Tag Archives: videogames

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. 

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Sigh- Graveward

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I recently came across a Youtube video that helped me to articulate why it is that, ten years after its release, Metal Gear Solid 3 is still one of my favourite videogames ever, not just because it’s fun to play but because of its story and how it’s told. In it, the host explains how the game is a great example of camp entertainment, which earnestly attempts to convey an emotionally complex narrative and provoke thought about political questions, but also embraces the conventions of cheesy 60s spy flicks, and pits you against a man who shoots bees out of his mouth. It avoids the sometimes po-faced air of its predecessors, but the realistic and the ridiculous aspects are both presented equally straight-faced. We go in expecting mindless fun, and we get that in spades, but the game’s emotional moments are also more affecting because of the contrast with its sillier moments, and especially because the latter are treated with the same care, attention and seriousness as the former, not just tossed off as little “aren’t we clever” jokes.

What does all this have to do with veteran avant-garde metallers Sigh, then? Just like MGS3, the band’s music works as camp entertainment that is still genuinely enjoyable. They’re not deliberately trying to make you laugh with their over-the-top symphonic arrangements, or think “what the fuck is this?” when they take a bizarre detour into some unexpected genre, but for all their technical skill and conviction, their latest album Graveward does all of those things. Like other great metal bands, though, the camp factor is not a drawback, but a virtue. Whether you can take it seriously or not, the album sweeps you along for a ride that combines all the extremity of death and black metal with a strong melodic centre*. For all the occasionally comical vocal deliveries, its thematic obsession with death and the terror it inspires draws the listener in to actually listen to the lyrics and consider what they mean. For someone like me, who generally focuses more on metal’s wicked sick riffs than its often unintelligible vocals, that’s no mean feat. I would argue that, similarly to MGS3, Sigh use camp not to make audiences laugh, but to disarm their expectations about what heavy metal is and should sound like, so that the emotional and thematic content they want to convey has more of an impact.

Of course, labelling this music “camp” carries the implication of incompetence on some level, which is neither fair nor accurate. Sigh have always been tremendously skilled musicians, and ringleader Mirai Kawashima in particular has a gift for composition that few in extreme metal can match. I normally can’t stand power metal or the symphonic end of black metal at all, and yet when Sigh fold these influences into their sound it’s somehow irresistible. It’s not that the band make these touchstones sound less cheesy or ridiculous- they still are those things, they’re just welded to such strong melodies that they sound exuberant rather than pompous or laboured. Across the album Kawashima crafts songs that take you on a journey from dizzying symphonic highs to quiet, contemplative lows, the latter giving you space to breathe and prepare for the next burst of activity. The bridge halfway through the title track is a great example, building up from soft, spooky synths and somehow making subtle use of double-bass drumming before guitars come in to drag us back into the fray.

Speaking of guitars, special mention should be made of recent recruit You Oshima. Any wariness fans might have felt about some upstart replacing founding guitarist Shinichi Ishikawa has thankfully been proven unnecessary; Oshima fits perfectly into the Sigh milieu. From the very start of opener “Kaedit Non Pestis”, his shredding ability is on full display, and he proves equally adept at the melodic leads and chunky riffs littering every track, branching out beyond archetypal metal guitar sounds with a variety of tones to keep things fresh. More important than mere ability, however, is that he plays like he’s on a Sigh album, serving the needs of the song as opposed to just showing off. It’ll be interesting to see how his role in the band develops on future albums, but he’s definitely off to an assured start here.

Regardless of the band’s enviable pool of talent, Sigh has always been Mirai Kawashima’s baby: like any good bandleader, he knows how to make best use of his players, but the group’s vision is unquestionably his own. And what a gloomy vision it is. Sigh albums have long been fixated on death, but beginning with its title, Graveward seems especially so. If metal subgenres were defined by lyrical focus rather than increasingly rigid sonic identifiers, his work would be death metal through and through, and far more evocative of the terror of dying than a thousand gore-obsessed tryhards. Which is not to suggest that he treats the subject with more subtlety than others. “The Forlorn” is an especially morbid tale, with the narrator’s increasingly panicked proclamations that “I am not dead” attempting to deny an obvious truth as much as convince those around him. The track’s howls, wails and sobs are only the hammiest of many hammy vocal deliveries, and yet this camp treatment of the subject is, again, more affecting than death metal clichés of zombies, dismemberment or full-scale armageddon. The theatrics might suggest that we’re in parody territory, but this first-person horror is delivered without irony, no wink to the audience; the juxtaposition of seriousness and silliness is what makes it work so well. And while it might be Kawashima’s show, he’s not the only voice on display. Across the album, he’s offset by an increased use of vocalist/saxophonist Dr Mikannibal’s quasi-operatic singing, handling the high notes while he growls away. Her delivery might be something of an acquired taste, but it certainly fits the orchestral surroundings, and helps contrast Kawashima’s somewhat more typically metal vocals.

In terms of pacing, the album is a noticeable improvement on 2012’s In Somniphobia. That album featured a couple of the most concise and exciting songs of the band’s entire career, but was somewhat dragged down by a seven-song suite that, for all its strengths, got somewhat exhausting by the end of its 40-plus minutes. Graveward is lean by comparison, with most songs staying just over or under five minutes and only one exceeding seven. The sprawl is reduced, but not the scope- there’s still a lot going on in those shorter running times, with the same amount of bombast and excess as Somniphobia compressed into a more immediate form. Rather than stacking fast-paced thrashers one after the other, the pacing is more deliberate, with slower, moodier pieces and transitions to let us catch our breath before something like “Out of the Grave” takes it away again. The aforementioned breathing space in each song is represented on a macro as well as a micro level; the flow from song to song is reflected within the songs themselves. (The only real pacing issue, and the  only place Graveward fails compared to its predecessor is the abrupt ending to final track “Dwellers in Dreams”, which closes the affair not with a bang or a whimper, but a confused “huh?”)

Every review of Graveward I’ve seen has commented on its idiosyncratic production, and it seems important to do so here as well, since it does have the potential to affect your enjoyment quite a lot depending on how much it distracts you. There’s more dynamic range on display than a metal listener might be used to when the current emphasis seems to be on making everything as loud as possible. That seems like it should be a good thing, but at times it sounds as though the volume levels on different instruments are being mixed more or less at random, and the many, many layers of synths sometimes threaten to drown out everything else. There’a a wealth of musical riches to be found here, but they might not be evident on the first, second or third listen while you acclimatise yourself to the aural landscape.

If you’re not already a fan of the band’s funhouse-mirror version of extreme metal, Graveward is not going to be the album to change your mind, particularly if the production puts you off. For those of us strangely drawn to the camp, theatrical musical world they create though, all of that is what makes them so compelling. For better or worse, no one else sounds like Sigh.

Graveward is out now on Candlelight Records. Watch the video for “Out of the Grave” below.

 

                           

* After struggling for a while to come up with an appropriate description for Sigh’s particular microgenre, I’ve ending up settling on “videogame metal”. Since bringing more and more outre elements into their original, traditionally black metal sound with every album, they now recall nothing more than the soundtrack to a Final Fantasy game from an alternate universe where that series hasn’t descended into self-parody.