VGM Review #2: 'Bastion' Soundtrack

Update 1/31/12: Check out my interview with Darren Korb after reading the review!

A few weeks ago I stumbled upon a list of nominees for the 2011 Video Game Awards (or “VGAs,” if you will).  Naturally, I was interested in the “Best Original Score” category.   The soundtracks that are up for it derive from Bastion, Batman: Arkham City, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and Portal 2.

Being that a goal of this blog is to listen to new game soundtracks, the reader shouldn’t be too surprised to know that I had heard none of those soundtracks.  Yes, it’s a travesty that out of all of those games I haven’t yet played Arkham City or Portal 2, but you know… I just haven’t yet.  The other week I bought Skyrim, Rayman Origins, and Skyward Sword, so needless to say, I have my hands full.

Since it’s my job to inform you of which soundtracks are worth listening to, I immediately started delving into these nominees.  Bastion was first and I jotted enough notes to blog.  Deus Ex was next and I quit listening to that because I didn’t have the patience to wade through the tracks to find which ones were the best at the time (the ones I did listen to weren’t particularly impressive, but my sample was by no means representative).  Then my workday was over and I had stuff to do at home.

So, I got as far as Bastion and you know what?  I’m fine with that.  If Saturday reveals that some other soundtrack got the award, I’ll check it out; otherwise, I'm moving on to games that I have wanted to explore.

The first thing that the reader should know before taking my opinions on the soundtrack to heart is that I have never played Bastion.  This fact will affect my review a bit because I won’t be able to give any insight on how the music interacts with the game itself.  When I did “Time’s Scar” from Chrono Cross, I made references to the medium that the music was presenting—here I will not.  I will solely base my opinions on how I feel about the musical content and what I like in my VGM.

If you feel like listening to the soundtrack while reading, go here.  I will have individual examples posted below as well, though.

Bastion is a game (obviously) by Supergiant Games that is available to those who can download through Steam on PC or do the same through X-Box Live.  Oh, wait, looks like I couldn’t have even played it if I want to before I starting writing this review.  Maybe one day it’ll come out on either PS3 or Mac… Regardless, Supergiant Games’ mission statement is “to make games that spark your imagination like the games you played as a kid.”  While I can’t say much for the game, I might be able to say something about the music.

The composer of Bastion’s soundtrack is Darren Korb, someone who is relatively new to VGM, but not to other forms of media.  According to his website, he’s written for TV and film, produced songs for the Rock Band Network, and plays in a number of bands spanning a few different genres.  If you like Korb’s work, you might want to go to his site and check out his different projects (I haven’t myself).

If you’re listening to the soundtrack right now, the theme of the compositions has already hit you.  In fact, the first track of the CD—the one with the talking over what sounds like an old radio—even brings them mostly to light.  The gruff voice of the speaker… the crackle of the fire… the talk about the differences between the past and how rough the present is… it ain't nothin’ else but the blues, folk (there’s a pun in there).

Ah, but it is something other than the blues.  While the tracks definitely have a blues vibe, they’re all not purely bluesy.  Sitars and messy backbeats aren’t bluesy.  Rather, Bastion is a soundtrack of what one may call “blues fusion.”  The fusion combines blues with folk rock, Middle Eastern music, and hip-hop.  That fusion is then enveloped in a heavy production (i.e., a lot of distortion on the bass drum) and surrounded by an array of electronic sounds.

Many of the tunes are built upon the same principle: set a groove foundation and build off of that.  Because of this way of writing, the tunes become very atmospheric—this soundtrack is not one that focuses on melody.  I don’t always mean to come back to Chrono Cross, but comparing Bastion’s soundtrack with the tracks for that game will give the listener a perfect example of what I’m talking about.  While there are melodic interjections that appear atop these grooves, there is no main melody that stands in the forefront for an extended period of time.  It is almost as if Korb were writing these pieces for one of his rock bands—writing as if someone was to sing or solo over these backgrounds.

One can listen to practically any of the pieces to hear how the above might be, but here are a couple examples:

“Spike in a Rail” sounds like a blues-rock song.  It has a hooky phrase that serves as a theme that interjects between sections of chords and supporting sounds.  The shortest instance starts at 0:35.  Right off of the interjection, the banjo arpeggiates chords while an electric guitar bends heavily and a harmonica howls.  Then, that hook is played again at 0:42 and the song goes into a longer section.  This track could be transformed into a song, no doubt.

Here’s a tune, "The Mancer's Dilemma," that’s based on more of a hip-hop feel.  It’s easy to hear how Korb places and pulls layers.  The foundation is set in the beginning with harp and, coming in soon thereafter, strings.  Throughout the piece he adds woodwinds, dissolves the harp groove into wispy arpeggios, takes away woodwinds, etc.  Some of the more notable spots are at 0:59, where the punchy bass becomes more like a melody, and at 1:14, where that bass turns into a background while the harp is removed and a sitar reigns over the other instruments.

There are two other tracks that I want to touch on before giving my overall opinion of the soundtrack.  The first is “The Bottom Feeders,” which might be my favorite instrumental piece of the soundtrack.  Incidentally, it’s also the most “against the grain” from its fellow tracks.

To me, this is the track that sounds most like VGM.  Part of it does have to do with the sounds of some of the instruments for sure, but I can almost hear the main “crushed” instrument’s melody in a game by itself (it’s the one to first come in).  It is clear that Korb intended the main focus of the piece to be the electronic sounds and the very active drums, yet my ears focus on the sounds of the said instrument.  When they are free and come to the foreground at 1:24, my focus is justified.  Along with the hand drums in the background, I feel at that point like I’m listening to something from an older game and therefore I expect the melody to develop.  Development happens in an instant at 2:00 and then goes even further at 2:06, but, as it is typical in this soundtrack, the melodic instrument once again becomes a background layer to give way to a different focus instead of really pushing forward and making a distinct statement.

The last track I want to mention, “Setting Sail, Coming Home” is up for the “Best Song” VGA.

My initial reaction to this song was, ‘Man, this is so Radiohead.’  From the way the singer vocalizes and enunciates to the form of the song to the reverb of the instruments and ambiance of the space the song is in to the chords… there is no doubt in my mind that Korb listens to that band and covets them.  Take a listen to “Paranoid Android” starting at 1:34—even the haunting mix of the woman singing the once bluesy “Build That Wall (Zia’s Theme)” is reminiscent of Thom Yorke doubling himself.  Anyway, I like these songs a lot and love how they fit in perfectly with the vibe of all the other tunes (not to mention, I think the idea of combining your two vocal songs—the other being “Mother, I’m Here (Zulf’s Theme)”—together into an ending song is very hip).

Ultimately, I like Korb’s vision for the Bastion soundtrack.  He created a world and stayed within its bounds—bounds that are quite expansive in their own right.  As a result of creating this space in which to use this fusion of styles, he made a glue and a cohesion that is really great for games.  What I mean is that I can see Bastion and feel like I understand Bastion without having played it because the soundtrack is telling of what the vibe of the whole game is.

The other things that Korb did fantastically were that he used electronic sounds to develop that space and produced his tracks extremely well, as far as I’m concerned.  He placed a variety of sounds in distinct areas sonically and didn’t allow things to get too muddy, even over the dirty distortion he gave to the bass drum, among other things.  Furthermore, the electronic sounds in those areas mingled very well with the other instruments, adding a lot to the grooves to keep the listener engaged.

Individually, I pretty much like all of the tracks (with the exception of “Bynn the Breaker” because the oversaturation of highs are way too much for me to handle); however, this is one game soundtrack that I would not purchase for leisurely listening.  I can hear the tunes adding a lot of energy to the environment and overall game experience of Bastion, but I would never sit down and want to listen to any of these over again on my spare time.  The reason for this is simply that the songs aren’t melodic enough.  While there are, as I described earlier, moments of melodicism, there’s nothing for me really to grab on to.  I can’t sing any of these tunes outside of the actual songs, which I like a lot.

Again, I think that Korb created a body of work that works really well for a game; not preferring this type of music is a matter of preference.  I’ll probably touch on this topic in a post dedicated to it later, but the VGM that is memorable to me is the VGM that is strong melodically, and I don’t hear that in these tunes.  I think if I played the game I would be forced to memorize parts of the tunes whether I tried to or not.  Only then would I be able to reproduce what’s going on (compared to, say, listening to Elecman’s theme from Mega Man and really knowing it).  As I said, I’ll save that conversation for another post, especially because I’m sure I’ll need to use it as a reference for many-a-review that I do.

Thanks for reading!  And good luck to Darren Korb tomorrow night (well, it’s become tonight by now)!  He would be well deserved of an award.

*Update: Darren Korb won two VGAs tonight for his work. The first was "Best Song in a Game"--the winner being, somewhat surprisingly, "Build that Wall (Zia's Theme)" (which was linked above)--and the second was "Best Original Score." Congratulations, Darren!

Bonus Content:

Hearing “Terminal Music” for the first time reminded me of this song.  I’m a little ashamed of that because, while there may be some, I feel like there’s very little correspondence outside of the Middle Eastern sound.