Game Music, Indie Music, Reviews

The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth OST (Review)

April 27, 2015 | | Comment? Share thison Facebook The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth OST (Review)on Twitter

Observing and listening to music evolve over the course of a game or movie franchise is always fascinating to me. I’m always curious to see and hear if themes get brought back, and how the new material contrasts with the previous entries. But sometimes, in an interesting twist, the music of a new entry abandons the original material completely, in favor of a different set of music themes and composers. Such is the case with The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth OST, featuring all new music by Ridiculon.

This is something that can be quite intriguing. Having a completely new take on the music for a game, especially one that remains mechanically similar to its predecessor, is a great way to observe how a new set of music and themes can change a game experience. The score for the original Binding of Isaac was composed by Danny Baranowsky. This new game The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth features a new score by Matthias Bossi and Jon Evans, who make up the group Ridiculon. While it’s tempting to provide an “old vs new” comparison between the soundtracks, I want to focus primarily on this latest work and judge it on its own merits. Some comparisons will be inevitable, but there’s plenty to examine on the The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth OST on its own. With that said, let’s take a look at this fresh spin on the world of The Binding of Isaac.

The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is a game that thematically requires an unsettling tone. The game is a rouge-like dungeon crawler that has you play a small child fleeing from a homicidal parent, all while finding power-ups that corrupt and distort your body. As you go deeper into the game, you meet increasingly challenging and horrifying creatures, many of which are inspired by the darker elements of Christian mythology. It’s an unnerving setting, all of which needs to be aided by an equally unnerving score. I’m pleased to say that Ridiculon’s original music for The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth delivers.

One of the things that struck me when first playing through the game was that, despite the use of new music material, the tone of the music remains quite similar to the first game. The opening track of the album, “Genesis 22:10 (Title),” is eerie and foreboding. A combination of vocals, horns, celeste, and electric guitar build an unsettling atmosphere for the opening menu screen.

The music for the opening levels has a nice rock feel to it. A handful of strings, simple guitar riffs, and electronic elements are accompanied by drum kit for the track “Diptera Sonata.” Another electric guitar comes in later on the track to build on top of the existing material. Having this as the music for the opening floors of the game helps quickly establishes the threatening and horrific environment of the game, while not being incredibly overbearing. This also contrasts nicely with the music for the later areas of the game that are far more disturbing.

Tracks for the later sections, like The Depths and The Womb, are much more ambient and quiet, creating a very unsettling mood. “Abyss (The Depths),” is could easily be perceived as a work of sound design as it is of music. The track is filled with distant moans, unintelligible whispers from all directions, and heartbeat-like drum rhythms. In fact the only tonal thing happening in this piece is the chime like melodies that play over the previously mentioned cacophonous elements. Overall, a much more unnerving soundscape, for the deeper levels of your main character’s decent.

A similar effect is produced with “Capiticus Calvaria (Catacombs).” This piece is much more percussive in nature than the music for The Depths. There’s no melody present and the electronic elements, coupled with the more dramatic and metallic percussion, evoke a much more aggressive and threatening atmosphere. In contrast to the early levels of the game, the music here is much more oppressive. There are some truly horrifying and powerful creatures in these lower levels, and the music makes it that much more unsettling.

While many of the levels of the game focus on ambient and disturbing sounds, a handful of areas have some more melodically focussed tracks. “Tomb of Knowledge” and “The Forgotten” feature some lighter music on piano with a handful of accompanying instruments. “Tome of Knowledge” in particular steers far away from the electronic and ambient noises that are featured in the other tracks. While still maintaining a foreboding tone, they’re a nice change of pace on the album and within the game itself.

Some of the best tracks on The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth OST are of course the boss fight pieces. The basic boss fight piece, “Crusade,” has plenty of energy and maintains the eerie sound of the other pieces. The vocals and the strings especially help add this haunting vibe to the the otherwise rock influenced music. While not as hard-hitting and climactic as some of the music from the later levels, it does a good job of establishing the pacing for the battles.

Naturally the later boss fight music is much more intense. My particular favorites are “Hericide,” and “Infanticide.” The former has a lot of emphasis on distorted guitar rhythms and vocals. I particularly enjoy the effect of the dissonant sustained strings playing over the guitar riffs at around the 0’26” mark. Again, the unsettling horror element is still felt, but there’s an added element of energy and magnitude to the music’s scope. The latter piece “Infanticide” similarly makes use of a choir and electric guitar. However, there’s also a greater presence of orchestral instruments like strings, and horns. This all builds up to make a much bigger and dramatic piece that works great for the more intense boss fights that you face later in the game.

So, let’s address the obvious question, how does the Ridiculon’s Rebirth soundtrack compare to the original Binding of Isaac OST? Having spent a lot of time experiencing both games, I honestly can’t say that I prefer one over the other. That might seem like a boring answer, but I think that each soundtrack works well in its own way. Both approaches have their merits, and while each soundtrack aims to create an unsettling and engaging audio experience, they do produce some slightly different results.

For me, Rebirth has a much darker and sinister sound, which makes the game experience more intense. It’s more claustrophobic, it’s more unsettling, and it maintains that atmosphere throughout the full experience. However, I also enjoyed the music from the previous Binding of Isaac game. Baranowsky’s original themes in the early sections of the first game are melodic and catchy, thus creating greater contrast in mood as the music transitions to creepier and more foreboding music later in the game. Both scores steadily get more sinister sounding, but there’s a difference in the amount of contrast and change in tone that each soundtrack undergoes. These are small differences, but what results is a set of different gameplay experiences. To me, they are equally valid approaches to building atmosphere for The Binding of Isaac game world. Depending on how you like your horror rouge-like experience, you may find yourself favoring one approach over the other.

My final verdict on The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth OST is a positive one. Ridiculon has created an original take on the music for the series that works incredibly well within the game. The music builds a great amount of tension and unease in the player, which continues to escalate as you delve deeper into the game’s world. The boss battle music is energetic and foreboding and there a handful of calmer pieces that provide some variety to the music. Taken on its own merits and even when compared to the music of its predecessor, The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth OST is an excellent horror soundtrack that is absolutely worth your time and attention. The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth OST can be found on Ridiculon’s Bandcamp page and on Steam.

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