AIKA - A Unique Soundtrack for a Unique Story
Out of the blue comes a soundtrack to neither a game nor a movie, but rather to a short science fiction story held within its booklet. AIKA is an audacious project brought forth by Mikko Tarmia, a young composer from Finland whose résumé already includes a number of film and game scores (Penumbra, Rally Shift, DeepTrouble). Tarmia acts as the main composer of the orchestral soundtrack. He is assisted by three other Finnish composers: Paul Houseman, Michael Law, and Ari Pulkkinen. Penumbra series writer Tom Jubert penned AIKA's story and the illustrations were done by Tuija Fagerlund. Created for fans of film and game music, the album offers a serious tone which alternates between epic, beauty, ambiance, suspense, and terror.
Since the music can't be heard in any other context than a stand-alone listen, reading the story in the booklet is a must to understand what the compositions reflect and to follow the different movements. Starting out in a futuristic space setting, the first tracks present a group of explorers trying to find a new planet to call home after Earth's degradation makes it close to uninhabitable. "Prologue" and "Comrades" introduce the story in an epic way with bombastic moments that enthrall and soft, beautiful melodies that evoke confidence and hope. There is also slight militaristic references, and Law incorporated rhythms reminiscent of Ravel's "Bolero" in the latter track. One thing people accustomed to live orchestra recordings should notice is that the orchestra here is synthetic. I personally think that while sound libraries (including those used on AIKA) are much more realistic than 15-20 years ago, they still can't emulate the unique richness that human players bring to the sound. However, this shouldn't hamper too much the listener from enjoying the music, especially for VGM fans who are probably habituated to synth orchestras.
The story takes its first twist when the crew discovers a spaceship: the AIKA. After deciding to board and explore it, they are thrown in darkness and possible danger. Pulkkinen is behind the theme for this sinister scene, "00:01?. This was an excellent decision, he being no stranger to dark, moody industrial music which he developed extensively for the Shadowgrounds series. This is one of the few tracks that are more electronic-oriented than orchestral, although many pieces feature subtle electronic elements. It is followed by Houseman's "X I" which extends the suspense that later tranforms into dread and panic. Continued in "Branch", the sense of danger then settles down in "Rewind". In reflection of a sad and troubling part of the story, Tarmia wrote an emotional violin melody which occupies most of the piece, supported in turn by strings and brass, a female chorist, and light electronics and drums. The atmosphere stays calm — as calm as the album ever gets — in the appropriately titled "Empty". A very ambient piece, at first featuring nothing but electronic effects, then synth strings and the return of the female chorist, and finally a piano. This creates a sad, yet reflective theme.
Tracks 9 to 13 support a discovery followed by confusion and questions. "Gap" builds a mystery which reaches a grandiose, yet brief climax with a choir. The piece could have worked very well in an impressive scene from a sci-fi film such as The Abyss. "00:59? features a flute ostinato that hits the nail of confusion and hesitation on the head. Tarmia's selection includes an ambient industrial cue, a calm, lyrical string-lead theme, and the more vigorous "01:01" that indicates a resolve. This part of the album is not the most exciting, but all themes are very effective. You might have noticed that several track titles refer to time, which is an important element of the story.
To make a parallel with an RPG, "X II" would be the music heard in the last dungeon. Ominous, yet driving with dark and epic brass passages and a strong beat. You can feel the tension rising as the track advances and you are about to turn the page of the booklet to read the rest of the story. At the end of the last dungeon can be found the last boss, and it is in Houseman's "The End" that its theme resides. A few notes from a toy piano underline an awkward situation and the most dramatic and intense orchestral material on the album supported by a Blade Runner-esque synthesizer transport the listener in the heat of the action. After the storm, a serene piano closes the piece. AIKA comes to an end in "Epilogue", which revisits the different moods of the soundtrack (epic, suspense, mystery, resolve) and wraps the story on a positive note. Although short, the section with a dreamy guitar is particularly enjoyable. This last track on the album has everything a good ending or credits theme should feature.
As perfection doesn't exist in this world, AIKA has a number of weaker points. Like I mentioned before, the orchestra is synthetic and this might be a turnoff to purists. But it is easy to appreciate the requirement of a much bigger budget is a major difficulty. This is, after all, the first release on Tarmia's The Sound of Fiction label, so the modesty is understandable. Still, I don't think this is much of a problem; the instrument sounds are quite enjoyable nonetheless. A second lower aspect would be that certain tracks are rather atmospheric and this isn't the most exciting type of music as far as I'm concerned. This is an inherent characteristic of film-like scores in which hooking melodies aren't usually found aplenty. I wish there would have been more upbeat tracks and a tad more use of electronic elements to counterweight the symphonic approach (e.g. one or two space techno-ish tracks), yet this could have compromised the album's cohesion.
All in all, AIKA proves to be a solid musical experience rooted in an interesting sci-fi story. People who enjoy serious, dramatic orchestral music should be satisfied with what Tarmia, Houseman, Law, and Pulkkinen composed. I must admit it took me a few listens before I began to really appreciate this soundtrack, yet the fact I'm not a huge orchestral buff weights a good deal in that. Another reason for this slow warming is that there are no game or movie moments to easily associate the tracks with, but reading the story proved to help greatly. If you can't stand film music, then AIKA will likely not top your list of favorite albums. Otherwise, I think this soundtrack is worth looking into. The CD can be purchased from synSONIQ and MP3s are available on iTunes (USA and Europe).
Michael Law: 2, 11
Ari Pulkkinen: 4, 8
Paul Houseman: 5, 9, 15
AIKA is an atmospheric orchestral soundtrack wrapped around a philosophically inspired science fiction story written by Tom Jubert. Its scenes are described by the moody music composed by Mikko Tarmia, Paul Houseman, Michael Law and Ari Pulkkinen. Lavish illustrations, created by Tuija Fagerlund, will accompany the music and story.