Game Review – Risk of Rain (2013)

risk_of_rainOn first glance, Risk of Rain seems an exercise in minimalism, with its tiny sprites, ambiguous plot, and almost episodic gameplay (since players can beat the game in about 30 minutes). In those ways, it is, but other parts of the game showcase great breadth and depth, and the balance between the minimal and maximal has rendered this one of my most favored games of recent months. The salespitch – Risk of Rain is a “roguelite”, combining platformer/run and gun gameplay with heavy RPG elements, permadeath, and a degree of macrogame, since you can unlock additional items and playstyles by completing challenges during your runs. It lacks the extreme difficulty of its ancestors, and I personally was able to score my first victory after about 8 hours of gameplay where such still eludes me in something like Stone Soup.

The soundtrack in particular almost became installment #2 in the “Anatomy of VGM” series, although it took a while before I could appreciate the effort that went into it. Chris Christodoulou provides a “modern” soundtrack that contrasts with the pixelated graphics and is marked by its own contrasts between rock-based songwriting and electronic soundscapes. Shrewd listeners will note a few leitmotifs and progressions holding everything together, although as previously mentioned the actual breadth of these compositions is pretty impressive. Sometimes it makes for strange effects when combined with actual gameplay; imagine being assaulted by hordes of monsters while the serene “Chanson d’Automne​.​.” or upbeat “25.3°N 91.7°E” plays just under the threshold of your consciousness because hordes, and then escaping or obliterating your enemies only to realize the soundtrack dissonance…

To be honest, while I find the gameplay formula compelling, I think this game’s greatest achievements are actually in its storytelling and worldbuilding. The key here is that the game explicitly tells you very little about its main plot. Instead, you get most of your information from collecting items and monster logs, although much of it is simply flavor text about the various items discarded from the UES Contact Light. This leaves just enough ambiguity that you almost have to make up your own headcanon to keep from going insane in real life; for my purposes it suffices to say that most of the characters here are preoccupied with simply surviving the harsh environments at all costs, even if it leaves them battered, scarred, and mutated beyond all recognition (see the cover art).

In short, definitely an experience, and even if you aren’t going to play the game for whatever reason, you should check out the soundtrack, which is more than strong enough to stand on its own.


Overkill – The Killing Kind (1996)


Freshly coked up with members of Anvil and Liege Lord in their nostrils… Overkill releases The Killing Kind! Public opinion seems torn on this one – it either proves Overkill is better at the “groove”/hardcore inflected styles of metal of the mid-90s than average, or that those styles are worthless, depending on who you ask. But honestly, it’s not a major stylistic departure for this band, at least in context of their previous works. The previous two albums might shed some light on this since they’re notorious for introducing a lot of the changes further explored here, but I’ve never listened to them, so you can take solace in the fact that the review of this album won’t be a review of those two.

Still, since I’ve listened to a few albums by Overkill, comparative methods come in handy occasionally. On a songwriting level, The Killing Kind shares many of the velocities, structures, and instrumental techniques of its predecessors. It also has the benefit of a nice production, at least by mid-90s standards; compared to what I know of Overkill’s previous discography it’s simultaneously cleaner and more abrasive. The guitars and drums receive the lion’s share of the mix (how original!), although D. D. Verni’s basslines get some workouts, especially in the instrumental “Feeding Frenzy”, which even features some brief blastbeats. Even the occasional ballad isn’t out of place; there are antecedents even on Overkill’s 1980s work. Maybe some people thought this was a return to form or something when it first came out?

I’d have to be a fool to make these comparisons without at least giving some insight into Overkill’s signature sound. One of the big keys here is that Overkill seemingly relies on oldschool/’classic’ punk rock tropes (Ramones, the Damned, etc) more than a lot of other speed/thrash bands. The riffwriting’s usually more elaborate than that, but Overkill is neither particularly fast or complex, although they occasionally toss out a few lengthy songs. If that sounds familiar, keep in mind that Overkill was one of the founding voices in their genre, and that their formulas have been aped a million times. In terms of capturing market share, Overkill has at least two trump cards – a series of skilled guitarists with plenty of swagger in their playstyle, and main vocalist Bobby Ellsworth, whose screeches and snarls are distinctive enough that I can’t immediately think of anyone similar. A few seconds’ introspection reminded me of Marcel Schmier from Destruction, but Schmier doesn’t break out into sung melodies like the Blitz, in my experience.

My feelings about Overkill, along with most of the other semi-accessible pop thrash names of their era, are kind of complicated, but The Killing Kind earns points for upgrading the aesthetics of Overkill’s relatively consistent sound. Then again, Ironbound fourteen years later did that even better and even convinced me to see the band in concert. Good times.

Highlights: “God-Like”, “Certifiable”, “Let Me Shut That For You”, “Bold Face Pagan Stomp”

Graveland – Fire Chariot of Destruction (2005)

folderI always seem to convince myself that Graveland is from Germany, as opposed to Poland. To be fair, the city Rob Darken comes from (Wrocław) is in a part of the country that historically had a major German presence before a few historical events intervened… but it’s probably because of the Germanic/Norse pagan themes Darken uses in much of his lyrics. I’m not very familiar with this band’s work, but Fire Chariot of Destruction showcases a sound apparently indebted to Bathory’s “viking metal” period. I’m willing to believe that, but even here Graveland pulls on about fifteen years of black metal to further shape its sound. Bathory has been this vicious, and arguably that band’s frontman pushed towards epic songwriting in the peak of his powers, but this album has one major advantage over Bathory, and that is the wall of sound.

Oh golly gee willikers! Another one of those albums. Haven’t we talked about the wall of sound enough?” you say in an alternate universe where you’re a total wuss, but in the answer in both that universe and our own is still no. One thing I don’t think I’ve explicitly mentioned about this approach is that it tends to favor ambiance and atmosphere over dynamic range, and Fire Chariot of Destruction is no exception. It relies primarily on riff changes and occasional bursts of choir to create variety within its songs, and the instances of such that are there are enough to give these songs a sense of motion, but intricacy of narrative doesn’t seem to be the intent here. Then again, it rarely is in the black parts of the metal spectrum.

Some of the ideas on this album remind me of bands like Summoning. Admittedly, Rob Darken’s compositions here don’t push as far into the drones as that band on that album, but in 2005 he had access to better recording and mixing techniques (although, to be fair, Summoning in the same era did as well) and intent to use them, if the cruder production on his formative early ’90s work is to be believed. Either way, the end result is that the strengths and weaknesses of these bands are generally similar. I find myself pretty well attuned to Fire Chariot of Destruction‘s overall aesthetic for reasons that I’ve explained on multiple occasions, and I like the formulas used to construct these songs in general. However, Darken rarely deviates from these formulas, which means that some of this album ends up kind of disposable. More instrumental variety might’ve been helpful, even in its most subtle forms, and more varied vocals beyond a simple growl/choir dichotomy could also do the trick, although vocals play more of a background role here. Still, those are minor piddles for something that fits my stylistic preferences.

Highlights: “War Wolf”, “Fire Chariot of Destruction”, “Prayer for my Ancestors”


King Crimson – Discipline (1981)

folderDiscipline is never a means in itself, only a means to an end. It’s presumably the crowning achievement of an era of King Crimson that progheads don’t seem to like as much as their ’70s proto-metal or even their earliest, standard creating recordings. Difficult to say, since like your average genre listener, they are hard to please and even harder to taxonomize. Discipline is strikingly different from its not-so-immediate predecessor (Red), but the changes it introduces pale in comparison to the rest of King Crimson’s unusual 1980s period… well, I say unusual, but in the context of what this band has done, maybe not so much. Still some remnants of the experiments here found their way into the band’s music for decades to come…

Important to understanding this band’s evolution is how much of an ensemble it was; on Discipline, founding veteran Robert Fripp and his trusty drumling Bill Bruford are joined by two newcomers. On wacky guitar effects and main vocals is Adrian Belew, who’d built a reputation as a skilled performer under famous musicians like Frank Zappa and David Bowie. Meanwhile, Tony Levin introduces listeners to the Chapman stick, which definitely changed my understanding of what you could do with a bassline when I first listened to this. These four musicians take two major musical ideas and forge them into one unusual sound – complex, polyrhythmic interlocking riffs hammered into structures that resemble the rising “New Wave” sound that dominated other slots on the rock and pop charts of the time.

In contrast to the band’s next two albums (Beat and Three of a Perfect Pair), which shift the balance ever towards pop music, and also in contrast to the relatively consistent sounds used, Discipline is ironically all over the place, effortlessly shifting between bouncy, sound effect laden arrangements, semi-ambient guitarscapes, and even one improvisational piece vaguely reminiscent of the band’s previous incarnation. Even with the important glue of Bruford and Levin holding things together, Fripp and Belew’s guitar parts take prominence in the mixing (which is competent and effective in ways I find uninteresting) and the writing, as they handle most of the interlocking melodies. The emphasis on this aspect of the band’s arrangements comes at the expense of the dynamic range that distinguished much of their older work, which is most understandable and justifiable when the band locks into soundscape mode (for instance, “The Sheltering Sky”) but doesn’t necessarily jive with the vocals, since Adrian Belew relies heavily on the dynamism of his vocal parts to define his style.

For any flaws it has, Discipline is certainly a dramatic restructuring of King Crimson’s sound, although whether you find that to be worth your time may depend very heavily on how you value ’80s rock tropes. I had the fortune to go through a period of new wave obsession just before I learned about this band, so one of my primary motivations for acquiring this album was, in fact, seeing how the band adopted to the decade. For that, Discipline may forever hold a special place in my heart, even if others exert a stronger influence on my brain…

Highlights: “Elephant Talk”, “Indiscipline”, “Thela Hun Ginjeet”

Acid Bath – When The Kite String Pops (1994)

folderThe blues are strong with these musicians. When The Kite String Pops is a well regarded (if, like much underground metal, somewhat obscure) work of sludge metal that I owe my knowledge of to its occasional appearance in the “albums with weird cover art” threads on Encyclopedia Metallum’s forums. Not a subgenre I get into very often, but it amuses me how much of a melting pot it is, especially given the existence of New Orleans, its nexus of power. As befits a melting pot, Acid Bath mixes the local blues legacy with some extreme metal tropes, but importantly throws in some alternative rock. I find that in the final product, these influences have simmered down and were surprisingly hard to pick apart from each other without close study.

While the overall emphases vary, one important effect of this approach is that no one musical element overwhelms the others, although my gut feeling is that the vocals enjoy some prominence due to almost every member (with the exception of the drummer) contributing to them in some fashion, even if only in the background. It makes sense, since Acid Bath is one of those bands with particularly interesting lyrics. The gore and terror that infests much of the extreme metal scene is here, but in an oddly personal, twisted shape. Violence comes up a lot, but seemingly from a more personal perspective than usual. I’ve written about such an approach before, but it’s rare enough that I learn to appreciate its occasional return. The guitars tend towards older/more traditional rock and metal riffs, but aesthetically two aspects particularly stand out. First, the distortion is more in line with your average extreme metal recording. Second, at least one of the guitarists drenches his parts in a metric ton of effects; vibratos, choruses, etc, which creates a distinctive droning effect when combined with the more standard rhythm riffs. Further reinforcing the unhinged nature of this recording is its fractured arrangements. Most of these songs aren’t particularly complicated, at least from a structural stance. They also spend a good deal of time  However, Acid Bath moves between song sections with great abruptness and not very much in the realm of transition. Back when I wrote on The Red Chord (see that link I provided), I figured that having your composition style reflect the themes your music deals with was pretty justifiable from an artistic stance, but I don’t know how the rest of the world feels about this. With that in mind, I’d like to hear you, the readers’ opinions on this. Now might be a good time for you to tell your friends about Invisible Blog, thus increasing my viewership, but whatever.

It took me a while to attune to its musical approach, but When the Kite String Pops has earned its place in my collection. In the future, it might lead me down a path of similar content, although I can’t guarantee this; I’ve been splitting between technical death metal and minimalist black metal for some reason.

Highlights: “Blue”, “Finger Paintings of the Insane”, “Jezebel”, “God Machine”

Anatomy of VGM – Hudson Hawk (NES, Amiga, etc)

hudson hawk nesWhat a way to begin a totally new and never before done feature! Hudson Hawk by the now obscure British company Special FX is… literally a video game, and clearly not a metal album. It came out for pretty much every personal computer with substantial market share in the UK at the time of its release, as well as the Nintendo Entertainment System and Gameboy. It has some interesting ideas and is overall a competent 2D platforming game (although probably not one you should seek out and play right now), but you’re probably wondering why I chose to start here instead of with something better known, like the infinitude of Marios or Mega Mans or Sonics who’ve drawn countless talented composers to toil under their boxart for what is now several decades.

It turns out that I came upon this game’s soundtrack while looking for the absolutely horrible one of a different baffling movie -> video game adaptation – Dirty Harry – The War on Drugs. The less said about that game, the better, but the more said about this one’s music at the very least…

Read more…

Notes on Five Years of Blogdom

After five years, it seems that this blog has become one of my life’s longest commitments. If you like reading this blog, you probably think that’s a plus. If not, that’s what we have brainwashing for. Odd veiled threats aside (asides being one of the main themes of Invisible Blog), it’s been an interesting five years, containing most of my undergraduate college experience, most of my musical ‘career’, and a surprising amount of my actual personal writing project time as well! What happened?


It seems that the creation processes in my brain only really began to work in any way recognizable to my current self around the age of 16; it was in May of 2008 that I started drafting First Contact Is Bad For You. Years of schooling meant it wasn’t my first attempt at creative writing (and the less said about my earlier attempts around the age of 12, the better), but where I might’ve earlier lost interest in it, I just kept working on it, albeit slowly and fitfully at times due to said times being scarce. I might’ve made some attempts at composing about the same time, but I didn’t really make any significant output until I got my hands on better tools – and with full awareness of what some of the purists might say, Sibelius is better than staff paper.

At the risk of complaining about how my past self didn’t know things my present thing did… my past self didn’t have the (dis?)advantage of future self whispering over his shoulder, complaining about his every pratfall and regret, and therefore had to figure a lot of things out for himself, like how to compose both text and music in a unique voice, and how to make it work. Standards change, and I became incredibly aware of that even during the creation of my earliest efforts. FCB is recognizable as the work it was when I first finished drafting it, but the revisions I made reflected three years of learning, especially aided by the jump in expected standards that accompanied my transition from high school to college. Meanwhile, I experimented a great deal with the limits of stock Sibelius, trying to bend its sounds into heavy metal music, and gradually coming to believe that a composition was more important than how it was performed. Kind of a big paradigm shift after 10 years of piano performance training, don’t you think? Minimalist black metal might’ve had something to do with it.

Then I discovered a little program called Famitracker. It seems that in the average hands, writing chiptunes with Famitracker teaches minimalism and efficiency, and to deny that I acquired some knowledge in that regards would be to deny my musical evolution, but by konsistently ko-opting Konami’s VRC6 expansion chip in to my palette, I found maximum sonar density to be a worthy compliment to my general attempts to avoid repetition. That turned out to be a fruitful approach, although I figured out that I could turn a sparser, cleaner approach into something I wanted to hear – anyone want to record a live version of “Song 31“? I have the sheet music if you’re interested, and it was explicitly designed to be human performable. In general, I feel like 2012, at least in its latter half, was a particularly good year for my creative ambitions – in the case of Famitracker I was writing more coherent and elaborate tracks after a period of deliberately writing ‘video game loop’ stuff, and in the case of this blog, I’d decided I was on a streak of interesting discussions of interesting music. Whether that previous statement is true or not is too subjective a question to answer, but my efforts to improve were still there.

Later years also saw me expanding into new subjects, which is probably why I ended up having a semi-robust ‘humor’ section on Invisible Blog. You’ve probably stumbled upon at least one of the “Bad Ideas” posts, which have steadily grown more elaborate and thematic over the years (although they’re rather less frequent than their heyday in early 2011). One of my buddies read these and insisted I should compile a list of “Pickup Lines That Probably Won’t Work” – when I told him that he ought to write the lines if he were so interested in seeing them exist, it left me with a new feature. Other experiments have lead to a series of little essays on games and game design, a couple of short stories, and the mother of all blog motivations – shameless self promotion! When I publish something, odds are it gets a mention here, since due to its length and consistent output, Invisible Blog has kind of become the unifying force between all my creative endeavors.

As it is, I wouldn’t be surprised if this blog continues for many years – perhaps even decades! It doesn’t get a ton of traffic, but keeping it alive seems to sharpen my skills as a writer, and that has to count for something, right?

I’ve been bouncing around a few ideas for types of posts that ought to be interesting to write about, and you’ll probably see some of those rather soon. The first (and in fact the next upcoming one) is to take the sort of music reviews that are the invisible bread and butter of this blog and apply their methodology to video game music. Unless the universe explodes, you should be able to read the first prototype before the month is out.