I walk into a tavern in the middle of a small seaside fishing village. Since I’m really, really, abysmally bad at geography, I’m really not sure which sea I’m on the side of. I’m guessing it’s the Baltic. Seeing as how everyone around me is speaking Russian, there’s a 75% chance it’s the Baltic. It’s probably the Baltic. Anyway. I walk in, expecting to see a few tired fishermen unwinding after the day’s catch. While I do see that, I also see a lot of other people as well. People who, like me, have come from far and wide to this place without really knowing why. I step up to the bar and order a drink. It doesn’t matter what I order, I still get a scowl from the bartender as he hands it to me. I then notice the man at the end of the bar. He is an elderly gentleman, and for some reason that I don’t think can be adequately explained just yet there is a man sitting beside him with an accordion. Curious, I walk over to the man and start to listen to his accordion-playing companion. The man looks at me, intelligence, and more than a little mischief, in his eye, and speaks to me in English, his voice strong but starting to crack from decades of use. “Let me tell you a story.”
“Uh, er, okay…” I reply.
This is the scene I get in my mind upon listening to Random Encounter’s new album, which is in fact titled Let Me Tell You a Story. In the several years since the current lineup formed, Random Encounter has become very familiar with stories. The band itself even has a story, in fact. The official backstory of the band is that they have been commissioned by the government of Russia to hunt down monsters and creatures of the night around the world, and they do so under the cover of being touring musicians. They are, in essence, a group of people pretending to be Russian vampire hunters, who are themselves pretending to be a video game rock band. I’ll let you wrap your mind around that one for a moment. Here’s the thing about Random Encounter, though. When they choose to do something, they fully commit to it. They are incredibly serious about not taking themselves too seriously, and in doing so they can bring the full range of their talents to the stage for the purpose of entertainment. And for me, at least, they are absolutely entertaining and a treat to listen to.
Before getting into the meat of the album, I should probably say something about the chosen instrumentation of the band. In the past, the inclusion of the accordion, played by band frontman Careless Gorodetsky has been accused of being a silly addition to the band at best, and at worst some kind of gimmick.
But I can assure you that it isn’t. While the accordion has been typically seen as a sort of joke or gag instrument, at least in this part of the world, it really is not, the same way that bagpipes are not. It is an instrument that takes a great deal of talent to play, and has the advantage of being able to carry both the melody and the harmony, as well as to be a more mobile replacement for, say, an organ or something. Now, that is really the extent of my musical knowledge in regards to the subject of accordions, and I would be happy to direct anyone more curious about the topic to people who know far, far more about them than I do. My purpose is to let people know that it is possible to rock out on an accordion. I’ve seen it done. It’s really quite impressive. In fact, the accordion, coupled with the guitars and drums of a traditional rock band, sort of make a weird hybrid genre that I’m not really sure what to call. Accordion-punk, maybe? Post-grunge polka? I don’t know, but I’m sure I’ll think of something better than that.
So, after all that, what’s the music on the album actually like? Well, it’s quite an interesting combination of video game covers and original tracks. The game covers themselves are mostly pulled from the Final Fantasy and Legend of Zelda series, with a few exceptions, and the original tracks are also mostly based on the same two series as well. The thing to note here is that the tracks they have chosen to cover are different, or at least played in different ways, than what one would normally see. They do stick to a sort of tradition with the album and the songs they choose from it as well. For instance, their previous album, Unavenged, opened with the opening track from Final Fantasy VI. LMTYaS, similarly, opens with a short FFVI track as well, this time it’s The Day After, one of the opening tracks from the World of Ruin segment of the game. The previous album gave us the Castlevania track Vampire Killer, this one gives us Heart of Fire. And the title track of Unavenged was a rendition of the Russian folk legend of Koschei the Deathless, and this time around we get Swamp Witch, the story of Baba Yaga.
Here’s where I’m going to take a little bit of time to tell you about Russian folklore. I don’t care what monsters you’ve heard about, whether from movies, or fairy tales, or what have you. I can guarantee you that whatever monster it is, Russia has a more horrifying and badass version of it. Case in point: Koschei the Deathless. Here, we have Dracula, who admittedly is ALSO FROM RUSSIA, but with Dracula, once you know his weakness you can actually kill him. Or I mean, Van Helsing could actually kill him, but you get my point. Koschei’s weakness is that he has removed his soul and locked it in a magic needle. So sure, if you find that you technically have power over him. However, he has taken that needle and put it in an egg, which is inside a duck, which is inside a rabbit, which is in a chest of iron, buried under an oak tree, which is on the island of Buyan, which MOVES and is only visible for MAYBE half the time anyway. Russia wins. And then you have Baba Yaga, the subject of the bit of folklore on this album. When you think of witches and modes of transportation, what do you think of? Broomsticks, right? Not Baba Yaga. No, she rides around atop a fucking MORTAR, and her house is half chicken. And steals disobedient Russian children from their beds. So she’s like some sort of twisted reverse Santa Claus. Russia wins.
Okay. Now that you have been properly educated in just how awesome and terrifying Russian folklore is, we can continue.
The thing that I really noticed about the way the songs on the album were arranged was that the instrumental video game covers are placed between the original material and the songs with lyrics, so that they sort of act as interludes or intermissions. The end result is that the original stuff gets a chance to shine and to be the real focus of the album. And even if you aren’t totally sold on their original material, there is never too much space between video game covers, so really, everyone’s happy. The original songs have game references as well if you know what you’re looking for, but don’t assume familiarity with the references either, therefore making them accessible to anyone. For example, Not You, which is the spiritual followup to the last album’s 72 hours, casts the character of Malon from Ocarina of Time as a jilted childhood crush. Death of a Friend uses the mourning theme from Final Fantasy IV as a backdrop for a general song about losing someone you care about. Another World is another Final Fantasy VI reference, this time to the song Another World of Beasts, even though the melody of that one doesn’t appear anywhere in the song itself this time.
So, after listening to Not You, I was about five songs into the album and had heard Final Fantasy, Russian folklore, and an original tune about a Zelda game. Really, I thought I knew what I was in for, for pretty much the rest of the album.
And then Purple Angel came on, and my brain basically said “WHAT.” and stopped processing things for the next five minutes and three seconds.
And then I played it again.
See, what I was hearing was a mashup of One Winged Angel and Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze, with the speed bridge from Master of Puppets thrown into the middle of it because at that point, why the hell not? But here’s the amazing part: it works. It completely works. The tempos of the songs overlap enough to enable smooth transitions, and the fact that One Winged Angel is mostly in Latin overlaps with the fact that nobody really understood what Hendrix was saying half the time anyway. It’s so oddball you’d never see it coming, and so well-executed that the fact that you can’t un-hear it ends up being a net positive.
Which brings me to the next bit of genius that Random Encounter manages with the album: the art of audience prediction. What they manage to do is take what the listener would expect, or at least start to envision, and transition into it at precisely the moment the listener has formed that idea into a complete thought. For example, at some point in the album, about halfway through the wonderfully charming Cave Story cover, I had the idle thought that all that accordion-playing would really go good with a sea shanty or something. So what happens? Naturally, the very next song is a sea shanty.
Seapunk. That’s what I’ll call what they do. I told you that I would come up with a better name for it.
Anyway, Ocean King is the sort of song that can only be the product of caffeine, alcohol, living on the coast, and watching lots and lots of muppets or something. It’s fun, it’s energetic, and it has a ton of weird voices and audience participation. I think it’s one of those songs that works really well in a live setting, and even better in the middle of a bar at two in the morning with a whole bunch of people who just happened to come across an accordion and a ton of aquatic-themed costumes. You can tell the band had a blast recording it, and knowing that, it’s a blast to listen to.
So really, one of the biggest achievements here is that Random Encounter has created an album in which a cover of Katamari on the Rocks that features Brentalfloss, Amanda Lepre, and Stemage (among others) would be considered normal. When that came on, my reaction was, more or less, ‘Oh! But of course they cover Katamari! It fits in here quite nicely!”. Just like Ocean King and Purple Angel, it’s weird and it’s fun, and you really can’t help but sing along even if you have no idea what the words are.
For all of my claiming to know what it is they’re doing, I don’t think it was until the last track that I really ‘got it’. Not really. Their cover of Wind Waker, from the game of the same name, really pulled everything together for me, and made me realize how deeply they’d inserted subtle little themes into several of the previous songs. And in Wind Waker, those themes take over. It’s not just devotion to the source material, and it’s not just the underlying feel of folktales and seaside stories. It’s not just the idea of ‘community’ that’s present in both the clips of audience participation inserted into the background and the contributions of other artists in the VGM scene. It’s not just the complete sincerity in their delivery or the selection of songs that they choose to play. No, it’s all of those things combined and more. It was the feeling I got when listening to that song: the feeling that I was on a pier in that coastal village seeing what people can accomplish together and knowing that those people believe one hundred percent in what they are doing.
And sure, I know that maybe I’m the only one who feels that way. I know that Random Encounter’s music isn’t for everyone. I’m sure that if you’ve never seen them perform or even really know what they’re all about, it takes a big leap to immerse yourself into something that at times might seem a bit silly. But I know that, for my part anyway, I think they’re fun, they’re interesting, they’re crazy talented, and that this album is an absolutely wonderful experience. In short, I think that a world in which Random Encounter does not exist is not a world that I would ever want to live in.
[The album will be released on September 21, and will be available on the band’s Bandcamp page, which I will post a link to here when it releases.]