On 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.
Discipline 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”
What 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…
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.