Runaway fifths

Tuesday, 6 January 2009 — 10:17am | Game music, Jazz, Music, Video games

My dedicated readers may be aware that one thing I used to follow quite closely, on this journal and elsewhere, was the composition and arrangement of video game music. I haven’t attended to it in some time, and am in no way up to date on what’s been going on with it apart from the occasional press releases that land in my inbox about how (to pick one example) contributors to OC ReMix provided the official soundtrack to a high-definition remake of Street Fighter II.

So I was surprised to discover that a video game band—and a jazz band, no less—had sprung up in my very own a mare usque ad mare backyard under the name of The Runaway Five, after the Blues Brothers spoof band that lets you hop on their tour bus in the oddball Super Nintendo classic EarthBound. I saw them live at the Beat Niq on Saturday, and walked away pleased with a lot of what I heard.

I am careful to say “what I heard” because, in a bungled cross-product of the sound engineering and where I was sitting (but mostly, I conjecture, the former), there were serious acoustic issues that worked against the band. Never mind the unfortunate trend of miking and amping everyone in sight in tight basement clubs where a live sound would serve them better—there were fundamental EQ problems with what was coming out the other end, as if the treble had entirely dropped out. A lot of what the band was trying to do harmonically got lost in the midrange mud-crunching.

As for the band itself—a guitar-piano quartet in the first set and an octet with four horns in the second set—it is the very archetype of the young 2000s band that draws on a potpourri of stylistic influences without necessarily committing to one or another. If their point was to illustrate the versatility of their source material, I’d say they got it across. I jotted down their whole set list but I won’t bother reproducing it here; instead, here are a few performance notes.

  • The repertoire was dominated by Japanese RPGs of the Super Nintendo era—an interesting choice, because the work of composers like Nobuo Uematsu has a strong heritage in the progressive-rock idiom (in contrast to the Nintendo house style of Koji Kondo, Kazumi Totaka, and others, which is more conventionally adaptable to jazz). As it turns out, the alternating minor-seventh chords in “Eight Ringing Bells” from Secret of Mana are a fitting basis for some good old modal chord-stomping, though (again) the production issues muddied it somewhat.
  • There was a lot of love for Keiichi Suzuki’s score to EarthBound, the game that provided the band’s namesake and also perhaps the most stylistically varied soundtrack of the SNES era. “Fourside” screams for a brassy, upbeat swing, and the band did just that. More interesting to me was their take on the de-zombified “Threed”, a tune that doesn’t get a lot of attention: they read it as a bossa, but preserved the odd 4-2-4-4 pattern in the opening phrases of the original piece.
  • It was easy to get the impression that the writing chops behind their often ambitious arrangements outpaced their ability to play them. This is not to say they aren’t good musicians, only that for better or for worse, they had a habit of challenging themselves with ideas that had huge leaps to make from concept to execution. Sometimes it paid off, as in the electric Chrono Trigger medley that escalated into what resembled a multiphase boss battle and featured, at one point, an energetic interlude over a piano line that I counted as 13/8.
  • Speaking of which, it’s quite interesting to see how the tunes of a Japanese RPG lineage had a tendency to gravitate towards their prog-rock and fusion roots, not unlike how they did in the obscure 1995 album Chrono Trigger Arranged Version: The Brink of Time. Tagging the familiar Final Fantasy victory fanfare at the end of a boss battle interpretation was a nice touch.
  • The second set on the whole had a cleaner sound, likely because of the space that the trumpet and saxes added to the mix. Here the band had more of a cohesive identity resembling that of the first signature jazz band in video game music, The OneUps. Some of the horn writing was superb. The band closed the concert with a take on “Bob-omb Battlefield” from Super Mario 64 that replicated the mellow-yet-playful texture of the Birth of the Cool nonet, modulating into nearby keys this way and that and proving once again that when all is said and done, Koji Kondo remains the arch-composer at the root of video game jazz.

The Runaway Five’s next appearance is at the Edmonton edition of PLAY! A Video Game Symphony this Friday (9 January). If any of my local readers should catch them, let me know what you think.

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