Game Music, Indie Music, Reviews

Minecraft – Volume Beta (Review)

May 28, 2014 | | 1 Comment Share thison Facebook Minecraft – Volume Beta (Review)on Twitter

If you have read my review of Minecraft – Volume Alpha, click here if you haven’t, then you will know that I liked it a lot. It’s an unusual soundtrack filled with quirky instrumentation, melodies, and harmonies that, I felt, was instrumental to the unique style of the game. Minecraft has had the same music for most of the game’s lifespan, and only recently has C418 (Daniel Rosenfeld) added more music to the game, to flesh out the somewhat limited array of tracks used before.

With my last review I had difficulty separating my affection for the game from the music. This time around I had difficulty accepting a new soundtrack into a game whose music made up such an integral part of my playing experience. Adding new tracks, in my mind, runs the risk of changing the style of the game, a game I have come to love as it is. True, the game is constantly updated and changed, but the visual essence and play style still remains. Having played the game with the new music, and listening to the new soundtrack, I’m not convinced that Minecraft – Volume Beta is a worthy addition.

Let’s start with “Alpha,” track 2. It starts out as very Minecraftian, with a simple piano melody that echoes in from the distance before slowly being fleshed out. Fragments from the Volume Alpha album (hence the name) come in and out, and the track as a whole climaxes in a very cinematic way. As is the style of C418, the track changes pace at 3:05 with a more upbeat yet still film-like quality. By the half-way point, the music takes a huge departure from what I generally considered to be Minecraft music, by becoming almost epic in style. I haven’t heard the track in-game yet, but I think it would be very misplaced if it was mixed in with all the other tracks.

From the moment the Nether was introduced to Minecraft a few years back, I have felt the dark fortresses and lakes of lava deserved a more sinister sound-scape. Darker music has finally been introduced to the game and they work well, consisting mostly of eerie echoing sound effects, low tones, and snatches of melodies. They generally work well in game and are included in this soundtrack. Specifically, “Ballad of the Cats,” track 15, is particularly menacing, with a heartbeat pulse, deep single note on the piano, and epic strings. The climax at the half way point, however, is very overbearing, overpowering the game itself and leaving you distracted as to what you were doing.

Track 4 represents a fundamental change to the Minecraft soundtrack that, as a whole, I am not sure about. “Blind Spots” is a great piece of music, almost chilled out in style, with a repeating electric bass, sweeping synths, and pleasant piano ostinato. However, it is a huge departure from the simple music box melodies from Volume Alpha, and when the percussion comes in half way through, I could almost imagine myself having drink in a trendy bar, not exploring mines! The slow synths of “Biome Fest” really give a sense of loneliness that technically fits the empty world of Minecraft, but I felt that it was too melancholy and counterintuitive to the sunny climes of Minecraft world.

“Mutation” takes the “Minecraft” track from Volume Alpha and expands upon the music box melody into a larger, more epic track. Again, you’d think this would work in the large open world of Minecraft, but I feel that it is too reactionary. It seems like C418 has tried to fit the music to what he thinks the game has become, rather than sticking with his own style. “Haunt Muskie” I feel does the same. It sounds like exploring/working music that was composed to fit the game, and as a result, becomes more generic. This is not to say that both tracks aren’t good, just that I don’t think they fit well into what the game, and I feel the unique spark of the first soundtrack is being lost.

“Aria Math,” track 13, is another anomaly to me. I heard this track while playing the game and it instantly jarred with what I have experienced before. I love the track itself; it’s upbeat, well-constructed, and filled with many complex layers. However, these elements became overbearing, departing from the soft melodies as they do, and as a result, I focused more on the music rather than on the game. It distracts from the game rather than complimenting it.

“Beginning 2,” tack 17, is used in the menu, and generally captures the essence of what Minecraft is by using the main theme. Again, the epic style that permeates throughout this album comes into play during the climax halfway through, again, distracting from the game rather than complimenting it.

As anyone who has completed Minecraft knows, the end sequence seemed like a stream of consciousness exercise by Marcus “Notch” Persson, the creator of Minecraft. In essence, it was a long and torturous affair. Personally, I stopped reading halfway through and only just caught the end. I can’t remember if there was any music when I completed the game, which was a while back, but “The End” track certainly suites. Starting out with the original Minecraft Theme, the music digitally degrades and then rests on a single note for several minutes. A simple piano melody comes in about half way through as the music climaxes at 10 minutes, then echoing out to the single note again. At 14:33 the music cuts out and an old vinyl record sound effect comes.

Tracks 20 – 30 are tracks I have not heard in-game as yet, and I presume they can be listened to when you collect more records. They are a complete departure from anything that has gone before and they are by far my favorite tracks in this album. I get the impression that C418 stopped trying to write his music to what he thought would fit the game, and just composed whatever he felt like. To be honest, I think this approach would have suited the rest of the album as well. These tracks are weird, uplifting, and a joy to listen to, and tracks like “Chirp,” “Mellohi,” and “Strad” use what seem to be samples from other pieces of music. “Stal” is a completely live recorded jazz piece with a recorder melody that, unusual though it is, is great to listen to!

I think you can tell that I am divided about Minecraft – Volume Beta. If you take the music at face value, and ignore its use in the game, then this is a great album! It is clear that C418 has matured as a composer and there isn’t one track on this album that I didn’t enjoy. They are very well composed, mixing live instrumentation with synths and expertly layering and weaving complex musical ideas into tracks that I am happy to add to my music collection. On this level I highly encourage everyone to buy this album; it’s an amazing achievement. However, apart from one or two tracks, and the addition of darker nether-like music, I feel that the music is too complex, too orchestral, too large, and too loud to fit well within the Minecraft game. It distracts rather than compliments and I get the impression that too much thought has gone into what would fit the game. This, rather ironically, has resulted in music that, despite being very well composed, strays into the generic game music category that so many other composers have fallen into. Still, get the album anyway. It’s entirely worth it! Minecraft – Volume Beta can be purchased on Bandcamp and iTunes.

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