I’ve been listening to chiptune maestro Disasterpeace’s soundtrack for the XBox Live game FEZ. It’s certainly one of my favorite ambient releases this year; its straightforward bleeps and bloops and skittering machine beats marry the romantic electronic visions of, say, Steve Hauschildt with the unobtrusive yet memorable melodies of some of my all-time favorite video game soundtracks. I love straightforward synth ambient music like this; its lack of pretension makes it all the more charming, and despite not having played the game for which it was made, Rich Vreeland’s music paints a complete and satisfying aural picture.
And it got me thinking: if the FEZ soundtrack were released not as a soundtrack but rather as an album in its own right, how would we categorize it? Is there something inherently different in these chiptunes from, say, Suzanne Ciani’s starry-eyed synthetic musings? If The Velocity of Love is new age, why wouldn’t the FEZ soundtrack be considered similarly? I assume it’s because “new age” is still something of a dirty word in most contemporary electronic music circles; needless to say, I think that’s a shame, and it’s my hope that this humble column has perhaps reframed works we’d think of as “new age” in such a way that doesn’t deny their new-agey-ness but rather accepts and embraces those qualities as part of what makes them so special and enduring.
We can take this a step further. If the FEZ soundtrack could broadly be considered “new age,” why not other video game soundtracks as well? There’s true beauty to be found in the 8-bit backing ruminations of some classic platform titles. And since this column is devoted to rethinking new age, I’d like to take the opportunity to examine a particularly striking soundtrack from the Super Nintendo era in this context. You don’t need to be familiar with 1994′s Donkey Kong Country to enjoy its soundtrack’s simple, escapist pleasures, though I’ll admit that there’s a nostalgic appeal to its tunes that naturally results from having spent a lot of time with them as a 90s kid.
David Wise was one of British video game developer Rare’s in-house composers, responsible for an impressive number of OSTs (official soundtracks) for a wide variety of Nintendo titles. His undisputed masterpiece is the 1994 soundtrack to the landmark Super Nintendo game Donkey Kong Country, so evocative, in fact, that it was released as its own 25-track CD amusingly entitled DK Jamz. With help from fellow British game music composers Eveline Fischer and Robin Beanland, Wise created a soundtrack that at once perfectly captures the spirit of the various worlds its game included (e.g. ice caverns, coral reefs, jungle treetops, industrial wastelands, and even a goddamn pirate ship) and serves as awesome ambient music in its own right.
The breadth of DK Jamz is astounding. The melodic and harmonic attributes of these songs are at equal turns delightful, enigmatic, and downright sophisticated to a degree surely unexpected from a Super Nintendo game. And the sounds themselves, though entirely synthesized, run the gamut from wildlife field recordings to imitation piano to an especially seaworthy concertina (for, yes, the pirate ship level). Fortunately, the soundtrack roughly follows the progression of the game itself; Level 1, for instance, takes place in Donkey Kong’s home jungle, so the opening tracks of the OST are the jungle tunes.
We begin with the game’s main theme, which segues from sunset lullaby to downtempo jam, complete with reverbed guitar-like squalls and the distant cry of chimpanzees. The chord progression lends an epic air to the theme, signaling to the player that they’re about to set off on a wild, far-reaching adventure. A hearty bassline provides an extra spring in the song’s step, providing perfect accompaniment for the tumbles, sprints, lunges, and jumps your character (Donkey or Diddy Kong) is performing on screen. Next, we hear “Simian Segue,” the overworld theme of the game’s first area (as in, the music you hear between individual levels). The first of Miss Fischer’s contributions to the soundtrack, it features jaunty bursts of piano that sound like they could have served as the inspiration for James Ferraro’s Far Side Virtual. Once again, a deep bassline anchors the high-pitched piano chords and synthetic reed instruments, giving the piece an almost dub-like inflection.
Then, crickets. A bird calls out from a pixelated sky. Bongos seem to herald the arrival of something ominous and exciting. Next, a more Western drum set and synthy seventh chords ride atop a toe-tapping bassline and a seemingly ragtime-influenced piano-horn combination. A percussive breakdown marks the song’s first transition, from high-flying adventure backing music to the wistful echoes of pan flute and xylophone. The bongos return as the song gradually cycles back to its beginning. This is the “DK Island Swing,” and it exemplifies the remarkable way this game’s music goes from Point A to Points B, C, and D before gracefully returning back to A. It rather reminds me of Ariel Pink songs like “Symphony of the Nymph” and “Round and Round,” looping in on itself in a cyclical yet ever-shifting orbit. Rhythmic tempos alternate between thoughtful and active; that ever-present bass provides a rich underpinning to this music that elevates it above typical game-soundtrack fare. Synth strings, xylophones, horns, pianos, and all manner of birdsong fade in and out, offering the listener an unexpectedly rich instrumental palette that (with all due respect to Mr. Vreeland) exist in an entirely different universe from the strictly electronic stylings of the modern chiptune set.
“Cave Dweller Concert” is still a part of the first jungle level, though this time we’re obviously spelunking. I’m reminded of Steve Roach and Robert Rich’s seminal Soma in the way this “Concert” establishes an enveloping, vaguely eerie atmosphere punctuated by moments of almost shocking melodiousness. Water droplets drip and low synth pads rumble; distant tribal drums keep the song pushing forward, even when it seems as though we’ll be forever lost in this underground maze.
But soon we see the light, and so we journey from jungle to cave to the ocean, where we reach the absolutely outstanding “Aquatic Ambiance,” as beautiful a piece of ambient electronic music as anything I’ve heard from the Lopatins and Emeralds of the world. Seriously. Steve Hauschildt’s “Blue Marlin” from last year’s Tragedy & Geometry LP is a reference point, but DK Jamz takes things a step further by adorning its drifting synth pads with wandering piano keys and another distant drumbeat. The melody here is unforgettable; I remember as a kid sometimes pausing my gameplay to simply bask in the moody music. A slightly feedback-drenched noise slides up and down the listener’s consciousness, again lending a faraway, epic, and intangibly exotic air to the proceedings. Its three-and-a-half-minute runtime seems entirely too brief, and I wouldn’t hold it against someone for just looping this poignant track a half dozen times before moving onto the rest of the soundtrack. A testament to Wise and company’s compositional skill on display here, while listening to tracks like “Aquatic Ambiance” it’s easy to forget that this music was originally crafted for a video game starring a tie-wearing gorilla and his chimpanzee sidekick.
Level two of Donkey Kong Country takes place in an abandoned series of mines and mineshafts (and, um, an Aztec temple). It’s a ton of fun to actually play–you get to ride around in a speeding cart, jumping from one dilapidated iron track to the next–but the music is plenty exciting on its own. Dramatic brass and majestic low-pitched synths allow “Mine Cart Madness” to paint the picture: giant, ancient, dimly-lit caves in which you ride a rollicking cart that threatens to tip over into the darkened abyss at any moment (as I said, this level’s a ton of fun, but it can also be incredibly frustrating–one wrong push of a button and bam, you’re dead). “Life in the Mines,” meanwhile, brings back the pan flutes from the first level and combines them with the drip-drop sounds of water dripping from long-forgotten stalagmites. And it’s all propelled by a very 90s muffled drumbeat, like a slowed-down take on something Monolake or Fila Brazillia might have dreamed up.
The game’s next two levels take place in a coniferous forest and a snowy Arctic landscape, respectively, and they’re both largely scored by Eveline Fischer. As if Wise is handing off the torch, so to speak, she also provides the music for the Aztec temple part of the second level, so we get an early taste of her particular style. On “Voices of the Temple,” somber harp arpeggios and the trusty pan flute do surprisingly effective justice to the old-world origins of this part of the game, somehow avoiding parody territory while still clearly establishing a difference between the prior jungle- and mine-oriented levels and this temporary stopover at a set of ancient ruins. Pretty impressive for a Super Nintendo game, no?
“Forest Frenzy” begins the third level–the coniferous forest–and Fischer does an admirable job of once again establishing difference, this time between the tropical locales of the earlier levels and the northern-hemisphere woodland lodgings of Level 3. A monotonous yet steady bassline grounds more flute and synth notes, and she throws in a heaping dose of harp for good measure. “Forest Frenzy” and its companion track “Treetop Rock” simply sound geographically distinct; this is arboreal country, where bumblebees replace the first level’s tropical parrots and naughty beavers roam the landscape. Yet they still manage to tie back into the game’s main themes, both instrumentally and melodically; that uptempo swing feeling is still present here, though it’s chillier than its earlier equatorial brethren. Wise returns to the helm for “Misty Menace,” the sort of dark atmospheric work that Aphex Twin explored on Selected Ambient Works Vol. II. I’ll assume it’s a coincidence that this game and that album were both released in 1994, though it’s fun to pretend that Wise and Richie James were secretly collaborating all the while.
But Fischer really shines in the winter wonderland level with the glassy, gorgeous one-two punch of “Northern Hemispheres” and “Ice Cave Chant.” The former wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Biosphere’s essential Substrata, as its fading piano flurries and harp fragments rest atop a menacing, continuous low drone. The game level for which “Northern Hemispheres” provides the soundtrack starts off placidly enough but progresses in difficulty as a snowstorm approaches and then strikes, obscuring the screen with a windy 8-bit blizzard. This is reflected in the music, which hastens the tempo about halfway through–though crucially, its menacing mood remains unchanging. “Ice Cave Chant,” meanwhile, begins with a similar drone but quickly takes a turn towards the whimsical as more harp arpeggios underpin friendly wind chimes. Traces of the prior track’s sense of impending doom remain, but the bells and chimes provide a happy distraction made all the more necessary by the difficulty of the level which they score (the ice caves sound whimsical, sure, but they’re a bitch to actually play through without losing a significant amount of lives).
Wise returns for the game’s final two levels, an industrial wasteland and the final boss battle on the aforementioned pirate ship. The wasteland level is represented by just a single track on DK Jamz, but it’s a doozy: “Fear Factory” is straight-up techno, catchy as all get-out with a beatless yet anthemic chorus of heavenly synth pads, all supported a pounding, crunchy drumbeat. “Gang-Plank Galleon,” complete with imitation concertina, starts off with an unnervingly happy shanty that gradually gets swallowed by an incoming drumbeat and gaping strings, after which point the driving techno of “Factory” returns–an appropriate tempo for the game’s final boss battle–along with those slightly feedback-y synth notes that sound as though they could be artfully reproduced during an epic electric guitar solo.
What I love about DK Jamz is the way it manages to capture a dazzling array of moods–joy, fear, excitement, anxiety, mystery, dreaminess–while still constituting a thematically unified whole. It’s not that each level is just a different take on the same tune; it’s that each tune is strikingly different yet never to the point at which you’d think you were playing another game. Something about these compositions just screams “Donkey Kong,” despite their instrumental and melodic variety. Even more impressive is the emotional richness that these tunes approximate, seemingly unencumbered by the limited technological capabilities of the Super Nintendo console’s audio channels. David Wise and Eveline Fischer created something magnificent and (dare I say) timeless with the DK Jamz soundtrack, and I’d encourage any and every fan of ambient music to check it out posthaste. The actual CD is long since out of print, and used copies will cost you upwards of seventy bucks on sites like Amazon and Discogs. With that in mind, I humbly offer you this link, which I found by Googling “DK Jamz” and scrolling halfway down the first page of search results.
DK Jamz may not be a new age title in the traditional sense, but from a strictly musical standpoint, I think it fits the bill. An hour’s worth of captivating electronic ambient music that’s pensive and thrilling in equal measure , DK Jamz deserves recognition beyond its role as background music for a video game. This is rich, rewarding music, period. David Wise and his colleagues have made a genre-hopping tour de force even more replayable than the game whence it originated. Ultimately, DK Jamz proves capable of being the soundtrack not just for a Donkey Kong game but also for real life, perhaps your life, in all its capricious, mystifying glory. Let me put it this way: if you’re a fan of, say, Pulse Emitter, Panabrite, Biosphere, or Global Communication, then you owe it to yourself to give this album a listen. So what are you waiting for? There’s a whole adventure out there ready for you to experience, and all you have to do is press play.