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The Soundtrack of Monkey Island: Special Edition

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It's no secret that I'm a fan of the "Monkey Island"-soundtracks. In fact, I'm a fan of all the LucasArts soundtracks, so it's no coincidence that I'm running a site named just that (if abandoning a site for about 4 years can be called "running"). But as a matter of fact, that very site started out as something more focused on Guybrush Threepwood's adventures, namely "The Soundtrack CD Covers of Monkey Island". This mouthful somehow mutated into a place that also offered the soundtracks themselves as downloads, and later became above mentioned abandoned website.

"So, what is all this shameless self-plug about?" you might ask. Actually I don't know, but when interviewing Jesse Harlin a while ago, he offered me the chance to get a review copy of his re-recording of the "Secret of Monkey Island"-soundtrack, tied to the mission to write up a review of it for Mojo. Well, before that interview I've never really written anything for Mojo (and let's be honest, the lion's share of that interview was written by Mr. Harlin himself), so bear with me, as I've got no idea what exactly I'm doing here.

The first thing that surprised me in Jesse's mail with the download-link to the soundtrack was that the thing actually had a somewhat "official" track listing... like a real album. This might be a clue about how this thing might possibly be available to the public... and I think it's looking good:

  1. The Gold Guy
  2. Introductions
  3. The Lookout
  4. Chapter Screen
  5. The Scumm™ Bar
  6. LeChuck's Theme
  7. Following the Shopkeeper
  8. Mêlée Island
  9. The Fettucini Brothers
  10. Guybrush & Elaine
  11. The Voodoo Shop
  12. Kidnapping the Governor
  13. Stan's Previously Owned Vessels
  14. Mêlée Forest
  15. Meanwhile...
  16. The Journey
  17. Monkey Island
  18. Ghost Ship Shuffle
  19. The Cannibal Village
  20. Organ Prelude
  21. Closing Themes
  22. Bonus Track: Cue 2
  23. Bonus Track: Xxxxxx Xxxxxxx – Xxxx Xxxxx (Xxxx Xxxxx)

You'll notice that Xed-out Bonus track... I'll explain later.

The album opens with what Jesse called "the first brand new piece of Monkey Island music in 10 years", the new "Gold Guy"-logo, and if you've watched the Behind the Scenes featurette of the MI:SE, you're already familiar with this cue. (And as I've watched that thing so many times now, I always imagine Guybrush's "Mmmmh..." along with it). And then the soundtrack really starts.

The oh so familiar chord fills the speakers, building up towards what can only be described as one of the most popular themes in video-game history. And this time, it comes with live played woodwinds! The flutes alone give the main theme so much more depth and warmth to it, that it'll send chills down your spine (or at least make you feel all warm and crispy inside). Jesse's interpretation of the theme stays very close to the original, and you really get the feeling that this is what the theme was supposed to sound like, had there been the money and technology for it back in 1991 and 1992.

Thumb “The live instruments already add a lot to the tracks, but especially the brass- and woodwind-sections... lift this version of the soundtrack miles above its MIDI-counterpart.”

I'll draw some parallels between SOMI's MIDI score and its "blocky"-graphics: Both let your imagination fill in the "gaps" and create the final appearance for you. In terms of music this means that the MIDI-sound doesn't clearly define how it has to sound or what the choice of instruments is. This gave Mr. Harlin at least some creative freedom to explore the possibilities of the music, not only playing it, but playing with it. For example, some of the original tracks repeated the cues several times, so he grabbed that opportunity to use different arrangements within the same track. The biggest change happened in the track "Guybrush & Elaine", where the orchestral strings that open the piece in a cheesy Hollywood-way were replaced with an (equally cheesy) Mexican Violin/Trumpet-combo. Although this takes away some of the track's epicness, it still conveys the same emotion and kitsch of the original.

Another thing that got changed, and might get criticised by purists, are added sound effects to a few of the tracks. Some sea-shore sounds to the opening theme, pirates cheering in "The Scumm™ Bar" (but not as excessive as the "Scumm Bar"-themes from "Escape from Monkey Island"), ghostly voices and laughter to "Ghost Ship Shuffle" and some whimsical cartoon sounds to "The Fettucini Brothers". Most of the time they're used subtle enough to be hardly noticed (and never feel jarring), or really add to the atmosphere of the scene, but it surely would've been nice to have a SFX-free version to listen to outside of the game.

Still, after all the majority of the tracks simply sound "like they're supposed to sound", meaning that no fancy additions or alterations were made; only the quality of the instruments and their mixing was improved. The live instruments already add a lot to the tracks, but especially the brass- and woodwind-sections – instruments typically very hard to mimic convincingly with MIDI – lift this version of the soundtrack miles above its MIDI-counterpart.

What's important to note is that the sound and feel of this re-recording shows very little similarities to Michael Land's soundtracks for "Curse" and "Escape", his two MI-soundtracks which utilized recorded live-instruments as well. And that's a good thing, because neither the pure MIDI-version nor the CD-audio version (still stemming from MIDI) hinted at such a sound (had it been possible). What you get (and if that digital download release works out, really "get") is a soundtrack that's true to its original feel, spiced up with some (mostly well placed) creative freedom.

And if you haven't forgotten about the Xed-out bonus track in the track listing: I don't want to give away what it is. Let's just say, it's something a lot of people asked for. ;-)

So, does the soundtrack from the CD-version become redundant because of this re-recording? Nope, not at all... just like SOMI's Special Editon doesn't make the original version of the game redundant. And obviously LucasArts thinks alike, which is why the SE lets you easily switch between both versions... both of the game and its soundtrack.

All that effort alone is easily worth 5 skulls out of 5.

Now, LucasArts... bring on "Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge – Special Edition"!

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A review-like, near-article "thing" by Jan "Laserschwert" Hofmeister, 4th July 2009.

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Pros: True to the original, superb sound due to live-musicians
Cons: Sound-effects in some tracks

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