Making a living as any kind of practising artist often involves applying your talents to a wide array of projects, some of which may take you far from your core interests — but with the promise of new creative inspiration and learning, as well as helping you stay afloat financially. Rutger Zuydervelt, the man behind the Machinefabriek moniker, has previously applied himself to film scores, art installations, music for dance performances, and even sounds for a wifi utility app, but “Astroneer” is his first foray into video game soundtracks. The game casts its players as resource hunters on distant future extraterrestrial frontiers, exploring and mining other planets using advanced terraforming abilities.
I wasn’t able to try out the game due to my computer being too wimpy, but Zuydervelt’s soundtrack clearly conveys the idea: epic, euphoric adventure, with plenty of tension and danger, but also mystery and occasional encounters with the sublime. Most of the music here is very conventional by Zuydervelt’s standards, often drawing on standard space-themed rhythms, simple melodies, and four-chord patterns. However, his unstable, wobbling tones add a hint of uncertainty to proceedings, and there are some moments of real beauty: the plinky-plonky drift and shimmering halos of ‘Building’, for example, or the lush and elegiac vocal chords of ‘Gameplay 5’. My favourite piece comes right at the end of the album, where the haunting distant choral voices of ‘Starting Scene’ gust like a breeze across droning bass and twinkling starlight. On this account, SpaceX should be contracting Zuydervelt to score the first Mars landing.
“Assemblage” is released as Machinefabriek rather than under Zuydervelt’s own name, and collects various ‘eccentrics’ previously available on compilations or out-of-print CDRs. ‘Eccentrics’ turns out to be a name for the eclectic electroacoustic Machinefabriek experiments we all know and love, with a few boundary-pushing surprises thrown in for good measure. ‘Nerf’ sets the tone with its deliciously crunchy, creaky, and brittle sounds, tentatively poised on the edge of becoming. Explorations of acoustic instruments are well represented: ‘The Harmed Harp’ extracts all manner of tones, rattles, buzzes, creaks, and gongs from the titular instrument, producing endless tiny variations in pitch and timbre; ‘Ivory Ghosts’ features echoing pings that would seem to bear no relation to the piano, reverberation tails sweeping in circuits around a circular space, accompanied by metallic thumps and plucked strings.
My two favourite ‘eccentrics’ both took me by surprise. ‘Sluimer’ is mostly just acoustic guitar, played ‘straight’ with great restraint and precision; with its calm plucked chords, arpeggios, and harmonics, I could well imagine it in the repertoire of a certain Señor Cristián Alvear. But Zuydervelt once again saves his best for last: a recitation, in a hilariously antiquated British accent, of various short words intended to demonstrate the pronunciation of vowels and dipthongs, the voice doubled and split between left and right channels, bouncing from one to the other and sometimes speaking over the top of each other. All backed by the most gorgeous electric piano noodlings. The format of “Assemblage” suggests a ‘b-sides and rareties’-type package, but don’t be fooled: this is Machinefabriek at his creative, inventive, and, yes, eccentric best.