Sea Power, ‘Disco Elysium’, and the importance of being miserable

“The bloating may never leave your face – but beneath it, you still have some years. You still have some hope”

Rock The Spacebar is a twice-monthly column investigating the great music that underpins your favourite games. This week, Dom Peppiatt explores how British Sea Power‘s soundtrack to Disco Elysium captured all the gloom of hangovers, capitalism, and a man on the brink of losing himself.

Back in 2005, I saw British Sea Power live at a small festival that blossomed in the heart of a Leicester campus every year. The tragically short-lived Summer Sundae was unique in the British festival scene; a favourite of BBC Radio 6 DJs and a destination for all the middle-class hippies that would later move to Totnes or Glastonbury (town), the plucky 6000 capacity festival was a perfect fit for British Sea Power. I was 14 when I saw them perform to a crowd of big-pupiled students, all holding local flora aloft, waving branches back and forth as the set climaxed with the arrival of a member of the crew in a bear suit, running amok onstage.

Even in the mid-00s, British Sea Power was somewhat ahead of the curve. The band was writing music about the slow, perilous collapse of the planet as ice shelves slid into the ocean. It was penning beautiful, atmospheric tracks about obscure bodies of water in Orkney. It was extolling the virtues of being an EU citizen. British Sea Power – or Sea Power now, dropping the nation prefix, so as not to come off all jingoistic – has always been a band that embraces the miserable alongside the beautiful. A perfect fit for Disco Elysium, then.

There have been many established artists that have gone on to make music for games (these days, it’s a pretty damn cool thing to do). But none have fit the brief better than Sea Power. The game – wrenched from the mind Robert Kurvitz, lead designer and writer at pan-European development outfit ZA/UM – focuses on an alcoholic detective embroiled in one of the messiest murder cases you’ll see in media. Junkie kids, racist dockworkers, neo-liberal snobs and venture capitalists that are so rich their wealth bends light around them are all par for the course in Disco Elysium. The setting of Martinaise – a working class district of a fictional post-failed Revolutionary state in a world that’s long past its prime – reeks of despair. Local workers, destitute and stuck in this forgotten town, snatch moments of chemically-enhanced fun where they can get it, before the long winters and salty air call them back to consciousness. And back to work.

I’m willing to bet, even if you’d never played the game, you’d catch a whiff of this oppressive – yet achingly beautiful – world from the game’s OST. Sometimes meandering and melancholic, sometimes pent up with an unsettling menace, the orchestral swells and post-rock inspirations on Sea Power’s work on Disco Elysium is staggering. It’s no surprise the OST won a BAFTA.

Disco Elysium. Credit: ZA/UM.
Disco Elysium. Credit: ZA/UM.

But why does Sea Power’s gloomy ode to the faded glory of Martinaise work so well? What is it about this sonic companion to a man wandering to the brink of madness and back that keeps me going back to my record player to spin the OST, sleeve to sleeve? It might be in how the band approached the brief. Per the band’s bass guitarist and vocalist, Hamilton Wilkinson, the group basically ‘lived in someone else’s head’ when writing the music for the game, detaching themselves from Sea Power – with all their experiences of growing up and living in Britain – and instead going all ‘Christian Bale’ on us and getting a bit method.

As a result, we get long, moping tracks that dwell in misery. The second you boot up the game, your main character – so hungover he can’t even recall his own name – experiences an existential crisis so profound it’d make Nietzsche blush. Somehow, Sea Power knows exactly what this would sound like (self-pitying, wallowing, goopy) and you don’t even question it. “Yep, that’s the sound of a hangover,” you nod glumly, picking the responses you want to give to your body to rouse it from its inebriated slumber.

A lot of the soundtrack’s beauty comes from its insistence on repetition. Your struggling cop and his interminably loyal companion – the inspirational Kim Kitsuragi – bumble around the chilly coastal town, revisiting multiple areas often at different times of the day. Sea Power worked in motifs and themes that match location and time, so even though you may wander through to a new area, hangovers of the previous zone stick around in your mind and cling onto your ears. Sometimes, it’s beautiful. Often, it’s unsettling – like a bad feeling you can’t shake.

This is misery. This is what it feels like to be burned-out, peering out over the fringes of reality. It’s all very cinematic, and these morose yet insistent tracks marry with the painterly art direction of the game effortlessly to reinforce this hazy, post-fugue atmosphere that’s so dense in Disco Elysium you could bottle it. Then drink it, probably. And that’s no accident; Sea Power drew on inspirations from composers that worked with David Lynch and Kubrick when making this soundtrack, playing with noise as much as instrumentation to make a sonic landscape that just gets in your head. Paired with Kurvitz’ 1million+ in-game words, the end result is a game that’s as impactful and persistent and frankly upsetting as any Kafka or Beckett.

Many games have tried to get misery right; some go hard on overbearing horror and violent masochism (Bloodborne), some spend 50 hours focusing on a self-pitying emo (Final Fantasy 8), and some make us take a long, hard look at ourselves and ask whether we like what we see (To The Moon). But none hit the nail on the head of existential dread better than Disco Elysium. And no-one felt it better than Sea Power.

Disco Elysium is available on PC, Nintendo Switch, PS4, PS5, Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S. You can listen to Sea Power’s discography on Spotify

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