Matt Furniss – Atari ST Works, 1990-1992
Many computer game soundtracks of the 80s and early 90s consist of only one longer cue, sometimes with a few shorter pieces and jingles added. As such, these scores don’t warrant individual reviews, even when these works are of outstanding quality. What makes more sense is to combine several such soundtracks by a single composer into one review.
Part of the ecosystem of European (and particularly British) home computers was that games were usually released across a range of platforms, including the C64, Amiga, Atari ST, ZX Spectrum, PC, Amstrad CPC and Acorn 32-bit – obviously to increase presence in the marketplace and thus sales. Due to the technological differences between all of these systems, they would also feature different soundtracks – or rather one score ported and adapted to each platform. That was the situation developer Krisalis Software (previously trading as Teque Software Development) and their in-house composer Matt Furniss found themselves in during the late 80s and early 90s.
Retrospective assessments of Furniss’ work usually focus on his scores for the Amiga and Sega Genesis – for good reason, given his mastery of these platforms’ audio capacities. However, his work for other systems is also worthy of note. According to interviews, Furniss’ first home computer love wasn’t the Amiga. Instead, it was the Atari ST – at least when it came to playing games. However, Furniss was less fond of the Atari ST’s capabilities as a stand-alone audio machine: “[the] Atari ST’s built-in sound hardware was quite weak, other than the included MIDI ports. It was a very basic sound chip even for 1985.” That view mirrors the perspective of many game music aficionados, who place the Atari ST’s music a step (or several) below that of the Amiga or the C64.
However, several of Furniss’ compositions for Atari ST games are, in fact, first-rate chiptune music – substantial pieces full of carefully developed melodies, intricately woven moods and displays of technical bravado. Two of his best cues written for the Atari ST headline sports games. Manchester United Europe (1991) benefits from a pumping rhythm that is livelier than its predecessor Manchester United‘s beat. A taut, powerful groove drives a bouncy melody that keeps creatively changing its timbre, while gurgling arpeggios fill the space between the notes and give the cue a lush sound. It’s a constantly energetic and fun track – listen to that persistent, cheeky bass riff – that still ebbs and flows organically.
Jahangir Khan World Championship Squash (1990) covers a less well-known sport, but receives an equally solid title track from Furniss. Like on Manchester United Europe, it’s a cheery composition, but its lively disposition has space for more breakdowns and changes in direction that sometimes give the music almost a sci-fi touch (when the harmonised leads turn wispy and echoing). Still, the music’s generally upbeat mood ties it in with the sports simulation it underscores. The cue’s ambitious song structure still allows for constant returns to its main melody, which has a great pop appeal. There’s a sense of dynamic contrasts here that is missing from the track’s (technologically superior) Amiga version – this is music that is constantly on the move.
Lords of Chaos – a 1990 RPG score for a Mythos Games title – takes such compositional ambition one step further. Maybe in line with the game’s name, Furniss’ music feels gothic and spooky, almost like progressive rock in its adventurous construction. Lord of Chaos constantly ducks and weaves, leading unusual rhythms and melodies into heady collisions. It’s a dazzling display of both effortlessly assured songwriting and virtuoso tech skills that make the most of the Atari ST’s sound capacities. From its ominously tolling opening figure, Lords of Chaos has a convincing sense of scale – and the fact that it never loses this quality, despite all the joyfully eccentric ideas Furniss throws at the music, is a minor miracle.
Revelation, on the other hand, is a more modest and focused piece. Its mood isn’t too different to Lords of Chaos, although the music is more straightforward and driven, right from the swaggering groove that opens the cue. What’s interesting is how at 1:30, the track suddenly switches to a faster tempo, reprising the same melody whose snappy tendencies – already present earlier – now serve it well. Furniss manages to create a twitchy, nervous energy that keeps the music afloat and befits the game’s nature as a puzzler – presumably, that tempo increase signals things getting tight and frantic.
It’s not hard to spot what sets Shadoworlds apart from Furniss’ other Atari ST works. The composition runs at a full nine minutes – unlooped. Like Lords of Chaos, it dishes up a wealth of musical ideas, but Shadoworlds unfolds them at a far more deliberate pace. Scored like an intergalactic dungeon crawler, Shadoworlds intrigues from the start. Its opening motif swings wildly back and forth between the stereo speakers, while a subterranean bass drone prepares for the slow, sinister beat that will dominate the composition’s first half. Furniss’ melodies offset their arid repetition through a lush sound created by harmonised melody leads, evoking a captivatingly sombre atmosphere. The composition’s second half ventures more extensively into treble territory and occasionally even radiates optimism – but only until its bright closing melody cruelly falls apart into dissonances. It’s a stunning demonstration of how evocative and creative Atari ST music could be.
- 01 - Jahangir Khan World Championship Squash Furniss, Matt 2:48
- 02 - Lords of Chaos Furniss, Matt 4:04
- 03 - Manchester United Europe Furniss, Matt 4:01
- 04 - Revelation Furniss, Matt 3:26
- 05 - Shadoworlds Furniss, Matt 9:28
Tristan Blanchard says
Well, I only know Matt Furniss through a few games, and more recent than the ones you covered there, but here is the best chance to learn more about him, right ?
This peculiar sound brings back some memories for sure, since one of my best friends owned one Atari ST, back in our primary school days. We had lots of fun playing Space Harrier, Gauntlet, Golden Axe or Bubble Bobble, among other gems ^^
Now that I have listened to the tracks, I can’t help but think this sounds also very similar to the Game Gear. The Game Gear, on which I played a lot of Mortal Kombat. Until today, I thought Matt Furniss composed the music for the Game Gear version, although it seems he only wrote (arranged, even) for the Megadrive port.
Anyway, even from his early Atari ST works, I can recognize Furniss’ style, judging from what I already know (mostly those Megadrive Mortal Kombat tracks, which are also fantastic). Shadoworlds is a true masterpiece indeed ! I don’t remember any videogame tune from this era lasting that long.
As always, thanks a lot for sharing your valuable knowledge on this subject, and see you soon !
Simon Elchlepp says
Thanks for sharing your memories of the Atari ST! I was born a few years too late to have played much with the Atari ST (or the other computer platforms of the time – C64, Amiga etc.), so listening to their soundtracks is a bit of journey of discovery for me. This goes particularly for the Atari ST and the ZX Spectrum – it feels like their music gets a lot less attention than the scores written for the more popular competition, the C64 and the Amiga.
The nice thing about all this is that I go into a score like Shadoworlds or Lords of Chaos, not knowing at all what to expect, and being surprised in the best possible way. In regards to long game music compositions from that era: the C64 has a wealth of really extensive compositions. I’m sure there will be compilations floating around on YouTube, but if you are looking for a starting point, I’d recommend Martin Galway’s Parallax and Miami Vice – 11+ minute chiptune epics.