter sounds of solo cello, female choir and harp with the dramatic brass writing that characterised the original's more bombastic tracks, and once more, it's only the intrusive sound effects at the end of the piece that dampen the mood.
While all these factors point towards an original and strong entry into the fantasy soundtrack genre, it's impossible to overlook the fact that most of these intriguing tracks are found on the album's first half. Moving further down the album playlist, fewer and fewer tracks make use of the ear-catching tension between solo instruments and synth backdrop, and are happy to just let the spacious synth pads do the talking. And unfortunately, when forced to stand on its own, this musical background droning isn't particularly interesting. This fault brings down a number of tracks, with "Hellfire" being one of the primary offenders, full of unremarkable, vaguely ominous suspended synth chords and the odd pounding timpani. At least though, the track's on the short side. "Netherstorm" and "Wastelands", on the other hand, each go on for more than four minutes, with only minimally more personality than "Hellfire". To their credit, both pieces incorporate some musical ideas that hold potential; "Netherstorm" adds an electric guitar to the ensemble, and "Wastelands" incorporates a percussive piano, and some march elements to contrast the buzzing synth accompaniment. But the electric guitar on "Netherstorm" remains a mere textural addition that occasionally adds some grit and menace to the music through some distorted, distant chords, and that's it. Equally, the piano on "Wastelands" is applied seemingly at random, and although the track interestingly plays a while with its scattered march elements before drawing them all together, the resulting martial episode goes nowhere.
And that's the second big problem that The Burning Crusade fights, just like World of Warcraft did. More than a fair share of pieces display significant structural problems that disrupt the flow of a track, and after a while of the whole album. There are plenty of such examples, particularly on the otherwise interesting "Caverns of Time" tracks. "Caverns of Time - The Escape from Durnholde" begins with an ethnic solo woodwind played in its lowest register, followed by an unusually expansive string melody. But the following march section has no idea where to go and after some metallic clanging and orcish vocals, it leads into another quiet passage for solo woodwind and synths. "Caverns of Time - Opening of the Dark Portal" again has a number of interesting ideas; here, it's some bouncing, layered woodwind soli over an unresolved violin harmony, soon attacked by violent deep string jabs and rasping brass. But the piece fails to develop these ideas, which remain mere effects, and after a while the track just ends. "Caverns of Time -- The Battle of Mount Hyjal" awkwardly segues at the end from choral bombast into chirping animal sound effects.
Still these tracks are more convincing then what is the nadir of The Burning Crusade, namely "The Tower of Karazhan" and "Illidan". The latter opens with dramatic fanfares, but after that seems utterly confused as to what it's supposed to do — no noteworthy melody, rhythm or texture develops and finally, the cue just dies away and is reduced to a single, simple synth drone that has nothing to do with the music that preceded it. The opening of "The Tower of Karazhan", saturated with overwrought sound effects, appears like it was taken straight from a cheap Edgar Allan Poe movie adaptation. Thunder? Check. Tolling bells? Check. Howling wind, echoing footsteps and muddy organ synths? Check, check and triple check. Thankfully, this assortment of clichés is silenced after a while and makes room for some rhythmically propulsive, albeit simple action material, which abruptly segues into anonymous orchestral underscore. The cue's end manages another build up with driving timpani and brass, but again has no clue how to bring the music to a satisfying conclusion and just peters out.
World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade boldly steps out into new musical terrain that is rarely explored on fantasy scores. Largely eschewing the monumental, 'epic' sound so often found in this genre, the composers instead mix various ethnic solo instruments with moody synth backdrops and successfully bring the two elements together. While the number of musical elements the composers work with is minimal compared to the dense orchestral sounds of World of Warcraft, The Burning Crusade can be just as captivating as its predecessor and is often more emotionally charged. Combine this with a fondness for ambivalent moods and unresolved harmonies, and about two thirds of the tracks on display are clear winners.
Unfortunately, the remaining third registers several steps below the other compositions. There's a fair share of cues that fail to rise above being no more than ambient underscore, almost uniformly lacking in ideas and personality, and dragging down the music's flow quite badly in the album's second half after a spectacular start. And it's disappointing to see that The Burning Crusade, just like World of Warcraft, suffers from too many pieces that feel as if they were stitched together. This way, what could have been a magnificent effort remains a mixed bag that is still recommended for a number of stand-out compositions and a fresh approach to this particular soundtrack genre.