Video game music can be great, but sometimes it’s fun to pair your wine with some different cheese. In Alternate Soundtrack, Derrick Sanskrit matches a video game with an album that enhances the experience.
Double Dragon Neon—WayForward’s self-aware reboot of the ’80s beat-’em-up game—was an extraordinarily pleasant surprise last Autumn. Anthony Agnello already talked about how it married the fun of openly mocking antiquated action movie tropes with the thrill of acting out those same clichés yourself. And I’ve talked about Neon’s vibrant and inspired original soundtrack. There was only one problem: that tongue-in-cheek sense of “this is a very specific time of a specific fictional history” didn’t quite feel 100-percent committed. The interface screamed “Neon!” while the environments felt muddy and banal.
Jake Kaufman’s soundtrack was a careful balancing act, offsetting a faithfulness to the original Double Dragon music with an injection of tongue-in-cheek ’80s megapop, but greatness is not made by being careful. Neon is at its best when it’s cheese-tacular nonsense. Holding your breath to survive in the vacuum of space? Ridiculous! Taking down a nuclear-powered, three-story-tall battle tank with your bare hands? Inconceivable! An effeminate skeleton taking your inner-city girlfriend to a genetics lab? Ludicrous! The appeal of Neon is its embrace of absurdity, so every part of the game that’s grounded in reality feels inherently flawed by comparison.
Enter Graeme Shepherd, the Scottish EDM artist better known as Grum. His 2010 LP Heartbeats is an unbridled celebration of fluorescent ’80s dancehall culture, informed by electronic revivalists like Daft Punk and Mylo. The 12 tracks on Heartbeats are built on a foundation of crystalline mystery with an overbearing sense of action, serious without ever being sincere. It’s the sort of fun that winks and nods without waiting for applause. Perfect for the retro-machismo-explosion festival that is Double Dragon.
From the Hall & Oates-via-Knight Rider disco heartache of “Through The Night” to the atmospheric digital peaks of the title track and back again, Heartbeats rolls up the sleeves of its crisp white blazer to fight for what’s right and look good doing it. The underlying romance and overlying chimes in tracks like “Someday We’ll Be Together” remind us that even tough guys cry, from Dragon’s heroic brothers Lee to the game’s iconic, towering menace, Abobo.
The aggressive drive of “Power” begs for an intense chase sequence or a passionate fist fight. The song’s low vocals attempt to mock and goad the audience with a heightened sense of masculinity, and the lyric “music is the power, music is release” dovetails nicely with the game’s use of cassette tapes for special powers and stat-building.
The laser-licked disco pop of “Fashion” and “Turn It Up” are so bubblegum bright as to erradicate any preconceived notions of grim-and-gritty. On the other side of the fence are “Want U” and “LA Lights,” with their slow lazy leads and assertive beats. These tracks are braggadocio cake walks—ballads of broad shoulders and fingerless gloves—the kind of music Batman might cruise to while pounding punks’ skulls into the pavement.
Double Dragon Neon worked because it’s unashamed of its shallow roots and revels in their cliché trappings, just as Heartbeats doesn’t attempt to reinvent electronic dance music or make grand statements. Grum knew where he was coming from and what his audience would react to, and he delivered a shimmering document of his environment without any sort of pretense. We can have a good time when a very simple idea is cranked up to 11, especially when the good idea involves DayGlo paint and blacklights.