*Press A* ~ Outer Wilds; Sigma Theory: Global Cold War

Andrew Prahlow ~ Outer Wilds

Soundtracking a game about space adventure and the end of the universe, Outer Wilds takes us on a journey that oscillates between the gently sublime and the faintly terrifying. These shifts occur both across the set and within individual tracks ~ most notably in the disquieting waves of synthesized loops and plodding percussion that form “The Ash Twin Project”, reflecting the very real repetition at the heart of the game’s mechanics. 

The isolation and precariousness that Outer Wilds comes to evoke render its wholesome start all the more bizarrely sirenic, as plucked guitar and banjo melodies lull us by a warming campfire. In time we can deny our celestial gaze no longer ~ the vacuous ceiling beckons us ever upward and the strings fade into irrelevance as we submit (“The Museum”). Sounds become decayed and amorphous as the electronics take over. Pockets of humanity or warmth exert a gravitational pull but often feel remote or strange, as in the eerie folkish piano of “Castaways”, the atmospheric welcome of “Giant’s Deep” or the calming, shimmering radiance of “End Times”. This is a journey of wonder, discovery and beauty ~ but it’s one seemingly without a happy end, as an unexplained time loop tethers us to replaying not only our own demise again and again, but that of the whole universe. And so, time’s spectre increasingly looms in both game and soundtrack ~ most tangibly in the tick-tock that guides us into “The Nomai” and, later, “Nomai Ruins”. With their flourishes of pretty piano atop viscerally deep drones, these tracks’ superb juxtaposition of comforting warmth and unsettling abstraction typify the set’s excellent middle third. 

Having composed the soundtrack as far back as in 2013, Andrew Prahlow must feel caught in something of a time loop himself following this long-developed game’s recent release. But far from repetitive, Outer Wilds is full of shifting dynamics and mood that arrest and delight. A single and explosive use of drums in “Let There Be Light” shatters the twanging calm of the prior track; a chamber section of soaring strings suddenly emerges from the folksy daintiness of “14.3 Billion Years”. It loses its way in the final third as short interludes and false codas bearing one too many leitmotifs arrive then depart swiftly like bonus tracks, failing to deliver a cohesive payoff that the rest of the set merits. But that first two-thirds is among the strongest blocks of the year so far; and ultimately, mirroring a game whereby death is always followed by rebirth, Prahlow ensures that dark is always followed by light.

Available: Spotify

Siddhartha Barnhoorn ~ Sigma Theory: Global Cold War

Futuristic cold wars fought with intelligence gathering and technological/scientific breakthroughs is nothing new as far as videogame conceits go, and Netherlands composer Siddhartha Barnhoorn sets up an unsettling canvas of retrofuturism to match. Reminiscent of last year’s Orwell: Ignorance Is Strength from feeding | ear, Sigma Theory: Global Cold War is built up with layers of synth that brood and oppress. Gritty textures drive the minimal electronics with subterranean swells; cleaner tones fill in the spaces with busy arpeggios or cast twinkling lights of hazy melody from far above.

It starts with the immediacy of busy drum patterns and growling synthesized bass lines that cleave to grooves for a few tracks, keeping the set dynamic and bouncing even while its ominous haze descends (“Recruitment”). Then, like the protagonist spies, the instruments start to blend into the background. Drum patterns recede into pulses and scuttling percussion; writhing bass lines disperse, ebbing and flowing like the tides of (cold) war; melodies and arpeggios become distant, transient. Tension has moved to the foreground. And Barnhoorn, responsible for last year’s evocative Planet Alpha soundtrack, keeps the listener guessing by lingering over root notes longer than expected, hinting at crescrendi that seldom arrive. Even in the set’s most subdued moment ~ the breakdown of lush swells in “Covert Operation” ~ we remain expectant.

And the set only strengthens towards its close. After a short burst of drama in “Discovery” provides delayed catharsis, the droning “Tactical Decision” finds the composer at his most experimental yet restrained, as a gentle pulse grows but to a very tempered climax. Final track “Technological Singularity”, reminiscent of Kenji Kawai’s superlative Ghost in the Shell, contrasts booming percussive strikes with a vaporous melody reaching to the sublime, whose lack of resolution means we are left as ill-at-ease as we began. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)

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