Stand Tall and Shake the Heavens: Emotionally Invested

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There is a trend in the circle of bands that cover or create video game inspired music to always be striving to do more with less. Many times, this is by necessity, as the great majority of cover bands draw inspiration from the music and video games of the 1980’s and 1990’s. As technology limited what music could be put in the games themselves, there is an inherent room for expanding those songs. Though the scene started out with a definite focus on heavy metal, there has been a more recent trend in bands that bring diversity to the table and therefore have caused a slight shift in focus. In the past year or two, the focus has not been just on ‘more’ (more energy, more metal, more badass), but on ‘different’.

Codename Trigger Thumb aims to fall directly in the middle of that spectrum, and in my opinion they succeed at it quite brilliantly.

The band, based out of Connecticut and Massachusetts, joins the growing number of video game-inspired music acts that have also created their own mythos. Bands such as The Protomen, Those Who Fight, and, to a lesser extent, Lords of Thunder, among others, have started to create their own stories to accompany their music and stage presence, and to me their success depends on a couple of factors. The first, obviously, is how invested in that mythos the musicians themselves are, and the additional factor is whether the story adds to the music and the performance as a whole.

The story that Codename Trigger Thumb crafts for themselves revolves around a government project: Code, an android with every video game that has ever been created stored in her memory banks. From the band’s website:

Managing to hack into a top secret government database, Trigger Thumb uncovers a secret project titled “Code.” Code is a female cyborg who has every video game in existence uploaded into her database. Whether the government intends to use Code for good or evil remains a mystery, but Trigger Thumb realizes that Code is their only chance of restoring gaming to the world once again.

Code has been locked away in a tomb underneath Point Nemo in the South Pacific. It is said that only the “Eight Beautiful Melodies” of gaming can open the tomb and free Code from her prison. As Trigger Thumb begin to discover more and more clues to these melodies, they travel to Point Nemo to perform them, in hopes that Code may be free and gaming will be restored to the world once again.

It all sounds very reminiscent of Link’s Awakening, which is not a bad thing at all. However, a backstory like that, and by extension the band itself, succeeds or fails based on the music itself. In other words, if a band claims they are invoking the most beautiful songs in the medium, the songs should be able to speak for themselves. And, certainly, the band achieves their stated purpose in paying tribute to some of the greatest composers who have written music for the medium. Nobuo Uematsu, Yasunori Mitsuda, and Yoko Shimomura are all represented here, as well as several others who, while perhaps not household names, are definitely prolific contributors to the art of video game music.

So here is the part where I tell you that I cannot be completely unbiased in this review. Why? Because any album that opens with a Xenogears cover, and especially a cover of ‘Shattering the Egg of Dreams’, immediately earns itself a place in my heart. Aside from that, the eight tracks on the album are pulled equally from well-known games and more obscure fare. However, even the selections from well-known games are, for the most part, not well-known songs, and definitely not frequently-covered ones. It’s a breath of fresh air, especially when so many bands are drawing from the same pool of material. Of course, this has a lot to do with the aforementioned shift in focus; none of the covers on the album keep a fast tempo for more than a few measures.

My objective, then, in giving my opinion on how well these covers achieve their purpose is simple: does each song make me feel something? And, in each case, I can say ‘yes, absolutely’. Obviously, you know how I feel about the Xenogears track, but even the songs that I wasn’t as familiar with had at least one thing in them that got to me. From the brief tempo increase in ‘I Killed Them All’ (derived from ‘Emil Sacrifice’, from Nier, a game which I have not played but have been told I need to), to the Protomen-esque monologue in ‘Don’t Give Up Hope’ (which is derived from ‘Castle in the Mist’, from Ico, which I have played), every addition to the source material has only increased my appreciation for it. However, the highlight of the entire album for me was the track ‘No Heart, No Friends’. The source for this was the quite minimalistic piano piece from the menu screen in Kingdom Hearts. Using the piano as a bass, the band begins adding instruments, starting with bass, then a subtle guitar melody, and then finally the full band, creating a layered effect.

The other question you might have is how well the track selection, composition, and organization feeds into the overarching plot. Which is to say, does the album feel like it is a collection of melodies being played to awaken one who is sleeping?  Again, the slow tempo of the album works in its favor. The first track starts out soothing, giving way to the more unsettling melody and tribal drumbeat of Final Fantasy VIII’s ‘Compression of Time’. The track from Ico is the rising action of the compilation, keeping the tempo steady while building urgency. The appropriately-titled ‘Help Me’ gives the impression of being a pleading medley, a simultaneous cry for help from the sleeping android, as well as from the world who needs her. The brief tempo increase in the track from Nier invokes the feeling of blood flowing through the veins. The Kingdom Hearts arrangement is representative of the entire album: it starts off slow, soothing, and simple, and then builds into something magnificent. The last two tracks aim to end the album with worthy tributes to two of the most well-known composers, even if the tracks themselves aren’t the most recognizable. Though, this really works in the band’s favor here, as it allows them to show that they aren’t ever going with the tried-and-true, and that they are even better for it.

On my first listen, I questioned the ordering of the last three tracks. ‘No Heart, No Friends’ has a very definite ending point, and ‘Stand Here Forever’ sort of trails off at the end, implying that there should be something else that follows it. However, on giving the entire album multiple listens, I realized something: the ending to the album was completely as intended in the context of the story. There should be a sense that more is coming, because there should be more coming. Nobody knows what will happen when Code is awakened, or even if the melodies will work. This turns the question back on the listener, asking whether each person who hears the songs collected here really believes that they can stir emotion in everyone who hears them. The question, external to the mythos the band has created for themselves, becomes whether game music can surpass the perceived limitations of being ‘game’ music and just become… ‘music’. Art. Beauty. Does interactivity mean that a video game can or cannot be considered ‘art’? Can its constituent components, be they the writing, the visuals, the music, and any combination of the above, also be considered art?

Some might say that this sort of music might be ‘emotionally manipulative’. Well, to that, I say ‘good’. It definitely hits a lot of the right notes, though I would say that there is a gigantic missed opportunity at the end of ‘I Killed Them All’ (Not saying the track isn’t wonderful, it’s just that if you really want to punch me in the feels, end a track with a music box fadeout). Aside from that, the album did exactly what it should do: it left me extremely satisfied yet still wanting more. I want to hear more from this band, and I can’t wait to hear what happens if they decide to take a bit of inspiration from this side of the Pacific as well. So please, do yourself a favor and get this album. You’ll definitely hear something different, and you’re definitely in for a treat.

[The version of Stand Tall and Shake the Heavens that I based this review on was an advance copy. The final masters may differ slightly from what I listened to, though I doubt there will be any significant changes. The full album can be streamed for free or downloaded on a pay-what-you-want basis from Bandcamp at the link below.]

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