The original Metroid soundtrack is much loved, as it should be, even though the creator was evidently trying to go for something "atmospheric" rather than "melodic," which usually turns me off. In fact, Hip Tanaka, the Metroid composer, has stated in interviews that he was deliberately trying to avoid melodies, which, to me, is sort of like saying, "Hey guys! You know what we haven't tried yet? BAD music!" Nonetheless, given the constraints of the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System, being not melodic is REALLY hard, and Metroid failed. It's melodic whether Mr. Tanaka likes it or not!
The best track, in my estimation, is the theme from Kraid's lair. Check out the original loop here:
Or this awesome piano rendition here:
It's not that long, but it's very effective. It's also one of those tracks, like Forest of Monsters from Super Castlevania IV, that causes a huge wave of difficult-to-describe feelings in me - like getting punched in the face with childhood nostalgia, generously mixed with a weird sadness, plus the usual excitement of rocking minor-key music. Listening to it recently, I tried to figure out how it accomplished this. Usually when a song does something to me that I don't understand, I assume that there's some harmonic trick going on that I'm not familiar with. Generally, however, it turns out there's no new trick for my toolbox - it's something I'm already familiar with. It's just done well. "Kraid's Lair" is no different.
The song is in a driving 6/8, which gives it a little bit of an off-kilter feel right off the bat (can't you just see Kraid waltzing around rapidly to this tune? Yeah, me neither). Even though the NES offers 3 non-noise instruments, this track is essentially just two voices - a rapidly moving melody line over a simple bass line. It accomplishes quite a lot with just those two, however.
The first section starts off low-key (you have to build from something) with a steady E-minor drone in the bass line. The B flat accidental at the end of each phrase adds a little energy, although I could stand a few fewer repeats.
The second section uses conventional energy-building chords (some of my favorites, in fact), changing the bass line chord once a measure from C to D and back again. The melody line stays pretty squarely in the notes of the chord.
It builds even more in the third section, where the melody starts moving rapidly in sixteenth notes while the chords change every half measure now - but this time the chords are the "Grim Grinning Ghosts" chords (the theme song from Disney's Haunted Mansion) - useful for all-purpose weird, bad-guy music, but not necessarily super emotive (at least for me).
The part that really hits me is the fourth section, with the rapid scale-like melody. You're expecting the energy to build even more, but the base line suddenly drops into a simple pattern almost like the drone from the first part, appearing to stay pretty squarely in E minor. This is accompanied by extremely rapid-fire scale-like movement in the upper melody whose principal notes sound like they're in D - particularly the top note of each ascent. This overlaying of D on E minor is a trick I use all the time in my own writing, so I admit to being a little disappointed that it was so strange and effective here. But maybe I should be encouraged - there's still a lot of weird awesomeness to be mined out of fairly simple rhythms and chord progressions. Music is a strange and fascinating thing...
The song ends with a repetitive, quiet E minor drone in the bass line while the melody line seems to shift lightly from D to E minor and back again before launching back into the opening, as generally all video game music must... (It's also funny to me how hard it is for me to keep track of where the beat is in this section!)
Another interesting thing about this song is how it doesn't seem to be designed for any particular musical purpose. It's just an awesome song that comes out of nowhere. Why should Kraid, a lumbering monster that shoots spikes out of its belly, get this song for his lair? The other music in the game serves more conventional purposes - Brinstar's melody is vaguely heroic, like trying to be close to an anthem or march without crossing the line. Norfair's melody is weird and disjointed and isolating (and another one of my all-time favorites!). Kraid's Lair? It's sad and strange and driving and just all-around excellent. Kraid doesn't deserve it, but I'm not complaining!