Akira Yamaoka’s World of Madness

I’d recently watched the first cinematic trailer for Death Stranding, a game borne from the ashes of Silent Hills (which I was very much looking forward to playing, for the record). Despite very much looking forward to Death Stranding, I was still mulling over the cancellation of Silent Hills, even though it’s been nearly two years now. It’s just one of those things you think about every so often and go “man, that would’ve been the shit.” But after a while, I thought to myself: “Wait. Why do I care? I’ve never even played a Silent Hill game.” So I sought to rectify that by watching other people play through the series, and the main thing that stood out to me through the clunky mechanics, confusing plot, and oft terrible voice acting was the music. It always comes down to the music, doesn’t it?

To clear up any confusion for those of you unfamiliar with Silent Hill, it’s a series of survival horror games – or rather, a series of interactive psychological thrillers. I’m a big fan of horror, and an even bigger fan of music that’s capable of providing the listener with a dominant sense of atmosphere. One of the keys to effective horror is an all-encompassing ambience that gets under the listener’s skin, or at the very least makes them feel uneasy. With a career that spans nearly three decades, composer Akira Yamaoka has poured much of his life into accomplishing just that. Much of his work has been for the Japanese entertainment company Konami, particularly the Silent Hill franchise.

It’s hard to pick a song that properly conveys that crucial sense of atmosphere, especially removed from the context it’s supposed to be heard in, but there are a few that stood out to me across multiple listens. “Claw Finger” from the Silent Hill soundtrack comes closest to instilling a legitimate sense of melancholy and dread. “White Noiz” also comes to mind, a song that starts off somber and subdued before taking an abrupt turn for the ethereal, emulating the induction of a cold, dreamlike state. “Float Up From Dream” takes that theme to the next level, though the tone is more nightmarish than dreamy. (I will say that the monologue is a bit distracting, and it would’ve been nice for an official instrumental version to have been released, too.)

But I feel like I’m doing no justice in exemplifying Akira’s diversity. “Terror in the Depths of the Fog” goes heavy on the industrial sound and the first good minute or so is very much reminiscent of a Nine Inch Nails song. As a matter of fact, this song came on when I was stuck on a stalled train where the lights kept flickering on and off, which sounds like a pretty badass image now that I think about it, like a scene straight from a movie. It was kind of creepy at the time, though. “The Reverse Will,” meanwhile, is pure trip-hop, with record scratches and everything. Sometimes, there’s even kinda corny rock songs thrown in because why the hell not, right?

I can pinpoint the exact moment I became a fan: the first time I came across a strange little song called “Fukuro.” Because the music video has some rather graphic and potentially disturbing imagery, I’m opting to link to it the old-fashioned way instead. There’s also an audio version for those who’d rather not subject themselves to the video – you’ll get the idea of what he was going for pretty much instantly. The song itself differs from most of what I’ve heard from the rest of the catalogue. In its blatant and brazen sexuality, it manages to be the most genuinely creepy song I’ve heard from Akira, especially considering the kind of hellscape the series takes place in. But fear not! The team also made another music video for one of Akira’s trip-hop songs that’s just as cool (without the questionable bits).

Akira also composed the soundtrack to the film adaptation of Silent Hill (which I ended up watching, and let me tell you, it isn’t great – but the music is, of course, pretty fantastic). The film soundtrack is somewhat discernible from the video game OSTs, in that it hones in on a looming sense of dread, often embracing a darker, more subtle ambience. However, more than a handful of the songs sound like reworkings – “Native Land,” for example, draws most of its theme from “Wounded Warsong,” a track from Silent Hill 2.

Akira Yamaoka had left Konami in late 2009, and so he didn’t contribute to a handful of the more recent games in the series, but he was interested in returning to work on Silent Hills, which he spoke about in an enlightening interview with FACT Magazine. Since it would be inappropriate to quote the entire interview, I highly recommend giving it a read – it gives some wonderful insight into his thoughts on his work and how he approaches his craft.

Music can always be appreciated in a vacuum, but when it’s presented alongside a piece of visual or interactive media, that’s when it’s truly most appreciable. Being immersed in something, whether it be a movie or a TV show or a video game, is an experience always worth savoring. In my opinion, music (or intentional lack thereof, in certain cases) should always serve to heighten that experience.

And with all that being said, I leave you with the Silent Hill theme, which I’ll assume might sound familiar to a few people. The first 20 seconds in particular are hard to forget.