More Than Just Noise: It’s Called…Heavy Metal

[For his Monthly Musing, tomothy25 talks about the integral role music plays in Brütal Legend, and why he likes it so much. Want to write your own Musing? Click here and start writing! — JRo]

Headbanger #1: Oh…Wha…What is that sound?
Headbanger #2: It’s a devil screaming!
Headbanger #3: It’s an angel singing!
Headbanger #2: It’s the pounding of creation’s hammer upon the anvil of time!
Headbanger #1: It’s f****** awesome!
Eddie Riggs: It’s called…Heavy Metal.

Heavy metal is without a doubt my favourite genre of music. I love listening to it, talking about it, trying to learn to play it and forcing it upon my friends and family. To me, nothing comes close to the energy, the power, the sheer badassery of a bunch of guys wailing away on their instruments and thrashing about like lunatics. So when I first caught wind of Brütal Legend, my ears pricked up. The new game from the team behind Psychonauts, one of my favourite games from the last console generation? Cool, I wonder what it’s ab-…whoa. A game about heavy metal?! Sweet zombie Jesus!

I was dead set on purchasing it on day one, and I wanted to keep the gameplay and story a surprise, so I didn’t watch any videos or read many articles. And I’m glad I didn’t. I had no idea about the music in the game until I actually played it. Suffice to say that it not only blew my mind, it blew my soul – the licensed soundtrack to Brütal Legend is absolutely phenomenal.

Spoiler warning! Some plot points will be mentioned, so be careful!

Nothing to do with music – it just looks awesome

I’m a huge, HUGE fan of Brütal Legend and I love how music is used to enhance and lend added impact to important scenes in the game. I started playing it again today and I was struck by an overwhelming urge to write about some of my favourite moments throughout the story (and include a crapload of YouTube links in the process.)

The first song heard in the game (aside from the intentionally nauseating “Girlfriend” by Kabbage Boy and some ominous chords after the set collapses) is Black’s Sabbath’s “Children Of The Grave”. When our protagonist Eddie is transported to the world of metal, there is a distant bass rumbling in the background, a subtle “dun, duh-dugga-duh-dun, duh-dugga-duh-dun” building up a sense of foreboding. The druids close in, daggers poised to strike. Eddie spots The Separator embedded in a rock ahead. The bass and the drums become more prominent, until Eddie reaches for the axe, and then…BAM! The main riff kicks in and it is glorious. This scene is ingrained in my memory; every time I hear “Children Of The Grave”, I instantly think of this triumphant moment.

Touch not this awesome axe, or suffer the wrath of the Tainted Coil!

This is just the first of many occasions where music is used to enhance the action and emotions, to great effect. Not long after liberating the Headbangers from the mines, Eddie gets involved in his first stage battle. Naturally, it’s only fitting that this confrontation is set to Judas Priest’s “Battle Hymn/One Shot At Glory”; epic chords leading into a song that is a literal battle cry, complete with soaring vocals, wailing solos and lyrics to instil courage in any warrior.

“This day will last forever,
Deep in the hearts of men,
Courage and victory,
Remember, remember.”

(And for the more metal-savvy players, it’s amusing to think that General Lionwhyte – the luscious-haired villain who attacks Bladehenge – is voiced by the follicle-deficient Rob Halford, of all people.)

In my mind, the scene involving the Metal Queen (a big-arse spider made out of chrome, obviously) is a brilliant example of a game having a real-world effect that doesn’t involve a news story about video-game-inspired violence. The music that plays during this encounter is “Cry Of The Banshee” by Brocas Helm. As you first enter the Lair Of The Metal Queen, the haunting bass riff plays out in the background, accompanied with ominous echoing and a haunting voice singing “Can you hear the banshee… scream?”, followed by silence. If that isn’t creepy as hell, I dunno what is. This silence is only punctuated by the smaller chrome spiders that Eddie must fight as he pushes deeper into the cave. When Eddie finally reaches the boss chamber, things get knocked up a notch – the bass riff kicks in, then it’s followed by the same riff on guitar, and when the drums start up, you know it’s on. The battle feels really fast-paced and hectic, thanks to the rapid pace of the song.
”Out of personal respect, I’ll just get right to the ass-kicking!”

Also, check out this verse:

“It’s a time machine, a devils dream,
And yet it’s in your grasp,
Legends of the past,
Can you hear the banshee scream?”

Very appropriate, wouldn’t you say? Time travel, devils, legends from a time past…if you consider Eddie’s belt buckle to be a time machine, it actually is within his grasp. Wow.

Now for the real-life-effect. Before Brütal Legend, Brocas Helm were essentially unknown. Not many people had heard of them, and even if you were a fan, it was nigh impossible to get your hands on any of their music. Soon after the game was released last Rocktober, their popularity exploded and their albums became available for digital download on iTunes; I think it’s a nice change for a game to produce a success story like this, as opposed to the endless “Sex and murder and cursing in video games are destroying our kids!” stories that like to vilify and blame this industry for everything and anything.

The big turning point in the narrative occurs when the heroic Ironheade storm Lionwhyte’s Pleasure Tower. It all goes well until big-bad leather-clad Doviculus shows up to ruin their day, by brutally murdering Lars and talking in a sexy voice (admit it, you know it’s true). The team needs to make their escape from the crumbling tower while massive Bleeding Death coffins rain down upon them. This scene obviously calls for some badass music – so what could it be? There’s only one option: “Through The Fire And The Flames” by Dragonforce, one of the most ridiculously over-the-top songs in recent memory. And it fits so well! You’re manoeuvring the Druid Plow through falling debris and hulking monstrosities, all to the sounds of a bunch of blokes weedling away on their guitars like their lives depend on it. It’s brilliant. Supposedly, Tim Schafer originally wanted an Iron Maiden song, but somehow I think this has more impact. It’s just so ludicrously entertaining.

Imagine this set to a silly power metal soundtrack – sheer brilliance

Eddie then has to face off against a new enemy, the Drowning Doom, in a number of stage battles. Naturally, the music in these encounters perfectly captures the mood. In the first showdown, in the snow-encrusted mountains of Death’s Clutch, Ironheade are still mourning the loss of their beloved leader, Lars Halford, when they are attacked by the Drowning Doom. Instead of the pumping battle music from previous fights with General Lionwhyte, we have something a little different. “Frost” by Enslaved oozes classic black metal gloom and doom: it’s chilling and atmospheric, and it masterfully sets the mood for the battle. “The gloomy mothers”, as described by the Fire Baron, are a grim bunch; their ranks consist of undead brides, emo-styled grave diggers, disembodied heads and guys who vomit live rats. They’re a morbid lot, and the music in this scene absolutely nails the atmosphere.

After making their way through the jungle and swamp regions (to the tune of Ozzy Osbourne’s brilliantly creepy “Diary Of A Madman”, of course) and emerging in the Dry Ice Caverns, Eddie and the rest of Ironheade encounter Drowned Ophelia. She explains her drastic transformation with the help of an Organist; “Don’t worry, this song only hurts me” is how she begins her story. The Organist stretches his hands, before breaking into the opening keys of Ozzy’s legendary ode to the occult, “Mr Crowley”. The organ continues playing it’s ominous chords as, in a flashback, Ophelia approaches The Sea Of Black Tears. Just as the organ reaches its finale, Ophelia throws herself into the black water and the main riff kicks in. This is my personal favourite moment of the entire game. From the slow, sad trek towards The Sea, to the utterly dejected look on Ophelia’s face; the tendrils dragging her under, to her surfacing in her new form and smirking – I love everything about this scene. The lyrics even fit pretty well (if you substitute “Mr Crowley” for “Ophelia” and “Satan” for “Doviculus”):

”Mr Crowley, what went on in your head?
Oh Mr Crowley, did you talk to the dead?
Your lifestyle to me seemed so tragic,
With the thrill of it all.
You fooled all the people with magic,
You waited on Satan’s call,
Mr Charming.”

That smirk just screams trouble

Of course, Drowned Ophelia throws down the gauntlet and a stage battle begins amidst the dense dry ice mist. The soundtrack? “Her Ghost In The Fog”, fittingly, by Cradle Of Filth, opening with a very dramatic piano piece. The third battle with The Drowning Doom takes place outside the cavern that contains The Sea Of Black Tears, played out over the appropriately titled “Welcome Home” by King Diamond. Following a dream sequence featuring lots of beach-running and stabby-stabby action, the beautiful “Holiday” by The Scorpions segues into the slightly less beautiful, slightly more black metal “So Frail” by Mirrorthrone (in this scene, the song begins at roughly 1:20) for the big showdown. All of the songs associated with Drowned Ophelia and The Drowning Doom manage to emphasise their grim nature and their bleak and black personalities – with harsh vocals, atmospheric piano pieces and some symphonic touches – without being overly grim to the point where it became corny. Whoever selected the music for this game really did their homework

The final portion of the game begins after the previous battle ends. It’s Ironheade versus The Tainted Coil, with industrial metal stalwart Rob Zombie’s “Superbeast” setting the tone for the first phase of the fight against Doviculus’ bondage-castle. After one “head” is down and Doviculus banters with Eddie about his mother’s promiscuity and his own virility, the tone shifts. The music that plays over the second phase is “For The Glory Of…/More Than Meets The Eye” by Testament; these are actually two separate songs on the album they originated from but they flow really well and, let’s be honest, the combination makes for some awesome boss music. While the music itself is upbeat and thrashy to get you in the mood to pound some Coil (wait, that came out wrong…), the titles of the songs stand out the most to me. Eddie is fighting for the glory of Lars and Ophelia – he says so himself – and he is most definitely more than meets the eye (as, it turns out, are all humans.)

Once the second “head” is down, it’s time for the final battle against Doviculus, one-on-one. Something this climactic needs a suitably epic piece of music to accompany it. Well, you can’t really get much more epic than Judas Priest’s “Painkiller”, one of the greatest speed metal tracks ever, with its blazing solos, piercing shrieks and pounding drums. It makes Doviculus’ eventual decapitation (or, as Eddie so eloquently puts it, “DECAPITATIIIIIIOOOOON!”) all the sweeter.

Aside from all of the pivotal scenes mentioned above, I think my favourite use of music is to differentiate characters. Each faction – Ironheade, The Drowning Doom, The Tainted Coil and, to an extent, Lionwhyte’s Hair Metal Militia – are represented by certain subgenres of metal.

Ironheade waves the flag for classic metal, including thrash metal and NWOBHM – think Anthrax’s “Metal Thrashing Mad” or ”Am I Evil?” by Diamond Head.

Lionwhyte’s gang are the quintessential glam rockers, and their music reflects this – pop, hair and glam metal dominate their soundtrack, with such classics as “Dr. Feelgood” by Mötley Crüe or Skid Row’s “Youth Gone Wild”.

For The Drowning Doom, the prevailing theme of gloom and darkness is reflected in their representative music; their stage is likely to be blasting black metal in the vein of “Thus Spake The Nightspirit” by Emperor or some melodic death metal, such as Dark Tranquility’s “Cathode Ray Sunshine”.

Finally, The Tainted Coil are all about industrial and gothic metal. “Thieves” by Ministry plays during a campaign mission involving Eddie defending the bus from pursuing Tick Choppers, while Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People” is possibly one of the most well known industrial metal tracks of our generation.

For Brütal Legend, the soundtrack is much more than just noise. It’s not just the sound of a devil screaming, or an angel singing, or even the pounding of creation’s hammer upon the anvil of time. It’s the soul of the game. It’s the essence of its world. It’s fucking awesome.