99 Levels to Hell Soundtrack, Dalle Oldman, 2013
Dalle Oldman‘s 99 Levels to Hell soundtrack release could have only happened in the age of self-distributed digital album. Few music labels would have been willing to release a 78-minute album for a game of 99 Levels’s low profile. After all, this was an indie, 2d platforming rogue-like à la Spelunky that generally received good, but not enthusiastic reviews. It’s even less likely that a physical album release of 99 Levels to Hell’s music would have been as extensive as the digital release that ultimately came to be.
It’s now a trend among composers to cram every single note written for a project on their digital soundtrack albums. Usually, this makes for an uneven, sometimes painfully drawn out listening experience. Unfortunately, 99 Levels to Hell is guilty of this sin as well. The album’s entire second half is a collection of cliché-ridden, bland sound collages filled with little more than eerie noises. Unfortunately, these dark ambient level tracks inspire boredom much more than they suggest tension or anxiety.
But we’re not here for the glacial second half of the 99 Levels to Hell soundtrack. What makes this score a must for any heavy metal fan are the score’s first 40 minutes. Remember, this is a game that takes you closer and closer to the Horned One’s realm. It also features a fair amount of satanic imagery along the way. What better musical accompaniment for this scenario than a very, very heavy dose of death metal? (with some sprinkles of thrash metal thrown in for good measure)
Throughout the decades, a fair number of game scores made good use of metal’s screaming guitars and pummelling drums. However, very few game soundtracks have dared to venture into metal’s more extreme sub-genres. Oldman, on the other hand, doesn’t hesitate to plunge his music into the abyss. In the process, he writes the heaviest, most pulverising metal riffage ever composed for a Western game score. Almost straight away, 99 Levels to Hell lunges at your jugular with an endless supply of spectacularly brutal ten-ton riffs.
Music of such uncompromising heaviness and furious energy might seem like overkill for a relatively modest 2d platformer. But maybe it is the game’s cartoonish nature and underlying quirkiness that allows Oldman to get away with writing music that seems too big for the game that it accompanies. There’s no pretense of realism or seriousness in 99 Levels to Hell‘s colourful sprite work, no particular narrative to underscore. All that’s 99 Levels to Hell asks for is music that pushes adrenaline levels during the boss encounters as hard as possible.
On that account, the 99 Levels to Hell soundtrack emerges triumphant. It’s a wall of sound rendered in raging shades of black by an album production that balances clarity and force. But if heaviness was all that Oldman had to offer, 99 Levels to Hell‘s metal portion would quickly find itself on a highway to numbing monotony. Thankfully, Oldman knows how to avoid turning the music up to 11 constantly, without sacrificing its searing intensity. The first few album tracks are mid-tempo monsters, perfectly-oiled churning machines that listeners can easily hop on for their descent into the underworld.
“Big Red” and “Spider” slow things down further, engulfing the music in the suffocating crawl of an unstoppable hell beast. It’s only later on 99 Levels to Hell that Oldman cranks up the tempo, to glorious results. Anticipation keeps building and building, and finally finds release on the blazing “Mad Pope” and “Satan”. Both tracks are unrestrained displays of white hot fury, channeling the soundtrack’s ferocious energy into ten minutes of some the most uncompromising, battle music Western game scores have seen.
This variation in tempi is matched by Oldman’s ability to find ways to inject shreds of melodicism into his compositions. This gives listeners ways to engage with the 99 Levels to Hell soundtrack other than through relentless and joyful head-banging. Early on, Oldman peppers his tracks with clean, melancholy guitar motifs that are surprisingly effective in their haunting mood. Their slow-paced gloominess contrasts perfectly with the mercilessly pounding riffage. These Gothic Rock-influenced elements make room on “Virus (Brain 1)” for downright catchy, defiant guitar melodies. Surprisingly, these would make for perfect singalongs if these tracks had lyrics. What makes the elaborately constructed “Virus (Brain 1)” even more astonishing is that Oldman manages to combine these fists-raised-to-the-skies choruses with heavily syncopated rhythms that owe a big debt to prog metal gods Meshuggah.
Additionally, Oldman’s riffage itself introduces a fair share of melodic sounds. These can be consonant (“Meat Ball”’s majestic riffs, observing the carnage on the battlefield from high above) or exceedingly harsh. Tortured guitar glissandi rear their wailing head on “Wall Worm”, and Oldman keeps building on these twisted melody bits that explode like shrapnel throughout “Meat Balls” and “Tron (Brain 2)”. The strangulated howl of these demons only turns louder and more piercing on “Mad Pope” and “Satan” – even morphing into jabs of raw guitar dissonance on “Hell Mode”. Finally, once “99 2.0”’s last notes have subsided, you’re left with the exhilarating realisation that metal game soundtracks don’t come more intense than 99 Levels to Hell, and that sometimes just one half of an album is enough to provide heaven for metal heads.
Purchase on Bandcamp.