Portal 2 (Mike Morasky)

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Part of the ambitious The Orange Box package, 2007’s Portal married innovative puzzles based on a portable wormhole gun with uproarious humor to such great acclaim that a sequel was all but certain, and in 2011 the stand-alone followup Portal 2 was released. Three times as long as the original with a bevy of innovative new puzzle mechanics and a co-op mode, Portal 2 reunited players with the homicidally codependent computer GlaDOS and her array of killer puzzle tests while introducing her side-splittingly moronic foil Wheatley and delving deeply into the darkly comic history of their creator Aperture Science and its founder Cave Johnson. The game was a strong sales success and critical darling, with voice actors Ellen McLain, Stephen Merchant, and J. K. Simmons singled out for particular praise.

The original Portal had been largely scored by developer Valve’s in-house composer Kelly Bailey before his 2011 departure from the company, with the smash-hit end credits song “Still Alive” provided by indie singer-songwriter Jonathan Coulton. Bailey had provided the first game with a harsh and ambient industrial score, much like his previous work on Half-Life and Half-Life 2, though several tracks were also contributed by Mike Morasky who had begun audio work for Valve not much earlier. With Bailey’s departure, Morasky was given sole composer duties for Portal 2, bringing a diverse set of electronic and acoustic sounds to the project. An experienced indie musician, composer, audio programmer, and VFX artist, Morasky set about creating a score that would marry Bailey’s intense electronic sound with a more melodic and pop-influenced one, with Coulton returning to provide a sequel to his cult hit song.

Morasky’s primary thematic construct for Portal 2 is a melody suggesting the wonder and potential of GlaDOS’s beloved “science.” Deconstructed fragments of the theme appear as early as the mysterious “999999,” alongside electronic and vocal effects, but it isn’t until “Music of the Spheres” that the theme appears in its full glory. Almost fully (synth) orchestral, “Music of the Spheres” hands the melody off to woodwinds with flighty harp accents and deep brass to accompany the descent into the oldest areas of Aperture. Morasky then deconstructs and interprets the theme for the remainder of the game’s music: giving the melody over to solo synth pads for the upbeat “You Are Not Part of the Test Group,” layering in electronics for “Forwarding the Cause of Science,” and finally having the electronics themselves take the melody up in “The Reunion,” giving it a distorted and gritty feel. Morasky completes his deconstruction with “Incendiary Lemons” for the reveal of the game’s biggest secrets, burying the theme almost as deeply as in “999999” beneath layers of synth pads and distorted electronics. The “Music of the Spheres” theme returns one last time, fully reconstructed, in the cathartic “Caroline Deleted” before being overlaid once again by electronics by GlaDOS’s reversion to her old ways and the game’s final ascendent denouement.

The game includes a several more thematic elements as well. A motif from “Reconstructing More Science” reappears mixed with “Music of the Spheres” in “The Courtesy Call,” and again at the game’s end in “Your Precious Moon” and “Caroline Deleted,” most likely representing GlaDOS or her renewal. Wheatley gets a motif of his own as well, appearing in “Don’t Do It,” the twisted “I AM NOT A MORON!,” and the subtle “Wheatley Science.” It mirrors his progression from helpful nuisance to grave threat, culminating in the pounding electronic/orchestral hybrid action tracks “The Part Where He Kills You” and “Bombs For Throwing At You” (the latter also featuring sly and subtle references to “Music of the Spheres”).

Given that Ellen McLain, the voice of GlaDOS and her turret minions, is a trained opera singer, it’s not surprising that many of the album’s highlights involve her voice. Jonathan Coulton’s “Want You Gone,” the game’s centerpiece song, makes great use of McLain’s modulated vocals with clever lyrics and colorful support from guitars and synths. She also lends her voice to the grimly beautiful “PotatOS Lament,” modulated and distorted almost to unintelligibility at the point of GlaDOS’s darkest hour (complete with dog Latin lyrics like “potato lacrimosa”), and the finale “Cara Mi Addio” which mixes wordless turret vocals with surprisingly heartfelt faux Italian singing as it soars to a classical climax. The brief and quirky “Turret Wife Serenade” offers a lighter take on the quasi-operatic style, while Morasky uses a more traditional darkly choral approach in “You Know Her,” the menacing track accompanying GlaDOS’s initial resurrection. Other tracks also use interestingly modulated vocal samples as in “Ghost of Rattman,” which uses rambling and unhinged gibberish as a sort of bass line.

Despite its thematic strength and its frequent use of vocals and (synth) orchestral elements, Morasky’s music retains much of the harder electronic edge of Bailey’s earlier work, and this might grate the ears of traditionalists expecting a more conventional score. Tracks like “The Friendly Faith Plate” or “Die Cut Turret Dance” are extremely harsh and abrasive, if creative, in their use of electronics. Other songs, like the sequence of “FrankenTurrets,” “Excursion Funnel,” and “TEST” are extremely ambient, with little of interest for listeners who can’t stand that mode. The electronics are inextricably woven throughout the score in various guises, though it’s probably worth noting that orchestral purists are rather unlikely to seek the music out given its origins.

Morasky’s work on Portal 2 is surprisingly deep and thematic, a major improvement on the abrasive and atonal music from the first game, and a thoughtful and often funny accompaniment to the game itself. The occasional harshness of its electronics or dips into ambient sound design do better within the game than without, but there is enough music that anyone should be able to put together a highlight playlist. Not long after Portal 2’s spring 2011 release, Valve made the game’s entire score as well as Coulton’s “Want You Gone” available as free downloads (with Morasky credited tongue-in-cheek as the “Aperture Science Psychoacoustics Laboratory”). A year later, a 4-CD version called Portal 2: Songs to Test By was released at a budget price, with all the free songs as well as a disc of music from the original Portal. Either version is recommended as a generally satisfying and innovative slice of musical cake.

Rating: starstarstarstar

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A Boy and His Blob (Daniel Sadowski)

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A Boy and His Blob: Trouble on Blobolonia was released for the original Nintendo Entertainment System in 1989, developed by David Crane of Pitfall fame. Despite some rough edges, the game’s massive interconnected worlds and puzzles–solved by the titular boy feeding the titular blob jellybeans to shapeshift it into useful things like ladders and umbrellas–were a hit with audiences, and the game is fondly remembered today. So much so, in fact, that after years of failed attempts to make a sequel, developer WayForward Technologies acquired the rights to remake the game in 2009. Ditching the original’s teen hero and 1960s rock aesthetic, the new A Boy and His Blob aimed for a simple, heartwarming hand-drawn style with a young protagonist and even a button dedicated to nothing but giving his squishy companion a hug. The game garnered good reviews and sales were steady, paving the way forward for WayForward to continue reinventing other classic long-dormant titles like DuckTales, Double Dragon, and its own Shantae.

Rather than turning to their in-house composer and audio director Jake Kaufman, WayForward director Sean Velasco sought out composer and producer Daniel Sadowski for A Boy and His Blob. Sadowski had film, video game, and remixing credits to his name (notably rearranging a number of classic “retro” sounds for the Best of the Best video game arrangement CD) and was a passionate fan of the original game. Despite the project calling for a “softer” sound than many of his other works, the composer joined the project without hesitation.

Sadowski’s score is a largely made up of original music, but it does include several upgraded arrangements of Mark van Hecke’s compositions for the original NES game (which was itself rather impressively engineered for 1989). “The City March” combines the first level and second level music from Trouble on Blobonia into a single track, and Sadowski gives it a bright, faithful arrangement accented by pizzicato strings and castanets while stripping the music of some of the more dodgy Indiana Jones references that bedeviled the original. The first part of the concluding “A Medley of Credits” offers an even further upgraded version of the music, and both arrangements swap out the rock ‘n’ roll feel of the original for a straightforward orchestral sound.

The all-new theme for the game is introduced in “Main Theme” in counterpoint and conversation with a remixed excerpt of van Hecke’s music; the melody’s a potent one, and it really comes into its own in the following tracks. “Home Sweet Home” places it in a piano and mallet percussion context of almost unbearable downbeat sadness and beauty, while “Forest Greens” places it in a more upbeat and optimistic context spruced up by a light synth choir and more pizzicato. It winds through nearly ever context on the album, never losing its lovely but sad edge, and is even incorporated into a nice song at the album’s end with vocals by Bethany Mosley and lyrics by producer Velasco.

A number of original melodies cop up as well, like the beautiful woodwind “Shaded Plains,” which uses the main theme as a gorgeous interlude replete with chimes. But the pick of the album’s tracks is unquestionably “Subterra,” which offers soft keyboarding and orchestral accents performing a melody that’s equal parts smooth, synth, and sad (with fragments of the main theme interpolated to boot). A satisfying acoustic guitar arrangement of “Subterra” makes up a portion of “A Medley of Credits” as well, though this only serves to make listeners want more of the theme.

Sadowski’s music does have its issues. Action tracks that were a late addition to the game’s soundtrack like “Gears of Blob” and “Into the Citadel” are rather mundane in their straightforwardness and lack the spark of the music’s earlier highlights. But by far the biggest problem with the album is one of production; none of the themes are looped as they are in the game, fading out after only a single airing. This makes for a frustrating listen, since the music is more then good enough to sustain the industry standard two loops, and the resulting 40-minute album had 30 short tracks when it could have easily sustained twice that length. There are also a few tracks that have nighttime insect sound effects smothering the music; your tolerance of ambient noise in your music will determine your reaction to them.

Even with those problems, Sadowski’s A Boy and His Blob is exceptionally engaging for most of its length, making the best of the tools available to the composer to create something that is both affecting and joyous, much like the game itself strove to be. The album is available digitally as an iTunes exclusive, and while fuller fan rips of the music exist, the music was downsampled for the Wii platform and the muddiness that comes with that makes it unacceptable. Frustrations on the album production aside, A Boy and His Blob is not to be missed.

Rating: starstarstarstar