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The Wheel of Time
  • Composed by Lorne Balfe

Based on Robert Jordan’s series of fantasy novels, The Wheel of Time is Amazon’s high-profile grab at a Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings-sized audience. The familiar tropes are there – a group of ordinary people plucked from their lives to fulfil an epic quest, assisted by magic and mystery along the way, coming upon all sorts of creatures determined to make them stop. With no fewer than fourteen books in the main series (plus offshoots) there should be no shortage of material to keep it going for many years should it prove successful. (I have to say – I’ve watched it and haven’t really got a clue what’s going on – which is a fairly standard state for me to be in these days.)

I’m not the biggest fan of Ramin Djawadi’s Game of Thrones music but there’s no doubting its more mainstream popularity, or indeed influence, and I had assumed that The Wheel of Time would most likely follow along similar musical lines. I was wrong. Instead Lorne Balfe has crafted something really quite different for this type of project – essentially it’s a very modern kind of hybrid of world music and more traditional 2020s action/adventure elements – designed to be accessible but also clearly distinctive to this particular world. He has certainly succeeded in that.

Lorne Balfe

As is the way of tv scores quite often these days, there are no fewer than four different albums. These aren’t the standard “every note from every episode” ones though, and the first of them is more of a concept album, called “The First Turn” and essentially setting up the thematic material from which much of the actual underscore was built. Balfe did something similar on his other epic fantasy tv project, His Dark Materials, producing the finest music of his career in the process. “The First Turn” is a bit different though. I will say at this point that the pedant in me (and the pedant in me occupies a rather large part of me) always winces at seeing references to “songs” from film scores – “oh I love the Jurassic Park theme song” etc. By its nature, a song must be sung. So keep that in mind that when I say “The First Turn” is a collection of songs – I do actually mean that it is a collection of songs.

There are 14 of them in total, with the vast majority having lyrics written in the made-up language of the books (which feature “old tongue” and “new tongue” – I am not enough of an expert to know whether we are hearing both of those here or not). Truth be told, some of the songs sound quite similar to each other, but that’s hardly unusual on any album of 14 songs. The “opening “Mashithamel (Young Love)” has a touch of Bollywood about it to my ears, for whatever that’s worth. The second cue, “Moiraine Sedai”, is associated with the show’s central character – this one actually doesn’t have lyrics, but is still full of voices, wordless this time – it’s an interesting blend of sounds and textures, all melodic, and perhaps the signature sound of the show, really. Numerous cultural elements are thrown into the mixing pot to produce the distinctive sound, one of them unexpectedly being a kind of medieval plainsong in the use of percussion, which is done really well.

“Ost Ninto Shostya (On Your Knees)” is a fine piece of action music: there’s a middle eastern feeling running throughout, with unsettling whispered vocals bouncing across the stereo space in the middle section – it’s a really interesting piece. Later, another action piece “Al’Cair Sei (Goldeneyes)” is somewhat similar, though without the obvious ethnic touch it comes across as being a bit angrier, a tinder box just getting ready to catch fire.

Perhaps my favourite piece is “Mashiara (Lost Love)” which has a really interesting vocal style – it’s a really uplifting song, not romantic in that sweeping old-fashioned way, but romantic in a vibrant, youthful way. The following “Al’Naito (The Flame)” is also a really good one, and also uplifting – there’s a visceral quality to the vocals which gives them a great power, not to mention a really great tune. “Caisen’shar (Old Blood)” is the other real standout – this one combines elements of several other tracks together, with the strong world music vocals combining with earthy percussion – there’s a raw beauty to it.

“Wab’Shar (Bonded)” has the feel of a finale about it – essentially a piece of guitar-led soft rock, it’s got an ethereal, calming sound which is really appealing. The actual finale is the altogether less calming “Mordero’Sheen (Bringers of Death)” – bringers of death not traditionally being known for their calming qualities. The sinister whispering in the track reminds me of a similar technique employed by Hans Zimmer in Dune, and it’s very effectively creepy as it grows in intensity to eventual shrieking. It ends up with frantic drums and vocals creating a fever pitch atmosphere.

The actual score from the first season’s eight episodes is split across three volumes, each running around 45-50 minutes. And while clearly the music from “The First Turn” informed many of the more significant moments in the show’s music, there is a surprising amount of other material alongside that. (At this point a studious critic would be able to pinpoint exactly which tracks on the score albums relate to which on the concept album – unfortunately I’m not particularly convinced that I qualify as a “critic”, and am in no doubt whatsoever that I am not “studious”).

The first volume opens with the main title theme – it’s pretty gritty but has a certain drive to it which is appealing, though to be honest it’s not one that really sticks in the memory. The score itself then opens with a frantic piece of action music, “The Hunt”, dark and dirty but never unpleasant. The piece’s second half is actually a nice bit of what sounds essentially like modern country music, which may completely confound expectations as to what you’re going to hear, but works really well both in context and on the album.

Other highlights include “Innocence”, a simple and calming piece with really nice soothing textures; the brilliantly dark action track “Trollocs Attack” (never mind the trollocs, as the old saying goes) which sounds like it could come from an intense horror movie; the gritty “Leaving Home”, which sees a dynamic little motif appear midway through which really pulls the drama forward at pace; and there are several more decent action pieces, as that style actually dominates the album. We don’t get much of a hint of the more uplifting material from the concept album – in “Healing” we hear one of the most striking themes from there, which would qualify ordinarily, but in this context it is presented in much more strained, almost desperate fashion; and even the finale “The Choices We’re Given” has more of a feel of fairly grim resignation until its final minute or so when it takes on more of a spiritual quality, ending what is a fairly dark album of music on a tentatively optimistic note.

That optimism does not carry over to the start of the second volume, “Storm the Castle”, a very modern piece of action music that has quite an oppressive, claustrophobic feel amongst its drum loops and nightmarish textures. It doesn’t get any more cheerful in the next cue either – “Balance of Power” does bring us some of those distinctive vocals from the concept album, but they appear over a fairly bleak landscape.

“No Bond is Closer” finally does see some warmth reappear and it’s actually one of my favourite tracks on the whole four-volume collection: intriguing textures combine to produce a piece which may be very simple at its heart but conveys a kind of anguished beauty which is really full of dramatic potency. The following piece “The Woven Shield” also takes on a great calm beauty, particularly in its later moments, which is very impressively crafted.

While that sequence is certainly representative of the second volume being a calmer collection of music than the first, it’s by no means all fun and games – “Nightmares” more than lives up to its name, with some chillingly dark dissonance, and then comes the very dark “Arrows Fall”, a particularly intensive piece of what you might term psychological action music. Perhaps the pick of this volume’s tracks is the anthemic “Like a Raging Sun”, which features multiple layers all operating together very nicely, though the earthy pair of tracks which follow it are also very appealing. After this are several gritty, grimy tracks which are less interesting to me from a listening perspective, but things do perk up again for the penultimate cue, the rousing “Reunited”; the finale “The Path Forward” is slightly foreboding and mysterious.

The final album begins with the ominous-sounding “A Mother’s Strength”, suggesting the brightness of the album cover (setting it apart from the other three) may be a little misleading. The angry, rasping “Assaulted by Voices” does little to change this impression until it nears its conclusion, when the voices become anything but an assault, offering some glimmer of light to shine through.

This glimmer becomes a large beacon in “Follow Your Heart”, which feels like a particularly important dramatic moment, offering an inspirational moment in a very measured, calm way with a really gorgeous blend of vocals. “Cracks of Light” is a really nice track with some really beautiful string writing – it’s one of the most “conventional” tracks in the whole collection, and one of the standouts.

After some raucous action material in “War Council” comes the interesting “Call to Arms”, with all sorts of things going on – a fairly subtle choral chant, grimy percussion, then things change and it becomes more of a celestial, emotional anthem. In “Life or Death” we hear some of the darkest action material of the whole thing – very electronic, very processed, it’s fairly typical modern action/thriller music but Balfe does well to keep it all obviously within the same musical world. It’s so fiercely intense. It all ends in “From the West” which, not unusually for the finale of a tv season when the next season has already been concerned, closes things out with an intriguing sense of promise rather than one of conclusion.

It is essential to approach The Wheel of Time with an open mind – it is far from what you would expect of the music for an epic fantasy, either in an historical sense or more modern examples. For me though it’s really quite impressive what Lorne Balfe has conjured up – it’s a sound that very much works in the context of the show and also one I’ve found has become quite compelling on these albums. It took a while for me to get used to it and start feeling that way, so do have some patience if you find your initial reaction is negative – there’s quite a powerful spell being cast here.

Most impressive of all is that this really wasn’t the “easy” way to score this show. I’m not really sure that this style of music “should” work – and yet it does. Balfe sticks to his guns impressively. While I suppose “The First Turn” concept album is the one to get if you really only want one of the albums, in truth I find that it is very much more a complement to rather than a replacement for the actual soundtrack albums. True, there is a lot of music over the course of them, but you don’t have to listen to it all in one go! The second season has already been commissioned so I look forward to the composer’s future contributions to this unique sound world.

Rating: **** | |

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  1. Goh (Reply) on Thursday 30 December, 2021 at 18:14

    Great review as always James! Lorne Balfe recently is really amazing both in TV and film. I was just wondering if you are going to review Giacchino’s Spiderman No Way Home? I really liked the score and I would love to hear what you thought of it.

  2. Trey (Reply) on Monday 3 January, 2022 at 19:59

    Balfe has really come into his own in the past few years and is doing some neat stuff with genre scores. I loved how distinct his Wheel of Time scores are, and there are leitmotifs (in particular bits of Al’Naito) that stick in the brain incredibly well. And it all *fits* with the vibe of the show, which is all the more impressive considering how big of a swing Balfe takes here from time to time.