Now for my first analysis of an album, I wanted to do something relatively different. I could have done any of Joy Division’s albums since they’re my favorite band, but I would be missing the mark. The fact of the matter is, they were at the right place, at the right time, with the precise set of perfect circumstances to create their music. For me to write praises about them would be too easy, and it would be antithetical to this blog to write about people who already have enough written about them. Especially since most of the blog articles written are about underground musicians who are trying to make it.
So, to set the stage why I am reviewing this album, we gotta go back in time. Back when I was a struggling make believe filmmaker. When I quit trying to make films because I kept encountering the same problem. That I, and everyone that I worked with, couldn’t make the art we wanted due to some unforeseen circumstances that we couldn’t overcome . The actress didn’t like the script and refused to be apart of it, the cameras were cheap and the image quality was poor, we didn’t have good enough audio recording equipment and we could barely hear dialogue over the background noise, we didn’t know what we were doing etc.
We all had grandiose ambitions, they wanted to be Meryl Streep or Marlon Brando; and I wanted to be Stanley Kubrick. I wanted so badly to make movies, that every film I watched I would take notes on: where the camera was placed, how the shot was framed, the lens filter they used, the mis-en-scène, where it was filmed, how the director got the performances he wanted etc. I wanted so badly to be an independent filmmaker. To have complete creative control over my art.
Yet my family was down to one car, and for a few weeks we had no car. I applied to every job where I lived and couldn’t even get a job in McDonalds. Reality forced me to abandon those ambitions, and with no other options I joined the Navy. The people I tried to work with stayed in school studying acting, and at this moment are still in school studying to be actors.
I didn’t do anything creative until two years into my navy career, when I found a guitar in one of our shops. I began playing it, and fell in love with it. I had complete control over it–strumming a few chords–I could create a new world. A world that was mine, a world filled with everything I liked, that I could escape to and seek shelter in.
Orson Welles’ had a great quote on this, “The absence of limitations is the enemy of art.” So when I was reading Akira Yamaoka’s interview, it struck a chord. When asked about what he thought about other video game composers, he said, “Unfortunately, there isn’t any game music I like. I do not have any favorite game music composer, either. It seems to me that many of the game music composers do their work as their side business. I cannot really have respect or a close feeling toward much of the game music I’ve heard. I suppose many of the video game music creators are really shallow… In other words, those people seem to be in the business just because their true dreams did not come true; person A might have wanted to do business in the music business, person B might have wanted to play in a band, but could not make enough money, etc.
“Of course, that is not true for all game music composers, but in any case I think there are many shallow creators who seem to do their work as a side business. Also, as to the music style itself, I don’t think there are many composers who are making really interesting music. The structure, the focus on ordinary music theory, regular instrument formations, etc… Everything like that seems very boring to me. The originality is often lacking and that’s very boring.”
This is from a man from an entirely different set of circumstances from most rockbands I admire. Most of them came out during the end of the punk scene, or were–as mentioned before–in the right place, the right time, with precise set of perfect circumstances. This was a guy who was making video game music in 2001. Back then to see video games as anything other than a kid’s toy, or some nerdy niche, was absurd. Now in hindsight, we can see that video games especially during that time were art, but the rest of the world didn’t.
When reading his interview, I couldn’t help but see myself in that quote “[Video game composers] seem to be in the business just because their true dreams did not come true; person A might have wanted to do business in the music business, person B might have wanted to play in a band, but could not make enough money, etc..” It could be that I’m solipsistic, but I believe that no matter what circumstance a creative person is in, a creative person is going to create. Yet no other video game soundtrack I had ever heard then sounded anything like Silent Hill 2.
Take the opening song Theme of Laura, when I first played the game I couldn’t believe my ears. Firstly that it was really well done rock song; and secondly, that was so moody, and introspective. It wasn’t the beginning of an epic fantasy adventure, or some leftover soundtrack from some action movie that was never used. It was different. It was unique. It was something that I could have heard in all those bands that I admired so much, it had a unique vision that could rival Kubrick’s. In other words, it was art.
So compare Theme of Laura to another video game soundtrack by another–not so blind–Japanese video game composer.
Does that invoke any emotions in you other than confusion? Does that sound like an artist trying their hardest to make the best possible music? Are they doing the best they can to express themselves? No, of course not. It sounded like somebody who was in the business of making video game music because their dreams failed.
Akira Yamaoka stated that his influences for this album was Angelo Badalementi, Trent Reznor, Depeche Mode, and Metallica. I bet you that if any of them heard any track from this album–even if it wasn’t their cup of tea–would still respect the music. There wouldn’t be anybody calling Akira Yamaoka a sell out or anything like that. In fact, take listening to a track like Black Fairy you can’t help but feel the intense sense of foreboding, and creepiness. Yet most horror music, even for films, at that time sounded quite like it.
The whole album is drenched in an introspective melancholy, the kind that is so beautiful and sincere that it almost becomes comforting–which is why sadness always seems so hard to get rid of. Until, like most things melancholy it devolves into a dark sinister sound that devours any trace of hope, and you’re left with nothing but pure misery. Yet there is still hope, like when people jumping off the Golden Gate bridge still hopes that someone reaches out to save them. For a video game album to convey such deep and rich emotions, is so bizarre. It’s an album that can stand on it’s own on the music scene. Even without the video game associated with it, with it’s tank controls, obtuse puzzles, and dated game mechanics.
So why is this album important to independent artists? Quite simple. Even if your dreams fail of you being the next Marlon Brando, David Bowie, Ernest Hemingway, or Stanley Kubrick; it doesn’t mean that your dreams are over. It just means that you have to adapt. And by adapt, I don’t mean join the music industry because you know how to make music–what I mean by adapt is to work your hardest to make the best music you possibly can. To make it yours, and for your vision to shine. Even in a field of video game composers, in an industry people don’t even consider art, Akira Yamaoka created a timeless masterpiece that people will still listen to 50 years later.
Don’t stay fixated on one idea of what it means to “make it.” Stay fixated on one thing and one thing only. To make art, and music that is yours, and yours alone. And no matter what circumstance you find yourself in, stay true to yourself.