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Soundtrack Review: John Robert Matz – Fossil Echo (2016)

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If you want to get good music for films and video games, you’ll often need to think outside the box and give some things a try, that might not bear some big, recognizable name. Independent games in particular often inspire composers to write some truly outstanding music, since there is no big executive sitting there, telling them what to sound like and whom to imitate.

Such is the case with Fossil Echo, a “short and challenging, story driven platformer with hand drawn 2D graphics. Set in a fantastical world, it tells a wordless tale of adventure and mystery.” The game is designed by awaceb, a team of two game designers, Phil Crifo and Thierry Boura, and is about a young boy who climbs a tower. A very high tower, that is. What he aims to find on the top of that tower, is not clear for the player until later in the game, where he discovers the backstory of the boy and lore of the world bit by bit.

About a small gem called ‘Fossil Echo’

‘Fossil Echo’ itself is a small gem. The animation is gorgeous in its simplicity and evokes so much more than what is seen on the surface. This is mostly through the passionate level-design. There are so many details hidden in the background of the various stages that keep you guessing about their meaning and relevance to the story while not hitting you over the head with exposition. Aside from the obligatory credits in the opening and ending of the game, there are also no written words to distract you from just getting to know the world naturally.

Controls, for example, will be told through chalk markings on a broken pillar instead of having a screen pop up, telling you what to do. The immersion is just wonderful.

There is also absolutely no dialogue, which is crucial for the point of this review.

That being, of course, the score of the game. The music was composed by John Robert Matz whose best-known title to date would be ‘Gunpoint’ and Matz’s music is an essential part of the experience of ‘Fossil Echo’. Both of the trailers for the game already featured and emphasized his music. Even a few of the themes premiered in those trailers.

You can watch the Release Date Trailer for ‘Fossil Echo’ below:

Due to the lack of dialogue and a restrained soundscape, the music is in the centre of the game from the first frame to the last. This is both, an opportunity and a possible trap for the composer. He has the whole stage for himself and can show what he’s got – but he now really has to show what he’s capable of because any missteps will be instantly noticed and can’t be buried under sound effects.

Fortunately, Matz proved himself worthy of the task. The BAFTA-nominee and occasional voice actor notes on his website that ‘Fossil Echo’ is the “culmination of more than two years of work“ and it clearly shows.

Relaxing music through and through

The biggest impression will probably make by the general soundscape of the music: An emphasise on flutes accompanied by a solo violin, metallic and ethnic percussion immediately transports the listener and player into the GHIBLI-inspired Eastern world of the minds of Phil Crifo and Thierry Boura. It’s a relaxing listen through and through.

Depending on the level and progression of the story, Matz adds strings, brass and here and there influences of yet another culture to keep the music fresh. After all, it is a journey and thus, the music should travel alongside the young, brave protagonist and not stagnate.

Guided by themes

Instrumentation is also not the only elements preventing the score from said stagnation. Matz provides his audience with a good number of themes to tell the story, which is not only welcome but very much so needed, due to the subtlety of the game itself.

The player has to follow the story through the facial expressions and gestures of the characters and while the animation does a superb job at that, the music adds a whole new layer to the narrative, subconsciously suggesting things to the player, that he won’t instantly see while facing the challenges of the game. It is, after all, not a silent film you can just watch, you are still actively involved in unravelling the mysteries of the tower and thus need the thematic guidance of Matz.

The opening track The Island, The Tower introduces the first theme right away: An innocent little flute-figure, representing the boy himself. It’s omnipresent throughout the whole album and grows with the small hero, undergoing subtle changes here and there, culminating in an heroic fanfare during The Door, A Friend, The End and Epilogue.

A secondary theme first appears during the last couple of seconds of Warmth In The Cold, which seems to be connected to the boys destiny. The late introduction of this theme might look a bit odd at first, but is actually a quite brilliant move by the composer: The game itself might right of the bat start with the boy having his goal and trying to achieve it but his motivation doesn’t start to reveal itself to the player until the third dream sequence. While the first two already featured hints, those are mere foreshadowing, seeming meaningless until further in the game. The third is where the player gets the first clear grasp at what’s going on and the whole venture gets a new sense of determination after it, so it is a great notion, to keep the Destiny Theme locked until that pivotal moment.

Its first appeareances during the dream are slow and eerie, but it reappears pretty often in the following stages, featuring a motivating, adventurous variation during Sunset On The Savannah and holding an important notion of progress and determination in the moving, beautiful, fast paced rendering of it in From The Roots To The Boughs.

Fossil Echo’s pacifism is reflected in its music

To fully understand the music, it probably should also be mentioned, that the game does not rely on violence at all. Although the stages are filled with sinister, ninja-like warriors who will kill the poor boy at sight, the boy himself does not engage in combat whatsoever. That choice is not even offered to the player. You may jump on an opponent from above, but this will only knock him out and while from time to time a bullet that misses you, might kill a ninja standing behind you, it’s not really an option to use this, due to the incredible fast reflexes of the warriors. If they see you, they will shoot you. It’s really hard, to time your movements so that all the bullets will miss you but hit other enemies. It is also not necessary at all and when it happens it will probably be simple luck.

The point is simple: The hero is not violent. He wants to climb a tower, not defeat an army and thus, the stages filled with enemies rely on the player moving fast and swift enough to move through the ninjas unnoticed, which is a very nice change of pace from most games and also stays true to the whole character of the game. Many developers may have been tempted to hand the player some kind of slingshot in the later levels to knock out the enemies – but no, you will only go for the physical approach, if nothing else is possible and the quick reactions will make you think thrice each time before doing so.

This whole theme of pacifism is mirrored in the score, because you will notice a total lack of action tracks. Even the most ninja-filled stages won’t have music telling you to just go full-on Leonidas on them. The journey of the boy is a spiritual and emotional one and Matz never forgets that.

Cut-scenes are well spotted

There are a few parts briefly going into thriller/action-scoring, but those are during cut-scenes and only appear a handful of times.

Those cut-scenes in general, told in reverse chronological order during the dream-flashbacks, are spotted skillfully by Matz. The Forest And The Fire, A Struggle And A Stone, Home and many more really work more in the way of a filmscore rather than a game score, interweaving the themes into a cohesive narrative, supporting the visuals in telling the player what is going on. The Boatman in particular has a neat bit of comedic writing in it, fitting for its equally funny scene.

During the flashbacks, the player is also allowed to visit other parts of the world apart from the never-ending tower, giving Matz the opportunity, to explore other musical soundscapes, while never deviating too far from the bulk of the score. The Desert Bazar for example focuses more on Middle-Eastern and Egyptian influences in its orchestration and melodies, though still having a distant hint of the original: A more Japanese soundscape making it clear that the player is not actually in the desert right now but only in his mind.

I died 327 times and still love the music

A special kind of challenge in the game consist of the boy having to quickly ascend specific sections of the tower in order to regain the two feathers he has tucked in his hair and which are getting carried away by the wind. While those passages can, frankly, get a bit tedious after a while due to the stage constantly moving up and the number of times they appear in the game, they are provided with their own sound: In those stages, the wooden percussion, especially the marimbas, can shine the most and sometimes a little motif, sounding similar to the Destiny Theme will appear.

The tendency of those levels to frustrate the player reveals another talent of ‘Fossil Echo’s composer.

No matter how many times you die (which, thankfully is not a big deal because you have infinite lives and will only have you to re-try the current stage, not a whole segment), you just won’t get tired of the music. This is actually a tremendous achievement considering how the whole album is moving mostly in the same kind of style and sound. Because when listening to the same few bars over and over again when you are too slow and stupid to get some precisely timed jump right (like the n00b writing this), even the best piece of music will get repetitive.

But in ‘Fossil Echo’ it doesn’t bother you. You might not have the same love for some track you had when entering a particularly challenging stage for the first time, but you won’t see yourself turning the volume down after the 327th try either.

The hidden highlights inside a wonderful score

A hidden highlight in this score is the violin. It is present almost in every track, and it is beautiful, but the woodwinds take up the spotlight so many times that you will probably not really notice it consciously until The Ladder.

A three-and-a-half-minute piece, that gets played in its entirety while the player climbs a *gasp* ladder (which, thanks to the varied art- and level-design, does not get boring at all) gives soloist Michaela Nachtigall enough time to really showcase her abilities. It is one of the best tracks on the album and gets even better when the brass kicks and and then yet even more betterer (don’t you dare correcting me!) when the vocals kick in!

Granted, the brass in this score does sound a bit fake, but come on, it’s not like they had the budget to book the LSO for this, so cut ’em some slack! You can tell it’s only samples, but it never sounds cheap. I have heard cheaper fake-brass from some Hollywood scores who actually had a real orchestra. It just is a bit more obvious in this, because you didn’t get to hear the brass until halfway through the album, so when it finally comes, its unexpected and since the rest of the instruments sound totally real, the contrast is especially noticeable.

It seems like Matz knows this, though, because he reserves the brass only for the most epic moments, which diminishes the effect of the “fake-y” sound, yet also heightens the effect of the application of the brass.

The vocals on the other hand are just wonderful. Having their first hints earlier in the score, The Ladder is their big entry and their later appearances gets a whole new layer of gravitas.

The last big highlight is Epilogue. In this track, Matz unleashes the whole power of Hollywood-scoring, leaving the meditative direction of the album for a rousing, adventurous, orchestral powerhouse reminiscent of always-popular flying tracks, full with woodwind-clusters and uplifting string-movements. It’s definitely a great ending to the game.

The last three tracks of the album are a concert arrangement of the main theme and the music for the two trailers. Especially the latter two sound pretty similar to each other, but it’s still a nice treat and more music of this game is by no means a bad thing. The Destiny Theme functions as a violin-ostinato, accompanied by the marimba-motif mostly played during the feather chase while the flute kicks off the theme for the young boy before handing it to the brass for a big conclusive statement.

Game and music complete each other

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Make sure to experience ‘Fossil Echo’s music ingame as well.

After all, ‘Fossil Echo’ is a gorgeous score you will need to experience many times to really grasp everything, but thanks to John Robert Matz’ mastery of his craft you will gleefully do so. The soundscape is wonderful, the themes are earworms and the journey is deep and powerful. Play the game as well, though. It may be short and not greatly innovative in terms of gameplay but it has heart and a moving story. The game and the music compliment and complete each other perfectly. You won’t get the entire depth of the game without the music and while you will certainly love the music on its own, experiencing it during the little boy’s journey will reveal so much more to you.

Following a big update, you get a 50 percent discount on ‘Fossil Echo’ on Steam at the moment. You can find out more about composer John Robert Matz on his website.

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Long-time film music enthusiast, living and studying in Bremen, Germany.

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