In an effort to dig deeper into the creative and personal influences behind new music, we recruit artists to tell us about five records that they consider "Essential" by any definition they like. This week, Alaska B gives us ten video game scores that inspire her Montreal // Toronto "Noh-Wave" collective, Yamantaka // Sonic Titan.
Yamantaka // Sonic Titan have two slashes in their band name for a reason: it’s practically impossible to describe their wide-ranging sound without using at least a pair of slashes or hyphens. That’s even more evident on their new sophomore album, UZU, which is out now on Paper Bag. It’s slightly less of a mindfuck than their debut, YT//ST, focusing more on their swelling operatic ballad side than headbanging stoner riffs, but there’s still no easy way to boil it down. Progressive-doom-gaze? IroquAsian-metal-folkcore?
Play spot the spot-the-influence all you want (and most reviews of the record do), but there’s one that usually goes overlooked: video game music. YT//ST drummer/programmer/sequencer Alaska B recently completed Sheridan College’s competitive Computer Animation program in Toronto and collaborated on the soundtrack to the award-winning side-scroller throwback game Mark of the Ninja, which would be a nice side-gig if it wasn’t so integral to her band’s sound.
“I’m always thinking about video games, any time I’m writing music,” she says over sandwiches. “I do a lot of electronic programming for the group, and most rock music doesn’t prescribe how to do that. They just don’t know how. It seems like people have forgotten that synthesizer was a rock instrument before it was ever an electronic dance music instrument. But when it comes to game music, they’re able to use these really simple sounds to make really interesting soundscapes to keep you engaged.”
Specifically, she points to “Seasickness Pt.2” and “Wildflower” as songs from the new album that nod to game music, but the influence runs so deeper than just those two songs. So deep, in fact, that she refused to narrow her Essential Albums to just five. Instead, she speaks about eight classic and cult video game scores (most from the early ‘90s), theorizes about their hidden influence on the Broken Social Scene-led ‘00s indie rock boom, critiques the funding model for independent games, and updates us on the progress of their own side-scroller RPG, Your Task//Shoot Things. Call it a crash course.
Yamantaka // Sonic Titan launch UZU tonight (Wednesday, November 6) at the Garrison, in Toronto.
Final Fantasy VI (Super NES, 1994)
I would argue this the last great generative SoundFont, in-game score. There have been scores since then that people liked, like Halo. But for me, that kind of classical music, it’s epic, but it could be anything. Nobuo Uematsu really hit a stride on Final Fantasy VI. The music is so epic. It straddles the line between being steampunk sci-fi and this oom-pah-pah kind of fantasy vibe. Because of the sheer number of songs in that game, it's the most overwrought, long complicated soundtrack. In a good way. It works for that game because it’s so over the top compared to any other RPG up to that point.
I think that Final Fantasy games since then have been really bland, just uninteresting. They’re trying to make the locale crazier, but the character development isn’t in it. I’ve beaten Final Fantasy VII three times and I still cannot tell you the full story. FFVI is still complicated, but it’s so memorable. It has this ability to grab you. I think that the big turning point was the opera in the middle of the game. I’ve seen people do that kind of thing in a game, but because of the limitations of it you actually have to write a good song. You couldn’t just pass off any random thing because the voices would sound ridiculous, just these horrible samples being pitched up and down.
Mega Man: Dr. Wily’s Revenge (Game Boy, 1991)
Great soundtrack. The Mega Man games all have great songs, but I think they start to get repetitive and uninteresting later on. I didn’t like the Mega Man X music that much. Mega Man 8: whatever. Most of those games are so hard, they’re not actually that fun to play for me. [Dr. Wily’s Revenge] is the first and only of the original bunch that I could actually beat. It’s hard as hell, but the music is so catchy. I swear there’s a million remixes on the internet. People cover them live. Everybody loves the Dr. Wily theme music, the intro music, where they’re panning up the towers in the year 20xx and Mega Man standing on the top without his helmet. That’s just a great memorable soundtrack.
Super Metroid (Super NES, 1994)
In the same vein, Super Metroid has amazing music. The fact that you can get a progressive metal band to cover it and it sounds amazing, that’s a good song. Mega Man [Dr. Wily’s Revenge] is kind of funky at times, like electronic robot dance music, whereas Metroid has this really dark, noir space opera vibe to it. Super-epic arpeggios and horn swells, but you can hear guitar solos and stoner riffs in there.
F-Zero (Super NES, 1990)
F-Zero’s soundtrack is so strong they basically used the same songs for all the sequels. They didn't write new ones, they just re-did them with better guitar samples. That first F-Zero game, the music’s so great. Mute City, Big Blue: just endless guitar solos from beginning to end. And the samples! If you play a really fast song, from beginning to end, stick in a guitar solo, it instantly sounds like F-Zero. It’s all just kick and snare. They don’t even use high hats. It’s just like, ‘boom, tch, boom, tch.’ Super-fast almost D-beat beats and endless synthesizer solos. You can just imagine a robot hitting the whammy bar.
Streetfighter II (Arcade, 1991)
Another one that's a total earworm is Streetfighter II. I think I could hum all but two songs. The Sagat theme is so crazy weird. Some of the best proggy songwriting. When they do progressive metal sounds, they sound almost like Dream Theater or something. But Streetfighter II has moments that are almost like Emerson, Lake & Palmer: these weird synth bells, strange syncopations. Like, what are you doing? But yet everybody still knows them all.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (Nintendo 64, 1998)
I think that Ocarina of Time is incredible, especially because it’s a music-based game. And what’s really neat about [it] is that all the songs had to be written on three notes to play on the ocarina in the game, so all the main themes are just three notes used in different ways. And the same three notes. Being able to write a score with those limitations, where everything’s based around simple, repetitive sounds, makes it even more impressive.
It has this engagement with the music, like when Link needs to find Saria through the fairy land in the enchanted forest, you have to follow the music: [sings] "ba ba ba, ba ba ba." You’re always trying to hear that music to get to the different puzzles. I think older games dealt with repetition as a way to make you remember the songs, but with Legend of Zelda you have to integrate into them, you have to use them. You say “how do I summon Epona?”. You have to know Epona’s song. You have to know the songs in order to get through the game.
Loom (DOS/CD-ROM, 1990)
I found that very reminiscent of the game Loom. Loom was a formative game for me, in terms of games and music. My cousins had it on their Apple II or something. If you were lucky, you got the CD-ROM version that had the music on it. Totally overlooked, totally forgotten about soundtrack. It has such a cheesy, general MIDI kind of sound, but they really made a great soundtrack with it. Basically, you’re this guy in a cloak who learns magic spells using a loom. But to use the loom you have to learn music that you hear, and the different parts of the loom that you play are attached to the songs. So that was the same premise used in Ocarina of Time. They don’t really use that in the newer Zelda games, though. They kind of dropped that. But I thought it was a great little device.
EarthBound (Super NES, 1994)
I also want to talk about Earthbound. Me and my partner Ange [Loft, also of YT//ST] actually listened to the soundtrack last night while we were working. I found somebody uploaded all 99 songs and we just listened to them all. And it was this really weird mood music. Some of the music’s trippy, like you’re on acid. Some of the songs are these little poppy ditties. Other ones are cheeseball reinterpretations of genre music.
So Ange was listening to this, and she said “this music sounds like indie pop, but like ten years before indie pop.” And she’s right! I think there’s this moment where the underground electronic music world and the video game world met, and I feel like there’s so much influence from that moment. Nobody really knew what video game music was. It’s kind of industrial at times, kind of classical, but also kind of classic rock. I have a feeling some of those sounds and styles of songwriting, some of the choices in, like, the lead trumpet, it seems like it took hold in at least somebody’s psyche and got regurgitated later. I think a lot of people raised on these influences started bringing this more epic way of looking at indie pop in that post-grunge world.
Sometimes even when I hear Broken Social Scene, at times, I can kind of hear it. I remember the moment they came out with that big record [You Forgot It In People] on Paper Bag Records and then moved to Arts & Crafts, that wasn’t long after those games. And I feel like people were sampling game music tonnes for drum and bass and that remix culture of that moment. A lot of raver music, happy hardcore of the late ‘90s, was all on top of video game remixes. Like, “oh, I’ll just sample it right off the Super NES.” There was no label to chase after people, nobody cared. Just grab a dub plate and nobody ever comes after you for it.
Mark of the Ninja (Xbox, Windows, 2012)
I worked on Mark of the Ninja, which came out last year and won a bunch of awards. It was weird because I didn’t get to see the game first. It was kind of just thrown at us. We got the game bible version of it, like “There’s a ninja who gets this tattoo that makes him have stealth powers and then it drives him insane and he doesn’t know what’s real and what’s not.” I was like, “So it’s a ninja story, man? I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
They asked us to write the theme for this big climactic moment. They kind of gave us an idea, like the character walks through the snow and sees their hallucinations. So we wrote the song “Mark and Blade” which, thematically, was actually less about the game, more about what description of the song brings out. It was written by myself and Brendan Swanson, our keyboard player, and [lead singer] Ruby [Kato Attwood] sang on it. We tried to write something really short and epic that reflected the game itself.
At the time I was reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami, and there’s that scene at the end when he’s in the dark at the hotel in the dream world and this guy comes in and he can just feel him there. He’s got a knife and a bat and he’s just got one chance in the dark. There’s something about that moment where it was like, okay, if I’m in a dark room in a stealth situation where I’m trying to take down a guy before he takes me down, there’s only room for one person in the space. One’s going to snuff the other one out. And the more there is of you, the less there is of me. The more there is of me the less there is of you. The presences are incompatible. And so we went with that theme for the song and it elicited feelings of hallucination, an enemy you don’t know.
Afterwards, when the game came out, oh, it worked perfectly. With the description of it so vague, it was difficult. But in the end it worked out beautifully and people really enjoy it. I’ve only seen one person talk about how much it sucks.
Your Task//Shoot Things (in development)
We had plans to bring a mini-arcade box to bring on tour with us, but our game is stalled. It’s not dead, but it’s kind of on the back burner. Funding issues. Shelved temporarily while we focus on the current tour. There’s been lots of early work, like the basic story line and a lot of the designs have kind of been hammered out, but until we have the money to pay people to move forward on it, it’s stalled.
We’re at a weird place with funding in Canada where a lot of the funding that these new kinds of media projects that people have been demanding have been shifted from content creation and more towards app creation. But it’s a bloated app market. It’s not actually a better move. But I don’t feel bad about it because games take years to make and funding setbacks are temporary, so we’ll continue to work on it.