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Journey by Austin Wintory (Review)

posted Nov 21, 2012, 12:12 AM by
In writing reviews, I’ve often found that written language is better suited to those scores whose content is of low quality, shoddy workmanship, or overall bad instrumentation. It seems easier to mock and criticize a lackluster score than to highlight and extol it. With composer Austin Wintory’s score for the 2012 video game Journey, however, so profound was its effect upon me that not only had I a need to find a way to glorify its lavish wonder, but also to translate into words its preternatural and somehow spiritual emotion. A more difficult review than this I have not yet written.

Prior to the score for Journey, Austin Wintory’s name and musical works had totally eluded me. He’s been highly praised for his mostly ambient-type musical score for the video game flOw, to which Journey has drawn some comparisons, but truly, I have to believe that Wintory’s magnum opus thus far is indeed Journey. The video game is really an open-ended eponymous experience centered on a nameless character traveling towards a mountain for reasons unexplained. And like the game, Wintory’s musical score teases and entices one’s interest to the point of rabid obsession, but in my opinion, completely eclipses the game’s content in favor of slack-jawed awe.

Early into opening tracks “Nascence” and “The Call,” Wintory’s musical and compositional gifts are easily evident. The foundation of the Journey score is rooted in cello (masterfully played by Tina Guo) and electronic ambient, and right from the start both are equally and effortlessly represented as the score begins with a heart-wrenching cello melody transitioning to gentle, brooding, electronic synth of the highest order. I’m reminded immediately of the melodies on James Newton Howard’s score for The Village, as well as Bulgarian dark ambient artist Shrine’s The Final Asylum. “First Confluence” begins with the “Nascence” theme buried in the background, almost as if the listener’s journey already has taken them a fair distance away from where they began, when suddenly wavering synth begins to flirt with harp melodies. “Second Confluence” continues this pattern, adding a slight industrial tinge when faint electronic buzzing and feedback mingle with bubbling bass lines. “Threshold,” a beautiful and lithe track where comparisons to The Village again come to mind, almost immediately also recalls the lead lines to Clint Mansell’s The Fountain, when the harp creates a dominant cascade of sound giving way to slight ethnic influences. Wintory may or may not have been trying to steep the listener with emotional impression, but “Threshold”’s conclusion gives a feeling of rebirth after the primordial and serene sound of the first few tracks. “Third Confluence” greets with a foreboding yet wonderfully withdrawn and skittish melody, which quickly introduces “The Road of Trials,” a much different and upbeat track than prior with a full-on ethnic drive and pulse, incorporating cello, flute, and harp in a beautiful amalgam of sounds, within a delicate framework of bleeding excess yet somehow juxtaposed with effortless structure and poise. The drums, once in the background, are more forceful and pronounced than before.

“Fourth Confluence” is a short track hearkening back to the score’s beginning, incorporating ambient swell leading into “Temptations,” which features one of the best melody lines on the album, a mysterious harp tune being penetrated first by ambient drift and then by waves of coalescing strings. “Descent” follows, which quickly moves from blinding beauty to what its title suggests: gloomy, nonchalant percussion and low-octave horns. The pace momentarily is quickened entering into “Fifth Confluence,” a song comprised of slight, low, and thunderous bass lines underneath a layer of aquatic strings and synth. “Atonement”’s sound again pays homage to Mansell’s The Fountain, joined by atonal gongs and warbles of percussion seeming to interrupt the potent cello melody therein, and after two minutes the whole composition bleeds into a network of strings first emulating the cello’s captivating beauty, then building and ascending their own structural tone and delving into a swirling, amorphous mass of cello, strings, and metallic percussion. “Final Confluence,” the best of its similarly-named cousins, starts out displaying synth backdrop, but then transforms into colossal string collections of heart-rending beauty.

Following “The Crossing,” the spine-tingling and high-pitched string work of “Reclamation” funnels into “Nadir,” which, as its name implies, illustrates a menacing sound akin to Hans Zimmer’s work on The Ring, before spiraling into a tumultuous assembly of scratching strings and harrowing drums. It’s with “Apotheosis,” however, that Journey’s penultimate track yet spiritual denouement begins; with a quickening pace of slight percussion and string work, the track breaks into the best melodic section on the album at around the one-minute time frame, capturing the wavering and weeping cello in parallel with a repeating skeletal string composition. Then roughly halfway through the song, the melody shatters upon itself to produce one of the most beautiful and tear-inducing sequences of music I’ve heard in my lifetime, lending “Apotheosis” an air of unparalleled gravitas with equal and frightening ingeniousness. Final track “I Was Born For This” is the first to incorporate vocals, courtesy of Lisbeth Scott, which otherwise portrays the prototypical sound of the entirety of the Journey score while seeming to casually pay an homage to the awesome beauty of Wintory’s sound, before closing on the same level of resplendent beauty on which it all began.

I hope I’ve begun to do justice to Austin Wintory’s Journey in only the slightest; never have I heard a musical score that has such left me feeling simultaneously as if I’ve been infinitely inspired and yet robbed of all hope, joy, yearn, and sorrow. Journey is simply that, in summary: a musical work of drowning, almost emotionally and spiritually vampiric power whose splendor and grandeur cannot be effectively portrayed in words. Stop at nothing to obtain this musical work in any form; Austin Wintory’s Journey is a score of stunning and heart-stopping majesty, zealous and indescribable aesthetics, and utterly flawless magnificence.