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Videogame metal

My recent review of Sigh’s latest album Graveward got me thinking. In it, I jokingly described the band’s music as “videogame metal” because its songwriting and blend of intricate guitar leads and synth melodies remind me of the songs featured in the games I loved in my youth. I’m certain one can still find those as kinds of songs in more modern games, of course. But as videogames’ budgets and cultural cachet grow ever bigger, it’s easier and easier for them to license previously recorded music from major-label artists, or recruit composers from the film world. At least in games from major studios, it seems I hear less and less of the cheesy, hair- and power-metal derived scores that used to be much more common.

I honestly think that’s a bit of shame. It’s not that the soundtracks I’m referring to were good, exactly. Many were no doubt the result of one or two overworked composers, using inferior MIDI instruments and completely ignoring notions of restraint or taste. But the best videogame metal tracks had charm in spite of their limitations: they were camp in the sense that they strived so hard to excite audiences, get them to rock out. They might have had numerous failings in terms of recording quality or songwriting, but in terms of being silly, goofy entertainment, they succeeded admirably.

I’ve compiled a few of my favourite hard-rocking tracks from 90s and oos videogames below. There’s no attempt to rank them in terms of which is “best”, or to argue that these selections are objectively better than any others. This is solely based on the game soundtracks I was feeling most nostalgic for at the time of writing.


Final Fantasy VII- Fight On!


I can fully recognise that it’s mainly nostalgia preserving my affection for Final Fantasy VII. So many of my childhood memories are tied up with memories of this game- my emotional investment in the plot, the immense satisfaction I felt when I finally felled Emerald and Ruby Weapon. (As you can probably tell, I did not go outside much.) And the game’s music is a huge aspect of that nostalgia. As a twelve year old, I didn’t care about the objectively poor quality of the synth instruments the badass boss music was performed on, it was the awesomest, most rocking riff I’d ever heard in a game. Even with the benefit of hindsight, I don’t care- the tinny, “videogamey” sound is all part of the charm.


Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne- Fierce Battle


Summer, 2005. My closest friends and I spent far too much of that golden season indoors with the curtains drawn, getting sucked into the dark, devilish world of Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne (or Lucifer’s Call, as it was subtitled in the UK). As we journeyed deeper into the game’s post-apocalyptic setting, where demons and surviving humans struggle to determine what kind of new world will arise from the ashes of the old, a strange ritual emerged among us. As soon as a boss battle started, and the Fierce Battle theme kicked in, a palpable excitement would overtake us. For the first twenty seconds, as the guitars, snare and keys built up, we would silently prepare ourselves for what was to come. Then, it would happen. The drums kicked in, signalling an infectiously boneheaded riff, and we would all headbang in unison, lost in the music. Often we wouldn’t even touch the controller for a good minute or two, rocking out for as long as we liked before trying to salvage the damage our inattention had wrought on our character’s party. I don’t think we ever did finish Nocturne’s story- its unforgiving difficulty meant we lost interest when school started again and we could no longer devote an entire afternoon to trying to best its various dungeons and dragons. But to this day, I still find myself humming the Fierce Battle music from time to time. If no one’s around, I might even headbang away, and suddenly feel like a teenager again.


Resident Evil 2- Scenario B Ending Theme


There are huge gaps in my videogame knowledge. My first Resident Evil game, for example, was RE4, which represented a high point for the series in terms of being fun to play, but somewhat neglected the original focus on creating a creepy horror-movie atmosphere. I’ve still yet to play the first three games on the original Playstation, but I recently came across this track from RE2, which plays after you complete a character’s alternate game scenario and see the game’s true ending. I can only imagine that after finishing two full playthroughs and fending off all manner of zombies and mutant fiends, hearing this bizarre 90s shit-rock classic defuses a lot of the tension built up over the course of the game. It’s completely incongruous with the game’s horror aesthetic; it’s like listening to Joe Satriani wail away over a preset “funk-rock”  loop from a Casio keyboard. But that’s why I love it. It’s not quite as majestic as the infamous version of the Mansion Basement theme found in the Dual Shock re-release of the first Resident Evil, but it’s pretty stirring all the same.


Final Fantasy X- Otherworld


It would be very easy to populate this list solely with songs from Final Fantasy games. Nobuo Uematsu, the composer chiefly responsible for most of the series’ music, has crafted a variety of fantastic songs in all manner of genres, but the best of them are often rockers like this one. My first exposure to Otherworld was the first time I’d heard a Final Fantasy song with vocals, and the first time where the production values and songwriting were pretty much the same as the “actual” songs I heard on rock radio. Certainly it comes off well compared to much of the crappy nu-metal that was on the airwaves at the time the game was released. Perhaps it’s held up because of how the game utilised the track. First being played as a giant monster destroys the protagonist’s hometown, it only returns at the very end, playing in one of the final boss fights with that same monster. Where it first heralds your helpless inability to stop the destruction being wrought around you, it comes to represent the strength your party has gained over their journey, their conviction to change things for the better. Or maybe it’s just a sweet riff, bro.


Guilty Gear X2- Everything


There is no videogame series more metal than Guilty Gear. That fact is largely down to the efforts of one man: Daisuke Ishiwatari, who designs all the of series’ characters and composes all its music. His enthusiasm for all things metal is evident not only in his soundtracks, but throughout the game’s story and lore: almost every character and special move references a band or song from the metal and rock canon. But the important thing is that every soundtrack he creates, Guilty Gear X2’s in particular, is chock full of cheesy goodness. I don’t even like the neoclassical, symphonic and power metal subgenres that the game tends to borrow most heavily from, but somehow when those musical tropes are welded to an utterly ridiculous fighting game they become infectious, campy fun. It’s too difficult for me to cull a single favourite from the soundtrack, so I present the whole lot for your perusal. I guarantee there is at least one jam in here that will make you want to cut your hair into a mullet, dress up like a dayglo anime nightmare and fling snooker balls, yo-yos and giant whales at your opponents.


And now, dear readers, I open up the floor to you. What are some of your favourite examples of the fine art of ridiculous, over-the-top videogame metal? Share your links and descriptions in the comments, or send a tweet to @analgender if that’s your bag. 

Late night thoughts on black metal (Storify link)

I was honoured and slightly bewildered recently when, out of the blue, a couple of dudes approached me online asking me to participate in an upcoming symposium on black metal in Dublin, called “Colouring the Black”. Not just to attend, you understand, but to present a talk on the subject of black metal, based on the perceived strengths of this blog (which honestly I still struggle to see, a lot of the time).

I felt supremely unequipped to do this, to put it mildly. “I only started listening to this shit in 2009”, I felt like saying. “I’m the least kvlt person imaginable. I haven’t worn all black in literally years. What are you thinking?” Nevertheless, the organisers assured me they appreciated my posts here, and were looking for people to give the kind of insights I attempt to articulate. People who love the extremity of this music, but are willing to engage critically with the aspects of it they don’t like. The devotion to traditional genre signifiers that can act as an impediment to innovation. Elitist ideologies that spurn perceived outsiders and seek to exclude them from bands or audiences. The kind of low-key reactionary thought that gets more upset about people trying to make a safe space for people not traditionally represented in black metal, than the fact that far-right and white supremacist groups and fans have had that safe space more or less since the beginning.

After weeks of consideration, I eventually decided against giving a talk there. Even if the organisers think I have something to say about black metal that’s worth feeling, I still feel like a neophyte, a moderately-informed outsider at best. Surely, I thought, someone far more knowledgeable and articulate and insightful about this than me will make the points I want to make, better than I could have hoped to, and then I’ll have to go on after them and look like an absolute shitheap in comparison.

There are still things I think and feel about the music, though, that I feel might be worth sharing. A few nights ago I hammered out some thoughts on the subject via Twitter, and to my surprise the organisers of Colouring the Black asked if they might include these in a collection of writings associated with the event. To make things more convenient I’ve Storified the tweets in question, and have put a link to them in this post. Hopefully, they engender discussion and reflection, and form a small contribution to the symposium itself.

Read “Late night thoughts on black metal” here.

Colouring the Black: A Black Metal Theory Symposium will be held on Friday the 20th March at GalleryX in Dublin. Facebook page for the event is here.


Some links to start the year off

I thought I’d ease into the New Year by sharing a couple of links to recent pieces on the current state of metal, and its subculture, that I found interesting and thought-provoking. Without further ado, here they are, along with some short discussions of my main takeaway from each piece.

Deconstructing: Alcest’s Shelter And Metal In A Post-Deafheaven World by Michael Nelson at Stereogum

I appreciate that many readers are probably sick of reading about Deafheaven, Alcest, and the wider blackgaze trend, at this stage. But there’s a lot of good points in this article about the place of those bands within the context of black metal history, as well as the self-reflective tendency of metal, especially black metal. It also finds room to consider the difficulties of effectively marketing bands like Alcest, who have historical ties to metal culture but don’t really exhibit those influences in their sound any more. That association with metal can place bands in a kind of limbo, where mainstream publications group them with “extreme”-sounding bands (if they even pay attention to them at all), limiting their exposure to non-metal fans who might appreciate their sound in of itself. Heavy metal review outlets are then left to pick up the slack, discussing something that falls outside their usual sonic parameters.

Of course, this situation isn’t necessarily a bad thing, or destined to limit bands’ success and exposure. Deafheaven, after all, were the crossover hit of 2013, with rapturous mainstream attention for Sunbather and review scores averaging higher than any of the year’s other big-name, big-hype releases. It might be that this represents a watershed moment, where metal-inspired music reaches new heights of critical approval and wide exposure. In any case, it seems likely that 2013 was the year things changed for extreme music. I can’t wait to see how things develop in the coming months.

The Best Metal Albums of 2013: Introduction by Adrian Bergland at Basement Galaxy

This piece, quoted in the Stereogum article above, similarly approaches 2013 as a watershed moment, though Bergland is somewhat more equivocal than Nelson in his opinion on the state of metal. I disagree with a number of his positions, not least his critical stance on Deafheaven and the idea that the necessary quality of metal’s sound is “power”, rather than extremity. (Regardless of one’s opinion on Sunbather, it is absolutely an “extreme” album in its sonic contrasts and the emotional heights it reaches. Whether this makes it metal is of course another story.)

But Bergland’s contention that metal has, on the whole, ceased to really innovate as a genre is certainly one I can broadly agree to. In a simile I feel is cannily accurate, he states that metal today is essentially “a musical genre like the blues, like country, one that has a good niche set for itself and is still capable of thrilling music, but is essentially a relic. There is plenty of creativity on display within the confines of those genre boundaries, but the days of true innovation, recordings that irrevocably alter the genre, seem over.” This informs his opinion of Sunbather as the album where “extreme music” severs any ties from metal genre signifiers, frees itself to explore uncharted territory. Of course, this lack of real innovation doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy metal any more. It’s just that we might have to stop expecting a game-changing new direction from music operating primarily within the heavy metal genre, and simply enjoy the product that continues to be made for what it is- variations on a well-established theme.


Metallic Grotesquerie: Sequel Interstitial (Between-quel?) by Bayou Horns at Post-Zeitgeist

Anyone who’s read my series of articles on metal, patriarchy, misogyny and other related themes knows that I owe a great deal to the Post-Zeitgeist blog. Its author Bayou Horns consistently approaches the genre with an in-depth, critical eye and in the process illuminates aspects of it that might not be immediately obvious. In particular, previous posts at the site dealing with metal’s relationship with shock and misogyny have been invaluable to my own work here at shamelessnavelgazing.

Post-Zeitgeist had unfortunately been quiet in recent months, owing to its author’s external commitments, but this piece from late November picks up pretty much where earlier discussions of grotesquerie and misogyny in metal had left off. Bayou Horns takes as his starting point the posting of a particularly grotesque album cover on the MetalSucks site, and its subsequent criticism and defence in the comments section. This allows for a deconstruction of the various arguments you often hear in defence of such artwork from metalheads (“Freedom of speech!” “Satire/subversion!” “Genre trope!” ad nauseum), which are ultimately revealed as essentially hollow inanities. In their place, Bayou Horns offers a considered critique of the use of grotesquerie in metal, and how the subversive potential of these topics is often squandered by bands content to rehash once-shocking ideas and presentations. This isn’t exactly a new subject for the blog, but it’s always enlightening for me, at least, to read the site’s take on these subjects. I sincerely hope Bayou Horns can find the time and energy to update semi-regularly this year, and provide us all with more reflective, thought-provoking pieces such as this.

(These earlier Post-Zeitgeist pieces, which I have quoted in my previous work, may help add some helpful context to the most recent link. Death Metal: Grotesquerie, Fetish and Misogyny is the preceding article to the piece above; Extremity in Metal: a Buddhist’s Perspective sums up a lot of my feelings on the current limits of extreme metal, and how a considered, reflective approach could allow for this music to reach new heights.)