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 two albums that would have been worthy additions to our list of 2021’s best videogame soundtracks.
DVA ~ Happy Game (Electronic)
“Let’s Play” declares the title of the second track ~ and this set certainly does. Last seen in the VGM space back in 2018 with Cherries on Air, which charmed David enough to warrant its inclusion in our mid-year list, Czech band DVA are hardly prolific but always a delight. Soundtracking an experimental puzzle platformer whose opening screen freely admits to its misleading title, Happy Game is a synth-laden expedition whose dreamy abstraction only occasionally hints at the genuinely nightmarish content of the game. After a couple of tracks of soothing, wordless vocals and rapid yet dulcet arpeggios, we get our first taste that all is not as it seems in “Stones”, where shrill, reverb-laden voices start chanting over increasingly frantic rhythmic pulsing. (This track and other moments reminded me strongly of UK electronic duo, Fuck Buttons, with whom I’ve been reacquainting myself this past week.) Further on, the growling swells of “Panda”, the distorted interjections of “Not Talking Heads” and the gong-like chimes of the vacuous “Underworld” all cast varying degrees of shadow onto the bright canvases. What’s so delightful about Happy Game is that precious little of this is as overt as it may sound; the unease is nuanced ~ brief semitone drops, rustling sounds beneath the melodies, a sudden snippet of white noise like a single frame of horror in a children’s TV show.
That is, the unease is nuanced … until it isn’t. The weary yet shrill, enervating sighs of closing track (and horrifically named) “Feeding Time” are a quiet but skin-crawling release of the set’s brooding tension, and the insidious presence that has lurked beneath the surface is now unleashed into your imagination.
With repeated listens, this presence comes to loom over even the set’s pristine, shiny moments. The warming, fuzzy arpeggios of “Chasing”, the chirpy bleeps and jovial tuba-like melodies of “Happy Rabbits”, the infectious, jaunty bass line in “Hearts Go Pop” ~ all sounding titles ‘n all like children’s TV accompaniments initially are in time tainted by something deceptive, something grotesque. I see picturesque, vibrantly colourful scenes of happy people, their smiles so wide as to contort their faces into something quite horrifying ~ if you look closely enough. Capturing some of the spirit of Lynch and Badalamenti’s finest co-creations, Happy Game is both playful and a soundtrack that assuredly plays with you. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)
Ratvader ~ The Gunk
I’ll say it outright: The Gunk is one of my favorite soundtracks of 2021. Its release in mid-December meant missing the end-year list, but after feasting on great music for the New Year celebrations, I am now delighting in the soft, carefully arranged January ambient dessert that is Ratvader’s latest. This album is an entire world of its own, a continually shifting horizon of electronics and strings, with a colorful dash of piano and organ complementing an expressive depth you’ll only find in OSTs like 2017’s Everything. It is, at first instance, a quiet listen, but it fields an emotional array that will keep your heart spinning, with occasional, sweeping classical melodies straight out of an Ólafur Arnalds set.
It’s possible to divide the album roughly in three parts, each lasting about 40 minutes or so. The first part is bright and full of subtle drones, the intensity of which results in rich, vibrant soundscapes, so lively it’s almost psychedelic. Akin to waking up, the compositions are playful, stretching into shape, a harmonically beautiful extension of sounds. By the time “Remnants (I)” comes in, the tone is starting to shift in an organic, peaceful manner. It becomes warier, filtered with reverb and echoes that signal a melancholy tiredness; the music has grown so much it’s reached a breaking point, an unspoken limit tinged with sad resolve. “Gardener (II)” eventually marks a dramatic turn towards dissonance and tensions, building up new musical resources till exploding in both “Friction, Resolved (III)” and “Gardener (III)” as percussions and romantic melodies aggressively push the whole album into action. The last two tracks finalize the tension, but instead of going back to the long meditations of the previous parts they transform the pent-up energy into shimmering harmonies and melodious steps forward into a clear, moving end.
When you think The Gunk is a game about restoring life, the soundtrack makes all the sense in the world: it reflects a spirit of pleasing, peaceful wilderness, an expressionism of hope and renewal. Don’t miss it. (David Murrieta Flores)