I think it’s safe to say that video game music is a lot more accepted now than it used to be.
I can still remember years ago, eagerly playing a couple of tunes from the European Sonic CD soundtrack for my uncle, only for him to grow a rather puzzled expression and lament how “poxy” it all sounded.
Those were the days.
One musician who has generated buzz in more recent times though is Ben Prunty. Based out of the San Francisco Bay Area, Prunty shot to recognition after producing audio for the hit PC game FTL: Faster Than Light; an excellent title that would later be nominated for IGN’s Best Overall Music and Best PC Sound of 2012.
Since then Prunty has officially released three more works (two video game soundtracks and two original albums) with a couple of them being released in the “name your price” format that has become popular recently.
I have yet to see a set of full reviews for his albums however and since I own his entire collection up to this point (spoiler: they’re rather good!) I’d like to share my thoughts on each one and talk a little bit about why I like them and why you might too.
The first in this series of instrumental albums, Chromatic T-Rex is an eclectic mix of styles and tunes that sound as sugary and ‘out-there’ as its cover art looks.
But it’s all good because ‘Rex is an imaginative journey with plenty of varied melodies to make each song sound unique and appealing. Although the music possesses that popular “8-bitty” sound, it never feels cheap or wasted. Coupled with the many interesting uses of sampled sounds and effective fade outs, the album makes for some great ambiance.
From the subtle intro number The World to the soothing space-faring feel of Impulse, ‘Rex rarely disappoints. The second track called Electric Mountain has an adventurous feel to it and makes for a rather grand theme with the third offering Artificial Fire being a more mellow tune featuring Prunty reading Twain backwards over the sound of a busy airport terminal. As crazy as it sounds though, it kind of works! And speaking of crazy, Mighty Surf Wizard Battle has that particular taste covered nicely; delivering a high tempo sugar-rush of sounds that seem very reminiscent of your typical level from Space Harrier or Outrun.
The Train Robbery makes for as great listen too as the track starts off calm and slowly develops into a tense ‘chase’ theme that adds some real character to the album. Definitely one of the stand-out tracks on ‘Rex in my opinion.
Whilst we’re focusing on notable songs, what better example than Prunty’s personal favourite called Love Story which I agree is a likeable, chirpy number with plenty of soft moments interspersed. The album returns to these more mellow sounds for Hades where the overall composition honestly wouldn’t seem totally out of place in a lounge bar somewhere. And if you’re after something a little heavier then consider listening to Percussion in 6/8; drums are the only instrument in this one and it makes for one hell of a head-nodding beat!
There’s plenty more to enjoy in this album than what I’ve touched on here and I don’t feel as if there are any particularly weak tracks in that lot either. Perhaps the rock inspired circus organ track Circus Circus is a bit of a strange one but then it just adds to the heady mix that Chromatic T-Rex has to offer.
Although Prunty’s influences are closely connected to video games, I personally think that this album sounds too unique to be considered truly “gamey”. According to Prunty, the album is composed of material he recorded over the span of four years. He says:
“It’s a crazy mix … You never know what you’re going to get when you listen to this album!”
The results are certainly a lot of fun though (just as Prunty goes on to guarantee in his album synopsis) and with almost 20 tracks, Chromatic T-Rex represents a fantastic deal considering it’s a “name your price” release.
Although Prunty’s raw retro-chic sound is uniform enough to ward away any usual detractors, it’s almost certain that fans of the style will find something to enjoy in this jumbo pick n’ mix bag of pure ear candy.
Favourite Track: Impulse
FTL: Original Soundtrack
FTL: Faster Than Light is a brutally difficult game, so it may come as somewhat of a surprise to learn how tender and inspiring its soundtrack can be at times.
Essentially split into two halves, the meat of FTL: Original Soundtrack consists of two songs for each level of the game. Each one has an “explore” theme and a “battle” theme lovingly composed in that “8-bit” style and conveying the pure feeling of space in a very exciting way.
Space is a vast, enigmatic void of equal parts possibility and emptiness. If anything I think that’s the spirit that FTL captures marvelously- that wonder of the unknown at stretching to the furthest reaches of the galaxy.
The explore tracks especially, are beautiful pieces that immerse you fully into the game’s setting.
The gameplay in FTL takes place on your lone federation starship which is in constant pursuit by rebel forces. It’s common though to spend quite a lot of time managing your ship’s systems whilst browsing the game’s various menus and it’s during these relatively “safe” moments that you’ll be experiencing the explore themes the most.
Each one is usually a slow, gentle and often mysterious song that captures the recognizable atmosphere that most of us non-astronauts have come to appreciate about space. Being a “glass is half empty” kind of guy, I tend to latch onto the loneliness that each explore track conveys. I think it compliments the feeling I get when I see the little humans and aliens on my ship; they’re alone in a hostile galaxy that is all too often hellbent on destroying them.
That’s video games for you, I guess.
And as many an FTL fan will likely tell you, the “spooky” (as Ben calls them) explore tracks are a highlight. During the game you can run the risk of jumping your ship into an area of space filled with nebula. Essentially a dust cloud in space, a nebula obstacle robs your ship of its vital power reserves and jams your scanners; a dangerous play style in a game that restricts progress saving! The Void (Explore) and Deepspace (Explore) themes capture this unsettling scenario perfectly, presenting haunting compositions that remind you of how deep you’ve traveled into this dark world and how many dangers still lurk there just waiting for you to drop on by.
Not all tracks are ominous however, the notable MilkyWay (Explore) is a rousing number that serves FTL well as the defining track that most people are likely to recognize from the game.
But when it’s time to warm up the main guns, Prunty has delivered on the battle themes too. In-game the soundtrack effortlessly fades from one track to the next with the battle themes only playing when the ship is in danger and then effortlessly blending back into the explore music when that danger has passed.
During play it’s perhaps harder to appreciate the battle tracks because of their brevity and the heightened need for player concentration. This would be my guess as to why the explore themes seem to be preferred by most fans; because you tend to hear more of them without the added sounds of missiles hitting your ship or the wailing death screams of that useless Engi alien who just suffocated in the weapons bay- I WAS SO CLOSE DAMN IT!
Listen to the battle themes in full however and the greatness will shine through. Each one captures a certain tension that is supported so well by a game where a single unfortunately placed enemy torpedo can spell the end of a thirty minute Kestrel run.
The Last Stand track is particularly awesome. Acting as the theme to the game’s final boss; the colossal rebel flagship, this track marches on with a threatening beat of wooden instruments until the quarter way point where it transforms in a calculated melody that hits you with that “this is it!” feeling that games have been pulling off for decades.
The Victory jingle that plays after just sums up the relief!
When all is said and done, I think it speaks for itself why Subset Games chose to include Prunty’s music in a special edition for FTL’s original release. The quality of music on offer here simply cannot be understated and I find myself seek in vain to find any negative aspect with the overall production (and this is me saying this!)
Some of the tracks sound a bit too similar to each other perhaps? But that’s nitpicking really. Featuring a mammoth 29 tracks and a paltry $5 minimum asking price, FTL: Original Soundtrack delivers what is perhaps the best value commercial video game soundtrack in living memory.
If you have yet to sample FTL’s dulcet melodies, go do it now- do it properly with a pair of headphones and immerse yourself in one of the most original and pleasant video game soundtracks I’ve had the pleasure of hearing since Sonic CD.
It’s light years away from “poxy” as I’m sure you’ll agree!
Favourite Track: Last Stand
Curious Merchandise is the second original release that collects an assortment of tracks from Prunty’s personal projects alongside various tracks specifically written for this album.
It’s a very flavourful outing this time around with songs that superbly evoke that feeling of stepping through a curtain of beads to a strange world complemented by clinking wind chimes and the smell exotic incense; crammed to the brim with all sorts of weird and wonderful wares.
But before we start envisioning one of those tacky Gothic gift shops one might see during a drunken Blackpool beano, let me reassure you that the music in ‘Merch is a bit more tantalizing and fantastical than you might first expect.
This perfectly titled album begins with Ghost Jazz; a strong opener where soft tones develop into a rather cool beat by the end of it. Fractal Wheel comes next, bringing with it many distinct sounds and a rather awesome electronic guitar section.
Another strong favourite comes in the form of Gleaming Copper which is a soothing track with many subtle notes and the very pleasing backing of rain falling; something I choose to believe that everyone enjoys the sound of!
Following the somewhat insubstantial Time Travel is the more lively Wise Old Insect and then the funky rhythms of Quantum Foam. This leads into the album’s first and rather ominous intermission track One Billion Years but it’s during intermission 2 where I actually find it easiest to pinpoint the inspiration of FTL as its space-faring melody sounds remarkably similar. If I had one criticism of this particular song however it would be that it just kind of disappears on you and ends rather abruptly, but then maybe this is a reference to its title of One Lifetime; we often don’t see the end coming.
Gentleman’s Duel borrows a similar circus anthem from Chromatic T-Rex for a rather tense number. Although it brings xylophones into the mix for a new sound I can’t say this one stuck with me all that much. Likewise with The Magnificent, which acts like another love letter to FTL but I don’t feel it’s done quite as well here sadly. Sanctuary from Monsters picks up the slack however with beautiful piano pieces and a very serene melody with more than a little sadness to it. This is almost matched by Canister Perplexing; a song with a great variety of sounds and a lovely bit of guitar added in also.
And there’s a lot more to enjoy, from the super relaxing tones of Overgrowth to the fast and fun urgency of Tribal Crisis; there’s plenty to be discovered on this magical album’s many shelves. I don’t really know if it classifies as a full-on concept album but it’s quite close if it isn’t.
Overall I don’t think it presents quite the same consistency that maybe Prunty’s other efforts do but then Curious Merchandise is still a strong offering that is well worth getting if you’re in the mood for something, well… curious!
Favourite Track: Sanctuary from Monsters
FTL: Advanced Edition Soundtrack
And it just keeps getting BETTER!
I originally had no idea that the new advanced version of FTL (released as a free update to the original) featured new music from the man himself. In fact I’d kept most upcoming details about the new version at arm’s length with hope of jumping into a totally fresh experience.
I wouldn’t be disappointed.
Not only did FTL the game get even better but these new bonus additions to the soundtrack blew me away as well, especially since I didn’t see (or is that hear?) them coming.
At times FTL: Advanced Edition sounds like a pseudo remix effort of the originals but even if it was that simple; they’re damn good re-imaginings all the same! A few familiar melodies return in this collection to great effect and they’ll have you humming along all over again once you’ve heard them a couple of times.
In the liner notes Prunty happily comments on the inclusion of the new track Slug (Explore) and how he was pleased to offer this to fans who were craving more “spooky” music in their FTL experience. In fact, pretty much every new set of tracks feels like a great new offering with an overall developed sound that feels more “16-bit” (if that even makes sense) or dare I say it; more advanced!
The Hacking Malfunction tracks in particular feel like an evolution in Prunty’s work with Lost Ship and Lanius also being exciting to listen to.
I feel that my previous criticism of the level tracks sounding a bit too similar to each other is more pronounced here but then considering this is closer in size to an EP and it’s a “name your price” release to boot, it’s hard to complain too much.
FTL: Advanced Edition Soundtrack is another fantastic release that you should definitely consider listening to if you get the chance. I, like many others no doubt, will be very interested to see where Prunty takes us on his next galactic voyage.
Favourite Track: Hacking Malfunction (Explore)