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Game Music's New Canon: The How and Why of Brave Wave

COVER STORY: A small, fan-driven music label is bringing newfound respect to game music by offering veteran composers a safe haven for the classic tunes they love making.

Profile by Jeremy Parish, .

Anonymity amidst fame

Sitting at a bar a few days ago with a couple of friends, I found myself surprised when the topic at hand unexpectedly shifted to old video games. Neither of my drinking companions are particularly invested in gaming; one plays each year's Call of Duty entry to the exclusion of all else, and the other has been talking about buying a PlayStation 4 for as long as I've known him but always seems to have his dreams derailed by the realities of fatherhood.

Nevertheless, they both remember the games they played as kids: Punch-Out!! and Super Mario Bros., Sonic the Hedgehog and Contra, plus many others. I sat and listened as they waxed nostalgic about their favorite 8-bit hits. As they chatted, their conversation drifted slowly toward classic video game music and—to my surprise—video game cover bands like The Minibosses. To them, the idea of paying tribute to classic game tunes seemed marvelously novel, a bizarre stunt that someone had clearly done once for a laugh. They seemed downright shocked when I told them the Minibosses aren't just some novelty YouTube act but in fact a real performing band of actual adults, and that I'd seen them play a decade ago at a Penny Arcade Expo.

They were even more baffled to discover that I've been to concerts where the composers of famous game tunes have performed their works, and that one of my favorite work-related projects has been to interview the men and women who have created great game music over the years. The idea that game music is created by people, and that they would be artists the same as anyone whose work plays on the radio, came as something of a shock to them.

"I never really thought about the people who write video game music," one of my companions admitted. "I wonder if the guy who did the music for, like, Mario is still around?"

"Koji Kondo?" I said. "He's more of a producer these days, but he still writes. I saw him play at a Mario anniversary concert a few months ago!"

"The guy who did the music for Mario": Still actually quite alive.

At that point, the bar's loudspeakers blared to life to announce the beginning of a trivia contest, and our conversation spun off in different directions. Nevertheless, the timing of our brief discussion of game music couldn't have been more serendipitous. Here I was, about to wrap up a feature I've been developing for months about an independent record label dedicated to giving veteran game composers a home, and the topic of classic game music came up in random conversation. Our brief conversation underscored the importance of what Mohammed Taher and Alex Aniel are doing with Brave Wave Productions.

Desperately seeking Yamasan

If you follow gaming news at all, you've probably heard of Brave Wave. The music label turned four years old just a few days ago, and they garnered quite a bit of attention last month with their preorder campaign of a limited-run vinyl edition of a brilliantly remastered Street Fighter II soundtrack. The label boasts an impressive stable of talent, including Yoko Shimomura (Street Fighter II, Parasite Eve), Manami Matsumae (Mega Man, Shovel Knight), and Saori Kobayashi (NiGHTS, Panzer Dragoon Saga), providing them with a home for new work and, when possible, an avenue for top-flight reissues of their back catalog material.

The label made its first blip on my own radar last year, when they published Retro-Active Pt. 1, a collection of new work by composer Keiji Yamagishi. Yamagishi had, until that point, been one of the countless unknown creative heroes of the 8-bit era. His brilliant compositions lent Tecmo classics like Ninja Gaiden, Tecmo Bowl, and Radia Senki much of their impact and style; yet as was often the case during the NES era, he worked under a condition of pseudonymity. Ninja Gaiden's credits simply listed him as "Yamasan," and as Tecmo rarely plumbs the depths of its musical catalog the way companies like Square Enix, Capcom, and Nihon Falcom do, his name never bubbled to the surface of gaming's consciousness the way those of more famous contemporaries like Yuzo Koshiro and Nobuo Uematsu did. He largely disappeared from gaming sometime in the ’90s, filing away his time as video game composer as a relic of the past.

It was ultimately the search for Yamagishi that helped bring Brave Wave into existence. Taher, a Kuwaiti games blogger with a lifelong love for music, ended up tracking down Yamagishi through a succession of intersecting events that began with the idea to have a legitimate composer provide a theme for his podcast.

"At the time, I was obsessed with VVVVVV, so I sent the composer a request, I told him about our podcast and that it would be cool to have a theme, so he created one for us," says Taher. "At the same time, I had a small blog that I was running by myself... it was approaching its first anniversary, and I thought it would be cool to make a small EP of five or six music tracks to give it away for free.

"Pushing Onwards" from VVVVVV. Composer Magnus Pålsson was one of the first contemporary composers to embrace a bygone "chiptune" musical style.

"At the time, I was playing Spelunky. When there’s a game in my mind, I just obsess over it. So I loved Spelunky, and I e-mailed Eirik Suhrke, the composer, about my idea. Even though I had no idea what the label would be or how I should assign rights and all of that, at the very beginning — I was a writer, so whenever someone I wrote for wanted me to write something for them, whether it’s a magazine or a newspaper, I would often ask for the rights, because then I’d post it on my blog maybe a few weeks or months later. So I knew this was something that artists would care about. I told Eirik that he could have the rights for this, and publish them a year later; I just wanted them exclusive for a full year. To my surprise, he agreed."

Taher managed to work the same magic with several other composers, including remixers from OCRemix and Stemage from Metroid Metal. His real breakthrough came, however, when he happened to encounter Silent Hill 2 composer Akira Yamaoka at an event in Saudi Arabia and followed up by reaching out to ask for a musical contribution as well.

"A day went by, two days, three days, and I thought to myself, 'He’s just busy and he probably won’t reply to this e-mail.' But then I got a reply maybe five days after that. He just told me, 'Yes, I’m gonna do it,' and that just blew my mind. I simply did not think that something like that would be possible. And having Akira on board made it possible for me to talk to anyone at all."

Taher's success with cold-calling musicians inspired him to look into his side project more seriously. "I didn’t really have any outline. 'I’m looking for a composer named Keiji Yamagishi, he did the Captain Tsubasa soundtracks, and Ninja Gaiden.' At the time, I was searching for him everywhere. I remember I posted a NeoGAF thread about him, and even people there didn’t know about him. Finally, someone on Twitter gave me his Facebook page."

Yamagishi's São Paolo theme from Captain Tsubasa II.

This discovery formed the basis of Brave Wave in its current incarnation, bringing together Taher with the man who would become his business partner: Alex Aniel, a foreign national living in Japan.

"I was following Alex and he was following me on Twitter, and I told him, 'You know, I just found the composer, and I want to send him a short message.' Alex wrote up something short, like, 'My name is Mohammed and I want to know if you are Yamasan who composed Ninja Gaiden.' I thanked him for the music, and I told him that I always loved Captain Tsubasa's music, I grew up with it and all of that, and I asked him [about the] album idea. He said he’d love to make a track for it.

"Because no one had interviewed Keiji before, I wanted to do a really extensive interview with him. I created a Google Document [with] a few questions, Alex would translate them to Japanese, Keiji would answer that, and I would follow up based on his answers after Alex translates that back. It took us a month to finish that!"

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