Sunday, October 13, 2019

Eldritch Ætherium I

"The Chase of the Black Beasts of Zephirus into the Caverns of the Demon King"

[This is one post in a series about my music mixes.  The series list has links to all posts in the series and also definitions of many of the terms I use.  You may wish to read the introduction for more background.

Like all my series, it is not necessarily contiguous—that is, I don’t guarantee that the next post in the series will be next week.  Just that I will eventually finish it, someday.  Unless I get hit by a bus.]

So, I’ve been writing quite a bit more lately about my love of D&D and other gaming topics.  Of course, writing about music, and in particular my music mixes, is another of my favorite topics.  So why not combine the two and write about a gaming mix?

I’ve talked before in this series about my discovery of Shards of Eberron, albeit briefly.  Here I was buying a D&D setting book—already somewhat of a rarity, as I’m by nature more of a mechanics nerd when it comes to D&D supplements1and there’s a CD in the back of it.  Why is there a CD in the back of my gaming book?  Was it perhaps supposed to be a CD-ROM (those were all the rage at the time), with some maps in PDF format or somesuch?  No, apparently it was a music CD.  But why would I need music to go along with my D&D game?  It just didn’t make any sense.  Until, you know, I actually played the damn thing.

I was blown away.  I mean, sure: I was familiar with the concept of playing music in the background while you gamed.  Some people have a fondness for “Carmina Burana” or other Da Vinci Code-style music.2  Others swore by Wagner.  But, you know: either way, that’s opera.  I don’t do opera.3  And, anyhow: I just didn’t see the point.  I don’t need music for my gaming.

But this ... this was something else.  It was orchestral, and cinematic, but definitely not opera, nor even classical.  It was like the soundtrack to an epic fantasy movie that hadn’t yet been made ... maybe never would be made.  This was the epic fantasy movie that stars you and your pals, which is why you’re playing D&D in the first place.  You’re creating an awesome story, and, dammit, why shouldn’t that story have a soundtrack?  I was so enamored by Shards of Eberron that I immediately went out looking for more music just like it.

Which is where I hit a bit of a dead end.  At the time, there just wasn’t that much going on in this area.  I found V Shane, who did music and sold it via whatever the early-aughts equivalent of DriveThruRPG was.  Eventually I stumbled across Midnight Syndicate, because they had the grace to put out an album specifically named Dungeons & Dragons ... a bit on the nose, perhaps, but it had some great tracks.  Mignight Syndicate, of course, is a prolific band, and there were dozens more albums in their back catalog, but none really had the same vibe as their D&D-focussed album.  Most of their music, as well as that of fellow “dark ambient” artist Nox Arcana,4 is more in the “dark and spooky” vein.  Now, some of that stuff can be good for gaming music, but not all, by a long shot.  So selections from Nox Arcana and those tracks from Midnight Syndicate not off Dungeons & Dragons will be a bit more rare here.

In fact, Shards of Eberron and Dungeons & Dragons together provide 40% of the tracks here on volume I, though I managed to bring that down on future volumes.  As you may know (or at least could guess), gaming music has gotten much more widespread now: the rise of D&D actual play (in both streaming and podcast form) means there’s a much larger market these days.  But, at the time I developed the first volume, those two sources, plus the odd track here or there from V Shane, were most of what I had.

Of course, I could come up with a few other options.  Back on Mystical Memoriam I talked about my discovery of zero-project, an Internet artist from (probably) Greece who has some great cinematic music.  On that mix, I was mining their Fairytale album; here I move on to Fairytale 2, which is somewhat similar to Evil Dead 2 in that it’s not quite a remake and not quite a sequel, but somehow a little of both.  Again, not all the tracks are great, but they hit it pretty hard when they hit it.  And of course there’s Dead Can Dance’s epic Aion, which I originally talked about way back on Smokelit Flashback II.  Much of that album has a Renaissance faire vibe to it, which means that it features a lot of music with medieval origins, or at least medieval tendencies.  And if you don’t make the connection between Renn faires and playing D&D, then I doubt much of what I have to say here is going to help you out.

So nowadays I enjoy using music while playing D&D, although I have to say that you can’t make a proper mix out of it in that context.  See, when you’re actually gaming, you want to have different playlists for different moods: one for traveling, one for being in town and visiting shops or inns, one for pitched battle, one for exploring spooky underground caverns, etc.  But those sorts of playlists don’t make good mixes: too samey.  For a proper gaming mix, you need a mixture of proper gaming music.  So I don’t use this mix to actually play D&D to.  But I love to listen to it while I work on D&D-related projects: world-building, rules tweaking, and so forth.  It always puts me in the perfect mood to create fantasy goodness.

For this mix, as with Classical Plasma, I tried to arrange the tracks in an order that would tell a bit of a musical story.  As gaming music is almost entirely instrumental (except for a few “wordless vocal” tracks, and there’s not even any of those on this volume), I’m once again stumped for a volume subtitle, and reduced to gluing various bits of song titles together.  This time around I really embraced the potential silliness that can result from this practice and produced my longest subtitle so far:5  “The Chase of the Black Beasts of Zephirus into the Caverns of the Demon King.”  Let’s follow the journey, shall we?

“Cut to the Chase” is the opener of Shards of Eberron, and I thnk it makes a great opener here.  It builds for a bit, but pretty quickly gets to a point where you feel the scope and drama of an epic adventure.6  From there to “Troubled Times” by Midnight Syndicate, which further sets the tone that something dramatic (and possibly just a bit spooky) is coming.  Then we visit Amber Asylum’s “Black Lodge,” which has a feeling of marching off to battle.  This is a long song, and it gains more dark, creepy overtones as it plunges steadily forward.  Then back to Dungeons & Dragons for “Beasts of the Borderlands,” another track that gives that sweeping, epic fantasy battle feel.

From there there’s the transitional medieval street-performer vibe of Dead Can Dance’s “The Garden of Zephirus,” and then the long, meandering “Lost Map” from V Shane, which is pretty much just what it says on the tin.  Once we get off the map, we go “Into the Dungeon,” of course, for some echoey, cavernous exploration music.  Which makes a beautiful transition into the underwatery, midnight-zone feeling that Reef Project is putting out in “Deep Mysteries.”  That inevitably brings us to “The Lower Dungeons,” where the foreboding of the previous few tracks seems to burst into actual danger.  The tolling of the bells is pretty standard, but I consider it a bit impressive when you can turn in a tune fueled mostly by electric guitar that still somehow fits a fantasy soundtrack.

From there we slow it down a bit by letting Midnight Syndicate take us out of the dungeons and into an “Ancient Temple,” and then Nox Arcana takes over to guide us down, down, into the “Crone’s Caverns.”  Things are sounding pretty dour and the outlook seems bleak at this point, but then zero-project gives us “The Defeat of the Demon King,” which makes it all okay again.

It’s mostly downhill from there.  There’s brief detour through the brightly-coloured Coraline-chaos that’s represented here by “Wybie,” then a final bit of relaxtion as we bask in the approval of Kitaro’s “Heavenly Father.”  Finally, the reprise of “Cut to the Chase” reminds us that, while the journey may be over for now, new adventures await tomorrow.

Eldritch Ætherium I
[ The Chase of the Black Beasts of Zephirus into the Caverns of the Demon King ]

“Cut to the Chase [Main Theme]” by David P. Davidson, off Shards of Eberron [Game Soundtrack]
“Troubled Times” by Midnight Syndicate, off Dungeons & Dragons [Game Soundtrack]
“Black Lodge” by Amber Asylum, off The Supernatural Parlour Collection
“Beasts of the Borderlands” by Midnight Syndicate, off Dungeons & Dragons [Game Soundtrack]
“The Garden of Zephirus” by Dead Can Dance, off Aion
“Lost Map” by V Shane [Single]
“Into the Dungeon” by David P. Davidson, off Shards of Eberron [Game Soundtrack]
“Deep Mysteries” by Reef Project, off Aquaculture
“The Lower Dungeons” by zero-project, off Fairytale 2
“Ancient Temple” by Midnight Syndicate, off Dungeons & Dragons [Game Soundtrack]
“Crone's Caverns” by Nox Arcana, off Grimm Tales
“The Defeat of the Demon King” by zero-project, off Fairytale 2
“Wybie” by Bruno Coulais, off Coraline [Soundtrack]
“Heavenly Father (Tenchi Sohzo Shin)” by Kitaro, off Silk Road I [Soundtrack]
“Cut to the Chase [Reprise]” by David P. Davidson, off Shards of Eberron [Game Soundtrack]
Total:  15 tracks,  71:55

Other than the sources I’ve mentioned thus far, there’s the one track from the Coraline soundtrack, which is really best suited for Phantasma Chorale, where it features prominently, but I thought this one track worked well here.  Amber Asylum has been seen before on Shadowfall Equinox I and II, but their Supernatural Parlour Collection works a bit better here.  Also featured on SfE2, as well as on Paradoxically Sized World II, Reef Project provides background music for underwater documentaries, which works perfectly for spooky, echoey sequences in gaming.  And, finally, Kitaro isn’t really known for epic fantasy music, but still his Silk Road suite occasionally comes close.  Designed as the background music for a Japanese documentary series way back in 1980, I think it’s one of Kitaro’s few albums that deviates from the meditative into a more dynamic, almost navigational feel.  It felt like an appropriate tune to help us wind down to the end of this epic journey.

Next time, we’ll celebrate the season with some more autumnal ambience.


1 In proper gaming jargon, one would say I’m more of a crunch guy than a fluff guy.
2 To be fair, Hans Zimmer was still a year or two away from writing the soundtrack for The Da Vinci Code at the time, so “Carmina Burana” was still the go-to piece.
3 For a fuller discussion of this anti-preference of mine, check out Fulminant Cadenza.
4 Fun fact: Nox Arcana founder Joseph Vargo was a former producer for Midnight Syndicate.  This probably explains any similarities between the two.
5 A record which it will hold until we get to Eldritch Ætherium III.
6 You may also recognize it as the theme for Dice Camera Action, if you’re into watching D&D actual play.  As I theorized before, I’m pretty sure the Wizards of the Coast folks just don’t want to pay any royalties for music at this point.