Welcome to Kotaku's "Best Game Music of 2011," a multi-part series in which we'll be discussing the best video game soundtracks of the year. Today, we'll take a look at the smooth tones and bustling swing of Rockstar's L.A. Noire.
I figured I'd like the L.A. Noire soundtrack before I even heard it -- here we had noir-style detective game set in the late 1940's, so you just knew it was going to feature a bunch of great jazz. Rockstar is known for the licensed soundtracks of the Grand Theft Auto games, but with Bully and Red Dead Redemption, they had already proven themselves just as capable of assembling kickass original soundtracks.
So it wasn't a huge surprise that brothers Andrew and Simon Hale's jazz/small orchestra compositions wound up being my favourite part of L.A. Noire. I had plenty of issues with the game itself, but the Hale brothers' music never got old for me.
One thing I find interesting is that the soundtrack is entirely anachronistic. L.A. Noire takes place in 1947, but the kind of jazz featured on the soundtrack is a mix of hard-bop and "cool" styles, both of which rose to prominence in the mid-to-late 1950's. Many of the dissonant, or "close" harmonies heard in the brass sections recall the mournful, evocative arrangements of the great Gil Evans, famous for his late-1950's collaborations with Miles Davis like Porgy and Bess and Sketches of Spain.
In 1947, the bebop movement was still moving ito its prime. Artists like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were making music that was jangly, jarring, and primitively recorded, with none of the long tones, modal harmonies, and clustered chord-extensions heard in the Hale brothers' work on L.A. Noire.
But then, who cares about period accuracy? A period-appropriate soundtrack wouldn't have been half as cool as the one we got. This game's music was more about conjuring the vibe of noir, rather than the actual time period in which its story was set. And that's just fine with me.
Here are three of my favourite tracks:
When people think about difficult-to-play jazz, they tend to think of uptempo burners like "Cherokee" and "Giant Steps." But in truth, the slow tunes are the ones you gotta watch out for -- there's so much space between the notes, you have to be sure you've really got something to say before you say it. Furthermore, hitting a good groove at a slow tempo is a difficult kind of balancing act. The band (the drummer in particular) just nail it on "Slow Brood."
The horn voicings here ("voicings" being the way that the horn section is used to play a certain chord") are very much reminiscent of Gil Evans' work with Miles, in how they use a combination of harmony or "buzz" muted trumpets with open, unmuted trumpets. Also, notice that one of the voices in the horn part isn't a horn at all -- it's a vibraphone, which gets a lot of good parts on the L.A. Noire soundtrack.
There are a lot of brooding, slow burns in the L.A. Noire Soundtrack, but this one's my favourite.
"Minor 9th" is the most straightforward jazz smallgroup track on the soundtrack -- it features a standard jazz quintet consisting of bass, drums, piano, trumpet and tenor sax. Again, we've got a definite 1950's hard-bop approach to the melody, with the trumpet and tenor in unison at first, then splitting into harmony midway through. This kind of approach was popularised by a number of players, but when I hear it I think of the great tenor saxophonist/composer Benny Golson, who made a splash playing with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers in the late 50's.
As a tune title, "Minor 9th" is a bit on the nose, since the arrangement features lots of minor ninth chords. But hey, a good tune's a good tune. Terrific Miles Davis-ish trumpet work on this one; it's too clean to be a real 1950's musician, but it's still oh-so-nice to listen to.
"Arson - Redemption Pt. 2"
That's a bit of a funny name for a composition-I prefer to think of this tune as "The best thing to listen to while going to investigate a crime scene ever." The small drum-pops in this are so perfect (I'm blanking on the exact instrument -- anyone know? It's one of those small silver drums they use in orchestras, not a snare drum). This is one of the compositions that nails that "noir detective show" vibe. (I may also like this music because the Arson desk was where the story finally got interesting.)
The piece is equal parts Dragnet and horror film -- something about the string stings pushes me forward, fedora down to the ground, ready to investigate another chilling crime scene. The long brass and tenor saxophone unison lines stand in strong contrast to the stacatto strings, and by the time the low brass get involved, the song has such a kickass foundation that it earns its creepy, bombastic conclusion.
And there you have it! The whole soundtrack is outstanding, and can be purchased at Amazon for $US8.99. We'll be back tomorrow with another of the best video game soundtracks of 2011.