Review Summary: The REAL gothic tea party
Lewis Carroll’s magnum opus has been given a large number of alternative interpretations over the years, and why not? The material is rich and highly subversive; loaded with emotion, characters, and nonsense. The majority of interpretations, however, tend to focus on attempting to make the story and characters ‘darker’, whilst ignoring the fact that the source material was quite dark to begin with, if in an understated way. American McGee’s Alice, a video game sequel to the original novels, features an older, more world-weary teenage Alice, whom, after tragically losing her parents in a housefire caused by her cat Dinah, is committed to an insane asylum. The story hinges on Alice’s perceptions of wonderland, which is, of course, a figment of her imagination. Thus, because of Alice’s deteriorating mental state, wonderland is twisted and macabre to reflect this. The red queen has taken control, and her evil influence can be seen throughout the darker rendition of the original wonderland. Chris Vrenna’s imaginative score to the game understands the source material implicitly, realising that it is, at heart, a fantasy story for children, and even though it contains elements that could be considered dark or disturbing, these influences in the music are minimal, instead relying on subtlety and the minutiae of the sound to create a hopeless, ambient, and occasionally gothic work of excellence.
One of the interesting things to note about this soundtrack is Vrenna’s instrumentation. Throughout the album, children’s toys are used to create the music, sometimes in addition to other effects, sometimes underscoring the tune of an entire piece. Such sounds as the tinkling of musical boxes, the chiming of grandfather clocks, the tinny thrum of toy pianos, and the wheezing rasp of squeezeboxes are utilised to solidify melody and create an intensely moody atmosphere. songs like the later ‘Battle With The Red Queen’, feature a tuneful chiming motif which is utilised throughout the game. The tune is made up of five notes that are all in the same key, followed by what sounds like a vague industrial clanking. This continues throughout the song, and although it is a little repetitive, there’s no denying the overall creepiness of the composition, particularly with the mix including the red queen’s achingly British reading of ‘off with her head’. ‘Tweedle-Dee And Tweedle-Dum’ features similarly childish instrumentation, this time using an accordion to create a plodding, grotesquely tuneful marching song that reflects the characters perfectly; a twisted portrait of an already twisted duo.
There is a distinctly gothic sound present throughout the album, even in instances where the pieces appear quite contemporary. Movements such as ‘Pool Of Tears’ and ‘Village Of The Doomed’ have more of an air of ambience about them, being location songs as opposed to those representing scenarios or characters. ‘Pool Of Tears’ has an aura of complete bleakness to it, and to that end is one of the standouts of the collection. The sheer desperateness of the lonely violins and the low din of human voices accompanied by various industrial sounds, such as the sound of screw being turned, create a world of utter futility and pain, and in that sense it is probably the song to best represent the album. ‘Village Of The Doomed’ again uses an accordion but the dominant sound is that of children chanting, in a morbid and troublingly low tone. The melody on these sections as well as throughout the rest of the release is never absent, however, and Vrenna never gets lost in the atmosphere, instead using simple but majestically placid melodies. Other compositions such as ‘Fortress Of Doors’, ‘I’m Not Edible’ and ‘The Centipede’ demonstrate a more understated tone, still consistent with the spirit of the rest of the songs, but Vrenna allows the gentle, skipping tinkle of what appears to be a broken musical box create the atmosphere, and it works in perfect tandem with the orchestral hum audible beneath.
Chris Vrenna has worked prolifically in video games and contributed to the score of a wide variety of different genres. On the soundtrack to American McGee’s Alice, however, he has created a wholly unique sound that flows well but resonates in a multitude of ways. The inclusion of sporadic character narration throughout helps gel the whole package together, and Vrenna’s innovative use of toys as musical instruments creates a palpable sense of cohesion that ensures the tone is always consistent. Perhaps most importantly, though, the music perfectly suits the tone of the decidedly more mature story, opting for a more careful, deliberate approach rather than outright horror. This minimalist style cements the sense of fear and trepidation into the miserable sound , but simultaneously ensures that the tracks never become tedious or overproduced. In a similar way to classic horror films using music that would not generally be associated with such themes (The Wicker Man, Don’t Look Now (both 1973)), Vrenna has created a disquieting and subtle score that is awarded it’s disturbing nature through sheer application to the media for which it was written.