Game Music Bundle 7 (Various Artists)

Cover

Once again, the good folks at the Game Music Bundle have released a selection of video game soundtracks for the perusal of enthusiasts. Largely hailing from indie games outside the scope of the contemporary industry, and often by young and hungry composers eager to make their mark on the industry, the Game Music Bundle offers digital downloads of multiple albums across two price tiers. Donating a minimum of $1 unlocks one tier, while a minimum of $10 unlocks the other, with a minimum suggested donation of, fittingly, $13.37.

These capsule reviews are provided to help anyone who might be wavering in their decision to purchase and support the musicians and projects involved. The window to buy is very limited, and while many of the soundtracks are available on iTunes, Bandcamp, and elsewhere…some are exclusives that will never be available again!

This particular Game Music Bundle is no longer available, but many of the individual albums are; purchase links have been provided where appropriate. Go here to be notified of future releases!

$1 Minimum Albums

The Banner Saga (Austin Wintory)
The Banner Saga is one of the most famous Kickstarter success stories, a game funded by 20,000 backers with just the promise of what was to come. Girded with that cash, the developers were able to hire rising star Austin Wintory and a live ensemble, The Dallas Winds, replete with soloists and singers. The percussion and string-heavy score is a relatively close cousin to Skyrim, with the same sense of Nordic-ness about it and singers bringing the full force of ancient languages to bear. There are times when Wintory’s music outstrips the sonic abilities of his limited group of performers, primarily in the large action cues; anyone annoyed by singing in what sounds like Old Norse will be turned off as well. Still, the album is overall a very sparse and finely crafted work.
Rating: * * * *
Purchase

Device 6 (David Olsén & Jonathan Eng)
Device 6 presents the sound of swinging 60s spies as filtered through the lens of swinging 60s acid trips. It features a core of well-done, off kilter spy sounds and tropes and then passes them through odd audio filters, adds bizarre sound effects in places, and generally does its best to create a blindsiding reversal of expectations. It’s an interesting effort when the pieces lock together (as in “An Elaborate Study,” which offsets a cool 60s melody with towering brass hits) but the techniques fail or distract as often as they succeed.
Rating: * * *
Purchase

The Broken Age: Act 1 (Peter McConnell)
Another Kickstarter game development success story, The Broken Age reunited the lead developer and composer of Grim Fandango, Tim Schafer and Peter McConnell, to attempt another adventure game in the grand old tradition of Lucasarts. Financial difficulties with the project led to it being released as two separate “acts;” this is the first, and thanks to Kickstarter McConnell was able to work with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and a San Francisco ensemble to record the music live. The result is a touchingly melodic score that often incorporates a very innocent sound, often on malleted percussion, to echo the “childhood’s end” theme expressed through the game’s twin protagonists. McConnell proves as adapt at managing an orchestra as he was with a jazz ensemble for Grim, and the music winds up as more a unifying force than anything, bringing together two two disparate environments and characters. Highly recommended.
Rating: * * * * *
Purchase

The Floor is Jelly (Disasterpeace & Ian Snyder)
A really bizarre album, part affable indie guitar strumming, part white noise relaxation CD, with a 20-minute track of synthesized ambient music as its stinger. People who know Disasterpeace from works like FEZ will probably be disappointed by the sound here, and while individual tracks by he and Ian Snyder are highlights, the album as a whole is a bit of a discordant mess (though that may have been exactly what the composers were aiming for).
Rating: * *
Purchase

Luftrausers (KOZILEK)
This aerial shooter has a soundtrack made up of three disparate elements fused together: heroic major-key music modeled on that of shmup soundtracks of yore, aggressive techno/trance beats, and the sound effect of boots stomping in unison. Nearly ever track has all three elements present, each taking their turn onstage with interesting and sometimes uneasy transitions between them. The music would have been stronger without any sound effects at all, but it presents enough of an interesting fusion of diverse styles to be worth a look.
Rating: * * *
Purchase

$10 Minimum Albums

Transfiguration (Austin Wintory)
Journey was in many ways Austin Wintory’s breakout score, highly regarded and well-received. For the Game Music Bundle 7, Wintory unveils an arrangement of highlights from Journey for solo piano. Stripped to the bare minimum, the sparse solos are quietly involving and the lively “Road of Trials” in particular is a virtuoso performance. The final song, “I Was Born For This,” marries the vocals of the original to a new piano arrangement for an entirely new spin on it. Piano lovers and Journey fans will find much to like here.
Rating: * * * *
Purchase

Starbound Orchestral OST (Curtis Schweitzer)
The score to a still-in-development, massive game incorporating facets of popular titles like Minecraft and Terraria, the Starbound Orchestral OST offers an equally massive amount of music: over three-and-a-half hours. The majority of the music is gentle, classically inclined, and surprisingly acoustic for a science fiction score. It’s music that is more about tone than theme, but it is always melodic even at its most classical; the best tracks are those that feature the piano (“Eridanus Supervoid”) or allow lightheartedness to creep into the equation (the delightful, album-highlight “Stellar Formation”). It’s worth noting that the concluding 45 minutes, the “Experimental OST,” are quite different, offering up a Hans-Zimmer-inspired cocktail of electronics and occasional ostinatos that’s much closer to the “stereotypical” sci-fi game sounds of exploration and combat, but no less compelling for it. A long, occasionally somewhat draggy journey, but a delightful one.
Rating: * * * *
Purchase

The Yawhg EP (Halina Heron & Ryan Roth)
This quirky and visually arresting indie RPG is all about preparing for doomsday, and its soundtrack reflects that bleak, navelgazing mood (if not the vibrantly quirky art of the game itself). Seemingly mastered from vinyl, it features analog white noise throughout and most of the tracks feature singing that seems to be coming from a room or two over. More than anything the album, even the instrumental tracks, seems like a self-distributed indie concept album with appropriately dour and spartan, well, everything. If you’re a sucker for this sound, you may find this album a revelation; otherwise, it’s best enjoyed in the context of its unique game.
Rating: * *
Purchase

Magnetic By Nature (Lance Montgomery)
Magnetic by Nature is, as one might intuit from the title, an entire;y electronic album. But save for a few moments of harshness near the end, it is almost entirely gentle, flowing synths. Made up of long, meaty tracks of electronic ambience, Magnetic by Nature will probably play best to lovers of Brian Eno and Michael Nyman.
Rating: * * *
No purchase link available

Escape Goat 2 Original Soundtrack (MagicalTimeBean)
With a name like “Escape Goat,” one must hope for some kind of all-redeeming wackiness, and the soundtrack, at least, delivers. It’s bright, self-consciously synthy with bubbly melody and intense motion, all with a light, light dusting of 1980s synth flavor which some might call cheese. Aficionados of that sound, and of winsomely catchy synthesized music, will call it delightful.
Rating: * * * * *
Purchase

Curious Merchandise (Ben Prunty)
Perhaps the most aptly-named album in the bundle, Curious Merchandise mixes low-key electronics in a diverse set of styles with occasional intrusive sound effects and filters. When the music is allowed to breathe on its own it’s quite interesting, if often content to meander in the background. One has to wonder why the melodic, astounding “Ashur the Sky God” at the end of the album is so much of a one-off; if that sound were more prevalent over the affable but occasionally anonymous electronics and sound effects elsewhere in the album, it would be a sure winner.
Rating: * * *
Purchase

Winnose: Original Soundtrack (Calum Bowen & Todd Luke)
Bizarre. There is no better or more apt descriptor for this aggressive cocktail of high-pitched synth, scratchy guitars, and the occasional indie vocals than that. It’s an assault on the senses, creative to be sure but also headache-inducing. If anything, it’s like the scores to The Yahwg, The Floor Is Jelly, and Into the Box stuck in a blender set to “frappé.”
Rating: * *
Purchase

Eldritch Original Soundtrack (David Pittman)
A game best described as “Minecraft meets Cthulhu,” Eldritch took the roguelike aspects of the world’s best-selling cube simulator and married them to H.P. Lovecraft. The music, though, seems to take the most inspiration from Matt Uelmen’s score to Diablo, with acoustic guitar hits and squealing electrics amid dark sound design. Watery burbles and whispers certainly add a layer of uneasiness to the music, but with little or no tonality or melody in the ambient sound design, ultimately this is a score to appreciate in the context of the game, not as a standalone listen.
Rating: *
Purchase

Bardbarian OST (Maximum Satan)
With a picture of a barbarian literally and figuratively playing his axe on the cover, and an entity named “Maximum Satan” in the artist field, no one should be surprised at the hard rock sound that comes through. This single-track album is single-minded in its pursuit of an authentic instrumental heavy metal sound; people who don’t like that particular sound or prefer a different variation thereof should prepare for ten minutes of headache.
Rating: *
Purchase

Tribes: Ascend (Chris Rickwood)
A revival of the decade-old Tribes franchise (itself a somewhat confusing (but popular) spin-off of the Starsiege games) Tribes: Ascend sought to recapture the fun of that old multiplayer jetpack shooter. One area in which the authenticity shines through is in its score: the music sounds very much like that of a Western video game from the early 2000s when a sort of generic techno-rock sound with echoes of the Hans Zimmer blockbuster sound was completely dominant. Western games’ music has undergone a revolution since then, influenced by Japanese VGM on the one hand and classic film scores on the other. As such, workmanlike music like this is well enough in-game, but aside from the occasional highlight (like the choral-inflected “Arx Novena III”) there’s not much to recommend it.
Rating: * *
Purchase

Into The Box Soundtrack (Talha Kaya & Doğaç Yavuz)
Probably the most “authentic” sounding chiptunes in the bundle, Into the Box is clearly inspired by the SID chip music of the Commodore 64 demoscene and game composers like the Follin Bros. In fact, overall it seems to be an attempt to meld that decades-old style with the structure of modern trance music more than anything else. It certainly nails the overall sound, but to many people unfamiliar with the unique sound of the SID chip, or to anyone who finds the sound to be chalkboard-nails irritating, won’t find much to like in this brief album.
Rating: * *
Purchase

Soul Fjord (Austin Wintory)
The third and final Wintory album in the bundle is one that seeks to combine, of all things, 1970s blaxploitation funk with 970s Norse myth and warriors. Wintory hews much more strongly to the former, adding the occasional Nordic grunt or other background element to bring in the “fjord” aspect along with the “soul.” Your tolerance for the music will be strictly proportional to how much you enjoy music that is true to the funky-fresh blaxploitation styles of old.
Rating: * * *
No purchase link available

Bonus Albums

Dragon Fantasy Book II Original Soundtrack (Dale North)
Many artists, both indie and mainstream, have attempted to capture the sound and feel of classic 1990s RPG scores, and that is what this album attempts. Its clearest influence is Noriyuki Iwadare’s often goofy music for the Grandia series, but references to VGM majordomo Nobuo Uematsu are thick on the ground as well. These artists were successful because they had a pop songwriter’s ear for melody, no fear about crossing genres in search of the right sound, and worked skillfully with the synths at their disposal. Many imitators fail at one or all of the parts of that formula, but this is generally quite pleasant and successful, even if it fails to approach the genre’s high points.
Rating: * * * *
Purchase

Ether One Original Soundtrack (N.J.Apostol)
One might expect, given the title, for Ether One to have an ethereal sound, and at times it certainly does. But the album is, all in all, heavy and repetitive (if often good-natured and occasionally attractive) ambience, good at establishing a mood but less successful at maintaining interest with the best of such sounds.
Rating: * * *
Purchase

The Music of Junk Jack X (James Primate)
This album presents a very spare sound, like an early and raw SNES or Genesis game, occasionally recalling the most ambient and hard-edged moments of Earthbound. The music is affable enough but is so thin and occasionally harsh in its employment of sound effects and bleeps that only the most devoted fans of this sort of sound and approach are likely to get much out of it separated from the game.
Rating: * *
Purchase

Advertisements

Passport to the Universe (Stephen Endelman)

Cover

Film composers often find themselves creating scores for attractions and theme park rides; their experience with matching music to images makes this an ideal choice. This has led to attraction scores from Alan Silvestri (Back to the Future: The Ride), John Debney (The Phantom Manor), Basil Poledouris (Conan: A Sword and Sorcery Spectacular), and even James Horner (Captain EO). Stephen Endelman, while nowhere near as well known as many of the professionals in his field, built himself a solid resume with projects like The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain, Evelyn, and overachieving music for the risible reboot Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li. When the Hayden Planetarium in the American Museum of Natural History began work on a new show, Endelman was commissioned to write an original score to accompany it, a score that, unlike many of the aforementioned ones, received a full CD release..

Passport to the Universe consisted entirely of deep-space images and narration by Tom Hanks, allowing Endelman almost unlimited freedom to compose as he saw fit. As the composer writes in the liner notes, this seemed the perfect opportunity to “create a piece of music that would fuse both acoustic instrumentation and ambient soundscapes,” an idea that he had toyed with for some time. Due to this decision, the show’s sound effects are included directly into the score, at times given equal prominence with the orchestra, despite the oft-repeated fact that there is no sound in outer space for lack of a medium to travel through.

Endelman’s work skews strongly toward the ambient soundscape end of the musical spectrum he describes in the notes–while there is an orchestra, it is used as a sound effect in the show’s overall audio design. Aside from brief outbursts, most notably in “Cosmic Address,” the score is largely atonal, shying away from melody in favor of dense layers of background noise. At times, such as in “Black Hole Plunge,” the combination of orchestra and sound effects becomes so brutal and atonal that the music is difficult to listen to–seemingly random brass outbursts, church bell peals, and a low choir compete with wind sound effects to overwhelm the listener with noise.

Many of the other tracks, while admittedly less intense, suffer from a similar problem: since there is little melodic material, the lengthy passages of sound effects and low-key music are dull and plodding. One has to imagine that Endelman embraced the commission as an opportunity to write non-melodic music and experiment with aleatoric, atonal, musique concrète. As exciting a possibility as that may have been in the abstract, it results in something that only fans of John Cage or Krzysztof Penderecki at their most atonal could enjoy. Appreciate, perhaps, given the proper academic background and vocabulary, but not enjoy.

Therefore, as a piece of sound design and accompaniment to the planetarium show, Passport to the Universe is a success. But as a listenable piece of music, especially when divorced from the powerful on-screen images that accompanied the planetarium show, it fails utterly. One can’t help but feel that an approach that divided the sound design and music, isolating the effects from the score, would have been better. The album represents a wasted opportunity–rather than providing a powerful accompaniment to the cosmos, Endelman’s Passport underwhelms. A missed opportunity, recommendable only if forty minutes of minimalistic, ambient music complimented by sound effects is a listening experience you could appreciate.

*

The Brave Little Toaster (David Newman and Van Dyke Parks)

Cover

Featuring a stellar voice cast, an excellent script, a team of ex-Disney animators, and many crew mambers (including John Lasseter) who would go on to impressive careers with Pixar, The Brave Little Toaster was a delightful animated film that fell through the cracks during its initial release, but found its audience and a comfortable cult following on cable TV. In many ways a prototype for the Pixar and Disney Renaissance films that followed, it presented a winning voice cast, humor accessible to multiple generations, and a quasi-musical format with several songs.

Composer David Newman had just begun his scoring career by 1987, entering the profession several years after his brother Thomas and cousin Randy after a career as a conductor and session musician, but quickly amassed an impressive resume for low-budget films like Critters and The Kindred. Newman would be asked to compose the film’s original score as well as orchestrate veteran songwriter Van Dyke Park’s contributions, and he went on to produce an impressively varied work.

The Brave Little Toaster is not a thematic score, although Newman does occasionally reference the refrain to Parks’ “City of Light” in the underscore. Rather, the score is far more impressionistic, converying emotions through complex and layered harmonies. The music is surprisingly dark and tragic at times, with swirling piano and strings lending power to some of the more tragic cues (such as “Toaster’s Dream”), but is also bight and energetic when need be, with whirlwind action cues such as “They All Wake Up,” and the rousing “End Title.”

In fact, several cues run the full gamut of emotions, from joyous and liting to dark and moody. Chief among these are “The Pond,” which builds from an inventive use of sound effects as instruments to a level of magnificent orchestral tragedy, and the penultimate “Finale,” which moves from pounding menace to upbeat catharsis in a seven-minute powerhouse of a cue. The delightful “End Credits” offer a much-needed dose of joy to end the album, with Newman using the orchestral colors of the previous tracks to compose a delightful new theme in conversation with Parks’ “City of Light.”

Van Dyke Parks’ songs are treats, hold up well compared to many dated ballads from around the same time period, and are performed with gusto by the movie’s cast. Parks was no stranger to film music himself, having arranged music for films as varied as The Jungle Book and Popeye and composed the occasional original score like Follow that Bird and worked closely with Newman to orchestrate his songs. The upbeat “City of Light” is the film’s centerpiece melody, while the impressively twisted villain ballads “It’s a B-Movie” (including Phil Hartman doing his best Peter Lorre) and “Cutting Edge” impress as much through their witty lyrics as their melodies. But the downbeat ballad “Worthless” is perhaps the most impressive, laid out as an impassioned song by junked cars in their last moments of life and with strong echoes of themes that Pixar would later tackle in their Toy Story series, films which owe more than a little to Toaster.

But there is one major drawback to the album: two cues, including the magnificently melancholy “Blanket’s Dream” are interrupted by sound effects. Apparently, those portions of the master tapes were too badly damaged to be of any use, and record label Percepto placed the effects-laden tracks in as a substitute for completeness’ sake. Those tracks do sadly break up the album’s flow, and it’s unfortunate that “Blanket’s Dream” in particular is essentially unlistenable. Percepto, never more than a very small boutique to begin with, eventually folded quietly several years after the limited edition pressing of The Brave Little Toaster, meaning that copies can be difficult and costly to find.

Still, despite all that, The Brave Little Toaster is a magnificent album, and one of the very finest works from the underrated David Newman and Van Dyke Parks. If you’re interested in hearing a score full of boundless energy and inventiveness, one of the forgotten gems of animation scoring, and can overlook the fact that several tracks are distorted by sound effects, buy with confidence. The film, easily available on DVD and on-demand, comes with the highest recommendation as well.

* * * * *

Apocalypse Now (Carmine Coppola)

Cover

A watershed film that nearly killed both its director and star, Apocalypse Now is continually cited as one of the most influential films about the Vietnam War ever put to celluloid. Interest in the film has been revived in the new millennium with a new Redux cut returning to theaters, as well as a new album. But what of the original album, available both in LP and CD form?

As a period piece, a decade removed from its setting, Apocalypse Now featured several contemporary songs, most notably portions of “The End” by The Doors, as well as a memorable performance of “Ride of the Valkyries” by Richard Wagner. For the score, Francis Ford Coppola turned to his father, Carmine, and apparently wrote some cues himself, since father and son are co-credited in places. The music was then turned over to a group of synthesizer operators (including the late Shirley Walker), whose electronic performances of the music gave it an otherworldly feel.

Based on the packaging, it appears that the Apocalypse Now soundtrack is made up of score and songs, with liberal additions of dialogue from the film. This is misleading; instead, sound effects and dialogue are heard over nearly every cue, relegating both songs and score to the background. Sound effects and dialogue, while tolerated or even embraced by the general public, have long been the bane of soundtrack collectors, and the situation with this two-disc set is particularly dire.

Removed from the context of the film’s images, the dialogue and sound effects make no real sense; characters react to unseen events, and gunfire or jungle noises regularly compete with the dialogue and music for aural space. Thus, even when there is no dialogue, isolated noises ruin any chance of listening to or appriciating Coppola’s score. This decision made some sense in an era before home video when a record could serve as a sort of audio souvenir of the film (which might not be re-released for years, if at all). Today, when most film buffs might have multiple versions of Apocalypse Now on their DVD self or in their iTunes playlist…the horror, the horror.

The music itself is intersting, with Coppola’s classically-inclined musical training filtered through sythesizers, though it is largely atmosphereic rather than thematic. It fulfills its function of supporting the narrative with psychedelic connective tissue between song performances. The songs are not presented in their original forms either, and are overlayed with sound effects and dialogue too. The short edit of “The End” that opens the album is the only real success of the album’s approach: the addition of whirling helicopter blades to music does little to undermine it (indeed, James Horner would do the same years later for Courage Under Fire), and the track contains only the music heard in the film, rather than the complete eleven-minute song.

Aside from the film version of “The End,” the soundtrack to Apocalypse Now is dire, perhaps the worst possible kind of release for score or song fans. The music works brilliantly in the film, but the album presentation is so flawed that it cannot be recommended to anyone but the most obsessive fans of the film. Buy the separate score album, a Doors greatest hits CD, and the film itself instead. But don’t seek out this album unless you want an audio book of the famous film, including intrusive dialogue and sound effects, and don’t mind that virtually none of Carmine Coppola’s eerie score or the songs from the movie can be clearly heard.

*

SimAnimals (Winifred Phillips)

Cover

The latest in a long and storied series of Sim games, SimAnimals places players in control of a forest rather than a city, but with all the requisite tools and gameplay mechanics still in place. Along for the expedition was composer Winifred Phillips, best known at the time for her contributions to God of War and fresh off a remarkably creative take on Speed Racer that remains sadly unavailable.

Phillips conjures up a unique soundscape for the forest, mixing the pastoral sound one would expect with jazzy colors straight out of Gershwin. As in the opening “Sim Animals Theme,” this style suggests a bustling ecosystem while lending a contemporary flair and upbeat tempo to the proceedings. Explored throughout the album in tracks like “Free Play” and the dazzling end credits suite, and anchored by strong rhythmic pianos and mallets, the sound is a delight.

As in Speed Racer, many of the tracks utilize sound effects as instruments, though in a much more ambient sense. Birdsong and running water wind throughout tracks like “Trailhead,” anchoring the sometimes urban music firmly in the forest. One could make the argument that the music would be stronger without these effects, but they’re generally subtle enough to be enjoyed or ignored as the listener prefers.

The music does at times depart from the strong style Phillips has defined for the title. Darker tracks such as “Danger Woods” and the first part of “Dry Gulch” take a more menacing tone — appropriate in the context of the game, but less effective as stand alone listens surrounded by lighter material. Luckily, these songs are a tiny minority of the music.

SimAnimals is by and large an intricate, delightful score. While the sound effects and darker passages may be off-putting to some, the pastoral jazz fusion that forms the majority of the music is involving and perfect for its setting, as evinced by its licensing to appear in several television commercials that seek to create just such an atmosphere. Phillips’ talent for creating interesting sounds and developing them in surprising ways has paid off with further work, including Spore Hero, the video game version of Legend of the Guardians, and even an Assassin’s Creed title, Assassin’s Creed: Liberation — all of which are well worth the time to seek out (and are widely available to purchase).

* * * * *