Sean Han Tani ~ Anodyne 2: Return to Dust
The world of Anodyne 2 as described by its soundtrack is an unthreatening one of pastel colours and whimsical encounters. It might even be a dreamworld, such is the haziness of the synth pads with which it’s mainly constructed, as well as the quick switches of melody and setting.
Sean Han Tani, composer and one of merely two developers at Analgesic Productions, takes an almost archival approach to his output, lovingly recreating 16- or 32-bit-era three-dimensional spaces with soundscapes to match ~ seemingly to preserve such worlds and the feelings they evoked. To listen through Anodyne 2: Return to Dust is to revisit the storied digital worlds of our childhoods, but without them filtered through the lens of idealized nostalgia as so many ‘retro’ soundtracks and art styles are. A self-described ‘music otaku’, Tani uses samples and recreated synthesized instrumentation from the early-90s SNES/Genesis era to celebrate rather than mask the fuzziness that typified those soundchips’ output. (Such homage extends beyond videogames too, as the real-world sound collage of “Blue Vale Breeze” and the reinterpretation of Greensleeves most overtly demonstrate.)
Listen to “Yummy Sippy Cosy” and yearn for it to swaddle you longer in its wide-eyed optimism; have your interest piqued by the otherworldly “Musty Attic Loneliness” and wonder to what ends it will take you; bop along to the infectious disco of “Unleash Your Fashion Storm!!!” and prey that it lasts all night. In fact, this set’s high points frequently leave you wanting. As well as the sound clarity, Tani also models the memory restraints of those 90s chips; tracks rarely venture beyond two minutes and mostly comprise just three or four channels of output. While authentic, this can be a disservice to the set’s more pugnacious moments, undercutting the intensity of the ‘battle’-esque tracks.
Befitting a game about cleansing the world and in doing so purifying the soul, Anodyne 2 is very much a reductive work ~ in a good way. And beyond the overt charm and simplicity lies a clever and discreetly self-referential work that, at 61 tracks, should have at least something to delight most VGM fans.
Jim Guthrie ~ Bleak Sword
The pixelated swordsman on the cover belies the soundtrack of Bleak Sword, a brooding collection of synthwave-meets-darkwave pieces that pays homage to the game’s aesthetic over the era it depicts. It is another Jim Guthrie success within the last 12 months, after the marvellous Below.
Appropriately for a brutal, stamina-based combat game (no, I didn’t say ‘Soulslike’), most of the 21 tracks are compact constructions of tension that diffuse an overwhelming sense of oppression. Gnarly bass lines writhe or pulse beneath techno beats that rarely fail to get the head nodding ~ the stomping sections in “Dead Trees, Wilted Leaves” and the pounding “The Plauge”, which lurches between despair and triumph, are prime early examples). Atop this rhythm section are myriad synth patches ~ some like swarms of bees that induce a sensation altogether unsettling; others like digital beasts braying for backup. Both styles cavort around each other to great effect in “The Black Hoof”.
While Guthrie packs as much as he can into the set’s runtime, he does leave room for scattered quieter moments. Classical-guitar-style keyboard arpeggios go furthest in evoking the medieval setting of the game, unfurling blankets of relative calm, but they dissipate as we progress. Elsewhere, the calm is mere brief respite in which to heal and prepare as the dark electronic clouds forever encroach (“Bleak Interlude”). That few of these pieces surpass two minutes keeps the set pacey and the mood anxious, as each triumph leads merely to greater threats ahead. The downside? There is little room for development. Pieces such as “The Dungeons” may have benefited from more gradual shifts between its several complex colours, while the skipped beat in “Treason” is a delightful hint at nuance, salient amidst the blunt immediacy of the overall package. But as we bid too soon farewell to one piece, Guthrie tosses in another infectious groove and we focus ahead once more. For the fight is not yet won. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)