Today I’m counting down my favorite records of 2015, and if there is one absolute in my daily routine, it is listening to videogame scores…repeatedly. There is absolutely nothing I would rather be listening to. If you knew me personally, you would also know that there is nothing I enjoy talking about more. Congratulations to these tremendous artists.
#3.) Peter McConnell and Broken Age– Video games as a medium are still largely restricted to easily identifiable genres. Some war, some space…some war in space, gruff soldiers, sundries of murky, banal horror titles, and amnesia-ridden RPG protagonists. It’s all been done before and to death. The ideas inherent in these games have been savaged by every make and model of success and failure over the last 40 years.
If creation under this aged model of repackage, recycle, repackage sounds arduous…imagine scoring the same thing, the same scenes near verbatim over and over and over. It’s the hard fact that comes with laying brick, and it is one that most game composers must grapple with on a daily basis: boss encounters, the hero’s walk on, the antagonist smirk, the difficult decision, all are necessary pieces, all require a similar methodology. The question then becomes, how does one stay above the water when it is made so easy to drown in a parade of your own clones? The re-tweaked, the worked-over, all from the same sea of brittle, familiar overtures? Celebrated composer Peter McConnell is one of the very select few unwilling to shuffle alongside the bloated and the capsized as McConnell himself is the embodiment of constant reinvention. No two of his recordings sound like they were drawn from the same stock: not a single one. Nothing inside his brilliant works for 1998’s Grim Fandango could play understudy, adlib for 2005’s bizarrely opulent work as seen in Psychonauts. His voice is a distinct one, and one that’s almost without peer. Broken Age is a foothold, a bottling that actually captures the presence of space where objects exceed your grasp as they float at once near to desolately far beyond reach. Echoes are miles, light years in real-time, and they carry with them the ring of both the ponderous and the unexplored like I have never heard before. In contrast, McConnell’s duality as seen in this record’s flip-side is coruscate, warm, candidly spoken, and hand in hand. Making all things new.
#2.) Thomas Happ and Axiom Verge-
For the masses of uninitiated, those who do not play video games in any sort of setting, the aural assault of 8-bit chip-tunes is defined by a series of absolute capitulations. To begin, it is a rudimentary instrument by design: nothing more than a toolset of frangible wires. Despite this, it’s a deceivingly tricky tablature: one that is seemingly easy to master but almost impossible to alchemize in correct proportion. Thomas Happ, composer of 2015’s Axiom Verge, plays his stunningly, sybaritic verse without misstep or apology. Axiom Verge is a sumptuous framework, a land mass of low, desolate flange and cold yet hedonistic swirl. It is a representation of some of the very best the genre has ever produced, as it carefully marries the tried and faultless master-techniques of its past operators into a symbiotic union of organic and ambient sound. While most have a tendency to over-emphasize one channel over the other, Happ strikes a balance that is perfectly measured in audience threshold: just as you feel you might be overtaken by the machines, Happ dispenses an expressive edict of live sound. For those new to this chorus and for those who’ve become disaffected by the glut of the disingenuous, Happ presents a manifesto that bookends the old guard, and provides a full measure as to how to proceed and advocate from this point forward. Look beyond.
#1.) Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
Ludvig Forssell, Justin Burnett, Daniel James, Akihiro Honda, Donna Burke, and Harry Gregson-Williams-
It was never going to be easy and that is the simple fact of it. Scoring for one of video games most divisive and influential series is but one single, exceedingly difficult factor. Couple that with the knowledge that this will indeed be the final pure-blooded mainline entry in the Metal Gear pantheon and the weight begins to multiply one hundred-fold. As if to follow suit, The Phantom Pain isn’t a collection of easily drawn lines. So much of its subject matter is a cortical, gray meringue of open interpretation: what is so easily defined as morally black could just as well be identified by a spectrum of colors from another point of view.
Chief composer Ludvig Forssell’s Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain’s score is a dangerous and unflinching collection of swerving vignettes expertly pieced together. It details in full the dearth of sunlight present in the subject matter, and accurately recounts the severity of those myopic stretches of night driving that so consume the majority of the Phantom Pain. Forssell’s faultless approach means to ground the proceedings in the incalculable grit of actual despair, and it’s also one of the first in the series to appropriately gauge and ballast the mood of Metal Gear’s tactile world. A full symphony amongst the wreckage of the Phantom Pain’s backdrop seems an unlikely variable, and so Forssell wisely presents material that is by-and-large stripped down, scaled back and uncomfortably up close: the larger the room, the greater the percentage of emotion lost.
Forssell’s flawless, brunt creation is also one of the most successful musical collaborations in recent gaming history. Composers Justin Burnett, Daniel James and long-time series guardians Akihiro Honda, Donna Burke and Harry Gregson-Williams effortlessly adhere to all of Forssell’s hard-lined cornerstones. Working in separate capacities and lengthy moments in tandem, Forssell’s extended cohorts fashion definitive inscriptions that are paramount and absolutely necessary to both lighten and shade Forssell’s lofty draft of working blueprints. Despite the staggering run-time of The Phantom Pain’s dual platters, never once does the collective’s aesthetic cohesion falter; all subtext remains intact and the strength of the compositions gorgeously disseminates the narrative without so much as a single lull in attention.
Whatever the goals, whatever the bullseye first marked and envisioned by Forssell and his team a near half decade ago is made flesh with this release. When one of these composers is remembered, all of them will be evoked simultaneously and in concert. There is no larger compliment than to be credited with complete and full understanding. The acknowledgement that of the millions of variations and outcomes that could have been, only this group was capable of delivering that final, eloquent eulogy. Unequivocally, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain’s score is the definitive series work as transcribed by those chosen few who’ve peered through its many assorted and daunting masks: the practitioners responsible for uncovering its lifetime of heartbreaking concealments. A true seeing.
As a standing farewell: this is good.
Having fallen in love only 4 times in his life Geno counts Double Dragon as his second and truest love. He has worked in record retail since 2000 and believes David Hayter to be the one true Solid Snake. Currently, he is putting together a band which only perform songs from Street Fighter 3rd Strike.