The Music of Diablo :: Review by Simon Elchlepp
Back in 2011, while a large part of the PC gaming population was still patiently awaiting the release of Diablo III, Blizzard surprised fans at BlizzCon 2011 with a new Diablo-themed album that brought together a large amount of the franchise's previously unreleased music. As Blizzard's audio director Russell Brower explained, The Music of Diablo 1996 - 2011: Diablo 15 Year Anniversary was designed not to overlap with already existing, readily available Diablo albums, i.e. the iTunes release of Diablo II. In Brower's words, his "goal was to have a cohesive, easily accessible, highest quality available soundtrack release. This was recorded a long time ago so we did a little remastering. As we say in the bylines of these things, 'digitally remastered'." Fortunately for anybody who didn't attend BlizzCon that year, Blizzard released Diablo Anniversary via their online store later on.
What music exactly does The Music of Diablo include then and how far does it go towards making available all of the music that franchise composer Matt Uelmen did for this famed series? Let's start at the beginning. What will delight many soundtrack collectors is that Diablo's score is included in its entirety and commercially available for the first time. However, the version of "Tristram" included as part of Diablo's soundtrack is actually the longer rendition from Diablo II (which for some reason didn't make it onto that game's soundtrack album). Also, Diablo Anniversary doesn't include two tracks Uelmen wrote for Diablo's expansion pack Hellfire. No reason to cry foul though, as both tracks are less substantial than what Uelmen served up for Diablo. They are adequate, but hardly necessary additions to the horrors that await within the depths of Diablo's music.
'Horror' is actually the operative word on the Diablo portion of the album not the kind of horror that gives you sleepless nights, but the kind of Gothic fright that perfectly fits the shadowy dungeons of the game. It's worth remembering that, while Diablo and Diablo II share the same general musical style non-melodic, meandering pieces that evoke a potent atmosphere these scores are actually quite different mood-wise. Diablo is a lot starker and less colourful then its successor, deploying the same semi-ambient formula, but working with a reduced palette to paint the game's world in many shades of grey. This is a claustrophobic piece of work that does its best to give the listener a good scare the sounds of crying babies on "Hell" and "Catacombs" are the most obvious example of the title's intention to create a little bit of unease and terror.
To that end, Uelmen deploys a good number of familiar orchestral techniques: deep, droning celli and double chords; unsettling, whining violin glissandi (particularly prominent and effective on "Catacombs"); wordless vocals that range from disembodied choirs to eerie moans; pounding percussion from the depths of the dungeons. All these horror staples make their frequent appearance on Diablo, though there are two things though that elevate Diablo above the rank of a derivative Gothic horror score. Firstly, despite their quite minimalist nature, Diablo's compositions all develop well during their running time and patiently roll out their slow-burning, tense ambiance until the listener has been well and truly sucked into a sinister world. The ingredients may be familiar, but Uelmen still manages to deploy them effectively.
The other part of the equation is that outside of the Gothic horror stocktypes, Uelmen displays his creativity by mixing in rock elements that are rarely heard in fantasy games, but work wonders for Diablo's chilling mood that becomes even more alienating through the tension between rock and orchestral sounds. The stomping drum rhythms on "Dungeon" and "Catacombs" add lots of nervous energy and maliciousness to the composition and create a memorable orchestra/rock hybrid. Not surprisingly, the score's contemporary elements can be traced back a rock sub-genre that was all about evoking doom and gloom: Gothic rock, here particularly in its early 80's incarnation. "Caves" feels like a welcome throwback to early Killing Joke albums, with its big percussion beat with its tribal energy that mercilessly drives the composition forward, while distorted electric guitars gnaw and tear at the music's fabric. Indeed, as most Diablo fans will know, Uelmen knows how to work guitars into his compositions to great results, and the wailing, siren-like electric guitar in "Caves" and the out-of-control soloing at the beginning of "Catacombs" that unsettles any ordered musical activity are striking examples of Uelmen's grasp of how to marry guitars with orchestral elements. Another facet of the title's non-classical stylings is the buzzing noise that opens "Hell", followed by creepy, pumping sound effects with an industrial edge.
Of course, when talking about Diablo's mix of styles, we can't leave out one piece: "Tristram", by now the franchise's signature piece. Its opening strummed guitar chords have become iconic, both among Western game music fans and Diablo gamers, and for good reason: these chords herald a piece that still remains fascinating for its ambiguous, multi-layered atmosphere. The sound of the acoustic guitar itself injects a sense of reassuring familiarity amidst the sombreness of the rest of the album. But Uelmen twists this impression and instead uses the acoustic guitar's wiry tones to evoke the barren desolation ruling the town of Tristram through a number of nervous, manic melodies that hint at the dread and insanity beyond the town's boundaries. The guitar's excursions into more discordant material constantly keep the music on the razor's edge, and that feeling is only increased through Uelmen's creative recording of the guitar, which produces eerie overlays and echo effects. Combine this with a tasteful orchestral background that adds feelings of both foreboding and sorrow, and you've got indeed a classic piece on your hands that does an amazing job at giving a piercing insight into the mood and psychology of a haunted location. The difference between the original Diablo version of "Tristram" and the Diablo II rendition of the same piece is that the latter adds about three minutes of material that manage to sustain the original piece's quality and unabatedly continue the journey into lurking madness.
The other part of The Music of Diablo that will make soundtrack collectors very happy is the inclusion of most of the material from the much-sought after Diablo II: Lord of Destruction EP. This mini-album contained the music that Uelmen wrote for Diablo II's expansion pack, and was only available as a bonus of the expansion pack's Collector's Edition. Kudos to Blizzard for finally making the score widely available then, but they didn't do a wholly satisfactory job. The album leaves out "Halls", Lord of Destruction's most obvious reference to the franchise's trademark ambient morbidity. Given how rare the EP is and that "Halls" only runs for three-and-a-half minutes, it's disappointing that it's been left off this album in favour of yet more music from Diablo II.
To complicate things further, there are more discrepancies between The Music of Diablo and Lord of Destruction EP. On both albums, Uelmen's compositions are arranged to play as a continuous suite, but as the releases feature different running orders, the pieces also have diverging fade-ins and -outs. Furthermore, "Siege" on this album begins with a new minute-long intro that's not found on the EP, while "The Ancients" on the EP runs for over two minutes longer than its counterpart here. None of these disparities are dramatic, but if one where to make a call which versions of these tracks are superior, Lord of Destruction EP would win this mini-competition. The additional "Siege" material here doesn't add anything new to the track, while the longer running time of "The Ancients" on the EP affords the piece a better build up of its haunting mood.
But what about the music itself? In short, it's stunning. For Lord of Destruction, Uelmen changed the musical direction of the franchise but not as drastically as some detractors often claim and wrote a fully orchestral score that is clearly fashioned after Richard Wagner's operatic works, to such a degree that the title actually sounds like an excerpt from the maestro's oeuvre. Put differently, it is one of the very rare game soundtracks that can legitimately claim to sound like a piece of classical music. It's Wagner-pastiche, but let's not forget that there are few game composers who could write a score that sounds like a previously lost part from Tristan and Isolde. Uelmen pulls it all off with utmost finesse and panache, writing one of the most artfully shaped and orchestrated Western game scores to have been released thus far.
The Wagnerian harmonic ambivalence that dominates every piece on Lord of Destruction, Uelmen's masterful use of each instrument section, each cue's intricate and extensive development; all these factors turn these pieces into miniature tone poems that mix an intoxicating array of moods and emotions like few other game scores. An alluring sense of hushed wonder runs through "Fortress", which sounds more a walk through an enchanted, mysterious forest, and through "The Ancients", whose rolling crescendoes and impressionistic orchestrations create a spellbinding effect that sucks the listener into the title's wondrous world. "Ice" is an even better example oft he game's refined orchestrations and mesmerising appeal, as it continues the sense of wonderment of "The Ancients" through new and enchanting means, turning that previous track's sentiment into something that feels more claustrophobic, yet still beguiling.
All things told, Lord of Destruction is a dazzling piece of work that, despite its kaleidoscopic colours, remains coherent through the sense of mystery, awe, and majesty that runs through the whole album and ties it together. While the new symphonic direction didn't please all fans of Uelmen's previous Diablo scores, its music still clings on to aspects of the franchise's musical tradition and is an organic element of its history. It's obviously not the most original soundtrack out there, as it purposefully stays close to Wagner's chromaticism-laden style, and the orchestral recording could do with a shade more brilliance. However, be that as it may, Lord of Destruction remains one of the most impressive and intoxicating orchestral game scores out there.
After these early two highlights, we get more material from Diablo II compositions that didn't make it onto the soundtrack's Collector's Edition / iTunes release. However, some of these tracks have seen the light of day before as part of the "MP3 of the week" feature that Uelmen ran on the Blizzard website upon the game's release. It's worth noting that while The Music of Diablo features 25 minutes of previously unreleased material from Diablo II, there's still about half an hour of music from the game that remains unreleased.
The Diablo II pieces exclusive to the album essentially provide more of the same of what's already been heard on the original Diablo II soundtrack release. There are no big revelations that will give listener a new outlook on the game's music, but then again, getting more of Uelmen's immensely atmospheric music for this game isn't a bad thing. There's a handful of highlights here that should have made it onto the original Diablo II album back in 2000. "Harem" is one example of how the game's instrumental palette expands upon that of the first game, here through the addition of a sitar. The seductive tones of the sitar and of the female vocalist that joins later on are mixed with driving rock percussion rhythms, once more highlighting Uelmen's imaginative scoring. "Temple" underscores its location with an eerie spirituality that come courtesy of an abstract orchestration which relies on ghostly, wordless male choir vocals and ritualistic percussion rhythms that echo in the distance. "Halls" is more orchestral in nature then most other pieces from the game while still retaining the trademark spooky atmosphere of the franchise, and hints at the direction that Uelmen would take with Lord of Destruction. Other pieces like "Sewer", "Maggot" and "Docks" are solid, but they're not among the game's more notable pieces and hardly feel essential.
However, variable compositional quality isn't the problem that haunts the Diablo II tracks on this album. No, what really hurts these pieces are some truly strange sound issues. Listen to "Kurast" a bit more closely, and you'll find that parts of the lower frequencies after 0:30 simply sound hideous, muffled and excruciatingly distorted. The deep percussion that kicks in at 1:33 is barely recognisable as an instrument, but instead is turned into buzzing noise. The swelling brass chords on the same piece suffer from distortions that ultimately kill all appeal that "Kurast" holds, turning the composition into mushy noise and obscuring a shocking amount of musical detail. And it's not just "Kurast" that is plagued by these issues other examples include "Docks" after 0:37 and "Sewer" after 3:00. To be clear, this is not a matter of a recording that could do with more clarity or a matter of gain levels that have been set too high, like on Gears of War 3 this is much worse, a puzzling case where the music has been severely compromised. To add insult to injury, "Tristram" doesn't escape these problems either the guitar solo after 5:31 is marred by easily detectable distortions that sound plain awful.
It's a mystifying situation, as the original Diablo II music files from the game do not suffer from these issues. In other words, the game rip sounds better than this official album release, which is a pretty damning statement. One can only speculate if this is a result of the remastering that was done on the Diablo II material, but in any case, you have to wonder whether anybody at Blizzard actually listened to the final album mix before The Music of Blizzard was released. For a commercial album release, particularly one from a company like Blizzard with its usually strict quality standards, this is unacceptable.
Closing The Music of Diablo are two concept pieces that Uelmen wrote for Diablo III and recorded with the Slovak National Symphony Orchestra in 2005. Both are mainly of historic interest and work mostly as curios. "Lord" is built around a plodding string motif taken from Stravinsky's ballet Le sacre du printemps (the "Rondes printanières" bit, to be precise). Unfortunately, the piece relies too heavily on the use of this borrowed motif to qualify as a wholly original and satisfying composition. "Hydra" is of interest for its massive, Gothic outburst at the beginning that would later return almost identically on Brower's "Diablo III Overture" and "The Heavens Shall Tremble" on the Diablo III score album. It's intriguing to see the beginning of the game's musical gestation on this cue that was recorded seven years before the game saw the light of day. However, both these concept pieces suffer from sub-standard sound the percussion on "Lord" is very echoy and lacks presence, and "Hydra" downright pales when compared to the final game's rendition of the same music, thanks to its tinny, compressed sound.
Readers should take below score with a grain of salt. Make no mistake, for $10, this album is easily worth picking up for its inclusion of music from Diablo and Diablo II: Lord of Destruction alone. It's still annoying that The Music of Diablo doesn't make the frustratingly rare Lord of Destruction EP completely obsolete, but you can't argue with the fact that the twenty minutes of material from that album included here are absolutely marvellous. Diablo's music is stark, frightening and just as atmospheric as Uelmen's creations for Diablo II. Diablo showcases his trademark mix of ambient, rock and classical styles, but in an intriguingly different, more conventionally scary way. Indeed, The Music from Diablo does a great job at highlighting the franchise's musical evolution, from Diablo up to "Hydra", which holds one of the seeds of Diablo III's music. The extra music from Diablo II is less essential than the rest of the album, but still adds some standout tracks to the album.
However, The Music of Diablo gets a hefty markdown for the sound problems that plague the supposedly remastered Diablo II material. Pieces are riddled with appalling distortions that ruin segments of these cues or whole tracks, and make a mockery of Brower's claim to produce a "highest quality soundtrack release". It's a startling occurrence and one that I personally haven't heard on any commercial album release soundtrack, orchestral, rock before. Do yourself a favour, ignore these tracks and just enjoy the album's first two thirds.
Overall Score: 6/10