Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Want more good music? Calling All Dawns is out now

Christopher Tin. Composer of 'Baba Yetu' from Civilization IV. Composed music for X-Men 2. Interned with Hans Zimmer. A good friend, a great guy. Once visited Norway, in fact. Most probably drove through my home town on his way north to Kirkenes, you know, that picturesque Nordic-looking town up near the Russian border? Lives in Santa Monica, not Norway, and speaks English, not Norwegian. Occasionally makes music, I guess. Of Chinese - not Viking - descent. What was I saying?

Oh yes, Christopher Tin.

Well, to be honest, he hasn't really done anything of interest lately - like visit Norway - but he did make the best album I've heard in years. I'm sorry, but only those who wept with joy while listening to the new composition of Baba Yetu and all that entails qualify for humanity. Everyone else has to move to an island and go back to the dark ages, burning art and killing science while the rest of us keep working on advancing human civilization so that we can one day fire the whole bloody lot of you into the sun.

Which brings me neatly to Baba Yetu, masterfully executed link, the piece that got the world to take note of Christopher Tin to begin with. Rather, it brings me to both Baba Yetus. Yes, there were two versions of this track -- the Civilization IV version, and Christopher Tin's original version. The audio guys at Firaxis, the company that made Civilization IV, changed the original percussion of the track for the game. And so, the track that most people know and love is not, in fact, how it was intended to go. I'll let Chris himself tell you a little about this conundrum, and what he had to do for the version appearing on Calling All Dawns:


'The last time we wrote you mentioned that [...] the audio guys over at Firaxis decided to remove your percussion and replace it with their own. I must confess I'm curious [about] why the decision to replace your percussion was necessary or even desirable.

I'll also admit, however, that - alas - I do like both versions of the track, and I probably have a particular fondness for the Civ 4 version, if only because I heard and fell in love with that version first. Which is, from a composer's point of view (a point of view I can relate to and understand), unfortunate since that's not how you intended the track to go, but, well, there it is. It's still a wonderful track either way, and I'm happy to have both versions on my playlist.'


'Yeah, it's unfortunate that most people heard the Firaxis version first; and now that I'm creating yet a THIRD version, I have to figure out how to add something new, yet appeal to those who already fell in love with the first two versions. Nuts. :)'

With two previous versions of Baba Yetu to consider, each with their devotees, Christopher Tin did the sensible thing: he cheated. For the new version, he combined percussion elements from both previous incarnations while also adding something new, bypassing all those laws of propriety that say the track shouldn't be able to appeal to both camps, and then he goes one further and ACTUALLY IMPROVES THE FUCKING THING. I don't know what kind of person can listen to fucking Baba Yetu and think to himself, 'You know what this needs? More epic.'

I have to move on, else this whole review will just end up being about Baba Yetu, not that there's anything wrong with that.

Christopher Tin's d├ębut album is a compilation of music inspired by twelve different languages and styles from all over the world. It's an ambitious project, to say the least: Latin, Chinese, Persian, Swahili, Gaelic -- the distinct styles represented here are varied, but never detract from the whole, which I am sure was Christopher's intent. As such, the variations in style and form are mostly found in language and chord progressions, while the style of percussion remains mostly unchanged throughout, really only differing in the use of certain instruments archetypal to the regions represented. This forms a kind of base and works out really well. And it has Baba Yetu.

If I have to criticise the album, I would say that some of the individual tracks are too short. The album is very much meant to be listened to in one sitting, so the music transitions wonderfully from one piece to another with recurring themes prevalent throughout, but as a result of this, some tracks - many of the best ones, of course - are kept short, possibly to flow with the album as a whole.

One example of this is Hayom Kadosh, a track somewhat similar in style to Baba Yetu (and in some parts highly reminiscent of its sister track Coronation from Civilization IV), which is 1:45 minutes in length, and it transitions immediately into the next track of the album, Hamsafar, dictating the style of the latter to the point where the two tracks are almost indistinguishable. Why? I would love to hear Christopher's reasoning for this, as I'm sure it has something to do with symbolism, or human transcendence or something. Corn, maybe.

Immediately following Hamsafar is a 2:01 minute track with its own distinct style and pacing. 2:01. That's all the love it gets. And the slowest hymn of the album gets 6:48? Maybe my personal taste is dictating which tracks I feel should get the most love, here, Chris, but damn it, it's a little disquieting. Oh wait, you gave Rassemblons-Nous the whole 4:27 minutes in which to shine. Okay! All is right with the world.

My second complaint is that the album has only one instance of Baba Yetu.

Finally, to those unfamiliar with world music, this is representative of world music in the same way that, say, Will Wright is a developer of video games. You can give Will Wright all the tools and ideas in the world, but he'll still use them to create a piece of interactive media that has you building something. If you want first person shooters, you'll have to go see Valve or Infinity Ward.

Christopher's Calling All Dawns takes language, form, and music styles from all over the world and inserts them into what can be uncharitably called the album's template, and charitably called a work of beauty. Christopher keeping to his fundamental principles and own personal style while composing music in twelve different languages and localized music styles is what makes the smooth transitions on the album possible. It also means that if you like one track, you'll probably like most of them.

The album could have done with another copy of Baba Yetu, though. Like maybe make it the 13th track.

Closing thoughts. It's usually a good sign when the one major complaint is that some tracks are too short, and Baba Yetu aside, this is an album filled with beautiful music inspired by different ages and regions on Earth. As I've said in the past, music that's written so technically well while also being truly memorable is what makes Christopher Tin stand out.

Buy this album. Go to Christopher Tin's website and buy it. It's only $15.99 for the CD, and $9.99 for either the 320kbps Mp3 or lossless AIFF format downloads. You can even buy individual tracks for $0.99 apiece if you're a weirdo. I know what you're going to say: 'Aylear, you sesquipedalian apex of human enlightenment, why would I buy an album if I don't know for sure if I'd like it?' Well, you're in luck, because Christopher has omnipotently anticipated your feeble excuse to avoid having to learn anything new for a change and has kindly provided excerpts from the whole album on his site.

So, buy it. Support the talented independent artist. It's an incentive for Christopher to make more music in the future of the sort that would make the manchild of Jesus Christ and Chuck Norris weep tears of joy. It's not just that the music is good -- it is a shining beacon of excellence in the endless sea of mediocrity, and this status should be rewarded. It's what I always aim for when I compose music, but never reach. Maybe that's the result of that "education" thing I keep hearing about.

Did I mention it has Baba Yetu?

- Steinar "Really Did Weep During Baba Yetu, Twice" Kristoffersen


  1. I could not agree more! Great album, I am glad I preordered it!

  2. Corn...brilliant...weeping tears of laughter. Thanks for the review (no I'm not CT), but I'm glad to know I'm not the only one so moved by Civ IV menu music of all things-- thought I was crazy. Will have to get the CD.