Rock The Spacebar is a twice-monthly column investigating the great music that underpins your favourite games. This week, Dom Peppiatt chats to composer Jason Köhnen and writer Mikael Hedberg about the lesser-spotted genre of ‘doom jazz’, and why it’s so integral to the identity of gaming’s next big horror revival: a reboot of cult survival horror, Alone In The Dark.
What the hell is ‘doom jazz’? That was my first thought when I saw the reveal of Alone In The Dark – a reboot of the industry-shaping 1992 original survival horror game – that boasted an authentic ‘doom jazz’ soundtrack from one of the genre’s most notable musicians. The game, featuring a noir setting with classic Lovecraftian horror elements and set in a world where “the familiar meets the surreal”, seemed like the perfect vessel for this genre… but what on earth does that actually mean?
“‘Doom jazz’, to be completely honest, is just a cool name that we use to describe the type of music we’ve gravitated to,” cult horror writer Mikael Hedberg – who heads up the narrative on the Alone In The Dark reboot – tells me in an interview. “We got it from The Mount Fuji DoomJazz Corporation; it’s a neat name that seemed to work well as a short-hand to describe the music we were going for, for certain scenes. Basically, it has become office lingo.”
‘Doom jazz’, then, is a genre that leverages the atmosphere of a dark ambient soundscape, but with a distinct dose of jazz injected in there to give it a different flavour to other dark ambient music you’d hear out there. This isn’t anything like Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Trent Reznor, or Lab Report. The jazz roots make sure of that. “Something like light drums with wisps, a distant saxophone, or a lazy walking bass,” Hedberg tells us, defines the sound.
Hedberg tells us that the marketing team at publisher THQ Nordic caught wind of the term – hearing it banded around the development studio offices – and used it to snag attention for the game in its announcement period. But to call this music ‘doom jazz’ is unfair, really – at least according to one of the genre’s pioneers, Jason Köhnen.
“Actually it should be coined as ‘darkjazz’, and to make it more complicated The Mount Fuji Doomjazz Corporation was our live/improv output to the main (and more popular) The Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble project,” explains Köhnen when I ask him what ‘doom jazz’ is, to him. “Darkjazz or doomjazz, is a subgenre that uses the sound palette of jazz (brushes, doublebass, saxophone, vibraphone, clarinet) and adds darker elements from doom metal, post-rock, dark ambient and/or electronica to create a misty and brooding musical atmosphere.”
Whereas other jazz styles often focus on instrument technique, Köhnen tells us, darkjazz explores and accentuates atmosphere. And that, it turns out, is perfect for a horror game like Alone In The Dark.
“I hope that this kind of music will give the title a stronger musical identity,” says Hedberg when I ask why the development team settled on this (admittedly niche) genre. “We tried so many things before. Different tones and styles. And of course we tried playing around with the original material as well. It always felt like it was lacking. When playing with the original material, it even sounded like we were mocking it. Nothing was working. The best stuff we had about a year ago (before Köhnen came along) was not bad, but it felt so conventional and expected.”
The team did, however “always have a chunk of jazz in there”. Jazz was something that Hedberg and the developers at Pieces Interactive knew they wanted to include in some way, because it really helped establish the time period (1920s America) and the sense of place (Louisiana and New Orleans).
“We finally we just thought: let’s just lean into this. Let’s commit,” explains Hedberg. “So we did away with the more generic dramatic music and brought Jason Köhnen onboard, to help us flesh out the soundtrack.”
Video games don’t very often travel to Louisiana. Aside from some megahits like Red Dead Redemption, parts of Resident Evil, or a post-apocalyptic Far Cry spin-off, games tend to stick to New England or the West Coast, if they want to do horror. Evoking the feeling of the location – and playing up to it – was an integral part of the point for the Alone In The Dark reboot. For Pieces Interactive, it’s all part of honouring the legacy of this 30-year-old-franchise.
“Bringing Louisiana into the soundscape was important,” Hedberg explains. “Jazz was of course the easy answer, but we quite often ask ourselves things like: what does the bayou sound like musically? Or New Orleans? Are there Cajun or Creole elements we could bring in? How about voodoo? While jazz reigns, all the answers to these questions goes into the creation of a lush soundscape, where the ambient parts of the music blend with the sounds of the surroundings in an unsettling way.”
To that end, the developer has let Köhnen run rampant. The musician has been given complete creative freedom to determine what a supernatural horror set in Louisiana sounds like – and, per the man himself, there’s nothing quite like creative freedom to make you feel trusted and at home.
“I’ve been incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to basically get a ‘carte blanche’ from the guys at Pieces Interactive,” he tells us. “I think gaming has an even stronger leaning towards atmosphere than movies, at the moment, as gaming is a non-linear product and therefore there are more climactic curves to work with, which in this case fits perfectly with the essence of darkjazz music.”
Hedberg tells us that he and the team at Pieces basically ‘asked Köhnen to write an album’. “We gave him some prompts and some marks we needed to hit to have it work for our game,” says Hedberg. “We just needed to make sure we covered the game’s emotional spectrum and then we could take it from there. The fact that we had our in-house, Árni Bergur Zoëga, as musical director, we didn’t have to involve Jason in a way that we needed to teach him how game music works. We could just let Jason create his music – like a full musical album – and then Árni could use that material and apply it where needed. So if you listen to our game, it’s Jason’s music woven into the overall soundscape created by Árni. A very successful collaboration in my opinion.”
Since looking into this genre – and trying to figure out exactly what Alone In The Dark is going to sound like whenever it launches – I have been listening to both The Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble and The Mount Fuji Doomjazz Corporation, as well as Köhnen’s latest project, The Lovecraft Sextet. And I have been transfixed, filled with dread, entranced, and unsettled in equal measure.
I came into this knowing precious little about darkjazz – other than its relation to Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks soundtrack and its roots in Miles Davis’ ‘Elevator to the Gallows‘ – but I’ve come away with a new obsession. To see how this genre will meld with player agency, how the insistent pressure of dark ambiance will give way to more melodic motifs and elements as the game pours dread into you… I can’t wait to hear how it’ll all work out.
“It’s my first ever gaming collaboration and has been nothing short of fantastic,” says Köhnen. “An artist always performs at his/her best when they are given full creative freedom. I got a lot of trust from Pieces Interactive to put my magic to work, so of course, as a darkjazz magician does, I conjured up some sinister Chtulhu-ian concoctions for them. They went down like a charm.”