He's one of the greats in game composition, who has (very arguably) moved onto lower quality titles in later years. Renowned for his memorable work on the Silent Hill soundtracks - with the notable exception of Downpour, where he was replaced by Daniel Licht - Akira Yamaoka is still one to watch out for; he will no doubt be working on the new Travis Touchdown title for the Switch, due to the fact that he has been an integral part of Grasshopper Manufacture since 2010.
How did he get to the position of working closely on one of Konami's greatest titles? And has the quality of his music improved or worsened over time? In trying to find this out, we'll run through a choice few tracks that Yamaoka worked on, composed or remixed. At the end there will be a mini-playlist of Silent Hill tracks to enjoy while you potter round the kitchen or do equally non-murderous things.
Yamaoka's beginnings in game sound design
What makes his design history even more impressive is that Yamaoka isn't a musician, sound engineer or anything similar by training. He graduated in product and interior design from the Tokyo Art College, which is a far cry from composing emotional tracks which interweave with deep plot points, as he executed perfectly with the earlier Silent Hill titles. However, I think this sudden jump into the deep end with joining Konami is evident from his back catalogue, and whether you think that's a good or a bad thing depends very much on your own personal preferences.
By this, I mean that there's nothing particularly complicated about the songs that Yamaoka created during the peak of his career - they work so well because they consist largely of simple popular rock ballads done to perfection. He clearly draws influence from popular music rather than particularly orchestral or classical backgrounds, but a good ear for bringing out the most in specific game scenes and conveying emotion through song means that this doesn't really matter. While he's technically not the best of the best, his songs still work extremely well for the purpose they're trying to serve, and that's the main thing.
Not long after graduating from college, he joined Konami, aged just 25. He began working with others on particular games, before taking on sole responsibility with titles such as the first Silent Hill.
Pre-spookiness: what did he do?
As mentioned previously, Yamaoka got his start working together with colleagues on Konami titles. These included some sports titles and entries to notorious series such as Gradius and Contra. The soundtrack which I focussed in on, from Yamaoka's pre-Silent days, was that of Poy Poy 2.
The first Poy Poy was released worldwide but the sequel only saw a release in Japan and Europe. Poy Poy is essentially a four-player game for the PS1 in which individuals battle against each other by throwing items (think a primitive version of Smash, with pixels you could cut yourself on). The sequel has the unfortunate distinction of being one of the only PS1 games that won't run on the PS2.
The soundtrack is jaunty and very dissonant in style to what Yamaoka would later move on to do. The songs are quite reminiscent of the soundtracks to other fighting games, but seem quite tacky and lack a level of polish. It's probably fair to say Yamaoka had a way to go before he would reach the dizzying heights of his songwriting career with Silent Hill 2.
To say I find the music to Poy Poy 2 grating would be an understatement. People in the US are lucky that they avoided this one.
The "Numbered Silent" years
In taking on the monumental task of composing the soundtrack to the first Silent Hill game, Yamaoka unwittingly embarked upon a journey that would shape the remainder of his career. The work he did on the first game elevated it beyond some blocky, out-of-place title to a trendsetter among older horror games. On par with the work on the original Resident Evil (rather than the appalling hash of a soundtrack that was the Director's Cut: DualShock version, which was originally thought to have been composed by a deaf guy), Yamaoka made damn well sure that Konami would be coming back to him for the several sequels to come.
I hereby waive my liability for anyone whose ears are now bleeding. At least it's a good kind of bleeding, unlike with Poy Poy 2...I guess?
It is during these sequels that Yamaoka's soundtracks really came to the forefront. Silent Hill 2 is a fan favourite because it is a tale of many tortured souls. It covered issues which games had never dared to touch before, such as child sexual abuse, the lasting effects of bullying, euthanasia and the psychological impact of bereavement. Making sure that these issues were conveyed sensitively required a stirring soundtrack. Yamaoka certainly delivered.
The song "Theme of Laura" cements Yamaoka's reputation as a composer of good soft-rock ballads, rather than someone with a particularly elaborate approach to writing. With games such as Silent Hill 2, the soundtrack doesn't need to be anything fancy in order to do its job of enhancing moments dripping in emotion, and so it makes for excellent listening.
With Silent Hill 3, he switched to more angsty rock tunes, given that it is a story about a teenage girl discovering who she really is (in a more twisted way than the average Teen Vogue reader will experience) and coming to terms with the loss of her dad. Of course, the Mary Elizabeth McGlynn theme tune merits a reference here, though I find McGlynn's vocals to be a little too overwrought on the track itself.
The remainder of the soundtrack alternates between more moody ballads and some grittier pieces; upon listening, you can almost taste the rust and grime that covers every surface of the game's otherworld. It's a triumph, and this triumphant approach continues through to the less popular Silent Hill 4: The Room. A game developed by Team Silent's B team at the end of Silent Hill 3's development cycle, it focusses more on themes such as the hikikomori lifestyle, ghosts and serial killers. It required an even more haunting soundtrack (pardon the pun). While what Yamaoka came up with wasn't quite as memorable as previous releases, it achieves what it sets out to do - it induces shivers.
Unfortunately, the status of Silent Hill as a series deteriorated post-Room, giving Akira Yamaoka less high-quality material to work with. After his days of adding polish to an excellent series, he commenced work on less celebrated Konami titles.
Post-"Numbered Silent" days
After SH4: The Room, Yamaoka spent some time contributing to Rumble Roses XX and also composing for the less adored Silent games. Rumble Roses XX is a quasi-pornographic fighting game, which frankly makes Dead or Alive look like a Jane Austen ankle-flashing period drama. Of course, such raunchy games as this require blistering heavy metal tunes, to allude to the sex appeal of some of the characters. This is where Yamaoka stepped in by composing "I'm Too Virtuous", the rabble-rousing entry track for Miss Spencer (the naughty teacher character, in case you're finding VR porn a bit boring and are planning to dig this one out on eBay).
Errr, I don't think you ARE too virtuous...
Following on from this was his final work for Konami before he jumped ship and became a freelancer/musical partner of Goichi Suda (i.e. Suda51). Origins and Shattered Memories have their defenders and detractors, while Homecoming is universally regarded as a clunky mess which wasted a lot of its potential. It's interesting to note that Homecoming was the first title which Konami farmed out to a US development team (Double Helix Games), yet Yamaoka remained on board.
Yamaoka notably worked once again with Mary Elizabeth McGlynn on the OSTs to these games, and this is particularly effective in the soundtrack to Shattered Memories. This soundtrack also includes an excellent cover of a classic Elvis track, which works extremely well with the themes of parental alienation and divorce covered in the game.
I think a cover of "I Can't Help Falling in Love" would have been even creepier, if I'm honest.
Transition to Grasshopper Manufacture
Yamaoka officially left Konami in December 2009 and joined forces with Suda51 two months later. As with Suda51's games themselves, the output has been somewhat mixed. Yamaoka returned to his safe place of heavier tracks, which are often serviceable but not the most gripping and thrilling music he's produced.
There's nothing wrong with this track, but it's a little stale, in my honest opinion.
I am particularly familiar with the soundtrack of Lollipop Chainsaw. To its defence, the tracks here blend in very well with the punk-pop stylings of the licensed musicians. Furthermore, you can tell that the music design was helmed by James Euringer, lead singer of Mindless Self Indulgence and voice of Zed, while Yamaoka oversaw the whole thing. However, while you can pick out clear influences and differences in genre on each boss battle track, there's nothing special here. All of the tracks are fairly pleasant, heavier background music, but nothing that will stick in your brain much longer than their duration. If I had to pick one, Mariska's boss theme is probably my favourite of the lot.
This is from the same game which belts a few lines of "Hey Mickey" by Toni Basil at you every time you go into Sparkle Hunting mode, so maybe my expectations are too high.
Weirdly enough, one of my favourite musical outputs by Yamaoka is a remix of the standard battle tune to Persona 4 Golden, which he did for Persona 4: Dancing All Night. While the OSTs to the Persona games already have a special place in my heart, Yamaoka managed to mould the track "Time To Make History" perfectly to Kanji, a broody teen who used to chase away biker gangs but secretly likes the more feminine things in life. It's a track packed full of energy and it gives me goosebumps whenever Yu or Teddie bobs into view during the Fever sections of the track.
Having said that, I could do without the underpants costume.
One of Yamaoka's most recent projects is Let it Die, Suda51's free-to-play über-violent release. The soundtrack includes catchy heavy metal tunes and also some J-pop, and largely seems a big hit. Yamaoka seems to be finding his feet once more with Grasshopper, and it can only be hoped that the trajectory continues upwards with the upcoming release of a new entry to the No More Heroes universe for the Switch.
Overall, Yamaoka's history in music composition is a fascinating one, even though some of his work may not be the most novel or groundbreaking. It's interesting to note that one of Yamaoka's biggest influences is Trent Reznor, as I can't think of anyone better to helm the music in a fresh Silent Hill release, if the series hasn't been completely consigned to the scrap heap. Screw the Kojima/del Toro/Reedus dream team; I'm rooting for Yamaoka/Fincher/Reznor/Ross!
Have I missed any of your favourite Akira Yamaoka tracks? Let me know what I overlooked in the comments down below! In the meantime, here's a small Spotify playlist of tracks from the Silent Hill games for you to enjoy.