Stijn van Wakeren ~ Wonder Wickets
Wonder Wickets is a cheery mini-golf game with a happy soundtrack to match, taking cues from party games and underlined by a Japanese-game-soundtrack melodic sensibility that makes it just shine with color. Its classicality transforms the party game musical tropes (dancey, Latin rhythms and fast, sometimes jazzy development) into something to chill out to, flowing between relaxation and excitement with ease. “Isn’t Everything Green”, one of my favorite game music pieces of the year so far, begins with a sweet string melody bursting forth with a cheerful energy made only stronger by its dialogue with a quick accordion section that pins down the joyful, dreamy carnivalesque tone. It successfully blends a neoclassical approach to simple emotivity (think Sunwrae or Peter Broderick) with edge-of-your-seat party game use of festive rhythms. This approach grants Wonder Wickets an originality that springs from repurposing genre standards; “Birdy Birdy” transforms from fanfare to ultra-short meditative bits to grand fanfare, only to slow down by the end with a playfully tense piano melody and restart everything from scratch. “One Here One There”, the longest track in the OST at 8 minutes (most other tracks average about 2 minutes and a bit), is surprisingly engaging given its repetitive nature, its succession of instrumental solos over the same melodic arrangement providing an interesting, jazzy twist on the soundtrack’s themes. It also marks the second section of the album, which switches around into more electronic territory, emphasizing beats and contrasting rhythms (like the drifting, yet concise “Space UFOria”), culminating with the undanceably fast, mostly electronic “Star Crossed (Karaoke Version)”. With Wonder Wickets, Stijn van Wakeren demonstrates their fluency in exactly what every good videogame soundtrack achieves: an eclecticism that does not simply mash together styles and genres, but that wields them effectively to create music that enriches more than just a game’s soundworld.
LudoWic, Bill Kiley, DJ Electrohead, Justin Stander, Tunç Çakır ~ Katana Zero
Synthwave is now old enough for us to be able to talk about classical versions of it. Predictable, yet punchy and addictively fun beats, an electronic set of sounds that reimagine the limits of 80s synths to great effect, and powerful subgenre variations into an imaginary projection of what we pretended to be the dark recesses of the neoliberal imagination that birthed us. All the way back in 2012, Hotline Miami unified these elements into the game soundtrack form, but it also grew outwards into the fields of experimental music and noise rock. One of its tendrils extended into an interestingly Gothic vein of synthwave, where artists like Carpenter Brut reign supreme. Katana Zero also brings all of it into a powerful OST, tainted by the neo-noir interests of the purple-shaded alley of a solitary midnight murder, but it also content to perfect and refine a well-established form, its most modernist impulses tamed. Tracks like Bill Kiley’s “Chinatown” blister with neon techno, and when it pushes into jazzy territory it becomes much more than just a dance track. However, it does not become an opportunity to delve into unknown territory, but to reformulate synthwave convention into something vital once again, slightly adjusting the aesthetic just enough to make it excitingly predictable, in true classicist fashion. Others, like LudoWic’s “Panoramic Feelings”, seem to cross the wild, with a minimalist synth collage upon which is overlaid a short and pretty piano melody, but these are not meant to question or explode the foundations of the style – they expand said bases, and the style becomes greater for it. Then there are archetypal synthwave tracks like DJ Electrohead’s “Hit the Floor”, which embody the style at its late-night-rave best. The more drone-like tracks, such as Justin Stander’s “A Tense Moment” or LudoWic and Tunç Çakır’s “Blue Room” evoke those more radical moments in the Hotline Miami soundtrack, but they never take the plunge into the darkness, which is to say they never dwell too much in an anti-humanist void, always bringing the music back to the warmth of a noir melody. Katana Zero is the synthwave game soundtrack at its classical peak, so it will be difficult to top for anyone who wishes to enter the arena in the coming years. (David Murrieta Flores)