Video Games Live Level 2 DVD / Blu-ray
Video Games Live Level 2 DVD / Blu-ray
October 19, 2010
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Five years have passed since Tommy Tallarico and Jack Wall debuted the Video Games Live concert in Hollywood and, since that first performance, the two composers have been touring constantly with the project bringing their arrangements of well-known video game themes to music fans around the world. While perhaps not the most musically complex videogame music concert, it provides accessible arrangements and an interactive experience to fans of all ages.
Though Wall recently departed the tour, he left on a high by producing a joint CD, DVD, and Blu-ray commemoration of the concert tour. The DVD and Blu-ray, Video Games Live Level 2, is a partial recording of one of the tour’s concerts that occurred on New Orleans on April 1, 2009. Though it omits a few important items, such as Final Fantasy, it is a relatively encompassing reflection of the tour’s main selections and features some newer arrangements too. Most importantly, unlike the CD recording, it features the visual content and interactive segments that have long driven the tour’s performances and are arguably as important as the music itself.
Many of the special effects used through the concert are a bit cheesy — think green laser arrays and fog machines — but they provide a gripping visual spectacle to accompany some of the most famous videogame scores and work in perfect tandem with projected in-game footage to provide visual context that engages the audience on multiple sensory levels. The gimmicks may not be for every viewer or fan of videogame music (I didn’t care for them myself), but they do add to the overall experience and establish the casual, fun tone of Video Games Live.
I did take a slight exception to Tommy Tallarico’s continued assertion that Video Games Live was responsible for introducing gamers to the world of symphonic music. Many fans of videogame music, myself included, have performed in or attended classical music concerts and may feel a bit insulted by Tallarico’s tone and comparisons with Beethoven. Then again, considering that the tour has been drawing sell out crowds to orchestral events, perhaps he is entitled to a bit of posturing.
Quite representative of the Western game music featured on the release, the concert opens with Marty O’Donnell’s Gregorian Chant-inspired “Halo” introduction theme. The Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra takes the stage for the DVD release of the concert and their performance is exceptional. Unfortunately, inattentive sound mixing on the recording renders a lot of their more subtle work lost as it is often barely audible under featured soloists. The piece begins with a short choral arrangement which is literally upstaged by a group of figures in black monk robes who pose on stage as if to remind the audience that they’re listening to monks chanting. Tallarico and his steampunk guitar take the stage next, with strobe lights and lasers firing behind a rock rendition of the theme. “Halo” ends quietly with a reprisal of the chanting, before moving into a montage of Halo 3 themes.
Next, “Civilization IV” is represented by a new arrangement of Christopher Tin’s “Baba Yetu” featuring a vocal duet. It is eminently enjoyable, though there are mixing issues that reduce the worth of the performance compared to Calling All Dawns — the energetic and talented soloists often overpower the chorus and orchestra. This piece is visually subdued, with no lasers to distract from the in-game footage and performance of the chorus (many of whom are smiling as they sing). Tin himself provides a great lead-in talking point for this piece, remarking on how amazing it was for him to hear the audience’s reaction to the first live performance of his composition. “Starcraft II” takes the lighter mood of “Baba Yetu” and turns it on its head with a strident, if short, rendition of “Wings of Liberty” (which lasts roughly a minute and half) which offers a great, if strident, showing of the LSO’s brass section. There are plenty of laser sweeps to accompany the animated cutscenes and in-game play footage of the game.
The montage of “Sonic” is given far more screentime and opens with an infectiously cute “Sega!” from the chorus, which corresponds with the overhead screens showing the loadscreen animation that anyone who owned a Genesis would immediately recognize. The montage is enjoyable in a nostalgic way, but rapidly loses momentum and devolves into a generic orchestral arrangement reminiscent of almost every Roger Moore era James Bond soundtrack. Tallarico’s own “Advent Rising” ends this section of pieces by slowing down the energy of the concert considerably with its ponderous tempo and reliance on the tremolo vocals of the soprano soloist. The ethereal quality of her voice serves as a great counterpoint to the footage of the game’s more dramatic combat and action moments, which fade over and under videos of the orchestra nicely.
One aspect of the concert which is unique from other videogame music concerts is the interactive atmosphere that Video Games Live offers to fans. This is presented on the DVD when the winner of the pre-show Guitar Hero tournament takes to the stage to play Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion” on Expert level while Tallarico accompanies him with a live guitar. This aspect of the concert hardly fits with the symphonic atmosphere that Tallarico is trying to establish, but it’s impossible not to root for the kid as he tries to break 200,000 point mark and Tallarico — to his credit — did not take this as an opportunity to remind the audience that he is Steven Tyler’s cousin, so in that sense it’s not so bad. Martin Leung’s blindfolded piano rendition of the classic “Super Mario Bros.” theme is also quite enjoyable. Contrasting with the content of professional piano albums, it’s a coarse arrangement played in Leung’s typical ‘loud and fast’ style, though it appears this is exactly what the fans asked for.
“Warcraft Medley” brings the audience back into the symphonic atmosphere after a confusing introduction by Jamie Lee Curtis (I’m not kidding — read on to the end for how this happened…) This is one of the better moments of the concert, which brings some of World of Warcraft‘s best themes to the fore with great performances by the orchestra and chorus, as well as stirring in-game visuals which span the history of the game from the vanilla original release to Wrath of the Lich King. Strobe lights add a feeling of unease to the more dissonant themes and are, thankfully, used sparingly. “Chrono Cross” — Square Enix’s only offering on the DVD and Blu-ray for video licensing reasons — follows with an exceptional flute soloist whose gyring and smiling reflect the informal atmosphere of the concert while never compromising her exceptional performance. It’s impossible not to tap your foot along to this energetic arrangement.
Jack Wall’s “Mass Effect” is an odd fit to follow the lilting “Chrono Cross” as it is slow, swelling themes all but grind the concert to a halt. They work well with the establishing shots of spacecraft in flight, but this is a bit of a sleepy piece. Thankfully, the “Mega Man” medley and Tallarico’s grinding guitar that follow are enough to wake up those who might have dozed off. The juxtaposition of the trashy rock guitar over a pastiche of 8-bit graphics works wonderfully with the strobe light effects. It’s not high art, by any means, but it’s a fun celebration of a classic franchise. “Myst” features vocal solos by conductor Jack Wall’s wife and daughter, which he mentions as a personal highlight to him during the introduction. Objectively, one can’t help but wonder why, with a company of professional vocalists, the inclusion of Wall’s underwhelming family members was made but
Speaking of celebrating a classic, the interlude between the preceding pieces is a drawn out homage to Ralph Baer — the “father of videogames” and developer of the Brown Box console. I’m all for honoring one’s roots, especially in the videogame industry, but the lead-in video (in which Baer demonstrates video ping pong 42 years ago) goes on for a bit too long and the subsequent onstage competition between Baer and a randomly selected audience member is disorganized and fairly anticlimactic. Watching two people play Pong on a huge overhead display may seem like a cute, ironic gimmick and it was… when it was done at the Penny Arcade Expo in 2004.
Thankfully the lineup apologizes with the “Zelda” medley that follows. While not the most challenging arrangement, it’s wonderful to hear one of the most iconic pieces of video game music given its moment in the orchestral spotlight. The game footage from every Zelda title from the original 8-bit opus to Twilight Princess was a great way to flesh out the arrangement. The symphonic interpretation of “Super Mario Bros.” is up next and falls a bit flat, unfortunately, failing to capture the listener’s interest in the same way that “Zelda” did. The game footage is fun, but not enough to pick up the energy from the lackluster arrangement which was little more than a straight translation of the chiptune themes adapted for an orchestra. That said, watching the chorus and audience sway their arms in the air as the underwater theme played was fairly cute.
“God of War” is a much-needed change of pace after “Super Mario Brothers” and the chorus’ handling of the epic background vocals is quite excellent, but unfortunately overpowered by the warbling vocals of Jack Wall’s wife. Once her solo ends, the piece becomes much more engrossing with heavy percussion and fiery visuals from the game (accompanied with red houselights), serving as a great, exciting counterpoint to the soaring vocals of the chorus. Russell Brower gushingly introduces “Lament of the Highborne” to set the concert up for its conclusion. This piece stands out as a solid offering with a fantastic vocal soloist (Vangie Gunn, not related to Jack Wall), who slides a little off-tune at moments, but the music — nor the atmosphere that it creates with its slow motion in-game footage of the fall of Quel-Thalas — does not suffer as a result. The hard-rocking “Castlevania” remix ends the concert on an upbeat note with soaring guitar work and flashing strobe lights that serve as the perfect microcosm of Video Games Live: it’s impossible not to smile when you see the bloby 8-bit Simon Belmont whipping giant bats above a symphony orchestra and, dammit, Tommy Tallarico knows it.
In terms of bonus features, the disc offers a handful of interviews, covering various aspects of video games and video game culture in general. Jamie Lee Curtis defends the merits of World of Warcraft (a-HA!) and other games as teaching and potential rehabilitative tools for children. Jason Hayes discusses the creative and editorial process in selecting the pieces for the “Warcraft Medley”. Gerard Marino’s interview details the process of how he composed the now-famous God of War theme around the concept art for Kratos. Martin Leung, the blindfolded pianist, provides a fond recollection of his musical career and how he wound up as an internet sensation. Of particular note is Christopher Tin’s interview, which details his creation of “Baba Yetu”. While it explains the African feel to the piece — the lyrics are a Swahili translation of The Lord’s Prayer — what is particularly noteworthy is the artist’s humility to the broad acceptance and praise that his composition has received. Such humility is nothing short of refreshing.
No matter your opinions on Tallarico’s style, Video Games Live Level 2‘s DVD and Blu-ray releases provide a unique and engaging concert experience for all levels of fans, from casual to pedantic and is definitely worth a watch. Contrary to certain promotions, I don’t find it particularly artistic in its arrangements or presentation, but it is mostly entertaining. Whether you sit back awestruck at the spectacle or sit up late into the night debating the virtues and failings with friends is up to you, but you’ll have fun watching it and I don’t think Tallarico would have it any other way.
As a final point, when I sat down to right this review, I swore to myself that I wouldn’t make references to this past July’s Distant Worlds concert at The Wolf Trap. Since I’ve made it this far, I beg your forgiveness as I do just that with the promise that I’ll use this tangent to make a summary point on Video Games Live Level 2. When the National Symphony performed “Maria & Draco” from Final Fantasy VI, I scanned the exposed scaffolding above the stage hoping that Ultros (the purple, villainous octopus who interrupts the Opera scene in the game) would make an appearance. The expected octopus never presented himself, despite having the exposed scaffolding and perfect staging to do so and I was left wondering why Distant Worlds chose not to make this cute bit of fan-service to happen. The answer is because their concert is built upon the musicianship of the orchestra and the powerful, artistically stimulating arrangements of Nobuo Uematsu’s music. Introducing a giant purple octopus — no matter how perfect the conditions — would have been a gimmick that would ultimately taken away from their performance.
I won’t judge Tallarico’s choices by those made by Arnie Roth and the National Symphony Orchestra, yet I suspect that, if Tallarico were at the helm of the Distant Worlds project, he would have taken to the scaffolding himself, dressed in a garish purple octopus suit, grinning broadly as he wailed away on his guitar in front of a sold out house with every spotlight and laser array in the house trained on him, all in the name of exposing gamers to culture. I also think I’d probably be one of those in the audience who’d leap to their feet in spite of themselves to shower him with applause for a job well done, despite the misgivings that I might have with his approach and arrangements.
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Posted on August 1, 2012 by Matt Diener. Last modified on August 1, 2012.