Castles Made of Pixels

I don’t even remember Castlevania III : Dracula’s Curse. I don’t remember one single thing about the game, not even the music. Yet, I felt compelled to buy Mondo’s double LP release of the soundtrack a couple months ago. Compelled may not be the right word. Possessed to buy it, maybe? It’s like a sickness, folks. An addiction. Maybe it’s because I figured I bought the first two Castlevania releases, so I needed to complete the trilogy? That could be. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Castlevania as a teen. That was one of the few games in my sad game-playing career that I obsessed over, but only three versions of the game. The original Castlevania on NES, Super Castlevania on the Super Nintendo system, and then Castlevania : Symphony of the Night on the original Playstation. Those three versions I loved and played like an idiot into the wee hours of the night. I’d load up on caffeine and frozen pizzas and battle all the ghouls and ghosts hidden away in Dracula’s various castles.

But not Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse.

But I gotta say, the music in that game was on point. For being 8-bit(or was it 16-bit by then?), the music really grabs you and pulls you into that world of darkness and doomed baroque romanticism. What’s most interesting is that the music reminds me of the neo-classical guitar of Ritchie Blackmore and that Swedish guy Yngwie Malmsteen. When I heard the second release in this Castlevania series I dubbed it “8-bit Yngwie”. It was sort of an inside joke between me and, well, nobody. Just me. Listen to the guitar/organ solos in Deep Purple’s “Highway Star” for the neo-classical reference. Imagine that done on 8-bit instruments and that’ll give you a good idea as to what I’m talking about.

The Konami Kukeiha Club is responsible for the music to Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse. I’m not sure if they’re an actual club, like with member cards and funny hats. I think they’re just an in-house music department at Konami that were responsible for creating music for Konami’s games. The list of club members is exhaustive, so I won’t list them. I’ll just say that there was a lot of work that went into creating the musical world in not only Castlevania, but so many other classic games that Konami gave us in the 80s and early 90s. What games? Contra. And a bunch more…probably.

I suppose I’ll just continue to keep buying these soundtracks up until I’m broke and selling them on Ebay in order to pay for college tuition or a ham sandwich for lunch. That’s what people with vinyl problems do. We justify these purchases with words and phrases like “nostalgia” and “childhood memories” and “collecting” and “I earned it, dammit!” I’ll have excuses till the cows come home as to why I need to buy these lovely pieces of plastic that are adorned with eye-popping artwork. Why?

Because I earned it, dammit!

Lil Bub – Science & Magic: A Soundtrack to the Universe

Who doesn’t want to own an album made by an extraterrestrial cat? It almost seems like a given that every household would want to be playing something like that on a daily basis. What? You want to know what in the hell I’m talking about? I’m talking about the lovable, freaky internet sensation feline named Lil Bub. Supposedly she was adopted by a guy from Bloomington, Indiana after being born with all kinds of maladies. Despite all of her health issues she has gone on to be a bit of a feline celebrity, rubbing paws with the likes of Robert DeNiro, Steve Albini, and the ghost of Morris The Cat. Lil Bub has also been at the forefront of finding a cure for Osteoporosis, Meniere’s Disease, and Cat Scratch Fever. Lil Bub has gone on to write a ten series collection of cook books and has even talked Nicholas Cage out of doing two more Bangkok Dangerous films…twice.

What I’m saying is that Lil Bub has been a positive force in our universe. But what if she’s not really from this universe at all? What if Lil Bub is so unique because she’s in fact from outer space? It’s not out of the realm of possibilities that she’s a space-traveling feline who happened to stop on this third rock from the sun in order to help get us back on track. As she toured the galaxy in her kitty space ship, dining on her space Meow Mix and passing the time with galactic cat nip and her zero gravity cat scratch post she sensed distress on the big blue planet. She couldn’t just pass us by. We needed help and Lil Bub was going to give it. I mean, how else do you explain a cat making an electronic album and releasing it right before Christmas? Well, how do you??

Science & Magic: A Soundtrack to the Universe is Lil Bub’s gift to us this holiday season. You don’t want this gift? Well, Neil deGrasse Tyson thinks you’re a moron then. You know who else does? Bill Nye…and Stephen Hawking. Yes, Stephen Hawking loves Lil Bub and plays her album constantly. “New Gravity” is his favorite song. He said he really digs the 8-bit chiptune thing she’s doing. “What came first, the 8-bit or the Chiptune?” Ha! Funny, Stephen. Apparently the Pope wants Lil Bub to be his opening act on his upcoming coffeehouse and house show tour, so there’s that. Even Carl Sagan’s emanating life force is listening to Lil Bub in his ear buds(do emanating life forces have ears? Probably.) If J. Robert Oppenheimer were still alive he’d be twerking to “Assimilation” as he split atoms in his bedroom at night. Why aren’t you twerking to “Assimilation”? Or “Another Voyage” for that matter? Lil Bub made it for you and your twerks. Get with the program people, this is the holiday album we’ve all needed. If Dr. Who were real(he’s not???) he’d be listening to Lil Bub in the Tardis. Right…now.

So hey, believe what you want to believe. If you want to believe that Science & Magic: A Soundtrack to the Universe is just a cash grab by Lil Bub’s human companion, as he’s trying to squeeze as much money juice out of his famous internet meme as he can before it dries up, then so be it. I can’t change your mind about that. But if you want to expand your cranial horizons a bit and believe the unbelievable for a change, then put this in your pipe and toke smoke it: this album is an interstellar gift from our savior from another dimension, Lil Bub. It’s a fun little electronic album with 8-bit bleeps, chiptune lightheartedness, and even Lil Bub popping in now and again gurgling her cute little gurgles to let us know this is her album…not some cash-grabbing human’s attempt for quick payola.

You know what, now that I think of it thi…..All Hail Lil Bub! All Hail Lil Bub!

No rating could express this album’s greatness. 

Disasterpeace : A Talk With Rich Vreeland

I’d say it was probably a year and a half ago on a Sunday morning I happened across thisdisasterpeace little documentary called ‘Indie Game: The Movie’. It was a great little doc about the struggles of independent video game developers and everything they go through to create their art. One of the games they featured was called Fez. Now, at this point in my life I don’t really play video games. I don’t have enough time in the day to sit down and get lost in a good game. But, if I were still into playing Fez seemed like one I’d dig. It had the look of a new age Mario Brothers. It was filled with clouds, bright colors, and there always seemed to be the possibility of something darker underneath. It seemed at times to be downright existential in it’s on-the-surface lightness. Besides its look, another draw to Fez was the enigmatic music that accompanied it. I’d never really thought about the guy or gal that scores a video game, but it’s no different that someone scoring a film or television show. You need some kind of musical narrative to push the game’s narrative along. Some are better than others. In my opinion, the score for Fez is one of the best.

This past summer my cousin told me about Disasterpeace. We were sitting around listening to records and I played him Jakob Skott’s Doppler. He immediately told me about Disasterpeace. He told me Skott reminded him a lot of Disasterpeace’s music. My cousin is a huge video game guy and had played many games that Disasterpeace had done the scores for. One of those games? Fez. I was ready to dig in and check this Disasterpeace out, but that didn’t happen until much later.

A few weeks ago I’d read about the new indie horror film ‘It Follows’, written and directed by David Robert Mitchell. It’s got quite a buzz around it for its old school scares, great cinematography, and classic synth-y soundtrack. It has that John Carpenter feel that, along with the visuals, keeps you on your toes for the film’s 100 minute run time. Who did the score? Disasterpeace, that’s who.

And who is Disasterpeace? That’s the musical alias of musician Rich Vreeland. I reached out to Rich and asked him a few questions about his craft. He happily obliged.

J. Hubner: So where did you grow up Rich? When did you get the musical bug?

Rich Vreeland: I grew up in a musical household in Staten Island, NY. My step-father was the music director of our church, and he would have the band practice in our basement. I would go down there and play the drums. My mom sings and plays the piano, and my sister has been singing since she could speak. I fooled around for awhile but took up guitar by the time I was in high school.

J. Hubner: So you’re playing guitar in high school. What bands were fueling your guitar playing? 

Rich Vreeland:  Bands like Tool and Rage Against the Machine were a big inspiration to me as a budding guitar player. I became heavily invested in playing pentatonic, odd-metered power chord riffs. As a teenager playing music for the first time, there was something incredibly spellbinding about distorted guitar. I also had a glorious amp, a Fender Vibrolux Reverb from the 60’s that I was dumb enough to sell about five years ago.

J. Hubner: So when did you make the move from guitars to synthesizers?

Rich Vreeland: I spent a couple of years making lots of guitar recordings before discovering synths and a more digital workflow. I would say those experiences were the foundation of my music education, although I did go to Berklee College of Music later and learned a ton there.

J. Hubner: I wanted to ask you about your music. What is your setup for creating and recording?

Rich Vreeland: I do all of my production work ‘in the box’, as they say. My software tool of choice is Logic. I am a self-professed minimalist, and I don’t like having lots of things around that I don’t use on the regular. I’ve had various instruments and synthesizers over the years, and I’ve sold just about all of them. I keep three MIDI keyboards: a tiny one situated at my desk, a huge one with piano keys and a middle-sized one stored away for the occasional performance. I also have an upright piano, and that is my prized possession. I find the difference between digital and analog synths is not noticeable enough to warrant me owning any keyboards, but I still go to acoustic instruments when that need arises.

J. Hubner: At what point did you start writing music for video games? How did you get into that world? 

Rich Vreeland: Not long after I started making recordings in 2003, I began to post my work on the internet. I found that there were many individuals more than happy to listen and provide feedback. Early on, this process was highly addictive; the dopamine/adrenaline of getting feedback hooked me, regardless of its quality or temperament. In 2005, while posting my music on an internet forum, I was contacted by a gentleman who heard and liked my music and happened to be the CEO of a company that made cell phone games. We ended up working on a few projects, and this was my first realization that I could get paid to write music.

J. Hubner: I’d never really put much thought into the music I was hearing as I played games like Castlevania, Kid Icarus, and Super Mario Bros growing up as a kid. But looking back that music was an integral part of the experience. 

Rich Vreeland: A great game can be a masterful culmination of many mediums and skills. I am often in awe of the amount of effort and talent that go into making a great game. I will always have a soft spot for games, and they have taken me to many different places creatively. Ultimately though, the driving force for me has been music.

J. Hubner: Can you give me a little insight into the process of scoring a video game? Are you sent videos of scenes? Stills? Are you given certain cues by the developer to hit emotionally?

Rich Vreeland: I have taken a very particular career path even within the niche of writing music for games. I tend only to work with small independent teams because they often make the best games with the fewest restrictions. I love the potential combination of informality and intense auteurism. I also hate red tape and dealing with large companies, because they never have your interests at heart. In dealing with a small team, there are no middle-men, and everyone is directly beholden to each other. It seems harder to strive for these ideals in film, but I do my best to work on projects where I have the utmost freedom. That being said, I’m also not afraid to take direction when someone has a clear vision. David(Robert Mitchell) was unquestionably in the driver’s seat when it came to the music for It Follows, and I was happy to help him channel what he wanted because we have a mutual respect.

J. Hubner: I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about your work on the game Fez. Watching Indie Game: The Movie, the process of creating that game seemed ripe with drama and disappointment. How was it on your end with the score?

Rich Vreeland: Working on FEZ was cathartic. Phil Fish and I were on the same page aesthetically, and it was smooth sailing the whole way. I also had tons of support from Renaud Bedard, the game’s programmer. Together we designed a music system that allowed us to do things I had only dreamed of doing in games before that point. I came onto the project about a year and a half before its completion, and I tried to stay out of the spotlight that surrounded the game and its past and just focus on the work.

J. Hubner: Listening to your work I can hear so many musical moods and echoes of artists, both old and new, that I’m very fond of. From film composers like John Carpenter, Fabio Frizzi, and Walter Rizzati, to newer artists like Oneohtrix Point Never, Com Truise, and Sinoia Caves. Has synth music had a huge impact on you in how you create? 

Rich Vreeland: If I didn’t admit that the prevalent use of synths in pop culture affected me growing up, however subconscious, I would be lying. By the time I was working on FEZ, I had a sense of what synths could do and what I wanted them to do. I don’t think that came from any particular artist, but just from a general exposure to synth music over the course of my life. When people told me FEZ sounded like Vangelis, I had to go look him up because I never listened to his music intentionally before. And yet, his style is such a staple of the 80’s that it’s impossible I hadn’t heard his music in some context before then.

J. Hubner: So what do you think the appeal is with synthesizers? How did this synthesizer renaissance come about? 

Rich Vreeland: I think there has always been some level of desire for non-orchestral soundtracks for film, but I think synthesizers have crossed the threshold from questions of datedness into potential for timelessness. Granted there is still a lot of 80’s tinge going around, and I am certainly guilty, but I think we are reaching a point where synth soundtracks can stand the test of time. All the waveforms and knobs (among other things) allow for an incredibly deep approach to sound design, and they’re also budget friendly. The barrier to entry is also thousands upon thousands of dollars cheaper than working with a live orchestra, so there’s that.

J. Hubner: So how did you get involved with ‘It Follows’. Was David Robert Mitchell a fan of your work prior to making the film? It looks like a great little horror film, and your score sounds amazing for it. 

Rich Vreeland: David loved the music from FEZ and reached out to me via e-mail. Our initial discussions were straightforward; we talked logistics and expressed our interest in working together. David touched base early, right before he started filming I believe, and then we fell out of touch for about a year. When he came back to me, prepared to start scoring, I had a lot of projects on the table and was a bit strapped for time. I think I turned him down a few times, but he could tell that I wanted to work on it, and I eventually gave in. I’m glad I did!

J. Hubner: Who were some influences on the music going in to write? Was there certain instrumentation discussed for the music?

Rich Vreeland: We initially talked about exploring an aesthetic with guitars and other acoustic instruments, but eventually we realized that by using synths we could make the scary parts and the not so scary parts still retain cohesion. David and his editors created a thorough temp score that became my bible for the film. The score featured cues by John Carpenter, Penderecki, John Cage, and even some of my pieces from FEZ. For scary scenes, I tried to make the music as dissonant and weird as possible and pull out all the stops to one-up the temp cues in every way I could. For some of the more melodic, ominous pieces, I was channeling Goblin a bit, especially for tracks like “Detroit”. David had a definite affinity for the music from FEZ, and we took steps to honor that aesthetic but also bring something new to the film. FEZ ended up providing a template for a few of the cues, which was not my favorite idea at the time but in hindsight I think it was a worthwhile and challenging exercise. David developed a serious case of ‘temp love’ for those FEZ cues. It was very difficult to steer him away from those initial pieces that he felt already worked well in capturing emotions he wanted to express. Referencing material from other composers was a satisfying process, but I will say that trying to reference some of my pieces was the most challenging of all. I release all of my music under the name Disasterpeace, so that trend will continue.

J. Hubner: Is film scoring something you’d like to explore further? You seem to have a real knack for it. 

Rich Vreeland: Thanks! I don’t discriminate when it comes to the medium. I truly enjoy making music in lots of different ways. I would love to work on another film. I’m also keen to work with live musicians more, and down the line I’d like to write the music to a play.

J. Hubner: I read one of your blog posts recently where you stated you were getting away from physical media, in regards to releasing your work. No CDs or vinyl, just digital platforms. As someone who’s concerned with our carbon footprint and what sort of world my children have to look forward to in 20, 30 years from now I get that and can appreciate that decision. As someone who buys music exclusively on vinyl I’m also a bit disappointed as well(laughs). I was wondering if you could talk a little more about that decision.

Rich Vreeland: I came to a realization that the numbers don’t quite add up right now. There’s no way for me to practice my desire to be respectful towards the environment while also mass producing plastics. If there comes a time when making vinyl is environmentally sustainable, then I will revisit the topic. I should say though that we are releasing CDs and vinyl for this film. I made an exception at the behest of the director, who thought it would be of great benefit to the movie. Sometimes I don’t feel like a decision is mine to make. I felt like I would be doing David a disservice by refusing his wish in this instance.

J. Hubner: So what’s next for Disasterpeace? How does the rest of 2015 look?

Rich Vreeland: Right now, I am working on a guest-directed episode of Adventure Time, and a minimalistic subway layout game called Mini Metro. After that, I’ll be diving into a Miyazaki- inspired dungeon crawler called Hyper Light Drifter, and a Flatland-inspired Japanese garden game called Miegakure. In case you can’t tell, I love how different those all sound and are!


It Follows hits theaters March 13th, 2015. You can preorder the vinyl edition of Disasterpeace’s score here. It’s available now digitally. Keep up with everything Disasterpeace here.