Glenn Murawski – VGM Vault Extended Version – Album Review
This latest installment of the Murawski music catalog is built on a set-list filled with covers of videogame tunes. Depending on the era you were playing in & what your interests were in that regard, you may or may not recognize’em, but you’ll find songs from well-known titles like Chrono Cross & Chrono Trigger, Sim City, both the Legend & Secret of Mana, stuff from the Final Fantasy cannon…and a little closer to my speed later on down the lineup with a Donkey Kong Country cover too. Which is a good thing…I scanned this list for Super Mario 3 multiple times & never found it, and I thought that’d likely be the only way I’d stand a chance here. I sure used to rent a ton of videogames…but unfortunately from the wrong side of the counter – I was the guy probably putting it into a bag with your popcorn on a Friday night rather than playing them myself. I had an Xbox that became a nifty paperweight…I still have an original Wii that has definitely become one…never owned a PS-anything…I’m what you call a ‘noob’ in any virtual situation & probably haven’t played a single game past the year…like…jeez…probably 2005?
Anyhow…knowing the origins would likely heighten the allure of this experience for a few folks out there I suppose, but I can’t imagine that it would stop any of the rest of us from digging right in here. All-in-all, I’m extremely impressed with this lineup of sixteen from Glenn Murawski…as many of us have learned in the many reviews I’ve written on this guy’s music, and the interview we did recently this year – it can be tough for the dude to get outside of his own head sometimes…switching it up with a new challenge has always seemed to bring out incredible things from his catalog, this record included in that assessment. In fact, I’d bet a musical mind like Glenn has really enjoys an adventure like this…covers are often like a puzzle laid out in front of you that you’ve gotta figure out how to solve…you still get to bring your own skills to it, but the picture itself is clear from moment one in terms of the blueprint to follow to success. Plus it’s just a fun thing to do – anyone & everyone that’s ever covered a song would tell you the same.
Starting the record with a cut that resembles his work in the Existential Chambers series he’s created in the past, the string sounds of “Beyond The Colosseum” open the VGM Vault Extended Version with a blend of classical vibes, ethereal sound, and an impressive digital rhythm & groove that eventually gets revealed around the eighty second mark to bring the sense of adventure & heighten the energy of track one. I’ll say this…while there are songs later on in the lineup that are more towards my own personal style, as an introductory track that gives us all an impression of what this record would be like to listen to, it’s a solid representation of the overall sound, style, and ambition you’ll find in this adventurous set. As with all music, that’s bound to be the case…we all have our favorites of course, but in this situation at least the pressure is off of Murawski’s shoulders somewhat…pass or fail, he didn’t write’em, he’s just playing his interpretations, variations, & faithful covers of a ton of material he loves & respects himself. Chances are once the rhythm really kicks into gear, that’s when the interest of the masses will spark up alongside it…there’s a lot of character in the sound of this song & Glenn’s got it bouncing from every direction at ya through your speakers. With the pressure off the writing, production becomes the focus.
In some ways, I felt like “Shackled By Fate” might have been the opening he was looking for on this album…to me, that’s the kind of fascinating vibe, mysterious & beautiful ethereal sound that’s bound to catch attention and pull people right in to listen, whereas “Beyond The Colosseum” is a bit more of a wait-and-see what happens type tune. Likely the result of being a bit shorter in length and having to get right to the heart of the matter that much more quickly…the expert blend of curious melody and drama at work in this combination is a huge winner right at the forefront of this album’s set-list, despite its size.
The bass-groove & string sounds together on “An Evening In Kazakh” from the game Strider, along with the wildly inventive & innovative beat that comes in later on, all has this cut shining above the rest for at least a solid eighty seconds or so…arguably after that as well if you’re not afraid of neon synth sounds. To me, I was fully diggin’ it beforehand and probably would have rocked with it a bit more favorably had it not had that one extra layer, but again, these are covers & Glenn’s working within the framework of an existing design to include everything he can into it in honoring the originals. All I’m sayin’ is c’mon folks – tell me the first ninety seconds of this track couldn’t fit right onto a Thom Yorke record of some kind, right? Sure I could just say Radiohead…but if you’re listening, this is much more close to his solo material – which is of course, still A-OK with me. Even once the synth sounds came in, it wasn’t so much a case of not enjoying it anymore, so much as it just becomes something entirely different as a result – “An Evening In Kazakh” is built on an incredibly strong foundation that I could never get enough of. I look at it this way…the core of this cut is bulletproof, which allows the lead synth to wander around a bit more, likely echoing the sense of adventure from the videogame itself, intended by design. For you gamers out there, you’ll get it…for the rest of us, we might be craving a bit more of its initial tightness.
“King Me” makes stellar use of a mythical sound & crystalline atmosphere that begins to shift the record in a more gentle direction as it hits the middle of its first-half…Glenn’s not only the busiest guy in any corner of the music-scene to start with, but he’s got himself into the full-spread of sixteen here, which always comes along with the expected varied results you’d find in an album of that length every time. Quality-wise is where he stays remarkably consistent…the sound of the production on these tunes really feels like he’s leveled up once again. “King Me” might get a lot…umm…stranger as it plays on through its length and will drift far away from its easy to absorb & delicate style at the beginning, but it still retains its core melody for the most part and gives listeners several different chapters of sound in the process. You’ll find that queue to jump into action or create that first significant transition around the ol’ 70-to-80 second mark again, which seems like it’s a common thread in between the structuring of the songs at the beginning of this lineup, but also continually provides diversity to each tune that takes’em further.
There we go…that major transition from string sounds to piano on “Treasured Memories” at less than twenty seconds in was a brilliant move that stood out strong, and the melody itself was memorable & moving…filled with a subtle-yet-intense drama & tension to it that works well. I probably could have listened to the spot between the twenty-second mark and the end of the 1:10 mark over & over for days & days…again, it’s not a matter of not enjoying the rest so much as identifying what the main strengths are. Murawski is doin’ what Murawski does and he’s doing a solid job…without knowing much about the origins of these videogame covers myself, I can only assume he’s rockin’ them close to their original designs, of course with different instrumentation & sound & all, but likely faithful covers to a point too. So when things get a bit more complex than perhaps they should, or more is added to the mix than what might seem necessary…you kinda gotta take it with a grain of salt this time in knowing these ideas come from another source. Piano was the star of the show on this particular tune; it eventually gets traded in once more for the violin strings that led us in through the door…it bookends the song with a classically inspired sound, but it’s the main meat of what’s in between the bread that really makes this sandwich.
“A World Unknown” incorporates a bit of the same characteristics in sound we discovered in listening to Murawski’s “A Song For Earth” from his original VGM Challenge record that made our top ten list last year. With its airy & atmospheric vibes floating on the wind and twisting in mysterious & beautiful directions as it morphs along the way, “A World Unknown” ends up making a massive impact through the most subtle means, and really exposes the bulk of its melodic allure towards the very end in the final thirty-seconds or so. A short tune at just 2:33 in total length, you’ll find that Glenn’s laid this one out with a perfect structure and more than enough space to absorb every one of this tunes finest details no matter how subtle or bold. Once you tick past the two-minute mark, you’ll hear the melody move just slightly…but it makes all the difference in the world in terms of how truly addictive this track becomes.
Nearing the mid-point of the VGM Vault Extended Version might just reveal the most key moments that will hold up over time. There’s a small…repeat, SMALL chance that maybe somewhere in the back of my mind I remember hearing “Welcome Home” from the Sim City game and the two times I probably ever played it…but chances are, it’s just a fantastically endearing melody with a whole lot of subtle charm that stands out for all the right reasons. The combination of the piano & rain at the beginning of this song is easily one of the most monumental highlights on this whole record in terms of my own favorite moments…the entire first minute of “Welcome Home” is straight-up amazing. Glenn’s leaned pretty hard on the violins, cellos & string sounds throughout this record so far…and don’t get me wrong, they’re beautiful instruments with a ton of emotion that comes along inherently with their textures & tones…but comparatively to the piano & the way Glenn’s playin’ it with such humble passion & sincerity – I mean…it’s a tough trade to keep making here. It’s not quite as extreme as looking at a nugget of gold in your pan and saying, well yeah but how about this grey rock over here…but it does somewhat feel like there are a couple spots where we’re trading in the real gem of the melody for the sake of diversity. Which may or may not be part of the original design, again, I don’t know and there was no way on earth I was gonna go diving through a million videogame soundtracks just to get a comparison…I suppose all I can really say is that a cover can mean so many things, and it doesn’t always have to stick too close to the script. I cite Aphex Twin on these pages of ours all the time & he’s again a prime example…listen to things he did on 26 Mixes For Cash & you’ll realize that there are actually really no rules anywhere at all.
At fifty-four seconds in length, “Death Befalls Us” and provides a serene moment in time that’s got equal parts of beauty & melancholy mixed into its length. Short & sweet, you’ve gotta imagine the impression this tiny piece of music has made on Glenn Murawski for it to have stood out, and the mere inclusion of it suggests that it’s made a genuine impact on him large enough to warrant the effort for its small size.
Hmm. Maybe I’ll have to actually start playing Animal Crossing one day – does it always sound this good? “1AM Musings” is one of my favorite tracks on this record by far…even though this might arguably be one of the cuts Murawski himself might have been able to smooth out a bit more in the way he’s played it. Might be my ears…I’ve been listening to a lot of music, as you know…but it sounded like he might have hit a couple keys in a couple spots of the piano where he might have been looking for just the one. I have no problem trading in a second or two of that kind of momentary tangible imperfection for the heart & humble sincerity you’ll find on “1AM Musings,” nor did it stop me from proclaiming it as one of my favorite cuts on this record, despite how many completely flawless tunes surround it. See how that works folks? Not every moment needs to be perfection to BE perfect, you dig? There’s something about the slow & mesmerizing crawl through “1AM Musings” that feels so brilliantly authentic and isolated…and I truly love it. This is one of those moments in time whereby anymore tinkering with it or even attempting to refine it further, could very well damage the magic you hear just as much as could potentially enhance it…not every song needs to be uber-produced to the nines, it just needs the right vibe to suit it, which this cut still has completely intact. It’s a real gem in my opinion.
“Waves Of Melancholy” comes from…Magician? There’s a game that’s just called Magician? Alrighty then…told ya I’ve been outta that scene for far too long. Let’s see, let’s see…how do I feel about this tune? It’s decent…ultimately, I think it’s more of a tangible idea for the majority of folks out there in comparison to the previous cut, but I’d still be much more partial to “1AM Musings” myself personally. I loved the way the notes & tones ring out through the beginning of this song…finding that push/pull balance between what’s the right length before a transition & when to make one is always a tough thing to master, but it felt like we got enough time with the special sound of this spacious intro before Glenn put in the switch to the violins around the ninety second mark. Again, not sending it in a worse direction, just a noticeably different gear than where you start, the violin comes out with an additional layer of emotion that adds its own thing and shifts the song’s melody into more serious terrain, but it’s still welcome enough. It’s kind of an example of an ‘is what it is’ type tune…you’re promised “Waves Of Melancholy” and that’s exactly what you get…it’s much harder to argue it’s gonna raise your pulse or excite you by the limitations of its intended design, but it’s still got plenty of depth worth digging into.
“Field Of Mana” would probably be up there with the best on this record in my opinion – you can immediately feel the connection to the melody at work here, right from the very first note. At a minute & thirty-five seconds, Glenn hasn’t had the time to reach for the violin this time around…shhhh…don’t tell him…right now, it’s workin’ out just fine without it, letting the keys & piano take the lead here for the duration of this tune. Like I always say – I ain’t ever gonna refuse another violin tune, because I love that instrument – but the diversity that is added in here to this song by subtraction, is equally impressive; not every cut is gonna need it, and this is a highlight example of that. “Field Of Mana” is shorter than most of the lineup overall, but it’s also got one of the most standout sounds you’ll find in the set-list as well. Great space, great pacing, slow & steady evolution to the structure, stellar melody…it’s really got everything it needs.
I was never quite 100% sure about how I felt about “The Queen & The Zealot” – I suppose I felt like once it hit its break just prior to the two-minute mark, Glenn found a way to get the best out of this tune after as it continued on. The main question I had was whether it would have had the same impact without the setup beforehand…and I suppose the answer is truly no…it probably wouldn’t have. So it’s kind of a case where one half needs the other, yet it’s the second half with more space & clarity in the mix that seems to make a more resounding impact overall. I liked the idea of what sounds like a gentle guitar strum to assist the strength of the melody in the first half of the song, but there were times where it didn’t always feel like it complemented the atmosphere of the synth on top, so much as subtly clashed a lil’ bit at times along the way. You hit that moment prior to the second minute and it’s like the lightbulb comes on and the vision for what this track could be becomes crystal clear & snaps itself right into place.
Like all of Murawski’s music, I never find a verifiable reason to turn anything off, ever – but I do recognize that any sixteen track experience could likely have been trimmed a little in favor of its repeat value later on down the road. Mind you, it’s not like we don’t know what we’re getting into with an album carrying a tag of ‘extended version’ – you know it’ll be lengthy…but it’s still a tough style of music to maintain the continual amount of attention the effort truly deserves for most people listening out there. Depending on your goals of course…in my opinion, no musician out there wants their music to become part of the background, instrumental or otherwise…but it can be hard to argue there aren’t moments where that could potentially happen here. “Winter Spirits” was probably the track for me where I felt the wear & tear a little bit…it’s an innovative & imaginative tune on one hand, and on the other, it’s a pretty darn loose construct with a whole lot of shifting variations that tend to complicate things. Murawski really left the main meat outta this sandwich until the very end if you ask me – it’s the final minute of “Winter Spirits” that’ll make the biggest impact on listeners and snap them back to paying attention when that rumble of the bass comes in to rescue this tune towards the end. Even that, when it appears…probably wasn’t my highlight moment for his musicianship, but it does make the kind of difference in raising the stakes of the intensity & energy of the song in a way that’ll be appreciated.
Maybe it’s just in knowing Murawski’s catalog a lot more in-depth than most likely would…maybe that’s what cues me in so instantaneously to what I dig in his music & where he deviates from that. Like, he almost killed me with the switch early on in “7 Mystic Runes” – I wasn’t DONE with the opening yet Glenn! Like I was saying earlier on…we all have our favorite tunes, we all like what we like – I just happen to think he thrives on melody at the core of his music, and the more gentle it tends to appear in whatever form it takes, tends to get the very best out of him. “7 Mystic Runes” is an example of Glenn at what’s arguably his most flexible & malleable on the inside of a song…and back-to-back with “Winter Spirits” beforehand, you can feel that shift into more adventurous designs where hooks are no longer the main feature, but a random complement you might hear along the way instead. That being said, there ARE hooks…major ones in the most subtle forms…and they all occur right at the beginning in the song’s first firty-seconds or so…tossing those aside for the rest was a tall order for me, I ain’t gonna lie. Most artists & bands would have written an entire tune around that first fifty seconds somehow…and it’s not that Glenn doesn’t, of course he does…but he doesn’t end up revisiting the past along the way, he keeps the song moving forward into new directions. Spots like around the two-minute mark to stood out in the right way…a different way than the beginning of the tune, but still satisfying. “7 Mystic Runes” has a harder time sitting still in any one gear…it kinda feels like it flew by a few points that could have been mined & explored a little bit longer for the value of the melody & sound they were supplying.
“The Simian Knight” is the tune that came from Donkey Kong Country…and no, for the record, I don’t remember at all what that would have sounded like way-back-whenever it was I might have played that either…though I do dig the vibe overall. I really liked the switch around the two-ten mark that leads into the bass-lines kickin’ in…I think the reality of what follows suggests this cut gets a bit too complex and a bit confused with the drum beats that eventually come in…but it’s pretty clear that Glenn had no worries about heading into a more adventurous direction with the final cuts on this record as well. So while I can’t argue that “The Simian Knight” is anything close to what the average everyday listener out there can hang with…or even really argue that everything is in the right spots where it should be this time around…I can certainly promise ya moments of pure brilliance along the way & a sound that stands out. I liked the additional trumpets around the 4:30 mark…but just as they kinda got going, they seemed to disappear just as fast…and the rest of this tune is…almost kind of remarkably disjointed for what you tend to expect coming from Murawski’s music if I’m being entirely honest with ya. I think ambition gets a bit of the best of him here in both senses of the meaning…there are spots on “The Simian Knight” that connect and land with energy & real entertainment value…and at other times, this particular cut seems to get itself scattered & confused beyond repair. It’s a tough cut to keep up with, to say the very least. He’s really got some amazing openings in this lineup of tunes though, and I’d definitely go to bat for “The Simian Knight” having one of’em for sure…I’m onboard til about 1:25 and then it gets a bit dicier.
If you wanna understand the versatility of Murawski’s music at its most extreme though, I can give ya an excellent example as a fun experiment you can even try at home! Check this out…push play on the final track “Call Of The Brave” and advance the song along the timeline by about thirty-second intervals – you can go back & play it like normal afterwards, but just check it out…and notice how you won’t hear the same thing twice. Recognize that in a world filled with verse/chorus/verse tunes, a song that doesn’t reach for that design is pretty much always in a league of its own…and what’s immediately traded in universal accessibility often favors artistic design and adventurous ideas, which you’ll get plenty of here throughout the length of its 13:35. Let’s be real here…Glenn’s actually stashed another entire EP at the end of this record…that’s the reality…he’s practically re-scored the maximum length I could probably play Final Fantasy Tactics before I got shot with an arrow or fell down a hole or something like that. I have absolutely no idea if either of those things exist in the Final Fantasy realm…can you believe I’ve probably been around way longer than the franchise has been around for, aware of pretty much every version that’s ever hit the shelves including the full length movie…and I’ve never even dipped a toe into that realm. This is as close as it gets for me, hearing the Murawski version of what all is happening there in game-land, like it has been with basically every cut on this record…it might not be totally new to some of you, but it sure was to me. I feel much the same about “Call Of The Brave” as I did with “The Simian Knight” beforehand…I think you’ll find you’ve got some really epic moments to experience that’ll feel like you’re suiting up for battle, I think you’ll discover some stellar spots that mix intensity & melody together in clever ways…and I think ultimately, you’ll probably feel like this track wanders a bit too far around the map for you to return back to wherever ya came from. Tracks like “Call Of The Brave” feel like you’re locked into that level you can’t quite find the answer to solving…puzzling to the senses, and leaving you running & searching in different directions in a sincere effort to figure it all out. When the piano shows up around the 9:45-ish mark to start taking control, for example…it’s entirely welcome – at that point, it gives you a moment of reprieve and something tangible to grab onto…and for about a minute or so, things stabilize in a way that people will be able to stick with. All-in-all, I mean, if you’re gonna included the thirteen-plus minute behemoth on a lengthy record, it’s a good place to stick it, right at the end…but this might even serve fans of his music better as the hidden track to be discovered, thereby taking off the pressure of it having to be anything other than the creative & ambitious tune it is. In the official lineup, it’s hard to not want some sort of solid-ground to be found in the structure without some sort of visuals to guide us along…it doesn’t have to be verse/chorus/verse of course, but Glenn can at least give some of us a chance, can’t he? “Call Of The Brave” ends the album with a call for the brakes – the captain has officially let go of the wheel here in search of adventure, and land-ho, we’re found that – as to whether or not it serves the record, I don’t know – but it does expand the potential of his future.
Find out more about Glenn Murawski at the official homepage at: https://gmmtunes.com
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