The curse of listing our favorite releases of the year is that a few soundtracks always arrive too late for us to properly digest. Here are three albums that would have been worthy additions to our list of 2020’s best videogame soundtracks.
Danger ~ Haven
Haven starts with few surprises and plenty of feel-good synthwave gloss, but in time evolves into a dynamic and cinematic experience. French music-visual artist Danger, who also contributed to 2016’s imposing Furi soundtrack, was guided towards brighter tones for the visually striking space adventure, which is equally concerned with the relationship between its two protagonists as with its exploration gameplay. The lovers’ connection comes to the fore in sun-bleached tracks such as “10:27 Appledew Stew” and “17:09 I Can’t Stay Mad at You”, which most strongly cleave to the retrofuturism that dominates contemporary synthwave.
But this is by no means all Haven has to offer. While complementing the game’s cel-shaded aesthetic with a fairly restrained palette ~ clean, bright synth pads, iridescent melodies and reverb-laden drum sounds dominate ~ there are plenty of tempo changes, dynamic shifts and earthy tones scattered across this always-evolving set. Arpeggios on mallet percussion, flourishes of piano (both regular and thumb variants) and even an acoustic ~ albeit processed ~ guitar appear to keep this celestial adventure tethered to its emotional core, which very much morphs as the set progresses; in the captivating looping interlude of 10-minute “22:12 Until the Time of Time” and the pounding fuzz of “00:21 Nothing but Rust”, we hear a relationship well beyond the hedonism of its early days. Haven is a satisfying and wholly engaging release, and I eagerly await this artist’s next foray in VGM. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)
James Spence ~ Suzerain
What will perhaps strike you as odd first and foremost is that an OST for a game about political drama pulls away from any sort of musically conventional dramatics or narratives. Instead, Suzerain ebbs and flows with pleasant guitar-driven harmonics, of a kind that are often reminiscent of the more ambient side of mid-2010s post-rock projects like Maserati. While Maserati’s ambience leaned on the psychedelic side, James Spence’s slow-paced approach is rather reflective and meditative.
Generally speaking, Suzerain has a touch of melancholy, the reverb that grounds the entire album evoking a past not yet gone. This echoing allusion to memory makes every shift into sparse riffs and long-developed melodies an emotional moment, where quietude and longing become indistinguishable. At almost two hours of length, the album is like a minimalist/ambient lesson in continuous, ever-so-slightly-changing emotional soundscapes. Tracks such as “Master” or “Pinnacle” introduce ephemeral elements that expand the music’s harmonies, which are surprisingly easy to miss. That Suzerain can reward your attention in such a manner is a delight, and simply confirms how good Spence is at slow-burning ambience. (David Murrieta Flores)
MR Miller ~ Evergate
Evergate is based on all sorts of conventional fantasy music tropes, often sounding like Ori, Hollow Knight or Druidstone. You will feel like you’ve listened to this material before, whether in other games or teenage fantasy cinema, but there are two things that make Evergate special. First, MR Miller’s compositions are incredibly tight: there is not a melody wasted here, and every track develops swiftly without ever overstaying its welcome. Second, he has cautiously introduced unexpected elements and instruments that grant it a definite distinctiveness rooted in convention.
When “Koi Dances” begins, it immediately extends the limits of the music’s initial themes, and the advantage of not breaking said limits, in this case, is that it refreshingly gives a new spin on known musical types. For instance, it introduces percussive segments and Chinese string instruments that deepen the harmonics of the rest of the album; the (all too brief) instances of Inuit throat singing are but the cherry on top of an extremely pretty cake. This is as narratively focused and dramatic as fantasy OSTs can get, and it has really pulled our heartstrings ever since the first listen. (DMF)