GunGirl 2 Original Soundtrack
GunGirl 2 Original Soundtrack
June 7, 2010 (Digital Edition); July 9, 2010 (CD Edition)
Buy at Official Site
One of the most popular breeds of independent retro games that have sprung up in recent years are 2D jump’n’runs, often of the action-laden Contra variety. GunGirl 2 neatly fits into that category and mixed nostalgic shooter gameplay with the ever-popular zombie menace when released in 2010. Arguably the most interesting thing about the entertaining but derivative game was its soundtrack, provided by young indie game composer Josh Whelchel. In 2008, Whelchel had made a name for himself with his massive score for The Spirit Engine 2, still one of Western game music’s longest releases. However, it was his work for Bonesaw that brought him to the attention of GunGirl 2‘s creator Paul Schneider. Frustrated with how other indie game composers wouldn’t stay on the project for long, Schneider one night decided to simply write Whelchel an email to present the game to him. Half an hour later, he received a positive response and thus began Whechel’s work on GunGirl 2.
To emphasise the game’s over-the-top humour and comic-like approach to its zombie-apocalypse scenario, Whelchel decided to bring in live performer for GunGirl 2‘s soundtrack. Studying at a Conservatory during the making of the game, Whelchel was “entirely caught up in the fascination of live performances and the power of such talented performers”, as he recalled in an interview. Whelchel worked most extensively with Rich Brilli, a campus friend of his who would lay down the score’s classic hard-rock inspired guitar riffs and soli. Other live performers on GunGirl 2 included violinist Rachel Denlinger and mezzo-soprano Stephanie Schoenhafer. Ultimately, more than half of the tracks written for the game ended up featuring live performers. The soundtrack was released via online music store Bandcamp in two versions: a whopping 102-minute digital version and a 73-minute best of-style CD release. This review compares both releases.
If there’s one characteristic of GunGirl 2‘s music that ties together all of its 102 minutes, it’s an infectious sense of fun. The game is an absolute blast and its main theme perfectly reflects this quality. It appears 11 seconds into the score on opening track “Opening Themes” and it’s simple, fun and instantly memorable, so much so that you won’t get it out of your head for days. In its head-nodding, determined swagger, the theme could come right out of one of Konami’s early-90’s action games, and it’s a testament to Whelchel’s talents that his theme can hold its ground against such genre classics. Fortunately, Whelchel also makes sure to put the main theme to good use throughout the album, where it appears on numerous occasions and ties the score together without ever feeling repetitive.
The main theme usually appears in the same, resolute fashion, for example on overdriven guitars on “Anomaly” or in particularly stimulating shape on “Kyrie Immanis”, where the theme is set against a rich symphonic background. But Whelchel also reworks the melody satisfyingly throughout the soundtrack to keep it fresh, changing the tune’s structure on “Sanctus Inferno”, juxtaposing it to amazing effect with haunting female vocals on “Phantasmagoria Ex” and transposing it into the Major key for an oddball rendition on cheeky xylophones on “Hell in a Handbasked”. These efforts ensure that the main theme is able to carry the lengthy album, even though the teme becomes less prominent in the score’s second half when it’s being replaced more and more by other thematic material.
That material is less stringently organised than the heroes’ theme and appears in the shape of particular choices of timbres and instruments rather than as a recurring melody. As GunGirl and GunDude make their way through ever more dangerous levels, alternatively warped or aggressive synthesiser effects embody what Whelchel called “the sound of hell.” The first instance of this sound is a rolling synthesiser motif that opens “The Unforgiven” and returns on “Unto the Wicked”, one of the digital exclusives not found on the score’s CD release. In fact, one of the digital release’s advantages is that it gives greater weight to the spooky hell material which remains a bit of a footnote on the CD album. On “Oblivion” and several other tracks, the underworld also makes itself heard either through what Whelchal called “crazy demonic voices” or deep male choir chants that are supplemented on “Dies Irae” by the requisite Gothic organ chords.
At first glance, Latin track titles and well-worn horror tropes don’t necessarily scream “lighthearted fun!” But Whelchel keeps his tongue firmly in his cheek when peppering his music with dramatic orchestral inserts and creepy synth tones. The end of the world might be coming, but it does so in 16-bit graphics and in 2D, and Whelchel’s music creates the perfect mix between apocalyptic seriousness and retro-styled fun. GunGirl 2‘s over-the-top visual aesthetic finds its complement in Whelchel’s exuberant mix of styles that generates an unabashedly big and sweeping sound, fit for any big-budget action game with delusions of grandeur — “Sanctus Inferno” is the kind of track that you blast through a wall of amplifiers at the edge of vast canyon to tell the world how awesome this music is. Most pieces are anchored in heavy-hitting, classic hard rock riffs and soli, backed by a vigorous rhythm section. On these tracks, guitarist Rich Brilli proves time and time again that he’s one of GunGirl 2‘s major assets as he churns out melodic soli as skilfully as crunching riffs that power these pieces like a well-oiled engine firing on all cylinders.
On top of this foundation, Whelchel layers gamey synth leads that often carry a cue’s melodies and squarely underline the score’s winning retro charm. These synth melodies are written in the spirit of the action jump’n’runs of old and are just as catchy and infectious as their ancestors. They also nicely counterbalance the score’s more serious moments, which pop up either when the synths are used for darkly atmospheric means, or when Whelchel inserts orchestral elements into the mix. The latter’s most striking incarnations are the violin and (mezzo-)soprano soli found on several tracks, and their emotional nature and delivery ensure that they wring every last bit of delicious drama out of these cues.
It’s important to note that while the histrionics on classically-influenced pieces like “Libera Me” and “Dies Irae” are purposefully overwrought, this is not because Whelchel writes these cues as parodies that merely make fun of operatic temperaments. Instead, the passionate vocal melodies and heart-rending melodies on “Libera Me” and digital exclusive “Game Over/Libera Me” can easily stand on their own and would be deeply-felt showstoppers on most other soundtracks. Likewise, the virtuosic solo violin on “Anomaly” that duels with a note-shredding guitar solo is impeccably composed (and performed). The score’s more serious moments lose their pretentious nature and gain their cheerfully ironic nature through their album context that surrounds them blistering electric guitars and head-bopping SNES-style melodies. “Sing Gloria” puts this contrast even more upfront and has tons of fun pitting electronic beats and punchy guitar riffs against a soprano melody that spirals higher and higher (just for the sake of it) while telling you why the singer’s done with singing “Hallelujah”. The various components of GunGirl 2‘s music are all earnest in nature, but their combination is carefully planned and implemented to create a mix that takes the game’s simple doomsday scenario at face value and at the same time gently pokes fun at it.
Pulling together a cohesive score from so many different styles — hard rock, classical music, chiptune-inspired synths — is no mean feat, and Whelchel proves himself up to the challenge. It’s impressive to observe how a track like “They All Fall Down” mixes all kinds of elements — wild keyboard arpeggios, howling guitars, choir vocals, stuttering synth sounds, gothic orchestral phrases — and still comes out at the other end as a coherent, organically flowing piece despite going in so many directions. This controlled variety, energised by a boundless sense of fun and filled to the brim with ideas, is what keeps the album going for more than 100 minutes. Only some tracks in the second half of the album flow less well as they are more transparently structured, switching back and forth between two contrasting sections or moods in rather obvious fashion and feeling a bit padded as a result.
The otherwise excellent album flow and mix of styles is also upset somewhat on the digital release by its half hour of exclusive material that stretches the music’s colourful and quirky character to the breaking point and beyond. The CD release is indeed a best-of selection that focuses on the score’s most substantial, rocking pieces, only weirdly interrupted by the cheesy Christmas strains of “Sleighbells, with Temper!”. The more extensive digital album presentation includes some of GunGirl 2‘s more curious compositions that feel like a collection of bonus tracks — rarely essential, but there’s still some worthwhile discoveries to be made. The aforementioned “Hell in a Handbasket” is an off-the-wall oddity that abruptly changes the mood of the album, and “No Hope for Those of Darkness” carries on with its eerie sound collage a bit too long for its own good, even though it’s an effective mood-setter.
On the other hand, “Unto the Wicked” and “Iron Curse” feature some creative manipulation of mezzo soprano melodies, which seem to emanate from some haunted place far down in the netherworld. “Iron Curse” submits its violin solo to the same slightly distorting treatment and instils some sadness into an otherwise chilling composition. The more rocking compositions offer a similar picture. “Descent” is as energetic as any other piece on the soundtrack, but it feels a bit like one long guitar solo and lacks substance. But then there’s also “Destiny”, which features some of the game’s best rhythm guitar work and over an escalating keyboard solo works its way to an invigorating climax. All in all, these additional pieces add some new colours to the score and keep it afloat during this album’s prolonged running time, but they also create a slightly bumpier listening experience.
GunGirl 2 is an impressive achievement in more than one way. Whelchel tosses hard rock, emotive orchestrations, horror stereotypes and retro-style synth melodies into the mix and manages to bring them all together in a stylish melange that’s not only original, but also just huge fun. The score’s scope is astounding: you would expect to hear such music, with its immense sweep and wall-of-sound approach, in a triple-A game, not a small indie project. After The Spirit Engine 2, Whelchel overachieves again in the best way possible. While much bigger than it needs to be, his soundtrack for GunGirl 2 perfectly realises the game’s over-the-top aesthetic and finds a musical expression for it that is as clever as it is accomplished. The inclusion of live musicians pays off in spades and particularly the score’s guitar work is outstanding, infusing the music with tremendous energy.
As to which version of the soundtrack to get — physical or digital — that question is a bit tricky. Sound quality is not an issue, as you can download the digital version of the music on Bandcamp in lossless format. The CD’s cover artwork is sleek, but that’s about the only tangible advantage you get out of the the physical release’s album presentation. The digital album holds an additional 30 minutes of music and puts greater emphasis on GunGirl 2‘s spooky mood-driven pieces, which are relegated to the sidelines a bit on the CD. But this added material also disrupts the otherwise outstanding album’s flow more than necessary, compared to the more stylistically coherent physical release. But no matter which option you pick, you’ll be rewarded with one of the most rocking albums that the independent game score scene has to offer.
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Posted on August 1, 2012 by Simon Elchlepp. Last modified on August 1, 2012.