The Flame in the Flood
The Flame in the Flood
Ten Four Records
February 4, 2016
Download on iTunes
Boston-based dev studio Molasses Flood is a self-described collection of “AAA refugees.” Its staff have played parts in the development of the BioShock, Rock Band, and Halo series. The studio’s first title, The Flame in the Flood, has therefore been met with somewhat steep expectations; players expected polished gameplay, art design, and—you guessed it—a fetching soundtrack.
To help apply a unique musical sheen, Molasses Flood took a chance on American singer-songwriter and guitarist Chuck Ragan, who outside of scoring a short film is a newcomer to media-based scoring and composing. That said, Ragan’s been embracing the stage life since 1993, and is credited with four studio albums. In my opinion, it was a decision that paid dividends.
Whether you’re familiar with Ragan’s music or not, you probably already guessed that The Flame in the Flood’s soundtrack isn’t full of MIDI beep-boops and soaring orchestral sections. It’s a Martin-guitar-centric, romping folk fest that spotlights Ragan’s rough, emotive voice. The album is peppered with instrumentals, but this is very much a standalone album apart from the game, albeit as a studio release divorced from a video game it might be panned for its simplicity.
The instrumentation features a full band, with Ragan on vocals, guitars, and harmonicas; Jon Gaunt on fiddle (or violin, for you traditionalists); Joe Ginsberg on upright and electric bass; Todd Beene on pedal steel, percussion, and backing vocals; and David Hidalgo Jr. on drums. Guest musicians Mitchell Townsend, Adam Faucett, and Joe Snodgrass are also featured on various tracks. Appropriate to the tone of the music, the album was produced in Grass Valley, CA.
The titular opening track, “The Flame in the Flood,” sets the stage for the tone, timbre, and feel of the rest of the album. To be clear, I was expecting an all instrumental album, so when Ragan first entered, his voice took me completely off guard (in a good way). A baritone that starts off smooth but finishes with a bite like Kentucky whiskey, it lends an almost rock’n’roll distortion to the otherwise percussive strumming and legato fiddle fills. The track opens, vamping in a folksy minor mode until Ragan makes his vocal entrance—singing of backwaters, fables, and silence.
If the track’s catchy chorus, “Keep my eyes opened / Keep my ears sharpened / There’s nothing to fear / But fear itself / Oh desperation / Chasing horizons / In the flame and the flood” doesn’t paint a perfect picture of the game’s survival-crafting and the player’s constant scramble against impending permadeath, then Ragan just got lucky. But I’m pretty sure it’s the former.
If the first track is the game’s title music, the almost saccharine follow-up “Gathering Wood” is the overworld theme (and, in fact, it is). For players, it’s the track they’ve heard most often while first setting out upon the lazy river, and it’s probably slowly driven them nuts while they messed with their inventories or, uh, literally gathered wood.
The overt major-key tonality, shaker percussion, sweet guitar lines, and cheery mandolin set a flowers-and-sunshine vibe that Ragan’s voice doesn’t quite fit into. It’s as powerful and rough-edged as ever, but after a couple listens the contrast between these disparate elements becomes enjoyable and sets up the third track’s change in tone.
With third track “In the Eddy,” the honeymoon period is over, the lazy water giving way to the pressing need to survive in an environment that’s slowly becoming hostile. This guitar-heavy, instrumental fingerpicking dirge evokes images of cold, dark water and inhospitable islands. A moaning pedal steel in the background warns of impending danger like so many hungry wolves.
There’s a roughness to this track that some listeners may take issue with. The occasional sparkle of an over-plucked string, sliding of fingers on wood, and fret buzz caused by imperfect depression on a fret are a constant reminder that this isn’t electronic music in the slightest. Personally, I like it, but I’m a little biased.
With “Loup Garou,” we’re treated to one of the album’s highlights. The mandolin is back, joined by a more adventurous fiddle, upbeat percussion, and—most importantly—backup vocals and guitar from Adam Faucett. This complement allows Ragan to really dig in with his buckshot growl, but the edges are smoothed off by the enveloping band of strings and percussion. Clocking in under three minutes, I found myself restarting this one over constantly at the request of my tapping heel.
This track, to me, also symbolizes when the feedback loop “clicks” and the player earns an understanding of the the crafting and survival elements, braving her first few nights. As she reflects on her acquired skills, Ragan summarizes: “These old feet and that old dog / Look to me to make food or fault / No one’s searching, so I’m not lost / I don’t cry for the paths I’ve crossed.”
Oh, and did I mention there’s a didgeridoo?
The next track, “Spanish Moss,” features a dance-like three-step tempo in a minor mode, and some of the album’s first slightly distorted guitars can be heard punctuating the suite with double-stops. But it’s far from rock’n’roll, relying on a rambunctious but traditionally beautiful lead violin to set a tone of yearning and desperation (no surprise, as it was written by Joe Gaunt, the group’s fiddle player). Yet despite swelling to almost orchestral levels of existential pining, it fails to really stand out, almost serving as an intermission for the next half of the album.
With “Landsick,” we’re back into rompin’, foot stompin’ territory. This highlight track is probably the most upbeat and rock-centric offering on the album, with the guitars’ percussive palm muting and forays into lead picking propping up Ragan’s return to the musical front via languishing, searching vocals. Smart use of stop-time and contrasting dynamics give the track a stop-and-go feel akin to a river’s mix of rocky rapids and gentle dawdling.
Hits on offbeats crush the earlier consistency of rhythm and mandolin rambling, giving a real feeling of motion and progression. My only complaint is that Ragan’s belting vocals are delivered with such intensity, their blue-note slides occasionally sound like mistakes.
The seventh track, “River and Dale,” will please blues and folk fans with its howling harmonica and classic guitar strumming. The verse sections are almost entirely Chuck, accompanying his singing and blasting away at the mouth harp between sets of lyrics. The short-lived chorus brings in a beautiful blend of baritone voices and harmonies. It’s a reflective piece of music that reigns in the tempo a bit without decreasing intensity, but is not the album’s strongest offering.
With “Cover Me Gently,” we’re treated to a slow, somber, bluegrass ballad roughed up by thick steel guitar that gives way to sparse strumming and light percussion. Here, Jon Snodgrass takes a vocal spotlight, lending his overtly smooth and southern drawl to the second verse. It’s a surprising tonal shift from Ragan’s growl, and the lilt of Snodgrass’s accent is the most country-western thing on the album. I like this track, but it sounds a little like the last slow dance at a Tennessee high school prom—for better or for worse.
The penultimate track “Long Water” treats us to a dressed-down blues-cadence amble with judicious chicken pickin’ and pedal bass tones. Ragan is back in the spotlight again, his cutting vocals resting on a bed of twanging strings. The slightly more complex chordal structure, which frames a 12-bar blues—while skirting around the usual IV-V turnaround and instead sliding into home from a deceptive cadence—is supremely welcome. Ragan’s voice at times flutters out like a wind-kissed candle, lending a feeling of real emotion. Indeed, the sounds of the man’s measured breaths between versus cut through the normalization, lending the track a very human feel.
The final track, “What We Leave Behind,” falls into a predictable four-chord pattern, but is immediately bolstered by the presence of a chorus of vocals, setting the stage for the first verse. The steel guitar cries over familiar picking, and rolling bass string hammer-ons are blanketed by layered, harmonized vocals. It’s a fitting closer, to be sure, but never goes out of its way to hammer home any stronger message than, “We made it, we’re going to be okay.” But like the game’s survival gameplay—and moss on a stone-found-home—this track grows on you.
The strong tracks on The Flame in the Flood are brawny enough to make up for the lackluster moments in the second half. The music occasionally stands on its own entirely apart from the game, but sometimes feels phoned in, too. As a Kentucky-born guitarist, I grew up hearing this style of music played on porches and am mostly immune to any novelty—but there are tracks here I’ll come back to again and again. Overall, this OST is a powerful testament to what can be done via experienced songwriting and collaborating musicians in lieu of a composer with a DAW. It’s raw, analog fuel for a polished digital raft, only occasionally dogged by predictability.
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Posted on October 5, 2016 by Lee Neikirk. Last modified on October 5, 2016.