Sword & Sworcery LP -The Ballad of the Space Babies-
Sword & Sworcery LP -The Ballad of the Space Babies-
April 5, 2011
Download at Bandcamp
Few, if any games for the burgeoning iPhone/iPad market caused as much furore in 2010 as Sword & Sworcery EP. What attracted all the attention wasn’t so much the game’s solid puzzle-solving gameplay, although that certainly didn’t hurt. Even more interesting was Sword & Sworcery‘s unique art style that not only self-consciously referred 8-bit graphics but also put a modern, idiosyncratic twist on them to set the game apart from many other mobile retro titles. Rave reviews, outstanding sales and the 2010 Independent Games Festival Mobile Achievement cemented Sword & Sworcery‘s success and have fanned hopes for a sequel.
One element of the game’s alluring presentation that most critics didn’t fail to comment on was Sword & Sworcery‘s soundtrack — a bit of a surprise, given that a game’s music is rarely given a huge amount of consideration in reviews. However, the game’s score didn’t just complement Sword & Sworcery‘s outstanding visuals. Through a dynamic ambient music system, the soundtrack also played an active role in the gameplay, which partly explains why many commentators paid so much attention to the game’s score.
The crucial role that music plays as part of the game’s presentation and structure is a direct result of Sword & Sworcery‘s development process. Score composer Jim Guthrie was a veteran of the Toronto independent music scene, with a Juno Award nomination for his album “Now, More Than Ever” to his name and with an impressive resume that included work with indie heavy-weights Arcade Fire and Owen Pallett, amongst others. Craig D. Adams, the mastermind behind Sword & Sworcery, had been a long-time fan of Guthrie before he contacted him in 2005 and sent him a game prototype he had been working on. Guthrie, who had performed live with a Sony Playstation since 2002, sent Adams a whole record of previously unreleased tracks he had composed with the MTV Music Generator software. In interviews, Adams described these compositions as the catalyst for his long-gestating project of developing a video game that gave expression to his aesthetic ideas. Contrary to the regular process of composing music for a game — the score has to follow the already existing art direction — Sword & Sworcery as a whole was then built around Guthrie’s contributions, with Adams noting “the music [as] the core of the whole experience.” The game’s music, which Guthrie called “very 1978 meets 2011” and “a kind of hi-fi/low-fi” not only complemented Sword & Sworcery‘s retro-meets-modern visual style, but in fact directly influenced it”.
Considering the impact Sword & Sworcery‘s music had on the game itself, a soundtrack release seemed like a foregone conclusion and was highly anticipated. But what score fans got in April 2011 was even better. Not only was Sword & Sworcery LP -The Ballad of the Space Babies- released as a digital download, but also as a vinyl version that fitted the whole endeavour’s retro trappings perfectly and quickly sold out. The score’s vinyl release contained 40 minutes of music, while the digital album chucked in an additional 14 bonus tracks which amount to 23 minutes of music. And of those unreleased tracks that Guthrie gave Adams in 2005, three made it onto the album.
Says Guthrie of Sword & Sworcery‘s main location: “the forest is a calm, quiet space, so I wanted to reflect that in the music.” And indeed he has. If there’s one sentiment that runs through this marvellously atmospheric soundtrack, it’s wide-eyed wonder at the score’s soundworld. In Guthrie’s assured hand, the game’s nocturnal forest is a mystical, wondrous place that feels just otherworldly enough to imbue a sense of mystery which will lure you down its paths and into the undergrowth. Instruments, mostly deployed in their treble registers, and the incandescent tones they produce resonate within the spacious soundscape of the forest, echoing back from rocks and tree trunks. Melodies that are pretty in the best possible way arise from the moss-covered ground and glide under a starry sky, whimsical but never as twee as on a similar score like ilomilo. And if all these heavy-handed metaphors haven’t made it clear enough yet, Sword & Sworcery‘s music fits its game like few other soundtrack and evokes a sense of location that couldn’t be any stronger.
The opening track “Dark Flute” not only demonstrates this virtue within seconds, but also showcases how the music creatively mixes various elements to come up with an original twist on the retro score genre. A warm flute ostinato places us in a leafy forest, before gleaming synth chords introduce the track’s melody and turn the woods into an unearthly, yet still inviting location. Among his inspirations for Sword & Sworcery, Guthrie counts iconic horror director John Carpenter, and these silvery synths which seem to come straight from the lunar surface are indeed reminiscent of Carpenter’s late 70’s scores. But while the instrument might be the same, the spectral feeling it creates isn’t meant to instil fear, but instead wonderment. In this sense, these characteristic synths can rather be traced back to early 70’s prog rock à la Camel’s “Moonmadness”, and to that particular genre’s fondness for exploring new sonic worlds.
Indeed, a feeling of discovery and excitement runs through all of the score. Partly that’s because its mostly synthesised ingredients still feel relatively fresh, despite their age. It might because they’ve been less overused in film and game scores of the past few decades than let’s say the generically futuristic-sounding, slightly melancholic synth washes of a Deus Ex: Human Revolution or Darkspore. Sure, those John Carpenter-synths sound dated in that they have a definite 70’s/early 80’s vibe to them. But on the other hand, you probably haven’t heard them for a while — and their distinct sounds will still communicate a particular location and feeling to you. At the start of “Unknowable Geometry”, tinkling synth notes sound like drops of water falling from the ceiling of a cave into a calm subterranean lake. Seconds later, Sword & Sworcery‘s music completely takes off and drifts into outer space, before its organ-like, ethereal synths chords start to build in volume and pitch as the cue spirals closer and closer to the stars. The penultimate track “The Whirling Infite” recalls this atmosphere and turns it inwards with its reduced instrumentation and a chromatic, enigmatic glockenspiel figure that haunts the cosmic soundscape.
Another element in Sword & Sworcery‘s iridescent mix of retro elements are its more chiptuney moments, integrated with style and never used as an easy way to elicit nostalgia. The bouncy 8-bit melody on “Lone Star” is infectious and together with the purposefully reedy live percussion balances the soundtrack’s more airier moments, without disrupting its overall dreamy atmosphere. The first half of “Under a Tree” blossoms into a web of increasingly dense chiptune melodies and countermelodies that are light-hearted without being too cute. What’s particularly impressive about Sword & Sworcery‘s retro fittings then is how multi-layered they are. Guthrie draws upon a number of different elements from the past and brings them together in one whole that sounds completely organic and quite unlike anything you’ve heard before. As such, its is a enrapturing extension of the boundaries and norms of the ‘retro game soundtrack’ genre. And often enough, you won’t even realise you’re listening to decade-old instruments. The ghostly ooo-ing sounds on soothing lullaby “The Ballad of the Space Babies” that represents the titular Space Babies comes from Guthrie’s late 80’s Casio SK-1, with Guthrie skillfully working within the hardware’s limitations to achieve the desired effect. Here as throughout the soundtrack, these retro sounds are complemented with up-to-date synths that are less obvious than their characteristic, older siblings. But they still enrichen the score’s textures and make not only “The Ballad of the Space Babies” “a real buffet of hi and low-fi”, as Guthrie puts it.
The final ingredient in that feast are the acoustic sounds that point towards Guthrie’s indie rock work. When the gently driving percussion on “Dark Flute” kicks in to underpin the expansive synth fields, Sword & Sworcery evokes the sound of French electro bands Air and M83. On “The Prettiest Weed”, the rock percussion doesn’t distract from the cue’s floating warmth, but instead carefully injects the music with enough rhythmic energy to make it the perfect accompaniment for setting out on an adventure under a pristine night-time sky. “The Cloud” is one of the more emotionally ambivalent cues on the album, with a minimalist acoustic guitar figure, some breathy woodwind figures, a ticking metronom that doubles as a percussion instrument, and other ambient elements that paint the forest at both its most haunted and delicate. Featuring a cello contribution by Owen Pallett of Final Fantasy fame (no, not that Final Fantasy!), “The Cloud” is one of the few tracks here to rely on dissonances (in the cello and woodwinds) to intrigue the listener, and it does a very good job at it.
The more sombre atmosphere of “The Cloud is representative of the minority of tracks which bring the fantasmagoric atmosphere of the whole soundtrack down to earth, to remind the listener that there’s also danger lurking in Sword & Sworcery‘s world. Next to the other tracks’ luscious shape, these cues’ stripped-down instrumentations feel a bit desolate almost by default, fueled further by the increased use of repetitive, barren sounds: the insistent percussion on “Bones McCoy” which underlies a mischievous minor-key melody; the dispassionately thumping bass on “Ode to a Room”; and the resigned piano figure and electric guitar riff that return over and over throughout “The Maelstrom”. Some of these tracks, like “The Maelstrom” and “Ode to a Room”, are too monosyllabic to impress on their own. But they work well when inserted between and contrasted with the soundtrack’s dreamier tracks. They’re also gathered towards the soundtrack album’s end to effectively ratchet up the tension for the big finale, before “Little Furnace” closes things on a fittingly peaceful, relaxed note.
Or at least it does so on the vinyl edition of Sword & Sworcery. On the digital release, there’s a bunch of bonus tracks and unfortunately, hardly any of them are particularly noteworthy. Several of these cues are either too short to make an impression (“Battles, Pt. 1”, “Battles, Pt. 2”), or they feel more like demo versions of songs that would be fully realised sometime later: “Cabin Music” delivers another version of the album’s trademark upbeat synth sound, but with thinner orchestrations and a less rich atmosphere. “Death to Everyone” and “Confronting the Wolf” contain some of the score’s more menacing moments, but both pieces are rather monotonous and feel functional. And then there are “How We Get Old” and “And We Got Older”, two lengthy acoustic ballads whose repetitious acoustic guitar noodlings become boring pretty quickly. “How We Get Old” turns into a Pink Floyd-esque sound collage, with samples of playing and laughing kids added over violently distorted instruments. But this time, the combination of different elements feels forced and like a half-baked experiment. “And We Got Older” is less adventurous and the better off for it, but it still suffers from an uneven mix that places the plinking sounds of the acoustic guitar and later a sustained synth chord way too far into the foreground. Among the bonus tracks, only “Mushrooms” and “Up a Mountain” feel fully realised: the first track’s percussive backdrop is composed of the charming sounds of what seem like a dozen clocks ringing at the same time; the second cue successfully evokes eeriness through its haunting synths.
The Sword & Sworcery LP -The Ballad of the Space Babies- feels like a trip down memory lane that will take you to a few unexpected places, and some that you haven’t even seen yet. Guthrie draws on a number of different retro elements, particularly in the synth sounds that he uses, and he mixes them with current-day electronica and finespun indie rock strains to achieve an otherworldly, rich sound that’s highly individual. It’s hard to imagine how the score’s delicate tunes could be more evocative of the game’s mood and location — there’s never any doubt that this is truly a score that can stand on its own two feet outside of its game. This is music that you’ll want to listen to on your surround system with the lights turned off and your eyes closed in a happy daze as the soundtracks take you into its whimsical but endearing world.
If there’s anything to complain, it’s the fact that the bonus tracks rank two notches below the rest of the material on Sword & Sworcery. Sure, they are ‘just’ bonus tracks, but if they make up more than a third of an album, it’s difficult to ignore their lesser quality. But even so, you’ll still get 40 minutes of some of the finest indie game score music you’ve heard out of this soundtrack. One last word of advice: you can get Sword & Sworcery LP -The Ballad of the Space Babies- at iTunes, or for less money and in better sound quality at Bandcamp — choose the latter.
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Posted on August 1, 2012 by Simon Elchlepp. Last modified on August 1, 2012.