Super Mario Bros and Tetris. Even a certain Street Fighter theme has found life as a running gag on YouTube. But whenever I reflect on themes that have stuck with me, I always go back to the heavier, more guitar-driven ones. Even further reflection made me realize the amount of times I've listened to the Mega Man X OST outside of actually playing the game is a tad embarrassing.
Years later, when I would go on to fall into the depravity that is heavy metal fandom, there was something in my brain that kept trying to make connections between the metal I was into and the video game themes I was into. It was a connection that was never cut and dry but at the same time I have never been able to completely disregard it. This abstract idea has bugged me for years and was the impetus for putting this article together. Thankfully, there were other like-minded individuals out there who were more than excited to dig deep into this. These interviews were approached as a free flowing discussion about connections between metal and video game music from the perspective of metal musicians, not necessarily to prove or disprove any theory of mine. But there certainly were some interesting revelations.
Read the interviews after the break!
Lauren Vieira (Keyboards for Dreadnought)
Kevin Handlon (Bass, Mandolin for Dreadnought)
Jordan (Guitars for Falls of Rauros)
Evan (Bass for Falls of Rauros)
What was your musical upbringing?
Lauren : I’m classically trained in piano. I was about three or four when I
started learning. The family is also musically inclined. My dad is a phenomenal
blues/rock guitarist but he never really took it anywhere. Both my brothers are
able to play guitar pretty well. One of them has an amazing voice. My mother is
also a wonderful singer.
Kevin : Bass ends up being an adopted instrument for a lot of people. For me,
bass was my first instrument. It was adopted, but the idea for me was
planted. That was at a young enough age, I think I was 12 or 13, I was
able to get my parents on board. It was an easy Christmas present so of
course they were excited about that and got me starter bass. I had the
initial bass lessons for a year or two. Seven years later, around the time Dreadnought was
being formed, I was taking jazz lessons. So I haven't had too
much formal instruction but the all of the formal instruction I have
had was really critical. I played in a couple awful bands that didn't
really get off the ground, as everyone does at the beginning.
Dreadnought's writing process has been the guiding force for my musical
development for the last eight or nine years.
Jordan : I started going through school with the concert band and choir programs.
It was really cool that we had that. I started playing guitar as a
pre-teen. Immediately after high school, I went to music school and ended
up getting a master's degree in music composition. Definitely studied a
lot of Beethoven and the standard academic repertoire. That's what I was really into and I still write music that is in many ways "classical" in approach and style. That's really affected how I approach
arranging for Falls (of Rauros) too. It's definitely bled into that.
Evan : I was interested in playing music from a very young age. I was harassing
my parents to get private lessons on trumpet when I think I was in
third grade. They told me I needed to wait to make sure I was serious
about it. By fourth grade, they acquiesced and I started taking
lessons there so it gave me a bit of a head start of the folk in my grade. That kept going through the end of middle school. In middle school, I had
started doing jazz band and picked up bass guitar in seventh grade. I
juggled both for quite a few years doing concert band and jazz band and
doing some other earlier high school bands that eventually fizzled out.
I've just been playing bass primarily for the past 15 years or so.
Tell me about your connections to metal/heavier music. How did it all start?
Lauren : My interest in heavy music started when I was about 13 or
14. I started with power metal and Children of Bodom; things that had really
catchy, zippy lines. Gamma Ray and Helloween were other big ones. In high
school, metal was a new direction from my classical training. I started
practicing melodic death metal and seeing what I could do. I didn’t progress
into doing more ambient stuff until a couple years into Dreadnought. They
already had a bunch of material written that was perfect for me to add my
element on top of it.
Kevin : I remember that the first band that I really got a chance to chew on
was P.O.D. It was one that I was able to listen to at volumes in my room
where my parents could hear it. I grew up in a born-again Christian
household so it was easy with P.O.D. having a religious slant. Then, I
had a brief run-in with enjoying Tool. I remember talking to my older
sister and saying "I think I'm really enjoying the heavier aspects of
this music but I think it's a little shy." She then introduced me to
some friends who then introduced me to Nile and Cannibal Corpse. I think
I was 12 at that time. It was pretty early that people were showing me
that death metal was a thing. I was entranced at first. The jump from
nu-metal to death metal in terms of extremity was like a whole new
world. That was the point where I started listening to music more on
headphones. It became this thing where if my parents find out that I'm
listening to music that's so emphatic on gore...I'm going to get in
trouble (laughs). That really factored into my personality because I was
always a bookworm and very much an escapist as a kid. It didn't take
long after discovering death metal that I found out about Opeth who
remains one of my biggest influences to this day. Even Tool didn't
compare to how fascinated I was with the bass work on Blackwater Park.
think when I was 14 or 15, as a freshmen in high school, I got
introduced to black metal. Black metal opened up a lot of avenues of how
people experience spirituality in the world. That, in combination with
what I was reading at the time, meant that my interests started to
become more and more niche. I started looking for more conceptual black
metal and really got into Wolves in the Throne Room. After we got
together with Kelly, she was the first one to introduce me to
Moonsorrow. As a teenager, it was so wild to me that a band would write
an album with two half-hour long songs (laughs). It cracked open
something really big for me. I had a thirst for challenge and a
propensity for boredom that I think both black metal and video games
spoke to. In a lot of cases with video games, you're engaging a part of
your imagination that the real world doesn't necessarily play with much.
Similarly with black metal, it's a lot of dark corners of human
thought. That can lead to a lot of people becoming extremists but it can
also lead to a lot of cool ideas that can help you find the things you
love about nature and really connect you with that and give you a sound
for the setting. There's a part of black metal that really engages that
fantasy to me. So I just bit into it right away. I remember at the time
that Headbangers Ball was really big so I had heard a lot of metalcore
and surface-level death metal. But Headbangers Ball did not include
black metal or anything like that so it had this mystique to it that I
Jordan : The first extreme music I got into when I was 11 or 12 was Korn. I loved
Korn. Still do, I'll be honest. That was really a formative age. Found my way through the post-hardcore stuff that was happening then.
Glassjaw was a huge band for me. From there, it went into power metal
stuff like Blind Guardian and Children of Bodom. I had that itch to keep
going deeper. I started listening to Darkthrone and eventually some really obscure stuff. That
was mainly the path for me. Emperor was another gateway band into actual
Evan : I was never as much into nu metal. In high school, I really liked Dave Matthews Band and Staind. That eventually transitioned into
Kalmah, Children of Bodom, Stratovarius and lot of that power metal
music. Opeth was a pretty big transition for me. Emperor was similar to
that. A little bit of Bathory and Primordial too. And then it continued
into the whole ecosystem and just spiraled out of control at that point.
Moonsorrow, Glassjaw, and Coheed and Cambria was most of what I was
listening to for a long time. Agalloch was huge. High school for all
four of us was listening to funny stuff that you were embarrassed to
talk about. You don't want to tell people that you love Dave
Matthews Band but the fact that a 12
year old is listening to music at all is cool. By the time we were out
of high school we were pretty much doing this band. But yeah, I'm not
ashamed at all to talk about how awesome Korn is now. I have a lot to
Take me through your history of video game fandom.
Lauren : I started playing video games when I was pretty young;
probably seven or eight when the SNES came out. My brothers and I amassed a
of games; from baseball and Madden to Donkey Kong and Zelda A Link to
the Past. F Zero X a little bit later. That was actually my introduction
to heavier gamer music. It sounds like early speed metal and also like
Opeth Deliverance-era; that same kind of heavy, crushing melodicism.
Kevin : For me, it started on my Gameboy. My Gameboy Pocket I think was
something that my parents gave to me to shut me up in the back of the car.
It was around '97 or '98 when the Pokemon craze really hit, but I was an
early adopter where I was playing it from the day it came out about a
year earlier. My sisters got into it when the craze hit with the TV show
and it became a really cool bonding experience for us. I was avidly
collecting Pokemon on these games for three generations. I dropped off
when the Nintendo DS games came out. But in the meantime, I had been
building up an interest in the Zelda games. For those, I had also
started playing the Gameboy games. So I had been playing Link's
Awakening and Oracle of Ages. The N64 was an interesting thing because I
didn't get it when it was new. It was something that I got my hands on
as a part of a bundle deal pretty late in the life-cycle of the console.
That was where I got to play Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask. I
remember being deeply fascinated with Ocarina of Time. Even though it's a
relatively short game, the concept-work in that game in incredible. I
can't remember a game that I had played prior to that that was so
immersive. That was also coupled with one of the best soundtracks of all
Jordan : Video games for me were my first love; many years before music. We had
a NES. We played a lot of weird, obscure games that no one I've met has ever played. Journey to Silius is some sidescroller I played a
lot. But obviously there were the Super Mario games. The first Zelda I
played when I was four and it was way too hard. But steadily, my interest in games grew so much it was hard to let go of. When we were in middle and
high school was when the Playstation-era Final Fantasy games were new.
That was huge. Ocarina of Time came out after that. It was a pretty
magical time to be a kid who was into video games because they were
getting really good.
Evan : Yeah, same story really. I don't remember how young I was when we got an
NES, but I was very young. Some of my earliest memories are just
hanging out in my basement playing, again, weird NES games that are
completely forgotten by history. There were a lot of early platforming deaths as an
incompetent child unable to really control Mario all that well. It went
from there. I never got a Playstation or an Xbox because I ended up staying in the Nintendo ecosystem. Being old enough to appreciate it, Link to the Past was kind of the first game that
really changed my relationship to gaming. I was growing up as the industry was too so it was a good time to get absorbed into that. At the same time, my grandfather
had been an early advocate for PCs in general. He was a banker and would
always buy these MACs. Whenever he upgraded he would give my family his
older models. Some of my early memories are from playing the Starcraft beta, Myth and Myth 2, Myst, and a lot of forgotten, old MAC games like the Escape Velocity series, Descent, and Quagmire.
What were some of your favorite game themes?
Lauren : Probably all of the Donkey Kongs (Country). All three of those I
think are exceptional. Yoshi's Island was also so enchanting for me as a
kid. Majora's Mask was another one of those themes
that just hit me in every feel. I love those themes not only because
they're beautiful but because Koji Kondo does a great job of sounding so
hopeless. In regards to games I appreciated more as an
adult, two are Earthbound and Kirby Superstar. I didn't "get" the
funkiness of Earthbound as a kid and ditched it pretty soon after I started playing
it. Now I'm realizing the whole Mother trilogy (of which Earthbound is the
second) was ahead of its time. The melodies in it seem showcased and distinct
from the rest of the available tracks since there is available space to
orchestrate melodies, they manipulated midi in ways that hadn't been tried,
like experimenting "vibrato" and adding every influence from funk to
jazz to Beatles tributes. Kirby Superstar is another with killer melodies. I
love how well the music amplifies what you're physically seeing: daintiness,
innocence, urgency, etc. Kirby is also just catchy and cute and I love that.
Kevin : I think it's Ocarina of Time and Windwaker that have the greatest
musical influence on us (Dreadnought). But for me in particular,
Windwaker has a really folksy soundtrack to it; a lot of mainstays of
Irish folk music. They made it a fairly celtic, folk kind of soundtrack.
Koji Kondo is a master. With Ocarina of Time, I didn't realize I was
being introduced to modes. When I ended up getting my instruction in
jazz, the thing I really bit on was modes. For each of the seven modes
in music, there are seven Zelda temples and each of those temples has a
theme that is attached to one of the modes. It was completely
fascinating and something I grabbed onto in my early adulthood. But with
Link's Awakening, I would check out "The Ballad of the Windfish." It's
the central song of the game and it is so fantastic sounding. And when I
say fantastic I mean it really engages your imagination. It's very
dreamy and that game is so intently focused on dreams that it matches
perfectly. I've heard that song played live a couple of times and it's
kind of a tear-jerker for me. One of the most engaging parts of any
Zelda game is its soundtrack. If you're not really sinking your teeth
into that part of it, I don't think that you can connect with a Zelda
game. It's this ambient thing that you're engaging with constantly.
Jordan : While also getting into my music for the first time in my life, Final Fantasy VII was the first real RPG I played when I was around 11. It was also the first game with a story that made me feel
serious emotions. That, paired with the score, makes it the one for me.
It's still my favorite game of all time. As I've replayed it over the years,
I've discovered how clever this stuff is. At the time, it wasn't to the
point where I would go out and buy and listen to that soundtrack on its
own, but that was definitely a big turning point.
Evan : I don't think I recognized until much later what was happening, but Link
to the Past was the first game that really had a major impact on me, in
general. A large part of that is due to the score is just so narrative. It matches what you're doing.
The dungeon music is a little bit eerie and stuff like that. I remember
having a pretty emotional reaction to the very end of the game. Once you beat it, there's this song that's never really happened before
that's super triumphant and shows all these different areas of the game
that you've had an impact on. I just remember feeling "Oh my god, this
is the best thing I've ever seen in my life." That was the first
emotional reaction to music in a game. Looking back, I'm
thinking about Mario 3 and Super Mario World. Donkey Kong Country obviously
has an incredible score. With a lot of those earlier games, it was a part of
the game and it was a part of the experience. But as an 11 year old kid
maybe you're not focusing on that aspect of it. In hindsight, though, it was
important to my experience. But with Link to the Past, I was aware of
that. That was pretty knock you over the head. That's probably my favorite game. Maybe it was the early timing.
Jordan : It's been really fun replaying these games as an adult, especially after spending years and years analyzing music in a serious way as a graduate student. The music here totally stands on its own.
Did game themes at all influence how you would eventually approach music composition?
Lauren : So,
I got The Sims when I was 13 or so. The game focuses on building and designing homes and
controlling the sims' interactions within them. When you're in build and
buy mode, there are two types of background music: solo piano pieces
combining new age jazz and a modern classical style, and orchestral 50's
sitcom-esque arrangements. I started learning the
piano pieces by ear and that's what ended up becoming the "style" of
piano that all of my writing stems from, and is especially obvious in my
solo piano records.
Another important thing is appreciation for sound design
rather than/in addition to the music. I spend a lot of time integrating
percussion and "diddleys" into what I write, and I get a ton of ideas
from video games. These are the repetitive sounds of getting hurt, obtaining an
item, etc. I think these work the same way for me as musical motifs- I expect
and welcome the repetition, so I integrate those sort of short repetitive (and
usually percussive) bursts to create the same kind of response mechanism in the
listener. Something familiar and welcome even if the composition has changed.
And, I'm currently trying to recreate the Hollow Knight "swallow"
when the knight gets hurt. Would be awesome to throw something like that
into a song.
with synesthesia I've learned to write songs visually- "what the picture
needs". Strategy and puzzle games rather than shooters/hero quests/etc
absolutely help this skill. If nothing else, it helps to both eliminate option
paralysis when I'm writing and force me to redesign my parts until it matches
what visuals and other elements I'd like to communicate to the listener. Music is visual - it's colorful and
it floats, so when I listen to something like Donkey Kong and I see almost a
wind tunnel of ice and blues and yellows, I know what it looks like and sounds
like to apply it somewhere else without totally ripping it off.
Kevin : Yeah. They set the stage for a visual, conceptual music piece. The
way that Koji Kondo conveys fire or the musical choices that are set
aroud a fiery town or area in Pokemon, like they end up being a go-to
for me if we need to communicate a concept of fire which is what we did
for this latest album. It's definitely a readily available part of a
palette as a concept-driven band. It's not necessarily the only that
we're introducing to that concept, but it's forever a part of the
palette for me.
Jordan : Yeah, I think so. I know that all four of us are gamers, but you're
talking to the dudes that play a lot more. It's much more a part of our
daily life. We're not super interested in the pop song structure. That's
one thing that we try to not do. Sometimes we have elements of it. For
me, anyway, the classical world was first brought to me in a way that I
could connect to it through video game music. Just the idea of different
kinds of sounds. Different kinds of structures and the idea of
themes. That's been a huge thing for Falls for like the last three
albums. It's not just part A, part B, part A. It's more malleable than that. There's this
idea that there are these melodic themes that come back in different
shapes and come back in different songs on the same album. I
think that a lot of classical music has that and video game music
especially. That's what lead me there.
Evan : For me, it was the emotional impact of the scores and how it made you
feel as you were playing the game. If it's an eerie spot then it puts
you at unease. Then there's these release moments where you've won or
you've made some accomplishment and it has that kind of emotional
connection because you've done something and you're being rewarded with
the visual and then the audio side of it. Being able to create music
that gives people the same sort of narrative and same sort of tension
and release is why you keep going back to it. It keeps giving you a
reason to engage with it.
Would you go as far to say that certain game themes acted as a primer for your interest in heavier music?
Lauren : I suppose I would say all the themes of things that are pretty or really catchy are what affected me the most. Like, Donkey Kong for ideas on atmosphere and ambient construction. Because yes stuff did, but mostly the pretty stuff moved me, which primed me for everything aside from the heavy stuff. Think of the prettier Dreadnought stuff.
Kevin : I think about this sometimes, for sure. First off, the metal and the
style of games that I got into, which were role-playing games,
particularly are connected in this world-building sense of a fantastic
realm. I mean let's be real, metal is for nerds. I don't think that the
connection between video games and metal is deniable at all for a lot of
musicians who play this genre. It's even more intense for the more
melodic styles of metal. It's a really real thing because of the way
that we that we engage with our imagination. For some people who write
music it's this visceral, sexual thing. For other people it's somewhere
they get to express their opinion. And for others it's this intellectual
thing. I really do think that the parts of my brain that get tickled
are pretty similar when it comes to the video games I enjoy and the
major influences to my band. It's not to say that all I listen to in
music is these high-concept, progressive metal bands and Koji Kondo but
they're both a big part of the mix and I think a part of why I was able
to build this sonic imprint in music composition has to do with that
inherent primer and connection that you're talking about.
think I would be as into jazz as I am if not for Final Fantasy VII. If
you haven't played it, a lot of it is set in the slums. It ends up
working really well with these kinky-lounge style songs in the
soundtrack. They meld in really well with the visual aesthetic of the
slum. I think that the grooves that I ended up enjoying and appreciating
as an adult wouldn't necessarily have taken hold if not for my exposure
to Final Fantasy VII. It's another one of those games, like Skyrim and
any of the Zelda games, that the more you talk to musicians about,
you'll tap into more and more about how they developed their musical
identities because...(sighs)...oh man. It goes deep.
Jordan : Mega Man 2 made me receptive to power metal and british heavy
metal. I already loved twin-guitar harmonies before I even knew who Iron Maiden was.
But I loved that sound. You reminded me that Sonic 2 was a huge game. Not all the levels are guitar, but the music in that game is so
great; to the point where I still have some of the themes in my head.
The other types of heavy music are a result of the really weird, late 90s
when Korn was on pop radio stations. That was a separate thing for me.
Evan : It was probably a mix for me. I was exposed to it through Starcraft.
They have these certain guitar leads. Diablo has this sort of gothic,
dark sensibility in the music which is at least tangential to metal. Didn't have these games until later, but Doom and Wolfenstein were
clearly metal derivative. I wouldn't say it was the focus, though. Heavy music for me came more from the radio and from recommendations
from my brother, who unearthed most of the early black and power metals
bands I later fell in love with. But video games were always along for the ride. They were
definitely part of it.
Jordan : It made me ready for this intricate, super dense, harmonically
interesting stuff. I always think it's
interesting to talk with people about how they got into black metal
specifically because the production is so alienating. I forget this
because I've been listening to it for so long, but when people who have
never heard black metal before and you throw on Darkthrone you forget
how to appreciate what their experience is like. They must think that
it's horrible and that I'm crazy for listening to it. Some people love
that stuff right away but for me Darkthrone took a year or so longer
than it did when I heard Prometheus by Emperor. That was
amazing to me right away. It was this dense, weird melodic death metal that had these really bizarre, layered guitars. I think hearing a lot of
video game music had set me up for that. I was ready for that level of
complexity. But yeah, I think you're onto something there.
Do you have any recent games that are personal favorites?
Lauren : My current favorite game score is from Hyper
Light Drifter. The orchestration that Disasterpeace accomplishes has been
the most influential thing for me since I discovered it.
Kevin : When I play a video game I want it to be something immersive that I
can dig into for a long time. I don't end up playing a lot of games but I
do still play them. The Witcher 3 was a game I really enjoyed recently,
if that counts as a recent game. I think that the soundtrack on The
Witcher is something comparable to Wardruna and other viking/folk groups
of their ilk. This is a style that people are taking more interest in
particularly in recovering just because so much of it has been lost. The
soundtrack of The Witcher has a lot of those same caterwauls and group
vocal arrangements that have become iconic as a part of that sound.
Another one that I played recently that I really enjoyed the soundtrack
for was Persona 5. Persona the series, especially since Persona 3, has
had this funky, acid-jazzy thing that they go for and they did an
amazing job. They had a particular singer picked out for the whole thing
and she had a jazz upbringing. Persona 5 is an exploration of Tokyo so
it's all city music that's really groovy and thick and dense and busy
and I love it.
Jordan : The biggest one of the past few years is Banner Saga. It's a
turn-based strategy game based in some Nordic fantasy world. The
animation and gameplay are great, but the music definitely stands on its
own. On tour, we've stayed at people's houses and I've played it
in the morning while we're having breakfast and people would be like
"what is this? this is so sick." It's like early music that's renaissance influenced but it's not orthodox.
Just these awesome brass, vocal, and percussion compositions. I think
that's my favorite score in the last several years. Something very different from
that is the synthwave on Hotline Miami. It's a compilation with a bunch of different composers but it just
fits the vibe so perfectly and it's so catchy. I love that soundtrack
Evan : There's so many. There's more than ever at this point. With the
explosion of indie-games, it seems like there's more coming out every
year and the quality is going up every year as well; in terms of both
the music quality and the overall floor of gaming is just rising.
Obvious ones for me are FTL (Faster Than Light), Celeste, and Hollow
The latest album from Dreadnought, Emergence, is out now and can be listened to here.
The latest album from Falls of Rauros, Patterns in Mythology, is out now and can be listened to here.