I reviewed the opera-inspired Black Bird for VGMO: Video Game Music Online.
Pong wasn’t ten years old before games began borrowing the music of opera.
As noted by the scholar Tim Summers, these quotations, which appeared as early as 1981’s Route-16, were “not often presented in terms of staged opera.” Instead, they appeared in “general playlists of ‘classical’ art music, or as intertextual references to quotations of opera in other media.” Maria and Draco notwithstanding, opera has only sporadically appeared in games and then as much for its associations as its music. In other words, opera appears not for its expressive qualities but for those things it connotes: wealth and luxury, status and refinement, or the satire of such things.
But given the unprecedented growth of game development, and the resulting opportunities for composers of every taste and training, it was only a matter of time before opera moved from bit part to starring role. Black Bird, the latest curio from Onion Games, derives much of its drama, and not a little strangeness, from Hirofumi Taniguchi’s absurdist opera soundtrack. In an interview for this website, Taniguchi (Moon, Chibi-Robo!) recalled his teenage years of musical obsession. After the shock of discovering rock music—the Beatles were an early influence—an omnivorous Taniguchi devoured classical and neoclassical music in college before turning to the odd time signatures of prog rock seeking “some kind of individuality in music.” If Black Bird is any indication, Taniguchi found what he was looking for not in prog but in one of its sources.
Strictly speaking, Black Bird is not an opera but an opera-like. This qualification seems unnecessarily stuffy, however. For one thing, the game has a story, albeit an enigmatic one. For another, the action, in which player inputs complete the libretto, unfolds against resonant vocals that are unmistakable as opera-style singing. Taniguchi himself plays most of the parts in squawks and grunts of cartoon gibberish that make Black Bird more like “What’s Opera Doc?” than La Traviata. “Bustling Streets are what Black Birds Lay Waste To” is typical of the album in its bombast and construction. Over a synthetic orchestra, a company of Taniguchis bellows the kind of gobbledygook you invent to sing along with K-pop when you don’t know a word of Korean. One Taniguchi is adenoidal, ratcheting his voice upward in a ridiculous falsetto. Another croaks like a bullfrog. Some of the voices are so comically exaggerated that one could mistake Taniguchi for a parodist. But given the surreality that suffuses Black Bird, I think the intended effect is not mockery but rather a stupefying disorientation familiar to fans of Scott Walker’s The Drift or Bish Bosch. Here the effect is more funny than frightening, however.
Some tracks, such as “The Bursting of Balnbaln’s Balloons,” leave Taniguchi free to pull faces in the mirror. Others feature Saika Kitazono, a classically trained mezzo-soprano whose past performances include the arias of Rossini and Mozart. Here she plays the Queen, a mechanical marionette whose three phases players must survive if they wish to complete their mission of vengeance. Kitazono gives a game performance, matching Taniguchi’s nonsense syllable for syllable. But unlike his loony tunes, Kitazono plays it straight, singing her lines with formidable grace. On “Finally, the Tower Appears,” her voice rises like the tide, then recedes in like fashion, sliding easily between octaves. Her voice has a dizzying and siren-like allure, the better to contrast with the defiant “Surely You Didn’t Think to Defeat Me?” which buffets listeners with a throaty and smooth-flowing patter to match the bullet hell on screen.
Under the vocals, Taniguchi conducts a sound-font orchestra of tinny strings and flatulent horns. Flourishes of marimba and harpsichord provide an occasional chromatic accent, but the music in Black Bird’s early stages is mostly Wagnerian thunder. Yet the music grows progressively less organic in its imitations as players near the center of the nameless kingdom in which Black Bird takes place. Beginning in the rural outskirts of Oppidum, where players roust peasants and topple timber-frame houses, the journey culminates in Aristocratia, a vision of the future circa 1950, all throbbing circuits and vacuum tubes overseen by a technocratic priesthood. The contrast comprises a sly if ambiguous class commentary and one that occasions a change in Taniguchi’s instrumentation. “Over the Nobility’s Dead Bodies,” for example, opens with undulations of theremin that linger long enough to supply a ghostly countermelody, a role reserved for flute in the game’s first stage. By the time players confront the Queen, opera gives way to symphonic rock, mating the orchestra to fuzzed-out guitar and chilly synths, and bringing welcome gravity to an otherwise comic opera.
I rarely use words like “flatulent” in the reviews of soundtracks I recommend, but then Black Bird is no ordinary soundtrack. In reaching for comparisons I thought not of game music but of the novelty songs on Dr. Demento compilations. At first you’re just giggling behind your hand as the Holy Modal Rounders extol the virtues of boobs (for the record, they’re big and round / they’re all around). But before long you’re cueing up “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh” like it’s Duran Duran. Black Bird was like that for me. At first I admired it more than I enjoyed it. But over time, and especially while writing this review, I found myself humming its melodies in the shower, the ultimate sign of endearment. In making something for himself, Taniguchi has enlarged the boundaries of video game sound.
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