Genesis Noir Soundtrack, Skillbard, 2021
Few 2021 games were as deliciously high-concept as Genesis Noir. Its gameplay – inspired by point-and-click adventures – was relatively sparse and straightforward. What really set Genesis Noir apart were its unique art style and narrative. True to its title, the game mixed a film noir story with musings on the nature of man, time and the universe. More to the point – Genesis Noir used the events of the Big Bang as a metaphor for the archetypal crime story of a jealous rival trying to kill the protagonist’s former lover. It is now up to our hero No Man – a watchmaker representing time – to alter the course of history, just as the universe is about to come into existence. In the making since 2014, Genesis Noir was well-received by critics upon release, even though several reviewers pointed out that the game resembled an animated movie, allowing only for limited player interaction.
What about music’s role in convincing gamers to take Genesis Noir’s unusual setting to heart? Keep in mind that the crime victim at the heart of Genesis Noir’s narrative – Miss Mass – is a nightclub singer and that several of the game’s puzzles and mini-games focus on music. In other words, developer Feral Cat Den assigned music a more significant role than what you would find in most other games. To write the Genesis Noir soundtrack, the developers turned to Tom Carrell and Vincent Oliver, performing under the moniker Skillbard. While a relatively new act, Skillbard had already amassed credits on numerous media productions, covering film, television, music videos, TV spots, sound art – and games.
For the Genesis Noir soundtrack, Skillbard recorded an ensemble that was quite sizeable – considering the game’s indie roots. Performers included a jazz quintet, a small female choir, a shakuhachi soloist, a 30-piece string orchestra, and several vocalists. Genesis Noir’s creative lead Evan Anthony summed up the musical approach that the developers were looking for by saying: “The story is similar to the godly dramas of Greek and Norse Legends, except that this particular god has a trenchcoat, fedora, and an affinity for trad jazz.” At least partially thanks to the game’s highlighting of music as a gameplay mechanism and central part of the narrative, Skillbard’s work did not go unnoticed. Among the plentiful positive feedback that the score elicited was a note by none other than the Washington Post, stating that “Its [Genesis Noir’s] beautiful jazz score [is] entrancing.”
High praise that was indeed well-deserved – although calling the Genesis Noir soundtrack a jazz score doesn’t quite capture its innovative nature. Like the game’s outstanding visuals, its music had to do some heavy lifting to bridge the gap between urban film noir tropes and cosmic realms. As it turns out though, these two worlds aren’t all that far apart – or at least that’s the impression Skillbard manage to create as they find the emotional link between seemingly wholly different settings.
Often, film noir film music had at its heart the conflict between a single individual and their hostile, harsh environment. A sense of loneliness and alienation runs through many of the film noir scores of the 1940s and 50s. The same sensations are entirely suitable for the story of a lone man trying to stop the creation of the universe and save the life of his love, who has already left him. What Skillbard do then on the Genesis Noir soundtrack is to take the melancholic saxophone soli familiar from many film noir productions, place them in an immensely spacious acoustic, so their languid tones seem to ring out from across the depths of space, surround them with mysterious electronics – and suddenly the marriage between two unlikely sound worlds feels entirely natural.
Thanks to the composers’ elegant, unshowy approach, Genesis Noir perfectly supports the game’s yearning, soul-searching narrative. Using individual characters as stand-ins for abstract concepts such as time and mass is a gamble. However, the Genesis Noir soundtrack remains intimate and emotionally powerful – while still painting on a sufficiently large scale (remember Anthony’s statement about the game being similar to ancient godly dramas). Yes, the mood throughout the score is dream-like and at times surreal, but never emotionally detached or cold. Also, the sometimes peculiar synths help the soundtrack to maintain just the right amount of lightheartedness while the music ponders questions of cosmic import.
Skillbard present their creative take on film noir jazz right from the start with opening track “Miss Mass Theme”. Surrounded by spacey synths, tenor sax and trumpet soli float through the ether, backing soloist Kitty Whitelaw’s wordless vocals that feel operatic rather than sultry. This mix of well-worn and unfamiliar elements gives the music an uncanny edge, heightened by how those warm brass melodies teeter on the brink of plunging into dissonant free jazz progressions. Other tracks on the first half of the Genesis Noir soundtrack reprise this intriguing atmosphere. “Mélodie Fatale (Live at the Constant Club)” gives Whitelaw more opportunities to display the range of her voice, from airy, sweet tones to deep-throated notes. “Shadow Trail”’s chiming synths and sax solo inevitably recall Vangelis’ Blade Runner, while “Tick Tock” ominously oscillates between catchy brass hooks and dissonant, squelching soli.
Soon enough though, the composers start moving away from the melodically rich jazzy overtones that serve as the score’s most obvious emotional connection – but without entirely relinquishing them. “The Hunt” surprises with dry layers of quirky acoustic percussion that recall mid-80s Tom Waits. “Wave Tuner” interrupts its particularly languorous brass leads with plenty of sound effects and random snippets of radio presenters talking – and manages to do so in a way that doesn’t interrupt the wafting music but actually gives it contours. “Golden Boy Suite”’s pounding electronic pulse, with its curiously elastic timbre, gives way to a cue that is in equal parts lushly melodic and full of screaming dissonances – perfectly summing up the soundtrack’s capacity to be both romantic and spiky. And those plodding rhythms on “Pastoral pt 2 Grounded” drag the piece forward almost against its will, while eerie gong-like strikes increase the sense of foreboding and inevitability.
Yes, while the Genesis Noir soundtrack rarely breaks out of its slow tempi, the composers do create a solid narrative arc and tangible dramatic stakes. First, “Alone” sums up all the pathos and heartbreak at the centre of Genesis Noir’s story through a melody for bass soloist that is both passionate and resigned, set against swooning strings that have just the right amount of glassiness to suit the score’s otherworldly acoustic environment. And then the music begins to travel further and further from its film noir jazz inspirations, while never missing a step. First, there are “Itsuki No Komoriuta” and “Shiruetto To Kate”, with their spartan shakuhachi leads, jagged outlines and feeling of ancient rituals, perfectly matching the soundtrack’s cosmic mood. “Pioneer Convoy” stretches the music’s languid tendencies into the soundtrack’s most strung-out, psychedelic expression.
Electronics take over on “You Look At Me” and “Tetrachromacy”. The former is the score’s most esoteric piece – borderline ambient electronica that carries sadness in its irregular pulses. “Tetrachromacy” swings right to the other end of the spectrum, with massive electronic beats and a towering, glistening three-note progression surrounded by almost random synth noises. The pent-up tension is finally resolved on “We” – the soundtrack’s first overt sign of hope and optimism, as a female choir sings a simple, uplifting melody that even withstands the disorienting synths building around it. And finally, “Siren Birth” brings the journey to a momentous close with its space rock-stylings – think Pink Floyd’s “The Great Gig in the Sky” as the heavens are finally filled with starlight rather than darkness and the piece soars higher and higher towards an unknown destination. Yes, the Genesis Noir soundtrack is jazz, but brilliantly bent into boldly adventurous shapes.