Video Games Live Review – Manchester Apollo, 1/11/14

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Howdy doody! I thought I’d have a go at penning my first live music review on the thematically blog-appropriate topic of the Video Games Live concert, held on the 1st November at the small but mighty Manchester Apollo venue in Stockport.

I’d been to the venue for the first time about ten years ago. It was first ever gig actually; me and my best friend from school (who was also named Tom funnily enough) went to go and see our favourite band, The Offspring, play a fantastic set two years after their 2003 album Splinter had come out. Naturally then, I’ve got rather fond memories of that raucous gig; the bright strobing lights, the ear-splitting buzzsaw guitars and the strong reeking smells of sweat, weed, alcohol and gleeful teenage pop-punk abandon, all percolating together in the smoky air like a tangy and bitter miasmatic ghost of my generation’s youthful nihilistic counterculture.

Whimsical poetic aside over, the Apollo had seemed like such a massive venue to me at the time, as a dumb fifteen year-old with too much hair gel smeared into my greasy mop, but today, as a twenty-four year-old with no hair gel in my naturally greasy mop, the isolated, jaunty venue now appeals to me because of its small size – it combines the intimacy of a small dingy club gig with the grandeur of an old music hall; there’s a sense of busyness and bustle to the atmosphere without it feeling too claustrophobic.

Inside, the venue had several large TV screens set up above the orchestra’s seats, which showed a variety of daft video game-themed clips and an amusing yet ultimately tragic Ms. Pac-Man film (the ghosts always get you in the end) before the lights dimmed and the show started, or perhaps more appropriately, booted up.

The Hungarian Virtuosi Orchestra stroll out onstage (complete with a full choir) and tune up, followed by the principal violinist, and the conductor. Suddenly, Tommy Tallarico, Video Games Live Head-honcho and guitarist, races out of the side of stage, fancy Les Paul guitar in hand yelling “GIVE IT UP FOR CASTLEVANIA!” The show was well and truly underway with an ecstatic roar from the crowd.

The orchestra blasted through a medley of the classic Castlevania game themes whilst Tommy ripped out some fast neo-classical lead passages on his axe (sorry, I had to get that in there as it’s Castlevania). Up above all the fast bowing and plucking action onstage, corresponding footage from the games was displayed on the aforementioned big screens; it was definitely an exciting and in-your-face start to the concert.

The evening (the very first video games concert to be held in Manchester apparently yet also unsurprisingly) was this juxtaposition of an all-out rock concert meets quiet reserved symphony orchestra, and the result was for the most part a successful one. The pieces where the orchestra were the sole or main focus, usually with minimal percussive instrumentation, were particularly great. However, the attempt to blend orchestral-led arrangements with the attitude of a rock concert, minus a rock band, quickly began to wear pretty thin after the strong pseudo-metal Castlevania opening. I’ll get to these qualms shortly, but let’s talk about what was great about Video Games Live first.

The first half of the evening was, in my opinion, by far the strongest; the choice of pieces and the varied pacing of the set really allowed the orchestra to shine in their own right. Barely dropping the pace from the opening number, a brief pre-recorded video clip from Hideo Kojima himself kicked things right into gear with a fantastic rendition of the Metal Gear Solid overture, which in my opinion was the highlight of the set. Throughout the medley, Tommy sneaked around the stage in a cardboard box, Solid Snake style, a small but enjoyable touch that got some decent chuckles from the crowd, and the use of the series classic “!” alert sound, complete with bright searchlights sweeping the stage added some daft amusing game-like immersion for the audience.

In between his duties as lead guitarist, Tommy acted as the evening’s compare, and encouraged people to yell, whoop, shout aloud and let loose throughout the evening, which he described as a celebration of music, art, games and their status as a central pillar of contemporary popular culture. While I managed to restrain the urge to yell things like “PLAY THE KILLER INSTINCT THEME! NOW!”, others did not, which lent the proceedings a raucous rock gig atmosphere as opposed to the stereotypically fussily quiet of a classical music concert.

Hot on the heels of Metal Gear, much like everyone’s favourite fast blue rodent himself, was an arrangement of the Sonic the Hedgehog themes – another strong highlight. This orchestral-led medley was a joyful delight, and it was nice to hear the quirky melodies of the series played on the organic timbres of the orchestra as opposed to the crunchy metallic timbres of the Sega Mega Drive.

An unexpected surprise was a performance of the title theme of The Secret of Monkey Island; the jaunty reggae-inspired pirate theme which translated surprisingly well to the orchestral sound palate, and helped to provide a bit of variety between some of the more cinematic pieces. One of those more cinematic arrangements, the Uncharted series Nate’s Theme was an absolutely sublime highlight, featuring some fine brass and string playing, giving the piece the understated majesty it deserves.

However, towards the tail end of the first half, things started to slide back into rock show territory, and that’s where I felt the show was at its weakest. To be fair, sometimes things worked well in this rocked-up mode – seeing Tommy blast through his pride and joy Earthworm Jim tunes New Junk City/Anything But Tangerines with a big shit-eating grin across his face was a massive highlight, don’t get me wrong. But at other times, the set tended to fall down somewhat in places where the pace was shifted into rock/metal gig territory. As much as it was entertaining to see Tommy running about the stage and yelling like a young 1980’s era James Hetfield, it kind of clashed a bit with the more refined less-is-more approach of the symphony orchestra.

In fact, speaking of Metallica’s lead singer, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between tonight’s Video Games Live concert and Metallica’s critically acclaimed 1999 collaboration with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, the provocatively titled S&M concerts and album. Video Games Live has obviously taken great inspiration from this previous blending of two usually entirely separate musical genres, and for good reason – Metallica’s S&M concerts were absolutely fantastic; a perfect pairing of classical chalk and metal cheese.

Crucially, Metallica’s blend of metal and classical was successful because it was absolutely full-on from both sides – alongside the full sonic spectrum of the San Francisco Symphony, you had the four horsemen of the metalpocalypse all fully set up with their massive PA systems and speakers, the well-worn rock clichĂ© of walls of Mesa-Boogie amps and cabs, and, crucially, Lars Ulrich’s sprawling drum kit fully mic’d up. It was this epic, no holds-barred clash of the titans of two typically non-combined genres going full-throttle at each other with everything they’ve got that made the performances so compelling.

Unfortunately, the same couldn’t really be said of tonight’s setup with Video Games Live. The audio equivalent of an Achilles’s heel for the entire performance was the lack of a live drum kit. Instead, all the drums, beats, percussive loops of the evening were piped through the PA as processed, pre-mixed samples to which Tommy and the orchestra would play along to like a backing track. Whilst this worked adequately enough, it seemed a strange workaround to have built the entire live show around – why hire an entire orchestra to play live music, and yet neglect the percussion section which provides the core foundation of pretty much all video game music?

The samples, beats and textures being played through the speakers were fine, but they would have worked so much better with a more powerful live foundation backing them up. Processed beats can sound incredibly heavy and awesome in a lot of contexts – i.e. the studio album – but when you’re going for a live rock show, you can’t really substitute them in place of a live mic’d up kit without them sounding weak.

Yes, there were several timpani drums present, to be nit-picky, but the decision to not include a drum kit is definitely a puzzling choice, as it’s such a key component of nearly all the music and songs that were in the set list. Of course, playing processed beats and samples through the venue’s PA works well enough, and is in some cases, more authentic and appropriate for the more lo-fi soundtracks in the set list, but the lack of a significant ‘live’ percussion section was very noticeable when the ensemble were playing the larger orchestrated pieces of the big blockbuster titles. With no drum kit, as well as no bass or additional rhythm guitars, the bottom end completely falls apart when Tommy isn’t riffing away with power chords, meaning that many of the rocked-up numbers simply fall flat after their build-up when the main melody kicks in.

The lack of a live kit could really be felt in Silent Hill 2‘s Theme of Laura, a fantastic piece and a personal favourite of mine, which, thanks to the tinny sampled percussion backing, felt less a melancholic and moody ’90s garage band rock out and more of a woolly fuzzy dirge, the likes of which would probably cause Pyramid Head himself to droop his gigantic iron-clad head in disappointment.

The same could be said for the ensemble’s performance of the Halo medley; what I thought would be a key highlight of the Video Games Live set, and an integral part of me buying the ticket for the concert in the first place. Unfortunately, despite a promising start, it really wasn’t much to listen to. Starting with the choir performing the game’s iconic Gregorian monk chant and building the excitement to critical levels, Tommy unleashes a roaring wall of distortion that marks the start of the One Final Effort theme (the music to the big Warthog escape sequence at the end of Halo 3). Strafing around the stage with his Zemaitis Les Paul copy like a guitar-wielding Master Chief, Tommy blasts out the ascending power chord chugs of the climactic theme, everything building to a delightfully heady rush, and then…he stops playing chords and swaps to the melody. At which point, the entire bottom end of this wall of sound just completely drops out, and you have to strain your ears to just about catch the rhythm and pulse of the sampled drums over the trebly lead melodies of the guitar and strings.

It’s a shame, as Tommy clearly is a red-hot guitarist with some mean licks up his musically gifted sleeves, and it’s exciting hearing him knock out a high-energy solo; it’s just that when he goes into this Van Halen/Steve Vai shredding mode, there’s no layers there underneath what he’s playing to back him up. I couldn’t help but feel that having a live drum kit and an electric bass player would massively help the overall sound, and provide some much-needed low end. Additionally, having some more electric guitar players on-stage performing Malcolm Young-style rhythm duties to help Tommy out with the multi-layered parts would massively help with the louder pieces and sections I’m sure.

As the set list for each gig is largely determined by fans voting for their favourite songs via social media platforms, it’s safe to say that Manchester is home to an incredibly large number of Final Fantasy fans. This fact in itself certainly isn’t a problem; in fact, quite the opposite I think it’s something to be celebrated. However, their heavy-handed influence on tonight’s set list was certainly a case of too many feathery-haired Final Fantasy cooks spoiling the broth (and probably breaking many SALSA food hygiene health regulations too).

Every other franchise was sensibly limited to one song/medley, to keep things moving along and fresh, but there were at least four or five segments of Final Fantasy songs, which no doubt took up valuable set list time for other franchises. Admittedly, this is a series that I’ve not played much of, nor has it ever really appealed to me, so I’m aware that I’m no doubt in the minority here, but there were just simply too many songs from the beloved Final Fantasy series in the set list I felt, which gave the second set a particularly stale feeling.

Just to be fair, as much as I’m a big fan of the Halo soundtracks, if we’d had a set list that went through not only Halo 3‘s One Final Effort but also Halo 4‘s Never Forget, Halo 2‘s Peril, Halo Reach‘s Ghosts of Reach and Halo 3: ODST‘s We Are The Desperate Measures etc., then I’m sure I would have felt the same way – absolutely way WAY too much of a good thing!

Having to hear the theme from practically every other Final Fantasy game in existence, and to not get a single rendition of the universally appealing Mario theme (we were instead encouraged to sing it aloud in unison as some sort of audience-led encore instead, which felt a bit cheap to be quite honest), was disappointing to say the least.

However, the second half did pick up towards the end, featuring a fantastic Street Fighter II medley, which featured some strong and inspired interpretations of the classic character themes of Guile, Ken and Ryu. This really helped to give the proceedings a much-needed shot in the arm after the audio avalanche of Final Fantasy arrangements, not to mention the repeated misfires of the guest band Random Encounter.

The young teenage-looking band, brought over from the States as friends of Tommy, were just simply not up to scratch for tonight’s concert, and were ill suited to playing a venue of this size. The accordion-led four-piece rock band were unfortunately brought out far too frequently throughout the evening and proceeded to mangle their way through some fan-favourite Zelda themes; themes which would have certainly been much better suited to the full orchestral treatment. I wouldn’t have minded their amateurish performance had it been just a one off, but unfortunately they were brought out again and again, each uncharismatic and ‘heads down’ reappearance bringing forth a louder and louder collective groan from the audience.

Again, having played in a number of amateur bands myself over the years, I felt particularly sympathetic to their cause at first; it looked as though they had to plug straight into the sound desk, and perhaps might not have had a pre-performance soundcheck or decent onstage monitoring. Technical problems aside however, no matter how much I mentally willed them on, their playing was just too sloppy to forgive, and it just felt that they were generally unprepared and under rehearsed for the gig. They would have been much better suited to a single pre-show support band slot, rather than being repeatedly foisted onto us again and again as part of the main programme. Having paid Metallica prices for the tickets, it was irritating and genuinely quite hilarious the sheer number of times we had to listen to what sounded like a sub-par pub jam night band mangle another beloved game tune.

On top of this, frequent appeals from Tommy to back the ongoing Kickstarter for the next album started to feel really tired by the end of the night as, particularly when there were clearly cost-cutting measures going on in the current show – i.e. NO DRUM KIT! It just leant the show a generally amateurish vibe, which was detrimental to the really good performances of the first half. It’s a shame, as I’m exactly the sort of person who would have otherwise happily contributed a few quid to their cause initially, but by this point I was starting to feel like I’d paid a bit too much for the night’s entertainment already. I’d still be up for backing a Kickstarter for them to purchase an actual drum kit, or hire a backing band however, but sadly, no such plans have been announced.

The concert closed with an acoustic sing-a-long performance of the much-loved Still Alive from Valve’s Portal. Which whilst I would have liked to have gone out with something more epic, it was a nice touch, and a nice happy note to leave things on.

Overall, I really enjoyed the evening’s entertainment an awful lot. Really, I did. Reading this piece back to myself though, it sounds like I didn’t, but I can assure you that’s not true – it’s just that I was expecting an awful lot more than what we got.

I know I’ve been beating the same old (ironically in this case, non-existent) drum about the lack of live percussion and bass etc. throughout this piece, but it was such a fundamental misstep/omission in my opinion that it’s actually quite difficult to over-emphasise. It was like (clumsy metaphor incoming) looking at a fantastic sculpture or prized piece of art balanced on a flimsy base entirely of wet, soggy cardboard. No matter how nice the art/sculpture/valuable McGuffin is, you can’t help but be incredibly aware of the inadequate support holding it up, cringing at the thought of it all coming crashing down at any second. Or something…hey, look, I did warn you it was a clumsy metaphor.

It seems exceptionally surprising and disappointing that the neglect of the drums, beats and bass has happened under Tommy’s watch too – this is a talented and creative dude who’s been a massive personal inspiration to me as both a gamer and a guitar player.

Earthworm Jim is one of my absolute favourite games, due largely in part to the fantastic soundtrack; a soundtrack which features exceptionally funky drum and bass work. Songs like Down the Tubes, Anything But Tangerines, Falling/Buttville have such a focus on rhythm, power and a really strong emphasis on the low end, all wrapped up with fantastically humorous phrasing and melody that I still listen to these songs nearly twenty years after the game’s release. In my eyes, the soundtrack to Earthworm Jim is an absolute masterpiece, and a fundamental part of the game’s success and popularity.

So yes, I did enjoy Video Games Live. I thought it was great. But I also think the concert could have been so much more. If only Tommy had looked to the pink slimy protagonist of his favourite game as inspiration, and got some of his signature “GROOVY!” rhythm back, then I think this holy trifecta of rock, classical music and video games could have been something truly special.

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