Given that Thomas Happ's Axiom Verge was one of my favorite things about 2015, it seemed only appropriate to combine it with one of my favorite things so far in 2016: Listening to music on vinyl.
I've mentioned this in my personal blog already, but my parents recently bequeathed upon me a massive stack of LP records I bought throughout the ’90s. This happened independently of the music industry's newfound vinyl resurgence and has to do entirely with my parents undertaking a time-honored ritual of parents everywhere: Clearing their kids' crap from storage once those kids finally settle down. But the timing has been great, mostly; while the newfound trendiness of this near-forgotten music format means I'll forever kick myself for not snatching up more classic albums back when they were cheaper than dirt (and considerably less desirable), it also means I was able to get my hands on a great entry-level turntable for a reasonable price.
Even better, it means that video game publishers have jumped on the trend. The growth of companies treating game music as a serious venture has more or less overlapped with vinyl's return to popularity, and practically any game worth its salt has its own limited LP soundtrack release these days. My love for Axiom Verge made Ship to Shore's new LP release a perfect choice as my first new purchase with which to christen my turntable. Now that the record's arrived, it's more than lived up to my expectations... though people who are more interested in it as a collectible than as a conveyance of music may want to take note of a few caveats.
Ship to Shore has produced the Axiom Verge soundtrack in two different variants, a marbled purple disc and a transparent orange version with a faint red mottling effect. I ordered the latter — the more limited edition of the two — based on the enthusiasm so many collectors have for the sound quality of transparent vinyl.
The record itself looks great, a throwback to the translucent colored plastic trend of the late ’90s. Maybe that reference is a bit anachronistic considering the game itself aims directly for a mid ’80s vibe; let's say it also calls to mind the old LEGO "space" sets, putting it square in the Reagan era and therefore, like Axiom Verge's inspiration Metroid, redolent of my own childhood.
On the other hand, the production values of the packaging fall more into the "merely OK" category. I'm assuming that Ship to Shore, like a lot of boutique publishers that have popped up to take advantage of this new/old wave of music, is both new and small. They've snagged a few notable licenses—the upcoming EarthBound double LP was a major coup!—but it seems like they're still ironing out the kinks. The record label seems curiously shabby, printed on cheap-looking stock and lacking any gloss; it's not quite inkjet printer quality, but it's a far cry from the slick labels I'm used to. Somehow, the label arrived looking particular worse for the wear around the spindle hole — an issue that, based on preview images on Ship to Shore's website, appears to be universal to the entire lot.
Similarly, the record jacket is a pretty simple affair, printed on thin cardboard and offering few frills. The actual design of the cover is fine; Axiom Verge hasn't really used promotional art beyond game stills, and the use of a blown-up screenshot seems a lot more in keeping with the property's character than a slick, minimalist, Olly Moss-style cover would. The actual interior sleeve is simple white paper, with notes by Happ printed on a separate insert rather than directly on the sleeve. A mild disappointment, but at least the liner notes are worthwhile; the reverse side of the insert features tons of Happ's pencil sketches for the game overlaid on a graph paper pattern. They perfectly call to mind all the maps I drew out on graph paper for the original Metroid, which demonstrates once again that Axiom Verge was inspired by a collective experience shared independently by kids around the world 30 years ago.
Ultimately, though, I bought the soundtrack as something to listen to, and this is where the LP really shines. Axiom Verge sounds phenomenal on vinyl, with perfect separation between the various electronic details of the music. Happ's compositions use NES-like wave tones as a base, which are then overlaid with deep growling drones, pulsing synthesizer melodies, and even sampled voices in a few tracks. Through the same headphones, and using my turntable's standard audio-out without a preamp or equalizer, the record sounds considerably clearer than the M4A versions issued in last year's iTunes release.
The single-LP version does come with a stricter time limitation; seven of the 18 tracks of the iTunes version are missing here. That's about 24 minutes of music missing from the original, 65-minute soundtrack — about to be expected, given the restrictions of the format. Happ and Ship to Shore probably could have stuffed another track on each side, but that would have degraded the sound quality. Given the specialist nature of video game vinyl releases, I'll happily take sonic quality over track quantity any day.
The missing tracks consist of "Intro," "Trace Rising," "Vital Tide," "The Dream," "Occlusion," "Without Place," and "Primordial Shores." Generally speaking, these were the least interesting cuts from the game—not bad, just not as memorable as the key compositions selected for the LP. What remains are the best tunes from the game.
Despite being styled after, and heavily referencing, 8-bit games, Axiom Verge takes a different approach to its soundtrack than older games. Rather than accompanying the game's action with chiptunes that loop after 60 seconds, Happ produced lengthier tracks that work as standalone pieces. The tracks incorporate NES-like square and triangle waves, but wed them to a variety of other electronic instruments. Stylistically, the album covers a range of styles, from early ’80s synth pop to ’90s ambient to ’00s dance, frequently muddling them together within the same track. Ship to Shore's mastering work has reproduced them all beautifully, and with impressive clarity.
Notes on the included tracks:
The lead track, "The Axiom," serves as the introduction to the game. It sets the tone for the soundtrack with its rhythm track, which combines a pulsing electronic beat with a more rapid-fire NES-style backbeat. These serve as the underpinnings for the spacey, sliding, synthesizer tones that comprise the de facto "main theme" of the game.
The second track, "Trace Awakens," plays the role of Metroid's "Brinstar" theme — it's the first music you hear within the game proper, and it plays throughout the opening region of the map. You return to the initial areas of the games several times through the game, so this track becomes a sort of anchor for your adventure, subtly reminding you of where you began and how far you've come since them. The tune itself consists of a rhythmic synth whose muted, rapid-fire strobing fades in and out of hearing, like the rotors of a helicopter dopplering past. This drifting beat accompanies a more consistent 4/4 rhythm track over which the main melody plays. Initially consisting of NES-like tones to establish the central tune, the music slowly accumulates other layers of sound as it iterates on the basic melody, eventually leaving the 8-bit tones behind before circling back around to them.
The next two cuts, "Otherworld" and "Rusalka," dial things back slightly from the opening cuts — which, admittedly, aren't precisely in-your-face to begin with. "Otherworld" is slower and more subdued, with a melody so muted as to be nearly ambient. "Rusalka," on the other hand, features instruments and effects that call to mind Tappi Iwase's excellent Metal Gear Solid soundtrack.
The first side of the record ends with "Inexorable," possibly the strongest track in the game. While it doesn't have have quite as much riding on its shoulders as "Trace Awakens," it helps pull the game and soundtrack together, thematically, with its emphasis on an ethereal female vocal sample that connects the music to the enigmatic, robotic, feminine life forms that the player encounters throughout the game. There's a lot happening in "Inexorable," but the track's structure and pacing keep it from feeling jumbled or overwhelming. The tune begins with that voice sample, which quickly gives way to a buzzing central rhythm. The sampled vocals weave into and out of the track, alternating with an electric synth and a clean, piano-like tune. Also present here is the most intricate percussion of the album, with layered drum sounds that include the resonant dance pulse heard throughout the soundtrack as well as sampled hand percussion and a more traditional pop/dance drum machine sound. Clearly divided into multiple sections with constant changes that iterate on the central themes through different voices and even warbling "computer" sounds, "Inexorable" is quite the mini-epic.
The second side opens with "Apocalypse," a much brighter tune than anything on Side A. It's poppier, with a more upbeat melody and more driving rhythms. It includes just a hint of the sampled female voice from "Inexorable," while also introducing a garbled male voice as well. The main synthesizer line and drums almost sound like classic Devo.
On the other hand, the next few tracks — "Cellular Skies," "Amnesia," and "Phosphene" — take a moodier, more ambient approach. Featuring more sparse melody lines and deeper, more ponderous bass, they tend to blend somewhat together. However, "Amnesia" provides some much-needed relief in the middle of this more solemn stretch of music. While it starts out with a feel similar to that of "Cellular Skies," it picks up in its second half as the tempo builds. The atmosphere shifts from eerie to driving, incorporating interesting audio effects and an ascending synth line before ending on some simple, NES-like tones that segue into the nearly oppressive bass line of "Phosphene."
Finally, the album ends with a pair of tracks that largely serve as a reprise of the opening tunes. "Occlusion Lens" feels like a slower reprise of "The Axiom," at the same time presenting a structure to that of "Amnesia" — it begins with a seemingly unstructured intro and slowly folds in more voices and beats as it builds toward a crescendo. And, finally, "Trace Reborn" directly repeats elements from "The Axiom" and "Trace Awakens," bringing the album (and game) to a fitting conclusion.
By focusing on only the strongest compositions from the game and presenting them with such clean, clear reproduction, the Axiom Verge LP definitely offers the best way to experience the game's soundtrack outside of the game itself. I admit that I've always been somewhat leery about the concept of putting game music on vinyl, as it struck me as missing the primary strength of the format: Preserving analog recordings, which becomes moot when the music in question is generated digitally. But this disc proved my skepticism unfounded, offering an unquestionably superior listening experience to the digital soundtrack release.
With its heavy emphasis on electronic rhythms and spacey synthesizers, I could even see this soundtrack entering regular rotation in some DJ's set list. For my part, though, I'll stick to enjoying it in my living room. But having experienced firsthand how fantastic a great video game score can sound when mastered well to vinyl, I suspect I'll be investing in (and reviewing) more soundtracks down the line. Strongly recommended.