Friday, November 1, 2019

A Link to the Past : Nostalgia Turned Metal

 Video game music/audio is one of the biggest unsung heroes of game development. A good theme can be as iconic as the game itself. Among gamers and non-gamers alike, you would probably be hard pressed to find anyone who wouldn't immediately recognize the themes from 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!

The interviewees:

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.

I 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 really enjoyed.

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 extreme metal.

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 say (laughs).

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 whole bunch 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 time.

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.

Finally, 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.

KevinI 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.

I don't 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 too.

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 Knight.

- Mick

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.

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