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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.

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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”

Anatomy of VGM #7: Quake II (PC)

quake 2 boxart.jpgReally had you going after last week’s post, didn’t I?

In my defense, the soundtrack of Quake II is a pretty good match for what you might’ve expected from the soundtrack of Quake I if you were a rampant id Software fanatic back in the day trying to rationalize from the style of music you heard in Doom. It’s also a good match for what you might’ve expected after Broken or The Downward Spiral if you were a rampant Nine Inch Nails fanatic. Instead, the convergence was blessed with an unsettling ambient soundtrack, a Quake fan decided they’d make their own OST, and that’s how Sascha Dikiciyan (aka Sonic Mayhem) got the job for Quake II. Fascinating how things happen, eh?

This is a straight up work of industrial metal. The more direct approach jives well with Quake II‘s less horrific and more aggressive atmosphere compared to its predecessor. As far as I’m concerned, it leans more towards what contemporary mainstream metal bands were doing at the time than some of the more electronic-thinking acts of the time; the emphasis is on metal instrumentation and the synthesized parts are reserved primarily for sound effects. Like most things in life, there are exceptions, like the stompboxy boss theme (“Climb”), but ultimately this game’s soundtrack caters more to the Pantera/Machine Head sort of metalhead than their riveted friends.

The results are… to be honest, pretty basic at most times. Quake II (without expansions)’s soundtrack is brief, clocking in at less than half an hour and being organized into compact, if conventionally structured songs. Songs here are composed of a handful of midpaced riffs arranged in easily predictable orders. Honestly, the more I think about it, the more it pales in comparison to Invisible Blog‘s usual fare; while it’s certainly appropriate for the style of gameplay, it’s lacking that spark of variety and vitality that would make it rewarding outside of its background. Most of the artists who perform in this style usually delegate this ‘having a spark’ thing to their vocalist, but that’s usually not a great option in the world of video games, especially if you’re repeating the same tracks over and over and over again…

So I guess that when I actually think about it, Quake II‘s music is a bust. Unfortunate, really. When I actually play Quake II (which isn’t going to be that often, since I’ve never ventured into its multiplayer), I don’t actually have to pay the OST much mind, though, so that’s some level of consolation?

The Black Mages – The Black Mages (2003)

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It’s been a while, but in the mid-late 2000s, vast improvements in internet connectivity and emulation meant I spent a good chunk of time playing various installments of the Final Fantasy series. Therefore, when I started listening to metal music, I was very susceptible to this sort of music. Boss battles? Relatively heavy guitar? Lots of keyboard and synth lines? Even now, those are easy and effective ways to grab my attention. By now, the archive binging readers are probably asking me how my opinion on this album has evolved in recent years. The answer? It really hasn’t.

You see, I first listened to this album in the middle of 2009, when my ears had essentially acclimated to the sickest of the sick in extreme metal. Unlike some of the albums I first experienced in that year, I didn’t go into this looking for a gateway. We might as well get it out of the way – The Black Mages is a fairly traditional work of metal, with some obvious diversions into progressive rock styled content that admittedly was already present in the original tracks. It does not go up to 11 at any point, as much as my attuned ears would enjoy such. Still, it’s not exactly a wimpy album; it’s well produced in the traditional metal sense, with more than enough bite to its production to sell the aesthetic. Back in the day, I heard a lot of complaints about the fidelity of the keyboard symphonics, but given some of the other things I listen to, it doesn’t bother me one bit. The instruments still sound better than the originals.

From a composition perspective, this album mostly functions as a straight reenactment of your favorite iconic Final Fantasy themes (up to the date of release). The fidelity is better, and the intensity is greater, but if you’re familiar with the originals, you won’t be surprised by most of what you hear. There are a few dramatic alterations, like the slowed battle theme from Final Fantasy VI, the electronica elements in “J-E-N-O-V-A”, and whatever happened to Final Fantasy II‘s feature; in my defense, I never played FF2(J) for more than 5 minutes or so, so my understanding of that original is somewhat limited. Judging the value of these additions and subtractions is hard primarily because the context in which I listen to these tracks is a bit different from how I would experience them in their respective games. In Final Fantasy V, for instance, I’d be more focused on Gilgamesh’s qualities as a boss than the music which backs him (“Clash on the Big Bridge”). Ultimately, I think the general result is that I hold these adaptations to higher standards than the originals.

I still enjoy and value The Black Mages’ debut. To be fair, it does have some questionable creative decisions at times, but as a remix and enhancement of Final Fantasy’s already adept music, it’s an overall success. Besides, I don’t hold it against other musicians for having different opinions on songcraft than I do, so no point in grilling this album too much for the same.

Highlights: “Clash on the Big Bridge”, “Those Who Fight Further”, “Dancing Mad”

Anatomy of VGM #5 – Mibibli’s Quest (Windows)

mibibli's quest

Described as the author as having gameplay and a plot that will “make you cry”, Mibibli’s Quest strikes a tenuous balance between Mega Man clone and waking nightmare in all things, including its music.

Well, I say that, but to be entirely honest the soundtrack of Mibibli’s Quest leans more towards the former than the latter, with many a track hearkening back to the late ’80s NEStalgia that’s so pervasive in our culture even if it’s mostly hawked by people a few years older than I… and given that I’ve written my fair share of chiptunes, perhaps myself as well. The ideas are out there, in more than one way, but the tension between various elements is very much a defining element.

For the most part, the strangeness or lack thereof is kept discretely separated between tracks, which for the most part are either deliberately weird or more conventional and rarely somewhere in between. There are some notable exceptions in the second hub world, which has arguably more abstract tracks without going off the deep end. Another sign of this separation of concerns comes from the very instrumentation itself. Most of the tracks in Mibibli’s Quest are chiptunes. They’re mostly faithful to the limitations of the NES’s various soundchips, but I don’t think perfect accuracy was a goal. Some of the percussion and instrument layering leads me to believe that the tracks were put together on a more conventional digital audio workstation, though I wouldn’t rule out the use of emulation entirely.

The actual songwriting seems to be based primarily on rock music tropes. It makes sense even when you consider the chippy sounds used to illustrate these – rock is literally a form of popular music, and it’s one that doesn’t necessarily require a lot of simultaneous instruments to pull off. It should help explain why you’ll hear plenty of the stuff in chiptunes; it’s obviously not the only influence, but a good deal of it filters into Mibibli’s Quest. It’s especially notable in the introductory “Art Zone”, for instance. Beyond this, Ryan Melmoth’s most notable technique as a composer is arguably how he approaches harmonic/melodic construction. There’s a lot of progressions in these songs that are, to put out bluntly, kind of out there, at least by the rock music standards I’ve recently tried to convince you were relevant. Luckily, they’re not so overused as to be listener fatiguing, but they do help to contribute to the unique characteristics of this soundtrack. Barring that, there’s also the occasional unsettling soundscape to keep you awake, but Melmoth’s got enough pop sensibility in these tracks that they’re both accessible and hooky enough for a mass audience.

Needless to say, once this officially gets released on Steam, there’ll probably be a swarm of remixers on it like flies around vinegar. In what is becoming something of an internal obligation, I have contributed to this. Mibibli’s Quest does not, however, store its music in easily editable MIDIs or tracker form, at least not that I’m aware of. Still worth the time and effort.