Diablo Soundtrack, Matt Uelmen, 1996
When Blizzard announced Diablo III at the 2008 Blizzcon Worldwide International, they chose a simple way to do so. All guitarist Laurence Juber had to do was to play the first few chords of the original Diablo’s signature tune. Of course, the piece in question was Matt Uelmen’s immortal “Tristram”. And according to Diablo III’s lead composer Russell Brower “over 10,000 people in the room knew EXACTLY what was coming”. Such is the power of a truly classic soundtrack composition that it can become the most memorable and thus quickest reference to the game or film it accompanied. That makes it all the more remarkable that it took 15 years for this composition – and the rest of Diablo’s music – to get a soundtrack release.
No wonder that “Tristram” is still fondly remembered by millions of gamers. In short, Uelmen’s composition is a masterpiece of subtly evoked atmosphere. Those opening strummed guitar chords herald a piece that still remains fascinating for its ambiguous, multi-layered atmosphere.
Indeed, like the rest of the Diablo soundtrack, “Tristram” alludes to danger, but at the same time keeps it just out of reach and in the shadows, never fully revealed and hard to identity, yet constantly present and inescapable. Key to “Tristram”’s success is Uelmen’s astonishing creativity as he finds new ways to manipulate his guitar material. With constant virtuosity, Uelmen tweaks his guitar lines into surprising dissonances and off-kilter fade outs that catch listeners by surprise. Combine this with a tasteful orchestral background that adds feelings of both foreboding and sorrow, and you’ve got a classic piece of game music that gives a piercing glimpse into the mood and psychology of a haunted location.
Much has been written about how “Tristram”’s guitar focus and sombre mood deviate from more standard, orchestral fantasy fare. According to Uelmen, his individualistic approach was a natural result of one band’s influence that he felt managed to capture a mystic, medieval vibe. That band was Led Zeppelin and particularly their third album, with its strong folk overtones. But even if “Tristram” sees Uelmen channeling the influence of Jimmy Page’s characteristic multiple guitar overlays, it’s a spectacular achievement to write a piece that rivals Led Zeppelin’s best folk tracks AND to give the music its own spooky, unsettling twist.
Of course, there’s more to the Diablo soundtrack than just “Tristram” – let’s not forget the dungeon tracks. Much more abstract than “Tristram”, these compositions are equally potent mood setters, if not quite as creative. What they share with “Tristram” is their resolve to eschew the common musical fantasy template, albeit in a different way. There’s no trace of heroism or romanticism found on these dungeon tracks – only stark horror.
To that end, Uelmen deploys a number of familiar horror score techniques on the Diablo soundtrack: deep, droning celli and double basses; unsettling, whining violin glissandi (particularly prominent and effective on “Catacombs”); wordless vocals that range from disembodied choirs to eerie moans; pounding percussion ringing out from the depths of the dungeons. However, there are two things that elevate Diablo far above the rank of a derivative horror score. Firstly, despite their quite minimalist nature, Diablo‘s dungeon tracks all develop well during their running time. They patiently roll out their slow-burning, tense ambiance until the listener has been truly sucked into their sinister world. Yes, the ingredients may be familiar. However, Uelmen still manages to deploy them effectively on compositions that sometimes border on twisted sound collages.
The other part of Uelmen’s formula for success is that he mixes in rock elements. Rarely heard in Western fantasy games, they work wonders for Diablo‘s chilling mood that becomes even more alienating through the tension between rock and orchestral sounds. The stomping drum rhythms on “Dungeon” and “Catacombs” add nervous energy and maliciousness to these tracks. Not surprisingly, the score’s contemporary elements harken back to a genre that is all about evoking doom and gloom. Uelmen reaches back to Gothic rock here, particularly in its early 80’s incarnation. “Caves” for example feels like a welcome throwback to early Killing Joke albums. A big percussion beat mercilessly drives the composition forward with tribal energy and fanatic focus. Meanwhile, distorted electric guitars gnaw and tear at the music’s fabric.
The Diablo soundtrack shows Uelmen finding a way to marry guitars, electronics and orchestra in a way no other Western game music composer had achieved before. And while Diablo is Uelmen’s most monochrome game score, it bears the hallmarks of all his future works. Chief among these are the masterful handling of constantly shifting textures, evoked by genre-bending instrument combinations and studio manipulations. At their best, these characteristics bend Uelmen’s music into otherworldly dreamscapes, elusive and perpetually fascinating.
- 01 - Tristram (Diablo Version) Matt Uelmen 4:49
- 02 - Dungeon Matt Uelmen 4:23
- 03 - Catacombs Matt Uelmen 5:50
- 04 - Caves Matt Uelmen 4:57
- 05 - Hell Matt Uelmen 4:08
Tristan Blanchard says
“There’s no trace of heroism or romanticism found on these dungeon tracks – only stark horror.”
This couldn’t be more true ! 😀
And I agree with you, this is what makes the Diablo music so perfect.
I fell in love with this soundtrack so much, this is one of the first I started listening outside the game (I remember downloading some MP3 files on eDonkey, back in 2000 or 2001, as soon as I could).
Ironically, “Hell” feels a bit underwhelming to me, compared to the other compositions. I find it funny that you didn’t mention this track in your review, maybe you feel the same about this one ^^
Anyway, the constant anguish and fear the player is experiencing through the music is what made me addicted to it. As much as I like the Diablo II Soundtrack, it didn’t manage to convey the same darkness. Maybe because the game is made of much more open areas than the first one, therefore being less oppressive, IMO.
I must say your review pays the homage this soundtrack deserves. I would love to read your take on the Diablo II soundtrack as well. Maybe this is planned in the future 😛
Simon Elchlepp says
Glad we agree on the scores merits! 🙂 Yes, I find Diablo a really interesting stylistic contrast to most other fantasy scores (both Western and Eastern) that often play by the same genre formulas. Diablo really finds a novel approach, from the Led Zeppelin inspiration of the “Tristram Theme” to the gothic rock/horror of the dungeon cues. It’s easy to see how the score became so iconic and stuck in gamers’ minds by creating such an intense, memorable atmosphere.
Thank you for the trip down memory lane – I remember using eDonkey as well around that time for the same purpose, when it was so much more difficult to listen to game music outside of the game and any score you could find was an exciting discovery. And yes, I wasn’t overwhelmed by “Hell” either.
Yes, I wasn’t as big a fan of Diablo II either. I enjoyed parts of it (despite the change of mood from Diablo), but I think Matt Uelmen perfected this sort of impressionistic, flowing orchestral style on Torchlight II (reviewed on this website) – and then took it to the next level – more abstract and ambient, but absolutely fascinating – with Hob (also reviewed). Now, if only there was a score release for Torchlight III…
Tristan Blanchard says
I played Torchlight and Torchlight II for some time, but I can’t really remember their soundtrack (shame on me). I will have to give it another try, good thing the scores are included in your reviews ^^
Never tried Hob, and never listened to the soundtrack either. Now that I think about it, knowing how much I love Matt Uelmen’s early works, I don’t get why I still haven’t listened to the rest.