TowerFall Ascension Soundtrack, Alec Holowka, 2014
Created by Alec Holowka’s friend Matt Thorson, multi-player brawler TowerFall proved to be a hit with gamers and critics. In 2014, Thorson ported TowerFall as TowerFall Ascension over to the PlayStation 4 and other systems. Essentially, Ascension is an upgraded version of TowerFall, and this time the music received a dedicated soundtrack release on Bandcamp.
What luck, because TowerFall Ascension delivers some of the most creative Western game music ever written. The game’s visual retro stylings and simple yet addictive gameplay would have suggested a chiptune soundtrack. On the other hand, Ascension’s fantasy trappings could have easily resulted in yet another late-romantic orchestral score. Holowka eschews both these options. What he comes up with instead is a head-spinning concoction that combines rock, orchestral and electronic elements with such virtuosity that the TowerFall Ascension soundtrack rivals the best works of Falcom, Gust and CAVE – or a classic fantasy-themed genre merger like Matt Uelmen’s Torchlight II.
There’s so much happening in Holowka’s spirited compositions that easy categorisations or definitive genre descriptions are bound to fail. Constantly adventurous and sprightly, Ascension’s pieces never stay in one place for very long. That’s partially due to the caleidoscopic instrumentations which challenge listeners to unpack the compositions’ luscious, unusual layers. There’s a wintry feel to Ascension, with its spacious acoustics and wealth of tinkling melody leads and light metal percussion. Ultimately, listening to TowerFall Ascension feels like looking into a crystal that refracts light into constantly fascinating arrays of colours.
The fact that the TowerFall Ascension soundtrack recalls an impressionistic glimpse into a stunning fantasy world isn’t just due to its imaginative orchestrations. The busyness of its instrumental colours matches the restlessly moving musical material. The driving force of most compositions is a never-ending variety of short, snappy rhythms and melodic phrases. They imbue the compositions with an at times frenetic, but always playful energy. Importantly though, the music never feels frantic or rushed. No matter how many dramatic ensemble hits, staccato figures and light-footed crescendi Holowka packs into every corner of his tracks, the TowerFall Ascension soundtrack flows with perfectly planned purpose – animated, grooving and often perfectly danceable. TowerFall Ascension is a masterclass on how you can write action game music that doesn’t have to rely on big melody arcs or build ups, and instead dazzles because of its endless parade of rhythmic and timbral ideas.
The resonant acoustics and stunningly creative musical colours are part of Holowka’s recasting of the fantasy score mould. Yes, this is music that is vastly quirkier than your standard orchestral fantasy score. It also doesn’t overwhelm listeners with grand melodies, choral outbursts or similar bombast. But listen to the album’s more classically-minded compositions and you’ll discover music that seems to evoke a winter wonderland of magic and heroes battling each other under starry skies. Take “Frostfang Footslip”, its exquisite dual violin leads mixed with familiar action devices like string ostinati and pressing electronic beats. Try “Flight”, the album’s lightest composition – poppy yet delicate – or “Bloodline”. Its folksier roots subtly make themselves heard in the track’s stomping rhythms and near-singalong melodies.
It’s on the less conventional compositions which bookend the TowerFall Ascension soundtrack though that this score stuns. These ceaselessly eclectic compositions are an absolute riot, with few peers in the game music canon. Just listen to “Den of Thieves”, which opens with a wooden percussion groove and funky synth bass, both backing a head-bopping bassoon melody. These relatively quiet passages alternate with anthemic 1980s synth staccati that recall classic game music of that era. The enthusiastic final chorus manages to drag fantasy score music onto the dance floor.
“Beastly Boogie”’s heavy, trotting funk swagger is no big surprise, given the sleek electric bass work on many other compositions. But the way Holowka once more seamlessly mixes contemporary elements like funk and grungy guitars with orchestral elements to craft another fantastically fun piece doesn’t cease to impress. The most mind-boggling invention of all might be “Dance of the Sun Gods”. Through what must be a particularly odd kind of magic, solo violin, sitar, Casio keyboards, consciously fake vocals and Latin brass fanfares mix with salsa rhythms to create what sounds like a Caribbean cruise through a psychedelic version of the Twilight Zone.
In many ways, the TowerFall Ascension soundtrack is a creative triumph. Maybe its most striking achievement is how it stakes its claim for game music as a genre all of its own, with a unique musical identity – an identity that at the same time can be hugely eclectic, with boundaries that are only waiting to be redrafted and expanded. It can be easy to get nostalgic about the time when chiptunes gave game music its own, unmistakable sound. But as TowerFall Ascension demonstrates so impressively, there are still myriads of ways to explore and define what ‘game music’ sounds like.
Purchase on Bandcamp.
This playlist is a curated selection of music from the soundtrack album.
- 01 - Legends Alec Holowka 1:02
- 02 - Backfire Alec Holowka 4:24
- 03 - Dark Destiny Alec Holowka 3:30
- 04 - Den of Thieves Alec Holowka 3:33
- 05 - Dance of the Sun God Alec Holowka 4:24
- 06 - Frostfang Footslip Alec Holowka 4:17
- 07 - Flight Alec Holowka 4:09
- 08 - Bloodline Alec Holowka 3:10
- 09 - True Form Alec Holowka 2:19
- 10 - Fallen Fade Alec Holowka 2:33
- 11 - TowerFall Alec Holowka 2:49
- 12 - Omens Alec Holowka 3:44
- 13 - Serpent Hymn Alec Holowka 4:44
- 14 - Creation Myth Alec Holowka 3:23
- 15 - Beastly Boogie Alec Holowka 3:44
- 16 - Rapture Alec Holowka 3:25
- 17 - The Archives Alec Holowka 2:04