songs to test by - a review

The first thing that needs to be said is that this is not Portal 1, the short lived ambient brilliance of Kelly Baileys work on the original 3 hour puzzlefest created an amazing feel for the isolation and subtly understated storyline of Portal 1. Rarely did it come to the forefront of the experience to show you exactly what Bailey was capable of, he seemed to have kept those moments for the stirring score for Half life 2. The music to portal 1 was emotional but beautifully understated.

New game, new ideas. Bigger game, bigger score.

If you were to gather information about Portal 2 from the soundtrack it is easy to see that this is a cohesive story driven game, the soundtrack resembles that of a cinematic score much more closely. There is a language of instruments running throughout with choirs, harps and electronic blips interlaced to form a more emotionally driven soundtrack. So lets put on our lab coats, check our aural capabilities on the clipboard and look at some of the songs in depth.

'Songs to test by' is the first of three albums given away by Valve and composed by musical collaborator on the Portal 1 OST Mike Morasky.
Opener 'Science is fun' gives us an instant bite of what to expect from the score and game alike. It is a fast paced electro stamp-fest beginning with a glorious rasping fall into a beat heavy arpeggiated blip contest. But this is not mearly frivolous 8-bit fun as the title might suggest, the slowed breakdown pulling itself away from the main theme only leads to be destroyed by that bass fall and introduce us to the underscore of anticipation and escape which come to dominate towards the end of the track, just as we are cut off by the sounds of collapse and destruction. This place is not safe!
'Concentration enhancing menu initialiser' is not only a mouthful of words but a rhythmic, driving and ever changing piece evoking the minimalist work of Philip Glass. It brings into play the more organic elements previously mentioned. When the choir joins the mix at about 90 seconds it highlights the once unknown scale of the Aperture Science Laboratories. Thus throwing up the stark contrast of man and machine; or rather Chell and GlaDOS. This fade into a picked harp line provides a gradual slip and slow into '9999999'. 
The hollow and echoing piano notes given credence by a harp arpeggio and whir of fan blades barely audible. A synth line joins the harp forcing the computerised nature into the track. This battle continues with bit-crunched beats fending off the quiet uprising of an orchestra, ultimately we are left with the lone combatants of harp and whirring buzz who seem to slowly lose the will to continue the fight.
'The courtesy call' begins with a wonderful skewing of the theme from the Aperture Science's outgoing broadcasts calling out from nowhere into a chasm of empty revelation. You are clearly on your own in a sinister environment. The suspense and wonder is the beauty in this section before the rude awakening of an alarm and clutch of horns telling you that the game has changed. The harp will try to calm your distress but the choirs reprise will remind you of the imminent danger of future testing. A nod to the main theme shown in all the run up videos to the games release crashes in and then cuts off. This is by no means the end.
'Technical difficulties' is the most human track thus far, organic and traditional elements play over a sinister progression with very human slows and pauses. The flutes take tentative steps down the hallway to who knows where? Science is again attempting to creep in with its buzzy synths and falling squeals. There is an almost soothing element below the claustrophobia, but this song is about the very nervous disposition of the human element within the belly of the beast.
I was personally happy to see the title 'Overgrowth' on the list as its a concept I had taken on when writing for Portal: Awakening. Slow chords realising the difference in the test chambers you once knew, now dilapidated and crumbling around you. A light chinking of water or rusted metal tells you that nature has taken back what science had tried to grip but had let slip though its pneumatic hands.
There is a just-keep-walking feeling about 'Ghost of Rattman', a steady monotonous pacing telling you that the danger cant get you unless you stop. It feels very similar to some of the creepy and almost childlike tracks found in Chris Vrenna's soundtrack to American McGee's Alice, if the hatter appeared right now you may soil yourself but you wouldn't be surprised. The slightly off piano followed by a flute are haunted over by a choir who somehow dont seem real. I have no idea what the chattering voice is hinting at in his consonant only ramble but I dont want to stay around to find out.
Sadly the creeps continue with the short but sinister 'Haunted panels'. Paying no small homage to the theme from Hitchcock's Psycho, you start to get a real sense of what each instrument is there to do and which emotion they are set to evoke. I also heard a little of the opener to Nine inch nails the wretched in the slow plucked basses.
As if there weren’t enough sentient robots in the game 'The future starts with you' feels like you are witnessing the birth of computer intelligence. This is the sound of a DSL modem coming to life, like Shelly's eponymous monster it does not yet know how to control itself and so whirs and beeps around the empty chamber looking for a voice. Sending out sonar blips and bass rattles to check itself against the environment. There is also an eastern element to the psudeo-horn wails as if they come from some distant future minaret built to sound the robotic revolution. It is somewhat of a comfort when the harp and its familiar melody line begin in 'There she is'. 
The machine parts following the human sound of the harp around before opening up the whole track to the choral grand reveal. Mental images form of huge, cavernous chambers unbeknownst to the test subject who suffered in the lab above. It is truly music to create suspense and inspire awe.
Which is exactly how we begin 'You know her?', this is magical and almost operatic in the sense that each instrument is player in a larger production. Even the stomping rivalry of the basses and raspy synth. There is a bad guy here, no doubt, and the cellos play its part with skilful incision. Something is growing and coming for you, at best you can attempt to get out of its way, but it definitely means business as the basses build with a heavy crushed kick, this is the theme for a mechanical Godzilla.
'The friendly faith plate' is somewhere between skinny puppy and the aphex twin and still manages to harness itself to the overall feel of the record. It is a glorious cacophony of noises with head bobbing skill running through. Id heard that electronica giants the chemical brothers don’t write songs, they write noises and then fit them together into the tracks you hear, this is what’s going on here I'm sure of it. Things are being constructed, possibly from used remains, into something larger than the sum of its parts. Machines hammering away on a production line with the interjections of welding torches and steam powered presses. 
All that noise cuts out and we are left with nothing but our own heartbeats in '15 acres of broken glass', the glitched beats make moves to surface behind the reflective panels. There are hints of the darkcore work of Lustmord here, but where as the former is about underground stone caverns this is most definatley a man-made hollow environment. There is a feel of something happening behind the scenes which you only catch glimpses of as the beat moves in and out of the five minute ambience.
'Love as a construct' is a very different story, our freshly birthed modem has grown a voice. You may not understand it or have any grasp of the language it uses but it is most definitely speaking, possibly even singing. The track has some of the Kelly Bailey ambience to it and a childlike innocence and optimism that has shown itself for the first time in forty minutes. It would soar it had a concept of flight, instead our little DSL sits alone and sings a little ballad to itself.
Clicking in from nowhere with one of the most interesting synth noises I have possibly ever heard 'I saw a deer today' is a comb filtered march of machines. How its title relates is a mystery to me but the constant movement of the longer background phasers have you almost moving your head to follow them. There are sounds of overworked telegraph machine furiously tapping away with an almost funfair/carnival sound to the main melody. It is good to hear the sense of fun that the original Portal was noted for surfacing in the soundtrack.
'Hard sunshine' is about the most accurate description one could give to the opening synth sound on the track. A melodic drone backed by twitterings of a computer trying to pose as a human, the once disparate foes seems to have found a home together as the encapsulating of organic, traditional instruments shows its work through the manipulated sounds Mike Morasky has created here. You can see the light for the first time since being trapped down here and all you can do is stop and stare.
A long hammond organ note sounds, grows and shifts until it is replaced by the next sumptuous note in 'I'm different'. Filled with resonance and echoing metallic character the higher notes rising and falling away in the background are reminiscent of 30's horror scores only brought to life by the imaginations of AI. More evidence of the coherent nature and language of the music in Portal 2 as a larger body comes with familiar and previously used synth sounds from as far back as 'Science is fun' tie the whole thing up in a neat package.
More Glass influences appear on 'Adrenal vapour' sounding almost taken direct from Einstein on the beach. The constant glass bells playing out and over each other find beauty in their own chaos and fractured repetition. Sometimes becoming a single sound as the overlaps line up and other times sounding almost too fast and numerous to comprehend.
All this science aside its time for some fun as 'Turret wife serenade' wobbles to life, with a toybox polka covered by a wailing faux violin. The interspersal of noises we have all heard when tipping a turret off a ledge and watch it lovingly shuffle off its mortal protocol is a lovely touch to something which relies heavily on the humour of the portal franchise.
'I made it all up' is again back to the slow ambience of the music in Portal 1, just hinting at the environment and tinkering off the walls with a light optimism like much of the soundtrack. There is a feeling of inner joy to this track much like underworlds score for Danny Boyle's sci-fi slow burner Sunshine. The pan of the high violin notes underpinning the ever bouncing synth is a welcome break from the high intensity of the rest of the album.
'Comedy=Tragedy+Time' dives straight back into the bowels of the lab with a creeping sense of anger and frustration. The low notes are hunting something over and above the tense strings hiding under the jarring beat. There is an ominous danger to the track, an anticipatory hunger of snapping snares and odd machine noises.
The records closer 'Triple phase laser' is a slow moving dance around three near indecipherable synth melodies. Rocking gently to a back and forth rhythm caught in a loop of underhanded contemplation and longing. It really is a track to fear the repercussions.
All in all what this first volume of Portal 2's music has shown us is its maturity and depth, taking the fledgling steps of portal and opening up the Aperture Science world to a new depth. The music a fully formed coherent piece with a language unto itself which broods with individual voices given life through the varying instruments and styles.
While in many places it retains the fun and comedy of the original there is emotion and development seeping from every note. With 22 tracks in this the first of three, the sheer scale of the musical undertakings of Mike Morasky should be applauded and anticipated as we wonder what the Aperture Science Psychonautics division will release to we lowly test subjects next.

Get your own copy of 'Songs to test by' for free at the Portal 2 website

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