October 1, 1991
Download at iTunes
After creating a string of hit Commodore 64 and Amiga scores, Chris Huelsbeck decided to produce his first original album, Shades. As with most of his productions, this release only features a few of his game works and the majority of the pieces are original and demo pieces. As a result, stylistic experimentation is the focus of much of the album. Though some experiments are immature and the quality varies throughout, Huelsbeck nevertheless offers a very chaming and emotional collective experience.
The album opens with a medley of well-selected themes from the first two Turrican games. Huelsbeck certainly captures the spirit of the series’ music with his poppy vibes, positive aura, and surprising dark twists. All the great melodies from the series are there, most notably the main theme from Turrican II from the 7:25 mark. Although some will find the medley format and 15 minute playtime troublesome, it is still a highly enjoyable tribute to the scores. A couple of Huelsbeck’s other game scores make appearances. “Theme from R-Type” sounds more mellow yet grandiose than before in its expanded interpretation a little later in the album. For the Commodore 64 classic Masterblazer, Huelsbeck also takes the liberty to experiment with a funk style to solid results; the slapped bass riffs provide plenty of rhythmical thrust to the composition, while the saxophone work and semi-acoustic guitar solos are convincingly stylised.
While there are only three game arrangements featured here, there are nevertheless some pieces that exhibit Huelsbeck’s characteristic sound. “Warzone” fits in well with its upbeat synthpop influence and could easily have worked on a new Turrican game had one been made. Meanwhile “Power of Magic” provides a more ambient theme with its slow-building melodies and sci-fi overlays. However, easily the biggest highlight is the title theme “Shades” right at the centre of the album. This was Chris Huelsbeck’s first ever published composition, written for a computer music contest supported by the German computer magazine 64er, and it immediately won him a dedicated fanbase. It’s easy to see why. For a start, it’s so upbeat and catchy. Yet there is also something deeper offered by the boundless synth work and occasionally moody chords. For many, this is the defining Huelsbeck composition and hence is a must-have.
Later in the album, Huelsbeck explores hip-hop styles on “Nightmoves” and “Addicted to these Games” in collaboration with Andreas Hofmann and Rudolf Stember respectively. The former is an accessible and well-spirited blend of vocal samples, samba percussion, and house beats; however, not all will find it interesting since it is stylistically naïve and lacks an attitude. “Addicted…” makes up for this with a hyper-catchy old-school anthem. Most of the elements of this mix are very familiar, though I can’t always place why. Much of the piece revolves around a performance from a reggaeton rapper featuring game-related lyrics. However, the backing with Tetris-inspired organ work, retro sound effects, and a Gorillaz-esque bass line is just as entertaining. The subtitle of ‘NES Mix’ somewhat fits and it’s a very charming tribute from West to East overall.
The conclusion of the album features some of Huelsbeck’s most emotional experiments. “Heaven’s Gate” is more of a new age piece with explorative piano work and reflective synthpads. Though one of the most personal contributions on the album, it’s still very accessible and charming. Subsequently “Tower of Babel” is a spectacular imitation of John Williams’ orchestral epics. Even though it is presented on humble synth, this piece seems to have partly inspired Symphonic Shades with its stunning transitions and fantastical orchestration. The album ends with an composition by Huelsbeck’s long-term friend and collaborator Rudolf Stember, “Tale of Glory”. Stember’s approach to orchestration is an interesting contrast to Huelsbeck, but still retains that fantastical and gamey aura. It’s a triumphant way to end the album.
Overall, Shades is a definitive purchase for any Huelsbeck fans. Its offers everything from synthpop to hip-hop to symphonies, game arrangements to demo works to collaborative compositions. Nevertheless, Huelsbeck ensures his characteristic melodic and emotional sound is maintained throughout. With so many individual highlights and a rich collective whole, this is a solid introduction to Germany’s most legendary game composer.
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Posted on August 1, 2012 by Chris Greening. Last modified on August 1, 2012.