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  • Composed by Austin Wintory
  • T-65b Records / 2016 / 59m

A contemplative video game, Abzu sees the player swim underwater picking up threads of an ancient civilisation, witnessing the interactions between aquatic beings and avoiding the occasional hazard.  Most reviews of the game say the same thing – even though essentially all you’re doing is swimming through beautiful environments, it’s such an immersive experience you don’t really notice that you’re not doing much other than watching and listening – and thinking.  It was developed by Matt Nava, who previously served as art director on Journey, and looks sure to appeal to a similar audience.

Equally sure to appeal to a similar audience is Austin Wintory’s beautiful score, cut from the same cloth as Journey, which I think is the finest video game music I’ve ever heard and there are very few albums of any kind I’ve listened to more frequently since it was released.  It seemed so calm and contemplative, at the same time had such beauty – one of those great works of art that seems to speak personally to me.  I know a number of others shared that reaction (and others didn’t, as is to be expected) and it’s unlikely that many people will fall into a different camp with Abzu.

Austin Wintory

Austin Wintory

It’s a largely peaceful score – but certainly not entirely – which seems to dance about, teeming with colours and with life, clearly and cleverly evoking the underwater world full of beauty and mystery, occasional danger.  The main theme is introduced in the opening track “To Know, Water” – it is fluid and florid, an ensemble of harps used for the same glistening effect Bernard Herrmann did so brilliantly in Beneath the 12-Mile Reef (the presence through the score gives it so much of its flavour) – the melody itself heard usually for oboe, stately and majestic as it is.

The secondary theme introduced in “Seriola Islandi” is slightly playful, bouncing up and down as it floats along, the strings in particular evoking Journey quite strongly.  I love it in “Delphinus delphis”, strings and winds dancing off each other so gracefully, extra colour added by the choir, the main theme eventually emerging, strings going on to soar.  Thankfully the style is reprised as the score goes on – highlights including “Caranx ignobilis” and the fast-moving currents of “Ichthyosaurus communis”.

It takes a long time for darkness to appear, but it does in “Chaos, the mother”, around half way through the album.  We seem to be plunging murkier depths here, occasional shafts of choral light passing but the atmosphere is chilly and uncomfortable down to the closing bar.  The tension is relieved somewhat in “Arandaspis prionotolepis” – we are still in darker territory than before but now clearly journeying back towards the light, reached in “Elasmosaurus platyurus”, strings emerging more fluidly again, the voices of the choir soothing.

The choir is interesting throughout – it has a somewhat liturgical sound, though the text is not biblical but rather ancient Babylonian.  It’s there in the opening cue, later in “And the Earth did not yet bear a name” which is an outstanding piece; “No field was formed” (and others, later) briefly approaches the level of choral rapture in Ennio Morricone’s What Dreams May Come, some of the most beautiful music the great composer has even written – and that’s saying something.  In the duo of “No destinies ordained” and “Balaenoptera musculus”, orchestra and choir come together startlingly well – the sound is so organic, so beautiful.  But really, it is throughout, and it reaches its zenith in the finale, “Then were created the gods in the midst of Heaven” which would have to be something special to live up to its name – and it is, unaccompanied choir delivering the emotional payoff to the whole score.

The ten-minute “Their waters were mingled together” just before is a remarkable piece, going through a number of the ideas developed earlier in the score and adding yet more fresh material.  It’s balletic really, going along with such energy, the melodies so fluid – it feels so completely natural and pure, music that exists entirely on its own terms, written to serve something else but which has a life of its own.

As good as Journey?  Maybe not quite, but there’s really not much in it.  Wintory worked on Abzu for three years and it was clearly a labour of love.  The attention to detail is something else, the atmosphere so carefully crafted.  I’ve not quite mentioned every track in my words above, but each moment seems to have a purpose to serve, the composer always has something to say – there’s not a note here that isn’t there for a reason.  Whether you’ve played the game or not, you could listen to this music, close your eyes and be transported completely into its world.  This is enveloping music, rich and rewarding, and the composer’s fans (of which I am most certainly one – he is a special composer) will love it.  At the time of writing it is available digitally; a CD release is coming soon.

Rating: ***** | |

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  1. Aidabaida (Reply) on Sunday 18 September, 2016 at 21:57

    A truly beautiful and magnificent opus from Austin Wintory. He’s a true genius that really needs more recognition. If you’re unable to pick up a copy, he’s posted a few tracks on his soundcloud account.

  2. J.B. (Reply) on Sunday 18 September, 2016 at 22:17

    Great review, James. It’s a beautiful score.

  3. Momo (Reply) on Monday 19 September, 2016 at 07:09

    Game music has definitely been in kind of a lull recently, and that’s unfortunate–because I truly believe the industry employs some of the finest musicians in the world. It’s very refreshing to hear an album like this and fortuitous that Austin Wintory is getting lots of work!

  4. Jockolantern (Reply) on Sunday 9 October, 2016 at 15:54

    The more work Wintory gets in video games and/or film, the better. He’s one of the most promising young talents I’ve heard in recent years and I’m very excited to hear where his musical voice goes.

  5. ANDRÉ, Cape Town. (Reply) on Sunday 19 February, 2017 at 01:33

    I decided to again read your review James (and readers comments) before ordering the exquisite sounding ‘Abzu’ score. You mention choral passages, referencing ENNIO MORRICONE’S ‘What Dreams May Come’. I love the way ENNIO utilises choirs in his scores, but don’t know this movie, so decided to research it. Both IMDB and WIKIPEDIA credit MICHAEL KAMEN as the composer. Did MORRICONE provide a different score for the Italian release of ‘What Dreams May Come’? What is the Italian title? I couldn’t locate your review for that movie’s English title.

    • James Southall (Reply) on Sunday 19 February, 2017 at 10:42

      Morricone’s score was rejected before Kamen came on board. There is a bootleg of some of it (just under half an hour) and it is glorious, A-grade Morricone, one of the most beautiful things he’s ever done. Unfortunately the sound quality is poor. A legitimate release of it is my one remaining film music holy grail.