Game Music Revue: iam8bit Vinyl Review Roundup
Late last year, iam8bit jumped into the video game vinyl ring with their release of the soundtrack to Hohokum, a quirky indie title available on PSN. They followed that up big with their release of the soundtrack to Hotline Miami 2, a massive affair that came with the soundtrack spread across three colored discs as well as download codes to both the soundtrack and the game itself. It was a huge success, leading to three printings that have all sold out.
Now iam8bit is following that up with a new slate of releases. Three, Banjo Kazooie, Battletoads and Perfect Dark, are culled from the Rare back catalog, while the fourth, Journey, is the score to a relatively new game that was first released for the PS3 and later updated for the PS4. It’s really good by the way, you should buy it.
It’s ambitious for a company new to the vinyl game to ramp up their production so quickly, and with such big name titles. But thankfully it seems that they’ve done each title justice from an audio standpoint, albeit with a few notable presentation caveats and concerns that hopefully will get addressed with future releases.
Musically speaking, all of these releases are damn near flawless. These are four wildly different soundtracks to vastly different games, but they all share in common totally radical music. The score to Banjo Kazooie remains one of the best of any platformer ever, with its fun and bouncy style working well to fit the whimsical world of the game, while the intense and pulse-pounding score to Perfect Dark is one of the few things about the game that holds up to this day. The Battletoads music is a classic example of retro game music that no doubt inspired countless chiptune artists in the years that followed, while the majestic and beautiful score to Journey shows us everything that game music of the future can offer us. Great music all around for sure.
That being said, the artwork for the titles certainly is a hit-and-miss affair, at least in my opinion.
The packaging for Journey is stunning. It’s very simple, but also very effective, and evocative of the game it came from. The beautiful art even extends to the discs themselves, which are each picture discs, each side with a different graphic. Of course, this creates a separate issue in terms of audio quality, but I’ll get to that momentarily.
I also enjoy the artwork for the Banjo Kazooie, which features more realistic portrayals of the game’s bear and bird protagonists than you’re used to seeing. It’s a quirky idea, but it’s fun, and it stands out as something different while not being distracting or too far detached from the original idea. I also like the embossed, golden hand-written tracklisting on the back cover. Nice touch. The albums themselves are a relatively plain, with the first being a rather drab brown and the second a bright red/orange, but I get that each are supposed to be representing a character in the game, it makes sense.
Conversely speaking, the discs for Perfect Dark are absolutely gorgeous, one transparent red, the other blue, both splattered with extra color to make them even more unique, while the cover art is a bit on the plain side. Apparently the art, which features the game’s heroine Joanna Dark wielding two guns in front of a bullet-riddled background, was supposed to remind one of classic pulp novel covers, but I just see a generic character model in front of an even more generic background.
I will say this though, it is light years more visually appealing than the cover art to Battletoads. The art is by Nick Gazin, a well-known illustrator whose done work for Vice, as well as bands like Run The Jewels. So I know that people dig his style. But I am very much not one of those people.
It comes off to me as something purposely designed to be as unappealing and ascetically revolting as humanly possible. And while the original Battletoads cover art wasn’t exactly screaming with originality (it’s about as generic as 90s pop art gets), there’s something there. Something that deserves better than hipster runoff from Brooklyn (because of course he lives in Brooklyn). The neon green LP looks pretty damn rad though.
It also sounds remarkably amazing, which is of course the most important thing. In fact, the LPs for Battletoads, Perfect Dark and Banjo Kazooie all sound splendid. I don’t know where they got the masters from (which is something they probably should divulge, to be honest) but each LP has an oomph to it that really comes through. Even more impressive, they’re dead quiet. I hardly hear any rice krispies (snaps, crackles and pops) on these releases. Bear in mind, most major labels fuck this up, so for a small independent label releasing video game soundtrack to get it so right so early is really impressive.
Notice, however, that I did not include Journey in my acclaim. That’s because Journey is a picture disc. And picture discs always sound worse than traditional vinyl. They’ve gotten better in recent years, that’s for sure, my vintage picture discs from the 80s are nearly unlistenable, but they’re still substantially more prone to pops and crackles than traditional LPs, even elaborately colored ones. It doesn’t help that the soundtrack to Journey is ambient and subdued in parts, which further showcase the format’s unfortunate limitations. It still sounds shockingly good for a picture disc, but a good picture disc sounds about as a good as a mediocre traditional LP.
At least it’s pretty.
Journey doesn’t come with a download code, and while that’s frustrating, as of this writing the entire soundtrack is currently available on the American iTunes store for just five bucks. Not that big a hit for having the buy it twice.
There are no download codes included with the Rare releases though, and that’s a bit more frustrating. None of them are available digitally anywhere; the CD soundtracks for Perfect Dark and Banjo Kazooie are both long out of print and command a fortune, and the soundtrack to Battletoads has never been commercially released anywhere else. That means if you want to listen to these on your iPod or phone you’re going to have to download them illegally. I don’t really see the point of holding those digital files back. I’m sure iam8bit would say that it was because they couldn’t negotiate digital download rights. And to that I say, try harder. I know that sounds callous and over-simplifies things, but as a consumer, this should not be an issue for me. It’s 2015, get this shit worked out already.
It’s obvious to me that iam8bit knows what the hell it is doing when it comes to pressing vinyl. While I may not always enjoy the artistic choices, the records themselves look and sound absolutely incredible, and that’s what matters the most. I can’t wait to see what they have in store for the future.