Torchlight Original Soundtrack :: Review by Simon Elchlepp
If PC dungeon crawler Torchlight felt a lot like the first two Diablo games and genre fellow Fate, that was no accident. Torchlight was the first title from newly-formed Runic Games, which had been founded by Travis Baldree, Peter Hu and Max and Eric Schaefer. While Baldree was the creator of Fate, the Schaefer brothers were co-founders of Blizzard North, responsible for PC gaming classics Diablo and Diablo II. Little wonder then that this was a team that knew how to put together a decent dungeon mouse-click fest. Setting the title apart from its famous genre forebears though, the game was to feature a lighter fantasy tone as opposed to sombre feel of the Diablo games, according to art director Jason Beck. That twist on the genre formula struck a chord with critics and gamers alike upon the game's release in 2009. More than one reviewer remarked upon how well Torchlight caught the elements that had made the Diablo titles so addictive, and the game eventually went on to sell more than one million copies.
The connections between Torchlight and the Diablo franchise extended further than its lead developers (and inevitably stirred the hype around the title as 'the next Diablo'). Another veteran that found himself working on the game was Matt Uelmen, composer of all Diablo games to that point, as well as a co-composer on World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade. After Uelmen had left Blizzard following the closure of Blizzard North in 2005, Max Schaefer convinced his former colleague to come on board. Uelmen found himself on a packed schedule, with only four months to deliver 40 minutes of music for the game, while also being responsible for editing the game's voice over work and creating all of its sound effects. Aware of the obvious comparison points between Torchlight and the Diablo games, Uelmen "consciously did try to make the approach to the music a little different", using more prominent, romantic melodies that would stand in contrast to his gloomy work previously. Upon the game's release, curious soundtrack collectors had to resort to playing the game in order to find out how the title compared to Uelmen's iconic Diablo scores no soundtrack release was forthcoming. For that, score fans had to wait until 2012 when the game was released via GOG.com, including the soundtrack (dumped from the game's Music folder) as a bonus item.
The meat of Torchlight lies in its location tracks. Their overall shape follows the pattern Uelmen had described in interviews around the time of the game's release similar to Diablo, but different enough to explore new creative directions. The music adheres to the same general formula as the Diablo scores and returns several of their trademarks: the mix of (synth) orchestra, rock and sound effects, brought together in languid, semi-ambient compositions that combine their ingredients through clever layering and loads of studio trickery. But the game also introduces new elements that make it a worthy, if flawed entry in Uelmen's discography.
To sample Torchlight's innovation and its relationship with Uelmen's previous scores, head straight to "Town". Yes, it's an Uelmen town theme featuring a guitar, but this one is way more than a simple "Tristram" clone. Instead, "Town" is a new and intriguing spin on a successful formula, or in Uelmen words, "something which filled a similar role in the game as "Tristram" while also being appreciably different and unique." Uelmen uses classical guitar, an instrument not heard before in his scores, and its more delicate tones chime well with the game'slighter mood. "Town" also highlights the score's more melodic direction and stands out as surprisingly romantic, particularly when the guitar's scales evoke the warmth of Spanish guitar music. While the piece is more lyrical and less tormented than "Tristram", it is certainly not all roses, as the guitar's chromatic episodes and the at times shadowy background orchestrations hint at the danger outside the city walls. Together with Uelmen's studio wizardry that combines more than 200 live takes of the guitar into constantly creative layers, this nicely realised ambivalence makes "Town" the most emotionally complex track on Torchlight.
In fact, all of Torchlight's highlights earn their distinction through their carefully calibrated mix of contrasts, although only Torchlight II would truly perfect the approach Uelmen takes here. "Fortress" is a fine example of the soundtrack's qualities, as its unusually by Diablo standards noble French horn melodies are set against a trembling wall of sound, comprised of continually unsettled violin tremoli and rapidly pounding piano timpani strikes. The chromatic string harmonies Uelmen deploys here are quite fascinating, although at least part of the credit has to go to Russian classical composer Alexander Scriabin and his tone poem Prometheus, from which Uelmen quotes here. Still, these skilfully crafted orchestrations, recalling Uelmen's outstanding work on Diablo: Lords of Destruction, give "Fortress" convincing depth by twisting its heroic brass sentiments into more complicated emotional statements. There's even a grotesque, comically overblown section filled with xylophone and wood percussion slaps, but it manages to fit surprisingly well into the track's well-developed structure. Lastly, "Crypt" evokes a curious mix of desolation and solemnity, the latter brought upon by another stately French horn melody that has to content with uneasy ambient elements.
While these three tracks combine various atmospheres and emotions into multi-faceted, yet cohesive wholes, the other location tracks are less well developed or sometimes fail to go down the same route as successfully as "Town", "Fortress" and "Crypt". "Ruins" is Torchlight's most experimental and timbrally curious composition, but it fails to bring all its contrasting ideas together in one coherent whole. The piece's conflicted nature is underlined by the album's only prominent application of electronic elements, a synth pulse and watery keyboard notes, which feel at odds with the dignified French horn episode that follows. On "Ruins" and on other pieces, Uelmen relies heavily on his trademark big, anthemic rock drum patterns, to a degree that they sometimes have to carry the tracks almost on their own. While the drum's booming sounds are undeniably fun and catchy, their rhythms don't change much throughout Torchlight and before that already feel familiar through Uelmen's Diablo scores. When combined with relatively stale background orchestrations, the drum patterns start feeling like a shortcut to give the music some impact without actually going through the trouble of providing much substance.
These traits are particularly obvious on "Lava" and "Mines". "Lava" features the expectedly slow-burning, vaguely metal-ish guitar riffs and sustained choir pads that provide an effective, but hardly inspired way to describe its searing location. A short solo for stifling acoustic bass over a fuzzy instrumental background is a much more interesting way to communicate sweltering heat, but the instrument disappear again soon. "Mines" equally feels like a missed opportunity to turn the music into something as captivating as what's found on Torchlight's best tracks. The piece's most intriguing component is the use of a pedal steel guitar, which gives the music the feel of a deserted Western ghost town at least as long as we get to hear the pedal steel guitar. However, the instrument disappears way too soon and after that the music returns to the same spooky, cavernous atmospherics that the Diablo soundtracks dabbled in, but usually to greater effect. "Palace" is a bit less safe and familiar when it recalls the former majesty of its location and its present decay through cello and French horn melodies that are both regal and weary, placed against buzzing guitar riffs. Again though, the return of the tribal drum rhythms feels forced and the steel drum accents, as interesting as they sound once liberated from the usual Caribbean cruise ship associations, remain too far in the background to develop the full potential of their unusual timbre.
Lastly, there's "Cavern", a track that is difficult to assess for the purpose of a review like this. It's opening half is one of the album's best moments, as it pits a lyrical, nocturnal piano melody against a thumbing rhythmic pattern with an industrial edge, milking this striking contrast for all it's worth. The only problem is that the melody is taken straight from Scriabin's Third Piano Sonata. Kudos to Uelmen for recognising the potential that lies in combining the piano melody with a constant drum beat. However, that doesn't change the fact that the track's best element doesn't come from Uelmen himself, and that his own ideas, which dominate the track's stereotypically gloomy second half, are less interesting than what he borrowed.
But before listeners can appreciate Uelmen's works here, they'll be distracted by something else: the less than convincing track order on this digital release. As on several other soundtracks released as GOG bonus items, the tracks on Torchlight are ordered alphabetically by their title. Instead of the effectively mood-setting "Title" and "Town", the album jumps right into the action with "Boss Anticipation" and "Boss Fight". Trouble is, there's not much action to be found in these two short battle cues. "Boss Anticipation" kicks off Torchlight with plain, standard tension music cue nervous string tremoli, rolling cymbals and clanging piano notes. At just more than a minute, "Boss Fight" has hardly enough time to impress and to develop any sort of direction. It's filled with Uelmen's trademark mix of dark fantasy elements and pounding tribal rock percussion rhythms. Here, the latter settle into a mid-tempo groove over a carpet of distorted guitar riffs, but none of these elements are explored in much depth.
"Ordraak Fight" the last boss theme uncomfortably sandwiched right in the middle of the album feels similarly underdeveloped. The cue sounds bigger than "Boss Fight" through its swelling, rasping brass chords and deep male choir vocals that almost sounds like throat singing, but again, the music never figures out where to go during its brief 73 seconds. And to cap it all off, "Townfight", a 13-second stinger cue, closes the album instead of the far more worthy "Town". Certainly, these anemic action cues only make up about five minutes of the whole album, but they're sequenced so unfortunately that they hurt the album flow considerably.
Torchlight pays its dues to Uelmen's previous Diablo soundtracks, presenting a similar mix of genres, instruments and timbres, brought together in slow-moving compositions heavy on downbeat atmospherics. Uelmen does this as well as he's done in the past, but for considerable stretches, the title feels like a competent, but not particularly inspired retreat of Diablo and particularly Diablo II. Uelmen's experiments with sounds that are new to his established palette yield results of varying quality. Some of the score's best ideas, like the inclusion of pedal steel guitar and steel drums, are implemented unsatisfactorily and left mostly unexplored. However, the score's bigger melodic focus is a welcome addition and allows Uelmen to not only suitably underline a less sombre mood, but also to enrichen his music with contrasts and emotional tension previously not found in his work. When all pieces fall into place, Torchlight generates tracks like "Town" and "Fortress" that are among Uelmen's best creations to date. However, hampered by disappointing battle tracks and an actively distracting album sequencing, Torchlight remains a mixed bag in this album release, its aspirations more fully realised on Torchlight II.
Overall Score: 6/10