Review Summary: 3D sounds and a true otherworldly experience...
The year: 1999. the game: ‘Silent Hill’ for PS1. shitpants all across the globe hail it as a game-changer and to this day, almost 20 years later, a pioneer and a genre defining masterpiece. So, what makes the game work so god damn well? But more specifically, what makes main composer AND main sound designer (that’s a key aspect, don’t forget it) Akira Yamaoka’s music work so in-sync with the game? So much so that it’s practically impossible to talk about Silent Hill without talking about its music?
Well, two aspects come to mind:
First, the completely alien and experimental nature of the instrumentation. It is not only varied in textures, with all kinds of synths, ranging from soothing to piercing, and a wide and very well crafted range of percussion and samples (Yamaoka is a sampling genius, able to make hellish abhorrences from the most banal of sound snipets), but because of its focus on sensorial assault and abrassive nature, taking the player to borderline physical pain, takes itself a step above anything any other videogame soundtrack had ever tried to pull off before.
Second, it’s the spacial depth and environmental coherence this soundtrack so spontaneously masters.
Do you get that feeling sometimes, when you are listening to music, that the sounds coming out from the speakers aren’t actually coming out from the speakers? Like they are coming from somewhere else, a different place? And I don’t mean a different place in your house, dummy, I mean a different place in spacetime.
I know it sounds weird, but I’m also sure that’s happened before to some of you. That feeling is actually related to sonic depth perception. it’s music that constructs a 3D space. The fact that this is acomplished with few easy tricks as simple as volumen up/volumen down or that most tracks have stacked up layers of synths that give them that depth doesn’t for a second diminish its potency. It’s the key difference between the music being there and YOU being there. It not only sounds, but it MOVES. And, in Silent Hill, it also FOLLOWS. It’s the main difference between an experience that takes place behind a screen and one that engulfes you.
But this wouldn’t mean shit without the enviromental coherence. What I mean by this is the thing that’s made SH such a cornerstone, such a god damn classic. In Silent Hill, the true enemy isn’t the monsters. It’s not Dhalia or The Cult or even their ‘God’. The real enemy is the town itself, the single most evil entity in the game, and no one gets that more than Yamaoka.
That’s why it’s important to note that the man is not only the composer of the soundtrack, but also the main sound designer, because soundtrack in Silent Hill has an enphasis on SOUND. From the quieter and spacier synths of the fog world, to the lurkier and menacing ambient noises of the dark world and the full-on agression of the clanking pipes and persecutory percussion of the otherworld, it always feels like these sounds are comming from the town itself, that IT is producing them as it creeks and moans like a huge, formless monstrosity,always watching, always following, and that is absolutely terrifying. And absolutely genius.
That is also way many people don’t bring up this OST as much when discussing which one is the best one: The more emotional SH2? The more rock-oriented SH3? The more ambient and subtle SH4? The others that no one cares about? I think this happens because, in the way of actual ‘songs’, SH1 has very few ones. Yea the title track is probably the best opening track of the series, and songs like ‘Not Tomorrow’ and ‘Tears of…’ are good enough, but overall it’s probably the one soundtrack that it’s more inseparable from the actual act of playing the game. The sound of Harry’s footsteps on rusted metal, the dogs barking in the distance and the radio going nuts are all as much ‘soundtrack’ as the actual tracks themselves.
But because of its sheer physicality and its capacity to not only be a sonic representation of the horrors of Silent Hill, but actually be a key aspect in creating the virtual space the player needs to be fully immersed in the experience is that I still believe it to be the best one in the series and one of the best soundtracks ever, not only in videogames, but in any form of audio-visual entertainment.