Grim Fandango Original Game Soundtrack :: Review by Chris
Grim Fandango was a underworld adventure game created by LucasArts back in 1998. The composer Peter McConnell chose to complement its dark yet humorous mood and film noir visuals by offering an authentic jazz focus. Given his impressive academic background and past experience, McConnell had no trouble emulating the swing and bebop music of the 1930s, and fortunately received the opportunity to record it with a big band. Much like the game itself, the resultant soundtrack has become a cult favourite and for good reason. Whether treated as a fitting in-game accompaniment or a stand-alone jazz album, it stands up extremely well.
What really makes Grim Fandango stand out among other jazz albums out there is the way it creates a character so fitting with the game. "Swanky Maximo" creates just the right tone for the Land of the Dead with its murky chord progressions and melancholic clarinet use. However, there is something about the tone of the muted trumpet and the exaggerated backing that is quirky and humorous too. It'd be difficult to create a better accompaniment for a seemingly contradictory game. Meanwhile the opening theme "Casino Calavera" creates a much more upbeat image for the main character with its punchy brass sequences and brisk acoustic bass. Nevertheless, the swing influences still maintain the dated feel in accord with the film noir depiction. It's ideal for portraying a wayward, albeit dead, adventurer. Others have an even more obvious film noir quality to them, such as "Trouble With Carla", and work modestly and suitably with Tim Schafer's image for the game.
Perhaps the most fascinating feature of the album is how well both the compositions and performances capture the feel of 1930s jazz. Pieces such as "Swanky Maximo" and "Smooth Hector" are so similar in mood and technicality to Louis Armstrong's instrumental works. The trumpet leads are spot on with their singing qualities. The extended clarinet solo in the former also captures the mournful New Orleans feel and benefits from a sublime performance. However, McConnell is keen to experiment with bebop too and memorably homages John Coltrane with the hard yet lyrical saxophone use and abrasive piano use in "Hector Steps Out" and "Blue Casket Bop". The saxophone use in "High Roller" is also stunningly intricate against the sneaky descending passages of sneaky walking bass. Listeners should also expect to hear lots of extended technique, particularly with the growling and overblowing of the saxophone in "Domino's In Charge".
While a lot of the album features old jazz, there are some deviations in keeping with the mood of the game. A number of the themes, such as "Manny's Office", "Scrimshaw", and "Domino", are still technically jazz but have the feeling of an unserious detective movie. They're much more superficial in emotion and musicality than other themes, not to mention short in length too. However, they fulfil their purpose in the game and are still quite enjoyable. On a stronger note, "Neuvo Marrow" is ideal for representing the Spanish influences of the game with its fusion of light-hearted conga rhythms and melancholic jazz solos. For more relieving moments, McConnell deviates from the jazz influences to offer the country performance "Talking Limbo", worldly hybrid "Lost Souls Alliance", and the uplifting flamenco "Ninth Heaven". Moving to the end of the album, "Manny & Meche" is a beautiful way to resolve the emotional arch of the album with its romantic habanera influences while "Bone Wagon" is also great fun too with its blend of surf rock and skeleton jazz.
Simply put, the Grim Fandango soundtrack is an especially endearing work. What is amazing about this soundtrack and for that matter McConnell's work in general is that its stylistic emulations feel like the real thing, rather than just decent imitations. The compositions and performances are so good that listening to this album on a stand-alone basis can make people feel like they're in a bar back then. Yet the music works even more flawlessly within the Land of the Dead because it is such a curious complement to the unusual mood and visuals of the game. The soundtrack is let down somewhat by the short playtimes of numerous tracks, but still has a lot of highlights. Just be aware that it is expensive to purchase a physical copy of the soundtrack second-hand, although some will find it worthwhile.
Overall Score: 9/10