Yamantaka // Sonic Titan’s Alaska B Makes Video Game Music That Rocks

The Toronto artist gives us a crash course on the history and tech behind the art form.

April 15, 2016
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You don't have to look far to find examples of Yamantaka // Sonic Titan showing their appreciation for the music of video games: One of the Toronto band's members turned in a beautiful interpretation of “Zelda's Lullaby” from The Ocarina of Time. Yamantaka // Sonic Titan is currently developing their own video game, an “interactive rock opera” called YOUR TASK // SHOOT THINGS. And this week, the musical collective along with Pantayo turned in a soundtrack for Severed, a new game from Drinkbox Studios, out April 26 on Playstation Vita.

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Each video game related side-project feels as key to Yamantaka // Sonic Titan as their striking face paint, or positively deadly live shows. It's yet another way the “psychedelic noh-wave” band are ahead of the curve. While the perception of video game soundtracks as “hobby muzak” has cracked significantly in recent years, Yamantaka // Sonic Titan have transformed its sounds and styles since their inception. Now, they have a new addition to their discography to prove it.

The group's co-founder Alaska B answered some questions via e-mail about her experience on the Severed OST, her influences, and the limitations that made retro music great.

Talk me through composing music for video games. Are there specific limitations, or benefits, compared to soundtracking movies or writing with your band?

When soundtracking films [she soundtracked the documentary Michael Shannon Michael Shannon John, due out in 2016], I tend to be able to see the actual scenes I'm scoring, so I can get a feel for emotion or narrative change. But when working on a game, the songs are meant to be played constantly over a lot of different scenes, and the music may be written before its art is even fully developed. We mostly worked off of concept art and tried to give it the vibe that we got from the world that the Drinkbox team had developed. Unlike an album, which is more of a collection of songs, the music was developed to have an intro and a looped section, and the paired exploration and battle scenes are designed to fade back and forth between them, so we had to imagine both during the songwriting stage.

Did any other soundtracks influence your direction on Severed?

First and foremost we were focused on merging the sounds of YT//ST and Pantayo, but we definitely derived influence from many different soundtracks, such as Geinoh Yamashirogumi's Akira soundtrack and the many '90s square JRPGs (e.g. Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy IV and VI etc.). You can hear these influences in the piano, orchestral and gong focused sections of the soundtrack.

You've spoken before about your affection for retro video game soundtracks—how do more modern ones compare?

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I hesitate to generalize about new and old in this context, but I can say that the lack of limitations in playing back the music has taken that element of interaction with the console/PC hardware. I remember attempting to program music into BASIC or later on, Amiga style trackers, and the limitations or trappings of these approaches really defined the music of the 8-bit and 16-bit era. Both programming bleeps and bloops into built-in oscillators or sampling from a wavetable prevented the creation of epic Elder Scrolls soundtracks, but didn't blunt the quality of composition. I believe that the outstanding music of that era stood out because of their incredible compositions and the technical prowess of translating it from notation into the digital realm. Nowadays, most music you hear are recordings rather than an intrinsic part of the code, but I don't think that takes anything away from them either.

In your opinion has video game music impacted wider music culture, or is it more niche?

I think what has always fascinated me, is that DooM's soundtrack was essentially comprised of midi-fied versions of Metallica, Pantera, Alice in Chains etc. and is still appreciated on its own, because video game music at that time didn't have a genre identity. Its only rules were that it had to be in a game and reproduced on the user's system somehow. But I think now, after several generations raised on game music, it definitely has much more influence than it used to on mainstream music.

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Yamantaka // Sonic Titan’s Alaska B Makes Video Game Music That Rocks