Video Games Live 2014 - Hammersmith Apollo, LondonPlatforms: All
When it comes to filling your ears with music from the gaming world, London has been a great place to be this November. Hot on the heels of the Final Fantasy concept concert Distant Worlds comes Video Games Live - heralded as a “multimedia concert experience”. The two shows may share DNA through their medium and occasional track cross-over, but otherwise couldn’t be any further apart. If Distant Worlds is Beethoven, VGL is ELO playing Roll Over Beethoven. Both use orchestras, but then so did Tim Minchin - and it’s unlikely he’d be accused of hosting a classical concert. You’re promised an experience by VGL and you’ll certainly receive one, leaving exhausted at the end of the two-and-half-hour journey through musical arrangements of videogame classics, both old and new.
VGL has been hosted since its inception by its creator, the self-proclaimed “game industry veteran and video game music superstar” Tommy Tallarico. This isn’t an idle boast either. Tallarico has headlined almost three hundred of these events since it launched in 2005, and has also worked on the music for over two hundred and fifty games. He is also an excellent guitarist, as was showcased from the opening Castlevania medley, wielding his axe with the confidence and showmanship of a rock legend. In fact, at times throughout the show one almost hoped for just a little less electric guitar work - there’s no denying Tallarico’s skill and presence, but the Hungarian Virtuosi Orchestra was often drowned out during some tracks despite the heroics of Emmanuel Frattiani’s direction.
VGL’s set list is ambitious, covering an eclectic range of tracks from a Sonic medley to Monkey Island’s main theme (in its excellent London debut), via Shadow of the Colossus and Tallarico’s own Earthworm Jim. As with Distant Worlds, a huge projection screen plays out scenes from the games as the music is played, but it’s made better use of here. As the violins kicked into the theme from Kingdom Hearts, a montage of cartoons featuring the original Disney characters was splashed overhead, offering younger audience members a glimpse of what passed for entertainment before the advent of YouTube and Minecraft. Similarly, video game mashups and skits were dotted between music instalments, offering gems such as Sonic vs Pacman and Contra vs Duck Hunt, and Worst Video Game Titles (yes, both Touch Dic and Sticky Balls made an appearance). Clever, hilarious and pertinent, they show just how much care has been taken in crafting these concerts, right down to the host’s attire when, in a wonderfully unstaged request for Tron from an audience member, Tallarico screamed “You want Tron? I’ll give you Tron!” before revealing his Tron pants. Sometimes, you can share too much.
The fan service didn’t stop there. There were no fewer than four special musical guests revealed throughout the evening. Richard Jacques (who we interviewed here) lead the orchestra from the piano for his theme from James Bond: 007 Blood Stone, whilst support band Random Encounter - who have an actual accordionist in their number - thrashed out a medley of Zelda tunes and returned later for Final Fantasy VII’s Still More Fighting (which works surprisingly well on an accordion) and Chrono Cross.
London was also the world premiere for The Creed, the soaring signature track from the newly released Assassin’s Creed: Unity. Sung by Riva Taylor (incidentally, the youngest person to ever be signed to music giant EMI), it was a perfect mix of vocals, electronica and bombast. There were also definite echoes of a Bond theme too, perhaps something Taylor has an eye on for future endeavours?
Yet more was to come, in the form of Grammy-nominated artist Austin Wintory, revered for his work on Journey and The Banner Saga amongst other achievements. Amiable and engaging, before he conducted the orchestra whilst wearing a red Journey scarf, Wintory treated the audience to a hilarious minute-long look into his process for writing videogame music for thatgamecompany:
“I always start with the music, and they would normally say something like ‘it needs to be fast but sad but light but heavy’. They would describe [the game] and I'd go write something, and they'd say "OK, we want the game to feel like this!", and then they'd actually design [the game] around the music and then give me it to playtest after they'd designed it.
“And I would play it, and think..."Wow, this is far more interesting than the thing that I wrote - let me go and fix it." So I'd rewrite the music, and they'd say "Oh, we like this!" and redesign the game around the new music. And I'd play the new prototype and say "Well, this is actually substantially better than the music...let me take another crack at it." So we'd be doing this over and over and over, until someone finally says "The game's coming out now, and you've been doing this for two years."
More fan favourites were scattered over the duration including Skyrim, World of Warcraft, Silent Hill 2, Halo, Final Fantasy VIII’s Liberi Fatali, and League of Legends. Throw in a couple of competitions, a couple of Guinness World Records presented to Tallarico for his previously mentioned achievements, and a brilliant audience singalong with Riva Taylor to Portal’s Still Alive, and by the end only the most demanding gamer would deny that VGL lived up to its bold claim.
The Apollo is an interesting venue to host a show like VGL. Unlike the Albert Hall, the acoustics are far from ideal since the stage is aimed more at comedy and theatrical gigs than musical events. The result of having a face-on stage is a wall of noise being blasted directly at the audience as if funnelled through a wind tunnel, and it loses some of its nuance in louder tracks because of it. However, this a minor quibble - the end result is a triumphant celebration of music, and for all of the bombast and spectacle, this is firmly Tallarico’s gig. He is blessed with both an ear for music and an eye for entertainment and manages to deftly tread the line between arrogance and confidence - a natural showman. An all-new set list is promised next year, which would certainly be welcomed by VGL veterans who would have no doubt already heard the majority of the tracks in this gig at some point over the last nine years. For newcomers to the video game music scene though, it’s an event that shouldn’t be missed.