LATEST RETRO MOVIE REVIEW: Labyrinth (1986)
‘Assassins Creed Valhalla: The Ravens Saga’ — Soundtrack Review
October 9, 2020 — From its very beginning back in 2007, Assassins Creed has served as a vehicle for historical and cultural immersion and Ubisoft has been committed to creating works bursting with both entertainment and educational value. From the Middle East during the time of the Third Crusade to Italy at the height of the Renaissance, Assassins Creed has not shied away from some of history’s most fascinating periods and events, providing each game with a sense of authenticity so strong one of the games was mooted as a model to assist in the rebuilding of Notre Dame following the 2019 fire.
This authenticity doesn’t merely apply to the historical settings and figures of the games, however; everything down to fashion and sound design ensures a luscious and tangible digital world true to the cultures and periods which inspired each game. At the heart of this sound design has been Danish composer and industry stalwart Jesper Kyd, working on a number of games in the series dating way back to its inception and ensuring the music remains well-suited and “true to the atmosphere [of each game].” With the latest Assassin’s Creed Valhalla set in England in the overlap of the Viking Age and Dark Ages, it’s no surprise to see Kyd leaning on skaldic inspired Norse folk to capture the spirit of the game’s protagonist. Kyd is not alone in this venture, however — drafting in American composer Sarah Schachner (herself a series veteran having soundtracked Assassin’s Creed Origins) and Norwegian folk musician and composer Einar Selvik, the trio working in unison across the ambitious project.
While Kyd and Schachner may be veterans to the Assassins Creed series, Selvik retains possibly the strongest influence of the trio on this project. Selvik’s 17 years fronting Norse folk music act Wardruna has contributed hugely towards the ubiquitous popularity of Scandinavian folk stylings in wider popular culture, evolving the “black metal” genre away from its more gaudy, gimmicky bombast to something which genuinely champions the traditional music of Nordic culture. This experience also makes Selvik a natural choice when seeking out an expert in the art, able to maintain the historicity of the compositions whilst bringing an authoritative ear for the music.
As an OST release, The Ravens Saga is surprisingly short, its seven-track run only clocking in at a little under 25 minutes. This brevity is more than made up for in scope and mythology, with each track playing on the increased visibility of Scandinavian folklore and motifs within modern pop culture to create something distinct and original whilst also intrinsically linked with wider Norse folk phenomenon. In taking an approach that blends classical instrumentation and arrangements with a few modern flourishes like a swell of synth here and there, Kyd, Schachner, and Selvik conjure a sonic landscape that parallels Valhalla’s game world, combining the traditional with the futuristic to create something wholly original.
Considering the increased popularity of live orchestral renditions of video game soundtracks (Zelda, Skyrim and Assassins Creed itself all enjoying successful tours in recent years,) there is a tangible sense of accomplishment to the music of The Ravens Saga. The prevalence of string and flute in the compositions is a direct reference to the most widespread instrumentation within Nordic folk music, but the arrangements themselves owe much more to modernized classical compositions, the stirring movements practically begging to be heard in an illustrious venue like London’s Royal Albert Hall, Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw ,or Denmark’s very own DR Koncerthusets.
And by the looks of the upcoming Valhalla game, it is entirely clear the soundtrack is the more authentic component of the two, which also manages to keep “Hollywodization” at bay — unlike the game itself.
As one would expect of any official soundtrack, each composition represents a distinctive chapter of the actual game. Early songs like “Son of Fjord” make full use of the near-mythic, ethereal qualities inherent to Nordic folk — long ambient passages and rhythmic drumbeats induce the imagination towards the imagery most often associated with the culture: epic battles, warrior sky gods, and Viking warships cutting through the seas. Shamanic vocalization adds a human element that both grounds the music but also gives it reverence, as though the piece is part of a greater ritual in and of itself. This builds out with “Asgard — Hall of the Aesir,” a song which more directly evokes the Old Gods, the vocals this time serving the opposite purpose in reaching for something greater than human as if acting in a blót-sacrament.
These shifts in focus are indicative of what The Raven’s Saga soundtrack aspires to achieve, approaching the Nordic folk sound through a variety of directions to greater capture the wider world upon which it is based. Though short in duration, The Ravens Saga release serves perfectly to both provoke and challenge the listener’s imagination — surely immersing gamers in Nordic folk tradition whilst providing a robust enough variation that such exploration does not become repetitive. Whilst an exploration of the meeting of the worlds between Medieval English and Nordic folk provides a fascinating “what if”, there is no denying the release itself effectively captures the essence of a zeitgeist movement modern pop culture just can’t get enough of. And by the looks of the upcoming Valhalla game, it is entirely clear the soundtrack is the more authentic component of the two, which also manages to keep “Hollywodization” at bay — unlike the game itself. Although I won’t go into detail, I have to concur Assassin’s Creed Valhalla does not appear to be particularly well-researched nor historically accurate — a surprising and risky deviation for Ubisoft’s flagship series.
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla: The Ravens Saga (Original Soundtrack) is out now by Lakeshore Records.