(Note: The following soundtrack review is based on listening experience alone and not on how the music works ingame.)
Imagine the most wonderful, ethereal parts of ‘Atlantis: The Lost Empire’, ‘Waterworld’ and ‘Finding Nemo’ combined and extended into a 60-minutes long album. Can’t handle your excitement? Then this is the one for you!
About Matt Nava’s Abzu
ABZÛ is a 2016 video game from Matt Nava, who was also behind ‘Journey’ which was released four years ago. You play as a diver and explore “gorgeous underwater landscapes that straddle the line between being realism and fantasy” as stated officially. The meditative experience seems to be pretty similar to the sci-fi game ‘No Man’s Sky’ from earlier this year, where the exploration and discovery of strange worlds are also put above action and adventure.
For such an experience, the music is essential because, if done right, it alone could transport you to dream-like oceans and that immersion is, what games like this are striving for.
To get that result, Nava reunited with ‘Journey’ composer Austin Wintory. Wintory also wrote the exceptionally brilliant score for last year’s ‘Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate’ which really showcased his ability to think outside the box and write engaging but totally complex music even for a big franchise.
The most engaging part of ‘ABZÛ’ is probably its soundscape. The metallic percussion, the woodwinds, the flowing strings and the slightly altered vocals and choirs melt perfectly together to provide an atmosphere which can only be described as watery. From the first to the last note you can immediately see yourself floating in the most beautiful depths one can imagine.
This is what sets “ABZÛ” apart from the scores referenced in the first sentence: Where ‘Atlantis: The Lost Empire’, ‘Waterworld’ and ‘Finding Nemo’ only have parts (sometimes longer, sometimes shorter) with that mythic sound, but are interrupted by action tracks, more traditional orchestra etc., ‘ABZÛ’ lets them stay and develop.
Austin Wintory knows how to make every minute interesting
Who hasn’t listened to ‘Waterworld’ by James Newton Howard and wished, that “Swimming” would last forever?
‘ABZÛ’ is exactly that. You just start the album and find that you are immersed within your own dreams for an hour with only one minor disruption. It is like those Relaxing Water Music albums. Just infinitely better.
The best part is: It doesn’t get boring; it is at no point too much of a good thing. You wished for longer tracks of exploring water soundtracks? You got them. And you won’t regret your wishing thoughts because Wintory didn’t just write Relaxing Water Music but a game score. ‘ABZÛ’ has thematic structure and instrumental variety, despite the homogenous soundsc
Before we get our feet wet: Composing for film vs. composing for games
The narrative for a game score is obviously a tad more abstract than the narrative for a film score. In a film, the composer has a scene where everything is set. It’s clear, when which character does what and thus, the composer can match his themes to specific moments, let them overlap and so on.
With a game on the other hand, nobody knows what’s exactly going to happen, because every player will play a level differently.
For example, an action scene in a movie is relatively simple. The hero punches the villain? Use the hero’s theme triumphantly. The villain punches the hero? Use the villain’s theme menacingly (and if you are fancy, you may put a tragic, subtle variation of the hero’s theme in counterpoint or whatever it is John Williams does when he’s bored).
An action scene in a game is quite different. You know who is fighting against whom, but you won’t know when the player will hit his opponent, when he gets hit, when he will do something especially awesome and so on. The challenge for a composer is thus, to write music that is special for this game and occasion, but still anonymous enough, to work for every player’s playing style, without it being just another action track that could be placed in every other game in the world.
As a result, game albums are also differently compiled. Many tracks on an album of a game’s soundtrack will be suites put together from many short cues in the game. It’s pretty rare to have a 6-minute piece playing in a game but you may find one on the CD.
Let’s dive in
Hence, a game score can’t be held to the same standards as a film score. As I have not played the game, I do not know, whether the tracks do appear like this in the game, or also are compiled suites, but nevertheless, let’s dive into ‘ABZÛ’ – to know water!
For “ABZÛ”, Austin Wintory wrote 3 major themes. The first one is the gorgeous main theme, which gets introduced right in the first few seconds of the opening track To Know, Water (which also is a direct translation of the game’s title) on oboe doubled with a high-pitched glockenspiel. This melody gets explored thoroughly throughout the whole score and reappears several times. Most of the time it is accompanied by the secondary idea, metallic percussion playing a harmonic scale. It can be found on almost every track, either with one of the other themes or just “filling in the gaps” and it does so beautifully.
The last notable theme is introduced in And The Earth Did Not Yet Bear A Name around the 90-second mark performed by strings. It gets some very beautiful variations in Delphinus Delphis, which marks the first major highlight of the score. It combines all of the three themes into a dynamic ride without spoiling what’s yet to come. This dynamic style was first hinted at in Seriola Lalandi where the music takes up some speed for the first time, but Delphinus Delphis uses the masterful woodwind figures of that track and lets them grow into something truly amazing.
After all this beauty, the score gets a bit darker when Chaos, The Mother comes on. Brooding, pulsating synths, distorted, dark vocals and a bit harsher but not aggressive cello-lines showcase the menacing parts in the depth of the ocean. Who knows what expects the player when this track plays, but I am scared of it! The most amazing thing about this track is, how Austin Wintory still manages to create some sense of beauty in the darkness. And anybody who ever has seen a documentary will agree, that even the scariest places on the bottom of the sea impress us with awe.
The darkness lasts not long, though, and with the next track, the picturesqueness returns. Arandaspis Prionotolepis starts off with the last few seconds of darkness but then gets particularly calm. It really describes the feeling of swimming up from the back depths and finally seeing some light again. The short Ichthyosaurus Communis then evokes the image of a giant fish swarm swimming besides and around you.
Then we have the magnum opus before us: Their Waters Were Mingled Together is a 10-minute behemoth doing what Delphinus Delphis did, but even more epic! The splendour of it can’t even be described. This track alone justifies ABZÛ’s place at the number 1 spot of the year thus far. After the choir was intentionally muffled in tracks like Balaenoptera Musculus it really unfolds its power in this track! It’s mindblowing how the track is at the same time calm and relaxing and also inspiring and moving! The instrumentation is top notch – from the woodwind clusters to the harp glissandos and celestial vocals – everything comes together perfectly!
The album closes off with Then Were Created The Gods In The Midst Of Heaven (seriously? Was that title necessary? The whole album replayed twice while I was typing that thing!) which is a choir-only piece and it is, of course, hauntingly beautiful and the perfect ending to such a wonderful experience. It’s just otherworldly.
‘ABZÛ’ is an outstanding soundtrack and unique in every way
All in all, ‘ABZÛ’ is an outstanding soundtrack and unique in every way. Besides the big highlights listed, there are so many small gems littered throughout the whole album. A nice string movement here, a wonderful oboe figure there and so on. Every single bar has some subtle, sophisticated details to discover, just like the oceanic depths in the game. Austin Wintory really captured every little aspect of the game in his soundtrack and adds another perfect piece of work to his oeuvre. Do yourself a favour and get ‘Journey’, ‘Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate’ and ‘ABZÛ’ to have a wonderful trinity of game scoring.
This guy is going places and I am happy to come along with him, wherever he is taking me next.
Varèse Sarabande will release the ABZÛ – Original Game Soundtrack on CD today, October 21, 2016.