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Musica Cthulhiana: “Fragment”

This article originally appeared on RPG.net in February 2011, and was reprinted with the author’s permission in the August 2012 issue of Freelance Traveller magazine.

Fragment. Musica Cthulhiana.
Original Publication: 2010
Current Availability: CD or MP3 download (album or individual tracks)

Playing Mongoose Traveller: Chthonian Stars? Check this out…

I would like to extend a grateful note of appreciation to the creator, Götz Müller-Dürholt, who was kind enough to send me a complementary copy of the Deluxe Limited Edition 2 CD set for the purpose of this review.

Music and gaming have a mixed relationship. Not many gamers have not got heavily into the first two titular vices, but, usually have had no problem with getting into “Rock-’n’-Roll”. Music surrounds us. Whether one is at the cinema, watching TV or just walking down the street, one can scarcely avoid it – so why should it not enter into the realm of gaming as well? Fortunately, I am not the originator of that said idea; it has a lineage almost as old as tabletop games themselves.

In the very distant past, in the ‘Dark Ages’ at the dawn of gaming, Gamemasters had to rely upon combing and mixing through a multitude of albums and selecting tracks (CDs made this task infinitely easier) but this suffered method from either recognition by the players or worst yet non-recognition when the music was placed in as a clue to action.

In gaming’s ‘Middle Ages’, many companies experimented with musical/spoken word accompaniments to adventures. These were on the whole a good effort for the time but suffered when players – as they often do – think/play outside of the box. Furthermore, compositions were usually simple and played with familiar tropes.

Now, in more recent times, there has been a raft of composers (Nox Arcana, Midnight Syndicate, James Semple, Sonic Soundscapes, Allicon, Alex Otterlei, and (of course) Musica Cthulhiana) that have taken inspiration from their own tabletop games and put it to music. The outcome of this ‘Third Generation’ is usually fantastic both in terms of complex orchestration and familiar tropes as they themselves had to live through the offerings of the ‘Dark’ and ‘Middle Ages’ and have avoided most of those pitfalls.

Fragment, by Musica Cthulhiana, is such an offspring. It is available in three formats: Deluxe Limited Edition 2 CD set (which is the one I am reviewing); a 20 track downloadable album (€11.99, but check your source for other pricing); and 5 tracks for free. The downloadable album is also on the iTunes and Zune catalogues. More information is available at their website: http://www.cthulhumusic.com

The music on Fragment is neoclassical dark ambient with elements of bleak and doom laden jazz. It is wonderfully appropriate to the Call of Cthulhu RPG or similar dark and foreboding game. The whole album is composed on synthesizers, but one can hardly detect that fact save in the seamless transitions. It is very much in the similar mode of aphex twin or a Lustmord, save that it does have the jarring Metal interludes.

Fragment easily seeps into one’s stream of consciousness through gentle unassuming and discreet sound. Its genius lies in a more insidious and terrifying way, for what they have done is insert a number of small ambient musical cues into the flow whether it is the beat of a heart or weirdly sounding screeches. The effect is unnerving and unsettling as these almost organic textures haunt you while you listen and long after you put away the music. The pacing is neither slow nor rapid but dreamlike descending to the depths of a shared nightmare. Favourites of mine would include “Madness”, “13:37”, “Deep Orbit Anvil”, “Omnium Void”, “Avril Noir (Exposition)”, and “The Bell Fragment”. Music, of course, is subjective.

Nevertheless, the great novelty this album offers is that it is perfectly suited to creating the right mood for Chthonian Stars, Call of Cthulhu or Kult RPGs – combined with dimmed lights, as the music is not there to scare your players but just to add to the ‘spooky’ vibes you are trying to create. Another interesting innovation is that the tracks do not follow a firm musical narrative/journey; this in turn has its advantages and disadvantages: the advantage is that one can mix up the track and not necessarily play them in any specific order. Indeed, the album is composed in such a way that the ending of any piece ties-in nicely with the beginning of any other (especially useful if you have a ‘wonky’ player). Players will thus not feel railroaded by the music. The big disadvantage is that, even in a game like Cthulhu (usually at the beginning, long before everyone either dies or goes insane) there are moments of whimsy and frivolity – but this album will not have any truck or trade with this idea: the music remains dark and doom-laden throughout.

What would one use this album for? It is very much for creating atmosphere; to be played in the background. Segments and certain tracks might be used as clues, but the pieces are generally a bit too long to be used this way or as scene changers (James Semple’s “Eternal Lies Suite” is good start in this direction). There is always a danger that one might have a group non-musical players, thus wasting all the clues. Hopefully, Musica Cthulhiana will remedy that with their next release, but, given that it has been seven years since their last release, a new album (however desirable) will likely not be on the horizon for some time. This is clearly a labour of love and the care and thoughtfulness that the composer put into each piece show it. It is a pity that more is unlikely to be available soon, as I would love to hear more of these original compositions.

Although the music has Call of Cthulhu plainly on its radar, almost any ‘darkish’ game could use this music with suitable modification and additions. So it would be perfect for the Ghost Stations of Maschine Zeit, Bug hunts in Traveller, tracking a serial killer from the Crime Scene RPG, and, of course, Ravenloft.

What is the future of gaming and music, if one might speculate…? I think we are likely to see a proliferation of more albums like this as gaming takes on more multimedia aspects just as the eBook will slowly transform our reading experience, e.g., by means of the addition of animation and interactivity. We are on the cusp of something new and exciting, and Musica Cthulhiana is among those paving the way forward.

This album gets 8 out of 8 tentacles for both Style and Substance.

Anyone looking for dark, evocative music to set as background for their Call of Cthulhu need look no farther than this album; the Deluxe Limited Edition 2 CD set is recommended.