Greetings and salutations friends! It’s that time once again for a massive postmortem on PAX East. This year, I’m joined by bory of geekbeatradio who was the head of the MAGFest Jamspace this year and also responsible for booking all of our amazing acts. As this article does traditionally cover both the music and gaming portions of PAX East, bory will be covering the music and I will be covering the games – and as per usual, you can navarkigate to each portion by searching #MUSIC or #GAMES. This time around we’ve got a big article for ya, so don’t hesitate to use those to jump around.
Howdy-ho, chipperinos! I’m going to go out on a limb here and say you know a thing or two about Shovel Knight. You…you do know about Shovel Knight, right? I mean, I talked about it last year – it’s that game by Yacht Club Games where you combine all the best parts of Mega Man, Castlevania, Zelda II and Ducktales and go off to save the day and get your girlfriend back for great justice shovelry? Y’know, that game that just came out on darn near every game system so your list of excuses why you don’t have it and aren’t playing it grow slimmer as this sentence rambles longer? That one? Yeah. That’s a pretty great game. You should play it.
But this is a music blog! We’re not here to talk about really, really good games that you should go buy as soon as the dollars appear in your pocket. We’re here to talk about some bitchin’ music! And boy howdy do we have some music to talk about – the main soundtrack of the game clocks in at a whopping 48 tracks, composed by none other than the legendary Jake Kaufman, with guest appearances by the equally amazing Manami Matsumae, of Mega Man fame. And as if that weren’t enough, there’s an 18 track arranged album featuring new mixes of the in-game tracks from other famous folks like Jeff Ball and coda and so many others! We don’t have the time to do an exhaustive shakedown breakdown of every track, but I’d like to bring you some of my favorite pieces from these fine examples of compositional magic.
Not one to beat around the bush, virt slaps us in the face with a main theme filled with all sorts of fun things – while the melody is simple enough, all the little effects going on behind it give this theme such depth that it’s hard to believe that this is a track you don’t hear a whole lot of in the game. It’s sweeping, it’s epic, it lets you know that you’re about to get your butt in gear on a high-octane shovel-powered fantasy epic. This is a recurring theme in many of the later incidental songs (i.e. map music, cutscenes) – both in the musical sense of “variations on a theme” as well as the fact that none of the tracks in the game let you think for a minute that the energy is winding down during traditionally “boring” parts of the game like the map.
The first battle against the Black Knight is both the first taste of a boss battle as well as boss music – and in both senses, it sets you up to understand how the rest of the boss battles are going to play out. Just like it teaches you the basics of how to kill things and not die, it also tells you that the music for boss battles is going to be as intense as the fight is meant to be. It keeps your blood pressure up, your adrenaline flowing, and at least for me, the driving tempo helps me function more quickly since my brain is trying to move at the same speed as the music. Jeff Ball’s remix on the arranged album keeps it upbeat, but opts to revoice the track into this sweeping violin feature, and it’s absolutely grand. Violin, piano, electric bass and drum kit are already a mixture of musical voices that sound fun on their own, but not something one might think of immediately when covering chiptunes – but I’m glad he did.
I have talked about, in previous reviews, how much I love when artists can create a sense of place with their music. You know what I mean – sometimes, a track just makes you think of space, or a cave, or under the ocean – it’s all these subconscious metamusical constructs that we have in our heads from centuries of musical creation. This track perfectly evokes the sense of being high in the air – and it’s very soothing while still being upbeat, which is perfect, because the level this is tied to has a lot of frustrating portions, so being constantly soothed away from throwing the controller is vital. As with all the level themes, it becomes added in as part of the boss theme, which takes away the soothingness and does a barrel roll with the emotion behind it, making it a whole lot more urgent. While parts of the melody are the same, it’s amazing what a few changes can do to change the emotions evoked. Matsumae-san has her own remix of this on the arranged album, and I honestly don’t know which I like better. They’re tied at the top of the list of my favorite songs from the entire soundtrack.
From someone of virt’s experience, you shouldn’t be surprised when he whips out something completely different in tone than everything else he’s had going on. That said, I was not expecting a tarantella in the middle of my beating-rats-with-a-shovel-and-digging-for-gems simulator. (Nor was I expecting a waltz, but that’s a different scene.) It’s short, but it’s part of a hilarious little cutscene, and it all works together perfectly. It’s a nice break from the epic, sweeping pieces that accompany most levels – fun, fast, and fabulous. This theme also gets called back in the battle against Tinker Knight, which is a nice continuation on the whole Chekhov’s Gun for themes – if a melody gets used somewhere, it’s gonna show up again somewhere else.
This was one of Matsumae-san’s tracks, and who better to remix it than coda! It being an underwater theme, it’s a pretty relaxed and flow-y song, but coda gives it some juice and makes it something you can dance to instead of bobbing your head to it. It’s amazing what a punchy bassline and cranking up the tempo can do for a track. Matsumae-san’s track evokes a sense of vastness – indeed, it is everything we’ve grown to expect out of an underwater theme and so much more. coda’s cut keeps that intact, but instead of it feeling something like a calm afternoon floating down the river, it’s more like a trip down some rapids, while you’re drinking a Red Bull and have rubbed some cocaine in your eyes. It’s upbeat, it’s got some funk-heavy solos, and has fun with re-voicing the instruments all over the track so much that it almost keeps you guessing what’s gonna sneak in next.
So, I was just going to leave it with that, and just stick to the two albums Jake put up on his Bandcamp, but in the interim, two other tributes have come out that I would be remiss not to bring to your attention: the ones from our good buddies DJ Cutman and Kevin Villeco and all around musical funnyguy brentalfloss! I’ll throw those embeds down at the end of the article.
And speaking of remixes coming out – I don’t know if you paid attention to the small print at the end of the paragraph on the arranged album page, but virt has openly welcomed any and all who wish to remix his songs to submit them to him! Who knows, if you’re a bad enough dude to save the president write a remix that he likes, he might throw it up as a bonus track on that remix album! So steel thy Gameboy and get writing!
Special thanks this article go out to Jake Kaufman for being a supremely talented human being, Manami Matsumae for coming back to the chiptune scene hardcore these past few years, and all of you who have contributed your remixes to the album or elsewhere – the best way to show you love something is to take it and make it a part of you for all eternity, so taking the time to pick the tracks you love and put your own spin on them for all the world to hear is so cool of you.
That’s all for now folks! I’ll be back next month with more ChipWIN-tern Spotlight, but in the meantime, there are all of the other amazing writers here, and there are a lot of fun things to look forward to in the near future – like BRKFest and the Orlando Nerd-Fest, both of which will be starring some of ChipWIN’s favorite humans, not to mention MAGFest 8.5 in but two short months!