Music to Haunt By: Alex Otterlei

Alex Otterlei
Official Site
A.O. Music 2006 (Original release date: 1994)

Those of you who read last year’s “Music to Haunt By” should remember my foray into using gaming music for haunting purposes. What you might not know is that one of the genre’s pioneers is award-winning composer Alex Otterlei, who first started recording Arthur in 1989, which was intended for use while playing RPGs and/or tabletop wargames. What set his music apart from previous attempts at gaming music was that his material was not based around any particular gaming system, which let it be used by a wide variety of gamers. After its release in 1990, he followed it up with Battlethemes. The 90’s also saw the release of his first horror gaming album, Dark Themes From Beyond Volume 1: Where Evil Lurks. After its reissuing 10 years later, Mr. Otterlei prepared a special edition of the album in 2006.

Said special edition consists of a CD contained within a hardback book via a “soft hub.” Said book features a short story written by Rhianna Pratchett (daughter of famed author Terry Pratchett) to expand upon the storyline briefly detailed on the back of the album’s original release. Although it’s her first short story, it’s perfect in every way. In it, we meet the Jeffersons, whose new home happens to be alive. The “characterization” (if it can truly be called that) for the house is very interesting, as is the behavior of its creator. I’d say more, but I don’t want to spoil anything. Let’s just say that things take a turn for the worse when the new owners’ mucking about upsets the house. Each of the book’s 48 pages has a background illustration of sorts. For example, the chipped plaster effect is so realistic, I was shocked to run my fingers over it and not feel anything. The occasional splatters of blood are a nice touch as well. That said, there are a few points where the illustrated backing makes parts of the story hard to read.

As for the CD, things start off with “The House,” which uses its music to convey both age and grandeur, with a hint of something else. The orchestral sections seem to tie into the parties mentioned in the short story and violins help represent something unnatural. The groaning doors and slam at the end are a great touch. “Arrival of the Jeffersons” is a short track consisting of happy, peppy music. One can easily picture frolicking children and the horn gives it an “old west”-like feel. The pounding piano and violins of “Entering the House” create an eerie feeling. There’s definitely a sense of lurking thanks to the muted horns, which tones down as the family excitedly explores. “Evening Scent” features soft, calm music consisting of elegant string work. That said, the tolling bells at end add a touch of creepiness to an otherwise happy track. “Strange Occurrence” features distorted opening instrumentation and tense music with pounding noise layered under. “Investigation” is calmer, but still has a sense of unease and snooping. In fact, the snooping notes seem almost comical at first, but gets calmer and serious as time passes. Faint moaning tones kick in as the family makes unpleasant discoveries. The soft, spooky notes of “The Basement” steadily grow, as if you’re going deeper and deeper into the basement. There’s also a sense of menace there as well. In other words, it’s perfect for any haunted basement setup, be it a scene or the entire haunt.

“Nausea” provides an appropriate sense of unease and not feeling well. Think of the musical equivalent of a pendulum and you’ll have a pretty good idea of the track’s tone for much of the running time. The fluting introduction of “Night Time” conveys falling (I assume it’s the sun) and then switches to a lower, softer feel. As always with the night, there is a touch of unease. There are also some mystical chimes and notes that seem like a moaning, breathing noise. Naturally, this makes the track well suited for use with a “living wall” display. “Morning Scent” combines tolling church bells, horns and a violin for a happy feel. Things get spooky again with “Manifestation of Evil,” which uses stab-like musical tones and pounding notes to create a sense of evil. One section gives the feel of rushing or running, which flows perfectly into the next track. It also allows one to use this in a hallway chase scene, especially one featuring a slasher character. “The Sealed Door” has a more restrained and leisurely sense of menace to it. I like the background groaning and occasional heartbeat-like backing. Things kick up towards end thanks to the muffled moaning and roar. It could work with a sealed or breathing door scene, or even a “monster in a box” prop. “Evil Unbound” is somewhat lighter, but still unnerving. It makes me think of little things running all over, so it could work well in a insect or spider-filled room (especially if a corpse is in there as well). It eventually stops the “running” part, but keeps up the scares thanks to its eerie moaning tones. The elegance and unease of “The Torn Dress” vaguely reminds me of Danny Elfman’s somber work in Batman at times. The album ends with “The House Errupts” (sic), which is full of pounding piano notes, scary strings and moaning. It’s a great ending to a great album.

Due to the lighter interludes, I imagine that most people using this will only play certain tracks rather than play the entire album as a loop. As I noted earlier, this is not a fault with the CD as it was intended as a standalone album rather than a typical Halloween “spooky sounds” CD. Some of the lighter tracks, like “Investigation,” would work well with a role-playing game, something that has not gone unnoticed by the gaming community. In fact, many Call of Cthulhu players consider it to be a must-have for gaming sessions, as you can see by visiting practically any forum devoted to H.P. Lovecraft or Call of Cthulhu. Interestingly enough, I was chatting with Mr. Otterlei and learned how the album was not intended to be Lovecraftian (despite what some claim)! That said, he also feels that it’s up to the listener to determine the exact nature of the presence in the house, so there really isn’t any right or wrong interpretation.

Although there hasn’t been a second release in the “Dark Themes from Beyond” series, this was far from the only horror album by Mr. Otterlei. He released a soundtrack for Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu campaign Horror on the Orient Express and is planning on releasing a mini album this Halloween called Horror Tryptich. Said album will be a download-only release on CD Baby and features three spooky tracks that were originally intended for use on the first “Dark Themes from Beyond.” However, Mr. Otterlei was so inspired by the fourth track, “The House,” that he decided to devote an entire album to that concept. There’s also talk of buyers receiving a free extra track as well!

It should also be noted that Alex Otterlei’s musical output is not limited to RPG soundtracks. He’s released standalone albums like New Beginnings, along with creating scores for films, video games and plays.

Special thanks to Alex Otterlei for the use of the image!

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