Listen: Darkstalkers: The Night Warriors – Opening Title
It’s the very, very late 1990’s and as the third installment of Capcom’s Darkstalkers completes its production cycle, so too does the developer’s own dedicated house band Alph Lyla (aka Alpha Lyla). As Darkstalker’s motherboards and connecting PCBs are shipped to arcades across Japan and North America, for reasons unknown Alph Lyla internally disintegrates, implodes and disbands. Was it a partnership that ended in some bitter he-said/she-said infighting? Contractual disputes? Dueling artistic visions? Who made that final round of calls? Who dropped the axe? The truth of those final days most certainly is a truth to which we’ll never be privy. What is certain is that after almost a decade spent crisscrossing the globe playing the largest and most celebrated arcade halls, this was the end, and Alph Lyla had fully accepted what was now to come: its true death.
You’ve heard Alph Lyla, and seen them play more times than is even fathomable. While you may never have bought their t-shirts or purchased their records, chances are you’ve been their biggest and most unwitting fan. Stepping into an arcade, even once since 1988, guarantees you’re familiar with their brand of score.
From Strider to Captain Commando and Street Fighter 2, Alph Lyla’s rotating membership of immensely gifted players spun a black circle that defined and re-defined what could be done within the constraints of video game audio, and likewise should be regarded as THE pioneers of the genre. Today however, I am most concerned with their life at the end and that last cycle that produced six of the most bizarre, spectacular and seductive albums of their career. This is the story of their penultimate contribution to gaming audio: Capcom’s 6-disc soundtrack anthology Darkstalkers Vampire Soundbox.
Listen: Darkstalkers: The Night Warriors – Jon Talbain Stag
For a moment on disc one, you’d never know that what you’re listening to is a Darkstalkers score. Over the multiple albums that comprise this set, it is this very first record that finds Alph Lyla actively struggling to create the universe of its accursed succubus Morrigan and vampire Demetri. These initial accompaniments are not at all bad, nor necessarily confused takes on the undead, but they are ones in which the group becomes saddled with the ideas and directions of the score’s objectives: no perimeter is to be present, and none of the established grids well protected. Darkstalkers’ inaugural set of character and stage themes rides its monster noir pulp to each and every cardinal point on a compass. Alph Lyla is not averse to experimentation and willfully trades musical genres as its own quick and dirty petty cash. The band barters and haggles with every merchant along the way, leaning strongly for a moment towards Amandla-esqe fusion jazz, and then quickly altering their course, steering from barrelhouse to bottleneck air guitar, and genteel monster muzak. With so many disparate demon tribes being sent to contribute verse to Darkstalkers, Alph Lyla had to carefully mediate the negotiating table, offering each and every one of its participants a first draft mock-up of their signature sounds. Vampire Sound Box’s first record offers a gorgeous yet puzzling set of pre-renderings that, while accomplished, are models and arrangements not yet fully formed.
Quality takes time though, and the groundwork laid here for Alph Lyla’s Darkstalkers starter home contains all the necessary elements on which they will build their crowning, ever-evolving masterpiece. But…so much work still remains to be done.
At this point, Alph Lyla’s scattered collection of Polaroids, snapshots and location files had begun to overtake their studio. Those days of whittling are central to the music of discs 2 and 3 of the set. This is where each photograph would be rated and vigorously tested for its inflection of horror and Samhain musicality. You can almost see them all stretched out on their office floor debating at length about which of the hundreds of theme sketches will take lead. Are these heroes or villains? What was missed in the first go-around? “Anyone here ever been to Egypt?“ What most people don’t realize is just how quickly Alph Lyla had to evolve. Regular pop or rock groups are usually given the benefit of advances on salary, holidays between releases, and the artistic carte blanche of “It’s done when it’s done.” The traveling distance between 1994’s Darkstalkers: The Night Warriors and its sequel, Vampire: Darkstalkers Revenge is less than one year, with Darkstalkers 3: Vampire Savior debuting early in 1997. Alph Lyla’s now cancerous and terminal sound evolution would have to be a very, very quick one. BUT. The immense pressure placed on the group begins to produce seed and on the second disc, the series’ iconography begins to take shape. Yes, that IS Morrigan’s theme in its purest and barest form. Yes, the Bishamon, Hsien-Ko, and Sasquatch themes have clearly turned their own corner. Yes, that’s Demetri’s theme dictating the full terms of sound tone for all future sequels. From this point on, Alph Lyla’s stew of magical arts and skeleton hodgepodge ceases full stop. There’s not only focus here, but a fervor, an excitement .You can see the band collectively starting to grin, walking together, being in on their secret, and functioning as a truly exclusive unit. If you doubt me, just take one listen to Lord Raptor’s concrete slab of metal-heavy soloing and tell me that’s not chemistry.
Alph Lyla isn’t satisfied with simple grade school chemistry though, finding its array of mole, Torr and Kelvin as something both cursory and unambitious. As such, discs 4, 5 and 6 of the Vampire Sound Box stand as a revelatory treaty of the blackest holes, the most unexplained of anti-matter, the darkest of space. The contents of these recordings are beyond all expectation, boldly vanquishing even the very best of Alph Lyla’s musical catalog. Here, the group’s earliest Darkstalkers workings now sound absolutely timid. What’s most interesting about this slate of material is how clearly they now understand the world for which they are scoring. It goes beyond that though, to ownership, to signing over the castle deed. Alph Lyla becomes the only set of individuals who can make music for this series from now on. Genius bandies about between all, myself included, but it’s the only assessment of intelligence to accurately describe Alph Lyla’s metamorphosis from Australopithecus to modern Homo sapien.
On this concluding trio of discs, all musical concerns are thoroughly addressed, corrected, and admonished. In their dealings with Darkstalkers, Alpha Lyla’s most pronounced blockade to full musical realization was tempo. In the two previous games, the group seemed to struggle to match the intensity of the onscreen demon-world brawl, oftentimes falling out of synch completely with not only the pace of the match, but with the flavor of their characters’ identity. Darkstalkers 3, perhaps taking cues from lessons learned by Alph Lyla’s own members on other projects like Street Fighter Alpha 3, makes considerable impact in this final Darkstalkers installment.
Secondly, weight and muscle are important things in life, and time and time again, Alph Lyla seemed determined to starve itself, refusing even to eat the smallest of portions. Pale and emaciated, the band’s set lists grew harder and harder to slog through as even modest heat burned up what few calories they consumed. They needed more gristle behind these compositions if they were ever to last, and so Alph Lyla somewhat begrudgingly made that crucial change: they beefed up.
Where once you could have easily grabbed these arrangements by their frail and dainty wrists, Darkstalkers 3’s sudden weight gain, its amply muscled girth makes this an all-out impossibility. Alph Lyla’s very last collaborations were a collection of menace, speed, and dangerous corrupting shadows falling directly in line with the house of the devil. While the band’s increased speed of tempo, dialed-up bass, and downplayed treble all seem like simple fixes, they actually work as a bottomless flow of currency to fund the group’s apocalyptic second coming. The band’s mixture of obsidian chaos, underworld, blood pacts, and soul-sale imagery go beyond mere sweat and cowardly desperation – Alph Lyla finally makes Darkstalkers’ creatures an integral and permanent part of the night. And what comes with night? FEAR!
Lastly, there’s one facet that has yet to be explored here musically, and that’s the game’s heavy emphasis on nobility, beauty and sexuality. There needed to be an elevation of these characters from just your simple monster movie archetypes. Some of these playable fighters are charged with the keeping of bloodlines, oral histories, and realms free of opposing factions, and above all else, preserving their own physical beauty. Likewise, Darkstalkers’ final score should reflect that judiciously. Alph Lyla correctly made no assumptions that the additions spoken of in the last paragraph would be enough to convey this as muscle does not smoldering nor dignified make, and so the group proceeded to add all shades of lipstick, blush, and slow-rising mist to their soundtrack’s already well supported curves. Characters’ walks become more elegant, their costumes more decorated, and their accomplishments more embellished. The band’s end result is an anesthesia so hypnotically bewildering and powerful, its true feat is that anyone can even play the game without simply staring fixatedly upon it. Darkstalkers’ score is a highly potent, near-toxic spell of crossed desire lines, carnal yearning and forsaken allegiances. Even the logo screen (the unparalleled and now famous opening “Dirty Beret” teaser) has the ability to captivate, narcotize and enslave.
Not a single moment inside Vampire Sound Box’s compilation fails, and that’s saying quite a lot. This being their closing set of recorded tracks together as Alph Lyla, they’ve placed emphasis on every snippet of film intro, plot device and win/loss hook. Not a moment is silent, and nothing is left to be repeated. This is poring over their legacy, their last written word in stone. It captures their towering scale at its highest point and provides the clearest, most thorough memoir of one of video games’ greatest and most revered groups at the moment of their passing.
From Darkstalkers onward, sound duties for a varied and great number of Capcom titles fell to single, past members of Alph Lyla. With a decade of recordings in its portfolio, their carefully constructed body of work would find its way onto a numerous number of compilations and retrospectives. There was a small tremor after their demise in the form of a BioHazard Drama album done in 1999, but it didn’t amount to a reforming of the group. It’s of no matter though, I suppose, because with Darkstalkers: Vampire Sound Box, Alph Lyla ends its career with the truest sound of night. And night, as it’s understood, seems to be stronger than death.
And remember, Darkstalkers are not dead!