No Tune Unturned: Grant Kirkhope

I bid you welcome to this cacophony of words and musical notes! Before we plunge into the meat of the matter, however, a brief introduction is at hand. This brand new feature – an exclusive, never-before-seen, state-of-the-art feature, you should know – focuses on something that’s been outrageously important to me for years: videogame music. I simply can’t get enough of it, whether I’m scooping up every soundtrack I can find, idling endlessly on sound tests, or popping Sonic CD straight into a CD player. I’m adamant that videogames have birthed some of the finest music around, but I probably don’t have to tell you that; everyone reading no doubt has his or her favourite songs from the wonderfully storied past of game music. Also, I’m no musician, nor a scholar on the subject. I wouldn’t know what allegro is if Beethoven beaned me in the head with it (and believe me, if he heard my piano playing, he would). I’m just here to highlight my own fond memories, poke around to discover what makes a song tick, and maybe – if we’re all very lucky and nothing goes wrong – entertain you along the way.

Let’s kick off No Tune Unturned with a familiar name in the world of videogame music as we explore the delightfully strange and strangely delightful music of Grant Kirkhope himself. A name synonymous with Rare until his recent move to Big Huge Games, he’s been composing tunes that stick with you in surprising ways since 1995. A Kirkhope arrangement is like noticing that your pet walrus has donned a top-hat and is serving you lemonade with a bendy straw: unexpected, a little weird, and boundlessly entertaining. Come to think of it, you don’t even remember owning a walrus.

 

Goldeneye 007:

Besides converting Donkey Kong Country 2’s SNES music to the Game Boy, Goldeneye 007 for the Nintendo 64 was Mr. Kirkhope’s first job with Rare. I’m going to be honest here and admit that I’ve never played this supposedly legendary game nor have I seen a single James Bond film, but I can recognize stellar music when I hear it – and this stuff is supremely qualified for the title. His trademark style may not seep through this project as much as the others, but if they ever build a Grant Kirkhope Hall of Fame, Goldeneye will be in a prominent glass display with a tasteful plaque.

Main Theme:

Kicking off with a pumped up version of Monty Norman’s ridiculously recognizable Bond theme, this rearrangement takes mere seconds to reach sheer awesomehood. The grinding guitars that jump into place at 0:11 caught me off guard when I first heard the song, only to be followed by a second dose of radical cheesiness at 0:20. I’m a sucker for fake guitars and orchestra hits coaxed out of old consoles, both of which Goldeneye delivers in spades. After the whole world launches into a high-pitched fervour at 1:17, the crazy masterpiece comes to a close. It’s worth noting that this theme is weaved into virtually every song in the game, so you’ll hardly have to go five minutes without it flitting around in the musical part of your brain.

Silo:

Fake guitars and orchestra hits. I did not lie. This is a perfect track for showing off the sort fast-paced energy Kirkhope infused into Goldeneye’s music, and for good reason. This particular level had to do with Russians, missile silos, and blowing up said Russians and missile silos. The incessant drums drive home a sense of urgency, emphasised by some well-placed orchestra hits to punch you in the face now and then. When the guttural guitar is added to the mix at 1:50, it’s all but impossible to not grin and bang your head to the beat. Upon setting them up the bomb, a hectic pace is set for both the player and the music as a timer begins to count down, upping the excitement level considerably. Also, before we move onto the next game, let me finish with a closing statement: fake guitars and orchestra hits!

 

Banjo-Kazooie:

In a far off land that nobody really remembers, Banjo was a human boy named Edison and he starred not in a wacky platformer but a cutting-edge RPG. The edge turned out to be a little more cutting than the Nintendo 64 could handle, however, and the whole project underwent a freak mutation that resulted in the beloved game we know today. Grant Kirkhope wrote a sizeable chunk of music for Dream before it was was essentially scrapped, and it’s no joke that Banjo-Kazooie’s style followed in its footsteps. Cranked up to a goofy overdrive that defies frowns with a vengeance, the harmonious clamour of silly instruments and irresistible tunes remains as my favourite soundtrack by Mr Kirkhope to date. I’m simply overjoyed to point out a pair of its shining moments, of which there are many!

Mad Monster Mansion:

Here’s a fact for you: this song was invented for Dream, originally intended for a troll known only as “Bully”. If you ever star on a televised trivia show and this questions comes up and you win a giant bag of gold coins and never have to work another day of your life, think of me. The basic shape was retained for Mad Monster Mansion, but it was given a brilliant twist of spookiness that will probably be stuck in my mind until I’m thoroughly dead. A chilling organ plays a handful of notes to begin the descent into loony terror, followed by an escalating flurry of instruments that suits the level as a towel does an intergalactic hitchhiker. Everything about Mad Monster Mansion is quality, ridiculous fun, which is squarely within Grant Kirkhope’s wheelhouse.

Click Clock Wood (Fall):

One of the most imaginative levels I’ve ever seen in a game, Click Clock Wood was really a four-in-one sort of deal. Each season was a separate stage, you see, and what happened in one season would affect another. The only thing that kept up my obsessive hunt for literally every shiny collectable in this massive thicket of ever-changing nature was each area’s distinctly unique spin on gameplay, visuals, and – of course – music. I’ve chosen fall in this case, but you can’t wrong with any of them. Kirkhope’s penchant for sound effects is alive and well as woodpeckers and other autumn creatures accompany the jaunty tune. Keeping one’s foot from tapping along is futile, and it isn’t long before (oh joy of joys!) the world is treated to a frog and bird duet at 0:25. The chorus of wildlife and 1:50’s wooden wind instrument conjure images of crimson-gold leaves and the smell of logs burning on a bonfire, all snugly within the signature Banjo-Kazooie tempo.

 

Viva Piñata 1 & 2:

What a deceitful game this was. Appearing to be nothing more than a cutesy sandbox of lovable, animal-shaped piñatas, complete with a zany children’s television show to its name, it was actually an involved, genre-defying title that required time and practice. The soundtrack is even more surprising. The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra presents a subtle composition inspired by classical music of a pastoral quality. Notes flit cheerfully along as you complete daily tasks, dipping into soft moments of quiet introspection as evening settles into night. That’s quite a lot coming from someone who composed a ditty based almost entirely on belches and flatulence.

Oven-Fresh Day:

There can’t possibly be a better way to start one’s day than to throw open the shutters, breathe deep the morning air, and listen to this wonderful song from Viva Piñata 2. If the opening’s simple melody and softly-plucked strings are like a bright patch of sunlight, the grander, richer harmony that 0:32 introduces would be a full-on sunrise. The meandering interlude gives you enough time to make sure the Quackberries aren’t fighting with the Badgesicles again and maybe plant a few more daisies before the refrain sails back into the picture at 1:32. The composition eventually glides to a close like a content, relaxed sigh, which can be disarming in a very dangerous way. Viva Piñata is far more hectic than its soundtrack lets on, which definitely caught me off guard; weeds are not your friends, nor are they inclined to stop poisoning your piñatas, even if asked ever-so-nicely.

Tranquil Hours:

This is precisely what you would not expect to find underneath Viva Piñata’s sugar-high box art. When night falls, the garden is bathed in dark blues and pale moonlight, set to the soft jumble of piñata snores and, if you’re lucky, this remarkable song. The pianos and hushed strings drape this peaceful scene, so recently bustling with noise and activity, in a well-deserved quietude. I’m not totally sold on the almost menacing tone that lumbers into 1:38, but it resolves nicely by the end. On his website, Grant Kirkhope mentioned this being his favourite track from the game, and I’ll offer no argument. This is the sort of magic that few videogames manage to bottle up, and most don’t bother trying at all.

 

Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts:

It is my firm and unmoving opinion that this game should have featured Wallace and Gromit rather than shoehorning in the familiar Banjo and Kazooie. I think the unconventional soundtrack speaks to this opinion, but nobody asked me, so I’ll shut up about it. To scoot back on topic, Nuts & Bolts was Grant Kirkhope’s last game at Rare, and Viva Piñata 2 kept him from scoring the entire thing by himself. Most of his contributions were re-orchestrations of old Banjo-Kazooie songs, and the new ones were crawling with nods and winks to the classics. This is fine by me since – while lovely in its own right – Nuts & Bolts didn’t stack up to the earlier games. Still, the madcap music had more than enough heart and some fantastic production values, so have a listen and enjoy yourself.

Showdown Town:

“You have arrived!” shouted the triumphant horns of Showdown Town right out of the gate. There was a quaint grandeur about the place, reflected quite accurately by a song that inevitably reminds me of smashing my trundling cart into walls and chortling about the mess. It’s always nice to hear an orchestra tackle something that doesn’t include epic-scale choruses just for the heck of it, instead turning its attention to… whatever’s going on at 1:20. There’s a lot happening at once in this eccentric piece, and you’re not liable to catch everything the first way through. As promised, there are some bits of nostalgia floating around, including Jinjo Village from Banjo-Tooie (a personal favourite of mine) beginning at about 1:53. With or without echoes of the past, Showdown Town can be summed up in a single, uncomplicated phrase: charming to the extent of splendidness.

Nutty Acres:

Nutty Acres was a sun-soaked coconut farm. And was also on an island. Located next to a volcano. Enclosed within a massive dome that dangles mechanical clouds and projects blue skies on an overhead screen. I’m genuinely shocked that Grant Kirkhope was able to keep its theme so cohesive. As laid back as it is receptive to steel drums, this song makes it easy to goof off and chill out while puttering about the tropical coastline in a custom-made “Mr. Pantsmobile” (engineered by myself). Just when 1:12’s allusion to Treasure Trove Cove pierces my heart and I nearly switch to the HD re-release Banjo-Kazooie then and there, 1:24 stops by with a shockingly groovy electric guitar to spread calming ripples through my mind. I sit back, content for the time being, and drive my Mr. Pantsmobile into the volcano.

 

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning:

To be frank, I’m not impressed with Kirkhope’s first project under Big Huge Games’ roof. After rocking out to Goldeneye, singing with woodland creatures in Banjo-Kazooie and being moved deeply by Viva Piñata’s unexpected symphony, Reckoning falls a little flat. It’s very competent music, sometimes pretty and other times exciting, but it lacks a spark to set it apart from its generic fantasy brethren. I did, however, find a couple of tracks that stuck out and I feel they’re worth mentioning, if only to see what Mr. Kirkhope is up to these days. I almost included Reckoning’s theme song as one of them, but it’s… well, it’s pretty much the theme to Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man.

Alabastra:

A land of alabaster trees (that’s probably why they named it Alabastra in case you didn’t catch on) is overrun with strangling crystals of an unnaturally blue tint. There’s a wrongness here driven home by an eerie soprano and strings that make it their intent to slowly creep up your spine. Several chimes hint at the Spider-Man theme near 2:01, a technique that much of the soundtrack incorporates. An uncommon tension hangs in the air, as if daring you to press on through the dark, cavernous forest. It’s not complicated, but the effect is tangible, which is more than most games can brag about.

Balor:

Balor is a massive, hulking monstrosity that roughly resembles a cross between Jabba the Hutt and that praying mantis creature from Attack of the Clones, but with one very large eye. This song plays while you kill it. Appropriately chaotic horns and a set of deep, pounding drums kick off the battle, followed by a rousing chorus of the Spider-Man theme song, this time in boss form. It’s a bombastic piece that holds nothing back, crashing cymbals together to the swirling sound of startled strings like there’s no tomorrow. I particularly enjoy the loping inevitability of Balor’s bludgeoning volition that 1:04 brings to the forefront. As it stands, this is my favourite song from the soundtrack so far.

 

And so, readers/listeners, the first episode of No Tune Unturned comes to a close; that catches us up on the famed Sir Grant Kirkhope. He isn’t actually a proper “Sir”; I added that for effect. Oh, we missed out on a good deal of his work, including Donkey Kong 64, Perfect Dark, and Grabbed by the Ghoulies, but he doesn’t much like talk of the DK Rap, so let’s leave it be. I’ve been a fan of Sir Kirkhope for somewhere in the range of thirteen years, and it’s a pleasure to have him brightening up the land of videogames with his special brand of happy. Taking a look at his website is well worth the time; it’s a fascinating, if slapdash treasure trove of historical tidbits. If you’re itching to hear more, I urge you to legally purchase the soundtracks for Viva Pinata (which includes music from both games!), Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts, and Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. iTunes and Amazon are admirable places to do so.

Feel more than free to drop a comment about your own top songs from Sir Kirkhope’s repertoire, or perhaps there’s a composer/game/genre/whatever that you’d like to see covered next! Suggestions are very welcome. I leave you with the only words of wisdom that come to mind at the moment:

Videogame music is great, so listen to it.

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Written by Stephen K

A lover of video games in general, Stephen will happily play just about any sort of game on just about any sort of system, especially if it’s a platformer or an RPG. Except sports games. Sports games are boring.

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