Volume One (Critical Hit): an album review

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To be clear, Critical Hit is not (sadly) in any way associated with Critical Gamer – or, indeed, the award of the same name we give to games we rate nine or ten out of ten. It is in fact the name for a group of ridiculously talented and passionate musicians due to release their first videogame music album together tomorrow; that’s October 31st 2013, people of the future. The band was co-founded by Jayson Hayes (in-house Blizzard composer) and Michael Gluck (AKA Piano Squall). One of the contributing musicians is, would you believe, David Frank Paich from Toto. Yes, that Toto.

The album in question carries the somewhat uninspiring name ‘Volume One’. Don’t let that put you off – this is something truly special, that just might demand respect from those who never previously gave game music a second thought. The track list runs thus:

01. Tetris: “Main Theme”
02. Angry Birds: “Main Theme”
03. World of Warcraft: “Legends of Azeroth”
04. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time: “Zelda’s Lullaby”
05. Halo 2: “Main Theme”
06. Pokémon: “Main Theme”
07. Super Mario World: “Bowser’s Castle”
08. Final Fantasy X: “To Zanarkand”

09. Kingdom Hearts: “Hikari”
10. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3: “Battle for New York”

11. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim: “Streets of Whiterun”
12. Metal Gear Solid 2: “Main Theme”

As you can see from the above video, their songs are interpretations rather than straight covers. It’s also worth saying that, while enthrallingly energetic, their Angry Birds track is actually one of the weaker entries in the album. Mind you, when something as great as this is a weak spot in an album, that’s not much of a criticism.

Tetris works as a great opener, with the immediately recognisable tune played as an electric guitar solo at a slightly slower tempo. It shouldn’t work, but it does – it works perfectly. It builds into a busy patchwork of prominent drums, faster guitar and even strings. The final effect sits somewhere between the divine scores of the last two Rayman games, and the rock stylings of a Sonic boss fight.

Bowser’s Castle is perhaps the track to deviate the most from the original piece, with the original tune acting as the backbone rather than the whole skeleton. Critical Hit’s version is suitably foreboding and ominous, and would fit perfectly into a new Mario game. The Halo 2 theme on the other hand, while essentially a soft rock remix of the tune, ends up sounding a little like the theme to a nineties cop show, thanks to the somewhat melodramatic chord progression.

Zelda’s Lullaby deserves special mention. It sticks like glue to the original composition, yet allows enough subtle variations and reverent kicks to ensure it has its own distinct, sumptuous identity. It’s a surprisingly bass-heavy mix, with the threat of a slap bass solo creeping in and out of the background. The band clearly have far too much respect for the original work to allow such a thing, hilarious as it would be; and the love that’s gone into this particular song comes across immediately. It’s probably the best song on the album, and a Critical Hit release composed solely of Zelda tunes is a drool-inducing prospect.

Look at this picture whenever you play track four! Y’know, if you’re desperate and lonely.

The Call of Duty track is something very different (of course), but still in keeping with the relentlessly high quality of the rest of the album. It starts off as a string-heavy piece until a minute or so when, appropriately enough, palm-muted power chords kick in. The strings remain, complementing the electric guitar perfectly; a technique used often in Volume One.

With Jayson Hayes at the head of the group a World of Warcraft entry was inevitable, hence Legends of Azeroth. He throws pretty much every instrument at the band’s disposal (which is a lot) at the piece, and carefully directs it all to ensure no two sounds crash into one another; no mean feat. As a result, it’s a masterful song which is not only great fun to listen to and admire, but also acts as a lesson in how to make theoretically opposing sounds work together in perfect harmony. The same technique is used (to a lesser degree) with the Pokemon theme which, while still a fun song, is saved from cheesiness by making electric guitar, violin, drums and keyboards all be best buddies.

As with Zelda’s Lullaby, To Zanarkand from Final Fantasy X is performed with clear respect for the original. It’s the slowest and most thoughtful track on the album and, while the pace picks up about halfway through, the tempo never comes close to becoming ruinously fast. Likewise the Kingdom Hearts entry, while throwing some electric guitar into the mix, is bright and dreamy without straying dangerously far from the original.

The last two tracks are the almost diametrically opposed Skyrim and Metal Gear Solid 2 entries. The Skyrim song is instantly recognisable as coming from a score and, thanks to the band’s interpretation, proves that such music can be enjoyed out of context. It’s slow and slightly sad, yet full of a life that speaks to you on an emotional level in the way that the best music does. The MGS 2 theme on the other hand pulls no punches, starting off with a determined drum solo before diving straight into the main riff. Just after halfway through there’s a brief quiet period, where the piano and violin get to share the limelight; then they’re once again joined by the crashing drums and electric guitar, all of which build to the dramatic climax which appropriately pulls the curtains on the album.

There’s an awful lot of videogame music projects out there nowadays, but Critical Hit easily stand above the majority. Popular tunes juggled about by experienced, talented and enthusiastic musicians was always going to be a successful project, but this has resulted in a truly memorable album that can be enjoyed again and again. You can get the CD for fifteen dollars (signed for free by Hayes if you order no later than tomorrow from the website) which, while perhaps more expensive than many might have expected, does represent value for money. It’s no exaggeration to say that if you have even the slightest interest in listening to videogame music outside of playing videogames, this is nothing less than an essential purchase. Well then, there’s only one way to end this review:

Critical Hit

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Written by Luke K

Luke plays lots of videogames, now and again stopping to write about them. He's the editor in chief at Critical Gamer, which fools him into thinking his life has some kind of value. Chances are, if you pick up a copy of the latest Official PlayStation Magazine or GamesMaster, you'll find something he's written in there. Luke doesn't have a short temper. If you suggest otherwise, he will punch you in the face.

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