Anatomy of VGM #4 – Gubble (Windows, PS1)

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To be perfectly honest with you, I still find the concept behind Gubble questionable. This PSX cover’s tagline is pretty accurate in describing the overall gameplay (mostly action, some thought required), but you’re still playing as an insane blathering alien that goes around disassembling prerendered 3D abstract landscapes with construction tools. The end result is basically a spiritual successor to Atari’s Crystal Castles, which kind of makes sense considering both games share a programmer. You’re probably wondering what elevates this game to the level of consideration you’ve come to expect from my “Anatomy of Video Game Music” series – it turns out there was a demoscene moon rising on the night Gubble was first conceived.

Gubble‘s music was written by Seppo Hurme (aka Fleshbrain), who wrote his fair share of tracker music in the early ’90s and also collaborated with the more famous Bjørn Lynne at times. The PC versions uses MIDI music; the quality of instruments in their soundtrack will depend greatly on your setup, and it might not necessarily represent the intent of the composer. When in doubt (and using Windows), install Coolsoft’s VirtualMIDISynth and your soundfont of choice. I am not sure if the PlayStation version uses sample/sequencer based audio, or if just plays prebaked recordings, but it still sounds better than, for instance, the stock MIDI functionality in recent versions of Windows.

Given the subject matter and apparent audience for the game (which is certainly child friendly and most likely explicitly aimed at a younger audience than mine), Gubble‘s soundtrack is… surprisingly nifty. There’s an even split between silly melodramatic cartoon orchestra music and electronic tracks that wouldn’t be out of place in an early 90s computer scenedemo. The former is arguably more appropriate for the game’s aesthetic, but I personally prefer demoscene techno to cartoon orchestra music. None of the tracks are particularly long, but they have their share of elaboration and interesting musical ideas. Some of them do admittedly feel incomplete; as if they abruptly conclude in what should rightly be in the middle of the composition. That’s a fairly common pitfall for video game composers, who understandably deal with different challenges than musicians writing for other mediums.

Overall, though, I’d say the OST is far more ambitious than you might initially expect given the circumstances that surround this game, and it’s got plenty of merits to keep your interest if you ever end up playing the game. Much of its strength is probably a result of MIDI/sequencer limitations; skilled composers can, after all, do especially well under such stylistic pressure, especially if you’re like Fleshbrain and you cut your teeth on module music.

P.S: Because Gubble stores its music in easily obtainable MIDIs, you get another quick and dirty track remix. People who are following my mainline musical efforts might be interested to know that I reused some instrument presets from “Superior Steel”, and thusly it sounds more like the industrial/EDM track I heard yearning to break free from the original.

Augury – Concealed (2004)

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This is Augury before they went jazz-prog on Fragmentary Evidence. Concealed is kind of weird by comparison; it’s much more vocal driven, it relies more on ambience and texture, and I’ve seen it labeled a sort of death metal/folk fusion in response to the existence of the acoustic interludes and vocal interplay. I’m not so certain about the accuracy of that last bit, myself, but the end result is still a significantly different album, despite it sharing quite a bit of its ‘sound’ with its successor.

While it’s not an overtly jazz flavored album, Augury’s debut is still home to intricate musicianship. As the various types of vocals are so prominent here, it’s probably best to inspect them first, and indeed to give them special attention. Concealed is arguably defined more by the interplay between its vocalists than the mere fact they perform both death growls and various types of traditional singing; while you don’t get much in the way of simultaneous vocal overlap (which is admittedly kind of rare in metal unless you’re listening to Solefald), you do get constant style changes, which are the next best thing. The growls in particular aren’t especially ferocious, but instead seem to be oriented towards both depth of pitch and overall intelligibility; Frank Mullen’s vox in the band Suffocation are a good comparison.

Concealed orients itself, none the less, towards a progressive-metal sound, with a great deal of dynamic range, harmonic complexity, and messy compositions. The latter was less of a problem 5 years later, but the way that the songs on Augury’s material throw abrupt musical changes at the listener is something musicians and songwriters have to be very careful with in order to prevent disaster. In general, Augury knows enough about restraint to incorporate it into their songwriting without losing the drive towards complexity. Ironically, the intentionally dissonant sections are probably the weakest links, since the transitions between consonant melodies (which are easy, and Augury is good at them) and such are often janky at best. It’s hard to fault the band for their ambition, though, since they do manage to churn out some strong extended compositions in the meantime. It also helps that I appreciate ambitious songwriters, but you shouldn’t judge the members of Augury by my preferences.

While the stylistic differences between Augury’s albums could throw off some listeners, I still think that fans of one could easily cross over to the other.

Highlights: “Cosmic Migration”, “In Russian Dolls Universes”, “Becoming God”

VNV Nation – Empires (1999)

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This album was my first experience with VNV Nation; I’d like to say there’s an interesting story behind how I discovered this band, but they’re basically just one of those bands I stumbled upon. Of the albums by this band I’ve listened to, Empires is likely the most aesthetically consistent, occupying a sweet spot between the unintentional jank of the band’s debut (Advance and Follow) and the intentional exploration of later recordings, like Matter + Form. As far as I know, this is transitional material. When you get down to it, Empires isn’t a huge leap from VNV Nation’s past, but it mainstreams the band enough to make the differences easily apparent with familiarity.

In general, VNV Nation on Empires comes across as an earlier form of the electronic dance pop prevalent today (these days it’s all about sidechain, wubs, and similar onomotopaeia); one that’s arguably in closer communion with the various forms of EDM prevalent in the mid-late ’90s. In fact, vocalist Ronan Harris went as far as to give us a name for this – “futurepop”; it relies more heavily on arpeggio textures and certain types of repetition than… uh… contemporarypop, but it’s still generally structured in a similar fashion. There are a few more abstract tracks (“Fragments” comes to mind) to break things up between the vocal pop. I haven’t listened to anything by this band past 2005, but I wouldn’t be surprised if their overall aesthetics follow contemporary trends at most times. To be fair, I wouldn’t be surprised if this happened in most of the popular music out there, but VNV Nation doesn’t quite approach what passes for “mainstream” sales figures, and that does occasionally lead people to believe such bands are immune to the forces of the market when, in fact, it makes them especially vulnerable.

It turns out that Empires is kind of hard to write about in any significant aspect, at least if you’re like me and you want to compare it to the rest of their discography, but the essential similarities in VNV Nation’s discography do keep popping up. This could be the album where the band actually found itself, for all I know, but its newfound cohesion leaves it with a relatively narrow focus. Even Futureperfect, released a few years later, pushes the formula established here significantly further, although it doesn’t stop being pop music in the process. It’s not that I want to disparage Empires too much, since without it I don’t think we’d have the foundation for such later and more accomplished works, and it definitely is ahead of its (admittedly interesting if flawed) predecessors. It might even be a good starting point for appreciating the band; I would indeed be fortunate if this were the case.

Highlights: “Saviour”, “Fragments”, “Darkangel”

Slayer – South of Heaven (1988)

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The first half of South of Heaven represents Slayer firing on all cylinders, and despite all the strong points of their previous discography may even be the high point of their entire career. The second half? Not so much. This album also showcases Slayer falling off the leading edge of metal extremity and aggression, since they decided to make a more varied (or at least occasionally ‘doomy’) recording instead of exploring the nascent death metal they had helped inspire. I’m not complaining, since it does give the band an opportunity to flex their songwriting muscles in a way we didn’t hear on Reign in Blood.

As something of a stylistic compilation, South of Heaven doesn’t push Slayer’s songwriting as far as Hell Awaits did a few years before, but it also has a marginally better production and arguably makes better use of the enhanced speed and velocity that Slayer had explored by 1988 during its faster sections. It’s still something of an experimental album on the rhythm front, and it also showcases things like Tom Araya trying to actually sing, with mixed results. Araya’s singing voice is flat, to put it bluntly, but it actually works on a track like “Behind the Crooked Cross” that demands some implication of psychological scarring and PTSD to match its lyrical content. Other times, it falls… well… flat; Araya’s screams on previous Slayer albums provided accentuation and dynamics, and with the attempted singing, they seem scarce here (although there’s a good one on “Live Undead”).

In general, the fact that South of Heaven repeats a lot of the ideas developed on previous Slayer albums is responsible for most of its positive and negative characteristics. Those old ideas were quite effective, as you could probably infer from listening to those albums, or the thousands of bands that did similar and were thusly influenced. The weaker tracks, concentrated towards the end as they are, aren’t particularly out of the ordinary, at least for this period. This leads me to believe that Slayer just pushed their weaker tracks to the end of the album in the hopes that the good stuff at the beginning would sell the album. Not something I’d dwell on too heavily, although the different scatterings of strong tracks on previous Slayer albums kind of tempts me to do so on occasion.

Given that Slayer’s ’80s work is one of the high points of metal, though, it’s still a worthy acquisition, but were you really expecting me to say anything else? It’s more Slayer in a similar style to the old stuff and generally well executed, too.

Highlights: “South of Heaven”, “Live Undead”, “Ghosts of War”

Molested – Blod-Draum (1995)

folderOnce upon a time, there was a band named Borknagar that became quite popular around the turn of the century. Because of this, enterprising internet users found their attention disproportionately placed on this band, as it shares a founder. Molested is quite different; while they’re a rare example of a Norwegian death metal band during the big wave of black metal hysteria, they also have a “melodic” approach to the style that doesn’t evenly match up with the early Swedish/Gothenburg shtick. They’ve also got some tangential folk music elements, but they’re minimal at best and could theoretically be torn from the band with minimal scarring.

It’s an oversimplification to call Blod-Draum “odd”, but there really isn’t much out there that hits all the notes this one is going for. The first hint that you’ve got something interesting on your hands is the thick but treble heavy production. It takes some getting used to, although it’s reasonably intelligible for an extreme metal recording released in 1995. One thing you’ll note after a while is that it makes the songwriting sound denser than it is; Blod-Draum focuses more on monophony and horizontal complexity (i.e the order in which riffs are arranged) than stacking musical elements on top of each other. Vocals and lyrics are an exception – the vocalist performs very deep, almost slurped growls that are buried into the mix. Following the growls is difficult enough; understanding the lyrics is pretty much impossible without access to the printed lyrics.

The overall effect of all Molested’s chosen songwriting tropes makes for music that is in some ways quite intricate, but very basic in others. One thing I noticed is that there’s a great deal of key signature modulation inside the riffs; that’s arguably the source of the local melodies. The guitars also rely heavily on tremolo picking for texture, making for a blurrier sounding album than otherwise but also occasionally bringing to mind the contemporary black metal that this material tries to avoid. The more I listen to this album, the more I wonder exactly how many fingers it’s dipping in the black metal camp; a lot of what diverts it from comes from the rhythm section. The sheer quantity of tempo changes, in fact, reminds me particularly of Darkthrone’s second album, which similarly has some elements of both black/death, even though the ratios are arguably reversed. If there’s a historical lesson to be taken from this, it’s that the barrier between extreme metal styles was especially thin in mid-90s Scandinavia, despite the efforts of the trvekvlt types to differentiate themselves.

In retrospect, a lot of Blod-Draum’s novelty comes from the awkward bits, but that, alongside its strong sense of melody, gives it its unique charm.

Highlights: “Along the Misty Morass”, “Following the Growls”, “Forlorn as a Mist of Grief”

Anatomy of VGM #3 – Victoria II (Windows)

vicky2boxartFor a game that I’ve put so many hours into, I don’t spend a huge amount of time with Victoria II‘s music. Strategy games tend to have relatively short soundtracks compared to how many hours addictive types put into them, although Paradox Development Studio (the gaming developing arm of Paradox Interactive) has been selling additional music for their games for some time, including a license deal with Sabaton! Victoria II predates that business model, though, and has to rely on about an hour of what turns out to be  compositions in the various styles of Western classical music prevalent in the 19th century.

Paradox has relied on Andreas Waldetoft as their primary composer since at least 2006, with the release of Europa Universalis III. Waldetoft uses, for better or worse, a sort of “filmscore” approach to composing for their games in that he relies very heavily on modern orchestral arrangement and recognizable leitmotifs. Victoria II is, as far as I know, the closest he comes to actually composing in period styles, but as far as I know, most of the orchestral music you hear in films these days takes its cues from the “Romantic” period of the 19th century, although sometimes a film goes a little more modern and dissonant; we have a potential benefit of hindsight that the period composers obviously didn’t. Waldetoft sometimes lifts material directly from period music, but if he did so for this game, it’s either subtle enough to avoid notice, or I need to isolate myself and do nothing but listen to Western classical for a few weeks.

The soundtrack showcases great breadth; it is, after all, trying to put sound to an entire century. A track like the vaguely Baroque and flashy “Handel This” contrasts with the somber and almost too melodramatic “Russia 1917” (that violin lead in the middle and restated at the end pulls so intensely at my heartstrings that I can no longer take it seriously), although a good portion of the music is fairly subdued. This is an instance where using the Clausewitz engine’s music scripting options might’ve helped the soundtrack of Victoria II shine better; tracks could be programmed to play more often when relevant and so forth, but to my understanding this functionality went unused, there’s no evidence of a scriptfile in the game’s music directory. Still, this dedication to period accuracy fits well alongside the attempts at plausible historical simulation (although V2 is notably more sandbox oriented than the most recent crop of PDS games), and it does stand in stark contrast to a game like Age of Empires II, where gameplay over pure historical simulation is coincidentally accompanied by the composers’ personal styles similarly taking precedence.

The only real flaw I can think of in this game’s soundtrack is that there isn’t enough of it. With any luck, the long-awaited sequel will help deal with this.

Necrophobic – The Nocturnal Silence (1993)

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Long delayed reviews are always interesting to start, and The Nocturnal Silence is no exception. Necrophobic, at least in their early work, is a great example of the processes that lead to the existence of a unique Swedish black metal scene; one founding member (David Parland) even went on to found Dark Funeral, for whatever that’s worth. The Nocturnal Silence is too close to the ‘death metal’ end of the spectrum (even accounting for the simultaneous birth of the Gothenburg “melodeath” scene) to be counted amongst their numbers, but its early…ish grafting of melodic black metal tropes onto polished death metal songwriting is certainly worth a listen.

While the description and the title track (which I previewed first) served to draw me in, the actual melodies of The Nocturnal Silence were sparser than expected. In many cases, they’re monophobic with little in the way of harmonies to back them, which is admittedly quite standard for many varieties of death metal. Furthermore, this melodic approach doesn’t keep the band from exploring the more chromatic and dissonant material I usually associate with death metal. Most songs have a few sections of keyboard accompaniment or guitar leads to add extra breadth to the sound, but in general, I found Necrophobic alternates between both of these approaches. It makes sense on some level – you can’t exactly have and not have an accompaniment at the same time! In general, while this always counts as ‘melodic’ death metal, you won’t hear the constant harmonizing of some of this album’s successors.

Ultimately, the high points of The Nocturnal Silence seem to be built from restraint and cohesion, which isn’t exactly what I expect the more conventionally musical death metal to excel in, but it’s the card we’ve been dealt. On this album, Necrophobic excels at weaving the riffs written together into a cohesive whole and thusly matching their musical narrative to the lyrics being growled. The controlled application of melody allows them to effectively mix the multiple influences they had into a coherent whole, so there’s definitely a working formula on display here. Might be too coherent, though; the worst flaw of this album is that its second half feels derivative of the first. There aren’t really any major musical language changes throughout the album, so you could argue the weaker material got shoved to the back. I wouldn’t say this risk is innate to that kind of album, but it’s still unfortunate to see it here. Still, you get a strong collection of songs, and a blueprint for one of the more popular ways to expand death metal, so there has to be something of value here.

Highlights: “Awakening”, “Unholy Prophecies”, “The Nocturnal Silence”