Everything old is new again.
This old idiom, while applicable to a great many things both artistic and not, has a much deeper meaning for those whose musical passion lies in the revitalization of old video game music. For these musicians, it isn’t so much that trends move in cycles, but rather that they are playing an active role in interpreting old music for audiences in new and interesting ways. Whether through the preservation of the original styles or by the creation of new and novel interpretations of classic game tracks, it’s clear that the growing interest in the video game music community is exceeded only by the amount of talent that those in the community draw from.
Enter The Returners, a band whose name (on top of the obvious reference) literally means ‘the ones who bring something back’. In two years since the band’s inception, they have made a name for themselves playing sets at Nerdapalooza and its spiritual successor Orlando Nerd Fest, as well as an impressive number of shows at smaller venues in and around their home base in Austin, Texas. Most recently, they played at PAX South, opening for The OneUps and Paul and Storm. The combination of high profile conventions and several local shows has succeeded in earning them a growing fanbase and a similarly growing anticipation for their first recorded album.
Not that anybody in the band is new to playing for a crowd or anything. All of the members are veterans of either the video game music community or the Austin music scene, and most of them have previous experience in both. Also noteworthy is the diversity of talent that they exhibit. The talent profile of the band’s lineup includes past members of video game prog-rock act Descendants of Erdrick and current members of thrash metal cover band Lords of Thunder, the more straight-up video game rock band Gimmick!, the 80’s inspired synthpop band The Pushpins, and the hardcore punk group The Awful Lot. They are, clearly, quite a diverse group of individuals with an equally diverse range of musical experience brought together by their shared love of video games and the music thereof.
That love for the medium is obvious in every aspect of the album. Each song on it has the feeling of being painstakingly selected by the members of the band as representative of the game and the era that it was pulled from. There is quite a bit of representation on there that covers a cross section of the 16-bit and 32-bit eras of video games, with a few surprises thrown into the mix as well.
Of course, no band that calls itself ‘The Returners’ should craft a track list that does not include something from Final Fantasy VI, so naturally that’s what they open with. Interestingly, the song they choose to kick off their medley is Cyan’s Theme. It’s definitely true that the first thirty seconds or so of an album’s opening kind of sets the tempo for the rest of the album, so at first glance it might seem like a strange choice for an intro track. However, I think that it kind of fits well. It’s a song that doesn’t get covered often, or at all really, and it sends the message that the listener is probably in for something a little different.
That’s a good thing, because ‘a little different’ is an apt description of what the rest of the album has to present. While there are a few expected favorites on the album, including the aforementioned Final Fantasy VI medley and an equally wonderful Link to the Past medley, the majority of the album consists of tracks from games that don’t always get the most musical recognition in the world. I mean, how many times do you hear covers from games like Ecco 2: Tides of Time? And it isn’t even that they choose obscure music to cover. Nobody could ever say that Starcraft is obscure. It’s just that it’s music that people don’t generally think to play live.
It is also clear that the songs on the album have been selected to showcase both the individual talents of the band members, as well as their skills in arrangement as a whole. Rather than breaking songs down into tracks and having one instrument play a track all the way through, the band creates the effect of having various instruments ‘hand off’ the layers of a track. The result is oftentimes a fabulous arrangement where it seems like three or four things are going on at once, only to have them meet at just the right point in the song. To get the best feel for how the band applies their talents to video game covers, look no further than the aforementioned Ecco medley. Once you’ve been sufficiently awed, check out their selections from Lufia and Star Ocean. Each member’s individual abilities shine especially well in these tracks. Not only that, but hearing how well they blend songs together into the full medley is also a treat.
See, there’s a definite art to crafting a medley. It’s different than just stringing a bunch of songs together and seeing how it turns out. The transitions are the important part. In a badly-arranged medley, the transitions, or lack thereof, can be quite jarring and break the immersion in the melody. In contrast, no one should ever notice the care that goes into transitioning between the various songs in a good medley. In a great medley, the transitions are noticeable because of how smooth they are and how the sound feels like it’s sliding from one song into another as if pulled along in a current. The Returners craft great medleys.
The reason for all of this is because they care about the music. They realize that there is a definite emotional connection there, and that the music of these games can draw feelings from the heart just the same as the score of a great movie can. Hearing the Starcraft track makes me remember what I was feeling the first time I played through ‘Escape from Mar Sara’ and realized that the objective wasn’t to win, but merely to survive. Their Star Ocean medley does the one thing guaranteed to make me tear up in any song, the music box fadeout. And their cover of The Best is Yet to Come, a song that I have never heard anyone even attempt to play live, evokes the same deep emotional connection that I felt after finishing Metal Gear Solid for the first time.
And that’s the thing about what they’re doing. They’re not just playing the songs as well as they were played before. What they’re doing is far more subtle, and at the same time far more effective. They’re playing the songs as well as we remember them. Most bands that cover songs, any songs, take one of two paths. Sometimes, a band attempts to replicate the original piece exactly, impressing the listener with how closely they are able to mimic the nuances of the original. Alternately, some bands add their own spin on a song, creating something completely new and at the same time completely divorced from the original piece. What The Returners are doing is a mixture of the two which ends up doing something a bit different from either.
What they are doing is taking music and neither completely replicating it nor completely creating something new, but instead refining it to its best possible version. To take the phoenix metaphor present in the band’s artwork to its logical conclusion, they are, through the fire of their enthusiasm, tempering the raw musical material into something bright, shining, and wonderful.
The song that really drives this impression home is, fittingly, the one they close out the album with. While the choice to open with Final Fantasy VI was an obvious one, there was also absolutely no way they could go the entire album without throwing a bit of opera in there. And while they don’t play Aria (even though flute player and lead singer Lauren Liebowitz does cover that on one of her solo albums), they do end with something far more impressive.
Out of everything they could have brought out, I don’t think anyone really expected them to end with Phantom of the Opera. And it is magnificent. Just like with every other track on the album, they incorporate all of their influences to craft the best possible version of that song. Which just happens to be equal parts musical theater and symphonic goth metal. It’s a great way to end an already great album, one last surprise that leaves us wanting more.
Because after hearing this album, I can say for absolute certainty that the best is, indeed, yet to come.