As far as soundtrack releases go, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla’s didn’t exactly go by the book. Usually the main album shows up at the game’s launch while extra recording, in-game songs etc. form one or more additional albums that are released later on. And while an extra album or two might still be in the pipeline for the franchise’s latest, the first outing was a bit more unconventional.
Before the game even launched we saw the release of two EP albums: “Out Of The North” and “The Ravens Saga”. Later on more EPs were added: “Sons Of The Great North”, “The Wave Of Giants” and “Twilight Of The Gods”. All EPs contain some tracks that are also part of the main album that was released at game launch but also include a few that aren’t part of said main album. Which means that whoever wants to get the soundtrack for keeps, will have to buy a bunch different albums from the off1. What I can say is that, overall, the standard album works perfectly well as a proper anthology of the whole work, leaving off just a few tracks as essential as the ones already included. In most cases you’ll be missing out on more —sometimes very good— ambience-oriented compositions (with the exception of “The Wave Of Giants” that’s essentially an Einar Selvik EP). With all that out of the way, I’ll be commenting on the soundtrack taking into account all releases.
A… different composer mix
Up until now each Assassin’s Creed OST had one headline composer even thought, more often than not, there were more to provide support and extra compositions. From some point on we saw one composer taking up the main work and another one or two scoring mostly side content, DLC and expansions. In that regard Assassin’s Creed Odyssey was something a slight departure since The Flight is actually a duo of composers that have worked together numerous times in the past, so as far as teams go, they were tried and tested already (in Horizon Zero Dawn no less). They were no strangers to Ubisoft’s franchise even with Joe Henson —part of said duo— having lent a hand with Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag.
Ubisoft tried a different approach for Assassin’s Creed Valhalla though. From the off, 3 different composers were commissioned and it’s the combination of their work that shapes the whole, with every one contributing to moments big and small, more or less equally, even if in differing styles depending on experience and idiosyncrasies. Naturally some tracks are joint compositions, just like in the case of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and The Flight.
Of the three involved, Einar Selvik was the only one with no prior experience scoring Assassin’s Creed titles, while Jesper Kyd and Sara Schachner have definitely been around the bend, the former more than the latter. This mix is a very interesting set of choices indeed.
Talk to anyone that’s remotely fond of Assassin’s Creed scores, mention Jesper Kyd and see their eyes light up with enthusiasm. Not only is he a veteran in the scoring space but he defined the franchise’s musical signature from the off all the way to the end of Ezio’s Saga (aka Assassin’s Creed: Revelations) but he also gave us Ezio’s Family, one of the most recognisable and beloved game music themes of all time. And I never say “beloved” or “of all time” lightly. At this point it’s a tradition for every different composer scoring an Assassin’s Creed title to work on a new version of that theme. What’s more, even though newer titles have their own specific theme, Ezio’s Family is the only track that registers in gamers’ brains as “the Assassin’s Creed theme”. By this point I’d say it’s hard wired and impossible to shake off. I can say lots more about Jesper Kyd but this is neither the place nor the time. Even so if anyone is the father of the franchise’s musical signature and tradition, that certainly is Jesper Kyd.
I might as well get this out of the way and say that Sarah Schachner has proved to be one of my favourite younger composers in years. If anything her work on Anthem was the only bright spot of the game I can still recall today. Oh, alright flight mechanics were nice too but much good they did to the whole, no? As far as game music composition goes, she started out under Brian Tyler, was assigned to Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 and realised she loved working on games. And I have to say, we kind of lucked out there, people. If you have any doubts, I have to remind you’ve listened to her work on Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag (additional music), Assassin’s Creed Unity (co-composer), Assassin’s Creed Origins and, now, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. I’d say her combining classical instruments with synth forms her style, a style I’ve enjoyed for years and seems capable to keep giving.
Einar Selvik is clearly the connective tissue and the one most into his element. His background might be steeped in black metal but his being a Norwegian, I feel he has a major influence on the trio’s work for Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. At this point someone might feel the need to remind me that Jesper Kyd is Danish and he’s be right to do so. But here’s the thing. Selvik has done more work in Nordic folk music. So much so that his work can be found in A Piece for Mind & Mirror, an album telling Norway’s history that just happened to come out at the 200th anniversary of the Norwegian Constitution. What’s more, he has done work for Michael Hirst’s Vikings and a cameo in the show to boot. And if you still feel he might be missing something important, I should point out he’s also a modern Pagan.
And then there was music
There’s a conceptual string connecting all the work that comprises the game’s soundtrack and it stems from a deliberate choice to use it as a reminder that Vikings are just people, that “North Men”/“Norsemen”2 were driven to expeditions and conquests more or less for reasons anyone else has ever been. Riches are riches, but fertile land is fertile land, a perpetually better investment as history has proven time and again, so all the more reason for the Scandinavians to look further than the hardier land they were most acquainted with.
It comes as no surprise then that, by the composer team’s own admission, the goal for the game’s music was to evoke yearning, hope and mystery, not lust for war, not even in times of battle when drums are more to the forefront.
Take “Vigahugr” for example. A theme used extensively during raiding is more ominous than violent, more melancholic than power-drunk, “Vigahugr” is also designed to work in its skaldic version. Speaking of, the whole work is interspersed with skaldic versions of some more powerful themes, meaning folk, bardic versions of the same song. In effect the same song oscillates between the horrors of battle and the drunken bonding that happens over a feast. Tracks like “Wave Walker”, on the other hand, makes the same ideas gel in a slightly different way. Seafaring in the Viking Age and for Vikings in particular was a risky proposition as it’s unclear whether they even employed proper and dependable navigation tools. But even with that put aside, in human consciousness the sea is a perpetual mystery, a fickle mistress, ready to lead some to deliverance and others to an icy death. In that regard sea was an arbiter of fate, both for Anglo-Saxons that would tremble at the thought of what ships might appear on the horizon and Vikings that knew navigating coasts and rivers is a quaint endeavour compared to the whims of open sea.
It’s no wonder then that the game’s music doesn’t really try to cater to typical notions of what being a Viking means based on pop culture, nor it is a wonder how reminiscent of the Vikings TV series’ soundtrack it ended up being.
And yet Valhalla’s music doesn’t try to be one-sided as instruments of both Anglo-Saxon and Norse tradition are mixed to different effects, essentially symbolising the intermingling of different people, the mixing of cultures. Surprisingly the composing trio also used a couple of instruments of eastern origin (rebek, morin khuur). Which reminds me. I’m not entirely sure as I keep second-guessing myself in this but I have a nagging feeling that the tail end of Sarah Schachner’s “The Fate Of East Mercia” —at the 2:30 mark— is something of a tiny tribute “A Divided Land” from Assassin’s Creed Origins3, another composition of Schachner’s. If I’m not completely wrong this might as well be just a little thread that symbolises the connection of the second era of the franchise that we found ourselves in starting with Origins.
As a body of work, the soundtrack feels and is robust, despite the relative plurality of composers. More importantly, I feel like each composer’s idiosyncracies still seeps through to the surface at times.
I feel Jesper Kyd plays more with moments, characters and story beats with tracks like “Fulke’s Destiny” that focus on someone specific being one example just as “Son Of Fjord” reminds us of the series’ stealthier origins. “Animus Anomaly” is just as focused but doubly interesting as it goes back to the more electronic roots of the franchise’s music as a whole and works in the moment but also perfectly as as connective tissue to his earlier work that defined Assassin’s Creed. There are time when he’s all about a bigger picture as in the case of the remarkable “Kingdom Of Wessex”. Squint hard enough and you’ll see the irony of a Dane composing the theme for the only Anglo-Saxon kingdom that never came under Norse control.
Speaking of the bigger picture, this might as well be Schachner’s strength here as evidenced by “The Fate Of East Mercia” but, really, I’d posit her work is the hear of the mystery that the whole work is going for. Take “Knowledge Of The Birds” for example or, better yet, “Asgard Hall Of The Aesir”. Even with more dynamic tracks like “Odin’s Plunder” mystery and tension seem to go hand in hand. “Twilight Of The Gods”, the additional album that centres on her work for the game, is quite the treat on its own, though —in balance— clearly a bit more action heavy when compared with the other albums in Valhalla’s lot. Why it’s so chock full of tracks though (it includes more than the base soundtrack!) is beyond me.
Naturally the work of both is best encapsulated in the game’s main theme, on which both worked with Selvik’s obvious input I feel. Selvik’s tracks always feel like the anchor that keeps everything grounded. With the most experience in Norse folk and more, that such is his influence is a surprise to no one. “Helreið Oðins – Odin’s Ride to Hel” feels like a highpoint of his, at least in the confines of this soundtrack. It’s one of those tracks that can really stick and can pass the “repeat forever” test4.
A Line In The Snow
But where does Valhalla soundtrack stand as a whole? With the franchise’s musical tradition fairly high quality, nitpicking is practically essential. In a way soundtracks respect Assassin’s Creed’s lore more than most of the games do and I believe this holds true here as well. With Sara Schachner —a veteran of the series at this point— and Jesper Kyd working together on this, it’s like two different eras collide, the one defined by Kyd and that defined by Schachner. The latter has (also) worked on 2 out of the 3 open-world iterations of Assassin’s Creed with her work on in Origins essentially setting the tone for what followed, regardless of the composers involved.
The ideas that formed this soundtrack are most definitely better represented by it than by the game’s relatively better but still challenged brand of storytelling, so music is, more or less, solid foundation for the whole experience. “Solid” being the operative word here as, for all its merits, this soundtrack feels more well-crafted than ambitious, high on my personal list of favourite Assassin’s Creed OST but not high enough, certainly not as high as some of the potential shown here implies. As an album5, listened in sequence and as a whole, it feels less like of a story in and of itself than glimpses to amazing moments. Maybe that’s fitting, maybe it even works as a metaphor to the lore sagas have played in folklore. Maybe not. But on can hope.
Certainly the game’s main theme is a high point, with the trio working in tandem, musical signature and eras colliding, definitely for the best. Amazingly, though, “Ezio’s Family – Ascending to Valhalla (feat. Einar Selvik)”, which seems to essentially be Kyd’s own riff on the now iconic6 “Ezio’s Family”, is as formulaic as it is underwhelming. It’s the very first time that I feel forced to leave a new variation of “Ezio’s Family” out of a High Notes playlist. All the right ingredients are there. The base melody that never gets old. Cues from the overall feel of Valhalla’s soundtrack. Haunting vocals by Selvik. All very fine ingredients that somehow fail to elevate the whole.
It’s not a failure as much as it is a disappointment after an amazing, some could say even unnatural in terms of luck and chance, streak that lasted for more than a decade. I concede that we’ve all been met with less ambitious riffs on this unique theme over the years, but also riskier ones, and, collectively, they all feel like they hit a sweet spot that Valhalla’s variation misses.
And yet, holistically, Valhalla’s soundtrack is still a cut above most game soundtracks, something not even my legendary 7 levels of grumpiness can wash over. It’s been clear for a while that Ubisoft has zeroed in on certain pattern when it comes to managing the different voices they employ to safeguard but also evolve Assassin’s Creed’s music and it’s still working out remarkably well. It must be as there’s no other way to explain8 how I’m stuck listening to Valhalla’s soundtrack. And it’s been months since the game’s and the albums’ debut. I guess it serves me right.
I’ve collected the more interesting tracks in a High Notes playlist, both on Apple Music and Spotify, which you can find embedded below. Feel free to add them to your libraries to check them out at your leisure as well as to check the dozens of High Notes playlists that can be found on my Apple Music and Spotify profiles. More such playlists for game and TV soundtracks are being added regularly so feel free to follow me on the service of your choice is this kind of thing tickles your fancy.
This new release experimentation annoys me to no end. As that mythical beast that still buys music, paying for duplicate tracks in the digital age isn’t something I can appreciate. This is the musical equivalent of trying to clear the map in an Assassin’s Creed game. ↩︎
I speak of North Men/Norsemen as that a catch-all term in European history that refers to peoples of the North, not just Vikings. It’s an important distinction as vikings aren’t a people, vikings were those Norsemen that chose to raid. Think of the term Viking as something more akin to a job description than some kind of ethnic appellation. ↩︎
For me. I’ve no doubt all normal people are driven crazy by the thought of a single track being played ad nauseam. ↩︎
A trio of them, remember. ↩︎
I never use this word lightly, mind you. Which is why I’m annoyed I even have to use it as SEO culture ruined its meaning long ago. ↩︎
Another term I never, ever use lightly. ↩︎
There is though. ↩︎