Lair Soundtrack, John Debney / Kevin Kaskas, 2007
The dichotomy of “bad game, great music” has rarely presented itself more strikingly than in the case of Lair. A much-hyped PS3 title, Lair crashed and burned due to its unwieldy control scheme. Ultimately, probably the only good thing to emerge from the wreckage were Lair’s gorgeous visuals and its excellent music. Written by film score veteran John Debney with support from Kevin Kaskas, the Lair soundtrack quickly gathered praise from game music reviewers. In fact, soon the music achieved such acclaim that soundtrack fans clamoured for a complete score release. Their pleas were answered in 2014, when La-La Land Records released a two-disc set of the Lair soundtrack with improved sound, making the previous iTunes release superfluous.
In a way, it’s not a surprise that Debney and Kaskas’ work turned out so well. Debney had demonstrated his ability to write outstanding orchestral action music with Cutthroat Island (ironcically another financial disaster). Lair’s developers were keen to give the game’s fantasy narrative a cinematic, widescreen feel. This led to Debney being hired to provide a suitably grand score. In interviews, Debney mentioned how much he enjoyed the creative freedom he was given on the project. With a budget to record with full orchestra and several soloists at Abbey Road Studios, Debney made the most of this opportunity to write a score that would be a love letter to the fantasy genre and to Debney’s personal inspirations – John Wiliams, Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner, Basil Pouledouris and others. As Debney puts it in the liner notes, his aim was to write “Star Wars meets Conan”.
That the influence of these other composers is so keenly felt on the Lair soundtrack has been the most frequently raised criticism of Debney and Kaskas’ work. Yes, stylistically this is a derivative work, with Williams’ Star Wars prequel scores casting a particularly long shadow. But the same issue didn’t stop Michael Giacchino’s Medal of Honor from becoming a game music classic. In the end, what Debney and Kaskas achieve is to convincingly emulate the works of some of the greatest film composers.
In fact, the Lair soundtrack contains some of the best orchestral action music ever written for a video game. More than a dozen battle tracks, packed with frantic orchestral activity, are the roaring centre piece of the Lair soundtrack. Beginning with “Breaking the Ice”, Debney and Kaskas unleash one extraordinarily dense and powerful orchestral power house after the after. This is clearly music by two composers who know how to make use of the orchestra’s full tone colours.
What’s particularly impressive is how these displays of flurrying noise and fury never turn into the sort of empty bombast that Western action game music often descends into. Debney and Kaskas construct their action tracks from a multitude of short, always engaging melodic and rhythmic phrases. This way, the audio engine can easily chop up the pieces as required. At the same time, the compositions still flow with purpose outside of the game context and never lack direction or substance. Simply put, the excitement and rush of adrenaline never cease for one second.
The Lair soundtrack’s fierce battle cues are helped by the exemplary thematic density that Debney and Kaskas establish. Debney writes three primary themes for Lair. The first one is for its protagonist, dragon rider Rohn. His theme rings with a predictable, but always effective sense of noble heroism (although the nearly pastoral rendition on “Rohn’s Theme” is more intriguing). The theme for the game’s antagonist – the Diviner – is equally unsurprising and yet impacting, a brassy march of extraordinary power. Lastly, there’s the theme for the ancient Mokai civilisation, split into two phrases.
Together with a number of sub-themes, these thematic ideas keep swirling through the action pieces. They provide most of the melodic guidance that holds this centrifuge of raw orchestral energy together. It all comes to a head on “Battle for Asylia”. A jaw-droppingly intense confrontation between Rohn’s and the Diviner’s theme, “Battle for Asylia” more than deserves the term “epic”.
Indeed, this is a constantly heavy and serious score. Everything takes place on a relentlessly gigantic scale, with hardly a moment of levity in sight. Thankfully, Debney and Kaskas not only write write excellent battle cues. As sequenced on the La-La Land Release, the Lair soundtrack alternates between frenzied outbursts and calmer tracks. The result is a pace that is predictable and yet couldn’t work any better – like so much on this album.
While Debney and Kaskas’s slower compositions are in their quieter way as grandiose as their frenetic counterparts, they explore more emotionally complex territory. The standout composition is “Love Theme”, an impassioned string adagio of nearly religious intensity that recalls Miklós Rózsa. “Prologue” and “Lair Main Menu” perform important feats of world building. Particularly the former creates a potent musical image of the game’s barren, yet awe-inspiring landscapes. Much needed moments of introspection come on “The Search for Food” and “The Last Straw / Campfire Discussion”. Both tracks highligh the contributions that ethnic instruments – duduk and erhu – make on these quieter pieces, together with Lisbeth Scott’s heartfelt vocals. These instruments don’t serve to evoke a particular location or culture (different to Debney’s Passion of the Christ). Instead, they summon a more generic sense of ancient otherworldliness. What’s more, they also give Lair’s quite stereotypical fantasy stylings some character and intimacy.
These more reflective compositions create a coherent world and narrative for the action tracks to exist in, giving all the conflict transpiring on the battle cues some meaning. And so, when “Epilogue” ends with a hair-raisingly intense, titanic flourish, the moment hits as the triumphant culmination of what indeed has been an epic adventure.
Purchase at La-La Land Records.
This playlist is a curated selection of music from the soundtrack album.
- 01 - Lair Main Title John Debney / Kevin Kaskas 2:13
- 02 - Breaking the Ice John Debney / Kevin Kaskas 1:31
- 03 - Prologue John Debney / Kevin Kaskas 3:24
- 04 - Love Theme John Debney / Kevin Kaskas 4:01
- 05 - Diviner Battle John Debney / Kevin Kaskas 4:17
- 06 - Darkness Theme John Debney / Kevin Kaskas 3:59
- 07 - Firestorm John Debney / Kevin Kaskas 3:56
- 08 - Diviner's Theme John Debney / Kevin Kaskas 2:09
- 09 - Blood River John Debney / Kevin Kaskas 3:33
- 10 - The Last Straw John Debney / Kevin Kaskas 2:38
- 11 - Bridge Battle John Debney / Kevin Kaskas 3:31
- 12 - Lair Main Menu John Debney / Kevin Kaskas 2:24
- 13 - Lodan John Debney / Kevin Kaskas 1:52
- 14 - Serpent Strait John Debney / Kevin Kaskas 2:28
- 15 - Rohn's Theme John Debney / Kevin Kaskas 2:06
- 16 - The Search for Food / Campfire Discussion John Debney / Kevin Kaskas 3:22
- 17 - Bridge of the Ancients / The Ice John Debney / Kevin Kaskas 2:43
- 18 - Mokai Camp Attack / Reach Mokai City John Debney / Kevin Kaskas 4:30
- 19 - Defenses Overrun John Debney / Kevin Kaskas 2:32
- 20 - The Holy City of Mokai John Debney / Kevin Kaskas 2:16
- 21 - Return to Mokay City, Pt. I John Debney / Kevin Kaskas 1:51
- 22 - Preparing for Battle / Maelstrom / After Burners John Debney / Kevin Kaskas 2:38
- 23 - Return to Mokay City, Pt. II John Debney / Kevin Kaskas 3:44
- 24 - Mokai Theme John Debney / Kevin Kaskas 2:15
- 25 - Elegy John Debney / Kevin Kaskas 3:25
- 26 - Ruins of Mokai John Debney / Kevin Kaskas 1:04
- 27 - Final Attack John Debney / Kevin Kaskas 2:09
- 28 - Desert / The Guardians Decide / Prophet Battle John Debney / Kevin Kaskas 2:59
- The Search for Water / Deadman's Basin John Debney / Kevin Kaskas 4:59
- 30 - Battle for Asylia John Debney / Kevin Kaskas 4:24
- 31 - Epilogue John Debney / Kevin Kaskas 3:18