Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Listening to FEZ OST

It's been a number of months since I finished playing FEZ, but the game still manages to occupy a fair chunk of real estate in my brain space, thanks largely to its soundtrack, composed by "Disasterpeace" Rich Vreeland.

I've never really been one to go hunting down a movie soundtrack or game score as a standalone piece of listening material, but this one really got me interested after I heard some of the tracks on my headphones last year. I'd like to say I bought the album like a good patron off of Vreeland's Bandcamp page, but instead I paid a paltry $2 donation for it and a bunch of other game soundtracks when they were included in some online music bundle.

Anyway, I wrote about FEZ about a year ago, and I'm actually pretty happy with how the piece turned out. One thing I didn't bring up at the time, however, was the score, which was really an oversight on my part, particularly because the music plays such a fundamental role in establishing—along with designer Phil Fish's imaginative pixel art—the overall aesthetic of the game. The sound and visuals compliment one other extremely well, and it's kind of crazy to think about how differently the game might have felt under the musical direction of another artist.

So what is it that makes the Disasterpeace score so good? I think a part of it has to do with how each piece tends to evoke a sense of place and atmosphere rather than movement or action, which is very much in keeping with the mystical, meditative, and observational nature of how the game plays. Beats are used very sparingly, and only in accompaniment with the levels that emphasize a more rhythmic type of progression.

A lot of people have been quick to emphasize the chiptune quality of the music, and it's certainly fair to point out. With his high-pitched synth melodies and zealous use of bitcrushing, Vreeland is clearly embracing the fact that this is a video game soundtrack for a video game world. But I think the music has almost as much in common with ambient electronic music as it does with the classic 8-bit tunes of the Nintendo era.

As a standalone album, it's a surprisingly listenable, cohesive, and transportive experience, with individual tracks built on layers of musical texture—from swelling noises to miniature arpeggios that drift in and out of focus. Take a track like "Beyond," for example, where you have this thick current of throbbing bass that sounds like some hovering alien spacecraft, slowly painted over with a soft, mysterious synth melody. It could be an alternate score to the ending of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I'm also a huge fan of the next song, "Progress," which is this really buoyant and surreal track filled with layer after layer of pleasant sound that rises and brims over into a state of blissful crescendo. I imagine this is what utopian industrial music would sound like—a musical theme for some bustling, steampunk city in the clouds.

Much like the recurring Tetris pieces that feature so prominently as the building blocks of Fish's visual environments, Vreeland presents a continuous soundscape where the individual parts are forever falling into place. This is most evident on the song "Glitch," which borrows small musical samples from previous tracks like "Puzzle," distorting them and rearranging them to fit with a new beat and tempo.

There's a lot more I could try and say about the album — I'm thinking about the sparse atmospheric tracks ("Age" and "Memory") and the wonderfully appropriate Chopin arrangements ("Nocturne" and "Continuum") from the album's second half — but it's probably better if you just go and listen to it for yourself. I'm pretty sure you can sample the whole thing for free.

I'll end by throwing out one final suggestion. If there is any game soundtrack that deserves to get the vinyl treatment, this one gets my vote. It's the perfect kind of readymade double LP, and it already has a great album cover to boot. Press that baby onto white vinyl. Keep it at a nice limited run of 3,000 or so copies. Sell it for $30 a pop. Somebody, please (I know it won't ever happen) make this happen!