Knockout City Soundtrack, The Soundlings, 2021
Just about any sport in existence has been immortalised in at least one video game (well, maybe not synchronised swimming – yet). Still, some sports have arguably proven more popular than others once turned into interactive screen entertainment. One of the sports rarely encountered in video games is dodgeball. Maybe that’s because of its inherent simplicity and lack of strategy. However, the same features can also be a strength since they make it easy to transpose dodgeball into new settings and gameplay modes. Case in point: Velan Studios’ Knockout City, which sees teams of players chasing each other through the titular futuristic city, trying to knock each other out by hitting their opponents with a ball. Sure enough, when asked why they went with dodgeball as the game’s core gameplay component, Velan Studios CEO Karthik Bala responded that it was an “intuitive” sport whose concept everyone understands.
In other words – Knockout City never aimed to be anything but a straightforward, fun game that’s easy to pick up. Its soundtrack naturally had to mirror this easy-going, accessible quality – but it ends up doing quite a bit more than that. For the game’s visual design, Velan Studios had gone with a futuristic take on the 1950s and, as a result, “didn’t want to only focus on one aspect of music”. Another good reason for this approach was that the music in Knockout City plays over different radio stations, with each station featuring a particular fictional artist. After deciding they would fund live performers, Velan Studios hired The Soundlings (Sonny Rey and Matt Naylor) for the Knockout City soundtrack. While the duo had built up an impressively large portfolio of TV and movie assignments in a relatively short amount of time, this would be their first video game score.
According to interviews, The Soundlings relished the opportunity to write for a game that required such a varied soundtrack. Asked by the developers to produce new music genres for the Knockout City soundtrack, the composers drew upon a wide range of musical influences from the 1940s to the 1970s – one of their reference points for such multi-faceted music being Yoko Kanno’s Cowboy Bebop! Making the most of their experienced session players, The Soundlings decided to tie the various strands of music across the score together by featuring “some form of brass and horns” in each of the fictional bands populating the world of Knockout City.
Summing up their work, The Soundlings described the Knockout City soundtrack as “ explosive, energetic […] but [it] also has a depth to it.” And that turns out to be an entirely correct assessment. This score is absolutely riotous fun, full of boundless energy while it concocts some previously unheard genre mixes. The compositions don’t waste a single second as they compress a vast amount of ideas into their two-minute run times. Unable to stand still, the music bristles with the jittery joy of discovery and exploration, while its jazzy brass foundation links the music with the game’s retro stylings. That the sometimes head-spinning number of musical inspirations usually comes together in coherent compositions is a minor miracle (only on the Alley Katz tracks do the arrangements feel cluttered).
The Command Play cues that open the soundtrack album indicate the roller coaster ride ahead, without throwing listeners into the deep end just yet. “Beat Feet ‘n’ Bounce” opens with surf rock guitars that segue into breakbeats, matched in their intensity by urgent, exuberant brass fanfares, while those ringing guitar leads bring some psychedelic flair to the music. Like on the rest of the Knockout City soundtrack, the melody leads are short and snappy, anchoring the whirlwind of musical colours. “Boogie Street Brawl” starts as a relatively straightforward big band jazz number. However, the distorted bass line that runs through the cue subtly paves the way for a sudden yet fitting breakdown into modern electronica, including some chiptune-style arpeggios and an electronically manipulated trumpet solo. “Fire Fingers” returns to a more rock focused sound, its fleet piano a fitting homage to 1950s rock’n’roll.
Other fictional bands in the world of Knockout City take a similar approach – using jazz and lavish brass orchestrations as the basis for their genre experiments. Rick and the Humans delivers what’s probably the Knockout City soundtrack’s purest take on jazz. “Effective Dissonance” grooves through genre-typical, energising call-and-response patterns and extended brass soli. “Planet Hop” sets the pulse racing with its catchy swing jazz, while “We Bang Loud” adds a mood organ to recall the timeless cool of 1960s spy thrillers. The Scratched Bass Band steps into genres not far removed from jazz – funk rhythms and R’n’B beats are natural additions to the score’s sonic palette. Where these tracks surprise is with their fantastic beatboxing that gives “Kick It Fresh” and particularly “Get Outta Dodge” a manic energy. “Get Outta Dodge” is truly one of the soundtrack’s highlights, its frantic beatboxing matched by the rowdy saxophone soli.
Johnny and the Breakers takes the free-wheeling genre-mixing a few steps further. Brass riffs still power much of “Dueling Dolphins”, but the galloping acoustic and electronic rhythms end up accompanying guitar riffs out of a Morricone western. The cue’s Mariachi influences return on “Devil’s Cove”, where they somehow merge seamlessly with skittish surf guitars, complex breakbeats, a sci-fi synth ostinato, and organ stabs.
However, the Knockout City soundtrack’s standout moments of brilliantly controlled lunacy are found on the Hologramatix cues. All use fast-paced bop rhythms as their basis, but end up in entirely unexpected star systems as the composers mix in a bevvy of electronic sounds, cutting and slicing these into the cues with truly virtuoso skill. “Drop the Bop” also manages to throw buzzing rock guitars into the mix, and “Don’t Stop the Bop” draws upon bop’s complex rhythms and transforms them into electric beats. However, the star of the show is “Doo Wop the Bop”. There’s a good chance no other game score before has managed to graft electronically manipulated doo-wop vocal harmonies onto bop’s sudden rhythmic changes, while surrounded by a dizzying array of cut-up, stuttering electronica. It’s the pièce de résistance of a score that is as joyous as it is fearlessly creative.
- 01 - Beat Feet 'N' Bounce The Soundlings 2:10
- 02 - Boogie Street Brawl The Soundlings 2:29
- 03 - Fire Fingers The Soundlings 2:48
- 04 - Don't Stop the Bop The Soundlings 2:05
- 05 - Doo Wop the Bop The Soundlings 2:09
- 06 - Drop the Bop The Soundlings 2:12
- 07 - Effective Dissonance The Soundlings 1:53
- 08 - Planet Hop The Soundlings 2:05
- 09 - We Bang Loud The Soundlings 2:06
- 10 - Kick It Fresh The Soundlings 2:18
- 11 - Beat the Street The Soundlings 2:17
- 12 - Get Outta Dodge The Soundlings 2:07
- 13 - Dueling Dolphins The Soundlings 2:12
- 14 - Rip Curl Riot The Soundlings 2:05
- 15 - Devil's Cove The Soundlings 2:11