19.11.10

Music of Starcraft 2, part 2

Well, here we go again.

This time, we'll be looking at a comparison of Starcraft 1 and 2 music, specifically in the "race" music, as that is the music that combines both theme music for the factions as well as the in-game music when you're playing that faction.

Let's begin with the Terrans.

Here is one of the Terran themes from Starcraft 1. There are others, but they are all variations on the central tones we hear in that one. We hear strong metallic sounds in the guitar and synth, and as the drums pick up into a solid rock beat we get some synthesized electric guitar solos. It's a perfectly fine piece of music, good at driving the action, gives a sense of the faction: mechanical; a bit loose, maybe even overconfident; powerful and not to be trifled with or underestimated. As to what's wrong with it, well, it's repetitive. It was perfectly fine as game music back in 1998 when SC1 came out, but video games and video game music especially have come a long way.

Here is the Terran theme from SC2, called "Heaven's Devils". We can hear many homages and remixes to the original theme, but we also hear a lot of updates, from the live instrumentation, to the more space cowboy feel, to a pace that seems a bit more frantic. From this, the Terran theme has stolen much of its flavour from Jim Raynor. We still get that sense of power, of overconfidence, but also a little sadness or penitence maybe. Country music is the music of pain for a reason, after all. We also get much more of an infantry feel as opposed to the first game, that this is the music of the rank and file. This fits with how Terran is played in SC2 as well, as anyone who has come across the MMM bioball will attest.

Next come the Zerg

Starcraft 1 Zerg Theme. Lots of big, slow, methodical power chords. Lots of short and creepy synth sounds. Atonal at times. Not a whole lot else to say about it. Again, it gives a good sense of the faction: massive, organic, sinister, almost overwhelming. The same problem, as with before, is that it's repetitive.

From SC2, comes the Zerg theme "The Hive". Starts off much softer, slowly building. More sounds slowly are slowly added and combined. We still hear some of the old themes of the Zerg from this, but you also get a sense of patience, of infestation. Of inevitability. Yeah, that's the theme you want for the Zerg: Inevitable. To echo a quote of Kerrigan, "Soon all will serve the swarm." Can you tell I play Zerg?

And to finish off, we have the Protoss.

Here is the SC1 Protoss theme. It's much more evenly paced than the other too, more classical instrumentation. We get a sense that the Protoss are an ancient people; very conservative, methodical. Hints of a choir suggest that their unity comes through faith and devotion. They are a people advanced, above.

And now, here is the SC2 Protoss theme, "The Firstborn". Right form the start, we hear a mournful choir that builds and fades away. This is still the Protoss, but their faith is broken, and with the upped tempo, we know they are on the run. We hear much more minimalistic themes now, emphasizing how the Protoss now travel and strike from the darkness.

As to my thoughts on the matter overall, I can understand people's love of the original music, as it was very good. For music made on pure synthesizer, it was WAY ahead of its time. In 1998. But this is 2010 now, and many of the same composers have now updated the classic themes to reflect the factions' various positions and tactics. Better instrumentation, better composition, more direct matching to the flavour of the race, I find the new soundtrack is far superior.

What do you guys think?

13.11.10

Music of Starcraft 2, part 1

Starcraft 2 is one of the biggest games of the year and arguably the biggest RTS ever. And rightly so: It's a great game with solid balance, diverse options, good methodology for playing with friends and is just in general fun to play. This is not to say that it's perfect. There are always some issues to work out, and no story is free of boring characters or lazy plots, but they're fairly easy to overlook right now if only because the game is part 1 of a trilogy. Not that this stops some people from complaining endlessly, because this IS a Blizzard game after all.

One of the weirdest consistent complaints I've heard about it is regarding the sound. The voice acting sounds a bit rushed, I can agree with that, but a lot of people are clamouring to have the original Brood War music back. What are these people smoking? The music for this game is outstanding! They put a LOT of work into the composition and orchestration and mood of the game through the music and it shows beautifully.

In this post, I will look at the music from a cinematic standpoint, then there will be a comparison of the actual game music from Starcraft 2 and Brood War to see how they compare, then we will look at the Revolution Overdrive soundtrack, which is a kind of personal playlist for the main character.

So without further ado, I give you the first thing you hear upon loading, the main theme of Wings of Liberty: Wings of Liberty.
Immediately we here some very familiar tones for anyone who played the original, but upgraded with actual instruments as opposed to mostly synthesizer, and it builds up to this nice powerful fanfare complete with a chorus. This sets a good tone for the epic scale of the conflict to come. It softens to a slower section of quiet strings and horns, giving a sense of the pain suffered, but crecendoes towards a more hopeful tone. It then goes sharply into a much more dissonant and punctuated section, resonating with the action to come and the tension that rises. A soft piano hauntingly transfers into a strings and choir movement, then finally back into the fanfare at the beginning.

It's a good powerful piece that immediately sets the tone of the game very well. It reminds me a lot of the music from Gladiator, especially the Battle Theme.

Next we look at the Jim Raynor theme, Pubic Enemy
Blizzard has definitely committed to the Space Cowboy theme for the Terrans in general and Raynor in particular. Gee, I wonder what inspired that? With the bluesy harmonica tones, very minor key and menacing undertones, we get a sense that Raynor is a man broken and on the run. But the song turn hopeful as the non-slide guitars come in, helping to establish that he hasn't given up or forgotten what's at stake.

And finally, to look at a song from one of the actual cut scenes, here is Zeratul's Warning
It almost sounds like something out of a horror soundtrack with the screeching violins, giving way to a hint of the main Protoss theme. It then stays with dissonant high strings, building low strings and choir back up to the Protoss theme before cutting off. It fits the scene very well as you can see here.

As you can hear, there was definitely quite a bit of money spent on the music of the game. Lots of movement, good orchestrations, nice little homages to the previous game and to the overriding themes, it's a great soundtrack.

Musically and cinematically speaking, I'm not entirely sure if Blizzard can keep the same variety across the trilogy, if only due to time constraints. I can only hope that they have a lot ready to go for the next iteration and that the soundtrack for Heart of the Swarm is just as good.

Next, we'll look at the actual themes of the races that you hear as you play and how they compare to Brood War.

8.11.10

Satire and Sexism: A musical journey

As many can likely attest, and as Joss Whedon and most makers of musicals will say, singing and music are a way of expressing things that you cannot normally say. Your innermost feelings are laid bare through song. It's cathartic, it's illuminating and most of the time it's fun.

This fantastic quality of music unfortunately makes it difficult to produce satire. Not that it's impossible, but it's hard. Satire generally relies on two literary devices: sarcasm and irony. Sarcasm is REALLY hard to convey through singing, the same way that it is hard to convey through text: it relies so much on facial cues, tonality, social cues, etc that you have to either make it really obvious or unlikely to be normal. Plus, if music is about expressing your true feelings, those feelings can get lost in the sarcasm.

Irony is a bet easier to convey, if only because you're doing things that people don't expect so it's easier to notice. But again, the true feelings can get lost in the message.

There's an "internet law" that gets applied a lot to forum discussions, blog comments, etc called Poe's Law, which deals with the fact that without those cues I mentioned earlier, it is difficult to detect whether someone on the internet who is being outrageous in some way as genuine or a parody. Stephen Colbert is a great example of this, if only because it took genuine conservatives in the US so long to recognise it.

So, we come to the actual topic. I've picked sexism in music if only because it's a fairly obvious example with some decent studies and articles and other articles dealing with the topic. I am not going to be duplicating their efforts, but looking at some of the satire of the phenomenon.

And I have to point out that even though my examples may seem obvious to you, they will not to everybody. There are some people who still think that Swift's famous, albeit modest, proposal was serious.

First we're going to look at two songs from one of my favourite two man novelty bands from New Zealand: Flight of the Conchords. One is a straightforward parody, the other is more subtle.

The Most Beautiful Girl (In The Room)
While this song is certainly a satire of the male -> female beauty ballad, the lyrics themselves would be pretty sexist in any context other than comedic parody.
Boom
This one's subtle, since he's mostly singing about himself. And this is really a great example of the true feelings coming out, especially with the train of thought at the beginning:
"I want to tell her how hot she is but she'll think I'm being sexist. She's so hot she's making me sexist! Bitch!" What it means as a satire, though, it's hard to tell. Maybe it's nothing.

So while FotC is pretty obviously a comedy band, their satire on musical sexism is fairly subtle. And personally, that's the best way to do it constructively, because it's easier to recognise the satire. Satire is weird that way sometimes.

Now for something NSFW: Jon Lajoie.

NSFW! I cannot stress this enough. This is not safe for work.
Show me your genitals and pt.2
Yeah, there's no subtlety here. This is absolutely bound to offend people, satire or no. And unfortunately, because it's so over the top, he's succumbing to Poe's Law. For a first time listener, it would be difficult to tell this is satire. The only real giveaway to me the first time was the low quality of the rapping rather than the lyrics. Once you get over the offense and realise the parody, though, it's very funny.

So really, what does this mean? Satire is about improving society, exposing injustice and illuminating through wit. So can music be satirical? Sure, it's just tricky. Are the examples I showed good satire? Well, that's trickier. The first FotC song is a good satire of how sexist beauty ballads can be. Boom has more of a one liner, so it's hard to say what the message there is. Jon Lajoie's is a pretty big expose on how sexist hardcore rap can sound, but risks being lumped in with it.

So really, music writers, if you want to be satirical, here are some things to remember:

-The medium is the message, so be careful which medium you're using (Looking at you Lajoie).
-Subtlety can go a long way, but if you're too subtle you risk losing the message.
-Context is always important. FotC have a TV show to explain contexts, Lajoie does not. Think how the song will sound on its own.

'Til next time.

6.11.10

The more things change...

Well, I think I've found an actual focus for this blog: Music.

My posts that are musically related seem to be my most thought out and well written, so that's where things are going with this. It will be less review or deconstruction, and more mechanical analysis. I'll be looking into more of the purpose of music and how it works in various ways.

So be on the lookout soon for a look at the music of Starcraft 2, an analysis of musical satire, how heavy metal relates to classical music and much more.

If you are looking for other stuff to read, I highly recommend my friend's blog about sexism and games: Go Make Me a Sandwich.