Alpha Squad Soundtrack, Stemage, 2011
Observing a talented artist who made their name in the game music arrangement scene as they embark on their first original soundtrack is an exciting occasion for listeners. However, for the musician in question, it will no doubt be a daunting prospect. No longer able to rely on other composers’ works, can the new material still meet heightened expectations? This was the challenge that composer and guitarist Stemage, founder of metal band Metroid Metal, faced when taking on composing duties for the Alpha Squad soundtrack.
The game was a deliberate throwback to top-down arcade-style shooters from the 80s and early 90s. Stemage’s metal chops certainly marked him as a fitting candidate to score the action-filled mayhem. Developer Dragon Divide had acknowledged that much when they contacted Stemage to write music for Alpha Squad. At the same time, his soundtrack would need to strike a significantly more upbeat note than his Metroid Metal output to match the game’s tongue-in-cheek approach and no-frills gameplay.
It’s a challenge that Stemage rises to with assurance and ease on the Alpha Squad soundtrack. Stemage’s approach mirrors that of the game itself, marrying old school virtues with an up-to-date presentation. That means: focusing on what was best about 8- and 16-bit run’n’gun scores, and present it with a live band. Stemage duly observes the musical conventions of classic 2d action games and this brings about significant changes to his music. His compositions on Alpha Squad are far more melodic than anything he had written up to this point. Not only does Stemage find a handful of short, punchy guitar melodies for almost each track. What’s more, he’s happy to play them over and over again, building each cue around them to make the most of these catchy tunes and embed them deeply in listeners’ memory banks.
His approach pays off in spades from the start with opening track “Alpha Squad Theme”. Lovingly paying homage to its genre predecessors, it’s a theme that’s full of bravado and just the slightest bit cheesy. True, the song relies almost a bit too much on similar variations of the theme. But that won’t change the fact that you’ll be humming its melody right after the first listen. Of course, going into Alpha Squad, there was no doubt that Stemage also has the skills to pull off more complex guitar material than these ingratiating tunes.
But what’s so impressive about the Alpha Squad soundtrack is how Stemage doesn’t give into the temptation to turn this solo outing into a shred fest. He always puts melodies and concise song-writing first, while leaving space to wrap his tracks into increasingly complex guitar textures. In short, it’s the perfect balance between guitar showmanship and melodic instincts. The latter often bring a distinct and welcome pop influence through their immediately accessible nature, best demonstrated on “New City”. Stemage fittingly described it as the “happiest, cheesiest, and most epic guitar rock song” he’s ever written. And indeed, there’s so much soaring, happy energy running through “New City” that it’s impossible to resist its poppy charm. This is a song that inspires head-bopping and -banging in equal measure.
That’s not to say that Alpha Squad is lacking in fiery power and steely riffage – far from it. “City” will have metal fans giving their neck muscles a good workout with a big grin on their faces. Pummelling drums, aggressive rhythm guitars that are served well by a powerful album recording, and an edgy, yet melodic guitar solo: they all make for a track full of ferocious tension that grabs you by the throat from the first second and doesn’t let go — and you’ll be all the happier for it.
And despite the melodic focus of most tracks, there’s also a good number of tracks that get by fabulously with the help of grinding riffs and rhythms. Witness the relentless rhythms and frenzied focus on short instrumental phrases of “Boss” and “Final Boss”. These overheated hyper-pressure chambers perfectly convey the urgency and madness of their hair-raisingly intense occasions. And while their frantic staccato attacks dutifully reference 8- and 16-bit shooters, they don’t succumb to the issue that plagues many old-school boss tracks: monotony and lack of variation. The raw power that a live metal ensemble brings to this sort of music doesn’t hurt of course.
In interviews, Stemage professed to the daunting nature of writing music that had to address a certain location or mood. It’s another hurdle that he takes to impressive results on the Alpha Squad soundtrack. It’s also another major deviation from his Metroid Metal albums. Their source material only left limited room for variations in mood and atmosphere. Alpha Squad allows Stemage to escape the Metroid framework and explore new musical opportunities and dynamics.
Examples are plentiful. “Jungle” and “Haunted” both create a claustrophobic atmosphere through similar means, but still emerge as distinct tracks. “Haunted” takes the aggressive riffs of “Boss” and slows them down to establish an oppressive, suffocating mood. The inclusion of clear guitar parts is precisely what’s needed to conjure the necessary forsaken, spooky atmosphere. “Jungle” ratchets up the stifling attitude of “Haunted” and throws a constant barrage of pulverising riffs at the listener, as the unbearable humidity and walls of impenetrable foliage close in. A lumbering beast of a mid-tempo track, “Jungle”’s jaw-dropping intensity climaxes perfectly with a spastic guitar freak out.
Other location tracks take a less fierce approach and audibly delight in painting their settings through colourful instrumentations. “Sewer” is a perfectly judged, initially relaxing mood changer after the album’s heavy start. Its atmospheric guitar overlays ring in the distance of the underground canals, skilfully varying material heard at the track’s start. “Winter” follows a similar, slightly more complex structure, moving from a calm opening to another vigorous guitar work out. Chiming, repetitive guitar phrases work their chilly magic on what is arguably the Alpha Squad soundtrack’s most subtle and best-developed cue. You wouldn’t expect metal’s raucous energy to gel well with the static nature of your typical ‘snow stage’ music. And yet, Stemage makes it work. He accomplishes the same feat on “Desert”. The vast sands come to life through lighter percussion rhythms, some of the album’s most expansive melodic phrases and the use of subtly altered scales.
Indeed, the Alpha Squad soundtrack’s biggest artistic achievement might be this kind of variety. It’s a common assumption that metal is a fairly one-dimensional affair, with the volume and aggression levels constantly reaching 11. Stemage’s beautifully intricate, creative work here proves this stereotype wrong over and over again. His melodic metal formula adopts to the game’s different locations and scoring requirements with as much ease and success as any orchestral approach would, resulting in one of Western game music’s best – and most fun – metal scores.
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