Thursday, December 18, 2014

4.19. Little Details

"Welcome to Vashj'ir"
Artwork by Ikameka

The Dark Below

There are only two times in my life I can recall a piece of music that made me feel as if I were drowning.

In 1994, Zoid introduced me to a band named Delerium. I'd describe it as an ambient, almost hypnotic genre of music, famous for layering electronic soundscapes and euro-dance rhythms atop angelic vocalists -- some reaching seemingly inhuman octaves. This side project of Front Line Assembly heads Bill Leeb and Rhys Fulber seemed a more likely extension of Enigma, rather than the industrial sound Skinny Puppy.

Semantic Spaces turned me into a Leeb/Fulber zealot overnight, and in my excessive style, I dove deeply into any other side projects they produced. My research revaled a prolific, multi-volume career: three albums under Intermix, four as Noise Unit, a single-album stint as Cyberaktif, and perhaps most surprising of all, eight Delerium albums preceding Semantic Spaces. These earlier Delerium albums were dark, moody, and in some places, not much more than disparate sound effects (particularly true of Morpheus). Their sound was nothing like what I expected.

Sematic Spaces' follow-up, Karma, paved the way for DJs like Tiesto to help shape a new genre of music: trance. Invoke the name to a fan of the genre, and it will most likely summon up visions of ecstasy-infused glow stick raves at Ibiza. I wager very few Delerium fans will instead conjure up an image of Willem Dafoe, bloodied and nailed to a cross in The Last Temptation of Christ, yet samples of Peter Gabriel's haunting Passion is sprinkled throughout Spiritual Archives, a Delerium album that predates Semantic Spaces by three years.

It is this same haunting music that is ever present in another Leeb/Fulber side-project: Synaesthesia.

A person experiencing this "juxtaposition of sensory information" might taste the heat or smell the silence; even those ravers might feel the rhythm (if they're prone to cliche). Synaesthesia is a grammatical term, a neurological phenomenon, and thanks to Leeb/Fulber, a side-project rich with sonically submerged imagery. Their first two albums, Embody and Desideratum, weren't anything spectacular; most tracks were slow and odd, aka "experimental". But it was their third release, Ephemeral, that the underwater chord was struck.

Naked Sun weaves its hypnotic tentacles into your brain, implanting uncanny impressions that these sounds come from a mysterious and frightening source, many fathoms deep; all the tracks on Ephemeral are like this. Intelligence Dream had such a profound effect on me that I laid it into our High King Maulgar kill video. You listen and cannot help but feel you are sinking down toward the darkened ocean floor. Pardoxically, it is peaceful yet nerve-wracking, and is one of the few times such a distinct image of being underwater came from music.

The only other music to do this was Vashj'ir.

Mature notes consumer interest in his gem auctions,
Vashj'ir

What Goes Unnoticed

What is it, exactly, that Russell Brower, Derek Duke and David Arkenstone honed in on when building this musical landscape? The commonality between Vashj'ir and Ephemeral is subtle yet important. We hear those gongs, low pitched piano strings, granularized and slowly rippling outward in waves, like a ping from some ghostly sonar. Above the surface, air would deaden their duration, but sound waves suffer no such encumbrance under frictionless water.

The strings and flutes repeat their somber melody, two measures of four notes each; they're sad and empty. Yet, listening closer reveals a striking similarity to an alarm in slow motion, repeating its warning, eating into your consciousness, conveying both weightlessness and loss. The music of Vashj'ir is a cascading terror of the deep manifest, and is one of the most unappreciated aspects of Cataclysm.

In what should come as no surprise to anyone, Vashj'ir annoyed nearly every player who quested there. Any recognition of the zone's good qualities, particularly that of the music, was drowned out by focusing on their personal inconvenience. This was truly a tragedy. Lore nerds knew Vashj'ir was coming, knew it had to be completely underwater to be canon, and Blizzard pulled it off. Gorgeous visuals, immersive music, they even adapted our characters to bound quickly across the ocean floor.

Nobody cared.

Complaints flooded the forums about how annoying it was, and how Blizzard was "forcing players to think in 3D" -- as if by some strange miracle we had been playing two-dimensionally since 2004. Whatever little support the Vashj'ir zone received was deafened by the cries of the confounded and the perplexed.

I still love it, as does my daughter, but we are a sad and small minority. As with so much of the World of Warcraft's incredible attention to detail, Vashj'ir went misunderstood and underappreciated.

While Moorawr congratulates Moolickalot and Mature preps
his gear, DoD completes Heroic: Blackrock Caverns,
The Stonecore

This Isn't Canon

Leveling in Cataclysm wasn't a chore. For the first time in Blizzard's history, the expansion only extended our cap by five levels rather than ten. For those unable to withstand Vashj'ir, leveling kicked off in Mount Hyjal. This zone was locked away for years, visible only through a sealed gate that was buried deep in the back of a Winterspring cave.

There were, of course, other...more unconventional means...to catch a glimpse of Hyjal.

Our experience rested firmly within the Terms & Services: via the Caverns of Time, as a 25-Man raid in The Burning Crusade. Aside from raiding and exploits, Hyjal remained all but closed off to the WoW gaming community at large...until Cataclysm.

In the present day, Mount Hyjal was now accessible to all, blown wide open...
...and on fire.

I wasn't surprised to see an old friend emerge from the fire and greet Mature, as I made my way from Nordrassil to Sulfuron Spire. Ragnaros rose out of the flames to greet us with a warning - we were on his turf now. Molten Core, it would appear, was merely a setback.

One of Cataclysm’s central themes was that of the elements, taking us from the depths of the Abyssal Maw to the searing brimstone of the Firelands; from the majestic architecture of Skywall, miles above the surface of Azeroth, to Deepholm, the earth beneath the earth. I remember exploring the ebon rocks and cave formations in this latter zone, weaving Mature in between tiny bits of rock and stone that floated inches off the ground through unseen magic. When you turn your head to the sky and strain your eyes to see, far off in the distance above you, the bottom of the ocean -- the feeling is unmistakable: you are deep within the mantle's crust -- and a long way from home.

From the unimaginable depths of Deepholm, players next traveled to Uldum, another location just out of reach for years. Prior to Cataclysm, the only hint of Uldum's existence was a quest in Uldaman. A titan recording played back references to Norgannon and his discs, leading us to a fractured entryway in southern Tanaris. The great doors wouldn't open and its only exposure was a dark, black hole partially collapsed like a puzzle missing its final piece. The quest ended, and we returned to our Vanilla duties, while the doors remained silent and untouched, throughout Vanilla, TBC, and Wrath.

No longer.

We rushed through the now open gates, inviting us into a land inspired by Egyptian themes, hieroglyphics, and bizarre humanoids one might mistake for centaurs...if it weren't for their predominantly cat-like features. Uldum also buried secrets of a dwarven nature, and if Uldaman and Ulduar were any indication, those secrets in Uldum would hopefully wrap up unanswered questions. What of Norgannon's discs, and of the titans? What other Earthen spawned here and evolved into the dwarves that populate Azeroth today. And perhaps the biggest question of all: Why Azeroth? I geeked out in preparation for the final chapter of the three ancient titan cities, and couldn't wait to get started, arriving in Uldum three days after launch.

Two days later, I hit level 85 while handing in a quest in Uldum. I finished what remained, and never returned to the zone. No questions were answered, no great titan cities were exposed, no secrets revealed. I spent the majority of my time chasing Brann Bronzebeard who seemed more like a loose end left from Ulduar that a core piece of narrative driving the Warcraft story. The only connection to the titans, it appeared, was that these cat-taurs, the "Ramkahen" were left behind by the titans to guard their secrets.

What secrets?

No earthen or dwarven history was made mention of. In their place stood these cat people, tending to fields among the sands. There was no Norgannon. No Khaz'Goroth. No references to Algalon or anything of his kind -- nothing. If Uldaman was the appetizer and Ulduar was the main course, Uldum ended up a very disappointing desert.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Long time lurker, first time commenter, but you posted this on the Friday that I happen to be seeing Frontline Assembly AND Skinny Puppy live, crazy! Big fan of the myriad side projects as well, of course.

Oh yes, and the obligatory: it's been an absolute pleasure reading this blog, thank you! I left before Wrath, but I've always had a nagging desire to find out what happened afterward, without actually having to dive back in.

You've done a magnificent job balancing DoD's story alongside the evolution of WoW, and I dread the day that the story ends!

-Gorrwynn/Dystroph (Shadow Council/Rivendare)

Jackwraith said...

Have to agree about the music. That was far and away the best feature of Cataclysm (aside from Sunwalkers.) Vash'jir, Uldum, and Deepholm all had excellent and very fitting music, but Vash was the best.

Shintar said...

To be fair, Vashj'ir had lots of other problems other than the "having to move in three dimensions" issue.

- Just getting there required an intro quest that involved 10-15 minutes of doing nothing but stand around.

- Its storyline was in stark conflict with game mechanics ("oh no, we're totally lost, with no way to get home" /hearthstone).

- It took over 130 quests to tell a story that could have been told in a fraction of the time and felt hopelessly dragged out.

- Those 130 quests were one linear chain, without which you couldn't even get the Throne of the Tides dungeon quest... while Blizzard kept talking about giving people choices and abolishing lengthy attunements.

Personally I always liked the zone's looks and enjoying gathering herbs there, but unlocking the portal for alts and actually questing there always felt like a chore.

Anonymous said...

There actually was a lot more lore in Uldum, it was just all left to the frikking end of the damn zone.

-Catelina

JC Sway said...

If you like early trance stuff, give BT a listen. Particularly his first two, Ima and ESCM.

Uldum was such a letdown. Instead of all the lore potential, we got a super-campy Indiana Jones reference.

Shawn Holmes said...

@JC Sway,

Have his collected works. My favorites are "Shame", "Satellite", and of course, "Never Gonna Come Back Down."

Anonymous said...

Huh, interesting. I Loved Vash'jir, didn't care for Hyjal. I purposely leveled through Vash'jir almost every time on my alts (and I have a lot of alts) . . . I actually liked the fact that it was a long, linear quest line. It made me feel invested in the story. my favorite story lines in Cata were Vash'jir and Uldum (mostly because I loved Raiders of the Lost Ark when it came out).