Listen: the first thing you need to know about the music in the newest Rayman game is that it's got some kickass virtuoso kazoo playing.
Yes, kazoo. Like, a plastic one. And it kicks a lot of ass.
That bit of whimsy comes courtesy of Christophe Héral, a musician/composer who's worked on Ubisoft games since 1999. Being a huge Beyond Good & Evil fan, I had a strong suspicion that Rayman Origins' musical identity came from the same guy who created the sonic backdrop for Michel Ancel's 2003 cult classic. One of the things that's made BG&E such a beloved game is a heartfelt soundtrack which punctuated every action thrill and dramatic turnaround in the sci-fi adventure perfectly.
Héral goes in a different direction here, with wacky taking precedence over poignant. There's still some swells of emotion but they take a backseat to giggle-inducing flights of fancy. Nevertheless, the Frenchman's oeuvre remains consistent in its embrace of polyglot sonic recipes. In a game scored by Héral, you'll hear tiki lounge tropicalia, downshifted reggae funk or bamboo flute ballads. He pulls influences from cultures all over the world, making the games he works on feel more universal as a result. More impressively, Héral somehow manages not to overplay the outré elements that he seeds through the Rayman Origins soundtrack. So, the twang of a Jew's harp, the moans of a digeridoo or the woody trill of a marimba never overstay their welcome and never feel like cheap turns of exotica.
For Rayman: Origins, Héral's soundtrack channels the beautiful incongruity that powers Michel Ancel's latest game. Rayman: Origins looks like it sprang to life from a sketchbook—which it kinda did—but it's powered by the cutting-edge UbiArt Framework engine. The music feels the same way: analog yet digital, primitive yet sophisticated.
UbiSoft likes to position Rayman as a latter-day avatar of mischief, like Bugs Bunny, and this music reminded me of the musical accompaniment in classic Looney Tunes shorts. The game's collection of tracks made me want to keep on playing Rayman, if only to keep discovering what gorgeously weird musical journey I'd be jumping and slapping my way through next. Here's a few standout selections:
This track takes high-pitched chipmunk voices—belonging to the Lum fairies players collect throughout the game—that should, by all rights, be incredibly annoying. However, Héral's stellar arrangement lets you can hear that the cuteness generated by Lum squeakiness isn't supposed be the point. Welcomed by a peppy ukelele-and-horns interplay, the voices peak and get tremulous in a ragged harmony, which undercuts any software tweaks used to create their unnatural pitch. As the whole affair twining in and out of the percussion backbeat, the listener knows exactly what kind of fun Rayman: Origins has in store for him or her.
The trick Héral achieves with this kazoo-centric track is making you take it seriously. You laugh at it at first, but then—as the drama of the rest of the ensemble masses around it—you're like, "Man, that kazoo's going through some shit!" And said kazoo travels all up and down the plastic instrument's register, even as the chromatics of the music behind it changes color several times. Our intrepid kazoo fights while loop-de-looping around Russian Volga boatmen-style chants, Spanish bullfight olés and Gregorian monk intonation. And that's just on the vocal side. By the end of the track, you realize it: You are Rayman. The kazoo is Rayman. Therefore, you, too, are the kazoo.
As with the sly kazoo misdirection in "Shooting Me Softly," the first measures of this cut's down-home banjo-&-fiddle pairing seem to invite guffaws. But, then the cinematic bursts that punched open the song return and it's another "whoa, serious business" moment. The country western tandem snuggles up with those movie-house symphonics and in just under a minute, you get to feeling like Rayman's become a cowboy hero.
All of the tracks for Origins' Sea of Serendipity levels are great. For the most part, they feature underwater Lum scat vocals. Those get coupled with a gibberish-that-sorta-sounds-like-and-might-be-mixed-with-real-language technique that Héral used on BG&E's "Propaganda" track. The fusion creates pure, infectious joy and the themes for this chunk of the game swing jazzily or urgently drive you forward. But then you get to "The Lums' Dream," where those high-pitched voices aren't funny at all. With minor synth atmospherics behind the vocalists, the Lums get out front in ethereal and haunting fashion. It's the kind of musical experience that stays with you even when you're not in front of a console.
As of this writing, there doesn't appear to be an official release of Christophe Héral's Rayman: Origins soundtrack. But a little bit of digging will deliver the tunes from the limbless wonder's newest adventure in no time.
"The Best Game Music of 2011" is a multi-part series highlighting the best video game soundtracks of the year.