Age of Pirates: Caribbean Tales Soundtrack, Yury Poteyenko, 2005
It would be easy to assume that with their quartet of pirate games, Russian developer Akella simply surfed on the coat tails of a certain Hollywood franchise and its (initially) humongous success. But Sea Dogs saw the light of day in 2000, three years before Johnny Depp made pirates cool again. And again one might assume that the title of its sequel – Age of Pirates: Caribbean Tales – was an attempt to find a name that was as close as possible to Pirates of the Caribbean, without breaching copyright rules.
But then again, Akella had published the official Pirates of the Caribbean game a couple of years before. In other words, this was a team of developers that just really liked pirate games. What was more problematic was that they reprised the same – potentially very attractive – mix of action, RPG and trade elements in all of their games, without refining it much between titles or remedying its various issues. The result was a handful of intriguing, but flawed games that with a bit more fine-tuning could have achieved greatness.
The one area where Age of Pirates: Caribbean Tales improved significantly upon its predecessor Sea Dogs was with its soundtrack. That’s not to say that Yury Poteyenko’s score for Sea Dogs was in itself deficient. Poteyenko – on his way to become one of Russia’s most sought-after movie composers through the success of Timur Bekmambetov’s Night Watch and Day Watch – had written a solidly symphonic score that was among the best early live orchestral game soundtracks. Where it all came undone was with the album recording and mix. Trying to create an opulent orchestral hall ambience, Sea Dogs ended up with an unpleasantly hollow orchestral sound that distinctly lacked presence, made worse by unnatural instrument balances on those tracks dominated by solo instruments.
Performed by the Moscow Symphony Orchestra in the Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatory (and with new personnel behind the mixing board), the Age of Pirates: Caribbean Tales soundtrack achieves the classically-inspired grandeur its predecessor had aimed for. What’s instantly striking about Poteyenko’s score is just how unabashedly massive it sounds. Looking at historic pirate score forebears, Poteyenko’s score is certainly closer to Korngold than to Zimmer. However, while its brassy splendour might be reminiscent of 1930s/40s pirate movies, Poteyenko’s tempi are slower and generally heavier – imposing rather than swashbuckling.
Under his musical care, the pirate trade becomes a romantic and noble undertaking. Poteyenko shows off his knack for massive orchestrations on an opening trio of compositions that raise the curtain in spectacular fashion. “Hymn of Corsairs (Main Theme)” reprises one of the secondary themes from Sea Dogs – a steadfast, proud melody – and establishes it as this soundtrack’s main theme. Throughout the cue’s duration, Poteyenko displays his outstanding ability to patiently build a piece – sticking largely to the same material, but varying its intricately layered, brass-driven orchestrations just enough that the composition keeps moving with purpose, if at a slow pace. And once the cue reaches its climax, its brass calls have the force of a Roman imperial fanfare – and that’s before the male choir kicks in.
“Caribbean Archipelago” and “Morning Breeze” deal in equally ceremonial splendour but balance their brassy bombast with slow string passages of astonishing beauty. “Morning Breeze” has another irresistible build up, with a gigantic rendition of the main theme on French horns that turns the dawn of dawn of day into an awesome spectacle of nature.
It’s not just through its massive orchestrations then that the Age of Pirates: Caribbean Tales soundtrack achieves a degree of gravitas that few other game soundtracks accomplish. The score’s effect is also a direct result of how Poteyenko constructs his cues. He builds his compositions around relatively limited material, usually favouring repetitions of an established melody that is strong enough to withstand such recurrences.
What’s remarkable are two things. Firstly, Poteyenko’s patience and willingness to give his melodies all the time in the world to cast their spell, never hurrying a cue’s development. Secondly, he manages to vary the orchestrations he clads his melodies in such that the music rarely turns tiresome. On the contrary, compositions develop a rare gravitational pull that on the quieter pieces can border on the hypnotic, and on the weightier compositions contributes to their monolithic appearance. It helps that Poteyenko’s orchestrations are stunningly beautiful, so that his material can languorously luxuriate in their splendour. The result is game music with a degree of elegance, luster and emotional heft that is indeed reminiscent of classical music.
Poteyenko manages to sustain this sense of gravitas during the quieter sections of the Age of Pirates: Caribbean Tales as well, while providing some rest from the other tracks’ bombast. A couple of town themes, “Island Colony” and “Town Life”, highlight the score’s more playful side, both opening with lithe solo woodwind melodies that are as charming and lyrical as one could wish for. Once more, Poteyenko is happy to develop his material in leisurely fashion, confidently varying the compositions’ opening statements until the mood is ready to switch from idyllic to ceremonious with brass fanfares that once more recall Golden Age Hollywood.
More spectacular still in their unadorned beauty are “Quiet Bay” and “Moon Way”. Working with almost chamber-music sized orchestrations, Poteyenko writes a series of ravishing woodwind and violin soli. His use of repeating material is most obvious on these serene cues, with little to distract from the melodies keeping the music afloat. But if said material is as exquisite and moving as it is here, the stasis and unfailingly calm mood of these tracks simply registers as one moment of bliss, suspended in time to create a small world of enraptured beauty. And admirably, both tracks maintain thematic consistency: “Quiet Bay” presents the main theme on flute against wordless choir, while “Moon Way” returns the melody as a gentle woodwind call.
Mind you, not everything on the Age of Pirates: Caribbean Tales soundtrack works. As on Sea Dogs, the score’s action material lags behind the rest of the music. Poteyenko’s generally languid tempi become a liability on these battle cues that should spark some excitement. However, their plodding rhythms, lack of noteworthy melodies and general absence of direction or strong development turn these compositions into fairly dreary affairs – their brassy bombast now feeling hollow and overbearing.
Thankfully, all that is forgotten when the score closes with “Boundless Ocean”, which takes the soundtrack to the gloriously melodic, grand conclusion that it deserves. Working with the score’s most moving melodic idea, “Boundless Ocean” effortlessly moves from introspective to hair-raisingly monumental – proudly looking back at past adventures and optimistically looking towards what’s beyond the horizon. It wasn’t a long journey – there are about 40 minutes of strong material on the soundtrack – but it certainly was awe-inspiring, indeed as if travelling the majestic oceans from one end of the earth to the other.
- 01 - Hymn of Corsairs (Main Theme) Yury Poteyenko 3:56
- 02 - Caribbean Archipelago Yury Poteyenko 2:55
- 03 - Morning Breeze Yury Poteyenko 3:56
- 04 - Island Colony Yury Poteyenko 6:18
- 05 - Quiet Bay Yury Poteyenko 3:26
- 06 - Moon Way Yury Poteyenko 5:15
- 07 - Town Life Yury Poteyenko 4:59
- 08 - Sunrise Yury Poteyenko 4:56
- 09 - Boundless Ocean Yury Poteyenko 5:17