Anatomy of VGM #12: Cities: Skylines (2015)

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The boxart of the console ports of Cities: Skylines varies, but the OST is the same. This is not a review of the radio stations in-game, which amongst other things play music from other Paradox Interactive published titles.

I’ll admit it – I haven’t put nearly the hours into this game as my previous city builder of choice (SimCity 4), but I honestly think the rest of Paradox Interactive’s published titles are to blame. While Cities: Skylines lacks the sheer scale of that game, with its region building shenanigans, it’s still a great outlet for your creativity, and a far better successor to SC4 than EA’s efforts in 2013. What of the soundtrack? It’s certainly a substantial departure from the Cities in Motion series that birthed this, and even further from Jerry Martin’s approach to scoring SimCity titles, so at the very least, it’s going to win some points for audacity.

Cities: Skylines ships with 2 hours of strikingly modern/contemporary classical music. I’m not familiar with the bleeding edge of that genre, since my own experience tends towards the so called “common practice period“, but I have heard some music in the past that resembles what’s available here. The first thing you’ll notice is that the freedom of tonality – constant dissonance in the service of what more often than not is upbeat, optimistic, swelling orchestration. This is more prominent if you play relatively zoomed in – if I remember correctly, viewing your entire playing area tends to summon ambient synth soundscapes. The actual songwriting has something of an ambient feel to it as well – amorphous loops with abrupt transitions – trying to evoke overall feelings and paint pictures more than form a coherent narrative. It makes sense to a point – a simulation game like this has no preset story, so trying to score narrative setpieces might backfire – your ‘dramatic reveal’ might come as I meticulously place scenery to create a park for my Cims. I haven’t logged enough gameplay to really say how much the soundtrack reacts to your gameplay, but I suspect some of the more dissonant and imposing tracks are reserved for cities in crisis – at least those running a deficit. It’s not much, but it’s more than I’ve experienced in Maxis titles, which is at least potentially interesting.

My main difficulty in discussing the music of Cities: Skylines is that I don’t have a nostalgic attachment to it, and I can’t help but compare the music to that of Simcity 3000 and Simcity 4. It could be for the better that the composer went for something very different. The other part is that I’m not versed enough in ultra-modern classical to say whether or not I like it. The music here certainly challenges me if I try to sit down and listen to it, and it seems appropriate enough for the actual gameplay, though. Ultimately, I suspect people who are especially enthusiastic about this style of music will find much to love in Cities: Skylines‘ soundtrack. It might help that I have enough appetite for dissonance in my music that I didn’t immediately reject this approach, but at the moment, I feel like I’m too intellectually removed from the soundtrack to even so much as have a strong opinion on it. Usually writing helps, but not so much this time.

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Revolution Void – Increase the Dosage (2004)

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Here’s an album that’s very important to me for completely different reasons than usual! First of all, I discovered this band because someone decided their music ought to be in the Flash game Amorphous. Then I learned that they distributed their music free of cost through Jamendo, and tried to do the same for my own initial efforts. Then I dumped this album in the custom music folder for SimCity 4 and built a thousand metropoli to the backing of its electronic jazz fusion. It’s not exactly the usual path my music appreciation takes, but a little historical variety is worth it in the long run, if only for the stories it lets me tell.

So to get it out of the way, Increase the Dosage is a well mixed hybrid of jazz music and electronic music. It leans more towards the former by virtue of song structure and the overall style of instrumentation, as far as I’m concerned. The synthesizers, though, make for both a smoother (as in smooth jazz) and more aesthetically varied experience… they tend to do the latter in a lot of the content reviewed for Invisible Blog, don’t they? Overall, a relatively straight, if sometimes broken and complicated rhythm section and plenty of pads end up backing more improvisatory lead keyboards and brass. I’m not familiar enough with the modern jazz ecosystem to say how typical this is, but there’s no reason it can’t work. It’s definitely not the free-est jazz I’ve ever heard, but a solid backing section gives the solo parts on this album more space to work their magic. It takes a very different sense of band (read: King Crimson) to pull off completely improvised music, anyways.

If my decision to shuffle this soundtrack amongst the music of SimCity 4 wasn’t enough to tip you off, then let me make it explicit – I enjoy Increase the Dosage and think it’s a worthwhile album. The decay of my jazz knowledge since it peaked in middle school does make it hard for me to talk about specifics though. Two major aspects of this album stand out to make it particularly good. First, the music retains a good sense of overall structure, with good use of dynamics, rhythmic shifts, and similar to keep things varied without losing aesthetic coherence. This last bit is especially important because RV’s second major success is in fact building up an enticing atmosphere; everything here fits the ‘high tech cityscape’ feel that the album appears to be going for. It doesn’t strike me when a work of music’s strengths complement each other so directly that often, but it’s worth a note, and the album is worth a shot. Plus, you can legally download it for free on Jamendo. Surely it’ll be good enough that you upgrade that to some sort of fiscal support?

Highlights: “Factum par Fictio”, “Double the Daily Dose”, “Weekend Amnesia”

Blut Aus Nord – The Work Which Transforms God (2003)

the-work-which-transforms-god-53f308335a34a.jpgQuite a bold claim for an album title to be making, am I right? The Work Which Transforms God is the second of Blut Aus Nord’s “industrial” albums, taking the band’s mastery of otherworldly ambience and contorting it into unholy nightmares. As a general rule, it is dissonant where the band’s earlier works were consonant and melodic, chaotic where the previous ones were orderly, but it otherwise retains most of the musical language of those illustrious works. This juxtaposition of genres and the band’s success in keeping their dreamscapes alive are almost certainly the best reasons to give this one a shot, but is that enough?

The impression I get from The Work Which Transforms God nowadays is that it’s scatterbrained compared to its predecessors. This is mostly from a perspective of composition; TWWTG is unyieldingly consistent in its overall production – which tends clean and sterile with hints of dissonant wailing and gnashing of teeth in the distance (more on that later). It’s the songs that wander all over the place, cramming together every stylistic variant you can wring out of a black/industrial metal fusion. On some level, I suspect this makes for a shallower experience, but I’ve long since established that I’m a sucker for this sort of fusion. It’s an easy way for Blut Aus Nord to worm their way inside my head, even if the ‘industrial’ side of this album is more towards the crushing, sludgy, even monotonous sort of music popularized by bands like Godflesh.

In short, this is an album where I can’t really bring myself to accept what could actually be a pretty serious flaw because everything else pushes my buttons. I wonder what that says about me? The other elements really are on point, though. The ambience in particular is delightfully sick and twisted, and not even through especially arcane techniques, although the combination of dissonant riffing and broken beats is presumably harder to get working than more conventional techniques. Blut Aus Nord sometimes manages to recapture the songwriting prowess of their earlier work here, making for a few tracks that retain some value as I penetrate their dissonant depths. However, too much of this album either dissolves into incoherent nonsense, or otherwise stagnates into a death march (read: “Procession of the Dead Clowns”). That definitely wasn’t a problem before.

I guess it could be worse – I’ve heard that this album’s successor (MORT) goes completely off the rails. Is the lesson there that it’s good to have some boundaries in your creative efforts? Probably. The lesson in The Work Which Transforms God is (arguably) that you should be careful when experimenting not to lose sight of how to organize your results.

Highlights: “The Choir of the Damned”, “Axis”, “The Howling of God”

Triptykon – Eparistera Daimones (2010)

folder.jpgI’ve labeled a couple of the albums I review on Invisible Blog to be ‘exaggerations’ of their predecessors and ancestors, but Eparistera Daimones might be the first I’ve covered where the creator (Tom Warrior of Celtic Frost fame) would definitely agree. I remember that my initiation into metal music came about the time that he started this project. Tom tells us that Triptykon was planned from day one to continue Celtic Frost’s overall approach on Monotheist, but was also intended to make things even heavier, darker, and more aggressive.  Sounds like an easy, crowd pleasing, almost populist plan! You know how those go.

Eparistera Daimones wastes no time stating its intent, leading off with the 11 minute “Goetia”, and following it up primarily with extended songs in a similar vein. This might not be the best idea, since Monotheism‘s monophony places some limits on the band’s songwriting options from the bat. Triptykon, being essentially Celtic Frost, though, at least recognizes this problem and uses the same differentiation techniques that its predecessor employed – massive dynamic shifts, vocal histrionics (male and female), tinges of electronics, and so forth. Despite all my claims of similarity, there are at least a few new ideas here, at least relative to this incarnation of Warrior’s musical efforts – “One Thousand Lies” comes to mind for its velocity in what is otherwise a funeral march of an album. Still, this one’s for the doom metal enthusiasts – if slow and crushing isn’t to your tastes, you face an uphill battle trying to acclimate to this one.

To be honest, I was expecting to be more critical of Eparistera Daimones in this review. Its failure to solve the systematic problems that plagued its predecessor are admittedly pretty damning. I think what undermined that impression, though, is the fact that it at least stays the course. It doesn’t add further flaws (which could’ve happened – this album was brought to you by some of the people who made Cold Lake), and at some points it even makes small refinements to the new Celtic Frost formula that help a bit with the overall results. In short, there’s nothing overtly and immediately wrong with this album, and I actually do like quite a few of the tracks here. I’m not sure I’d put it even on the level of Monotheist, though. Maybe I’m just being petty and removing imaginary internet points because this album is a redux, but there’s not much I can do about that, short of a concerted effort to be less arbitrary as a reviewer…

Highlights: “Abyss Within My Soul”, “One Thousand Lies”, “Myopic Empire”

Sarpanitum – Blessed Be My Brothers… (2015)

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Some months ago, I described Sarpanitum, at least on this album as a bastard child of Mithras, on account of the two bands sharing some members. At the very least, this incarnation sounds like it was influenced by Mithras; I lack the familiarity with this band’s previous album I’d require in order to extend that hypothesis. Blessed Be My Brothers was something I considered reviewing during my tenure at DMU, but I never got around to it, and in the end it fell on more critical ears than my own. A mere 18 months later, I can now write coherently about my experiences. In Invisible Blog terms, this is not all that much of a delay.

If you’re familiar with what Mithras sounds like, you’ll have reference for about half of what Blessed Be My Brothers does – this album shares the same base of Morbid Angel (Steve Tucker era in particular) flavored death metal with a wall of sound production and some ambient/psychedelic sounds mixed in. Sarpanitum’s major addition to this formula is a focus on consonant melodies… about half the time. They literally swap between the more percussive/atonal riffs and melodic ones on a regular basis. This is both a blessing and a curse – song sections are individually very strong, and when properly sequenced it makes for effective illustration of the album’s lyrical themes (the crusades in the Middle Ages); a clash of armies if you will. When it doesn’t work, though, Blessed Be My Brothers takes a turn for the random and nonsensical.

It looks like Sarpanitum ended up taking a more difficult path than its musical kinsmen. Usually, I would say that not resorting to genre bending is harder than the alternative, but Mithras was already engaged in this sort of thing to some extent; Blessed Be My Brothers just pushes it further. One thing I can say for sure is that this album made a very strong first impression on me – the mix of extreme death metal antics (with better, if admittedly more conventional vocals than the Mithras formula, too!) abruptly giving way to the metaphorical heavens opening at the 1:30 mark in “Glorification Upon the Powdered Bones of the Sundered Dead” is not the sort of technique I can easily resist. Sarpanitum puts in at least one of these in each song, and they were enough to hide the cracks in the compositions for quite a while. Even figuring out where the songwriting needed extra thought and care isn’t going to make these individual sections disappear. Ultimately, they’re enough for me to recommend this album, but who knows how much more shelf life this album has left in it?

Highlights: “By Virtuous Reclamation”, “Glorification…” (I am not copypasting that again), “Malek al-Inkitar”

Anatomy of VGM #11: Castlevania – Rondo of Blood (1993)

241440-castlevania-rondo-of-blood-turbografx-cd-front-cover.jpgNote: As with all “Anatomy of Video Game Music” installments, I focus on one version of the soundtrack. Today, we’ll be looking at the PC Engine/Turbografx 16 version. Perhaps someday, we’ll look at the ports.

Remember how the last time we did an Anatomy of VGM feature, I said that Rondo of Blood had a more focused and upbeat soundtrack than Super Castlevania IV? If I’d gone into this unfamiliar with either game’s music, then I probably would’ve guessed otherwise. If you extrapolate from other CD-ROM debuts of established franchises, you might expect an especially experimental and varied soundtrack from this game, but instead, it’s mostly a synth rock/funk extravaganza of the sort that was unusually popular on TG16 CD based games. Did it have something to do with the musical climate in Japan at the time? I don’t know for sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

Regardless of why this Castlevania installment sounds the way it does, it’s essentially a continuation of the approach of the earlier titles in the series. It does get and employs the instrumental flexibility boost that you’d expect from streamed audio, but ultimately, Rondo of Blood cleaves more orthodox cuts, with a focus on compact songwriting, and several reprisals of established classic tracks from the series. It even lapses into a few tunes featuring the Turbografx’s distinctive sound chip (which is flexible, but oddly grainy). If I had to guess, I’d say this was probably an attempt to save disc space and/or loading time for small areas. Either way, despite the overall direction of the soundtrack, there’s still time for a few asides, like the chorale on the menu screen, or the bombastic orchestral sounds of the boss fights. I find myself neutral on this; you can imagine how an action platformer’s boss music might try to be more dramatic than its usual fare, Castlevania in general is no exception, and the actual motifs on display here seem logically consistent with how previous boss themes in the series were written.

There’s not much I can really say about the songwriting beyond this – fans have already dissected the ups and downs of every version of “Vampire Killer”, and will continue to do so until the garlic supply collapses and unleashes the undead upon us. The only real complaint I have with this soundtrack is its production and mixing, which is somewhat anemic, and perhaps a bit too shiny for its own good. My recommendation as a digital audio workstation would be to reduce the treble frequencies, and add more bassy instruments, but that might be my personal biases coming through. This is actually something the SNES adaptation of the game did better than the original, although in the interest of focus I can’t go into too much detail. Either way, it’s a minor blemish on what is otherwise a fine soundtrack, and an enhancement to one of the many quality Castlevanias this world has been blessed with. Given how consistently good the series was in its heyday, though, there’s not much else I can say.

Susumu Hirasawa – Byakkoya (The White Tiger Field) (2006)

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It’s been a long time since I last wrote about Susumu Hirasawa; I figure that Byakkoya is probably a good place to start again. It might be one of his better known albums, at least going by how some of its tracks appeared (admittedly in edited forms) in the 2006 film Paprika. I don’t really have the Japanese language knowledge to confirm that, but one thing is certain. Byakkoya, regardless of its creators intent, comes off as a summation and synthesis of everything Hirasawa had done up to that point in his solo career. Almost everything he’s done is present here – Western symphonic stuff, complicated vocal arrangements that incorporate sampling, heavy synthesizer presence, the usual ambient pop approach to songwriting. At the very least, it’s a good way to quickly familiarize yourself with his usual strategies.

As you can guess from the summation, Byakkoya is one of Susumu Hirasawa’s more diverse albums, but it does a lot to integrate what could easily have been isolated, disparate elements on a more fragmented album. Beyond the obvious methods (things like adding a synth into an orchestral arrangement), Byakkoya relies very heavily on Hirasawa’s vocals to tie everything together. After decades of practice and refinement, he has more range in his voice than most of the other musicians I accuse of using vocals as glue. When your soundscape is trying to do as many things as Byakkoya does, it helps to have such obvious strong elements to tie everything together. However, it also helps that Hirasawa has such a long history of genre mixing on his work; much of why I favor this album is a result of how practiced and meticulous everything on it is.

Despite the fusions, Byakkoya ends up emphasizing the orchestra, which sometimes makes it feel like a throwback to its authors’ early ’90s work. The production values are definitely much higher this time around, making for a less budget sounding production. One thing that still irks me is the weak percussion. It’s obviously not an issue on the more laid back and contemplative tracks (like “The Man from Memories”), but it does become irksome to my death metal attuned ears on more driving tracks. Still, this is a relatively minor issue, and the fact that I had to search my brain for it should be a testament to Byakkoya’s otherwise excellent quality.

So it should go without saying that I recommend this album, but did you expect anything else from me when it came to Susumu Hirasawa? Byakkoya is still likely a high point in his discography, though.

Highlights: “The Stillborn City”, “The Man From Memories”, “Fern of the Planet Sigma”