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Dust: An Elysian Tail by Chris Geehan, Dan Byrne-McCullough, Kevin Carville, and Alex Brandon (Review)

posted Feb 20, 2013, 3:29 PM by christian@filmmusicmedia.com

Originally written for Square Enix Music Online (www.squareenixmusic.com), whose reviews are generally longer and specifically designed to be more in-depth analyses of video game scores and soundtracks.

Independent video games often convey a sense of being labors of love, as well as both sums of their influences and funnels of their creator’s inspiration. Such is the case for Microsoft Studios’ Dust: An Elysian Tail, in which sole creator and programmer Dean Dodrill presents the story of amnesia-stricken protagonist Dust, whose quest involves the destruction of evil in the world of Falana. HyperDuck SoundWorks, a compositional team of three originating from Northern Ireland, initially presented two tracks to Dodrill after being made privy to his Dust project, and Dodrill quickly accepted HyperDuck’s Chris Geehan, Dan Byrne-McCullough, and Kevin Carville to the fore as primary musical composers of the project. Also involved was composer Alex Brandon, who ended up contributing four tracks to Dust in comparison to HyperDuck’s thirty-three. But perhaps due to Dodrill’s fondness for film composers James Newton Howard, Hans Zimmer, and Harry Gregson-Williams, in conjunction with the Dust composers’ ulterior vision, the music of Dust: An Elysian Tail is an old-school-tinged amalgam of electronic synth and orchestral set pieces. In contrast to the musical scores to more popular action RPGs, HyperDuck has melded the artistic color of Dodrill’s world with an equally interesting score consisting of both ambient and pulse-pounding motifs.

Dust’s score is somewhat of a departure from HyperDuck’s style on previous works such as A.R.E.S.: Extinction Agenda and debut Iji. Before 2011’s Book of Heroes, they had not been accustomed to composing RPG music, certainly not at the same developing pace of the work in Dust. Sometimes forceful and yet consistently, powerfully beautiful, Dust’s musical score stands in direct parallel to the action and battle sequences in the game with its exciting yet effortless complexity. Such work does a great job of conveying a sense of adoration, contributing to the gorgeous and flowing graphics of both the fluid movements of the game’s characters and starkly beautiful environments.

Grouped chronologically with regard to Dust’s plot, the score begins with Alex Brandon’s “Falana,” a wonderful piano and synth-based introduction. Brandon’s next of four contributions isn’t far behind, at track three “Aurora,” which reminds of a more ethereal-sounding version of a score for the Ys series, most notably Ys VI: The Ark of Napishtim. Then, track four, the first of HyperDuck’s more lengthy songs, “Cirromon Caverns” at once yields perhaps the score’s best example of a slow melodic build, beginning with simmering low-end synth which develops into a delicate atmosphere incorporating ghostly ambience, twinkling piano, and faint electronic bursts and waves of static; it then coalesces into an orchestral and ambient assembly displaying selective power yet simultaneous, casual beauty. “The Cirelian Trials” is the first to incorporate guitar/metal-driven elements, in conjunction with rhythmic electronic percussion and orchestral melodies, reminding of a more modern, aurally blurry version of Nobuo Uematsu’s “Castle Pandemonium” from Final Fantasy II, although far less overpowering. Track six, “The Glade,” births flitting percussion mixed with flute and ambient melodies, then folds in more boldly-defined drums being carried on triumphant, ambient, melodic waves, and actually returns several times to cautious, quiet interludes and back again, making the exacting and more pulse-quickening sections even more exciting. This gives way to “Short Fuse,” an action-driven track containing earlier elements of soft electronic and fast-paced percussion with piano/synth blankets of beautiful melodic noise.

Two personal favorite tracks arrive next: “Abadis Forest” and “The Sorrowing Meadows.” The first outlines an orchestral build which explodes into bombastic swathes of piano and string passages, somewhat akin to a quicker-paced and more adrenaline-filled “Apotheosis” from Austin Wintory’s score to Journey. “The Sorrowing Meadows” is markedly different, instantly reminding of a melancholic take on more psychologically affecting tracks like “Select” and “Watchtower” from the Castlevania 64 (Akumajo Dracula Mokushiroku) score; Dust’s track combines elements of both in the form of organ melodies and bells over a sea of piano- and synth-driven ambience. “Deities” follows, a bold piece driven by bass- and drum-heavy bursts of orchestral flair, and then it’s Brandon’s third piece, “Beneath Hollow Grounds,” that continues his affinity for piano-driven melody amid motes of ambient and echoing noise. Then come “Twin Souls” and “Everdawn Basin,” another two favorites again in close proximity. “Twin Souls” is a dead ringer for “Ice Valley” from Metroid Prime, given its instant sink into deep wintry ambient akin to a muted track from legendary artist Rapoon; it’s soon beautifully accompanied by faint female choral vocals and bleeding background piano. “Everdawn Basin” deceivingly starts with drafty female choral vocals, and then suddenly breaks into a percussion-driven synth piece, and again into an orchestral and metal guitar-driven melody, later bottoming out into deep horn layers reminiscent of Hans Zimmer’s Inception given an electronic vibe. Then, a little over halfway through, the electric guitar forms the basis of the track’s melody, mocking its earlier cousin and with a backdrop of quick-paced light percussion and orchestral, drifting synth.

After the harsh horns and pummeling drums of “Heavy Bones,” the clear denouement track arrives, made evident not just by its title, “Let’s End This.” One of the more epic tunes on the album, its foundation of epic male and female choral vocals and triumphant horns is very effective at producing an emotion of finality in the listener, furthered and concluded in later track “Gone Home (Journey’s End),” which tacks on a heartfelt piano solo that reminds lovingly of Nobuo Uematsu’s “At Zanarkand” from Final Fantasy X.

What follows could safely be considered “bonus tracks,” beginning with track twenty-four, “Trailer.” I’d be curious to discover at which point in the compositional process this track was created, because it sounds more like a Hans Zimmer-based film trailer than the legacy Dust material. Track twenty-six, “Glick 16,” is a powerfully rhythmic, techno-based song whose background melodies intriguingly remind these ears of Matt Uelmen’s Torchlight material given a Dust-like spin, but otherwise sounds really out-of-place. As implied by their titles, the following five “Vintage…” tracks are interesting, in that they serve as a window to the initial vision of the composers for the game, as well as a fascinating alternate take on each of their earlier but official versions (tracks 4, 6, 8, 9, and 13). Each of the “Vintage” tunes are less dense, but no less layered; their rhythm differs greatly given their added and strong percussion next to their almost purely synth origins. I’m glad these tracks are offered on the album, but also glad they weren’t the ones chosen for incorporation to the game; they feel more like assemblies of instrumentation rather than the fusion of elements and thematic material into which they were developed. Also included are five “…Ambience” tracks, some of which have mysterious and interesting sound effects (like “Warp Gate Ambience” and “Stone Gate Ambience”), but are otherwise uneventful.

Determining the ultimate effect of Dust’s music upon my psyche is difficult, because in spite of the quality of nearly all the tracks, I don’t get a sense of cohesion or story development as the album progresses. Listening to the songs out of their intended order elicits the same aural and emotional resonance as doing so in the order presented. Taken as a whole, the music is very effective as a rousing and yet calmly pleasing tapestry, but perhaps due to its length, suffers a bit from its own grandeur. Dust is most effective, therefore, as an aggregate set piece of the game rather than a standalone collection of tracks, and that implies its best compliment: Dust: An Elysian Tail is a soundtrack that’s fantastic in the most unassuming and submissive of ways; it has a unique voice and certainly stands out musically, but doesn’t communicate a sense of opportunity and scope beyond an active listening session. In summary, it’s well done, enjoyable, and worth seeking out, but may not leave a mark on the listener.

Note: Dust: An Elysian Tail is available for streaming and download at the HyperDuck SoundWorks Bandcamp page, http://hyperduck.bandcamp.com/album/dust-an-elysian-tail-original-soundtrack.