The Giant Squid Studios’ 2016 video game Abzu could be said to be the spiritual successor to the game company’s phenomenally successful 2012 adventure video game Journey that was made all the more special by an immersive and exquisitely crafted score by Austin Wintory, whose work alongside the game itself went on to win all kinds of acclaim, fame and fortune and for very good reasons. So when the art director from Journey, Matt Nava, decided to set up his own studio and create and direct a new underwater adventure with Abzu, the title itself fittingly meaning "to know, water" or "ocean depths/deep ocean" in ancient Babylonian, he asked Wintory to join the creative team based very much on their experience on Journey.
Nowadays the music for the games of the biggest studios (and even smaller ones) boast impressive scoring budgets and they often hire big name Hollywood composers to lend their talents to these projects. The approaches range from completely orchestral to completely electronic and everything in between, mirroring very much the trends of the film world. For the composers their involvement often begins in early stages and they are afforded more generous time than on film scores which are usually labour intensively produced in time frames ranging from a few weeks to about two months. And even though the rigours and pressures of the game scoring are much the same as with the movie counterpart, the amount of music actually exceeds that of a single film by a considerable margin. The collaboration between the gaming studio and the composer can be extremely close, and these days the music is more often than not seen as an integral part of the whole experience, carefully tailored to accentuate the action and story which of course has certain freedoms and requirements that a film narrative doesn’t. Very much like in Journey the music of Abzu was evidently considered to be a very vital element in the storytelling. Wintory was aboard the project for three years of its development and worked on the score throughout and the music was shaped and reshaped during a long gestation process. Now in 2016 we can finally hear the results and I am happy to say that they are very much worth the wait.
The story of Abzu takes place entirely in the ocean and this starting point colours Wintory take on the material, the game and the underwater environment inspiring a very impressionistic, lyrical and free flowing score from the composer. The approach reminds strongly of Journey (as does the game) in that the score again blends a moderate sized symphonic ensemble (without brass) with mesmerizing electronics to create haunting soundscapes, but this time around the composer was also ambitiously allowed to employ a harp ensemble and a chamber chorus consisting of the members of the famed London Voices to evoke the wonders of the ocean depths which give this score both added dimension and new colour. And while in Journey Wintory chose to employ the soulful lyricism of solo cello played by Tina Guo, here Kristin Naigus’ oboe is chosen as the instrumental voice of the score and does indeed sing elegantly in the midst, above and under the sonic waves of the whole ensemble.
Also never one to score only the apparent and surface level even in video games, Wintory adds further subtext and mythical dimensions to his music by the use of the words of the Babylonian creation myth Enuma Elis, to which the title of the game is actually harkens and sets his choral music to its ancient Babylonian text. This gives the abundant choral music on the album further resonance and variety when they especially in the finale of the score have an active narrative role instead of the usual textural one. The resulting musical world is luminous, searching, lyrical and contemplative yet constantly fluidly on the move, and not unlike in Journey the composer’s writing paints very powerful and vivid aural imagery on its own.
Comparisons with Journey seem almost inevitable when you are talking about the same composer and a very similar concept in its approach to the narrative where music does much of the emotional heavy lifting and enhances the atmosphere considerably with its mysterious and meditative mood. Luckily the similarities take the strengths of the previous score and its approach and transport them here into a new territory. This is clearly heard in "To Know, Water" which introduces the beautiful, simple yet elegant and malleable central theme that trickles in through the harps, gamelan and electronics on oboes as if bubbling up from the ocean depths and finally passes to the serene wordless chorus that conjures up sheer majestic awe that is quite heavenly. The brief "Heaven Was Not Named" further establishes the chorus and oboe as major elements of the score. The piece murmurs with slightly dissonant choral layers from which emerges the pensive solo oboe line and swirling, sparkling strings that are like sunlight upon the waves. This is a very elegant musical opener that quickly draws the listener into the musical world and introduces its sonic palette.
Appropriately for the ocean setting of the game many of the track titles refer to the names of various species of fish which the player encounters and "Seriola lalandi" continues to explore the central theme’s harmonies on Naigus’ oboe with soft choral backing before Wintory introduces rhythmic arpeggio-figures on strings and light percussion that form another suitably wave-like recurring thematic form throughout the album.
"And the Earth did not yet bear a name" delves into mood painting and sketches images of calm waters as the chorus wafts past with luminous and soothing atmosphere and subtle references to the main theme are heard on sumptuous warm strings while the track hints at the lively and broadly lyrical secondary theme, which is fully unveiled on the next track. This lengthy setpiece "Delphinus Delphis" shows off beautifully the combined colours of the entire ensemble Wintory has assembled for this soundtrack and it dances effortlessly and passionately with delicate woodwind passages and expansively singing warm strings that are constantly supported by the playfully energetic wave-like arpeggio motif and chorus, which finally reaches a joyous ethereal crescendo while intoning the words of Enuma Elis.
"Caranx ignobilis" delicately intertwines a slow and broadly majestic rendition of his secondary theme and the playful arpeggio motif on strings with the main theme on delicate luminous solo flute and echoing pure choral tones into a brief but gorgeous meditation. In "Myliobatis Aquila" the ever present oboe pensively wanders through fragments of the main theme accompanied by slow rhythmic string figures before the composer offers a wonderfully choreographed dance between the woodwinds and the jaunty string section. "Balaenoptera musculus" has a gently magical air about it and after a misty harp and female voices introduction, a swaying undercurrent of the string section takes over and is joined by the oboe, woodwind section and chorus in a lovely exploration of the main theme in fragments and variations.
While the music is mostly filled with a sort of luminous joyful ebb and flow, Wintory introduces some harsher and darker currents with "Chaos, the mother" where electronic droning threatens to cover the woodwind soloists and orchestra entirely and unsettling pulsing synthesizer patterns, gnashing metallic effects and siren-call like soprano soloist and muffled whispers of choral voices echo from the dark reaches of the ocean depths in an almost violent but rather mesmerizing way. It is chilling but highly evocative stuff done with wonderful skill at blending all the described elements into an impressive whole. "Arandaspis prionotolepis" continues with the synthesis of electronics and acoustics by presenting lovely bubbling and pensive woodwind solos and choral passages over the pedal pulse of a steady rhythmic synth motif. This motif returns in the following "Elasmosaurus platyurus" where a new poignant slowly building thematic idea is introduced by the ensemble and it is energetically explored in "Ichthyosaurus communis" that is a sprightly little scherzando for orchestra and chorus before the grand finale.
Everything comes a full circle with "Their waters were mingled together" which is the high point of the album where Wintory ties everything that has come before together into a marvellous and joyous 10 minute summation. It is like a small cantata for chorus, orchestra, woodwind soloists and harps where the London Voices shine as they almost rapturously intone the words of Enuma Elis in a long meditation as a new theme beautifully emerges and is mingled together with the main themes in a gorgeously flowing ballet that rises from one wave crest to the next in this tour-de-force that finally ends in a poignant choral incantation that slowly fades away into silence. It is in my opinion one of the most impressive things Wintory has written thus far in his career. And after such a powerful musical journey this score receives a beatific glowing coda in "Then were created the gods in the midst of Heaven" where the composer writes a long choral prayer on the main theme that offers a perfect luminous and serene final note to the score, the music ending where it had begun, on the main theme heard in "To Know, Water".
Austin Wintory is one of those composers who are doing their work around several different modern media but while also working in the world of films hasn’t made that one big splash at the cinema yet. I hope he eventually will as he more than has the chops for it, but I am continually impressed by his ability to create such inventive, individual and impactful music in other media like video games, which is a growing and developing arena for storytelling. Journey, Banner Saga, flOw, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate and now Abzu speak loud and clear of his considerable musical talent. That Abzu is a score for video game speaks volumes not only of the skill of the composer but also of the quality of the gaming music today and the possibilities that it offers for musical expression, invention, creativity and fruitful collaboration. It is fantastic to hear such obvious care put to the architecture of the music in individual compositions and as a the whole and to see such clarity of the narrative arc, which results in wonderful sense of flow and natural progression from one idea to the next on the album. The time and thought put into this music really shows and there is intelligence and emotion at work in equal measure in Abzu.
I would say this score is among the composer’s best, mature, self-assured and wonderfully conceived with impressive blending of all its elements into a whole that transports the listener and takes you on a voyage. At times Abzu feels more like a concerto or a symphonic poem written without the constraints that often shackle film music, which just shows how well this work stands on its own musical feet. Perhaps it is inevitable that this soundtrack shares some of its stylistic approach and atmosphere with Journey, that seems to have been the obvious starting point for this type of immersive musical experience, but Wintory succeeds in creating a very different sounding score tone-wise and manages to craft a singular atmosphere and individual musical identity through the use of his new themes and textural colours. Whether the fans of the composer will prefer this over Journey is up to their personal preferences as this certainly is a score of the same calibre and quality but I give them and indeed most other film music fans my most heartiest recommendation as Abzu is another triumph for Austin Wintory, that quite literally blows most competition, whether film or video game, out of the water in 2016.
Abzu is out now from Varese Sarabande