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Today we have a delightful guest post by Tim Jones that embodies all that it means to be a music enjoyer. It's about music in horror video games, and it's also about the band The Cardigans. I don't know much about either of these topics (other than, like every other reasonable person on Earth, loving the song "Lovefool," which my high school friend once put on an epic heartbreak mix CD for me that had a gorgeous handwritten track list + customized collaged envelope.....) but this blog taught me about the Cardigans AND horror video game music, in a fascinating True Detective pinning-photos-on-corkboard kind of way.
Anyway let's get
The Cardigans are the single biggest influence on the music of horror video games
by Tim Jones
On the face of it, this article has a ridiculous premise. I can’t imagine there are too many people with a deep familiarity with both all-time-classic psychological horror video game franchise Silent Hill and criminally underappreciated one-hit-wonder (actually they had more!) Swedish alt-pop band The Cardigans. But I am, and tracing the bizarre lineage between a band remembered for their (not, actually!) ebullient chart-topper and the most hallowed name in spooky gaming was something I felt I needed to do. If I can pull one person with alt-curious pop tendencies into the world of dark ambient music or (more likely) a single video-game-music-only listener out of their hermetic aural aerie, I will feel I have done a service to humanity.
Video games are the very reason I ever came to love the scientifically perfect edgy pop tunes by “the Lovefool band.” I first heard “My Favourite Game," the lead single from The Cardigans' 1998 album Gran Turismo, in the opening cutscene of (surprise) Gran Turismo 2. Even as an 11-year-old who at the time pretty much only listened to Weird Al and '90s Aerosmith, I was taken with the remarkably aggressively mixed drums and lead guitar hook, which sounded to me like an alien instrument I didn’t recognize (because I mostly listened to blues rock played by 50-year-olds).
I didn’t get really seriously into the band until I heard "My Favourite Game" again as the only needle drop in 2021’s extremely mediocre Resident Evil film franchise reboot Welcome to Raccoon City, which made me chuckle to hear it inserted into a different Playstation game’s milieu.
With a renewed interest in the band, I put Gran Turismo into pretty consistent rotation and started getting really annoying about how underrated it was. I was telling anyone who’d listen about how the whole record was like bubblegum Massive Attack, with heavy drum sounds and melancholy lyrics married to the kind of hooks that seem to just grow on trees in Sweden.
I became more and more insane about trying to convince people to take a band that seemed fundamentally silly as seriously as I felt they should. In hindsight, mentioning their fantastic cover of The Talking Heads’ "Burning Down the House" with Tom Jones on vocals was probably not a good angle. Mentioning that they had a total of four Black Sabbath covers between their first three records also didn’t work.
They were just really ahead of their time, I argued. They were too cool to be pop stars and too upbeat for the post-grunge era, but if these songs were coming out in the fully poptimist 2020s, they’d be Mitski! The Cardigans put out a song called "Step On Me" in 1996, an unfortunate case of being 20 or so years ahead of the popularity of extreme displays of public horniness that would have made it a surefire hit on TikTok! I also had a practiced apologia for "Lovefool": the unforgettable fuzzed-out Talk Talk-esque bassline! It’s actually really sad and desperate lyrically despite sounding like that! There are more chord changes in the “So I cry and I pray” section than there are in most entire songs! How was I to ever find something that would give my pet Swedes who are 20 years older than me the credibility they deserve?
I found my answer in what is now the most financially lucrative entertainment form: video games. Silent Hill has a reputation as a kind of 'thinking person’s video game,' where the actual playing of the game is simplistic and even clunky at times, but the gestalt of the games’ unsettling atmosphere generated by the writing, music, and visuals more than compensates for what would otherwise be a fantasy about a normal weakling who tries to beat psychosexual nightmare creatures to death with a wooden plank.
The second entry in the series in particular is held up as the benchmark for what horror games should be, with a genuinely affecting story about guilt and mortality where the designs of the aforementioned nightmare creatures all reflect some aspect of the main character’s psyche. Composer Akira Yamaoka’s sound design and soundtracking work in the first four entries in the series is a huge part of this, marrying Coil-like industrial horror soundscapes and Badalamenti-esque ethereal synth sounds to, you guessed it, the trip-hop influenced pop-rock of The Cardigans.
It wasn’t until I played Signalis last year that I put the grand theory of Cardigans Horror Gaming together. I should say here that Signalis is an absolutely incredible game that I can only describe as “Ghost in the Shell if it was also Mulholland Drive,” and it’s unbelievable that something so good was developed entirely by two people. Cicada Sirens and 1000 Eyes’ soundtrack for what’s easily the best horror game since Silent Hill 3 is, unsurprisingly for a game that is about how things are changed by being replicated, clearly heavily influenced by Yamaoka’s Silent Hill work. Tape-warped pianos and cellos, samples of warbling radio static, heavy industrial percussion, and warm-yet-melancholy ethereal synths are all there.
I was so struck by the experience of playing Signalis that I started listening to the music from it while doing other things to try to stay in the mood, and when I’d wrung that dry I went back to the Silent Hill scores in search of another hit of the same feeling. I was remembering in particular the indelible piano and glockenspiel piece “Promise (Reprise)” from Silent Hill 2, which loses none of its power even after you realize it’s a variation on Philip Glass’ “It Was Always You, Helen” from his score for Candyman.
When I got to the first song on the soundtrack for Silent Hill 2, “Theme of Laura,” I had a revelation. The song had the same reverb-vibrato guitar effect and the same mandolin-style tremolo picking as in Gran Turismo’s "Hanging Around."
And the lead guitar line was reminiscent of the main guitar hook from the other single from Gran Turismo, "Erase/Rewind."
Coincidentally, "Erase/Rewind" plays over the credits of the film The 13th Floor, a '90s Hollywood remake of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s World On A Wire about living in a lifelike video game. That tremolo picking is actually the first sound you ever hear in a Silent Hill game, opening the first second of the introduction to the 1999 original. The Cardigans’ guitar tones and high-pass-filtered synth organs are especially all over the Silent Hill 3 soundtrack, which features several songs with vocals from Mary Elizabeth McGlynn like the also quite "Hanging Around"-esque “You’re Not Here” and the very Portishead “Letter from the Lost Days.”
Having caught this, I was incensed. I needed to know if Yamaoka did this on purpose. The first Silent Hill game contains tons of direct references to music (digitized posters for Portishead are on the walls; the names of the teachers at the elementary school are all the members of Sonic Youth) and fiction (all the streets are named after American and English horror and crime writers) so it didn’t seem at all unlikely...
...luckily, Swedish outlet Spelmusik (“game music” in Swedish) interviewed him in 2002 and 2007, and both times he mentions The Cardigans as his favorite Swedish band and Gran Turismo as one of his favorite albums.
And there I had it! I could finally convince someone that The Cardigans were worthy of serious consideration, as long as they’d played some really good video games from 20 years ago. Clearly, just knowing that wasn’t enough as I’ve now written this article. But if I’ve achieved anything here, I hope that tracing this seemingly very unlikely association between disparate musicians will turn Lovefools into Pyramid Heads and vice versa. Your favorite game and My Favourite Game might be the same thing.
Tim Jones is a Mississippi born-and-raised resident of Central New Jersey. He recently released, with two Irish friends, an EP of covers of popular songs reimagined as avant-garde-era Scott Walker compositions entitled Shite Flights. He can be found at @crimenpunishman on Twitter.
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