Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: The Game (James Hannigan)

Cover

2009’s Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince solidified director David Yates’s control over the trillion-dollar franchise. The last of the six traditional Potterverse movies, before the strange bifurcated finale, the film had major script problems that not only kept it from being as engaging as its predecessor but forced the following Deathly Hallows Part 1 to go through a series of bizarre narrative contortions in addition to its focus on camping. The film’s score was singled out for particular criticism, with Nicholas Hooper’s subtle music being partly jettisoned by Yates in favor of material from the previous film.

Needless to say, it was a sure bet that a game adaptation would be forthcoming. Sure enough, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince appeared on the release calendars opposite the film. With both the director and the composer of the previous movie returning for the first time since 2002, the game shares a similar sense of continuity, with James Hannigan returning to the series, cementing himself as Jeremy Soule’s successor as Hogwarts’ composer in residence.

It becomes clear from the outset of the album that Hannigan is interested in maintaining thematic continuity between his scores. The opening “Return to Hogwarts” features creative mutations of the composer’s original themes from Order of the Phoenix, with both the friendship theme and the darker menacing/mischief theme combined as a suite. If the new adaptations aren’t quite as soaring as the previous ones, they do an excellent job of tying the scores together in a way Soule never quite managed. The friendship theme is given a full performance at the end of the album as well, moving away from the flighty and optimistic into a quiet and downbeat arrangement that’s incredibly moving.

The themes are less prominent in Hannigan’s sequel outing, integrated more subtly into the music and with significant sections absent them entirely. The album highlight “Race Ginny,” for example, cleverly integrates a fragment of the friendship theme into its midsection while relying on a unique piece to carry its first third. Hannigan seems to be trying to find a middle ground between Williams’ theme-driven music for the films and Soule’s largely themeless work for the first four games; he takes another page from Soule in some other aspects of the score, including some lengthy sections of ambiance across the varied “Wandering” cues.

As before, the music runs the gamut from serious (“More Potions”) to silly (“Fred and George Return”), always keeping that delicate magic touch no matter the setting. The action music is once again a highlight, though perhaps not without some reservations. Tracks such as “Slytherin Combat” soar to triumphant heights unequaled in previous Potter scores, but there is also some weaker music as well, with “Bellatrix” and “Fenrir Battle” recalling some of Soule’s weaker action efforts.

As with the previous game, Hannigan was allowed to adopt some of John Williams’ themes from the original film and a few incidental Soule compositions were recycled. And, as before, all of the Williams adaptations were left off the official album. Luckily, though, Half-Blood Prince also continues the fine production evident in the previous score — the album presentation is superior, with crystal-clear sound, well-mastered tracks, and a pleasing flow with the hideous flaws from the Soule albums a distant memory. Nearly an hour of music is present as well, making this the lengthiest Potter game score to date.

Half-Blood Prince was another extremely strong entry by Hannigan. The composer repeated his previous achievement and wound up turning in music that was superior to Nicholas Hooper’s film score. If the album isn’t quite as consistently excellent as its predecessor, it was still an incredibly strong entry. Astonishingly, Hannigan’s score was released months before the movie or game appeared, the only album in the series thus far to become available so early. Perhaps this, and the incredible weakness of Hooper’s film score, were what led to the official album being pulled only a few months later, around the time that the film hit theaters. All other Potterverse game albums were yakned at the same time, leaving the narrow window of only a few months for fans to acquire the music legally.

Half-Blood Prince would also prove to be the final Potterverse game album of any sort after EA squelched the previous releases. While Hannigan would return for the final two games in the series, their emphasis on third-person action meant that the scores were not only unreleased but far inferior. Hopef

Rating: starstarstarstarstar

Advertisements

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: The Game (James Hannigan)

Cover

In keeping with the overall trend of the series, 2007’s film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix saw a still-darker tone, yet another person in the director’s chair, and another composer providing the music. New director David Yates made the right decision in trimming much of the overstuffed fifth Potter tome for the screen, yet in bringing he old collaborator Nicholas Hooper along to score he sharply divided fans, with many claiming that it was far weaker than John Williams’ or Patrick Doyle’s efforts for previous films in the series.

Interestingly, this situation carried over into the inevitable video game adaptation of the film, which saw a composer other than Jeremy Soule take up the baton for the first time. Soule had scored all four previous games with an inventive and magical sound that eschewed John Williams’ iconic themes. Despite being very poorly represented on album, they had been quite popular with fans. Taking over from Soule for Phoenix was veteran composer James Hannigan, who had a diverse career in game scoring but for whom the Potterverse assignment represented a real breakthrough.

For the first time in the game series, Hannigan was given leave to use John Williams’ iconic themes for the movie series in the game’s score for the first time. The game would ultimately feature Hannigan’s arrangements of Williams’ themes, his own original music and motifs, and tracked-in leftovers from Soule’s four scores. With such a mishmash, it was easy to expect Hannigan to underperform — especially as compared with Soule, one of the most popular VGM composers in the business.

Fortunately, Hannigan was able to strut his stuff in an impressive fashion, creating a work that paid homage to both Williams and Soule while retaining his own voice. Indeed, one could argue that Hannigan’s compositions and extended use of Williams themes outshone those Nicholas Hooper, who only used fragments of the Harry Potter themes and was criticized for underplaying the film’s more dramatic moments by fans.

The score unveils its primary themes in the first few tracks, beginning with “Welcome to Hogwarts.” A sweeping “friendship theme” of sorts debuts there, and is malleable enough to be reworked into a love theme (“Cho and Harry”) or action cue (“To Catch an Owl,” easily the highlight of the album). A darker theme, with shades of Williams’ troubled Prisoner of Azkaban, is heard alongside it, reappearing whenever the action turns serious as in “Dumbledore and Voldemort.” “Dolores Umbridge” introduces a third main theme, an insistent, swaggering four-note theme similar to a tag often used by James Horner.

Such thematic richness is well-matched by the very clear sound of the music; performed by a live ensemble, the depth in the recording is excellent. This is especially notable when the score turns to serious action; Hannigan’s music sounds suitably enormous in this context even when it’s not quoting a theme as in the savage “Inquisitorial Squad.” Given the weakness of Hooper’s action music for the film version of Phoenix, one could very well make the case that Hannigan drastically outperformed the film music itself.

That’s not to say that lighter music is neglected; there’s a delightful sense of magic and mischief in cues like “Courtyard Frolics,” often scored with a waltzlike swagger that may have been inspired by Patrick Doyle’s music. With the possible exception of the troubled, ambient “Encounter with Malfoy,” there really are no weak songs to be found. The sound quality is uniformly excellent; Hannigan worked with the same Philharmonia Orchestra Soule used alongside the Slovak National Symphony Orchestra and the Pinewood Singers. But while the budget had forced Soule to rely on his usual crystal-clear synths for much of his score, Hannigan’s work was almost completely acoustic.

Hannigan’s score for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was released as a digital download a few months after the game hit store shelves in 2007. None of the adaptations of Williams’ music from the game were present on the album for contractual reasons, and this was a mixed blessing: while it put Hannigan’s original music front and center, it also meant that, as with the Soule albums, the music was frustratingly incomplete. At least the clipping problems from the earlier releases was solved — Hannigan’s music was well-mastered and attractively presented with a generous 50 minutes of music. It was a well-produced album, offering stunningly clear sound, so it was a terrible shame that EA yanked the album from circulation in 2009 alongside its Potterverse holocaust. Aside from promotional snippets on Hannigan’s website, the score is totally unavailable legally.

It’s a shame, because Order of the Phoenix is a revelation. Hannigan proved his abilities in the genre and outpaced both Nicholas Hooper and Jeremy Soule to provide not only the finest Potterverse game score to date but one that tops the music present in the movie. The lack of Hannigan’s adaptations of John Williams’ themes is regrettable, but this album is still one that should be in every fan’s collection if it were still available. Until then, play the game, rip the music yourself, or listen to samples on Hannigan’s site and mourn for the unjustly obscure fate for such a terrific piece of fantasy adventure scoring.

Rating: starstarstarstarstar

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: the Game (Jeremy Soule)

Cover

In 2004, EA released another entry in its series of Harry Potter video games, tying in with the theatrical release of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. The game offered what was expected of it — an interactive take on events in the book and movie — and was as successful as any tie-in could hope to be. In theaters, the third movie saw the first real shake-up in the film franchise, with Alfonso Cuaron taking over for Chris Columbus and bringing with him a distinctly dark aesthetic and a willingness to trim or alter the source material that Columbus had never had. This led to Azkaban becoming the most acclaimed film in the film series.

The game developers, however, remained largely the same and Jeremy Soule returned for a third year as Hogwarts-composer-in residence. As he had with Chamber of Secrets, Soule ditched the title theme he had created for the previous game. This is less of a problem than it could be, since the other two themes he conjured weren’t integrated into the game scores much; they were never as thematic as John Williams’ movie compositions anyway. Soule’s choice here interestingly mirrors the choices Williams made for his final Potter movie score, which largely avoided the maestro’s established themes in favor of new ones. It goes without saying that Soule was not permitted to use any of Williams’s new themes from the film. Still, given the blisteringly strong theme Soule had composed for the previous game, a reprisal would have been welcome.

Soule’s new theme does retain a choral element but returns to the more florid classically-inspired sound from the first game, albeit in a darker form. The album as a whole has a tone closer to that of the film, especially in its presentation of soaring themes for Buckbeak in “Flying Buckbeak” and “Buckbeak Night Flight,” both of which mirror the grandiose “Buckbeak’s Flight” conjured by Williams. The music has a deeper sound to it — possibly the result of better synths — and passages of dark music offset by some incredible vocal work. It’s as if Soule was consciously driving his music in the same darker direction as the film, with less magic but more drama; when the sound works, it’s spectacular.

Sadly, the action music is once again a mixed bag. There are some utterly explosive sequences of choral action in “Dementor Patronus” and “Extreme Patronus” which easily equal or exceed the finest action writing from Soule’s career. But “Glacius Boss” and “Carpe Knight Boss,” among others, return to the ramblingly percussive music that characterized the first game. The cues in general are also very short, with only two of the 26 songs on the commercial album exceeding two minutes.

Soule’s Prisoner of Azkaban, like the others in the series, had no official release to satisfy the cravings of fans for several years. But in late 2006, portions of the score were released to iTunes as a digital download alongside Soule’s other work for the Potterverse. All four albums suffered from a seemingly rushed and muddled presentation of the music, seemingly pulled willy-nilly from Soule’s original files. As with the previous two games, there were enough hard stops and tracks with trailing (or even internal) stretches of silence to make for a frustrating listen. And although 30 minutes of music was on tap, the soundtrack was once again frustratingly incomplete. This might explain why, in late 2009, EA pulled all of Soule’s Potterverse scores from circulation.

Despite all the album problems, Prisoner of Azkaban is another strong Potter effort from Soule. It may not have as many highlights as his previous work for Chamber of Secrets, but when the music is firing on all cylinders, listeners may not even notice. It’s a shame that fans of the composer and the original Williams music have no way to legitimately purchase even the wonky commercial album; as with the other scores, the only route to enjoying Soule’s efforts is to buy the game and crank up an audio editor. Fans can only hope for a proper release someday to allow the music to truly breathe.

Rating: starstarstarstar

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: The Game (Jeremy Soule)

Cover

Despite some moviegoers’ qualms, Chris Columbus’s film version of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was a massive $300 million earner. And, as surely as summer follows autumn, it was inevitable that there would be a movie adaptation of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets to follow the success of its blockbuster predecessor. And just as surely, there would be a video game adaptation to follow. Many noted that the film was an improvement over the first, and similar feelings accompanied the game, which opened to generally warm reviews. Returning from the first game was composer Jeremy Soule, whose music for the original had had its share of highlights despite a frustrating lack of availability on album.

John Williams had already begun to tire of the Harry Potter franchise by 2002, and delegated large portions of the music to William Ross. Quite the opposite was true for the Chamber of Secrets video game, as Soule powered up the ideas he had established for the first title, incorporating his original sound alongside some startlingly good new pieces. The Grieg-inspired theme from the first game wass discarded in favor of a fantastic new “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets Title Theme,” which owes less of a debt to other composers while still conjuring the requisite magic. Soule introduced a powerful choral component as well, establishing a thread that extends throughout the official album (and in many tracks omitted from it). Soule reprises the theme in an equally elegant form at the end of the album; listed as an alternate theme, it was actually used for the game’s credits. Like the composer’s theme for the previous game, though, it barely appears in the rest of the music.

The most notable improvement of Chamber of Secrets over its predecessor is the action music. Soule successfully imparts the magical atmosphere and dark choral harmonics of the other music into whimsical tracks like “DADA Action” “Willow Boss” and “Aragog Boss.” “Flying” represents some of Soule’s finest-ever action writing, with a soaring full-bodied orchestral theme that’s equal parts action and wonder, though it’s sadly unlooped on the official album. Soule’s work combines the strength of the previous score (its whimsical character) while addressing its weaknesses, rendering it a better listening experience whether complete or on the mangled album.

Like Sorcerer’s Stone before it, Chamber of Secrets didn’t get an album when it was released. This was rectified to an extent when, in late 2006, EA released digital albums of all Soule’s Potter scores to iTunes. Chamber of Secrets fared much better than the previous album as a listening experience; the transitions aren’t as jagged (though there are still no loops) and the tracks are generally longer, with a several being self-contained. A much more generous 43 minutes of music is provided as well, though some essential music is still missing (notably the thunderous final battle cue with full choir) and a few awkward edits or songs that had 5-10 seconds of silence at the end remain distractions.

Again, this amateurish and incomplete album experience may have been the reason that Soule’s Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was withdrawn from circulation by EA in 2009. While the official album had problems and is frustratingly incomplete, it was the best presentation of Soule’s Potter music out of the four iTunes Potter albums, and the complete score as heard in-game remains Soule’s finest for the series. Therefore, fans are in a tough position: an incomplete and unavailable official release or the bother of finding a copy of the game and manually extracting and looping its audio files for listening. Even so, the effort is worthwhile: if you must acquire one of Soule’s Potter scores, get this one.

Rating:

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: The Game (Jeremy Soule)

Cover

As one of the most popular literary series in modern memory, it was always a given that Harry Potter would see a flurry of media adaptations from movies to games. And sure enough, Electronic Arts put out a game version to coincide with the 2001 release of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to cinemas worldwide. Its reviews were middling, much like the film’s, playing best to fans of the book and young children. And, like the film, it launched a series of Potterverse games that lasted to 2011’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 and beyond.

John Williams’s score for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was a late-career masterpiece, and his theme for the character is perhaps the maestro’s last great theme to embed itself firmly in pop culture. With Williams himself quickly losing interest in the franchise, there was never any question of having him create an original score for the game, but there was a strong likelihood that his music would be chopped up and repurchased. Surprisingly they bucked this expectation and EA turned to Jeremy Soule, who was in the midst of a career renaissance, for their music. After his well-received score to Icewind Dale in 2000, Soule was suddenly a hot commodity, scoring dozens of RPGs and fantasy games in the following years. Due to rights issues, Soule wasn’t allowed to use any of John Williams’ themes from the big-screen Potter; while his music tries to exist in the same world of whimsical fantasy, the melodies were all his own. The music was so highly regarded that unofficial game rips made from the PC version’s audio files were soon in circulation amongst fans.

The official album opens with a resounding rendition of Soule’s “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone Theme,” a piece that seems equally inspired by Williams and Edvard Grieg over its bombastic first half. Oddly, the theme doesn’t appear much in the rest of the album, with Soule preferring to rely on a consistent tone rather than thematic development. The same atmosphere of overbearing wonder returns in several other tracks, most notably “Story Book,” which adds a light choir to provide an undercurrent of menace, and the concluding “Happy Hogwarts.”

Tracks that accompany scenes of mystery and suspense are less engaging, with the dissonant “Dark Hogwarts” and “Devil’s Snare” falling prey to Soule’s tendency toward troubled ambience. Action cues like “Malfoy Fight” or “Troll Chase” similarly fail to convey the magic from the better pieces, with plenty of percussive hits but not much depth. The balance of music is such, though, that the weaker music is generally balanced out by the better, with strong statements of whimsy and wonder prevailing over more pedestrian action music.

Unsurprisingly, Soule’s music went unreleased when the game came out in 2001. However, in late 2006 EA unexpectedly released portions of Soule’s Potter scores as digital downloads via iTunes. Sadly, the iTunes release of Sorceror’s Stone is deeply flawed. While the sound quality is better than that of the rips, the tracks are short and unlooped, leading to jarring transitions more befitting an amateurish gamerip than an official product. The track titles were apparently pulled from Soule’s original files, leading to odd situations where a “part 2” is on the album with no corresponding “part 1”. At 21 minutes, the official product is quite short and missing a considerable portion of the music composed for the game, including some of its best tracks.

Perhaps this is why, in late 2009, Electronic Arts and its E.A.R.S. music label pulled most of their released Harry Potter video game music from circulation. This makes the downloadable soundtrack for Soule’s Sorcerer’s Stone officially unavailable once again and a collectable curiosity–if indeed such things can exist in the digital age. In the end, Soule acquitted himself well with a score that has some considerable highlights, especially in its full form as heard in-game. But in many ways it’s music that serves as a blueprint for what was to come in his later Potter scores — and, indeed, music from Sorcerer’s Stone would be tracked into all future Potter games, even those scored by James Hannigan. Soule fans should definitely seek it out, but the only official album’s drawbacks and lack of availability make it impossible to recommend. Perhaps someday the music will get the release it deserves; until then, fans will simply have to buy the PC version of the game and make their own playlist with a little elbow grease and an audio editor.

Rating:

Melody Muncher (DDRKirby)

Cover
Cover

Ludum Dare is perhaps the best-known of all game development jams, challenging teams to create a fully-realized video game on a common theme in as little as 48 hours. Taking its name from Latin “to give a game,” the contest has run since 2002. While the games themselves have long been offered for distribution online, there has been an increasing trend of putting their music out on platforms like Bandcamp or Loudr.

One of the entrants for Ludum Dare 2015 (which had the theme “you are the monster”) was Melody Muncher, a game about a voracious plant devouring all that came before it. Super Mario Bros. from the perspective of the piranha plant, perhaps. Melody Muncher was given a score, composed within the same 48-hour time limit, by Timmie Wong (AKA DDRKirby), who had participated in the scoring of several other Ludum Dare and indie projects.

Melody Muncher takes inspiration from the classic 8-bit sound palette of Nintendo Entertainment System chiptunes, matching the similar aesthetic of the game, while jazzing up the soundscape with more channels and effects than the old grey console could possibly handle. The resulting music has a distinctly retro flair but more than a little influence from later genres of electronic music on the web.

Perhaps most importantly, Wong’s music does a generally excellent job of capturing the potent melodies that made the NES originals classics in their time. Tunes like “Solar Beam” and “Sunny Day” explode with terrific melodies and inventive electronic rhythms, at times reminiscent of Jake Kaufman’s scores in the genre or the terrific (and unreleased) effort by Naoko Mitome and Chika Sekigawa for Super Paper Mario. There’s a good amount of variety too, with tracks like “Song of the Sea” offering a more chill melody and tempo.

Some of the tracks show the rough edges of their extremely short composition times, of course. “Flower Fang” relies a bit too much on electronic dance music cliches, for example. While fun, “Undying” has a distinct,and likely subconscious, echo of many other songs (Smash Mouth’s 1997 groaner Walkin’ on the Sun being the first to come to mind). But in general, the music is highly impressive and enjoyable considering the constraints under which it was created.

A few months after Ludum Dare, Wong released a pair of Melody Muncher albums to Bandcamp: the original soundtrack as prepared for the challenge, and a second deluxe album with later remastered versions of the same songs. Both the basic album and the deluxe album offer a terrific value for the suggested donation amount, and are well worth sampling for fans of innovative NES-style soundtracks.

Rating: starstarstarstar

Vacuum Tube Girls Symphony (Hiroki Kikuta)

Cover
Cover

Original music has been composed for video games, films, TV shows, slot machines, and even Dungeons and Dragons campaigns. So why not for trading card games? That’s exactly what Japanese video game industry veteran Hiroki Kikuta did when he wrote Vacuum Tube Girls Symphony. The aforementioned vacuum tube girls are the heroines of a game called Shinukan, a Kickstarter-backed project that billed itself as “The Kawaii Steampunk Android Trading Card Game” and sought to bring a Japanese fanservice sensibility to a milieu dominated by straitlaced games like Magic the Gathering. The game was able to make its $20,000 goal in August 2014 and shipped in June 2015 (Kickstarter projects being rather infamous for their slipping deadlines).

Whether Kikuta was attracted to Shinukan as a commissioned artist, as a backer, or simply as an enthusiastic fan, his Vacuum Tube Girls Symphony accompanied its release as a digital download on the Bandcamp indie music platform. After a long drought in the 2000s, the 2010s had seen the composer back in the saddle with numerous projects, from full-fledged video game soundtracks to guest tracks and arrangements to solo endeavors. Seemingly comfortable in his role as a video game music elder statesman, Kikuta began experimenting with more longform compositions that seemed influenced by the cellular and minimalist structure of musicians like Philip Glass, Michael Nyman, and Stephen Reich. Indeed, Kikuta’s the two most recent solo albums, Pulse Pico Pulse and Integral Polyphony, had been lengthy experiments in that regard, with the latter expressly dedicated to Reich. Those albums, fascinating meldings of the worlds of minimalist concert music and VGM, often strayed rather far afield from the sound that had endeared Kikuta to a generation of gamers.

The Vacuum Tube Girls Symphony represents an even more fascinating attempt to combine Kikuta’s quirky signature style with Reich-style minimalism. Like Secret of Mana +, Kikuta’s legendary experimental arrangement album based on his first video game score, Vacuum Tube Girls Symphony is arranged into a single, 42-minute track that cycles through several distinct movements. From 0:00-4:00, the music takes the form of a string and solo piano duet strained through heavy analog noise to mimic the sound of an ancient 78-RPM vinyl recording, presumably as a nod to the retro-futurism design aesthetic Shinukan embraces and mixes with its fanservice. At 4:00, a full-quality militaristic motif in Kikuta’s signature style emerges, punctuated with the sound of breaking glass as a percussion instrument among the drums and marimbas (an experiment the composer also used in Secret of Mana 2). This builds up to, at around the 7:00 mark, the full blossoming of the album’s primary theme, a glorious brassy statement backed up by a blazing orchestra hits and a full silverware drawer’s worth of unorthodox percussion. Beginning around 13:00, the music switches to a different and much more low-key melody, carried on woodwinds with pizzicato strings and pianos, and very much in the style of the composer’s post-Koudelka works. A percussion phase similar to the first one but stripped of many of the odder instruments comes in at 13:00, particularly similar in its doubled pizzicato and normal strings to Kikuta’s efforts for the Shining series beginning in 2011.

A gentle woodwind melody is cut in with the Shining percussion at 18:00, segueing to a return of the gentler style, this time with a more pronounced and quite lovely theme and veering, at times, into the mysterious and sinister–again, very much in the style of the adult games Kikuta scored between Koudelka and Shining Hearts. The percussion returns by 23:00, serving to add a militaristic edge to the continuing woodwinds before eventually bringing back the Shining Hearts doubled strings for an extended outing. By 28:00, a reprise of the low-key melody from 13:00 has subsumed the percussion and serves as an introduction to the return of the brassy primary theme and its glass-shattering backing at 30:00. Kikuta gives the theme a workout, continuing it to the 38:00 mark, where the scratchy 78 RPM music returns to close out the remaining four minutes.

The use of cellular rhythms, repeated with minor variations, is prevalent at each stage of the work, giving it at times the minimalistic feel that characterizes Glass, Nyman, and Reich, and was the overwhelming style present in Pulse Pico Pulse and Integral Polyphony. But the melodies, the use of percussion, and the employment of doubled strings and pizzicato plucking, is classic Kikuta, referencing works from Secret of Mana 2 to Shining Hearts and all points in between. There’s no denying the minimalism, but there’s also no denying the indelible fingerprints of the composer’s unique style. The only part that seems out of character is the lengthy into and outro, where the simple music is mangled by vinyl filters–truly one of the more tiresome musical devices in use today. Along the same lines, Vacuum Tube Girls Symphony‘s gigantic length does allow for remarkably fluid transitions between the various parts of such a diverse work, but it can be a bit of a bother hunting and pecking for a favorite section (a problem it shares with Secret of Mana +).

Still, the Vacuum Tube Girls Symphony represents perhaps the best merging of Kikuta’s unique rhythmic and melodic sense with his interest in minimalist experimentation to come along thus far. Whether you put it on in the background while playing a game of Shinukan or simply listen to it on its own, it’s a fascinating work. As of this writing, the full 42-minute album is available at Kikuta’s Bandcamp page for $10; his fans and those interested in the techniques with which he experiments will both appreciate what the work has to offer.

Rating: starstarstarstar

Elite: Dangerous (Erasmus Talbot)

Cover
Elite was an epochal game for many players on home computer systems, using basic wireframe graphics to place players as starship pilots in an expansive universe. Like many more sophisticated sandbox games, there was no set objective and no endpoint, other than raising one’s rank in combat to that of “Elite.” Countless hours of space combat and trading gave the game unrivaled cult appeal for a whole generation of gamers, to say nothing of inspiring titles like Privateer or Escape Velocity. But the actual Elite sequels were disappointments, with Frontier: Elite II and First Encounters: Elite III both being plagued with technical problems and stiff competition from imitators. The series lay dormant for nearly 20 years after Elite III before a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign successfully raised the money to make a direct sequel on modern systems. Elite: Dangerous has been well-recieved since its debut, though its always-online play (even in single-player) means that those without access to high-speed internet are still left out in the cold.

The development cycle of Elite: Dangerous was such that the project’s audio lead had time to carefully solicit composers for the game through a series of pitches and demos. Ultimately, newcomer Erasmus Talbot was commissioned to pen the score; while he had worked on some iOS games, shorts, and commercials before joining Elite in 2013, it was by far his most prominent credit to date. Talbot brought experience in sound design and implementation to the table, a benefit in working with a game that procedurally changed its music in response to player input, and he was instructed to create a hybrid score that utilized traditional symphonic and choral colors alongside synthesizers and electronic textures. The commission was complicated by the fact that what had initially been planned as a fully orchestral recording for its acoustic components wound up as a largely synth endeavor with live soloists: singers, percussion, some woodwinds, solo horn, violin, and oud were the sum total of live music recorded for the project.

One might have expected overtly synthetic elements to dominate a score about spaceships in space, but Talbot’s music is far less harshly electronic than comparable efforts like Jon Hallur Haraldsson’s EVE Online. Influences from that work can be felt in some of the pulsing and shimmering synths, and the use of world music elements like oud and singer Mia Salazar harkens most strongly back to Paul Ruskay’s Homeworld score. The overall use of ambient texture combined with a number of common motifs is perhaps most reminiscent of Jeremy Soule’s scores in the Elder Scrolls series, but Talbot’s score works these influences together in a way that rarely feels derivative.

Most prominent and surprising to someone expecting the harshness of EVE Online is its thorough use of both synth and live choral elements–“like distant calls weaving in and out
through the vastness of space,” as Talbot says in his liner notes. Singers Salazar and Hannah Holgersson are joined by synth male voices and a synth children’s chorus in a series of the music’s most prominent thematic building blocks based on the various factions encountered in the game. Near and Far Eastern choral textures, African and Middle Eastern tones (though thankfully never to the “wailing woman” level of early 2000s cliche), masculine chanting, and classical European voice elements all make appearances–often in their most wistful and ambient mode.

The game’s battle tracks are its most traditionally symphonic, with rippling percussion and brass added over elements of the more ambient tracks. It’s interesting that the battle music is presented in pieces rather than in suites as is the typical practice with video game music. Rather than slapping together the various parts as they might have been procedurally combined by the game’s music engine, listeners are presented with 30 short songs that represent different combat scenarios at varying levels of intensity (low, medium, and high). It’s a refreshing approach, if slightly bitty in a Thomas Newman way, and it of course means that listeners are free to string together whatever parts they like rather than being chained to a single “frozen playthrough.” But the combat music is also where the limits of Talbot’s budget show the most clearly: he is forced to work with a mostly synth orchestra, and parts of it (especially the prominent brass) sounds terribly fake.

Arguably, the highlight of the effort is the Frameshift Suite, music for high-speed travel and starport landings in Elite: Dangerous. It brings together the vocal, ambient electronic, and acoustic soloist elements of the broader score into a single, tonal, and cohesive whole. It’s the best showing-off of the game’s broader music style to those who may be bored by the Soule-inflected ambience of the exploration music and irritated by the phony brass blasts of the more traditional battle tracks.

Listeners’ response to Elite: Dangerous will likely be predicated on how much weight they give to its various elements. Lovers of ambient but tuneful music, subtle choral effects, and scoring that reflects diverse video game ane cinema influences will probably enjoy it; those looking for a traditional symphonic experience, harsh EVE Online atmospherics, or Hans Zimmer power anthems will probably be much less interested. If nothing else, the game’s commercial download album (a CD is mentioned in the liner notes that apparently never came to fruition) is an extremely generous 140 minutes and 86 tracks for less than $10, meaning that listeners who like only the exploration, Frameshift, or combat music will still have a wide selection. It’s a shame that Elite: Dangerous can’t be played without an internet connection, but its music certainly can, and it makes for a fine experience on its own.

Rating: starstarstarstar

Halo 4 (Neil Davidge)

Cover

Even though developer Bungie had departed from the Halo series with 2010’s rather tired prequel Halo: Reach, Microsoft was unable to put its killer app cash cow franchise to rest. Forming 343 Studios as a subsidiary–and thereby assuring that, unlike Bungie, it could not leave for greener pastures–Microsoft had Halo 4 in development as soon as Reach shipped. Returning to the only real dangling plot thread from the third game and the massive character origin retcon from Reach, Halo 4 attempted to build a more emotional story around the series’ characters in addition to a threatening race of conveniently undiscovered aliens. The story’s attempts at emotional resonance were undercut by the emotionlessness of the main character, who has never cared a whit for the massive and detailed background mythology built up around him (being more concerned with where and when to give out free bullet samples when ordered to), but Halo 4 was a predictable sales success, and sequels will probably follow on a biennial basis until the heat-death of the universe.

Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori had scored the first five Halo titles with a distinctive blend of choral voices, dance-influenced electronica, and orchestral music. But they had departed with Bungie to work on the disappointing Destiny–an assignment that would ultimately be the end of their tenure at that developer. 343 Studios brought on an interesting replacement in their stead: Neil Davidge, a songwriter, producer, and musician, though Halo 4 would be his first video game score. While Davidge’s name might be unfamiliar to listeners, the name of the group with which he is most associated, Massive Attack, is most likely not. As part of the group, Davidge had been involved with several bestselling albums as well as Massive Attack’s first forays into film scoring, Unleashed (AKA Danny the Dog) and Bullet Boy. As a solo artist, Davidge’s most high-profile score was probably the psychic actioner Push; it was therefore an open question how he would respond to a high-profile assignment like Halo 4 with its own preexisting fanbase and sonic world. Perhaps as a response to this, 343 Studios paired Davidge with additional music composer Kazuma Jinnouchi, an experienced video game musician with a track record in the Metal Gear Solid series.

First, and perhaps most controversially, Davidge completely dismissed all of O’Donnell and Salvatori’s themes for the Halo series in favor of his own original compositions. The decision wasn’t as unprecedented as it seemed, with O’Donnell and Salvatori themselves largely avoiding any references to iconic Halo themes in their scores for ODST and Reach. But while the overall style of those scores was still suffused with O’Donnell and Salvatori’s musical personalities, Davidge didn’t attempt to outright ape his predecessors. His score was built from similar building blocks–the Chamber Orchestra of London, the RSVP Voices and London Bulgarian Choir, as well as an array of synthesizers and electronics. The overall bent of the score, interestingly, is far more organic than what O’Donnell and Salvatori come up with despite Davidge’s own background, with far subtler synths and relatively few instances of them taking center stage. When tracks like “Awakening” do bring electronics to the forefront, the pulses and tones used are quite distinct from the dance-inflected beats for which the series was known.

Obviously, Halo 4 should be judged on its own merits in addition to its place within the wider series. So what does Davidge come up with of his own in terms of thematic material to replace O’Donnell and Salvatori’s themes? The answer is, sadly, not much: Davidge’s score has very little in the way of themes, and certainly nothing approaching the memorability of the previous scores. To borrow a metaphor from a concurrent media property, the composer had the opportunity to do a Patrick Doyle, whose Goblet of Fire also largely discarded series themes but came up with blisteringly good new ones that inhabited a similar sonic world. Instead, with Halo 4, Davidge and his team pulled a Nicholas Hooper, a score with definite strengths produced by someone with real talent but which fails to weave highlights into a cohesive and thematic whole. A villainous theme of sorts does appear in “Nemesis” with a reprise in part in “Revival,” but it doesn’t make much of an impact. “117” is the closest the score comes to the broad heroics of the previous games in the series, albeit again not at the same level of prominence or memorability, but that track was actually written by co-composer Kazuma Jinnouchi, not Davidge.

As with the other Halo soundtracks, album production is a sore spot as well. The most common complaint leveled against the disc was that several of the most prominent cues in the game did not appear on it, despite a 77-minute length and six downloadable tracks. Fans particularly coveted the opening menu music, “Atonement,” which offered a mournful Arabic vocal as a replacement for the earlier Gregorian chant, and the end credits music, “Never Forget (Midnight Version),” the only remix of a O’Donnell/Salvatori theme in the game. With the later release of Halo 4 Volume 2, it was revealed that these were also Kazuma Jinnouchi compositions, explaining but not excusing their absence from the physical disc. It’s a bit disingenuous, to say the least, to omit the best-loved music from a game simply because it wasn’t written by the primary credited composer, and the original album suffers for its lack of Jinnouchi’s music, which is generally more thematic, more memorable, and a better sonic fit for Halo. The same “frozen playthrough” philosophy that dogged earlier albums returns as well, with some of the album’s better material buried in suites. Worse, the six downloadable tracks are all nauseatingly bad “remixes” instead of music that might have been composed too late in production to meet the CD’s street date.

A 77-minute disc was pressed for the game’s 2012 debut, with the aforementioned remixes as downloadable “bonuses.” Perhaps as a response to customer complaints, a additional download-only album would follow in 2013, featuring more music from Davidge and especially Jinnouchi, whose single track on the initial album is joined by nine others including the O’Donnell/Salvatori remix. It’s clear that the powers-that-be felt the same way about Davidge and Jinnouchi as listeners did; the inevitable Halo 5 follow-up has Jinnouchi listed as sole composer in early reports. One has to agree with the decision, as Davidge’s music, while serviceable and with an impressive orchestral/electronic pedigree, simply did not live up to the spirit of the games in the way that Jinnouchi’s compositions did. The available Halo 4 album suffers as a result, sinking into blandness with a few flashes of color thanks to Davidge’s inability to provide something to replace the dismissed O’Donnell/Salvatori themes and the marginalization on album of Jinnouchi’s attempts to fill that gap. One wonders what the latter will do with a solo Halo to his credit, or if 343 studios will simply hire the now-available O’Donnell for their future efforts. Halo 4 may be worth a bargain purchase, but is sure to disappoint in many areas all the same.

Rating: starstar

Final Fantasy VI (Nobuo Uematsu)

Cover

On the heels of their wildly successful RPG Final Fantasy V in 1992, developer Square immediately began production of a sequel for the same platform, the Super Nintendo. Over a year of brisk development, a complex tale emerged with fourteen playable characters, more than any game before or since, larger and more detailed sprites and field graphics, and extensive use of Mode 7 graphics. In many ways it was the ultimate evolution of Final Fantasy V‘s style, with a straightforward first half and an open-world second. But above and beyond that, the resultant Final Fantasy VI features more pathos than all its predecessors combined, tackling weighty issues like suicide, teenage pregnancy, war crimes, and more. Its heroes actually fail to save their world and have to spend half of the game dealing with the consequences of their failure–tempered with plenty of lighthearted character moments, of course. The game was a fantastic success and has since been ported to a variety of post-SNES systems; more crucially, unlike Final Fantasy V, it was given a lovable Ted Woolsey translation and a release in the USA under the title Final Fantasy III. As a result, it influenced a whole generation of US game developers and echoes of its themes and steampunk aesthetic resonate to this day.

Nobuo Uematsu was no longer Square’s sole resident composer by 1994, giving him the freedom to devote all of 1993 to music for Final Fantasy VI while leaving other projects to fellow staffers. He tackled the project enthusiastically, writing a much longer score than any he’d penned for previous games and responding to the game’s steampunk/1800s look with a score that includes several rich classical influences. Richard Wagner’s Teutonic operas were a natural fit for the game’s story of godlike creatures interfering in mortal life and the ascent of characters to godhood (if not quite draining the gods’ power to run machines and having an insane jester be the one to so ascend), but Uematsu also looked to his beloved prog-rock groups–many of whom had themselves been influenced by Wagner and his contemporaries–for inspiration as well. Thus one can hear echoes of Queen and the rock operas of the 1970s and 1980s as well, resulting in a score that’s a fascinating melange of influences and instruments, with (synth) orchestral elements alongside guitar, synths, and the closest the SNES was able to come to human voices in 1993. Uematsu himself would later say that after finishing the score he could retire from game music with no regrets.

With fourteen player characters, and two villains to boot, Uematsu responded by adapting the Wagnerian leitmotif in a John Willams vein, giving every character their own theme and often one or two variations thereon. This thematic diversity is unprecedented, with very few games past or present attempting anything like it; Uematsu himself never attempted the same level of theme and variations even in his later leitmotivic Final Fantasy scores. There is no main theme as such, but “Terra’s Theme” serves as the closest equivalent, with the largest number of variations dominating the first part of the game where the amnesic magic-user Terra serves as a player analog. “Terra’s Theme” serves as the first world map theme, presenting a hauntingly sad melody on panpipes with synth orchestral accompaniment, but the melody is introduced in a more subdued oboe version with militaristic snare at 2:32 in “Opening Theme.” A gentle piano rendition in “Awakening” is closer to a true theme for Terra based on its usage in the game, and listeners are treated to a bittersweet full synth orchestral reprise at 7:46 in “Ending Theme” and again on solo flute at 16:46 as the character manages to survive the end of all magic in her world. Uematsu also gives “Terra’s Theme” interesting twists in “Save Them!” with the theme in counterpoint to brassy action music at :32, and twisted into an anguished form at :12 in “Metamorphosis.”

The gambling airship pilot Setzer has a surprisingly heroic theme in C major that, interestingly, is reprised extremely frequently throughout Uematsu’s score. In addition to “Setzer’s Theme, which takes up the melody on brass, there is a heartbreaking version in A major for solo piano with acoustic guitar accents in “Epitaph,” representing the character’s lost love. The first airship theme, “Blackjack,” returns the theme to brass with an optimistic, opulent air for the flying pleasure palace, while a tender reprise in C major can be found at 1:28 in “Ending Theme.” Bold and triumphant strains of Setzer’s theme dominate the latter half of “Ending Theme” during the game’s credits, providing resounding accompaniment to his airship’s triumphant sendoff. Similarly, “Locke’s Theme” presents a heroic theme for an antihero, giving the thief/treasure hunter a heroic string melody with rambunctious percussion accompaniment, a reprise in tragic mode for the character’s own lost love in “Forever Rachel,” and a reprise in the “Ending Theme” at 6:36. The latter represents some of the most complex counterpoint Uematsu ever attempted, cannily blending Locke’s theme with that of his new love, Celes, as the music deftly switches from one theme to the other. Reams more could be written on each theme and its reprises, especially in the astonishing 21 minutes of “Ending Theme” which runs through every one of them in sequence; from the Morricone-esque whistles of “Shadow’s Theme” to the resounding cello of “Gau’s Theme” there’s nary a weak link to be found.

Celes’ theme is the centerpiece of the game’s trademark opera, a 16 minute stretch that employs synthesized (wordless but synched to Japanese lyrics) vocals for a sequence in which a character takes the place of a prima donna. There is a definite influence of Wagner and Verdi in the portentous “Overture,” the tender variation on Celes’ theme in “Aria de Mezzo Carattere” (“Aria of Half Character,” presumably a reference to the character impersonating an opera singer) the overwrought “The Wedding” and the goofy “Grand Finale?” battle track. There’s no denying that the synth opera voices sound a little tinny and silly to latter-day ears–it was 1993 after all–but they do an excellent job in spite of their limitations. Taken together, the opera excerpts represent Uematsu’s music at its most comic but also its most classical, and presages the increading use of live voices in the series, in both as choral or classical and ribald pop modes.

Final Fantasy VI‘s insane jester villain Kefka and the Empire he works for (and later kicks to death) get a theme each. Kefka’s is a prancing and deceptively lighthearted comic dance that shows up in fragments in “Last Dungeon,” and “Dancing Mad” while the Empire receives the polar opposite, a dour and serious motif that ranges from martial (“Troops March On”) to ominous (“Under Martial Law,” “The Empire Gestahl”). The pick of the villains’ music, though, is the game’s battle themes; while both the electric guitar of “The Decisive Battle” and the aggressive tympani and orchestral fury of “The Fierce Battle” are notable, the “Dancing Mad” final boss suite towers over them all. Tipping the scales at over 17 minutes, “Dancing Mad” is divided into four distinct movements that each loop twice, corresponding to a different tier of the final boss and running the gamut of styles from classical opera to prog rock. The first tier reprises earlier material from “Opening” and “Catastrophe” into a fully orchestral mode with breathing noise accents and operatic voices for the most aggressive music in the game, while the second lets loose with synth opera vocals, percussion, and organ. The third tier is, of all things, an extended fantasia for organ with interpolations of “Kefka’s Theme,” not really menacing at all but impressive and abstract all the same; the final tier unleashes progressive rock with interludes of mournful voices and laughter and more fragments of the villain’s theme. It all flows together wonderfully despite the diversity of styles, and serves as an excellent lead-in to the 20 minutes of glorious thematic reprises that bring the score to a close with “Ending Theme.”

The major impediment to enjoying Uematsu’s work is, as with virtually all his pre-Final Fantasy VIII scores, the sound quality. The SPC 700 sound chip in the SNES was among the strongest synthesizers of its console generation, and sound programmer Minoru Akao and sound engineer Eiji Nakamura worked with Uematsu to wring everything they could out of it. For the time, the sound is excellent, in places even stronger than the MIDI Final Fantasy VII, and the music uses an impressive variety of specialty instruments from bagpipes to mouth harps to the aformentioned synth vocals. Final Fantasy VI‘s synths also have a rich reverb like Final Fantasy IV, eschewing the dry sound of Final Fantasy V. But the fact remains that the music is synthesized, obviously synthesized, and this will be a fatal blow for many listeners regardless of the quality of the underlying melodies. There have been rearrangements, of course, but none of them has ever matched the mix of the original: orchestral remixes give short shrift to Uematsu’s electronic and prog-rock influences, synth remixes neglect the fine orchestral lines, and even the most faithful live arrangements aren’t able to get the volume balance quite right, with some instruments drowning others out. The technical complexity of re-recording the score–which would involve recording and mixing every section of the orchestra and every line of synths separately and mixing them together–is probably too daunting, though. A few other irritating quirks–mostly brief sound effects–also mar a few tracks.

Upon release, Final Fantasy VI was a big hit for Square, and so was its score. Several arrangement albums were released before the year was out, including an orchestral album, a piano arrangement, and a full 23-minute live recording of the opera scene. This acclaim extended to the USA as well, where Square put out a deluxe 3-CD set identical in content to the Japanese release under the title Kefka’s Domain. Though available only via mail order, it was one of only three CDs released by Square during the 16-bit era (alongside Secret of Mana and Secret of Evermore) and both it and the Japanese pressing remain readily available domestically or through importers. Uematsu’s score is, in strict musical terms, probably the most creative and complex of his entire career; it’s certainly the most thematic. And for all its crazy-quilt of musical influences from Queen to Wagner to Morricone, Final Fantasy VI is able to craft disparate elements into a unique and compelling whole. It was, and remains, Uemastu’s career high and the finest score of the 16-bit era and the Final Fantasy series as a whole.

Rating: starstarstarstarstar