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iTunes album review: “The String Arcade” by Dren McDonald

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The String ArcadeBear with me for a moment, because I’m going to start this review talking about Queen. There’s no shortage of Queen cover and tribute albums available, you see. Orchestras, international pop acts, metal bands, industrial…I even have a CD of a Welsh male choir singing Queen songs. Some of these albums are horrible, and some are pretty good. My favorites, though, are the ones that don’t just transcribe Queen’s music for new arrangements or styles, but that take snippets of the music and create new themes with them. The best example of this is The Queen Symphony performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Tolga Kashif.

I mention this because that’s what you’re getting with The String Arcade by Dren McDonald, and that’s what makes it work.

To say that this is an album of popular video game music performed by a string quartet is selling it short. You’ll recognize game titles from arcades (Galaga) to early consoles (Sonic 2) to computers (Secret of Monkey Island) to modern mobile devices (Plants vs. Zombies), but you may not instantly recognize the music itself. Arrangers McDonald and Jason Poss take different approaches to the individual tracks, so some versions are more literal interpretations while others play loosely with their usage of the original’s themes.

You’ll recognize the melody in “The Legend of Zelda Title Theme,” for example, but the arrangement here is lonely and haunting, not the triumphant overture you’d expect. Then, you’ve got pieces like “Sonic 2 Scherzo” which seems more like it was inspired by the pace of the game than by the actual music of Sonic the Hedgehog 2. It’s sneaky, and it’s a lot of fun.

This approach to The String Arcade is bold, because it may hurt individual sales. If you sample a game’s music from this album and can’t instantly recognize the theme, I imagine you’re less likely to buy that track. But the end result is that the album works better as a whole. There’s an over-arching continuity to the 15 tracks that would be lost if each theme was simply a literal interpretation. A minor drawback is that by the end of the album, the tracks do tend to run together. I’m not sure this can be helped, though…I don’t have any other chamber orchestra CDs for comparison (not even of Queen, which I think I should remedy).

It’s easier to recommend The String Arcade to fans of classical music than to gamers. There’s some nostalgia involved here, sure, but that’s easily overshadowed by the inventive arrangements and by the performances of the musicians from the San Francisco Bay area (with a special appearance by the Videri String Quartet). Either way, you’ll likely want to buy the CD version, as it comes with two bonus tracks over the iTunes release: “Altered Beast Title Theme” and “Tron Arcade Medley.” No matter which outlet you choose, all proceeds will be donated to the Alameda Music Project after-school program for underserved children.

For more information on the album and to hear the opening track—”Grasswalk – Plants vs. Zombies”—visit www.thestringarcade.com.

Appletell Rating:

The String Arcade review

Buy The String Arcade

Genres: Instrumental, Soundtrack
Released: February 11, 2014
Price: $9.99

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