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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”

Bad Ideas #20 – Music Edition

This probably takes the record for “Bad Ideas installment that took the longest to cook”. The food themed edition, by comparison, didn’t take nearly as long!

191. Radical Islamic guitar solo
Where’s the mufti? I gotta tell him that “The Twelve Imams” would be a great name for a band.
192. 12 minute extended disco version of “Also Sprach Zarathustra”
We should’ve stuck with “Disco Duck”. Oh well! Let’s have the local radio station play that 50 times in a row.
193. Fartwave in smellovision
The only reason people care about electronic body noise music is that they don’t have to stick their noses in it.
194. UAV drone doom
Predator missiles might sound cool when slowed down, but then they miss their targets and fall out of the sky.
195. Imperial March of the Lollipop Guild
Alternatively: “We Represent A Mafia Don”
196. Gangsta-ass square dancing
Stop! … promenade time!
197. JPEGwave
I t ok a pict r of tis songs wavef rm and it snds s0 amazin’ and i am go1n to upl ad it to 9GAG
198. Folk speedcore
Seriously, though, have you ever heard a “speedcore” song that actually had content between the samples?
199. Skaldic ska
I just cheated you out of an actual joke here by observing that I’m morbidly curious about what some of these bad ideas for music would sound like.
200. Protoss power metal
YOU MUST CONSTRUCT ADDITIONAL GUITAR SOLOS, EXECUTOR.

If these ideas were food, you’d have died of starvation long ago, but these should keep you going at least for the next 40 seconds or so.

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.

Anatomy of VGM #2 – Age of Empires II (Windows)

aoe2When I wrote the first Anatomy of Video Game Music article, I was thinking I would focus more on chip music, since the technical end of such tends to give me some fertile topics of discussion. No such luck with Age of Empires II, though – it relies entirely on music streamed from a CD (or audio files if you’re playing the HD remaster that will serve as the base for this review). What I quickly noticed as friends drew me into playing this game was that the soundtrack direction was rather different than my first impressions of the game would lead me to believe. I usually don’t go into games with strong audio expectations, so this was a bit of a surprise.

Given the sheer amount of civilizations over time that Age of Empires represents (in this installment, the entire world over a millennium), you’d expect a wide variety of instrumentation and style, and for the most part, that’s what you get. There are a few commonalities of note, though – one is that the composer uses a lot of electronic samples – synthetic percussion, ambient noises, etc. throughout the tracks; I found them especially noticeable once I started doing the deep listening I needed to in order to do this analysis justice. It’s one thing to say that it makes for a stark contrast to the film score medievalism, but what I find is that this actually helps tie the tracks together – given the aforementioned scope, some unity comes in handy.

The structure of the soundtrack is a bit amorphous at the best of times, but much of this is probably due to the requirements of VGM, and more specifically the overarching need for the music not to be overbearing or obtrusive. Some tracks are fairly lively, but since this is background music for a video game that isn’t Brütal Legend, it never gets particularly intense. The music actually tends more introspective and subdued in the second half, for whatever reason, at least going by the HD version’s trackination. The first only needs a few more trancey synths tossed into to create some worldtronica recording like Juno Reactor, and since some of the game’s compositions were distributed as MIDIs that are easy to find over the internet, the potential for quick and productive remixing work is certainly there. As far as I know, the streamed audio included with the game was created by playing the compositions on high end audio equipment. That’d explain some of the synth presence, perhaps; it’s definitely hard to resist the temptation to add an instrument to your music when it’s on hand.

Whether or not it’s completely appropriate doesn’t really matter at this point; the soundtrack of The Age of Kings has a certain atmosphere that helps the rest of the game establish its time-sucking qualities. It’s also reasonably lengthy (about an hour; newer games in the genre sometimes have rather more music) and yet repetitive enough to stick in your head. There has to be some merit there. From an article-writing stance, there’s enough meat here that I was even able to discuss the technical aspects of the recording, which makes me happy.

P.S: As proof of how easy some MIDIs make remixing work, I provide to you an arrangement of “T Station” as forced through my current metal music production pipeline. It can’t have taken more than 90 minutes and is a pretty quick hackjob, but you might get some entertainment out of it.

 

Anatomy of VGM – Hudson Hawk (NES, Amiga, etc)

hudson hawk nesWhat a way to begin a totally new and never before done feature! Hudson Hawk by the now obscure British company Special FX is… literally a video game, and clearly not a metal album. It came out for pretty much every personal computer with substantial market share in the UK at the time of its release, as well as the Nintendo Entertainment System and Gameboy. It has some interesting ideas and is overall a competent 2D platforming game (although probably not one you should seek out and play right now), but you’re probably wondering why I chose to start here instead of with something better known, like the infinitude of Marios or Mega Mans or Sonics who’ve drawn countless talented composers to toil under their boxart for what is now several decades.

It turns out that I came upon this game’s soundtrack while looking for the absolutely horrible one of a different baffling movie -> video game adaptation – Dirty Harry – The War on Drugs. The less said about that game, the better, but the more said about this one’s music at the very least…

Read more…

Capsule Reviews – previously reviewed content gets a second look

Before you ask, this is not going to be a regular feature, although I’m not opposed to doing it more than once. Given that this blog is a few years old, my musical preferences have changed a bit, and you might be interested what I think of various things I’ve wrote about in this blog’s infancy nowadays.  With that in mind, here’s a few mini-reviews of albums I talked about in 2010, before I really got into the ‘talk about the music’ angle.

  • Monstrosity – Millennium (1996): I wrote somewhere else that this album uses musical techniques similar to those on Deicide’s 1992 album Legion. Millennium has variety in aesthetic and song structures, but it lacks the sheer visceral intensity of some of its forebearers. Still a reasonable listen.
  • Exodus – Bonded By Blood (1985): The riffs I described as “awesome” way back when benefit from their rhythmic power, but they’re not all that interesting from a tonal stance. I guess that makes it the opposite of Millennium. This is probably a better listen than Fabulous Disaster.
  • Ulver – Blood Inside (2005): It has pretty sounds, but pretty sounds can only take you so far. Perdition City was ultimately a better written album, with its evolving soundscapes. I haven’t listened to anything else from the Ulvertronica period, but I’m told they retreated far into their aesthetics, which were always top notch.
  • Judas Priest – Painkiller (1990): ’70s Priest was the best, even on Killing Machine, which popped up their sound. Painkiller is not a very intelligent album (which becomes painful on a few tracks), but it’s loud, fast, and entertaining for at least a short period. It’s also better than most of ’80s Priest.
  • Darkthrone’s “Peaceville” trilogy: Still holds up! I continue to personally enjoy Under A Funeral Moon for its intense dissonance, I now recognize how A Blaze In The Northern Sky keeps things interesting with prog-rock length songs  (although I didn’t talk about it at the time). Meanwhile, some people claim on the strength of Transylvanian Hunger that the band was intended as a joke; even if true, it would at least be a joke that makes you think.
  • Therion – Symphony Masses (1993): It doesn’t have the sheer strength of Beyond Sanctorum. However, this album has a lot to like in the form of its active bass, its occasional hard rock flourishes, and similarly extended writing to its predecessors. This mixture occasionally makes it disjointed and psychedelic, but that actually strengthens the sound, and it’s still better than most of Therion’s actual ‘symphonic’ era.
  • Queen – Queen (1973): As an album that has one foot in hard rock/heavy metal, another foot in prog, and its mysterious third foot (wait, what?) sinking into glam, it’s pretty fun. But Queen II is a better version of this, albeit one without “Liar”. Lots of experimentation with songwriting and studio wizardry here, although in an accessible form.
  • Limbonic Art – Moon in the Scorpio/In Abhorrence Dementia (1996/1997): I like pulling these albums out for comparison’s sake. The first is most interesting because it combines symphonic and ambient varieties of black metal; the second discards some of the latter. The first one is also stronger overall, although there are some peaks on the second that it can’t match. Those peaks often mean that In Abhorrence Dementia gets more plays from me.
  • Mekong Delta – Mekong Delta (1987): Honestly, Keil’s weaknesses as a vocalist and the poor production/mixing drag this one down for me a lot. The sequel fixes this partially (and powers through it otherwise with a better riffset), although these problems have dogged the band for some time. Peavy Wagner of Rage was briefly involved with this band; I wonder what magic he could’ve worked for them.
  • Exhorder – Slaughter in the Vatican (1990): Basically a better version of Bonded By Blood. More intense, more creative, although not quite perfect – there are a few fillerish sections in some of the longer songs. Kyle Thomas went on to perform on Alabama Thunderpussy’s final album (Open Fire), thus providing further evidence of his worth as a vocalist.
  • Overkill – Taking Over (1987): Overkill’s debut (Feel the Fire) had some strong cuts, but this one’s more consistent and a bit less generic. This band really benefits from a few shreds of melody, although their rhythmic power has strengthened substantially over time. Imagine an Overkill that evolved towards the US power metal scene – we might’ve gotten some good stuff out of it, but we would’ve lost The Years of Decay… and even The Killing Kind… and definitely Ironbound.

In some cases, my opinions haven’t changed much. Not everything here’s held up for me… and not all of it was very favorable to begin with. I’ve probably said this before, but the main advantage that the 2013 version of Invisible Blog has over its primordial predecessor is that I’m more willing to analyze content and write about it. I guess that’s what happens when you study history.

Sinister – Cross the Styx (1992)

If Hate was Sinister’s attempt at producing an “accessible”, even “groovy” release (and it may have been), then what is this? Cross the Styx is admittedly not as consistent as Sinister’s third album, but some of the songs on here are better than anything on Hate. I would attribute this to better usage of dynamics and song structure, although the rhythmic potential the band exploited on that album is not as strong on this one.

Needless to say, this is a relatively short, punchy album with a large amount of songs. There is one mini-epic in the form of “Doomed”, which only lasts 5 minutes but goes through a variety of musical ideas in its short duration, and is memorable to boot. Most of the other songs here are done before they hit 4. Hate, in contrast, was an album of longer songs, which were more ambitiously structured (which makes sense, anyways, because bands tend to get more ambitious as they practice). Ambitious doesn’t always mean better, anyways – a few of the longer songs on that album had filler riffs, but that doesn’t seem to be a problem here.

Hate was arguably an experiment in rhythm and texture within death metal, anyways. Cross the Styx is more openly melodic and modal, which goes well with the dynamic range in creating varied songs. While the drums, for instance, don’t play as many different patterns here, the ones they do play cover a greater variety of tempos, meaning that there are more songs that are clearly slow, clearly fast, clearly slow then fast, etc. This makes it easier for an experienced listener to play the entire album without suffering ear fatigue… except for one problem – surprisingly, it’s the mixing. While the production is fine (a bit more fluid and trebley than that of Hate), several songs at the end of the album are simply too loud. It sounds as if they were compressed more than is necessary; it may be a result of the pressing I have, but the lack of headroom after “Compulsory Resignation” (which, if you ask me, is the most memorable song on here) forces me to reduce the volume by several decibels; I usually have the opposite problem if at all, due to the existence of Replay Gain. In a way, this makes the album an early casualty of the “Loudness War”, if one that can justify it due to its overall violent aesthetic.

That shouldn’t prevent you from purchasing Cross the Styx, anyways. Even the songs afflicted by the aforementioned production problem are well written and performed, and the slightly more conventional songwriting combined with the increased speed makes it a good companion to Hate. In other words, it’s a seminal release in the European death metal scenes, and one that probably influenced a great deal of bands.

Highlights: “Doomed”, “Spiritual Immolation”, “Compulsory Resignation”