Doujin, Game Music, Reviews

Chillaxin’ With The Last Metroid: Dark Side of Zebes (Review)

March 26, 2010 | | 6 Comments Share thison Facebook Chillaxin’ With The Last Metroid: Dark Side of Zebes (Review)on Twitter

Few games have influenced me in the way that Super Metroid has. The SNES classic from 1994 essentially created a genre of games. It was such a massive improvement over the first two games in the series, it’s no wonder that people still go back to that game as an example of gaming done right. Having invested countless hours into the game, to the point where I was even thinking about recording my speed runs (though I’m nowhere near the world record).

The soundtrack to Super Metroid has, unsurprisingly, grown on me with each subsequent play. It’s a perfect blend of the game’s humble origins and the planned trajectory forward. Why? The original Metroid music, composed by Hirokazu Tanaka, is largely re-used and re-arranged in the game, though there are also plenty of original pieces. Super Metroid was the first in the series to have music written by Kenji Yamamoto, and his success with this score afforded him the opportunity to continue writing for the series, even when its development was largely handled in America (Retro Studios’ Metroid Prime trilogy still has music handled by Yamamoto-san).

I’ve never been one to collect all the fan arrangements out there for any particular game’s soundtrack, because there are too many, and because the range of quality is too broad. Yes, everything done by Metroid Metal is laudable. But it took me awhile to find something outside the “Stemage” projects that would do justice to Super Metroid, particularly something outside the rock genre. That’s when I randomly saw this album being sold at a table at MAGFest 8.

From artist Amaranthine Skies (Jason Vincion), the trance album “Dark Side of Zebes” is the second of many albums on the independent label Concatenation Records. This is a two-track LP, each track running a solid 20 minutes in length. Is it any good? Is it a fair companion to the excellent “Varia Suite” album? Find out after the jump!

“The last metroid is in captivity. The galaxy is at peace.”

How can we forget the memorable prologue to Super Metroid? One of the few bits of spoken dialogue in the SNES library, and some of the clearest, ring out in my ears whenever I think of the game’s opening sequence. The artist of this arranged album was smart to take his two twenty minute ambient/trance medleys and name them in such a way as to capture the feel for the entire game. Before we even get to the music, praise should be given for the clever track titles here.

01 The Galaxy Is in Captivity
02 The Last Metroid Is at Peace

See what happened there? The subjects of the two sentences were switched. And yet, the meaning is also true to this fictional world. At the game’s opening, the galaxy is threatened by the Space Pirates’ renewed strength, plus their trump card (having a Metroid in their hands). And, for those of us who know the game’s ending (and if you know, you realize what a powerful emotional sequence that was), the second track title makes just as much sense. To quote Jurassic Park: “Clever girl!”

The strongest part of the album, in my opinion, is the opening. It’s an arrangement of that classic opening bit of music that also reprises during the end credits. Pizzicato strings and orchestral bells punctuate chord-based drones and other strange sustaining noise. If the album retained this level of quality and interesting arrangement throughout, it’d be a true success. Unfortunately, things do tend to taper off from time to time, as is to be expected of a 40 minute ambiance album.

After the opening arrangement, however, we are hit with another strong arrangement, if only for its ability to recreate the disturbing atmosphere of a lifeless space station. Flickering screens, computer terminals awaiting usage by humans that are now dead; that sensation can perhaps be best expressed by one sound. Though the sounds of distant burning and waves crashing are used during this arrangement of the “music” that plays during the game’s quick opening mission, it is that sound of a machine shutting down, or a fan winding down, that downward slope in pitch, like a mechanized sigh… wow, it gets me every time. And I think you hear it nearly 100 times during the 4 minutes dedicated to this oft-overlooked part of Yamamoto’s score.

Which brings me to another point. The guys that do Metroid Metal — Grant Henry and all his buddies — they arrange the music that works well in a rock band setting. There are some surprising pieces that do work, but some tracks simply don’t. The ambient music from Super Metroid is certainly part of that pack, and it’s exactly this set of music that Amaranthine Skies focuses in on. Not every track from the OST gets the spotlight in this ambient arrangement: but pieces you may have forgotten about, like that music that plays when you fight that plant-based mid-boss in Brinstar, receive plenty of love. So, maybe this is a good companion piece?

But before I dare make that suggestion, let’s get to the album’s drawbacks. First, the entire album seems to be produced with nothing more than a keyboard and tracking software. And, at times, the keyboard MIDI synths sound too artificial to be of interest. I would have liked to hear use of hand-collected samples, or maybe a manipulated version of some of the sound effects or jingles from the game. Perhaps that would’ve ruined the album’s consistency, but in turn it would have bolstered my level of interest in the album.

Second, if you’re not the kind of patient, intellectual (or in my case, pseudo-intellectual) kind of listener who’s willing to appreciate ambient arrangements, then of course this album is already on your blacklist. You don’t want something that bores you, especially when the source material is something nearly universally admired (by “universal,” I do mean the microcosm of gamers who have digested Super Metroid).

Third, and this is something I hate to bring up, but Concatenation Records is mighty indie indeed. So much so that the CD I paid $10 for was clearly a CD-R, as denoted by the glossy green backing of the disc. No, they didn’t try to cheat by using a silver dye, but nor did they print a “legit” CD. In a world of growing digital distribution, this might not matter to some people. But as a serious collector of music in its “physical artifact” form, I like knowing that the CD will likely survive the better part of my lifetime. CD-Rs just don’t cut it for me. (and yes, I do eagerly anticipate the comments of people telling me what a petty reason this is to be upset.) You can get the album digitally for less money anyway.

If you’re interested in getting a taste of the softer, eerier side of Super Metroid, I’d say that you’d be hard-pressed to find a better fan arrangement than “Dark Side of Zebes.” Though I certainly prefer “Varia Suite” and all other recordings by the Metroid Metal group to this strange little release from Amaranthine Skies, I also acknowledge that we’re not talking apples-to-apples here. Ambient heads, flag this one for a possible addition to the collection. Metroid fans may want to check it out as well.

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