Erik the Viking Soundtrack, Neil Baldwin, 1992
It’s a shame that Neil Baldwin wrote his two best NES soundtracks for games that in the end were shelved. At least game music fans discovered Hero Quest‘s score once the game’s author released the ROM online. On the other hand, Baldwin’s second cancelled project Erik the Viking was pretty much to unknown. That is, until he posted the music on his website Duty Cycle Generator. The game was based on the Terry Jones book and film, and arguably a few years late to the party. Baldwin’s company Eurocom realised the rich potential of the film’s Norse setting and turned it into a Zelda-style action adventure.
Baldwin’s notes on what followed provide a fascinating insight into early-1990s game development. With the game in the debugging stage and “pretty much completed” according to Baldwin, it all fell apart due to language barriers between British developer Eurocom and Japanese publisher Video Systems. Unable to communicate which parts of the game needed fixing, frustrations between both companies mounted until the game was canned.
Action adventures – like RPGs – require a fair amount of world building, and the music has to pull its weight too. As such, the Erik the Viking soundtrack required Baldwin to create a more varied and larger score than what he had previously written for the NES. He rises to the challenge quite formidably, as Erik the Viking pushes Baldwin’s music into previously unexplored territory.
Right from the start, Baldwin proves keen to expand his musical palette. Opening track “To the Death” is his first NES battle cue and proves an immediate winner. Baldwin applies the same lush arpeggio sound he had first presented on Hero Quest. But this time there’s a dissonant grittiness to Baldwin’s torrent of notes that imbues the music with the right amount of adrenaline and even panic. Metallic clanging and brief notes of static noise make the music even more intense. However, Baldwin also carries over from Hero Quest his ability to inject his arpeggio sequences with just enough melodic elements.
Fellow combat cue “Labyrinth Battle” is short, but still intrigues with its stuttering rhythm work. Rounding out the trio of enemy-related compositions is Erik the Viking‘s dungeon theme “Caves”. According to Baldwin, this is one of his favourite NES tracks and as it turns out for good reason. In lesser hands, the cue’s sparse sound and reliance on sound effects and musical fragments could have resulted in boredom. Receiving Baldwin’s virtuoso treatment, “Caves”’ instead feels like a wander through a dark underground tunnel, mysterious and alluring flashes of light and colour suddenly shooting out of the shadows and retreading only seconds later.
The other significant change that the Erik the Viking soundtrack brings to Baldwin’s music is the unprecedented focus on melodies. Again, Hero Quest already introduced this tendency, but its music still married its melodies to Baldwin’s trademark dense textures. On Erik the Vikingon the other hand, Baldwin is happy to reduce the complexity of his compositions. Be it “Village Life”, “Dragon Dance” or “Land of Sorrow”, they all put their pleasing, sometimes memorable melodies up, front and centre, and let them do their job.
At times it almost feels as if Baldwin stays out of the music’s way. However, these compositions don’t receive any less attention and care from him than the rest of the score. Just check out the subtle, lovely tremolo effects at the end of each phrase in “Village Life”’s A section, or the booming drum sound on the folksy “Dragon Dance” that Baldwin borrows from Hero Quest‘s final cue. Sequenced together at the end of the album, these cues don’t match the brilliance of the Erik the Viking soundtrack’s best compositions and make for a slightly more low-key finale than expected. Still, they appropriately set the scene for closing track “Giant’s Harp (Peace Restored)”. Its happily drifting tune has the required sense of fulfilment and shows Baldwin at his closest to JRPG musical conventions.
All this already covers a larger emotional spectrum than any of Baldwin’s previous NES scores. The album’s crowning achievement though are a trio of early tracks on the Erik the Viking soundtrack. The most conventional of the bunch, “Spirit of Adventure” is as upbeat and enterprising as you would expect from a great over world theme, with some carefully added syncopations in the rhythm section for added intrigue. With its expert use of counter melodies and fluid development, “Spirit of Adventure” is Baldwin’s melodically most ambitious NES composition.
“Peace in the Harbour” perfectly puts its title into music. The composition’s calm walking bass line, convincingly simulated seagull cries and one of the Baldwin’s wonderfully warm and emotional arpeggio lines all radiate contentment. Suitably laid back, “Peace in the Harbour”’s best idea is a pitch bend sound repeated over three octaves. It’s striking innovation that somehow manages to sound both ethereal and just a bit quirky.
Lastly, “New Dawn (Erik the Viking Theme)” brings the soundtrack’s high adventure ambitions to a head in surprising fashion. Rather than writing a dashing main theme, Baldwin opts for a more esoteric approach. Dream-like melody fragments rise and fall over constant arpeggios swells – the shadows of grey ships about to emerge from the fog over a still ocean, before the hazy curtain swallows them again. The music slowly solidifies its melodic elements, before a steady drum beat sets in. Balancing the music’s drifting quality, it completes the track’s quietly monumental character. With its never-changing arpeggios, serene melody and persistent, ritualistic rhythms, “New Dawn (Erik the Viking Theme)” is one of those 8-bit compositions that transcends technical limitations and harnesses the specific character of its medium – an ancient myth evoked through nothing but four simple sound channels.