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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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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”

Van Der Graaf Generator – Godbluff (1975)

cover_339151142016_r.jpgGodbluff currently represents one of the longest times between when I first learned of a work of music and when I sat down and properly listened to it. I’m still young, though; there will be plenty of opportunities for me to break this record if I remain in the land of the living. Beyond that, there is something very strange lurking at the heart of this album. It definitely fits the 1970s progressive rock template, though, so anyone familiar with that has a way to penetrate its its mysteries; they are definitely worth taking the time to learn and master.

Godbluff‘s template isn’t hard to understand – it’s a semi-compact (~37 minutes) album broken up into four relatively lengthy songs. I’ve heard many an album with more melodramatic/dynamic songwriting, and I’d go as far as to say that the real emphasis is more on instrumental interplay and texture. This is a very keyboard and vocal driven album, although it does make notable and effective use of guitar and saxophone as well. Peter Hammill is definitely the star of the show – he’s one of those charismatic, if not entirely conventional singers who scores arbitrary meaningless Invisible Blog points for two major reasons. First, he uses every part of his vocal range, which makes for diverse and versatile vocal lines. In addition, this performance is further enhanced by an arsenal of vocal processing techniques that strengthen the overall aesthetic of the recording without becoming too prominent or annoying.

I’ve also mentioned in the past that distinctive vocal performances draw my attention to whatever lyrics are being performed. While Godbluff has its share of lengthy instrumental sections, it’s also a lexically dense treasure trove of poetic metaphor. Apparently this is Hammill’s work too; whether or not it’s representative of his prolific career’s work is not something I can say for sure. The strengths of the lyrics actually resemble those of the music they accompany – more direct in syntax, but potentially deep if you take the time to sit down and think about it. Sometimes, it tends more towards the florid (in particular, on the final track, “The Sleepwalkers”), but when Godbluff has something to say, it never dissolves into incoherence. One potential weakness is that they’re not especially matched to each curve and contour of the songwriting, but exactly how to do that is something I can’t really explain. Then again, I’m almost exclusively a writer of instrumental music, so maybe I’m not the person to consult on this topic.

Either way, the progressive rock fandom has long since embraced this album, even though it does not appear to have been an enormous commercial success. I owe them my thanks for leading me to one of the genre’s classics.

Highlights: “Scorched Earth”, “The Sleepwalkers”

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.

Strapping Young Lad – Alien (2005)

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When it comes to Devin Townsend related content, I have to admit that it took me quite a while to warm up to Alien. I wouldn’t have expected that to be the case, honestly – it predates both Ziltoid the Omniscent and Deconstruction by mixing both his extreme metal and progressive rock styles, and is more intense than either, even if it does so by mostly emphasizing the former. You’d think that I (even my past self) would fall on this like a swarm of locusts, so what gives? Unfortunately, I don’t remember what I was complaining about in the past…

As mentioned, Alien leans more towards the Strapping Young Lad aesthetic – listening to it is a good way to get your daily extreme metal dosage, between the incisive guitars, shrieking Devy, and the always appreciated percussion work of Gene Hoglan. If you’re familiar with previous SYL material (City is a good bet), you won’t be too surprised what by what’s on display here. The production is a bit trebly and hissy for my tastes this time around, but it’s still appropriate for this sort of band. What strains it, most likely, is the massively enhanced keyboard/symphonic presence. I’ve hinted at it before, but for whatever reason, a decent chunk of Devy’s other interests leaked into Alien, resulting in the only metal album I’ve listened to that incorporates xylophones into the songwriting.

The instruments aren’t the only part affected, as Alien usually has more complicated and intricate arrangements than its SYL predecessors. When you combine this with the stereotypical SYL sound, you get a potentially overwhelming album that’s definitely draining to listen to listen to all at once (even without the 12 minute info dump at the end). I don’t remember experiencing similar distaste for Deconstruction, though, but I have two hypotheses as to why that was the case. First, my experience with Alien predated the release of that latter album by about a year. Second, Deconstruction does have the benefit of 6 extra years of experience and education on Devin’s end. A meeting of more experienced and ready minds can definitely come in handy, and for whatever reason Alien really does feel more … alien than a lot of SYL content, even once I’ve gotten more accustomed to its approach.

Ultimately, time heals everything, and just as I was able to appreciate a great many albums more once they’d sunk in a bit, so was I able to warm up to Alien‘s charms. It might help that I’m receptive to the works of Devin Townsend in general. I still think the first half of this album is better than the second, though, so I guess we’ll have to deal with that.

Highlights: “Skeksis”, “Shitstorm”, “We Ride”

Solefald – In Harmonia Universali (2003)

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Solefald’s first three albums were, for better or worse, consistently informed by the sounds of black metal. On first listen, I thought that In Harmonia Universali¬†rejected that, but a closer listen revealed that change was mostly limited to the vocals. Merely not shrieking and screaming your way through a metal album is enough to lighten and soften the end product. Regardless of how you feel about this stylistic change, you can’t deny that In Harmonia Universali is a different permutation on the stereotypical Solefald sound, with greater emphasis on complicated vocal arrangements and a further expansion of the “instrumental experimentation” angle.

Extensive listening has, as promised convinced me that the black metal edges of Solefald’s sound still (un)shine through to some extent, even if the songwriting is brighter and possibly friendlier than before. Some of the more obvious instrumental tropes – tremelo riffing and blastbeats in particular – show up on occasion. However, even when these do appear, they are in utter subservience to the rest of Solefald’s instrumentation – in particular, In Harmonia Universali showcases a lot of piano and saxophone, although often more as accentuation than actual song driving content. I’d say the real winner here is Lazare, who gets to spend the entire album singing multitracked harmonies with himself. These are almost always the high points of the songs in which they appear.

I’m not going to go as far as to say that this album can be benchmarked solely by counting Lazare’s parts, but the thought has crossed my mind at times. One of the much-explored caveats of relentlessly varying your instrumentation is that if you screw up, you can end up with ridiculous bullshit gibberish. This hasn’t really been a problem in my previous experience with Solefald, but In Harmonia Universali has a serious lack of sanity checks that could’ve prevented some of this stuff from going out without being properly baked. On the other hand, I feel like this album also has very high peaks – when everything meshes together, the results are excellent, and they make you me wish Solefald had focused their efforts in that direction. This rollercoaster ride of overall song quality makes me question the foundation of Solefald’s songwriting, especially when other genre-blenders can do everything more cohesively…

So in short, In Harmonia Universali is really good when it’s good, but “Dionysify This Night Of Spring” was a huge mistake.

Highlights: “Mont Blanc Providence Crow”, “Christiania”, “The Liberation of Destiny”

Mysticum – Planet Satan (2014)

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When we last left Mysticum, they were preparing the release of Planet Satan. In the interrim, I managed to convince myself that this album didn’t come out until 2016, and that therefore it was a reasonable but overlooked choice for my DMU tenure. Instead, it’s been available since 2014, so I’m definitely behind the times here. You can therefore consider this review something of an attempt to fix a hole in my backlog.

Planet Satan is basically what Mysticum’s previous album should’ve been – better produced and mixed. I say this with full awareness of black metal musicians’ affinity for lo-fi recordings. Sometimes, that’s a desirable trait. In Mysticum’s case, though, the “industrial” aesthetic is better served by a cleaner sound. It isn’t entirely pristine, to be fair – Planet Satan‘s production channels much of its predecessor’s trebly hiss, but on equivalent stereo equipment the end result is more balanced and louder. The vocals are the major benefactor here – the screams and thickly accented ranting here are prominent enough in the mix to drive songs, but everything else has been boosted, making for an overall better sounding recording.

To be fair, there isn’t much on this album that would sound out of place on In The Streams of Inferno¬†if it’d been recorded on the same equipment as that effort. I want to say that the songwriting here is more coherent, but this is a very minor change at best. The songs actually feel more compact despite the album’s greater length, although I’m not sure if that’s just a result of them grabbing my attention more effectively. One thing that is for certain is that there are fewer abrupt asides, and that when new instrumentation is introduced, it’s integrated into the actual songwriting more effectively. These aren’t especially complicated songs, and one thing I’ve noticed is that the overall rhythmic simplicity makes for a strange, inexplicable effect at times (is this, perhaps, the psychedelia that people have been claiming Mysticum channels for the last few years?). On the other hand, I consider it a good thing that a so-called industrial black metal album strikes a balance between a mechanical aesthetic and the other moods I typically associate with black metal – blasphemy, hellfire, derangement, etc. That last bit is probably Mysticum’s true strength, and one that not many bands have been able to capture on their own terms.

In short, Planet Satan pretty much obsoletes everything else Mysticum has created, by virtue of being essentially the same but shinier. Some bands lose crucial elements of their sound when they try to refine it, but not this band.

Highlights: “LSD”, “Far”, “Fist of Satan”