List · Underrated Video Game Soundtracks

5 Underrated Game Soundtracks, as selected by Brevyn

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Pictured: Sound Shapes

Criteria: Video game music with little exposure or no release outside the game.

After editing down my behemoth draft for what felt like forever, I have my own VGM list! As I’ve known most of these for 5+ years, doing my own list proved challenging, but I tried. See the entries from my friends Marilyn Roxie and Jan if you haven’t yet!

5. Various – Sound Shapes,2012

Sound Shapes is a unique PS3 platformer where music is crucial. Finding coins adds new notes and rhythms to what you hear. Visit the level editor to see they’ve merged a sequencer with the side-scrolling grid.

With cute, colorful designs and no plot, SS is a calming experience. The songs match this with an organic downtempo sound. They form simple melody-loops  through synths, e-piano, mallets and other clear-cut sounds. These are refreshing, simple songs with a wide appeal. They could open the gate to enjoying EM for outside listeners and kids. SS makes both music and level design easy to grasp.

In the end, only Jim Guthrie’s Corporeal songs had their own release. I found this odd; what’s a musical game with no full soundtrack? I’d love full versions for Robot And Proud songs like “Aquatica”, similar as his other work gets. As time flies, the SS hype fades and a sequel looks doubtful. A true shame; the PS4 holds so much potential for their concept.

4. Jack Hall – Neopets: The Darkest Faerie, 2005

Yes, Neopets had a video game, and even it had good music. The Darkest Faerie’s sound is pure new age fantasy; flutes and celtic harp twinkle in every corner. Battle themes aside, Hall fills the game with a strong sense of travel and enchanted feather-light ambience. Many songs ramble as a result, but his themes for known Neopets lands are clear peaks. “Meridell” takes every tone a medieval town needs; proud, tender, casual, a tad lonely. “Faerieland” is what you expect; cloudy new age bliss dipped in choir and rosy flute. Both songs recall Enya’s hits to charming effect. A moment I love is that sad little harp heard in the plains.

While I can’t say ‘play all 101 songs together!’ I can direct you to my playlist of favorites.

3. Spencer Nilsen – Ecco The Dolphin Sega CD, 1993

Oh, Ecco. I didn’t have to play the actual game to admire him. How? Hearing the Sega CD music. The SCD added CD audio to the Genesis, making this live VGM pre-Nintendo 64. The result? A rich, gorgeous new age score with all the right Vangelis-isms. Flutes, mallets, piercing drums, synth shimmers; you name it. You say “Aquatic Ambience” is close as early VGM gets to ambient? Hear “Medusa Bay”. ‘New age about dolphins’ won’t prepare you for something so grim. I’d say the same for the rest, since Nilsen builds it around the high stakes in Ecco’s quest to save his stolen pod. It’s a sad story once you look past the weirdness that aliens took them.

The synths merge space with water perfectly. Their cries and warbles reflect both alien threats and the ocean’s mystery. Familiar as dolphins are, the lack of humans added to the game’s alien aura. Said ‘warbling’ evokes pure water yet shifts pitch like a horde of popping bubbles. It’s vulnerable, it’s flexible, it improves any song. One of the best synth sounds I know.

I didn’t need five “Machine” reprises, but skipping a few makes this a solid album. As VGM it’s truly unique for its time. Hear this if you’re a Tangerine Dream and/or Vangelis fan. “Saint Gabriel’s Mask” from the sequel is unmissable too.

2. Julian Soule – Pajama Sam 2: Thunder And Lightning Aren’t So Frightening, 1998

Before point-and-click fell from grace, Humongous Ent. won many awards. Pajama Sam 2 was my favorite. Why? The unique setting: a weather factory in the clouds. At World Wide Weather, talking chairs and living machines plan the weather.

Julian Soule’s music completes this easygoing sky-world. Not Jeremy Soule famed for Skyrim, but his brother! (Though he made great HE songs elsewhere…) His lively tap-along rhythms and piano chords are a great fit for the factory’s constant motion. A key trait is the sax peering through that motion. Not the usual bold, beefy saxo we know; this one is utopian, almost dreamlike. Someone make sky-jazz happen, please.

To contrast, the offices play it cooler with a lounge accent. The piano softens, joining warm bass to form some of HE’s most relaxing songs. Now I know how I got my knack for easy listening.

I know HE is too niche for a music release, but I hoped for more interest post-vaporwave. After all, the popular Hologram Plaza sampled this game.

1. Kevin Manthei – Nancy Drew: Stay Tuned For Danger, 1999

With such a wide range, ND’s music could fit many lists. I can’t choose from 30+ soundtracks, but I know STFD’s belongs in my top 5. As the second-ever ND, STFD has many off-putting quirks. Awkward pacing, hammy acting… but the music is a thrilling neo-noir oddity by itself. Noticing it’s depths helped me find more respect for the game.

The intrigue lies in how it portrays NY at night. The persistent gloom is a early-ND quirk. Where the first game had murder, this had death threats. Kevin’s strength for domestic yet secretive piano stays, but a jazz accent takes hold. Plucked strings, vibraphone, flute and double bass create a discreet, sinister aura. Themes like “Dwayne Night” and “Ext Night” dive you into the slow tension of trespassing. Empty parking lots and offices filled my mind. They stress the city’s size so well despite lasting under a minute. The ’99 PC dust only adds to the effect.

Main theme “STFD” perfectly crosses the NYC glamor with a more sensitive mood. Here, the ritzy trumpet meets the Early Nancy Piano at it’s fragile, wistful finest. I guess Manthei meant this to mirror the game’s soap opera theme, but it always sounded extra sad to me.

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Guest post · List · Underrated Video Game Soundtracks

5 Underrated Game Soundtracks, as selected by Jan

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Pictured: Riven: The Sequel To Myst

Following Marilyn Roxie’s entry, I’ve sorted out another guest entry for this topic from my friend Jan, who wrote the Genre Primers: Ethereal Wave post. My own list is on the way.

This list is hardly complete of course, as there are dozens of soundtracks I could mention. I’m not the kind of person who plays games so much they know which titles are underrated or not. Still, the VGM canon gets pretty limited. When you think of VGM you think Final Fantasy, Earthbound, Minecraft or Pokemon, but there’s plenty of space for titles like these, many somewhat well-known but not so much in the VGM canon.

This list includes soundtracks that should be heard closer outside of the gaming context, as they actually hold their own as a separate medium.

Ben Houge – Arcanum – Of Steamworks And Magick Obscura

Arcanum is a fascinating game that blends the steampunk of industrial revolution in a fictional world with fantasy elements. Not only you visit Victorian-like cities, but also traverse a magical Elven forest, investigate a lost civilation’s ruins, and do many quests, which are some of the finest quests in any video game in my opinion. The game is like a wet dream of a Victorian writer who was really into fantasy, but wanted to find a way to implement fantasy into the real world.

But enough of that, the music is magnificent here. The composer, Ben Houge, takes influences from romantic and modern classical composers and turns them into a modern masterpiece of string quartet music. Melancholic, at times brooding, sometimes quite epic. For those interested, Houge has a website where he lists all the inspirations for this music, in addition to providing all the sheet music. Arcanum is available on GOG.COM and Steam.

Pierre Estève & Stéphane Picq – Atlantis: The Lost Tales

Atlantis is a new agey game full of great adventure and a beautiful story, and the soundtrack reflects that. It’s really a great journey altogether; if I had more space on this list, I would include the other two soundtracks. They might be not as unique as this one, but they’re great as well. Recommended for every new age fan, trust me, you won’t regret it. The game itself is available on GOG.COM.

Mark Morgan – Planescape: Torment

Planescape is one of the most interesting settings in roleplay gaming. The unusual feel of an ancient civilization mixed with low sci-fi was more than sufficient for the game’s deep story. The composer was working on music for Fallout and Fallout 2 before, although those are rather popular so I am not including them here.

The music for Torment is uplifting, yet brooding and soul-wrecking at times. It doesn’t give you hope in a weird world per se, but gives you reason to live there. Planescape: Torment – Enhanced Edition is available on GOG.COM and Steam.

Robyn Miller – Riven: The Sequel To Myst

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Playlist

Ah, Myst. The game that stormed the sales, the game that (possibly) started the whole adventure game craze. Riven is the better game, and you might guess the new age-tinged ambient soundtrack is better than the first installment’s music too. It’s a difficult game full of weird riddles, but I recommend it to everyone who wants an otherworldly experience. If you took out the music it probably wouldn’t be the same.

Rik Schaffer – Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines

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Playlist

V:tMB is a textbook example of a cult game with a Cinderella story: rushed at launch, messy and buggy in it’s first few months, then almost forgotten because of the studio’s downfall… Yet thanks to fan patches a devoted fanbase, Bloodlines is regarded as one of the best RPGs of all time today.

I don’t think many have paid attention to the awesome music; it’s an excellent mix of gothic and trip hop sounds. The original music is a great slice of dark trip hop that could put you in a good mood while going through Los Angeles, and the licensed tracks from goth artists like Ministry or Lacuna Coil are a great change of pace. Vampire: The Masquearde – Bloodlines is available on GOG.COM and Steam, but install the Unofficial Patch before playing!

Listen to Jan’s music (including a great “Song To The Siren” cover!) here.

 

 

Guest post · List · Underrated Video Game Soundtracks

5 Underrated Game Soundtracks, as selected by Marilyn Roxie

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Pictured: Viridi

For this post I’ve enlisted musician, Vulpiano Records founder and Rate Your Music/Sonemic social manager Marilyn Roxie. As you’d expect, Marilyn’s has a flexible taste that includes both leftfield electronic experiments and kitschy sixties pop, so I’m sure this won’t be their only post for MAM.

Knowing their roots in playing Nintendo 64, I asked Marilyn to list some favorite video game OSTs with lower exposure and/or undeserved obscurity. Being a fellow VGM fan, I know I’ve had my share of examples. I haven’t gotten to the writing yet, but I plan to post my own top 5 in the near-future as well.

Norio HanzawaYuke Yuke!! Trouble Makers Original Soundtrack (Mischief Makers)

The game (also known as Mischief Makers) is a cult 2D platformer for the Nintendo 64 and a childhood favorite of mine. It holds up as challenging and unique to this day. I think the soundtrack gets overlooked by those who haven’t played the game and decide to dip into it for one big reason: it starts with orchestral versions of a couple of the game’s tracks (“Esperance” and “Adieux”) very different to the rest. If you don’t dig such grandiose sounds, you may not go on, and you’ll miss out on some incredible music.

This reminds me most of Stewart Copeland’s soundtrack The Equalizer & Other Cliff Hangers (Spotify); they share a frantic, robotic energy crossed with quirkiness. Even the textures are similar.. The music does a fantastic job of evoking and enhancing the game’s futuristic atmosphere; “Mischief Makers is the story of Professor Theo, a space-travelling Mad Scientist, and Marina Liteyears, his robot creation and assistant, marooned on the strange planet of Clancer. Agents of a mysterious “empire” kidnap the Professor for unknown reasons, and it’s up to Marina to rescue him.“ (TV Tropes) However, you don’t need to play the game to appreciate the industrial thumping of “Volcanic” and the creepy “Obakesong” (a bit of a departure from the usual sound), and lots more. Highly recommended.

Tatsuhiko Asano –  In the Wake of Doshin, the Giant

This is a case of a great OST for a game that I actually haven’t played yet. Doshin the Giant was a Japan and Europe-only ‘god game’, where you play “Doshin…an embodiment of the sun, a giant who oversees the inhabitants on Barudo Island, a tropical paradise not found on any maps. The player is given a choice of helping the inhabitants expand their villages and found new ones as Doshin, the love giant; or they can also become the hate giant, Jashin, and rain down death and destruction.” (TV Tropes)

I wound up listening because a Vinesauce video used “Paradise Zone” was as background music. The OST is chock-full of the tropical chill-out you’d expect from the premise. At turns soothing or more free-wheeling and veering into colorful exotica territory, Asano stirs up a great range of emotions throughout. “The Island Of Memory” is my personal favorite. A stunning and sweet OST that makes me want to play the game.

VariousGanbare Goemon ~Neo Momoyama / Mystical Ninja: Starring Goemon

Mystical Ninja: Starring Goemon is another N64 game that sometimes falls by the wayside, though it has gotten much more attention than Mischief Makers due to it’s part in a long-running series and an English-localized sequel (Goemon’s Great Adventure).

This one may start on an awkward note for someone who hasn’t played the game, with a wacky vocal theme song (a rarity for N64 titles). What you get in the bulk of the soundtrack are several tunes inspired by Japanese traditional music, inflected with a touch of surrealism and electronic weirdness when appropriate, fitting the setting of the game: “The story follows Goemon’s struggles to prevent the Peach Mountain Shoguns gang from turning Japan into a Westernized fine arts theater.” (Wikipedia; really, I’m amazed this was translated into English at all).

As a bonus, Mystical Ninja included playback of game tracks on its menu screen, meaning that as a kid I would just sit there with “Theme of the Fortune Teller Plasma Man” or “Theme of The Flake Gang Weirdos Baron Colon Sharon An” blaring out of the TV for as long as I liked. There are also a number of tracks with ambient nature sounds (such as “Ambient Kii Awaji Island”, with water, wind, and bird calls) that help make this a unique OST for an N64 platformer.

Michael BellViridi OST

Viridi (available on Steam) is a calming life sim game where you grow and care for beautiful succulent plants. Full of soft keyboards and chimes, each music track blends into the next and form a totality of cute, delicate melodies that mesh perfectly with the game’s theme. “Cucurbita” is my fave.

Ghost Monkey Rebound

Zen Bound 2 (available on Steam) is a relaxing puzzle game requiring the player to use string of a limited length to wrap differently shaped objects to the best of their ability. The music by Ghost Monkey is far from obtrusive, merging seamlessly with the game with it’s downtempo rhythms and organic effects that emulate tumbling rocks, falling water, or rapping on wood. “Unpaint My Skin” is the stand-out for me.

For more of Marilyn’s intriguing music lists, see their Rate Your Music profile.

List

8 (more) interesting lesser-known instruments

To continue from my 6 interesting lesser-known instruments list from a couple of years ago, here are 8 more!

1. Laser harp

Laser harp must be one of the most unusual and far-out electronic instruments. It’s played by moving one’s hands over bright laser-shaped lights to trigger MIDI commands; protective glasses and gloves are required to play it. Jean-Michel Jarre is known to use it in most of his concerts post-1981. (Clip)

2. Fairground organ

Fairground organ (or band organ) is an automatic mechanical organ that plays songs from music rolls, which is paper with holes punched in specific spots to indicate the music’s notation, similar to a player piano. They most often provide music for carousels.

They imitate a full band in addition to the lead organ – together with the music rolls, this makes it comparable to MIDI keyboards’ capacity to emulate other instruments. In fact, many modern fairground organs use a MIDI interface instead! (Clip)

3. Qanun

Qanun is a Middle Eastern zither instrument with a somewhat haunting tone and a total of 78 (!!!) strings. (Clip)

4. Hammered dulcimer

Hammered dulcimer is a percussive string instrument played by hitting the strings with mallets; the resulting sound is often sinister and medieval. (Clip)

5. Marxophone

Marxophone is a fretless zither with similarities to piano and hammered dulcimer. The player presses the small grey levers to make them rapidly strike the strings. (Clip)

6. Tonbak

Tonbak is a prominent drum in Persian music. It can be played through direct full-handed hits, knocks, hitting the sides or edges and rapid finger-tapping. (Clip)

7. Clavichord

Clavichord is a European keyboard similar to harpsichord and closely predating the clavinet. (Clip)

8. Daff

daf

Daff is a large Middle Eastern frame drum capable of very intense rhythms. It’s played with one hand holding it and another hitting it both on the rims and at the center. (Clip)

List · Year-end

My Top Albums/EPs of 2018

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I’m pleased to report that I found quite a few enjoyable new releases this year.

It’s hard to have a ‘definitive’ outlook as there remains so much for me to catch up with, but here are the highlights from what I’ve heard so far.

(To keep things from getting redundant here, my 2018 halfway list’s honorable mentions won’t be featured here. Read that list here if you’re curious about them.)

Top 8 Albums

8. Steve Hauschildt – Dissolvi

ambient techno / progressive electronic / ambient

Hauschildt is known for his role in the defunct drone/ambient group Emeralds. I’m yet to ‘get’ the appeal of Emeralds, but I’ve enjoyed a great deal of songs from Steve’s solo career, which veered away from his droney roots into more melodic territory. Dissolvi is more transparent/airy in texture than his last few albums, and often less inconsistent. This is great knowing how one of my main issues with his other albums was the lack of consistency. There’s a mild techno element here through the subtle use of rhythms, which gives the songs an interesting aquatic pulse.

Dissolvi may be my favorite album of his besides the popular Tragedy And Geometry from 2011. While some songs loop or repeat too much, most of them have plenty of evolving layers to keep this a fluid and hypnotizing listen. This is most apparent on the 7-minute “Alienself”, which goes on about 1-1.5 minutes too long but also contains some of Dissolvi’s most impressive textures and atmosphere. Also notable is the title song, by far the most rhythmic and tense but retaining some needed subtlety through soft synth hums. A promising step up.

Listen to “Lyngr”

7. Tess Roby – Beacon

art pop / gothic / synth pop / dream pop

Balancing folksy vocals, synths and Durutti-like guitar, Tess Roby is like a lost 4AD/This Mortal Coil collaborator. It’s not the most surprising she’s on Italians Do It Better, but at the same time it’s a bit different from what I expect from the label. These songs are moody and elusive, with a semi-gothic tone save for one or two more tender moments like “Ballad 5”. They drift along subtly, but not without shifts in tone or instrumentation. At eight songs long it ends pretty quick but at the same time this keeps it digestible and interesting. My favorite has to be the sinister folk/synth combination of “Borders”.

Listen to “Borders”

6. Noname – Room 25

jazz rap / hip hop / neo-soul

Noname is someone I’ve been meaning to listen to for some time now. And my first thought, of course, is ‘why didn’t I listen to this sooner?’ Room 25 is full of blissful jazz groove, even subtler in execution than the likes of Nujabes and Digable Planets (check this out if you like either one). The excellent live band she assembled for the album enhances this effect with it’s free-flowing style, one that tends to disobey common verse-chorus structure. The smooth keyboards (piano, e-piano) and Noname’s own unique delivery are sure to lull you into a peaceful daze.

I do think Noname tends to mutter a little too much, which can obscure the lyrics, but she has a great flow that blends in very well with the music. She includes plenty of guests and sung sections for these songs, but they don’t disrupt the album’s flow. They’re fitting and natural rather than thrown-in. One great example of this is the way “no name” begins with one brief rap verse before 2.5 whole minutes of singing. If someone else tried that, it could’ve wound up boring, but this may be the loveliest moment on an already rich album. ‘Your life is your life / Don’t let it pass you by’, the voices repeat over strings and piano until it (and thus the album) ends. I’ll be very interested in Noname’s next move.

Listen to “no name”

5. Music House/Various – Scandi Disco

electro-disco / synth pop / electropop / synthwave

‘If you’re bored of the sheer quantity of 80s retro music out there, maybe don’t listen to this. But if you’re like me and love this music enough to still give the continuous new releases a chance, I recommend this recent library album. I enjoyed almost every song on this one, a bit surprising seeing how there’s no hype at all surrounding it. I found it only because I was looking through other, older releases by this label, Music House, and this happened to be their most recent album. Everything about this album is shiny, stylish and fun with plenty of energy and melody. The production is impressive as expected from a stock music label, and while it has a prominent modern polish they tap into the huge potential and legacy of electro-disco very well.’

Listen to “I Can Feel The Fire”

4. Reni Jusis – Ćma

dance-pop / electropop

If you’ve followed me for long enough you may know I’ve become a big fan of this semi-obscure Polish singer/producer. However, her ’16 album BANG! was a let-down. It hopped on all of the worst mid-10’s mechanical bass-drop trends I hoped she would evade. I sighed and moved on. But that’s when a single (“Tyyyle Milosci”) popped up in May. A GOOD one, too, a reflective ballad-like song lacking BANG!’s pitfalls. A great surprise, but I didn’t know what to expect from an album. The following press release claims the album is Reni’s return to dance music after the ‘experiment’ of BANG!

And like I hoped, the album is much more uptempo than BANG!. Shimmering pop anthems, hypnotic melodies, and of course, the abundant synths are all here. All kinds of pleasant textures pop up, forming some great transitions and grooves. Even in more ‘experimental’ moments (e.g. “Ćma”’s dizzy end cool-down; tracks #6 and #9) there’s the kind of spacey atmospheric touches that popped up in her 2000’s heyday. It would’ve been fine if she didn’t bring that part back. I thought it was too much to ask for – but there it is!

Ćma has plenty of flaws. A few songs are inconsistent, the huge repetition lowers replay value, and her delivery gets bombastic at times. Many areas would benefit from some tweaking. But I finished Ćma feeling relieved. She did come through with some jams, and she revived the sound she does best. It’s a big step up from BANG!, and for that I’m grateful. I recommend this to anyone looking for good modern electro-pop this year.

Listen to “To Tylko Podróż”

3. U.S. Girls – In A Poem Unlimited

art pop / psychedelic pop

As I wrote in the 2018 halfway list:

While I did find the previous U.S. Girls album Half Free a bit inconsistent, In A Poem Unlimited feels like a step up. There were only about 2 or 3 tracks that I didn’t enjoy here. The album has a warm semi-70s feel thanks to the band put together for it. There’s also a sense of eclecticism that’s executed better than on a lot of other albums with similar ambitions. The voice of Meg Remy, the one true ‘member’ of U.S. Girls, can be quite twangy and takes a bit of getting used to at first, but it’s somewhat grown on me since then, and it got some time to shine here. This is most often when she does a kind of nervous falsetto like in two of my favorites, “Rosebud” and “L-Over”. While the many styles that Remy explores here aren’t much new (70s funk, jazzy rock, general quivering psych weirdness, a bit of synth pop), the variation of it all and the will to experiment helps keep things interesting, and most of them evade the boring cliches that tend to pop up in so much music lately.

Listen to “Rosebud”

½. Suiyoubi No Campanella – Galapagos

j-pop / electronic / art pop / downtempo

Cult J-pop group Suiyobi no Campanella released this ‘EP’ in June, though I don’t get why it’s considered an EP, since it’s the length of an album. It did receive some deserved acclaim upon release but since then, I’ve heard little about it – seems it didn’t stick. I’m wondering if the promotion as a mere ‘EP’ is part of it – were they wanting to keep a lower profile for this? If so, why, when it’s this elaborate?

The first thing I noticed was how much these songs morph and change, often in unexpected ways. “Bamboo Princess” sets the scene. It begins wistful and hushed but soon evolves into a thrilling chorus of strings and horns. The song also seems to reference an ancient Japanese folk tale. “Matryoshka” relaxed mallet groove mutates and evolves many times through it’s duration. Despite all this, the last two songs calm things down. “A Cat Called Yellow” is a gorgeous end to the album that sounds like both a farewell and a lullaby, covered in this blanket of thoughtful ambience.

Matching the creative song structures is a wide-ranging palette of sounds. There’s percussion, sampling, aquatic keyboards, mallets, clean guitar, synth bells, some kind of keening violin (“Bamboo Princess”) and even hang (a recent creation similar to the steel drum). It’s cold and tropical all at once. Listening is like dipping into the water at a beach resort, watching all these colors blur into the water.

Galapagos has some of the most impressive production I’ve heard all year. These are more tapestries than songs, and I mean that in the best way possible. This album is an ideal summer-evening mood piece. It may be winter now, but you should listen to it ASAP anyway.

Listen to “Matryoshka”

½. Fishdoll – Noonsense

wonky / dream pop / electronic / downtempo

‘Fishdoll, an exciting new artist from China, manages to recall everything I miss about electronic music of the earlier 10′s. First I thought of ‘wonky’ producers like FlyLo and Teebs who had such interesting and creative taste in electronic production and samples. Take a gander at the amazing operatic vocal/harp sample that ends “Beijing Well” or the spacey fluttering chords on most of the songs, for example. Secondly, Fishdoll adds subtle effects to her own voice that say, Grimes or Washed Out became popular for, creating a similar kind of airy surrealism.

It doesn’t do enough justice to Fishdoll to make so many comparisons, though, since this album really does feel unique. Which is exactly why it’s one of my favorites of the year – it’s an electronic artist doing something unique and doing it well.

I’m looking forward to Fishdoll’s next musical move, and I’m convinced Noonsense deserves more than a bit of Bandcamp popularity, which seems to be all it got upon release.’

Since writing this in the first halfway list, I was also asked to write a brief review of Noonsense for the Rateyourmusic front page in October, which you can find here.

Listen to “Bubbling Bop”

Continue reading “My Top Albums/EPs of 2018”