Psybadek Soundtrack, Mike Clarke, 1998
Including Psybadek in a list of “The WORST Playstation Game[s] Ever Made” (as a YouTube reviewer does) is probably taking things a bit far – remember that there were loads of horrendous shovelware for Sony’s console, particularly in its later years. Still, Psybadek remains a bit of a mystery. This is a game by one of the 32-bit era’s most successful and trendiest developers (Psygnosis), released in between heavy-hitters by that company like the WipeOut, Colony Wars, Destruction Derby and Formula 1 titles. Yet, according to both contemporary and more recent reviewers, Psybadek falls flat on its face, with nary any redeeming features. At least Psybadek’s mix of racing and platforming elements showed that the developers were thinking outside of the box, even if that genre combination was ultimately poorly implemented.
As Gamespot noted in their review though, there’s one aspect where Psybadek – unexpectedly – shines: its score. Their claim that “the soundtrack is easily one of the best in video games anywhere” might sound like hyperbole. However, this is indeed one of the era’s best electronic game scores and far better than what you would expect to find in a game with such an otherwise poor presentation. Thanks be to veteran composer Mike Clarke, who had delivered numerous soundtracks for Psygnosis since the early 1990s, including one of the best metal scores ever to grace a video game: Formula 1.
For the Psybadek soundtrack, Clarke takes a very different – and arguably more creative – approach. He works with a big beat framework for each track’s rhythmic base during the first half of the score. He then combines these rhythms with retro-styled melody leads that oscillate between jazzy and psychedelic (maybe the game’s dunderheaded title achieved one good thing – inspiring Clarke to attempt this genre fusion). His approach isn’t unprecedented – Propellerhead’s “History Repeating” had set the template for this combination of contemporary beats and suave James Bond-style brass sounds the year before.
Still, it’s not a style often heard in game soundtracks – kudos to Clarke for pulling off an electronic racing score that dares to differ from the late 1990s norm for the genre. Without the need to emphasise a futuristic setting, the Psybadek soundtrack is a much warmer and melodic creature than, say, the WipeOut and Extreme-G scores. Instead, the music embraces a fuzzy sense of nostalgia to welcome listeners. Just take the vintage sound Clarke often clads his instruments in, as if they were playing through an old transistor radio. It might sound incongruous on paper, but Clarke never pushes the effect too hard. Instead, his clever audio engineering lends the modern rhythms a distinctive, colourful edge. It also prepares the ground for moments like the jazzy trumpet solo on “Track 1”, which perfectly suits the cue’s retro-flavoured undercurrent.
The Psybadek soundtrack ingeniously revisits this mix of old and new from different angles as it proceeds. “Track 2” expands on the previous cue’s strung-out mood with a wild combination of biting vintage keyboard arpeggios, acerbic guitar lines, surf rock episodes, hip-hop rhythms and jittery sound effects that twitch through the multi-coloured haze. It’s a thoroughly heady trip that can feel like a woozy drug-induced dream, but Clarke always remains in control of the track’s flow. During its almost seven-minute run time, the cue’s elements develop organically – witness the percussion- and guitar-led build-up towards the end of its second third – and any sudden shifts consciously underscore the piece’s entertainingly unpredictable nature. “Track 4” is equally fun – this time, the contrast is between urban elements (more pressing rhythms, sounds of cars) and rural inspirations like a harmonica lead. Once more, Clarke makes this unlikely combination work beautifully.
The second half of the Psybadek soundtrack goes off on various tangents – but there is no dip in quality. “Track 5” and “Track 7” hew more closely to racing game music conventions of the era, with their greater reliance on techno rhythms. Still, their spacey synth pads float through the stereo field like translucent gates to the stars, warped by forceful solar winds – enough to recall the trippy atmosphere of earlier compositions. “Track 6” takes an almost diametrically opposed approach. Far more acoustic than electronic, the composition introduces Mariachi trumpets, swiftly strummed guitar melodies, lavish string orchestrations and increasingly busy drums to end up as the score’s most upbeat cue. Ultimately, “Track 6” is simply another clever way for the soundtrack to tap into its obsession with 1960s music, this time recalling the ‘acid rock played by orchestra’ approach of Love’s masterpiece Forever Changes.
“Track 8” goes for a much more dramatic sound, opening with sampled African chants before segueing into the soundtrack’s heaviest bass line and some hand percussion. Clarke once more displays his penchant for experimentation, marrying these locally specific influences with an anthemic staccato synth melody. Its timbre is much colder than the surrounding textures, but the chanting and the dominating staccato lead nicely match each other’s flair for big gestures. The Psybadek soundtrack fittingly closes with its most unclassifiable cue. “Track 9” goes from dry guitar riffs and bouncy 4/4 dance beats to increasingly dense layers of electronica – before it all breaks down into a pounding big beat episode and mutant surf rock. Again, it’s a combination that shouldn’t work, but Clarke pulls it all together into a kaleidoscopic whole that continually surprises – a mirror image for the entire Psybadek soundtrack.
- 01 - Track 01 Clarke, Mike 4:51
- 02 - Track 02 Clarke, Mike 6:38
- 03 - Track 03 Clarke, Mike 5:30
- 04 - Track 04 Clarke, Mike 7:37
- 05 - Track 05 Clarke, Mike 3:19
- 06 - Track 06 Clarke, Mike 3:30
- 07 - Track 07 Clarke, Mike 3:31
- 08 - Track 08 Clarke, Mike 3:20
- 09 - Track 09 Clarke, Mike 5:23