Today, all of us at Sumthing.com are counting down our favorite records of 2016. If there is one absolute in our daily routines, it is listening to video game scores…repeatedly. There is absolutely nothing we would rather be listening to. If you knew us personally, you would also know that there is nothing we enjoy talking about more. Our congratulations to these tremendous artists.
#6: The Music Of Unravel
Composers Frida Johansson and Henrik Oja
There has always been this idea that somehow, music in games should be separate from the wider spectrum of music at large. It is and has always been an obsolete construction. Frida Johansson and Henrik Oja’s score for 2016’s Unravel places even further strain on that same logic. Perhaps the idea originated from the pervasive thought that music was inserted over the top, a process removed from the design of the software itself: hollow, mechanical and workmanlike. When playing Unravel, however, the role of Johansson and Oja seems to be THE premiere role that not only directs both movement and action on-screen but sound design as well. The impression made by Oja and Johansson is in fact so strong, that it becomes obvious that sound was in fact meant to take lead and the elements meant to follow. Unravel is one of a select handful of scores that transforms the medium of games into a showcase for composers and performance first and above all else. It proves unequivocally that separation of “game” music from music in general is an adage far past its own expiration.
#5: The Music Of Street Fighter V
Composers Hideyuki Fukasawa, Keiki Kobayashi, Masahiro Aoki, Takatsuki Wakabayashi, Zac Zinger
The continued residence of Hideyuki Fukasawa as Capcom’s maestro/ heir apparent in all matters concerning the scores of past, present, and future Street Fighter entries is the type of thing that defies all logic and expectation. You’d figure a workload of his size would have somehow left him duller around the edges…comfortably numb. After nearly a decade of unleashing several of the largest and best fighting game scores in the company’s history, it’s feasible to assume that Fukasawa might be stretched beyond capable elasticity. Yet, someone, wisely, saw fit to extend his lease…the type of thing that gets that person promoted! Because, despite the briefest of interims, Fukasawa and his team of collaborators have delivered an astounding score that makes good on the slogan emblazoned on all promotional materials, leaflets and penny savers distributed for the game itself: Rise Up. In effect, that’s what this material evokes.
Street Fighter V is a stand alone work that separates itself from its own origins. Not an easy task. It doesn’t sound like a typical Street Fighter, it doesn’t feel typically Street-Fighter(ish), and it certainly doesn’t care about the typically rabid fanbase’s expectations as to what should be coming down the pike. It is this complete disregard for order and precedent that makes Street Fighter V the most exciting soundtrack since composer Hideki Okugawa sunk Capcom’s wonderfully pearlescent yet antiquated 90’s model sound boards for Street Fighter 3’s three iterations. Yes, it is that good.
There is so much audible glee throughout much of the bulk of this recording that it makes a strong case for setting a good clearing fire to the fields of Street Fighter’s sacred wheat much more often. The mood is so constantly spontaneous and elevated. Its barrage of dissonant, tongue-rolling, long neck(ing) guitar solos play equal complement to the dissociative droning wash-out of raves taking place at its fringes. Street Fighter V’s score, as an agitated cocktail mixed straight in the glass, is one of the most potent bearers of the namesake in decades.
#4: The Music Of No Man’s Sky
Composers Simon Stalenhag and Kuldar Leeman
The idea to ground and tether the sound of space travel to the realm of human limits, based in the here and now, isn’t something I imagine most composers want to do: the idea that you can only go so high. It must be far easier to assign a score like No Man’s Sky a cache of values the likes of which are not only recognizable but at the point of ad nauseam: distant echoes upon closer proximity airlocks, upon low planet rumbles. It’s worked for decades and no doubt will work ceaselessly forward.
With that said, working transcription isn’t always the best case to make when asked to apply your own touch to the sound of space, and it’s clearly the route not chosen by composers Simon Stalenhag and Kudlar Leeman. To this duo, the act of leaving the atmosphere does not also assume that one leaves clean being left to pontificate the sound of distance: you leave nothing behind. No Man’s Sky is a gorgeously cruel record that chooses to instead illustrate insurmountable personal restrictions as well as the gulf of deficiencies left festering on the planet you’ve left behind, long after you’ve placed hundreds of thousands of miles between you. That’s really the mission here, because it’s not traveling into space that makes the activity unique, or even remotely memorable; it’s the person,( baggage accounted for), who is traveling into space that differentiates the experience and separates every single voluminous narrative written about it.
#3: The Music Of Doom
Composer Mick Gordon
It’s easy to dismiss the idea of music as a physical weapon, that is until you come face to face with Mick Gordon’s Doom. The distinction is simple really: do you carry an axe or do you carry a guitar? Gordon carries an AXE. A guitar simply doesn’t suffice nor is it as sufficient or capable of doing what a heavy handle axe does with relative ease. Gordon is also unwilling to let the written description of “axe” garner itself a suitable image for your mind. In fact, he is more adamant than ever to plow the vibrating steel straight into your torso just so he knows that you know and are familiar and able to make that critical distinction between the two, axe or guitar. Description is one thing, but sound is another thing entirely, and here too Gordon needs you to become intimately related with its actual buzzing cacophony…so he plays it for you (see Welcome To Hell).
Of course, it’s more than violence, more than abuse and more than garish streams of blood, Mick Gordon is actually, without even knowing it, rewriting the rules for entire genres of music in the present day: rock and roll, industrial, metal, dance, trance…they’ve all been stone dead for years. Doom is Gordon’s incendiary retribution, a slovenly rally cry against those limp wristed, anemic studio creations void of the grit and backbone only to be found when boots are actually on the ground. Gordon’s Doom is the stuff of incalculable bullish extremes the likes of which haven’t been seen since the days of producer Martin Hannett screaming at Joy Division drummer Stephen Morris…to make ice… all the while Morris thumps away atop a frozen studio rooftop in attempts to appease his violent aggressor. Doom is music by suffering, by method and by a push that grows more difficult to contain the more a particular thing begins to irk and prey on Gordon’s mind. This is your warning.
#2: The Music Of The Last Guardian
Composer Takeshi Furukawa
A score like that of Takeshi Furukawa’s The Last Guardian is a dangerous thing to talk about. This isn’t due to some failing in the record: it is quite the opposite. The fear is that somehow I’ll have failed in my attempts to connect you with the material, and while you may be interested, you do not make acquiring the album a priority. So, I’ll say this up-front: by every scale of measurement, The Last Guardian should be your first priority today and every day until it is spinning 33 1/3rd rpms on your record player. There is also a great concern (on my part), for the overuse of superlatives. This is because if I were to use them here, you’d somehow dismiss their estimation and their power would be blunted. The fact is, I’d like to use them…a string of them in fact, because the sheer quality of this recording demands more than a carefully presented analysis; it demands incessant gushing. I can assure you, if I were to say things like (and don’t roll your eyes), “Masterful”, or “Brilliant”, or “Stunning” it would be because composer Takeshi Furukawa has suffused their meanings with something altogether new, and in the case of The Last Guardian, this is very much the order of Furukawa’s day. Rather than spoil it any further, I’ll leave it at that.
#1: The Music Of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided
Composers Michael McCann, Sascha Dikiciyan, Ed Harrison
I’ve spent the better part of the last five years talking about just how incredible I thought Deus Ex: Human Revolution’s LP was, is and will continue to be. Beyond that, what’s left for the legacy of Deus Ex: Human Revolution’s score is to become a guidepost, something that points the way forward for others. Few records are ever granted the privilege, but Deus Ex: Human Revolution took up that burden, that heavy mantle with ease. It is simply not enough, however, to hold that weight, because in the process, that initial message is left to linger until eventually its potency is lost.
For most records, there is only ever the one attempt with nothing to follow-up that once hungry mantra.The score for Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is the rarest of events where the legacy run trumps the celebrated source material. To go beyond and exceed the scope of Human Revolution says more than I can even comprehend, and if it hadn’t somehow matched up to the quality of its predecessor, I would have been the very first to tell you. The fact is, it HAD to be better than Human Revolution in order to successfully plunge as deeply as it does. If resistance, bargaining and acceptance were the core themes of Human Revolution, then it stands to reason that consequences and fact of reality should be the next point of grim(mer) contention: there is still much to articulate.
Where Human Revolution was a much shorter, much more truncated affair, Mankind Divided is afforded an exponential distance and given the necessary autonomy to communicate its highly delicate, highly personal and highly aphotic subject matter. At its very best (in its entirety), Mankind Divided achieves what most musicians can only dream, and that is to develop something that is both truly candid and affecting. Yet, even when those few musicians who can develop a muse to the point of real emotion, do so…it can feel a bit cobbled together. You can still see the jutting edges and the non-essential elements clinging together for no other reason than survival: it’s full of impurities, a stock attempt. This is not that.
Mankind Divided isn’t without cost, however, as it can feel overwhelming at times, bleaker than is perhaps possible, and even more opaquely lined than Human Revolution but again, this was always the plan, as such is the course of therapy, (to which I have likened it before) it is not meant to elicit fleeting emotions…it’s meant to drastically alter the course of your life. Ultimately, this is the sum of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided and it is a conversation that continues.
This is the Sumthing team signing off for 2016. Happy Holidays from all of us at Sumthing Else Music Works.
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.