World of Warcraft Cataclysm Soundtrack :: Review by Matt
World of Warcraft: Cataclysm is the third expansion to the granddaddy of all MMORPGs and has been under intense fan scrutiny since it was announced in August of 2009. The soundtrack to accompany the much-anticipated expansion is an ambitious offering by an equally ambitious team of regular Warcraft composers Russell Brower, Derek Duke, Neal Acree, Glenn Stafford and David Arkenstone whose New Age influence is clearly heard throughout the album. World of Warcraft: Cataclysm encompasses an impressive variety of tracks and associated emotions, and serves as a perfect companion to the expansion which literally reshaped the world of Azeroth itself. In order to unify the disparate moods of the various tracks, the composers incorporated a forlorn oboe theme and relied heavily on the repetition of choral vocal pieces which are at times a little too reminiscent of Howard Shore's arrangements on the three Lord of the Rings soundtracks.
World of Warcraft: Cataclysm opens with the unbelievably epic, 12-minute-long "The Shattering", a dramatic, brass-heavy pastiche of themes new and familiar. Throughout, it features sharp, metallic percussion (very reminiscent of James Horner) and introduces the oboe and vocals which will reoccur through several of the tracks that follow. "The Shattering" also introduces the themes of the two new races, Goblins and Worgen, and serves as the perfect accompaniment for the titular chaos of the Cataclysm brought forth by Deathwing, the angry dragon depicted on the expansion box art.
The themes for the new races are heard in their entirety in "Castaways" (Goblins) and "Curse of the Worgen" (no parenthetical attribution necessary, I should hope). "Castaways" is by far one of my favorite tracks form the album. It is a light, jazzy track which opens with a wood xylophone and marimba fitting for the island home of the Goblins which then transitions into a full-on jazz caper featuring a clarinet, muted trumpet, plucked bass, vibraphone and infectiously enough whistling. I all but guarantee that you'll find yourself whistling this track yourself after listening to it a few times, and if you don't then please email me and I will personally send you a handwritten apology and a sketch of your avatar. "Curse of the Worgen" is a great counterpoint to the comedic jazziness of "Castaways" and, like the Worgen themselves, is a darker, more gothic offering which blends in the unique sound of a harpsichord balanced perfectly over vibrato strings. Expert use of swelling dynamics completes the foreboding, Victorian feel of this piece which again, like the Worgen themeselves feels like it does not truly belong in a Tolkien-inspired fantasy universe.
But Cataclysm does not dote upon the new races to the detriment of the preexisting ones. The Night Elves, for example, receive special attention in this soundtrack. "Guardians of Nordrassil", the quintessential Night Elf theme, is full of serenity and sorrow (with a very Lothlórien-style of female vocals) before transitioning to slightly faster, more hopeful theme. It is a great, if slightly forgettable, ambient track. "Nightsong", a keening threnody of a piece, appears to be an update on the fan-favorite "Lament of the Highborne", and lures listeners in with lamenting vocals and building strings before an unexpected tempo shift and pounding percussion take over to resolve it as a truly excellent, and exciting, action piece. It is ironic that on an album with padded tracks that go on well past the point when the listener's interest fades ("Defenders of Azeroth" and "Reforged", I'm looking at you and your 8+ minutes here) that "Nightsong" it is only 2:38 long. There really was much more that could have been done with and to this theme.
David Arkenstone's New Age influence shines through perfectly (read: infrequently) on Cataclysm, most notably on the tribal "Call of the Elements" which has a very Native American feel about it thanks to the heavy usage of wood flute and simple, faint drum cadence. "Depths of Vashj'ir" is another piece that I suspect Arkenstone had a hand in; with its ascending and descending harp work and haunting, vocal crescendos it's easy to close your eyes and imagine yourself at the bottom of the precisely, if unimaginatively, named Great Sea. Arkenstone's influence also shines to the fore on "The Breath of Al'Akir", a beautiful, ethereal piece fitting for a raid involving the Windlord. It is a beautiful standalone track with a soaring trumpet harmony reaching above the muted, repetitious percussion, female vocals and French horn work. It does not need context to be appreciated but is a wildly enjoyable and completely unconventional, battle theme.
On the topic of action and battle tracks, Cataclysm does not disappoint. "Xaxas" is incredible boss fight theme that features a particularly noteworthy use of deep vocals and urgency through percussion. Think of it as an amalgamation of Holst's Mars, Bringer of War with the climax of Howard Shore's The Bridge of Khazad Dum in all the right ways. "Reforged" opens with a relentless drum cadence and deep brass themes, which would make it a track if it didn't slow down into an ambient, quasi-Egyptian track a minute and a half in. Also, and finally, I have no idea which of the composers decided to use a bass clarinet melody in the beginning of "Uldum", but in terms of Titan themes it establishes nicely as more similar to more Uldaman (original World of Warcraft) than Ulduar (Wrath of the Lich King), the latter of which is reprised quite grandly in "Thaurissan's Reach". At any rate, "Uldum" is a creepy ambient track that really fits the Egyptian theme of the Uldum quite nicely and will give the three bass clarinet players likely to read this review an excuse to rush over to iTunes and purchase the album.
The only major complaint against World of Warcraft: Cataclysm as an expansion is that, while solid, it does not do anything particularly new or ambitious for the venerable MMO past the obvious geographic changes and racial additions. The same could be said for Cataclysm's soundtrack which, while great, feels artificially padded at times when certain tracks descend into forgettable fantasy videogame fare. Still, it's a solid addition to the existing World of Warcraft catalog of music and is accessible and enjoyable to listeners, including those who have never set a digital foot in Azeroth. Give it a listen either through purchasing the collector's edition of the game or the stand-alone digital release and trust me on the Goblin theme.
Overall Score: 8/10