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Posts Tagged ‘ambient’

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.

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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

Devin Townsend – Terria (2001)

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I’m beginning to think Terria is the archetypal Devin Townsend album from which all future works spring forth; at the very least, all of his solo content (well, maybe not the “heavy” stuff like the Ziltoids or Deconstruction) can be compared to something on here at some level. With that in mind, it might be best to try and understand Terria in isolation, analyzing it as if it were my first exposure to the stereotypical Devin Townsend sound, but given that such is far from the case, that sounds intimidating and needlessly difficult. I can’t guarantee it’ll happen, but if I play my cards right, you should at least be able to understand the what and why of Terria

Terria walks a fine line between ambient acoustic pop and heavy “progressive” metal (those times that I wrote for DMU makes it hard for me to use “progressive” as anything other than a marketing term), using its lengthy duration to explore all the ways you could combine these ideas or keep them separate. We get a series of extended songs and reliably sedate pacing, with occasional excursions into more aggressive, driving content. The mixing and production unites all of the content here, which is understandable given Devin’s instantly recognizable style of composition. Ultimately, there’s a good deal of structural variety, but the long length and occasional extended compositional asides will make a deep delve into Terria‘s depths an intense undertaking.

It’s immediately ironic that I use that phrasing – as far as I’m concerned, Terria has a lot of filler, but its peaks are huge. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the more driving and up-tempo parts of this album that keep it in my collection. For instance, “Olives” and “Mountain” make for a very drawn out and contemplative introduction, but when the pay off is “Earth Day”, a 9.5 minute epic that encapsulates every style Devin has done right over his career, it’s easier to give even the less immediately gripping tracks a chance. One benefit of listening to this album in one go (as opposed to going the singles route with the highlights) is that it really nails the laid back, contemplative, possibly pot-hazed atmosphere it appears to be going for. Whether that’s something you want in your life is something you have to decide for yourself.

I’ve mentioned in the past that if I want to listen to Devin Townsend, I usually favor the heavier, more SYL flavored side of his discography. If that ever changes, though, there’s always Terria. Not to be confused with Terraria under any circumstances.

Highlights: “Earth Day”, “Canada”, “The Fluke”

Autechre – Garbage EP (1994)

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I told you I was going to go the route of the filthy casual in future Autechre coverage (even though I ended up listening to Confield too); and to be honest, I went on a huge binge after experiencing LP5. This longer-than-some-studio-albums EP is certainly interesting, and it falls straight into a brief period of especially ambient and downtempo work by this band. Given that Garbage is supposedly culled from the detritus of Autechre’s 2nd studio album (1994’s Amber), you can imagine how this content might share some mood and mind with its full length counterpart, but where Amber was occasionally too subdued for its own good, the balance here is better.

Garbage is vintage accessible Autechre at their finest, even managing by virtue of its reduced length to avoid the filler problem that plagues most of the band’s full lengths. Everything here is warm, analog flavored, with plenty of the reverb and delay effects that seem to be emphasized on the band’s early material. Like your average Autechre album (or for that matter, a nice swathe of electronic music), the tracks here rely very heavily on their choice of sounds to distinguish themselves; compare this to musicians who don’t change up their instrumentation on every track. Furthermore, the average track here yet again emphasizes slowly evolving soundscapes over especially rigorous sound structure. In general, you should not expect huge sound/structural differences from Autechre’s trademark sound.

If you ask me, Garbage also features something of an inter-track narrative that isn’t present on most of the band’s material. I don’t know if it was intentional or not, but over time the material on here progresses from being rhythm and progression oriented to complete ambience and repetition by the time the last chords of “Vletr” fade away. I can’t really think of any other albums by the band that have that level of long-term cohesion, although some of the EPs come close (1995’s Anvil Vapre in particular). This makes for a very different experience than the rest of their discography when you listen to it in full. This is, more than anything else from Autechre, something you should sit down and listen to in one go, which at the very least is more convenient than otherwise due its compactness.

To be fair, Garbage‘s strengths do run kind of exactly counter to my expected tastes, but given how often I’ve been praising music for doing things I wouldn’t expect myself to stereotypically like, I might have to say that my interests are broader than they first seem.

Highlights: Everything. Maybe “PIOB” in particular.

Mike Oldfield – Hergest Ridge (1974)

mike-oldfield-hergest-ridge-ds55p-front.jpgNo, I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of Mike Oldfield’s discography. I am assured by polite company that it is enormous. Hergest Ridge, while not as commercially successful or as well known as the guy’s debut (Tubular Bells), still tells an interesting commercial story – it reached #1 on the British OCC album charts before being knocked off a mere three weeks later by … you guessed it, Tubular Bells. Progressive rock used to be big money; now, the music industry is shriveled and dying even as the quantity of available music increases at an ever growing rate. But let’s not dwell on such things for the moment.

Hergest Ridge is a compilation of two lengthy instrumental pieces that presumably are inspired by the scenery of the Anglo-Welsh borderlands where it was conceived and recorded. You can imagine how such sparsely settled countryside (… by European standards; compare to the USA if you need a laugh) would make for generally soft and approachable music, although there are a few sections that break this rule, including the famous “thunderstorm” in the second part that was my formal introduction to this album. One of Mike Oldfield’s famous gimmicks is that he imitates some structural aspects of orchestral music by recording lots of instrumental parts and overdubbing them to make dense walls of sound; he also uses a lot of studio wizardry to make instruments sound like other instruments. The sheer amount of effort here means that any attempts to transfer Hergest Ridge to other arrangements would dramatically alter its sound, even if maybe not so much its structure.

Since I haven’t listened to the rest of Oldfield’s discography, I can’t say to what extent the upcoming songwriting tropes hold elsewhere, but one thing I’ve found particularly notable is that this album seems to strike a balance between the extended ‘narrative’ songwriting a lot of other progressive rock albums engage in and a more ambient approach. The number of discrete song sections on display (which are a good sign of the former) is easier to pick up on, at least initially. The order that Oldfield organizes each part of his songs, as well as the transitions between them, though, emphasize mood and texture over dynamics. If you’re not paying attention, Hergest Ridge seems to repeat itself a great deal, but there’s enough subtle microvariation here to keep that from literally being the case. I should also note that the second part, while not dramatically different and even sharing many of the same musical themes and motifs, is more active and formally structured than the second.

Most likely, Oldfield’s greatest strength on this album is the aforementioned ‘ambient’/’progressive’ fusion. It’s not entirely unheard of, and a lot of bands on one side of the fence stuck their toes through to the other just to feel out what it was like, but it’s still pulled off well here. It doesn’t always align with my tastes, but it does make for an interesting spin on the era’s formulas.

Highlights… aren’t exactly helpful on an album with only two tracks, but do pay close attention to the aforementioned “thunderstorm” after 8:30 in Part II.

Autechre – LP5 (1998)

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Now this appraisal might become entirely irrelevant and useless if I ever get around to Confield, but at least compared to previous Autechre material, LP5 is “Expert Mode Unlocked” given tangible audible form. At least from an aural perspective it comes off even more abstract and artificial than before, although repeated listening has clued me in to just how much of the band’s previous techniques and arsenal remain. Now, I realize this is a snooty and even elitist way of describing how I’ve engaged with LP5, but bear with me – after all, I might end up reviewing one of Autechre’s earliest albums at some point, and I need an excuse to (most likely inaccurately) work in the phrase “filthy casual”.

For better or worse, there’s a great deal of musical substance on here that I’ve never even considered trying to incorporate into my own work. I guess that sort of makes this album an antithesis of self, just like the last album I wrote about. For one, the emphasis on ‘ambient’, slowly evolving soundscapes that I picked up on from Tri Repetae is still around; I’d go as far as claiming these are even more necessary since consonant phrases are on the decline here. Some of these tracks arguably have pop style hooks; I don’t think it’s the main intent, especially since the sort of modal, more conventionally structured songwriting I’ve heard on previous Autechre albums is hard to find here.  Instead, Autechre seemingly relies more heavily on percussive rhythms this time around, and furthermore does some very strange things with tempo. I kind of want to make a song using the constant BPM change gimmick of “Fold4, Wrap5”, although incorporating such a thing into the sort of music I actually like to write could be … difficult.

If there’s one thing that Autechre definitely does well on LP5, it’s that they nail the ambiences. As I’ve said before, that’s definitely not easy to do, but at it’s best, LP5 has spawned some incredibly vivid mental images in my head. The architecture metaphors people like to throw in when talking about this band are at least apt, although sometimes the slow evolution and attention to transitions does something especially amazing, like briefly turning “Drane2” (arguably the hit single of this album) into the world’s most hellish call center about 2/3rds of its length in. It helps that that track in particular has one of the densest soundscapes; most of the tracks here are a bit sparser and take more time to sink in, but you can still get some sort of storytelling potential out of them.

To be honest, it didn’t take me as long to value LP5 as highly as I do now; it’s not perfect, and nor is my understanding of it, but the depths that remain are certainly worth plumbing.

Highlights: “777”, “Under Boac”, “Drane2”

Aphex Twin – Selected Ambient Works 85-92 (1992)

folderInvisible Blog is staggeringly lax about the International Day of Slayer sometimes. Thusly do I present to you my thoughts on the opposite of Slayer.

My buddies would say I am under-Aphexed if they knew this was the only work by Richard D. James I’ve ever sat down and listened to. Admittedly I’ve heard strains of “Windowlicker” and some of his other more commercially successful singles drifting out of public places, but if that was what passed for street cred, I would be wearing much baggier pants. I don’t even have the deep knowledge of this album’s genre that helps me review metal albums. This was a problem when I was writing about Tri Repetae by Autechre, too, but it doesn’t seem to have stopped me from at least trying.

As the title might lead you to believe, this is less a coherent album than a compilation, and it tends towards the softer and gentler side of RDJ’s output. Selected Ambient Works also (and perhaps shockingly) tends towards repetition and emphasis on texture over song structure. I don’t know how many of these were actually written towards the “85” end, but I’m inclined to think that by virtue of such hypothetical tracks being included that it’s not too important. The sound on display here is relatively aesthetically consistent, with even the more abrasive tracks (like “Green Calx”, “Schottkey 7th Path”, etc.) still fitting in with their companions. Given the staggering variety of sounds electronic musicians sometimes throw into their recordings, this is probably an achievement of some sort.

Based on this, I’d suggest listening to this album as a whole whenever the time presents itself, even though the songs don’t fade into each other like they would on, for arbitrary example, a Magma album. There are some problems with this, the greatest of which is a significant quantity of relatively uninteresting ‘filler’ tracks, mostly towards the second half. It’s hard to determine what raises one track over another when the writing remains so consistent, though. Personally, I’d guess which specific instruments and sound patches I like plays a role in this, but if I have to go on in that vein, it pushes me way too far from the analytical mode I prefer for these writeups and reviews. That’s a serious problem!

While it’s probably due to the limits of my electronica knowledge, Selected Ambient Works is thusly notable for defying my attempts to analyze it beyond its surface. I find that based on my preferences, it could be cut down to about 2/3rds of its length without losing its choice tracks, and that portion makes for good listening. It’d still be longer than the EPs that surround it, but remember, you can’t always judge music by its length.

Highlights: “Tha”, “Heliosphan”, “Schottkey 7th Path”