[In a special Penny Arcade Expo edition of the 'Sound Current' column, Jeriaska catches up with the musician behind Metroid Metal to talk about the band's PAX concert appearance, new album and future plans.]

Metroid Metal is the brainchild of North Carolina-based musician Stemage (Grant Henry), whose live performances feature band members Dan Behrens of Arm Cannon and Micheal Molnar of Temp Sound Solutions, along with Dan Taylor and Kevin Lawrence of Yes, Mayhem. The musicians took to the stage at the Saturday night Penny Arcade Expo show following Anamanaguchi and preceding MC Frontalot.

PAX has coincided with the publication of Varia Suite, an album playing on the name of Samus Aran's Varia Suit, released on the Silent Uproar Records label. The Metroid arrangements on the album are by the full Metroid Metal Live band and represent an elaboration of this past New Year's performance at the MAGFest Gaming Expo Party. Varia Suite is comprised of over 50 minutes of music, including remixes of NES, Game Boy, Super Nintendo and more recent console generation installments of the Metroid series.

In this interview taking place at the Penny Arcade Expo, Stemage describes the evolution of the Metroid Metal music. The discussion centers on the early musical experiments that led to the formation of a band, concerns over the course of the project's growth surrounding copyright, the PAX performance and timely release of the first full-length album.

Varia Suite runs the gamut in covering Metroid titles from past and present game console eras. Leading up to this collection of music, what was the first song you set out to arrange?

Stemage (Grant Henry): The first one was the title screen theme from the NES Metroid. Back when Metroid Prime came out, you could unlock the original game. I guess because I’m older and I now play music regularly, I heard the soundtrack in a different way.

I had always been into hard rock and had been recording my own stuff, so I thought I would give it a shot deconstructing the rhythms, keeping the melodies intact, and turning it into something a little more progressive and polyrhythmic. I posted it in a few forums and people seemed to dig it. I started doing more tracks and picked up the URL because “Metroid Metal” just made sense. That was six years ago.

What memories do you have of the first Metroid and the music by Hirokazu Tanaka?

I played it in ’87, so I guess I was eight. I remember being scared. I remember feeling very uneasy, and I think it had to do a lot with a combination of the art and music. They could have had “Brinstar” playing the entire time and you would be a happy camper, but it gets pretty dissonant.

Also, just being able to turn around and go left was a big thing back then. I remember trying to figure out why I couldn’t progress and it was because I needed to go left to get the morph ball!

Were there other big surprises that you encountered playing Metroid back in the day?

I was really shocked when I came to the realization that Samus was a girl. There’s also the first metroid sighting, which happens during the last world that you visit, Tourian. Being attacked by metroids for the first time, they latch onto you and drain your energy bar, the tension is just ridiculous.

To what extent do you depart from the original compositions?

The songs are close enough melodically that you can drop it on top of the original material and they completely line up. “Norfair” is the biggest departure musically. Some of the chords are different, though it’s all still there if you’re familiar with the music.

What would you count among the key influences in helping to shape the musical style that is on display in Metroid Metal?

It was mostly guitar players that were my influence first. Eddie van Halen, Eric Johnson, Steve Vai and Joe Satriani, the guys who could play fast and clean, playing across scales I didn’t even know existed. Once I hit teenage years it was the people writing interesting music and crazy compositions that I was drawing inspiration from.

As far as metal, the funny thing is that most of my influences aren’t metal at all. I put a CD out in 2006 of original music with vocals that goes from ballad to metal to pop. The upcoming Stemage record will be about 35 minutes, all short songs, and it’s going to be an homage to my favorite horror movie of all time, which is Dawn of the Dead.

I love heavy guitars with clean vocals. I play really odd chords and a lot of that stuff is inspired by DC Rock, Jawbox and Fugazi. I love Opeth, Meshuggah and late ‘90s indie rock. Some of the Metroid Metal songs are heavy, but a lot actually fall more in the category of prog rock. The song "The Tunnel" from Metroid II is straight major chords, guitar happy, kind of a solo-ey song. “Phendrana Drifts” is a straight space rock track.

Do you consider the ending theme of the original Metroid to be a significant departure from what comes before it? The composer has mentioned that the song exhibits a brighter melody than anything found in the various regions of the game world.

"Ending" is the ultimate musical reward, essentially. It’s kind of this huge release following all the tension building through the game. Preceding that, there’s a melody, it’s just an off-putting melody, while catchy.

To be catchy, a song doesn’t need to be in a major scale. “Maridia” is a very popular track from Super Metroid and it’s just this wildly unpredictable chord progression. Once you know it, it becomes your favorite.

What did you feel were the design strengths of Super Metroid?

I think it was polish. The first one was a great experiment, though they didn’t quite get the concept of proper backtracking. In Metroid there aren’t really places you can see and get to later. It’s more about finding hidden stuff. In Super Metroid it’s all about continuity and pacing. You can constantly move forward while still having a lengthy game. They had the formula and better hardware and they really nailed it.

In what situations do you choose to put several songs together into a single medley?

I did one big medley of all of the boss music because I didn’t think any one could constitute an entire track. I started doing medleys of two tracks to create a verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-outro structure to turn it essentially into a song. I did one from Metroid Prime 3 that was a combination of the Bryyo world music and the theme. They play the same scales, so it was easy to put them together into the same song. I haven’t done another big medley since then, but I plan on it.

Where do you feel that the Metroid Metal music most closely reflects the source material of a videogame?

Space Pirates” from Metroid Prime is the first time I tried to program a blast beat in there with really fast drums. It’s supposed to be intense like the space pirate battles were. You hear the music building and then it finally just explodes when they’re in front of you.

Is there any videogame music you are tempted to arrange outside of the Metroid series?

It’s funny how many people have asked for Kid Icarus. At the same time I feel like there’s other games I would like to do. Every time I hear the Marble Madness soundtrack it destroys me. I would love to do an EP project doing something with Marble Madness. I also love it when rock kind of pushes its way into games, like in Guilty Gear and BlazBlue.

I have my list of favorite soundtracks, and there’s a huge appreciation of game music today--we just came from a Game Boy chiptune concert in the parking lot of the convention center!

Were you ever concerned that there might be copyright issues involved in arranging music from a famous game franchise?

Yeah, I was very much. The first run of shirts I did had nothing “Metroid” on it. I wanted to stay away from the properties. Up until this point I’ve only taken donations for lossless CDs.

What’s pretty awesome is that a couple weeks ago I got an email from Mike Wikan, the lead designer for the Prime series. They had just finished working on the trilogy and he wrote to say he enjoyed the music. To have... not the blessing, but the recognition of Retro felt really good. I think they realize it’s an homage and they don’t pursue it, just like no one pursues cover bands that play in bars for a living.

What made you finally decide to record Varia Suite, your full length album of Metroid Metal music?

What happened was that we really enjoyed playing live and everyone added their own elements. We’re all engineers on our own and so everyone could record their parts. I then co-mastered it with Dan Behrens, the guitar player from Arm Cannon. It’s a supplement to the live shows we were doing and was perfect with PAX coming up. The music has been free online and still is, but this is the reinvention of it and helps to support the guys who have been working on it.


[Find out more about Metroid Metal by visiting the official website. Songs from "Varia Suite" can be sampled on the Bandcamp site. Photos by Jeriaska.]