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Saturday, November 19, 2011

Amon Tobin: Chaos Theory


1) The Lighthouse; 2) Ruthless; 3) Theme From Battery; 4) Kokubo Sosho Stealth; 5) El Cargo; 6) Displaced; 7) Ruthless (Reprise); 8) Kokubo Sosho Battle (adapted from Cougar Merkin); 9) Hokkaido; 10) The Clean Up.

Sometimes I wish I could say something good about this record — or, at least, something useful — but then the very next moment I wish I didn't wish that. Basically, this is just a soundtrack to a «stealth» video game (Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory), and, as such, already a rather, er, suspicious entry in the artist's discography. However, lest the review turn into an angry rant about the abysmal effect of the Xbox on our generation, I must honestly state that Chaos Theory does work on its own as a «fully autonomous» electronic album, and that there is no obligatory need to waste hours / days / weeks of your precious life on generic virtual reality in order to fully assess its musical merits.

Which, honestly, do not seem at all comparable to me with the merits of Tobin's classic stuff. This is ten tracks worth of rather routine grooving, weaving the same sci-fi-meets-industrial at­mosphere that Out From Out Where gave us three years before, but with a slight drop down in creativity. On an individual level, each track is crafted with Tobin's trademark professionalism, and almost everything is multi-part, either in «build-up» mode or going through several distinct rhythmic sections. Collectively, though, it's all a big bore.

'Kokubo Sosho Stealth' has some moody bits ranging on true eeriness, and is the only piece on here that could, perhaps, count as «electronic simulation of fusion» (Miles Davis might have ap­preciated the percussion). 'El Cargo', with its astral guitar riff and choral vocals, has an impres­sive beginning, but halfway through is overwhelmed by the obligatory percussion onslaught. And that's about all my brain is capable of coming up with in terms of individual track assessment: pa­thetic, but we could just blame the Xbox on that. Thumbs down, and the moral of this story is — if you are commissioned to write a video game soundtrack, just get the damn money, do not in­sist on having it included in your official discography.


  1. Please don't ever review a video game soundtrack again. I usually respect you, but the ignorance and prejudice in this review is making my mind hurt.

  2. Ignorance of what? Prejudice against what? I'm afraid I don't quite follow you on that one.

  3. Well, alright, now that my knee-jerk reaction has subsided, I should probably explain that I view video games as the next big artistic medium, and feel somewhat strongly about the issue. So seeing terms like "generic virtual reality" and "just blame the Xbox on that" rubs me the wrong way. I've seen too many pretentious Roger Ebert-wannabes dismiss them out of hand.

    But still... next time you review a video game soundtrack (which you probably will end up doing, as Vangelis - among others - has done one), could you please spend less time talking about the medium itself? In your old reviews of Pink Floyd's movie soundtracks, you don't spend very much time talking about movies...

  4. Okay, I get you better now.

    I admit it wasn't a very long review (I couldn't come up with anything longer), but it's not as if I dedicated more than three lines on discussing the medium in toto, so you're being unfair here.

    If you need further clarification, I am not against the video game form as such, and, although I am not a console person by any means, have played out my fair share in the past, so "ignorance" is way too strong a reaction. But as much as I'd like to agree with you about the big artistic medium, twenty years of experience have taught me that the video game industry is doing everything in its power to prevent itself from becoming exactly that. My idealistic fascination with gaming died ten years ago, and so far there's been nothing to resurrect it. In a nutshell.

  5. Ah right, now I get you much better as well, I assumed too much. I now feel faintly embarrassed. A profuse apology is in order!

    I do see where you're coming from about the games industry, though. Perhaps I too will lose interest eventually, being a young person at the moment.

    Still, I do think it has potential. The problem right now, IMO, is the over-saturation of summer blockbuster type games - I'm fine with a few per year, but right now it seems like a lot of high-profile releases each year are trying to be Call of Duty.

    Oh well, I shouldn't discuss video games too much on a music blog. Once again, sorry!

  6. Have there ever been any soundtracks to video games you've played that DID catch your ear, George?

  7. If I could only recommend one console video game soundtrack, I'd recommend the soundtrack to Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem. Highly immersive, and the one true masterpiece of the genre.

    As for computer games, I'd recommend Lords of Magic, ancient as it is (Very emotional, though!), but I'm not sure whether you're familiar with it, given that you know Sierra to a certain extent, anyway.

  8. Michael: That's all right. I think the major problem of video games is that, unlike movies, just about all of them follow the "blockbuster" ideology - a video game should strive to sell, period, and appeal to as many people as possible. I do not think there has been any visible progress in the past ten years - all emphasis is on eye and ear candy (graphics, sound, 3-D etc.), rather than on improving, diversifying, and deepening the ways the player interacts with the AI.

    Danish: Well, many video games have good soundtracks - but they really only work in the context of the games, I think.

    Mutttastic: Lords of Magic is not properly Sierra, I think. Never played it, but I have no doubt it could be good.

  9. Just wanted to say, as somebody who really loves video games, I have to agree to some extent with George. Video games are an important hobby to me, but I don't really think of them as an important artistic medium - just a fun form of escapism. There are some video games that I would say could pass as "art" (Okami, Ico, Shadow of the Colossus) but for the most part, video games are the least artful art form there is, in my opinion.

    Just like any summer blockbuster, however, there are still some games and series that are both good and popular. I'm not a Call of Duty or Halo fan, and I'm pretty sick of FPSes in general, but I'll be damned if every Mario, Zelda, or Fallout game isn't a masterpiece of purely fun entertainment (I'm a console guy, if you couldn't tell, although I do like some PC games too)

  10. Welp, this "generic virtual reality" is perhaps the best stealth action. Because of it's gameplay, not because it tries to become art. If you don't know it/don't get why it is perhaps you should stay away from video games and such ridiculous observations.
    "in terms of individual track assessment"
    Music is dynamic in game i.e. exploration section may or may be not interrupted by stealth, detected section and action section. And in the game menu you could listen solely to one of the 36 unmixed fragments, so I'm not sure if it was right decision to mix them in the soundtrack.

  11. That's an interesting debate. I used to always fully defend video games as art, yet I lately realized I no longer could.

    Take just a couple of games as example: World of Warcraft is a really fun game that I have spent a lot of time on. But if you hear the developers discuss their work, it will usually put one in mind of like a government deciding on right policy for its citizens. It's all about systems interacting. The gameplay itself is fairly trivial, the story is only concerned with creating as many different settings to appeal to players. It's just atmosphere and what storytelling there is is fairly rote.

    Another game: Starcraft 2 is a competitive game that has become quite popular. A lot of effort has been put into its design, sure, but how? The game is designed by coming up with random units and then testing them. This testing works fairly well, so you can almost certainly tell whether a unit is functional or not for what the audience wants. You could theoretically have like a super computer design this game, to be honest. Another thing is that you always create just what the audience wants. It's a really fun game, but I wouldn't consider it art, it's more like a sport. I don't consider baseball an art either, yet I did spend a lot of time on it.

    In general, I don't think you can make art by commission. Video games are made with formulas and huge teams of people, and if you have the right people you're almost always going to have a really cool game. That's okay, but that's just not my conception of how it's supposed to be. Maybe others differ though.

    I do know that if you go to a video game forum and say that games aren't art, you'll get attacked. :) The most proper counter argument is a list of games that do have artistic qualities and they certainly exist. I'm currently playing Amnesia: the Dark Descent, a fantasy-horror game that's so eerie it's actually scary. Just the fact it can induce such a mood makes me consider this closer to having artistic value than a Call of Duty game (even if I don't like the gameplay of Amnesia too much and the atmosphere is overrated actually, but still)

  12. And maybe George knows of this game already, but the single best game I've ever played (I haven't played too many, though) is Star Control 2, an adventure game published in the early 90s. Up to this day there is a semi-active forum dedicated to it, with people discussing the story line and such. I found the whole plot so wonderfully evocative, which was great since the game basically is nothing more than the plot, so they really excelled on that one.

  13. As the graphical and musical capabilities of video games grow larger and larger, they grow more and more generic and indistinguishable from one another.

    I'm not sure if that's more ironic than sad or vice versa.