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Anatomy of VGM #14: Battle Garegga (1996)

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[Caption!]

Artwork from the Japanese arcade version flyer. We’ll be discussing the original soundtrack this time around… as usual.

Last week’s nominally bullet hell inspired recording got me thinking about shmups again. Battle Garegga was always one of my favorites, and an important milestone in the rise of the bullet hell genre (in fact, I’ve heard it inspired the folks at Cave to push themselves to new limits when they released Dodonpachi a year later). It’s music is a milestone of mastery for FM synth enthusiasts, a loving encapsulation of EDM/techno trends of the ’90s, and entirely worthy of the hyperbole I am slathering it in at this very moment. In the interest of hype, you should make sure you’ve listened to it before reading onwards.

The composer responsible for Battle Garegga‘s aural excellence is Manabu Namiki, who rose to prominence working for 8ing/Raizing before later joining up with Cave. His early work outside this game also serves as a master class for how to use FM synthesis in music. To be fair, the tracks here are not exclusively based on FM synth; the hardware the arcade cabinet uses also has some sampling capabilities that are used mostly for percussion and electric piano hits. Pure FM synthesis tends to model this sort of thing poorly, so having some basic noise generation or sampling capability frees the FM up to do the electronic/synthetic sounds it excels at. That in itself was pretty common – in the Western world, your best reference for this is probably the Sega Genesis, which had the capacity to pull this off between all of its sound hardware. Still, when you consider just how good the FM synth in this game sounds – lots of resonant pads and thumping bass, and the genres it covers, it’s a sign that Namiki has the aesthetics where he needs them.

As previously mentioned, Battle Garegga is a techno soundtrack of the sort that I suspect was most popular in the early ’90s. The instrumentation is what really tips me off; it results in a lot of midpaced, rhythmically simple tracks that focus most of their complexity on melodic/harmonic exploration and sound layering. There’s also a funk/jazz component here that occasionally syncopates the percussion into offbeat grooves; it’s not always present, but it makes for good contrast and variety. The aspect that sticks out most for me, though, is the aforementioned chord progressions. I’ve always been a sucker for this sort of “extended harmony but still relatively consonant” approach (Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel will attest to this if you dig them out of their graves), but Battle Garegga does this in a more contemporary, jazz-inflected way than most of what I listen to in my leisure time.

I cannot sing the praises of this OST enough, but what I’ve written here should be more than enough to give you an idea of why it’s so impressive.

Highlights: “Stab and Stomp!”, “Tunnel Vision”, “Subversive Awareness”

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Anatomy of VGM #13: Mega Man 3 (1990)

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Seems like every other installment of this series has a disclaimer about me using some random variant of the game’s boxart. In this case, the European version adapts content from the Japanese boxart and throws in an especially ghastly Doctor Wily for good measure.

This is my (admittedly biased) vote for the best Mega Man game on the NES. For the most part, it sticks to refining and iterating on the strengths of the previous two games in the series, and it hit just before the series began to get stale. The music, however, is more of a departure. The first two Mega Man games have driving, focused soundtracks that are definitely simple and accessible, but more importantly well written and memorable. Mega Man 3 is the first in the series to diversify its music beyond that formula. Capcom has had mixed luck with this approach, but I’d say it generally works well here. The actual reason for this change might be due to a roster change in the music department; in the case of Mega Man, this appears to have happened for pretty much every game in the series. MM3 was composed by Yasuaki Fujita (“Bun Bun”) and the otherwise unrelated Harumi Fujita. To my knowledge, neither of them contributed to the games surrounding this entry. All this shifting gives each game in the series its own unique character.

One thing that definitely hasn’t changed, though, is the instrumentation. Capcom’s games for the NES used (as far as I know) a very rudimentary sound driver that leaves much of the NES’s potential unused. If you’re a chip aficionado, you might be familiar with some of the neat things you can do with the console’s sound chip- sampled DPCM, complicated waveforms, neat tricks with noise generation, and so forth, but Capcom sticks to a pretty limited subset of NES audio. This isn’t innately a bad thing, but like most simple instrumentation, it means your actual song structures have to be very on point, since you can’t rely on wacky effects to grab people’s attention quite as much.

As mentioned, Mega Man 3 takes a less “direct” approach to songwriting than its predecessors. The actual compositions for instance are a bit longer; not immensely so, but enough to increase the pure amount of ideas the songs explore. We’ve also got more ornate instrumentation, particularly in the percussion – some of the robot master themes in particular have a more off-beat feel to their rhythms. The actual melodies employ a lot of counterpoint and ornamentation that wasn’t really present before. Harumi Fujita’s contributions in particular seem to double down on this oblique approach. To be fair, there are a few tracks that wouldn’t feel out of place in the previous game – Top Man and Spark Man are the closest fits, as far as I’m concerned, but overall the emphasis is more on instrumental interplay than big, obvious, monophonic hooks.

It seems like this attempt at more complex songwriting influenced the rest of the Mega Man games on NES, for better (Mega Man 5) or worse (Mega Man 4). It’s basically the NES equivalent of playing with fire – you can end up creating some surprisingly sophisticated tracks if you succeed, but if you don’t know how to manage your complexity, you can end up with some awkward, stilted-sounding tracks. Still, Capcom seems to have had enough success with the approach this game employed that it influenced even the revival games’ sounds… although by the time Mega Man 9 came out in 2008, the barriers to writing chip music had all but collapsed, so it wasn’t exactly hard for that game’s composers to go as nuts as they wanted. Either way, Mega Man 3 has long since sold me not just on the gameplay improvements it made over its predecessors, but the soundtrack improvements as well. It’s a good entry point to the series, too, so if you’ve never played any of the Mega Mans… you might as well get on that, lest you be ostracized and thrown into a pit of fire for failing to join an early millennial’s millenarian Nintendo cult.

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.

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.

Anatomy of VGM #10: Super Castlevania IV (1991)

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Konami’s composers were no strangers to writing ambitious music for the Castlevania series by 1991. This is the company that made their own custom NES expansion chip (the VRC6, my one true chiplove) and used it to enhance this game’s immediate predecessor (Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse). A good decision; that’s for certain. The Super Nintendo, though, brings an entirely different approach to creating music, though – instead of programming sound generators, you’re using sampled sounds. Super Castlevania IV came out early in the system’s life, but to my understanding, it wasn’t even Konami’s first effort for the system – their port of Gradius III came out months before in Japan… which may be a moot point, since I don’t know if the games shared composers. The important bit, though, is that Super Castlevania IV is an aural high point in a series well regarded for its musical achievements. The game’s pretty good too, although I’ve heard complaints about the reduced difficulty…

SC4‘s main achievement as a soundtrack is its unprecedented emphasis on atmosphere and ambience compared to previous Castlevania OSTs. Previous titles weren’t complete strangers to this, and Dracula’s Curse in particular has its share of creepy tunes, but this game uses its expanded aesthetic variety to explore an even greater variety of moods and concepts. This commitment begins at the very title screen – where Dracula’s Curse began with an alternatively triumphant and mysterious prelude, Super Castlevania IV introduces itself with brooding dissonance that eventually gives way to darker, more ominous repetition. Future Castlevania soundtracks take advantage of the extra mindspace this one opened, but they rarely get this dark – even the SNES port of Rondo of Blood (Dracula X) focuses more on rocking anthems. Here, the tracks are generally more sombre than scary, but it still fits the ambience. Besides, the fear of losing Simon to one of this game’s tougher challenges should be all the fear you need.

This isn’t to say that Super Castlevania IV is free of the more driving tunes its predecessors popularized – you need only clear the first few screens to hear the famous “Theme of Simon Belmont”, which is written to the same specifications that introduced the earlier NES Castlevanias, even if it trades in their square waves for keyboards and woodwinds. Despite the newfound expansion of sound, I’d say there’s about a 50/50 split between these two styles. It’s actually not long before the two start mixing – stage 3-3 places Simon in submerged ruins, and introduces a hint of off-kilter jazz, making for an strange but welcome stylistic fusion. There aren’t any other genre bends in this game that quite match up to this – from the vantage point of 2017, it’s more of a preview of the sort of experimentation video game musicians would engage in as their technical barriers were lifted. Still, it’s neat – I wouldn’t have expected jazz music to fit in a game like Castlevania, but with the right setting and a skilled hand on the conductor’s baton, it works wonders.

As previously stated, Super Castlevania IV‘s lessons were well applied on the future games’ OSTs, but few of them got as moody as this one, at least in the series’ prime. I won’t judge the tracks here for their overall mood, but if you want an especially dark and haunting soundtrack, this one is an excellent bet.

Anatomy of VGM #9 – Diablo II (2000)

diablo 2 boxart.jpgNote: This review will also cover the music of Diablo II’s expansion pack, Lord of Destruction.

The greatest tragedy of Matt Uelmen’s professional life is almost certainly that he was not present to ensure that Diablo III’s soundtrack would live up to the daunting standards of its predecessors. The less said about that one, the better. The music in Diablo II, on the other hand, expands on the techniques of its predecessor much like the game underlying it – there’s more of it in more styles with more variety of instruments, but the overall approach hasn’t changed. Predictable, yes, but I don’t think you can reasonably complain about sequels taking this approach.

In short, Matt Uelmen’s work on the Diablo series mixes Western symphonic traditions with dark ambience, and a tinge of rock and electronica for flavor’s sake. The balance varies throughout the environments that the player traverses in their quest to bring down the Prime Evils – from the Middle Eastern inspired deserts of Aranoch, to the entirely orchestral and even heroic accompaniment to your traversal of Mount Arreat (although to be fair, Lord of Destruction came out a year later, and its music is arguably a separate work). Each track isn’t especially long, but they’re densely packed, evolving gradually and sometimes ending in completely unexpected territory, but consistent instrumentation and recurring themes help to keep these soundscapes coherent.

Matt Uelmen has the rare and subtle talent to required to balance both ambience and narrative songwriting in these tracks, meaning that melodies and leitmotifs not only exist alongside the sounds of dark dungeons and demonic combat, but they also compliment them. One of the high points of playing this game properly (instead of just killing Mephisto until Tyreal snaps and begs you to stop for your own sanity) are the moments when you’ve just emerged from a difficult fight; a soundscape of blood, broken bones, elemental chaos, and the screams of the damned gives way to ominous, creeping terror. In short, you may have prevailed for the moment, but you’re still deep in the territory of a nightmarish enemy that could kill you in an instant… …at least on higher difficulties. For all the strengths of Diablo II‘s music, this is still a case where the actual game enhances the effectiveness of the soundtrack, which is surprisingly harder than the common opposite.

While many an action RPG has surpassed Diablo II‘s mechanics (Grim Dawn comes to mind; maybe I’ll write about that at some point if I feel the need), few have come close to its aural mastery. For all we know, Blizzard might make it freeware in a few years, just like what they did with Starcraft

Anatomy of VGM #8 – DOOM (2016)

doom_alt_boxart.0.0.jpgI wrote a bit about the original DOOM (and Hell On Earth)’s music back in my DMU editing days. Things have certainly changed since then, both from the vantage point of 1993 and from the more recent happenings of 2015…

DOOM 2016‘s metalcore/electronica fusion seemingly resembles the original’s music in goal (which was to resemble the popular ‘heavy’ music of the times), but far less has been written about this remake’s development that I can peruse to either confirm or deny that hypothesis. A generation of technological progress and cultural evolution have done wonders for the visibility of extreme metal music. Therefore, the new DOOM‘s OST is a bone-crushingly, skull-rippingly loud and aggressive work that makes even the definitive renditions of the original’s OST sound like anemic. Or so the marketing copy goes… the first sign that the new DOOM‘s music might be a hard sell is that I’m dissecting it on a blog that venerates both the sickest and most depraved and the clean, polished, musically accomplished corners of extreme metal.

I’ve heard many a track in this vein throughout my metal-listening years, and not just in the studio work I’ve written about. Prior to playing through DOOM, I spent about 20 hours with head composer Mick Gordon’s previous effort (Wolfenstein: The New Order), which while more varied in genre also contained several similarly djenty tracks, and featured the efforts of Frederik Thordenhal of Meshuggah fame. Meshuggah’s efforts are simply impossible to ignore in any discussion of this work, by virtue of their sheer genre establishing power, and even without contributions from its alumni, the basic formulas of this album’s metal side are immediately apparent – an emphasis on downtuning, minimalism and polyrhythmic percussion.

Now, merely djenting your way through an album is difficult. It can be awfully limiting, so most of the bands out there merely use this as a foundation on which to construct their songs. Meshuggah adds in jazz harmony and/or inhuman ambience depending on the era; Mick Gordon throws in extremes of dynamics and electronic soundscapes. Constantly varying up the aesthetics above the metal is in itself a double edged sword, though – if you’re not careful, you can trade in coherence for short-lived novelty. I don’t think this is really an issue on DOOM‘s OST, since for all the synth patches on Gordon’s keyboards, he has the restraint to stick to the ones that fit the themes of the game he’s working on.

Most likely, the main problems with this soundtrack stem from the limits of the substructure. DOOM focuses heavily on building ambience when it isn’t attempting to thrash the player’s skull off, but the actual riff structures often fall short. This might be my melody over rhythm bias coming out again, but structural development over time is not really this music’s strength. Even in the presumably somewhat arranged OST version, riffs loop more than necessary given the lack of structural limitations streaming gives you. I suspect this is a case of the composer spreading himself too far – the sheer quantity of sounds on display here is impressive, and it keeps the structural flaws from showing when you’re more focused on hogging the glory kills than honing your listening ears, but there are limits to my patience with each subsection of song once divorced from the gameplay they’re intended to accompany.

Even if the novelty wears off after a while, this is still a victory for anyone who likes heavy metal or heavy electronica in their games. It’s an appropriately amped up soundtrack that fits the gratuitous action, at the very least. Less banal than what happened with Quake II, too.

Highlights: “Rip and Tear”, “At DOOM’s Gate”, “Flesh and Metal”, “BFG Division”