Hey! Listen is a twice-monthly column unearthing obscure video game music and trivia. Today’s column talks to ’90s dance duo Utah Saints on their new music for Final Vendetta.
How do you create the perfect homage to old-school beat ‘em ups such as Final Fight and Streets Of Rage? It helps if the studio handling it, in this case, Bitmap Bureau, lives and breathes retro games and has a solid track record of delivering quality, arcade-inspired beat ‘em ups. But you also need a banging soundtrack, one that lives up to the legacy of the dance tunes that Streets Of Rage composers Yuzo Koshiro and Motohiro Kawashima were pumping through the Sega Mega Drive.
That’s no easy task. Koshiro and Kawashima perfectly emulated the sound of ‘90s club culture with their 16-bit homages to anthems from the likes of Black Box and Inner City. The music in Streets Of Rage is largely responsible for the series’ cult-like status amongst not just video game music fans but the modern-day musicians and producers such as Flying Lotus and Just Blaze it inspired. It’s only fair that fans are going to judge any modern-day equivalent of Streets Of Rage on the quality of its music.
Bitmap Bureau knows this, of course, and it’s why music for their latest game, Final Vendetta, is in such safe hands. Alongside plenty of funky breaks from the game’s composer, Featurecast, Final Vendetta features four exclusive tracks from the ‘90s chart-toppers Utah Saints. NME chatted to the dance duo, Tim Garbutt and Jez Willis, to find out more, but we also got to listen to ‘No Turning Back’, a track NME can exclusively reveal for the game.
“We’ve known Lee [Featurecast] for quite a long time, and he’s always been into his video games,” says Garbutt. “He’s worked with Bitmap Bureau before and asked if we wanted to be involved with this, and we’re always up for doing cool new things, especially considering the style of the game.”
“The way it got pitched was we’re doing this game, and it’s in the style of Streets Of Rage, probably the most iconic soundtrack because of the way it’s locked into club culture at the time really well,” Willis adds. “A lot of people were just getting home from nights out, relatively intoxicated, and just playing video games. We saw the visuals and thought it looked ace. Hopefully, it will keep one foot in the nostalgia part of things and one foot in the future, just like our music, so it’s a great fit.”
This is the first new music that Garbutt and Willis have released in over a decade, so does it feel weird to be doing it through a video game? Not at all. Utah Saints are no strangers to the benefits of getting your music placed in a video game and have been involved with plenty of video game projects over the years, from FIFA and Wipeout Fusion to Carmageddon and the experimental rhythm game, Vib Ribbon.
“The good thing about Final Vendetta is this is the first project where we’ve been truly hands-on at the start of the game, whereas all the other games we’ve submitted tracks that we already finished,” Garbutt continues. “Lee gave us briefs on the levels because we couldn’t play the game at that stage; we just had video clips and pictures of everything. We understood the music needed this modern-day production sound that harkened back to the ‘90s style of Streets Of Rage.
“If you listen back to the music in Streets Of Rage, a lot of tracks were tributes to music that was around at the time. So we just tried to write music that sounded like ourselves in the ‘90s!”
As the crossover kings of sampling, Utah Saints made a name for themselves by mixing together genres that you’d never imagine would work well together. Their 1992 mega-hit, ‘Something Good’ samples Kate Bush, while ‘I Want You’ samples ‘War Ensemble’ from the thrash titans Slayer. And in the rare case that these genre mashups were considered too wild to fit onto an album, they found a home in video games instead, as Willis explains.
“For our second album, we were working on this track, ‘Hands Up’, that sampled Nick Cave,” he says. “We were listening to a DJ called Lostgroover who was combining full-on gabber with speed metal and there was so much energy to it. So we got this Nick Cave sample from his previous band, The Birthday Party, put that on, and it just had this ‘hands up who wants to die’ vibe to it.
“We had no idea what to do with that track and the record company at the time really weren’t keen on putting it on the album. They said it’s very intense and you’re confusing things enough as it is, but then they found a home for it in Carmageddon TDR 2000!”
Willis also has fond but quite frankly baffling memories of the time Phillips approached them to make a game for the CD-i in the early ‘90s.
“I still remember that meeting because we went in as musicians and they were there as business people,” Willis explains. “Tim and I ended up around this huge table with six or seven other people from Phillips and were asked about the future of gaming.”
Willis remembers the team collectively losing their minds when he pitched the idea that games should have an electronic sensor that goes on your tongue to stimulate your sense of taste and smell, like ‘electronic chewing gum.’
“That one little thing just changed the whole meeting,” he says. “We got some development money for the CD-i and ended up working with our friend Dan Buzzo to create this game, but the project fell to bits along with the CD-i.”
Thankfully, working on the music for Final Vendetta has been a more successful experience while providing the duo with a refreshing new way of writing music.
“The tracks are straight in,” Garbutt says. “There are no intros; these are just straight in. Usually, when we write a track, there’ll be an intro, a 16-bar section that gets layered up, and then you might make another section that goes on top. It’s good as well because with a single or album you get as long as you want to write it, which can sometimes end up taking you forever, whereas with a video game it’s like, ‘we want this by Tuesday at 9AM.’”
“The perfectionist side of us would say ‘no, you never finish a track, you just abandon it,’ but for this, it was really good to have that framework,” Willis adds. “In terms of writing the music, it’s more focused, and having a deadline just helps you realise there’s absolutely no room to disappear.”
If you’re a fan of the music in Streets Of Rage, there’s no escaping the fact that you’re going to fall in love with the music that both Utah Saints and Featurecast have written for Final Vendetta, and I say that as a die-hard Streets Of Rage fan. For Utah Saints, it’s fitting that their music is now associated with a fighting game given they wrote the end credits music for the original Mortal Kombat film.
As for what’s next for Utah Saints, they’re working on new music and believe there’s a lot left to give. Next year marks the 30th anniversary of their self-titled debut album, so the pair say you can expect to hear plenty of single edits and remixes popping up on Spotify and other platforms.
“Six years ago, we sat down to analyse the music we were making and realised we were making a lot of melancholic music, and we thought this is really off-brand and not what Utah should be doing, so we reassessed ourselves and the way we work,” Willis says. “Because we were there at the very beginning and because of the way electronic music is now, we still think we’ve got something to say. If we didn’t think that, we’d be off doing different things.
“We’d like to a couple more games, too. We’ve really enjoyed Final Vendetta. It’s a wicked game and a wicked project to be involved with, and artistically it’s been brilliant not to have to overthink the tracks.”
If you’ve enjoyed this deep dive into the world of gaming soundtracks, check out the rest of Hey! Listen here.