Tabletop Review: Once Upon a Time in the Far West (Music Review)

Once Upon A Time in the Far West
Publisher: Adamant Entertainment
Composer: Sam Billen
Track Count: 5
Release Date: 3/19/2012
Cost: $5.00
Get it here: (MP3 download)

Once Upon a Time in the Far West is an aural companion to Far West, a role-playing game, book (graphic novel?), comic, what have you that blends elements of Spaghetti Western, wuxia, and steampunk. Don’t ask me to define what all those terms mean precisely and how they work together, I’m just taking their word for it from the site!

Let me start off by saying that I chose to review this because I am a composer myself, so any comments about the music are coming from my own musical background and education.

The Composer

This 14-minute EP of five tracks was composed by Sam Billen, who is one half of the music production duo known as Four Big Watts, a Kansas-based operation, as well as a composer in his own right. Mr. Billen also has a few short film credits to his name on IMDB, if you care to check those out.

The Music

By far, the strongest track is the first one, entitled “Theme from Far West”. This piece is dripping with imagery, evoking all the beloved aspects of music in Westerns: forlorn whistling, beautifully plucked guitar, and harmonica, all against a background of angelic voices and flutes. The track has several layers, all creating this lush atmosphere that makes you close your eyes and imagine riding through a desert at night, or picking through the brush at high noon, lever-action rifle in hand. The opening minute or so of fitful flute and dreamy guitar is a great build-up to the introduction of a galloping rhythm with shakers, strummed guitar, and a punchy snare. The music alternates between these ethereal and concrete states, giving the listener a chance to enjoy each. A great track.

The next two tracks, “The Last Horizon” and “Fistful of Bastards,” are probably the weakest tracks, but still have plenty of Western goodness in them. In particular, “Bastards” tends to have a robotic feel to the rhythm section at times, making it feel processed and inhuman. However, the guitar work, bass, and well-integrated rhythm in other parts make up for it. In “Horizon” the repetitive guitar lick and unchanging feel take away from the track, making it feel like a segue to something better rather than a piece on its own.

The final two tracks, “Showdown” and “Masters of the Dust Road,” each have a particular energy that is a great ending to this all-too-short collection. “Showdown” is practically a must, as every great Western must have some sort of face-off (not in a Nicolas Cage way) and the music here is driven, pushing ahead with intensity. The whistling returns, and jangly guitars give us a steady, slightly quavering melody that seems to come from the breeze as a bell tolls in the background. In “Masters” we get that wandering itch once again, with a lonely melody looking back on the trail over booming electronic drums; the whole picture is complete with shakers and the occasional vibraslap rattle.

It is in this last track that I feel we get the farthest East, even though we are still firmly planted in the West (trope-wise, anyway). The manipulated flute and Taiko-drum feel of the rhythm help to imagine a samurai sword strapped alongside that horseman’s Winchester, but overall the Eastern feel is somewhat lacking. One feels that a few koto sweeps or a little more liberal bending with the guitar might have produced a convincing enough shamisen. I think the flute is the best-implemented Eastern element, but it can also be interpreted as Native American, so a few overt steps toward other Japanese or Chinese sounds would have been useful.

Overall, for the price of anything on iTunes or Amazon you can get five tracks of excellent music to put you in the mood for Far West, or any Western-themed thing you might be doing. They are also great for just listening to by themselves. Keep in mind that you support composers and RPG-inspired music by buying this.







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