Last Ninja 2 | Reformation Vinyl | Review | "I just enjoyed wandering around, being a ninja" @mattgrayc64 #VideoGameVinyl #Vinyl #VGVinyl #LastNinja2

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It’s always a pleasure to be blindsided by pure joy and, when this Last Ninja 2 vinyl arrived, I couldn’t believe how quickly I became completely infatuated with it. Over two weeks on from arrival, it is still getting daily spins in my record player with no signs of slowing up. For the record, the A-side of this album consist of three songs that are so strong that they rank up there at the top of the genre in terms of album kick-offs, it’s unbelievably good stuff.

When I’m doing something at home that will take hours, I often put on playlists of VGM music based on specific consoles and systems, with my most-played systems being Mega Drive, Amiga and Commodore 64. Focusing here on the C64, I’ve always loved the aural capabilities of the machine, with it being able to generate anything from ambient, alien sounds through to achingly emotive scores or thumping techno and trance all whilst maintaining a pure sense of character that is undeniably C64.

My go-to piece of music on the system (and one which I must have whistled for over a dozen hours in total over the last few years) is Action Biker by Rob Hubbard -  but, whenever you select a C64 playlist anywhere, YouTube, Spotify etc. – Last Ninja 2 will be on it.

I’ve heard the songs before, scattered across playlists, and I played the games when I was too young to really understand how to complete them – I just enjoyed wandering around, being a ninja – but the way that Matt Gray has revisited and revitalised these songs, bringing a modern production sensibility whilst maintaining every ounce of what makes these tracks such a staple of the system and the beautiful presentation of the records themselves mean that this really is a knockout release.

During her two-part documentary on System 3, Kim Justice states that the music from Last Ninja 2 is probably the best on the Commodore 64 and, after hearing this release, for me, it’s some of the best music released in 2021 as well.

The album art is very much the same style used for the Commodore 64 game, with the squinting ninja’s eyes filling the night sky above a hazy New York skyline whilst the rear art features the tracks on each record listed in that familiar C64 font, framed by the in-game HUD. It’s at this point that I have to say that I struggled to come to terms with how seven of the thirteen tracks are from loading screens. Music this good… from LOADING SCREENS. I don’t know, that seems crazy to me, that sonic gold such as this would be blasting out whilst someone is off making a cup of tea, waiting for a level to load... 

Opening up the double-gatefold, the inner-art features a snake-like series of screens from the game - taken chronologically -  showing the journey from the C64 boot screen through Central Park, the streets and subways of New York, through to the mansion for the inevitable final confrontation. The art and design totally embrace the 8-bit roots, whilst the black background and moodiness – and quite frankly, how seminal that cover image is, totally capture the right atmosphere for the music.

The records themselves are double-sided picture discs and look fantastic, both have that epic cover image emblazoned on the first side, with the flip side having the title and tracklist. The pressing looks and plays great.

Side A:

Central Park Loading Theme – Kicking off with low notes and plucked Eastern instrumentation with string bends, it’s not long before that C64 signature sound comes in with keys and a beautifully buzzy four-note bass riff is sliding over a building crescendo until yes….energetic drums come in with a dance-beat, over a down-scale synthetic guitar riff. Just when you think it’s run out of tricks; a gorgeous keyboard melody comes soaring over the top. The drums are fantastic throughout the album and this track always gives me goosebumps, constantly morphing and twisting, keeping that driving riff whilst always inventively layering ever more melodies over the top. A great album opener and again – this was on a LOADING SCREEN. The players must have not known whether to sit patiently for the game to load or just get up and start drinking and dancing. This is also a good time to point out the fullness and balance in production and mastering. Every layer is warm and defined whilst the melodies that come and go all have purpose and add to the song, textured without being indulgent - and what a riff!

Central Park Main Theme – As the first track gently fades out, the second track comes in with an understated intro. Light percussion with that Eastern sensibility that lulls you before the inevitable build - a fuzzy bass-driven build that I reckon Lenny Kravitz has listened to at least once. Soon, it’s back to another great loop-driven drum beat with melodies adding variety and character – very much a continuation of the vibes laid down in the first track. Keep your ears out for some sneaky wah work and some tasty plucked guitar with a chorus effect just before the bass downscale. There’s so much going on beyond the superficially catchy beat that you need a lot of re-listens to capture everything - which is NOT a problem. Only two tracks in and it’s very clear that this is an album that rewards repeated spins. Good. 

This track also has a false ending which builds back up with bass and drums. Hearing them solo, you can really appreciate the thickness in each snare/bass kick and the richness of the hi-hat sampling – I’m also a total sucker for the snare roll that fades out the song, again with that chorus-laden plucked electric guitar making a comeback.

The Street Loading Theme – A favourite of mine, a pretty and melodic opening gives way to an even prettier section before an even more emotive melody joins in (it’s tasty) then, and only then - do the drums join in…drums that just make you want to shout, “YES!”. If you aren’t turkey-necking by this point, then you aren’t on my Christmas card list. The melodies hinted towards at the start of the track come back in full form. A sampled Chinese flute comes in as the track mellows for a second – without losing any pace – before the drums get back to full tilt, again acting as the rumbling, tireless behemoth under the now-to-be-expected layers riffing over the top. It feels like this music is genetically designed to please me and lift my mood. The end of the track also features a lovely rolling keyboard run.

Side B:

The Streets Main Theme – An unsettled and quite atmospheric opening to this – briefly – before guitar and light drums join the fray before ramping up. This could be a track taken from any number of high quality beat ‘em ups from the ‘90s. There’s a real confident mood and groove to this that propels the track forward, all without losing the 8-bit aural heart that rears its head throughout. The dashes of synth and keyboard work really make this feel like a lost seminal track from the ‘90s. 

The Sewers Loading Theme – A gentle melody with violin opens this track as a three-note riff repeats. The airy violin and effects that pepper the introduction are a moment of respite from the infectious drum-driven energy of the preceding tracks. I enjoyed how this takes its time to build up to a more celebratory sound with that squelchy C64 tone making its mark at the centre. Milky slide guitar takes over from this, before giving way to another saucy and melodic keyboard solo that rips through the track, handing the baton over to some real hair-blowing-in-the-breeze Miami Vice moments. Good. The whole album feels cohesive whilst branching out, the modernisation in the production, samples and instrumentation never feels out of keeping with the artist’s sensibilities which naturally embrace the era in which the game was made and build so effectively and respectfully on the foundation made on the C64.

The Sewers Main Theme – Certainly the moodiest and most ominous song thus far, a fuzzy, swooping bass that drops in and outplays over a minimalist ‘1…..2-3’ bass-drum beat, eventually being joined by sounds that can only be described as pure C64. It feels like this song flips the approach around, with the C64 side taking the lead. Pure atmosphere and quite a dark track that really takes its time in building up to the ‘full band’ ending, keeping that unsettled tone whilst introducing squealing guitar and crunching riffs over the pounding low-end. Certainly, a switch-up in tone to an almost industrial rock ending brings some serious grit to the album!

Side C:

The Basement Loading Theme – Possibly the most epic basement ever, this track opens with a four-note descending run over a big three-note riff that hinted at The Who’s Baba o’ Riley and, following a held high note - continues to build on the descending four-note melody that opens the track. One of the shorter pieces but very much one of character and identity.

The Basement Main Theme – Instantly, it’s clear that this is a moodier take on things, a slightly more industrial vibe, it’s like a dark dance track in a disco full of bad guys. The kind of music that would be playing in Tech Noir as the Terminator makes his way through the smoky neon, on the hunt for Sarah Connor. I really like the drive to this one and the ending section spices things up again by reminding you in a neat way of the album’s Commodore roots through some tasty SID chip runs. To end things off? Some milky guitar bends and some more from Matt Gray’s seemingly bottomless bag of gorgeously emotive keyboard riffs. Good.

The Office Loading Theme – Atmospheric notes swirl over the introduction, hinting back to the Eastern-influenced flute sections of the first half, leading to some choppy wah action and some chugging, distorted guitar married to a hypnotic single-note beat. I love how the music never gets too one-dimensional, there’s always another layer, rhythm or riff just around the corner and this track is no exception, fluidly rolling from industrial rock to swirling keys, techno and back whilst all maintaining a sense of focus. Single-note beats especially can sometimes feel wearing but it’s used to great effect here.

The Office Main Theme – This one feels like the music from a post-apocalyptic ‘80s chiller movie trailer for a large part of its runtime.  Some lost VHS classic in all its dated, retro glory with occasional segways into equally vintage synth-pop, always delivered to a synthetic drum beat and don’t you worry – towards the end there’s that classic C64 sound overlaid with tasty keyboard melodies with touches of airy guitar squeals in the ether.

Side D:

The Mansion Loading Theme – Nearing the end now, the final side starts with a track that feels warm and especially video-gamey in the darting, running riff and positive energy that emanates from the speakers. I can almost imagine this playing over the end credits as the player slumps back, relaxing after taking on such a tough challenge, basking in the finality of the journey.

The Mansion Main Theme – An atmospheric chasm of an opening gives way to low, warm bass and the most John Carpenter-esque moment on the album (good). If The Office Main Theme felt like a post-apocalyptic chiller, this is straight from the days of video nasties, certainly building up to a climax. Stuttering drums join the fray as the ghostly, unnerving notes join the SID chip in a glorious, tense haunting of my speakers. The way that the melody changes towards the end of this is one of my favourite moments of the album, swelling up to more goose-bump inducing melodies and then dropping right back to classic horror. There are so many stand-out moments and unexpected, yet absolutely welcomed tonal shifts here. Every driving riff, drum beat and note perfectly curated and observed.

The Final Battle Loading Theme – I half-expected someone to shout “MORTAL KOMBAT!!!” as this built up (although I’m glad they didn’t). Slow, distorted bends, trippy drums and a focus on the more techno side of things drive this one – as well as some lovely low guitar notes that echo under more C64-sounding gold. I wasn’t sure how the album would end but the slow breakdown of the instruments into a melody that I believe opens the album, with gentle, airy keyboard work over the top to a long fade was a damn good choice. 

As you can probably tell by the tone of the article, I’m completely smitten by what I assume has to be Matt Gray’s magnum opus. I’m not overly familiar with his work and yet I was hooked by the first listen to this album.

If you are already a fan of his releases or Last Ninja 2 specifically, this really is a no-brainer and one of the best albums I’ve heard all year, regardless of genre.

Taking the heart of such a seminal soundtrack, limited by the technology of the era and ramping it up with modern production whilst keeping the soul of the music at the core is a task I can imagine is tough to balance but this really does feel like a classic that needs to be heard and, if that’s not enough, it’s also one of the coolest picture-discs I’ve seen.

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