Posts Tagged ‘symphonic’

Anatomy of VGM #12: Cities: Skylines (2015)

cities skylines boxart.png

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 #10: Super Castlevania IV (1991)


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 Tyrael 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

Carach Angren – Lammendam (2008)

folderUnlike many of the bands I’ve discovered, Carach Angren was recommended to me when I made a post on the Encyclopedia Metallum forums asking for extreme metal with heavy symphonic elements. This is also how I learned of Anorexia Nervosa and Septicflesh, who both share some surface similarities. Carach Angren emphasizes their horror aesthetics in ways that become apparent when you analyze this album. Notably, the band specializes in paranormal stories that have to walk a fine line between Suspiria and Scooby Doo…

Regardless of theme, Lammendam‘s music is composed of symphonic black metal of varying intensity – it reliably remains within the traditions forged by bands like Emperor and Cradle of Filth, although the aggression level is usually closer to the former than the latter. It also has the dignity of not suffering from Theli syndrome – while not an incredibly complex album, Carach Angren’s metal side has plenty to do (including performing some of the important melodies), and the band members can carry their weight when the symphonics occasionally drop out. Production and mixing are accomplished enough that I notice them – I see it as crucial to good symphonic metal. Regardless, the underlying substrates of this album have been done, and done well; that in itself is not particularly new.

What may be more novel is the horror angle I mentioned at the beginning of this article. It is well-integrated; whether the theatrical, melodramatic compositions will interest you, the reader is not something I can determine from my own writing, because that’s not how it works. I’ve noticed that this often manifests as a great deal of symphonic ornamentation – short runs of 2-3 chromatic or scalar (term?) notes, dissonant sting chords for emphasis, etc. The vocals, which are often quite comprehensible, also follow this trend with their lyrical ornamentation. Lammendam is a loose concept album about a legendary ghost in the Dutch province of Limburg; the lyrics occasionally collapse into goofiness even if they don’t ever really lose the concept. Seregor’s vocals show reasonable range – he has a tendency to emphasize words during song transitions that, at its worst, has him shouting “Slut!” in the middle of “Haunting Echoes from the Sixteenth Century”. I don’t know why that makes me groan/giggle, but it does. The rest of the music also sometimes suffers from this.

To be honest, I don’t know how seriously Carach Angren wants me to take their music. It sometimes sounds more silly than convincing, but the compositions are good, solid metal that demonstrates knowledge of musical theory and songwriting technique. Since I enjoy this style of metal, and I feel the band executes it well, I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and say that Lammendam may be at least partially tongue in cheek. After all, it’s not like ghosts are real, right? The studies paranormal ‘experts’ mention fail to demonstrate sufficient rigor… and… and…

There’s one right behind me, isn’t there.

Recommendations from beyond the grave: “Haunting Echoes from the Sixteenth Century”, “Phobic Shadows and Moonlit Meadows”, “Corpse in A Nebulous Creek”

Septic Flesh – Communion (2008)

folderCommunion was one of the last albums by Septicflesh that I listened to, so it was with some understanding of the evolution of the band that I jumped into this album (and also a school assignment to learn about the influence of the Atlantic slave trade on the British industrial revolution, but that didn’t exactly alter my perception of this, did it?). Even more than its successor, Communion reflects a band that hasn’t changed its fundamental approach to songwriting since 1997, but the massive symphonic presence can hide this at times. I suppose this makes sense; after all, it had been successful for them in the past.

Ironically, Communion was also my first exposure to Septicflesh, although I ended up giving Ophidian Wheel detailed attention first. I found it hilarious how the title track’s choral vocals were essentially a minor key version of the “Meow Mix” jingle; in retrospect its structure makes it a bit of an outlier on this album. The first two tracks – “Lovecraft’s Death” and “Anubis” are more indicative of what follows. The former, despite containing plenty of blasts and symphonics is driven more by its passages of clean guitar and chugging rhythms. On the latter, the slower, melodic aspects of the band’s music become more prominent, and the secondary vocalist (Sotiris) offers contributions. Similarly to The Great Mass, much of the material here is reminiscent of work on Ophidian Wheel, but there are references to all previous eras of Septicflesh, even including the clean and poppy Revolution DNA.

All these approaches demonstrate that even on this album, it’s not the symphony orchestra that unifies the band’s writing, but instead the guitar leads. I’ve always said the emphasis on such gave Septicflesh versatility that many bands lacked, even when they *sometimes* stick to writing conventional death metal. The main benefits the symphony orchestra provide is harmonic reinforcement and a greater variety of timbre and textures, although there are many sections of this album (such as “Persopolis”) where they instead of the core band are driving the songwriting. Either way, the band is more successful in asserting their identity here than some other bands have been when they tried to add symphonics to their works. Then again, they went into it with a stronger identity crafted from years of experience, and an understanding of orchestral arrangements built from gradual experiments with the instrumentation – something that culminated in the band’s side project, Chaostar.

With all of this in mind, The Great Mass may be a better recording than this one, its predecessor. However, it would only be due to the production and songwriting refinements that album brought in; they’re essentially cut from the same cloth. Communion admittedly reveals what it’s taken from previous Septicflesh albums, perhaps due to being slightly earlier in the band’s reformation. Either way, if you like one, you’re likely to enjoy the other; perhaps you could get yourself a nice double purchase for Christmas?

Highlights: “Anubis”, “We The Gods”, “Sunlight Moonlight”


Obtained Enslavement – Witchcraft (1997)

folderCriminally overlooked black metal albums are a dime a dozen, even in the days of the internet. Witchcraft has sophisticated compositions, acceptable production and mixing, and a dense soundscape born of its “symphonic” elements, and yet to most, this band’s legacy is that the band’s main vocalist also contemporaneously served with Gorgoroth (who, to be fair, have also produced high quality black metal in their time). To be fair, this isn’t as immediately accessible as more minimalistic, lo-fi strains of black metal, like those popularized by Darkthrone. Arguably, the best comparisons are albums like Emperor’s debut, or even Sacramentum (although they lack the symphonic element).

One reason this album sounds the way it does is that while there’s plenty of layering, there’s not a lot of direct overlap between what each musician plays – in short, there’s plenty of polyphony, and many sections where one of the instruments is playing counterpoint to the others. Beyond this, the guitarists provide a wide variety of riffs due to their use of a wide variety of intervals (although there are a lot of 7ths), occasional forays into major-key tonality that remind me of Sorcier des Glaces, and an overall sort of ‘dueling’ approach that you don’t see often in music without frequent solos. The keyboards occasionally join in on the leads – the first example of this is probably the showy piano arpeggios near the beginning of “Veils of Wintersorrow”.

Overall, despite the claims of dark magic and night worship, the effect this album creates is more “heroic” in nature than your average black metal album. The obvious bands for that sort of material are Summoning or Bal-Sagoth (although that only applies to their earlier, more blatantly black metal albums), but Obtained Enslavement does offer enough of their own spin on this type of material to make them stand out. The overall aesthetic is very sonically dense compared to other epic fantasy lovers in the genre due to the aforementioned counterpoint and polyphony, but the compositions have their similarities. There’s even a bit of the ‘cheese factor’ I associate with such bands, although that’s limited mostly to some of the lower budget keyboard patches. This sort of style was very well established by 1997 – in fact, the band had contributed to such with their 1994 debut, Centuries of Sorrow, which is roughly similar to this, but apparently not as heavily symphonic.

If you ask me, the only real flaw of this album is that some of the later tracks feel redundant. The first half (up to “Warlock”) is top-tier melodic/symphonic black metal that strikes a good balance between musical complexity and the aggression expected of extreme metal. One reason the later tracks don’t come off quite as well might be that the high amounts of effort required to write this sort of music may have tired the band’s creative capabilities, but without any information about the creation of this album, I can’t say for sure. Either way, I wouldn’t dwell on that, given the overall high quality of this album.

Highlights: “Veils of Wintersorrow”, “From Times in Kingdoms”, “Warlock”, “The Seven Witches”

Waltari – Yeah! Yeah! Die! Die! Death Metal Symphony in Deep C (1996)

folderSo I’m told Waltari is supposed to be an “experimental” metal band. Regardless of the truth of that statement, I have reason to believe this is the second symphonic death metal album released. Compared to the first, the symphonic presence is much greater, but its’ integration into the death metal content of this album is much less advanced. As a result, we see plenty of straight-ahead (by the standards of Waltari) death metal and straight-ahead symphonic western classical, and a few tracks that are simply just wacky towards the end, but the amount of material where the symphony orchestra in question (Avanti!) plays in tandem with Waltari is actually fairly limited.

I’ve also heard that Waltari’s actual divergences into extreme metal are somewhat limited – for this, they imported a vocalist from Amorphis to provide death growls – Tomi Koivusaari has a reasonable (if not particularly strong) growl on here, but it’s not very dynamic. Fortunately for him, other vocalists handle that need by using entirely different styles – Kärtsy Hatakka brings in his weird, nasally, heavily accented spoken word (as well as some normal clean singing), while Eeva-Kaarina Vilke is drafted from somewhere in Finland to provide the obligatory female operatic vocals. They’re actually a fairly charismatic bunch – the arrangements on this album definitely place in them in an order that enhances their various strengths and methodologies.

In general, the songs do a relatively good job of making the various metal/classical/wacky fusions interesting and reasonably complex (although “Move”, the hip-hop flavored track might be kind of an outlier), but when separated from each other, these individual elements don’t fare so well. The death metal sections are the least affected by this – they’re played straight, played competently, and manage to incorporate some ideas that, if rearranged, could fit into the other ‘sections’ of this album. Their main flaw is that they aren’t particularly ambitious. The classical sections suffer from the opposite problem – they are simply overextended. Case in point – “Completely Alone” is the longest track on this album, and its ‘core’ is a progression that begins in the middle and repeats several times, with minor variations developing as it continues. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it is surrounded by several minutes of unrelated material, and (most importantly) the transitions between each part of the song are awkward at best. The strongest parts of this album are when Waltari and Avanti! are playing together (which seems to be a pretty common trend in symphonic metal), so I’m not sure why they weaken when sundered.

Attentive readers will note that I’ve given the ‘symphonic metal’ question a lot of thought over the last few years. It became surprisingly popular from the 1990s onwards. Were I feeling jaded, I would say it’s the result of metal musicians looking to what is considered art music in Western traditions and, in an attempt to secure greater legitimacy, trying to imitate it. Sometimes, this just results in more ambitious songwriting – in others, a symphony orchestra gets to eat for a few days. Compared to what I (still) think is the first symphonic death metal album, Waltari reaches higher peaks (even if many of them abstain from being death metal, or even proper classical music), but the limited integration holds much of this album’s content back from what it could be.

Highlights: “A Sign”, “The Struggle For Life and Death of ‘Knowledge’ “, “The Top”