Silent Hill 2 – “Theme of Laura” (Akira Yamaoka)

October 29, 2010

Akira Yamaoka is a pretty cool guy. I got to see his presentation at GDC this year, and he couples his music with a great sense of humor, as well as some nice reflections on the world. Sort of a philosopher-composer, perhaps? Anyway, I love his work with Contra: Shattered Soldiers/Shin Contra and am interested in his new work with Grasshopper Manufacture, but I was also a little surprised to see his Silent Hill 2 (2001) soundtrack was picked as one of the top game albums (it’s also available on iTunes). “Survival horror” and “enjoyable game music” aren’t exactly two things you’d think would combine. Of course, we have Eternal Darkness, so it’s not like there is no precedent. So I figured, hey, let’s give it a listen! I was quite surprised – I’ve never played Silent Hill before, and so wasn’t sure quite what to expect. This album has a lot of great guitar pieces like “Promise” and “Overdose Delusion”, one of the best being “Theme of Laura”, but it also has a nice mix of atmospheric tracks such as “Null Moon” and “Ashes and Ghost” punctuated by brilliant and reflective piano pieces such as “Forest”. The ‘horror’ tracks are interesting pieces that aren’t atmospheric as in “OMG MONSTER IS COMING!” but more that there is something going on here psychologically. It gets me to questioning (again!) what exactly makes a ‘good soundtrack’. It probably isn’t listenability – I can think of better things to do than listen to the crazed scraping of “Betrayal”. Is it a good song though? If so, would it be good because it is well-composed technically? Or because it fits with the scene? (and again, context is lost to me). I have to wonder instead if the album is so highly rated simply because it has these great guitar pieces!

If we’re looking for one reason to listen to Silent Hill 2‘s soundtrack, it’s the guitar pieces, especially “Theme of Laura”.  Laura is a mysterious little girl who wanders Silent Hill, but is unable to see any monsters. “Theme of Laura” has the wistful curiosity and wandering steps of a child but also packs a strong sense of melancholy to go with its driving beat. It turns out that Akira Yamaoka spent three days composing this piece.

The track opens with an acoustic guitar playing a ballad; the piece is driving, mysterious, and ultimately endearing with a call and response between the two halves of the core melody. The echoing guitar notes present the track’s sadness, strings the mid-range, and the clapping of drums and metallic scraping of cymbals firmly establishes the piece’s driving beat. The haunting melody has a driving twang to it that seems lifted straight out of James Bond, rolling steps on a descent into madness and mystery (I have to wonder if Mr. Yamaoka is a Peter Gunn fan – but then again, who isn’t!). Yet the track in its entirety also has a distinct feel similar to “Hotel California,” a sad guitar, driving melody, and sense of impending, unavoidable disaster. The track is fairly long but never feels like it has gone too long; each new variation of the theme adds new perspective. I would go so far as to call this a perfect piece.

There is another piece on the album, “Theme of Laura (Reprise)” done in piano and violin. In lieu of the guitar, Yamaoka takes the violin and piano and gives them heartfelt echoing (especially the violin! which takes a liquid feel, light reflecting off water, and the trembling of the heart.

It’s also cool to listen to the song in conjunction with the opening cutscene. The structure – home video, grainy film, scenes from the game – is similar to the montage of the original Silent Hill. The other thing that’s very striking about this is the voice acting! Well, not all of it – but Monica Taylor Horgan (Maria/Mary) is absolutely phenomenal. You just don’t see people putting this much character into game voice acting. It makes her the most real out of all the characters. THAT’S what good audio can do for a game.

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