WARCRAFT – Ramin Djawadi
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
World of Warcraft has been one of the most popular MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games) in the world since it was first launched in 2004 by Blizzard Entertainment. The game has grown over the course of the past decade and a half, through five or six different expansions, and had 5.5 million active players in October 2015. Rumors of a big-screen adaptation of the game surfaced as early as 2006, but delays in production resulted in it not being released until almost a decade later. Directed by Duncan Jones – son of the late David Bowie – the film stars Travis Fimmel, Paula Patton, Ben Foster, Dominic Cooper, and Toby Kebbell, and is a vast canvas of humans and orcs battling for supremacy in a fantasy-inspired world of knights and monsters and magic. Unfortunately, the film has not been a success, critically or commercially, with many reviewers focusing on its wooden screenplay, overly-complicated plotting, and clichéd comparisons to the Lord of the Rings series, instead of its really quite astonishing visual splendor.
Many composers have written superb music over the years for the World of Warcraft video games. Led by their lead composer, Russell Brower, talented individuals such as Neal Acree, David Arkenstone, Clint Bajakian, Tracy Bush, Sam Cardon, Derek Duke, Craig Stuart Garfinkle, Edo Guidotti, Jason Hayes, Eimear Noone, Jeremy Soule, Glenn Stafford, and Matt Uelmen have contributed enormously to the game’s success. The reason I’m name-checking them here is because it was my firm belief that Brower, Acree, and other members of the Blizzard music team should have been given the opportunity to score this movie. Their music, and some of the recurring themes within it, is iconic in WOW culture, and the quality of their work, purely from a compositional and dramatic point of view, has continually been high enough to justify them being rewarded with a high profile movie project.
Unfortunately, and for reasons I still don’t fully understand, the gig was eventually handed to Ramin Djawadi, who despite his success scoring the TV series Game of Thrones had never really truly excelled on his big screen assignments in my opinion. Much to my surprise, his score for Warcraft is actually pretty decent, and while never coming close to the quality of the game scores, it is nevertheless a significant step up from things like Iron Man, Pacific Rim, Clash of the Titans, and his other popular works.
The score is written for a large orchestra, heavy on strings, heavy on the brass, and which includes a cimbasso and a bass trombone to give it weight and power. I’m not enough of an expert on the game’s recurring themes to know whether Djawadi quoted any of them directly here as an Easter egg for game fans, but his own two main themes appear prominently throughout the score. The building blocks of it all are developed early, with the introduction of the two main themes, as well as the recurring orchestration ideas that permeate much of the score.
The main theme for the humans is introduced in the first cue, “Warcraft,” an epic, strident, war-like piece with prominent brass and an unusual, unexpected jazzy influence in the chord progressions. The theme for the orcs is introduced in the second cue, “The Horde,” a darkly-hued collision of tribal drums, throat singers, and the aforementioned contrabass flute, which emphasizes the ancientness of orc culture. This percussion-heavy sound features prominently in the game, so it is not a surprise to learn that Djawadi has mirrored it, but what is interesting is the sequence in the second half of the cue which sounds almost religious in tone, like orcs singing in praise of some alien deity, giving them a depth and a compassion that has never really been explored before.
These two themes dominate the thematic core of Warcraft, illustrating the two disparate cultures as they initially clash, and then ally in the face of a bigger threat. Cues like “Forest Ambush,” “Two Worlds Colliding,” and “Llane’s Solution,” feature especially prominent performances of the Human theme, and it is the Human theme which will remain longer in the memory of listeners, but I found that the Orc theme tends to have more range and more emotional variation. “Honor,” for example, sees the Orc theme performed with a solemn, almost introspective tone, featuring an unusually exotic quivering woodwind element that is quite enchanting, before emerging into a full string performance during the cue’s conclusion. Later, “Gul’dan” performs the Orc material with war-like intensity, threatening and oppressive, with powerful martial brasses and unusual, breathy scatting through the woodwinds. Counterbalancing this, “Strong Bones” is ethereal and mystical, a clever variation on the Orc ideas transposed to flutes and oboes that convey emotion and tenderness instead of the aggression and strength usually associated with their race.
The action music, of which there is a great deal, has the relentless percussive base that has typified a lot of contemporary action music, and clearly has its roots in Hans Zimmer’s sound-du-jour that developed from his Dark Knight scores. Cues like “Forest Ambush,” “Victory and Defeat,” “Llane’s Solution,” “Mak’gora,” and several others are underpinned by the interminable chugging cello ostinatos and overactive drumbeats, and could have been dismissed as being repetitive and uninspired were it not for the thematic nuggets and interesting instrumental touches Djawadi works into them. The contrapuntal performances of the Human and Orc themes in “Forest Ambush” have more structural intelligence than most RC-inspired action music these days, while the emotional finale of “Victory and Defeat” adds a level of pathos and consequence to what could otherwise have been a fairly standard action cue.
A couple of other cues are worthy of special note. “Medivh” has a romantic and sweeping sound, with more emphasis on higher range strings and harp glissandi, and builds to an epic conclusion. This style of writing continues through the lovely “Lothar” – listen for the interesting cascading effects in the string writing here! – and into the moody “Half Orc, Half Human,” the anticipatory “Whatever Happens,” and the noble “My Gift to You,” with generally positive results. “The Book” addresses some of the film’s elements of magic and prophecy with a subtle choir, chimes, and Desplat-esque electronic textures trilling underneath the orchestra, while “The Incantation” heads briefly into horror movie territory via a portentous combination of throat singing, bombastic brass chords, and blasts of sound juxtaposed by eerie violin harmonics. The finale, “For Azeroth,” has all the rousing ebullience one would expect from the climax of a score like this, and features an especially inspiring performance of the Human theme.
While I remain convinced that Russell Brower, Neal Acree, and the Blizzard music gang should have at least been given the chance to score this film, I have to admit that Ramin Djawadi’s work here impressed me. Critics will say that it’s predictable, that it sounds exactly the way one would expect it to sound, and that the action music suffers from many of the same problems that befall too many other contemporary action scores: they’re interchangeable and sound too alike. Many of these criticisms are certainly valid, but I found that Djawadi’s central thematic ideas were stronger than I had anticipated, the development of the Orc theme in particular was intelligent and nuanced, and some of the instrumental touches showed a hitherto undiscovered imaginative flair. It could well be the case that Djawadi’s six years scoring the adventures of various Starks, Lannisters, and Targaryans in Game of Thrones has developed in him a new found respect for thematic consistency, and if that is true, I’m very pleased. Whatever the case may be, Warcraft is a much better score than I ever imagined it could be, and as such it will certainly be a score I return to in the future.
Buy the Warcraft soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Warcraft (1:58)
- The Horde (3:17)
- Medivh (2:43)
- Honor (4:46)
- Forest Ambush (3:43)
- Lothar (3:35)
- Gul’dan (3:13)
- The Beginning (2:29)
- Strong Bones (1:34)
- Victory and Defeat (3:02)
- The Book (2:27)
- Two Worlds Colliding (3:22)
- The Incantation (3:43)
- Half Orc, Half Human (1:26)
- Whatever Happens (1:43)
- My Gift to You (2:31)
- Llane’s Solution (7:25)
- Mak’gora (5:01)
- For Azeroth (2:50)
Running Time: 60 minutes 40 seconds
Back Lot Music (2016)
Music composed by Ramin Djawadi. Conducted by Gavin Greenaway. Orchestrations by Stephen Coleman, Andrew Kinney, Tony Blondal and Matt Dunkley. Additional music by Brandon Campbell. Featured musical soloists Everton Nelson, Caroline Dale and Andy Findon. Recorded and mixed by Nick Wollage and Gustavo Boerner. Edited by Peter Myles and Michael Bauer. Album produced by Ramin Djawadi.