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  • Composed by Austin Wintory
  • Sony / 2012 / 59m

A high-concept video game released for the PlayStation in 2012, Journey proved to be wildly, unexpectedly popular.  The player takes control of a hooded figure who is drawn towards a distant mountain, and must get him there, using help from other players along the way but without the ability to directly communicate with them.  It has gone on to win numerous awards and attract considerable acclaim, and does show just how far “games” (I use inverted commas since it really seems to be much more than that) have come.

Much acclaim has also been lavished upon the game’s music which was, incredibly, the bestselling soundtrack album on iTunes in all sorts of countries around the world shortly after being released; and it went on to become the first video game soundtrack to be nominated for a Grammy award.  While all composers for “visual media” (to use the Grammy phrase) are essentially hired guns doing very professional jobs to satisfy the requirements of the director or producer, I think just occasionally you can hear in a score that it really meant something hugely personal to the composer – while of course they give their best on every project, now and again you hear something that seems to just transcend the normal order of things; Austin Wintory’s music for Journey is one such transcendental experience.

Austin Wintory

Austin Wintory

I’ve thought about this review for a long time, and specifically I’ve thought about how to describe the album without describing it as being a musical journey, since that’s a facile thing to say even by my standards.  I’ve reached the conclusion that it’s not possible.  There is such a sense of movement here, a sense of the mind (not necessarily the body) being taken from one place to another.  Wintory seems to be concentrating on a journey through the senses, a trip to illumination, through great beauty.

The score is dominated by a central theme, introduced in the exquisite opening cue “Nascence”.  Written for cello and performed beautifully by Tina Guo, the theme is not quite ever-present, but is rarely far away.  The surprising thing is that over an hour, you barely even notice that you’re listening to the same thing – it seems to ever be taking on a new guise, reassuring in its companionship but unstinting in its call forward.  Accompaniment comes from what sounds like a fairly small orchestra, plus occasional keyboards and exotic percussion, and a particular flavour from the ancient bass wind instrument the serpent.

Around a third of the way through the album, the solemnity briefly gives way to a more sprightly sound, beginning with the closing bars of “Third Confluence” and continuing through the playful “The Road of Trials”.  Wintory has written such fluid-sounding music, these occasional diversions seem to occur entirely naturally; nothing seems or indeed sounds awry.  Like waves crashing onto a beach or a group of birds flying in formation through the sky, there’s something that sounds never-changing here, even though in reality it is constantly changing.

“Temptations” is an incredible piece, the main theme for once left behind, in its place a series of new age-style keyboards with beautiful harp and string parts – and that’s followed by the much darker sound of “Descent”, featuring some thunderous percussion as some less savoury places are explored.  It’s the strangest thing, but even as the music travels through decidedly unmelodic territory, it remains resolutely, steadfastly, unimpeachably beautiful.

A subtle shift occurs during “Atonement” as the album enters its final section, almost like light beginning to dawn, and this continues apace in “Final Confluence”.  This isn’t to imply that what went before was without light – far, far from it – but you can almost hear various thought processes being to converge, there’s a real sense of things falling into place.  The strings become more multi-layered, slightly softer, as things come together.  This reaches a climax in the incredible “Apotheosis”, which lives up to its name and then some.  Guo’s cello – a constant presence – glimmers even brighter; the chopping strings and urgent percussion whip things up to an extraordinary emotional frenzy.  There’s one piece left on the album – the beautiful “I Was Born For This”, with Lisbeth Scott lending her vocals to the main theme.

I’ve listened to Journey so often over the year or so leading up to writing these words.  It seems – to repeat a word I used earlier – to transcend the normal boundaries of what is sometimes dismissively called “programme music”.  From time to time I’m sure all of us come across things – books, paintings, films, music – that seems to speak to us personally; this is one such occasion for me.  This is my favourite album of 2012 of any kind, and by some distance the most ambitious and most satisfying music I’ve ever heard from a video game.  Not everyone will make that connection – I’ve seen lots of praise for this over the year, but also comments from people who were nonplussed.  It does it for me, that’s all I can say.  I’ve said things over the preceding paragraphs that must reek of pretension to some readers, but this is one album that I found to be quite exceptionally profound; indeed, quite exceptional in every way.

Rating: ***** | |

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  1. Paul Cote (Reply) on Sunday 31 March, 2013 at 22:17

    Very nicely put, James.

  2. muckle_dabuckle (Reply) on Tuesday 2 April, 2013 at 15:36

    You can sign up to receive e-mail updates from Austin Wintory’s Web site and with the first e-mail you get a sizable amount of mp3s from various projects he has worked on, including Journey. I haven’t gotten around to listening to all of it, but what I have heard is quite good.

  3. Dave Buzan (Reply) on Tuesday 2 April, 2013 at 20:23

    Okay, James, your review prompted me to order this one. Sounds fantastic!

  4. J.B. (Reply) on Thursday 11 August, 2016 at 09:33

    Just played through the game. The music is effective in it, although I prefer Wintory’s work on Abzu for its greater diversity of colors. Hoping you’ll review that one!