The curse of compiling annual lists of our favorite releases is that a few soundtracks are always released too late in the year for us to properly digest. We thus present over the coming days three albums that would have been worthy additions to our list of 2018’s best videogame soundtracks. We believe that, for listeners, they set a very high bar for videogame music in 2019 – one we may be unable to ignore come the end of the year.
Jim Guthrie ~ Below
Over the six years of this much-anticipated indie game’s development, Toronto-based composer Jim Guthrie was afforded the luxury of refining his soundtrack to Below. This refinement extended to the point of reinvention ~ over five hours of music become over one hour, songs became sounds and tunes tuneless. Like the hero of the game, the composer and developers went deeper and deeper, and ended up finding greater comfort in abstraction.
The soundtrack to Below, a “roguelike” game about repeatedly probing as deep into a dungeon as you can, starts with optimistic winds from the surface still within touching distance. Light seeps through cracks above, and the hero’s adventure deeper into the earth is one of possibility. Intricately plucked acoustic guitars offer the warmth of nearby flame (“Campfires”), while the languorous electronic drones of “With Sword and Shield” are speckled with gently arpeggiating synth, as though offering glimpses of the night sky. Further on, we sense the subterrain opening up before us ~ rhythms enter, synth pads grow awash with reverb and delay, and the mood starts to shift. We have left safety far above.
Our journey is soon less predictable. Whether guided by the development team or his own intuition, Guthrie belies a simple “deeper equals darker” progression. Later tracks become murkier ~ the clarity of the campfire a distant memory ~ but the set’s sequencing is not so easily funnelled. Some tracks fully embrace retrofuturism; others toy with it. “Loops” is a unsettling bed of chiming, percussive pulsing; “Caves” ~ the set’s epicenter ~ is almost 10 minutes of patient, Badalamenti-esque swells and space, its eeriness growing like the shadow of a looming figure. Percussion and drum sounds appear unexpectedly (“The Cathedral Interior”) and odd vocal sounds reach our ears from the darkest reaches (“Trogg Mounds”), both evoking the esoteric rituals of nether creatures. We refocus ahead and continue on, where eventually the sinister will meet with the spiritual, offering some hope of salvation.
Delving deeper Below is a journey of genuine intrigue and immersion. Sometimes refining a work ad nauseam ends up removing its essence; in this case, it seemed to allow Guthrie to find it. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)