When the stars align.
[Endless Playlist is a series of monthly articles where we pick a video game soundtrack for discussion, and try to provide a critical analysis of how it performs within the game it’s from, and how it holds up on its own. This month, we’re breaking down Pyre’s soundtrack.]
All three of Supergiant’s games so far have been extremely different from one another. They’re set in separate worlds, they go for different narrative tones, and even experiment with various genres. The same could be said for the music as well, and Pyre’s soundtrack is a sure departure from Supergiant’s last outing with the futuristic cyberpunk RPG Transistor.
Composer Darren Korb is still taking the reigns on the soundtrack front, though, and the musical work here is certainly something to pay attention to. Unlike the western vibes of Bastion and the sinister electronic tones of Transistor, Korb opts for a more fantasy and bardic form of music in Pyre. If there’s one thing to be said about Pyre’s soundtrack, it’s that the whole collection of music feels extremely connected, and hardly anything feels out of place or at odds with the tone the game is going for.
Let’s talk about the opening track, In the Flame.
Right from the start, the song sounds like a ballad you’d hear a fantasy game bard playing with his lute. Then the drums kick in, along with Ashley Barrett’s backup vocals, and the game’s tone becomes immediately clear. On last month’s Achievement Oriented podcast, Korb talked about the musical direction of the soundtrack and the kind of vibes he was specifically aiming for. The phrase “70s fantasy rock stuff” gets thrown around a lot, and it wasn’t until I listened to the soundtrack again that I started to properly understand what he meant.
In the Flame has a very distinct bardic quality in the first ten seconds of the song, and Korb’s gentle vocals definitely help with that. But the “70s fantasy rock stuff” really starts to shine through after that, as the song becomes an exciting fusion of strings, drums, and powerful vocals that wouldn’t be entirely out of place at an emo rock concert. The harmonization between Korb and Barrett is spot on, and it’s a powerful synergy that continues on for the duration of the track. The song really does well by setting the tone for the rest of the soundtrack, and the game too, for that matter. From the opening seconds alone, I wasn’t sure if it would be a song I could listen to on its own and outside of the game, but the rest of it swiftly changed my mind.
The fantasy rock stuff continues in Path to Glory, which serves as the musical theme for one of the competing teams in the game. As the first real rival team you encounter in Pyre, the Accusers have a really strong theme that serves as a proper introduction to the Rites that you’ll be competing in all throughout the game. The track opens with what I believe is a mandolin before it gradually evolves into an epic showdown between strings and drums, with a little bit of electronic music thrown in there as well. It’s a hectic clash of instruments – a fitting tune for a competitive match.
While all of the rival teams in Pyre do have their own unique musical themes, unfortunately, the rest of them don’t quite match up to Path to Glory. The various themes are composed in a way that fits the traits and characteristics of the teams they’re associated with. Dread Design, for instance, suits the Withdrawn well. As a team made up of weird bog demon cultists trying to bring back their evil god, the track is appropriately ominous, but never quite reaches the exciting heights of Path to Glory. This isn’t to say that it’s a bad track; it certainly fits in well with the soundtrack’s general direction, but it feels weak on its own and is very easily forgettable.
What isn’t easily forgettable, though, is Thrash Pack. This is the theme of the rival group Dissidents, which is led by a punk dog who wears a spiked metal choker around his neck. The Dissidents are rebels, they’re hardcore, and so Thrash Pack is supposed to be a thrash metal piece that suits the team. The electric guitar is loud and overbearing, just as the Dissidents are supposed to be. It’s by far the most tonally jarring track in the entire collection, and it’s the only piece that feels even remotely out of place. You’d be forgiven for skipping over this track as well, considering that it isn’t till near the two-minute mark where the melody starts to fade in proper, and you’re reminded of the fantasy rock tone this soundtrack is supposed to have.
Some will love Thrash Pack for its nerve to be so radically different from the rest of the tracks, while others, like me, will always skip over it because of how displaced it sounds.
Pyre’s soundtrack truly shines when it isn’t trying to be too loud, nor is it so soft that it recedes into the background. “70s fantasy rock” is an awesome vibe to strive for, and in the tracks where it does come through, it’s easy to get sucked back into Supergiant’s world all over again.
For the most part, the individual character themes are well-done. Moon Touched and Flutter Fly immediately come to mind. Both tracks are rather mellow, but still in keeping with the fantasy vibes. Moon Touched is a clear throwback to Pale Watchers from Bastion, which was one of the creepier and more sinister tracks from that game. However, while the tunes sound similar, Moon Touched manages to be calm and soothing. It’s a suitable track for Rhae (‘Rhae’ just sounded better than all the other name options in the game), and it exudes a feeling of innocence. Rhae is a character who was shunned from the Commonwealth because she was regarded as strange and odd, but her blind belief in the Scribes keeps her going even in Downwell. It’s a bit of a melancholic theme, but it ultimately manages to stay hopeful and optimistic overall.
Flutter Fly serves as Ti’zo’s character theme, and it’s way different from Moon Touched. This is one of the few tracks in the game that conveys a sense of journey and the idea of a ragtag band of misfits traveling across foreign lands to reach their ultimate goal. Flutter Fly, along with tracks like Surviving Exile, Shattered Lands, and Strange Voyage, give off a bit of a western vibe. There are shades of Bastion here, and while the tracks are all musically different from each other, they’re also very connected. The way Korb has managed to make these pieces sound unique and distinct, yet still be able to tie them back together and allow the listener to recognize that they’re part of the same collection is commendable.
Other soft standout tracks include A Step Closer and Downside Ballad, two of my personal favorite pieces in Pyre.
A Step Closer serves as the victory theme that plays whenever you win a Rite. I’m not quite sure what the main instruments here are, but this easily stands out as one of the most distinct pieces of music in the entire soundtrack. It’s never too overwhelming, and the tune is simple, but the notes love to echo and drift, lending the track a rather electronically distorted quality. Yet, as ominous as that might sound, A Step Closer remains a satisfying track to listen to throughout. It’s a tune of victory, and its interesting blend of instruments makes this one of the truly unique pieces of the bunch.