Hideo Kojima is among the most important video game personalities in the world, mostly due to his revolutionary “Metal Gear” series which features a near-indecipherable plot centered around beefy soldiers, giant robots and existential and political conspiracies.
Imagine my surprise when I opened the soundtrack to his new game, “Death Stranding,” and saw that the first two featured artists were Major Lazer and Khalid.
Other names that round out the list are synthpop sweethearts CHVRCHES, “Sweater Weather” songwriters The Neighbourhood and, perhaps most surprising of all, metalcore-turned electropop-underdogs Bring Me The Horizon. There’s only eight tracks here, but there’s no denying they cover quite a bit of ground.
Like the environments in the game it’s based on, though, much of that ground is empty and lifeless.
“Trigger,” the first track, is the Major Lazer/Khalid cut mentioned above. The instrumental is above average by the producers’ standards, but that’s really not saying much. It’s generic, overproduced and it could be switched out for a dozen different pop songs and no one would notice. And Khalid, who I have a soft spot for, gives an almost commendably uninteresting vocal performance.
The next track, “Ghost,” features Au/Ra, a 17-year-old Spanish vocalist I had heard nothing about until this project. She’s got a good voice. I like the references to phantoms and “Stranger Things” in the second verse, though I wish the rest of the track would have stayed similarly on-theme. She’s young and I’m willing to cut her some slack for not coming into her own yet as a vocalist. This instrumental is just not good though. The anti-climactic EDM “drops” and the blown out bass do absolutely nothing for me. I hope Au/Ra finds a producer in the future who can give her something unique, or at least remotely interesting, to work with.
After these two tracks, I was looking for any reason to call it quits and start listening to anything else. Thankfully, the quality picks up significantly starting with the third song.
“Death Stranding” is the CHVRCHES contribution, and it’s the best thing they’ve put out since 2015. Lauren Mayberry delivers a phenomenal, emotionally-moving performance, though I’m not in love with the delayed vocal effects the track employs. The driving, electronic cymbal crashes that carry us through the track evoke their second record, while the vocal performance and the synths remind me of their first. The combination works wonders and I hope they continue to experiment with it on their next project.
I’m not the biggest fan of The Neighbourhood, but they did surprise me with their contribution on this soundtrack. “Yellow Box” has the most inventive instrumental I’ve heard from the band, and it bypasses my biggest gripe with the rest of the band’s material; Jesse Rutherford’s not trying to ham-fist any hip-hop into his vocal performance this time around.
“Meanwhile… In Genova” is the closest the soundtrack gets to traditional video game music. It’s a dancey, lightly psychedelic instrumental cut with a clear reverence for Koji Kondo’s work on the Legend of Zelda soundtracks. This is the sound I expected this soundtrack to have, and this song does a great job of delivering it.
The next song had no right to be as good as it is. “Ludens” is hands down the best song Bring Me The Horizon has ever made. BMTH is a band I never expected to appreciate. Even in my edgiest musical phase they were a hard pass from me. But the more they’ve moved away from their overproduced, watered down metalcore sound and into this electropop/alternative metal hybrid, the more I enjoy what they put out. This track is an absolute delight, and its existence more than makes up for the first couple songs.
There’s not much to say about the last two tracks here. Neither is particularly interesting, especially when compared to “Ludens.” It’s unfortunate that the album goes out with a whimper, when the middle stretch is so consistent.
If the middle four songs of this record were an EP by themselves, it would be one of my favorite EPs of the decade. Instead, they’re bookended by four songs that are forgettable at best and frustrating at worst. Despite the negative score I’m about to give the project as a whole, I can’t recommend the good songs highly enough—make sure you check them out.