Holland Albright: Melody Stories | Selections: Remastered - Album Review
Album release information
Released 15 July 2022 (on Bandcamp), 30 July 2022 (everywhere else)
My favorite ensemble to write for is the symphony orchestra. Discovering Holland Albright on Twitter a few months ago and learning he was working on an album of his orchestral works got me super excited for the orchestra again. While this was already a fantastic hook, I fell in love even more with his prominent use of melodic fifths and harmonic major sevenths in other tracks I heard from him on his YouTube channel. I would like to think I aim to do exactly what Holland has succeeded at with my music with those same intervals, and it is wonderful to see how our music still has two completely different personal signatures.
This album, which is a collection of older music he remastered with better software instruments, uses what he has learned over the years to allow for a more professional sound. It contains ten tracks with titles that suggest they could work together in an epic fantasy RPG of some kind. At the same time, each individual track feels like its own self-contained orchestral piece, something you might hear in a concert. While I won’t be discussing every track in the album, they are all worth listening to just to hear Holland’s breadth as a composer.
Thoughts on Selected Tracks
Perhaps my favorite track as a composer myself is “The Way Home.” This piece runs with the idea of a journey and captures it beautifully. Holland’s knowledge of chord progressions and modulations is what ultimately sells it, coupled with a phenomenal use of color through the orchestra. The introduction reminds me of a Disney song, a sweeping cinematic to represent the end of a grand adventure. The use of the iv-I progression further helps sell this Romantic quality. When the melody comes in, it starts as a piano solo, with strings coloring it in the second half of the phrase. This feels like an introspection on our hero, thinking about their personal journey and what they overcame on their quest. The orchestra then takes the melody further, including a two-bar sequence that I wish would have gone further, but it lands on V to lead to the B section of the melody. This section is punctuated by a pounding bass drum and more percussion, but it follows the same chord structure and feel as the opening. I like how, following the end of the phrase with the violins, the solo piano repeats this B section, which helps tie up the opening third of the piece nicely. The music goes into a new direction, leading us into E-flat major. This section is a tad slower and starts even more intimately, with a harp accompanying woodwinds playing the opening melody. The counterpoint here is immaculate, and this section stands out as familiar and foreign at the same time. It really feels like this is the furthest from home we have ever been, both in terms of the key and the orchestration. When it comes time to return to D-flat major and truly reach our destination – the way home – the piano and strings return to guide us to that point. I love how the oboe gets the melody before the violins yank it into a gorgeous climax. The piano and strings take turns finishing the piece where it began—we have made it. It is perfect in every way. I am not sure if Holland was thinking about all these things with the piece, but we’ll just say this is my own personal “head-canon” and I am sticking with it.
“Sailing on the Wind” is another track that fits its name—I can imagine it as the background music as the main character speeds across the sea, setting off to explore new lands. It captures the essence of adventure, blending determined snare and brass with lyrical strings in the melody. The percussion adds a lot to the atmosphere, helping the track move forward; cymbals and gongs add to the orchestral colors. The melody leans on a lowered 7th scale degree (B-flat), which to me gives it a slight quirky child-like quality. It’s exciting to travel the sea just to see where we will go. The timpani offer a bar of rapid motivic rhythms that, in the repeat of the opening, interrupts the A and B sections, a detail I that added a nice twist to the repetition at the end of the piece.
Another personal favorite is “Cerulean Sky,” as it checks all the boxes of musical elements I love—melodic fifths and harmonic major 7ths. The opening of the piece starts with some descending chords played by staccato strings, opening with an F major 7th that gradually morphs into a first-inversion C major 7th. The first two notes of the melody in the clarinet are a perfect fifth apart, outlining that first chord. More woodwinds and percussion join in halfway through the tune’s second phrase, creating a satisfying groove to flip a switch and get the piece moving. I love hearing how this melody gets passed around to the piano and woodwinds later on, finally ending with brass and strings. There’s a moment in the last 30 seconds with the brass bringing out the dissonant minor second in an A-flat major 7th chord, which then back-pedals to a G dominant 7th to resolve back to C major. The glittering glockenspiel doubling the cellos is a unique orchestration that fits quite well, and xylophone and violins help lead us to the piece’s coda.
Hearing pizzicato strings for the opening of “Sunlit Forest” really sets this one apart from the others, and I can hear birdsong and the whoosh of trees playing nicely alongside this music. The following oboe melody, bassoon harmony, and glockenspiel brings to mind a rising sun, seeing the rays of light peeking in through the trees on an autumnal morning. While the second half is nice, with sustained strings over piano chords and woodwinds, this opening sticks out as the perfect introduction, before we get into the forest proper for the rest of the piece.
“Mermaid’s Lake” was a nice breather, making use of rests effectively. I love the fifths, and the orchestration for strings at the opening. This final bar they play gets passed around the orchestra for the second half of the track as a motif, going from piano to woodwinds to strings and back. “Tragedy” follows a similar vein, opening for strings and including rests, but having more ominous chords to evoke the feeling of some terrible event that happened. The solo violin is a nice choice alongside the strings, and that fact that its opening B is dissonant to the A minor chord continues this idea of unease; when it resolves to a chord-tone, the C, the harmony has already changed! The rest of the violins join the solo on the repeat of this melody, as the track continues further. Finally, the piano does play this melody one last time at the end of the piece. Even the final chord is not sure where to land, as the lower strings play an A, but the upper strings are still stuck on B and D—nothing is resolved in this tragedy.
This album is the perfect blend of a hypothetical game soundtrack while being able to stand on its own to be consumed and enjoyed simply as music. Holland has expressed to me that he was inspired by a combination of orchestral music as well as music for films and games when working on this. As this is a remaster of works he has done in the past, it is interesting to hear his picks at his best music over the years. Hearing the tracks redone with these instrumental samples and the work that went into making this computerized orchestra sound as human as possible truly shows in the finished product. There are times where he adds little glissandos to violin solos, to make it sound like a player is shifting on the string. He told me he plays all the piano parts himself, recording the MIDI data into his workflow. This infinitely helps the quality, even though it’s still a computer sample of a grand piano, rather than an actual one. The woodwind flourishes are all cleanly done, and the brass sound is epic and expansive. It all comes together to make the perfect cinematic experience with care and detail put in.
This is an album that appeals to me in so many ways. Holland has taken my favorite musical elements and blended them with my favorite pastimes. While he certainly has his own unique style and sound world that’s unique to him, this makes it so inspirational to see how he composes and orchestrates and compare them to what I do. He paints his own colors in the orchestra and offers sweeping Romantic melodies that can get stuck in my head, playing on loop after I have just heard them. I hope to one day release an album of my own that can match what Holland has put together here. I will continue to listen to this one for inspiration, and I cannot wait to see what he has in store for his musical future.