Tooth and Tail
Tooth and Tail
N/A (Austin Wintory)
September 5, 2017
Buy at Bandcamp
While games composers can seldom afford to linger in a single musical style, few commit themselves to the exploration of new genres and combinations of sounds with the same fervor as Austin Wintory. From the detuned ragtime of Monaca: What’s Yours Is Mine to the Nordic anthems of The Banner Saga to the orchestral ambience of the Grammy-nominated Journey, Austin has proven his adaptability across a variety of disparate projects.
The latest of Austin Wintory’s wild departures is the original soundtrack to Tooth and Tail – or, as the man himself puts it in the album description, an excuse to produce “tangos and latin dance music…using early 20th century Russian instruments.” This combination is already unique in the world of game music in general, let alone in the context of Austin’s discography. Does this unconventional album make for a rare treat from one of the industry’s most versatile composers?
The album succeeds, first and foremost, in establishing itself as a significant stylistic departure from Austin Wintory’s previous works. In fact, few other soundtracks in gaming, if any, are quite like it – even taking into account Tetris’s Russian heritage and the somber, slavic undercurrents of Papers, Please. Tooth and Tail sets its own rules right away with “The Food of Beasts,” deploying Mariachi-style trumpet against a pompous – and very possibly drunk – male chorus, and concluding with some playful counterpoint between a detuned piano and acoustic guitar. This opening track lingers in a minor key, but also has a certain swagger thanks to the swing in its time signature – making the track both grizzly and comically off-kilter.
This conflicted mood persists all throughout the album, as demonstrated by its first handful of tracks. With “Hopper, Flagbearer for the Commonfolk,” Austin begins leaning into subtle chromaticism to hint at a more threatening atmosphere beneath the album’s belligerent exterior. “Bellafide, Firebrand of the Longcoats,” on the other hand, sees a peppy bassoon solo worming its way under a playful combination pizzicato, Spanish guitar and tambourine. In “The Quartermaster of the KSR,” a meek balalaika trembles before the might of snorting trombones and a flaring trumpet. Each of these early tracks is dutifully introduced by the barroom chorus from the opening track with roaring fanfare. The last such case is “Archimedes, Left Hand of the Civilized,” featuring classical guitar strums and harmonics, zesty violin vibrato, and some peppery organ riffs. Altogether, these tracks make good on Austin’s promise of a folk-styled Latin/Russian hybrid album.
A lesser composer would have put these musical ingredients in danger of sounding gimmicky. The reason they don’t here is because of Austin’s innate talent for eliciting dynamic, often virtuosic performances out of his musicians. Sammy Cameron’s violin solo in “Fuel of the Firebrand” is mixed softer and darker than one would expect, yet Cameron carves her own niche in the track with a stellar tone and a wicked skyward ascension. In the same track, Tom Strahle’s gentle guitar makes for a great compliment its feisty organ counterpart. Kristin Naigus, better known as Field of Reeds, leads the way on penny whistle in “Bellafide’s Tarentella,” frolicking alongside oboe and flutes. Backing these musicians almost every step of the way is the Macedonia Radio Symphony Orchestra, which does a miraculous job bringing Austin’s eccentric score to life. It helps that Austin’s affinity for counterpoint, orchestration and memorable melodies are present in full force, lending the album a sense of intricacy and completeness that make it a solid standalone experience.
Tooth and Tail’s tracks lack nothing in the way of originality, though amongst themselves they are less distinct than one would hope. Every track on the album imparts either a sense of sinister glee or general ruckus – sometimes both – and the overall effect is a creeping sense of sameness, in spite of the breadth of musical ideas and genres presented. The trouble is that the album never really switches gears on an emotional level, and it can be difficult to discern a sense of progression. There’s not really a standout climactic moment on the album either – “Swine, Inscribed” comes close with its soaring strings, but ends in a deflating decrescendo. As a consequence of this, Tooth and Tale, taken as a whole, can come off a little monotonous.
Thankfully, though, there are a handful of palette cleansers. “The Old South Distillery” strips away the orchestra and revisits the main theme on detuned piano, and pianist Salome Scheidegger follows suit on a more standard piano with “The Ivories of Beasts.” Meanwhile, “Anthem of the Commonfolk” by Supergiant Games’ Darren Korb may be the most surprising track on the album. Despite serving as the album’s penultimate track, “Anthem of the Commonfolk” isn’t afraid to introduce new instruments to the mix, including muffled drumming, electric guitar and vibraphone. Most impressive of all, however, is Hyperduck Soundworks’ “Who becomes the meat?” Following the sounds of clinking glasses and pensive guitar plucks, a brutish male choir comes crashing down on the listener in heavy waves. Yet by the second half of the track, the ensemble has lost its edge, uttering its final phrases in raspy whispers. The track paints a picture of hardened old warriors softening up, as if suddenly overtaken by a longing for a something long forgotten. It’s a rare moment of preciousness for an otherwise clamorous collection of music.
Tooth and Tail packs a strong punch with its rousing vocals and folk instrumentation, and it sets out with almost single-minded determination to build a contentious and frivolous atmosphere. That narrow focus can at times wear on the listener, but in the grander scheme of game music, Tooth and Tail is a breath of fresh air. Fans of Austin Wintory will be pleased with the intriguing new combinations of genres and instruments that Austin engages here; and, as with his previous soundtracks, there’s plenty of musical material to unpack. If any game music enthusiasts out there have ever found themselves wanting sophisticated, carefully crafted soundtracks for their future bar fights, this album will have them covered.
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Posted on April 4, 2018 by Reilly Farrell. Last modified on April 17, 2018.