Hot on the heels of the recent addition of Mass Effect 2 and 3 to the Xbox One backward-compatibility list — the closest thing we're likely to get to a current-gen remaster of the trilogy — BioWare has released a four-disc vinyl box set of the series' soundtracks.
Obviously, four vinyl discs can't contain the entirety of the Mass Effect trilogy's music (the first game alone had a soundtrack that spanned two CDs, which amounts to roughly the same running time as the four LPs in this box). This instead functions as a best-of collection, trimming about two-thirds of the trilogy's original soundtrack releases in order to present the prime cuts.
Each of the first three discs focuses on a different game in the trilogy, while the fourth record contains "Bonus Tracks" that span the entire series. The packaging reflects these divisions, housing each individual record in a lightweight sleeve emblazoned with a painting that highlights the content of its respective game: The Mako planetary exploration vehicle for Mass Effect, the playable Normandy squad for Mass Effect 2, the Normandy itself on the cover of Mass Effect 3, and the Citadel on the bonus record. All four discs sit in a heavier cardboard box sporting an etching-like portrait of perennial favorite squad member (and FemShep romance option) Garrus, printed in deep greys and reds with a five-color lacquered spot process. It's pretty nice, though my box arrived with a three-inch fray along the corner of the back shell — something that clearly happened at the factory and indicates a quality control hiccup, which comes as a disappointment in light the steep price of the set.
The records themselves have been pressed in different solid colors of vinyl: Black, white, red, and orange, i.e. the N7 colors carried throughout the trilogy. Each one sound great, with clean reproduction and no defects that I could detect. Mass Effect's music involves a lot of sustained, atmospheric tones, and these frequent passages come across clearly and without distortion.
The music itself, again, represents a sort of best-of sampling. For example, the original release of the Mass Effect soundtrack contains 37 tracks, while the LP release clocks in at half that — 19 tracks. As many times as I've listened to that game's soundtrack, though, I didn't find myself missing any of the cut tracks. The highlights are definitely contained here.
Notably, this isn't simply a trimmed-down version of the initial soundtrack release. The track order has been switched around from the CD version, and many tracks have slightly different run times, suggesting everything has been newly mastered. Saren's Theme in particular comes in about half again as long as it did on CD. I could have lived without the inclusion of Faunts' strained, heavy rock ending theme "M4," which eats up more than a third of the B side of disc 1, but so it goes.
Listening to the three games' scores in sequence, it's interesting to hear how the style of the music evolved over the course of the trilogy. The original Mass Effect had an intense, completely electronic sound — it honestly would have fit right in with this week's Retronauts episode on FM synthesis; Mass Effect 2 maintains a lot of those stylistic elements while adding in more live instrumentation; and Mass Effect 3 emphasizes the live elements and greatly downplays the electronic sound. You could make a case that the timbre of the music parallels the nature of the games: The first game was the most unique (and least accessible, in terms of mechanics) and the series grew increasingly approachable and crowd-pleasing as it progressed. I've always enjoyed the original Mass Effect the most, as despite its roughness it had the most unpredictable and visionary storyline along with the greatest sense of exploring an unknown universe, and its dark, oppressive sound perfectly fit its unapologetic design. I assume everyone's mileage will vary, though.
The fourth disc is the most interesting, since it takes the form of a scattershot collection of tunes that mostly appear not to have shown up on any of the original soundtrack releases. Generally speaking, these tracks come from the DLC releases, including themes for the Shadow Broker, Omega, and Kasumi. Others were incidental tracks (like the background dance music that appeared in the Flux club) that didn't quite warrant inclusion on the standard soundtracks. Still, disc four has a good deal more substance than you might expect from a collection of bonus tracks — there's very little throwaway filler, since so much of it comes from the series' consistently excellent expansions.
The biggest drawback to this set, really, is price: At its list price of $100, the set seems horribly overpriced100. I was able to pick it up at a significant discount during BioWare's holiday sale (which unfortunately has now ended), and even then it was a bit rich for my liking. However, this is very definitely a niche product — a vinyl box set release for a video game series that wrapped up four years ago, something that will appeal to a very tiny Venn subset of humans — and that means its price reflects what was almost certainly an impossibly small print run. Even so, I can't help but wish BioWare had included a little something extra to sweeten the deal, be it a download code for digital versions of this music or, better yet, an LP-sized book of art and composer notes. I wouldn't quite call this a bare-bones set, but it's as close as you can get to bare-bones for a collection of LPs that ships in a nicely designed storage box. There's a certain air of finality to a vinyl release, the sense that this is the ultimate, high-end, premium format release of the music. The price tag certainly communicates that notion; it's a shame the packaging doesn't.
Despite these frustrations, BioWare has done a fine job of curating the most essential musical cuts from the Mass Effect trilogy. The full-length soundtracks can become a wearisome due to the nature of the compositions — lots of similar pulsing electronic backbeats and sustained strings and synths that begin to sound the same after a while — so having a lean, no-fat compilation broken into tidy 20-minute suites results in a collection of music that you're more likely to find genuinely listenable rather than merely something you put on in the background for ambiance.
Mass Effect fans with a yen for quality music reproduction and a bit of extra cash to burn can pick up the LP box set at BioWare's store.
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