Dune - Spice Opera :: Review by Rimo
Dune. First a novel written by Frank Herbert (1965), the franchise was later adapted as a film (1984) and as a computer game by the French developer Cryo Interactive (1992). The futuristic story takes place primarily on the desert planet Arrakis, also known as "Dune", where two rival houses fight for the control of spice production. The spice melange is a mysterious and extremely valuable substance, which inspires awe, but also war.
Dune - Spice Opera is an arranged album that was packaged with the collector's edition of the game. It features arrangements of almost all music pieces from the game (one is missing) and three exclusive new compositions. The composer, Stéphane Picq, was assisted by Philippe Ulrich (co-founder of Cryo) on this project, who acted as co-arranger on a few tracks, co-composer and composer of an original piece, and album producer. While the original sound was limited to the capabilities of the AdLib chip (FM synthesis) or other sound modules such as the Roland MT-32, the arrangements found on this album are studio takes which bring the compositions to a more realistic and fuller sound. Certain pieces keep a similar atmosphere, yet others go in new directions which may or may not please fans of the original music. Overall, the music could be described as a mix of electronic, ethnic, and new age.
The introduction sequence is accompanied by "Spice Opera", an upbeat piece with an hypnotic rhythm that never seems to reach a destination during its development. For this reason, it is repetitive, but the various layers that comes in and out and the few breakdowns actually make it enjoyable and dynamic all the way through. It sticks closely to the original, the biggest difference being the use of robotic vocal samples, which appear on many other tracks as well. "Emotion Control", perhaps the title which evokes most the "new age" nature of this album, is the first of the new compositions. Picq used a sensual bass and drum line, highly reminiscent of Enigma's "Sadeness", a similarity that gets further confirmed when the pan flute comes in. Sweeping and quirky synthesizers also occupy this track, along with voice samples which seem to dictate meditation procedures such as "Emotion Control", "Close Your Eyes", and "Relax Yourself". It is one of my favorite pieces from Dune - Spice Opera, as I like the sound and can connect with the new age edge of it.
Not present in the PC game, but the Amiga version featured "Ecolove" in its soundtrack. A softer theme at first, with not much more than synth ambiance and a rhythmic piano line for almost the entire first minute, up until strings and deep bass + snappy drums make their way in. This creates once again a sound which is quite akin to the electronic new age genre. Three-quarter in, saxophone lovers should be delighted by the alto instrument (although synthetic). Following the smooth vibe is "Water", another highly hypnotic theme which makes reference to the Water of Life, a spice-derived substance that plays an important part in the plot of the story. The mood follows the standards of water themes, being calm and soothing. To add further explicitly, synth-based water sounds, as well as water current samples are incorporated to the music. Although it doesn't do anything wrong, "Water" is a more or less unremarkable, yet it serves as an interlude between upbeat pieces.
After the Water comes the "Revelation". Ulrich's original composition continue into the new age direction established by earlier tracks, bringing back the pan flute, but now giving more importance to the piano with simple, yet emotional and hooking lines. The progression is interesting and dynamic, as it features alternating instruments (piano, flute, modified voice samples, xylophone, and synthesizers). A very solid track, which can come as a surprise since Ulrich was not a musician at Cryo, but he actually lived as a musician up until the early 80's. Picq takes the leads back with "Free Men", a play on word of "Fremen" (although the original spelling), the tribal population on Dune. To portray their native nature, and the fact they live in the desert, a Middle-Eastern tempo and instrumentation was used, complemented with the now standard electronic and new age elements. It introduces an acoustic guitar, which is used in a rhythmic way. The arrangement follows quite closely the original version. A good track, although I must admit the desert atmosphere is not the one I prefer on the album.
A line from the story that I found inspiring is "The sleeper must awaken", which is told to Paul (the protagonist) by his father. Taken to the second level, it has this deep meaning related to the awareness of our existence and the power that often remains asleep within ourselves until we awaken (although I believe certain people never awaken, they are sleeping comfortably in their cozy beds, both ears plugged and having this though that life is oh so sweet). Well, it is to be believed that the next track, "Wake Up", is in relation to this idea. In my opinion, this is the highlight of the album. A magnificent piece co-arranged by Ulrich and Picq, which is driven in part by a light militaristic drum, reflecting the war going on in-game, but the mood never becomes oppressive. The driving force is one of confidence into the power of goodness and the inherent beauty of life which accompanies the player on the map of Arrakis. The pan flute makes yet another return, but this time it is even more emotional. About halfway, the music stops for a few seconds, a voice saying "wake up", and then a cleaner structure kicks in (without the breathing and vocoder samples used in the first half). Each time I listen to this track, I cannot escape the beauty, both in the melodies and the rhythms, and a feeling of wellness overwhelms me. A negative point could be attributed to the ending, which is the sound of children probably recorded in the proximity of a park or school, for it is out of place, yet I've made peace with it and think I get the point of its inclusion.
"Dune Theme" and "Dune Variation" are two different takes on the Arrakeen palace theme. The original is my favorite track from the game, but sadly, neither of the arrangements have done it justice in my opinion. The first transforms the ethnic vibe into a "radio-friendly" sound (by VGM standards), omitting completely the neat percussion solo. It's still good, don't get me wrong, but not as good as it could have been. Lead instruments include a western-ish guitar and a clarinet, both synthetic to my knowledge. A strange element that made me stop and ask myself if I heard right is the frequent usage of woman orgasm samples. Yes, you read right! I don't really see the point of these, albeit it may have to do with Paul's activities with Chani after the sun goes down, but she is only introduced in the next track. More distracting than useful, but tolerable. As for "Dune Variation", it is closer to the original, but much slower and ambient, especially in the first half. I find it more enjoyable than the orgasmic radio take, yet it still deceives me as it feels a little empty compared to the original piece.
"Chani's Eyes", the bluest you will ever see and the one that charmed Paul Atreides. Soft downtempo theme this time, slightly sensual, but definitely reflective. It features a simple, yet memorable melody. Compared to the original version, it's mostly identical, only enhanced with better synthesizers. The sand moves, it's a "Sign of the Worm"! These large creatures also play an important role in Dune, being mystical figures of sorts. Their theme is tense, almost menacing, but the ethnic rhythms and the choir soften it a bit. To me, it is good, but not great. This is another piece that sticks closely to the original. Following this track is "Too", the music which plays during the ornithopter rides. In-game, the loop last around one minute, which is short. Thankfully, it was extended for the album release with a few breakdowns. Otherwise, the melody and accompaniment are conserved. The feeling of flying in the sky is brought forward by the synth-choir and crystalline arpeggios. The title comes from a synthesizer note, which actually sounds like a voice saying "Too". This track is not too bad, not too great, I would say it is OK.
The album ends with an homage to the game's company, "Cyogenia". An original composition by Ulrich and Picq, it features a few elements from the previous tracks, such as the voice samples from "Emotion Control" (plus new ones) and the piano from "Revelation". It ends the listen on a quirky note, but does not denature the atmosphere. Although I would not rank it among my top-three favorites, I found this piece was solid and fun.
Still not certain if Dune - Spice Opera is for you? Well, if you dig electronic new age music, with an ethnic percussive attribute, and don't mind synthesizers and sound and vocal samples, then there are good chances you would enjoy what Stéphane Picq and Philippe Ulrich created. It captures and blends well the different elements of Dune: space, war, native tribe, new age concepts (life, awareness, beauty of nature, ...), and love to list a few. While the sound has started to age since its recording in 1992, the high production quality enable this album to remain fresh up to now. I consider this soundtrack to be one of the finest in the history of French VGM, and it is easily one of my favorites from all regions. It is quite difficult to come by today, eBay being your best bet if you would like to hunt down a copy (I have witnessed final bids between $30 and $60). Additionally, I would also recommend obtaining a game rip of the PC version (AdLib) since I found certain tracks to be better in their original forms, and it is a good listen overall with the sound being one of the richest for an AdLib soundtrack.
Overall Score: 10/10