Alpha Squad The Soundtrack
Alpha Squad The Soundtrack
January 16, 2011
Buy at Bandcamp
Retro games have enjoyed an unexpected revival over the past few years, as smartphones and console download services like Xbox Live and WiiWare provide a new outlet for independent gaming. One of the many games that tried to combine 2D gameplay mechanics with an updated presentation is Alpha Squad, a top-down shooter that harkens back to late 80s/early 90s titles like Contra and Smash TV. Referencing many of the shooter genre’s favourite clichés in its over-the-top presentation — impossibly muscled super soldiers and all — Alpha Squad suffered from a number of design issues that resulted in only average reviews upon release.
One of the reasons many old school game fans were looking forward to Alpha Squad was its soundtrack, to be provided by Stemage (aka Grant Henry) of Metroid Metal fame. Branching out from his gaming music arrangement duties with Metroid Metal, Alpha Squad gave Henry his first chance to create original music for a video game. Alpha Squad‘s developer Dragon Divide, themselves fans of Henry’s work, had contacted the guitarist early in the process, feeling that the game’s art direction and Henry’s musical sensibilities were in sync. In interviews, Henry professed to the daunting nature of writing original music that had to address a certain location or mood, but also expressed his enthusiasm for tackling this challenge. Clocking in at a respectable 45 minutes, Henry released his soundtrack for Alpha Squad for a name-your-own-price fee via online music store Bandcamp in January 2011.
As will be a surprise to few people, Alpha Squad doesn’t signal a sudden stylistic shift for Henry. The music on this album is as much metal as Metroid Metal’s Varia Suite and certainly fits the style of old school shooters that Alpha Squad pays tribute to. Does it rock then? You bet it does. One listen to “City” will have have metal fans head-banging with a big grin on their faces. Pummeling drums, aggressive rhythms guitars that are served well by a powerful album recording and an edgy, yet melodic guitar solo: they all make for a track full of ferocious energy that grabs you by the throat from the first second and doesn’t let go — and you’ll be all the happier for it. And while “City” is the album’s fastest track, the rest of the album certainly doesn’t lack punch, with almost each song as intense as it is intricate in its densely layered textures.
Still, the prospect of what’s essentially a 45-minute instrumental metal album might be a bit daunting for some. Rest assured though that Alpha Squad is never in danger of turning into a mere showcase for Henry’s considerable guitar skills. His writing on Alpha Squad naturally puts his layers of lead and rhythm guitars into the spotlight, but they always remains song-oriented — you’ll find no self-indulgent guitar soli or lightning-fast note shredding on this album. It also helps that Henry often builds his lead guitar work and thus songs as a whole on variations of a simple, short melody. Not only does this emphasis on melodies help to focus the songs, but the melodies, in their upbeat nature and sheer catchiness, will remind you of those 8- and 16-bit tunes of old you’ve come to love.
The opening track “Alpha Squad Theme” already pays charming homage to its genre predecessors with a main theme that’s full of bravado and just the slightest bit cheesy. The song almost relies a bit too much on similar variations of the theme, but that won’t change the fact that you’ll be humming its melody right after the first listen. Despite the name of “Alpha Squad Theme”, that melody doesn’t return in recognisable form throughout Alpha Squad and later tracks rely on their own themes. But then again, a taut 45-minute metal album isn’t as much in need of a unifying main theme as a sprawling symphonic score. While the whole album is rarely a gloomy listen, the main theme’s cheery, arcade-style music returns most strongly on “New City”, described aptly by Henry as the “happiest, cheesiest, and most epic guitar rock song” he’s ever written and a great song to “clean your house to”. And as long as you can accept Alpha Squad as the loveletter to chiptune game music that it is, you’ll enjoy the track’s poppy flair and soaring guitar solo so much it’ll probably even help you to finally do your tax return.
Another throwback to vintage game scores are the relentless rhythms and frenzied focus on short instrumental phrases on “Boss” and “Final Boss”, stylings that obviously lend themselves perfectly to the intense metal treatment they get here. And while both tracks are very similar, “Final Boss” cranks up the tension by featuring more varied drumming than “Boss” and perfectly conveys the urgency and madness that a final boss track should portray. The only time Henry’s incorporation and updating of old school game music falls short of expectations is on closing track “Overworld”. That cue’s celebratory melody would have been put to good use as a victory fanfare or jingle. But when forced to carry a whole song and repeated over and over again with little variation, the theme reveals its limitations due to its thin substance and soon becomes tiresome.
Despite the melodic focus of most tunes, there’s also a good number of tracks that get by fabulously with the help of grinding riffs and rhythms. The aforemnetioned “Boss” and “Final Boss” are the most obvious examples of this heavier style of metal musings, but Henry strongly relies on beefy riffs for some of the stage tracks as well to set the mood. “Alliance” scores the game’s baddies with lumbering rhythms that scream “Evil!” at an appropriate volume. “Jungle” and “Haunted” both create a claustrophobic atmosphere through similar means, but still emerge as distinct tracks. “Haunted” takes the aggressive riffs of “Boss” and slows them down to establish an oppressive, suffocating mood. The inclusion of acoustic guitar parts is well-judged and helps to increase the cue’s forsaken atmosphere. “Jungle” turns the stifling attitude of “Haunted” up to 11 and throws a constant barrage of pulverising riffs at the listener. Closer to death metal that any other song on Alpha Squad, “Jungle” is a stomping, lumbering beast of a mid-tempo track and its jaw-dropping intensity is capped off perfectly by a spastic lead guitar freak out just before the track loops. It speaks volumes about Henry’s song-writing skills that even in such a hostile environment, he manages to inject the music with some gritty, if brief, melodies.
One of the challenges Henry identified when tackling his first game score was the need to compose fitting music for a number of different locales. He passes that test with flying colours, as the finely tuned atmospherics of “Haunted” and “Jungle” proof. But there’s still more variety to Alpha Squad, and that’s ultimately the biggest strength of this soundtrack which helps it to easily sustain its running time. Sure, Alpha Squad‘s locations are as generic as its story — Sewer? Yes. Desert? Yep. Winter landscape? Indeed — and the soundtrack doesn’t revolutionise the way these places have been portrayed musically in other games. But Alpha Squad‘s score captures the different environments with panache and style and always to great effect.
“Sewer” is a great mood changer after the album’s heavy start, with its atmospheric guitar overlays that ring in the distance and skilfully vary material laid out at the beginning of the track. The way the track moves effortlessly from its comparatively light start into a thunderous climax full of intricate guitar work once more showcases Henry’s impressive song-writing skills. “Winter” follows a similar, albeit slightly more complex, structure that establishes a captivating pattern of tension and release throughout the track’s five minutes of running time, moving from a calm opening through various stages to another vigorous guitar workout. Chiming, repetitive phrases on picked electric guitar work their chilly magic, while the percussion section keeps the composition firmly planted in metal territory. And on “Desert”, the vast sands are atmospherically scored with tribal rhythms, some of the album’s most expansive melodic phrases and the use of subtly altered scales, all of them highlighting how Henry can easily apply and adapt his musical blueprint to various contexts. It also helps that these varied, yet stylistically coherent songs are presented in a well-balanced album track order that highlights the differences between tracks like “Jungle” and “New City” without interrupting the album’s flow.
Fans of Metroid Metal — and metal scores in general — have reason to rejoice. On his first original soundtrack, Henry proves himself a more than capable composer who doesn’t have to rely on other artists’ material to achieve outstanding results. Alpha Squad‘s score perfectly mirrors the game’s ambition of marrying old school virtues with an up-to-date presentation and will appeal to retro gamers just as much as to score fans who have been looking for a great metal soundtrack. Henry mixes arcade-style melodies with dense textures that wouldn’t be out of place on a progressive hard rock album and most of the time manages to combine the best of both worlds. Always putting his guitar-playing talents at the service of a song, Henry creates a colourful collection of tracks that not only burst with energy, but also capture the game’s different locales with ease and help to make the album an engaging listen throughout. If you have the faintest interest in metal, give this immensely catchy and enjoyable album a listen on Henry’s Bandcamp website.
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Posted on August 1, 2012 by Simon Elchlepp. Last modified on January 19, 2016.