BattleTech by Jon Everist
“I just realized I'm sitting on a fusion reactor"
For All Mankind
Prepare to liberate the Reach and end the tyrannical rule of the Aurigan Directorate this week with BattleTech by Jon Everist. Pressed on black/white ink spot vinyl by Black Screen Records, the award-winning soundtrack to Harebrained Schemes’ incredible turn-based strategy game is here to send chills down your spine. Join me this week as I talk with composer Jon Everist and uncover the story behind this rich and dynamic score. Prepare for deployment mercenary because we are about to drop in hard and fast!
Jon Everist is an award-winning composer, multi-instrumentalist, and avid gamer based out of Seattle, Washington. Best known previously for his work on the Shadowrun series by Harebrained Schemes, Jon has become a powerhouse in the indie game music industry. With his dynamic, and genre-melding scores, Jon always takes you on a journey through the charts and back with each and every album he puts out. As he has become one of my favorite artists of all time I felt compelled to know what some of the biggest inspirations to his muse were, and what drove him to pursue a life in music?
“Old SNES RPG games are what got me obsessed with music and music production in the first place, so I always have a soft spot for Kondo and Uematsu. When I first played Final Fantasy III on SNES, Legend of Zelda and Chrono Trigger, something kind of unlocked in my obsessive brain that made me relentlessly pursue recording music after. The '90s were a pretty rad time for music innovation. Bands like Nirvana, Radiohead, Portishead and electronic and hip-hop folks like Aphex Twin, Aesop Rock, MF Doom were really inspiring to me, so I ended up going that electronic/hip-hop route early in life. I also never thought I was capable of game or film scoring with orchestra, I really doubted my abilities because I wasn't classically trained at a young age, so I kind of locked that part off and thought of it as inaccessible, though I loved film scores from folks like James Horner and of course John Williams. It wasn't until I was trained much later in life that I realized that orchestral scoring was entirely accessible, and I'd convinced myself to be embarrassed about my lack of training for no real reason - all it took was some dedication and understanding from great music teachers that a path in music is a state of constant learning - there's never a finality to it.”
If anyone has proven that there isn't a finality to the type of innovation and learning that can be made through composition it's Jon. His determination and drive are one of the most compelling aspects of his scores, truly permeating every aspect of its creation. From those early '90s RPGs to the electrifying voice that trembles beneath his scores today, what Jon has been able to achieve with his career is astounding. As a fairly new composer in the industry, it has been absolutely magical to see how his albums evolve from one game to the next. I just had to know if there were any albums that stood out as truly inspirational to him over the years:
“There are so many - I always circle back to the two scores that convinced me to leave my shitty job and try to get into games full-time, those were Amon Tobin's score for SPLINTER CELL: CHAOS THEORY, and Rich Vreeland (Disaterpeace)’s score for FEZ. They were so unique sounding to me at the time. Tobin's score for CHAOS THEORY was so experimental and electronic - I thought to myself that if someone is allowing him to do a score like that for such a big game, I think I have a shot at trying my luck. Same went for FEZ - it was a moment where I realized how independent gaming was changing, and that it was a bit more accessible. That was when I decided to leave my job and go back to school to get some training.”
There it is, that drive I was talking about before. The determination it took for Jon to jump into the unknown and fully immerse himself into the next chapter of his life emboldens the foothold his compositions have, not only as musical experiences but as a manifestation of who Jon is as a person. Pushing past those misconceptions of himself and truly embracing what he wanted to become is something that not only resonates in his music but how he treats his fans and loved ones alike. Both Chaos Theory and FEZ have a profound implication when applied to the understanding of Jon's path within the games industry. The fact that they encapsulate that electronic and dynamic sound that Jon so lovingly captures in his own compositions says a lot about their foothold in Jon's psyche. FEZ has always been a favorite album of mine, and I think it truly was a portal into what indie game soundtracks could be back in 2011 and what they would become in the future. Jon is no stranger to indie game development at this point and helping craft soundtracks within that space is something that has come naturally to him over the years. Working closely with Harebrained Schemes, Jon has single-handedly scored an entirely new generation of fantasy games that are defined through his music as an extension of their stories. As the unofficial resident composer for Harebrained Schemes I asked Jon what it was like working so intimately with such a talented development studio so early on in his gaming music career:
"I feel immensely lucky that they keep asking me back! Yes, I'm still freelance and take on other projects, but it's very cool to feel like I have a family at Harebrained Schemes. We have a very rare creative symbiosis going on - they know exactly how to present musical problems for me to solve, and they have developed a real trust in my instincts and I with them."
Past as Prologue
This symbiotic relationship that Harebrained Schemes developed with Jon is one of the defining aspects of these projects in my opinion. This marriage between the game and it's music elevates these experiences beyond just what is viewed on the screen. Jon always finds this serendipitous way to transcend the medium in which his music inhabits and that is why I think BattleTech is his best album to date.
The Great Betrayal
To gain a better appreciation for what was created here I set out to ask some questions that would truly unravel the machinations behind Jon’s creation of this album. With BattleTech being such a rich and dynamic world, what were some of the things that Jon gravitated towards to help immerse himself within the universe that Harebrained Schemes was creating?
“MechWarrior 2 was one of the first PC games I ever played, but for whatever reason, I never got past the 'big stompy mech' part of it and dug deeper. I never played the tabletop game, so that entire history and lore part was foreign to me. When I was approached to write the score for BattleTech, just like any IP with a lot of history, I tend to want to put my blinders on completely and only focus on what's directly in front of me. Meaning I want to focus on what the creative team is trying to say with their project and with their characters, and how I can support that story and treat characters with honesty and empathy. I don't think it serves the project well to be too focused on the past or upholding a dogmatic idea of what a franchise should be. It was clear to me from the art and briefs I got from Harebrained Schemes that they were making a war story, so I focused on that and worked my way backwards from there.”
March on Axylus
This is one of the things I respect about Jon’s music the most. As a gamer himself, he is able to disassociate himself from what came before with Shadowrun and BattleTech and truly hone in and empathize with what matters, the characters and their stories. Some of the best tracks he has ever written are the ones named after the game’s locales or characters in which his music inhabits, and that says a lot about his writing process — A true demonstration of his beliefs as a composer. Working closely with Harebrained Schemes, Jon is left in this amazing creative bubble in which he is on the ground floor of a game's creation. This ability to watch a story develop before his very eyes, and help shape the game with his melodic touch truly embodies Jon's specialty as an artist. To better understand Jon's process I was compelled to ask him what drove his robotic inspirations for this soundtrack and what helped him stay grounded within that creative space:
“I have a few synthesizers and a Eurorack modular setup that is always inspiring to work within the electronic realm, you can get so many cool and organic sounding things from that. For BattleTech though, I tended to just get up each day and sit in front of the piano for a bit until something stuck - then I'd move to my computer and start laying it all in. When you're in the flow state you just start trying things and taking risks, that's where the magic happens. I don't like to listen to any other music when I'm writing a score - I am listening to so much of my own music when writing that I feel overloaded, so I stick to NPR.”
Taking a much-needed reprieve with some NPR, I love it! Experimentation is something that you can feel naturally come out in BattleTech's final score. This album is completely filled with a dynamic breadth of genres, from sweet orchestral motifs to down and dirty synthscapes that leave you absolutely floored, what remains is this overarching grandness that totally dominates you in a spectacular way. One of the best aspects of this album is the vocals that are mixed so lovingly throughout this score. They add this grand scale of range within the pieces they are featured in that bring an extra bit of creative flair to Jon's orchestrations. With how quiet this album can get, sometimes it's the vocals that will lead you out of these electrical grooves to soar amongst the cosmos in these momentous crescendos that are filled with triumphant horns and playful strings that feel totally and completely epic. The sheer range of musical styles packed into this double LP album will captivate you for hours and hours of listening sessions but where did it all come from?
"My main DAW is Cubase 10 on my main computer rig. I also have sampler computers whose only job is to process samples for me as I write. They use a program called Vienna Ensemble Pro to communicate these samples into audio over Ethernet into my main computer. Vienna Ensemble Pro houses all of my digital instruments - Kontakt instruments mostly. I tend to favor Cinematic Studio instruments for my main orchestra, Orchestral Tools instruments, Spitfire, and a whole lot of other developers. I have a whole suite of software synths - I really like Zebra a lot, and then I have outboard synths that I mentioned earlier. I also have some outboard processing gear for mixing and mastering my work, and some hardware reverbs. I really love the Manley Vari MU and the Massive Passive combo. I have a Dangerous 2BUS for summing and a Bricasti for reverb. I also have a lot of digital plugins for mixing and mastering, UAD makes amazing stuff, Waves, Izotope, Fabfilter, etc. All of these things are just tools though. For BattleTech, I relied on the live orchestra for a lot of it, and then used my sample libraries to fill in gaps where I could."
Wolf at the Door
The live orchestrations present in the final score is definitely the best aspect of this album. You can truly feel the energy that was captured during the recording sessions! Resonating off the table in this truly remarkable way, the soul and performances of all the talented musicians involved in bringing Jon’s score to life is just breathtaking. It's one thing to hear something live, but to capture that moment so naturally on this format was such an incredible feat I can't help but marvel at it. Both the Budapest Symphonic Scoring Orchestra & Brandenburg State Orchestra Frankfurt blew this performance out of the water and the reverberations from those concert halls can be felt wonderfully on the pressing here, magical! One of my favorite aspects of Jon's compositional style is his ability to meld differing genres in this cohesive and meticulous way. Sweet melancholy orchestral motifs lead into somber heart-pounding percussion-driven passages filled with incredible vocal tracks that will leave chills running up and down your spine. A lot of that has to do with those live orchestral elements that are so heavily ingrained into this album’s framework that even Jon was moved by it:
“When we were in Budapest - we were recording "Umbra" which was one of my favorite tracks from the score. The conductor was Peter Pejstik, someone who I really respect and who is an amazing composer and musician himself. While he was conducting this piece he got super into it, and seemed to get emotional and moved. That was a moment where I was feeling really good - my biggest fear is boring the shit out of the orchestra!”
Mech Bay Cantata
I don’t think that is possible at all Jon! This profound experience that Jon had witnessing his album come to life before his very eyes is the exact same feeling you will experience when spinning this album. The way he has mixed this album and infused it with his own exemplary electronic twist is what truly turns this score into more than just a soundtrack. Harkening back to the likes of Vangelis with this Blade Runner-esque vibrato of synths Jon blends sophistication with mechanization in a way that totally defies all expectations. Trapping you inside the cockpit of his sonically driven war machine of sounds, Jon Everist has done it yet again!
Meat is Cheap
Black Screen Records have released yet another fantastic Jon Everist record. As one of the best labels in the industry, it's truly awesome to see them approach Jon's discography with such respect and style. As his third release with Black Screen Records I asked Jon what it was like to work with them to bring Shadowrun and BattleTech to home on vinyl:
"Black Screen is amazing and Kevin is super cool to work with. He's been able to pull together really great releases and puts a lot of effort into everything he does. I know I'm in good hands!"
For the Reach
The way in which Black Screen Records continues to push the envelope in terms of quality with each consecutive release goes to show just how passionate Kevin and his team truly are. The artwork for this release was carried out by Joel DuQue, and has the potential to be one of the most stunning pieces of art on a Black Screen Records release to date. The muted earth tones with splashes of green and orange just make this an absolute frame-worthy cover. I am deeply impressed by the way the art spans the front and back of this release in such a spectacular way. This album cover reminds me of Fangamer's Into the Breach design by Gareth Davies (spudonkey) with its execution and cohesive design all throughout it’s just great! One of my favorite aspects of this art’s presentation is the material on which it is printed. The giclée style finish on the sleeve definitely makes this one of the best feeling jackets I've ever held especially from Black Screen. The only downside here is that the cardstock is a tad flimsy and detracts slightly from the overall presentation. I think there's potential here to iterate on this design and make it feel even better in the future.
The Vast Expanse
Design for this album was carried out by Black Screen Records' very own Dane Baudoin and is as exceptional as always. The highlight of his work here has to be the credits on the right-hand side of the gatefold. Seeing this homage to all the wonderful people who made this release possible brought a genuine smile to my face and is just pure genius, bravo! Another fantastic element of this release's design are the stories from Jon and game director Michael McCain that Kevin compiled and wrote up for us all to enjoy. Hearing how Jon's demo of the cinematic became the driving factor of Michael's creativity embodies what music is all about! These loving inclusions within an albums packaging truly elevate it beyond just a product, it helps turn this piece of art into a story worth collecting and I love it!
A Welcome Respite
Mastering was carried out by none other than Christian Bethge of RAMA Tonstudio. Christian has become sort of the resident mastering guru for Black Screen’s release and I never get tired of hearing his work. Through his impeccable attention to detail Black Screen Records have maintained their spot in producing some of the best sounding vinyl in the industry. BattleTech is full of tons of quiet melodic sections that require your full attention and Christian has executed the dynamic range of these LPs in a glorious fashion that never seems to disappoint. It definitely helps that these albums are just so gorgeous to look at as well. Some of the best splatter/swirl work that I've ever seen. Totally up there with the amazing Thunder Force IV album from Data Discs earlier this year!
Overall I think that this album is a must-own, not only for fans of John Everist or Black Screen Records work, but because I think this is one of the best releases of 2019 hands down. There is just so much to like here, and I can't wait to see what comes next from Jon, maybe I'll just let him tell you…
"I'm currently finishing up the score for DISINTEGRATION by V1 Interactive and Private Division. It's a really cool game and Idea and the music has been super fun to write. You can see the announcement trailer here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qOR6A6RMEjI"
I want to give a huge thanks to Jon Everist for taking the time to talk with me and share a little bit of his life with all of you! I also want to thank him for providing me with digital copies of this album to give away to all of you readers and fans of his work! Keep an eye out on here and social media this weekend for a chance to win a copy of this amazing album!
Be thinking of ice cream flavors! 😉
Who Will Watch the Watchers
Another year, another Black Screen Records review. As the very first label I ever covered on this site, Black Screen has held a special place in my heart over the past year. The anticipation of launching this site, and the overall positivity and support that it has garnered has been one of the most heart-warming things I have experienced in my life. This past year has truly been the best of my life and I owe all of that to you the reader. Thank you so much for joining me on this journey, listening to my ramblings, and tuning in every week to see what I’m up to. It’s super fun to jump back through the past year and compare that first review of DEADBOLT to this one. When I set out to launch this site and share my thoughts with all of you my goal was simple -- provide a quick overview of the album, some photos, and my brief thoughts on the music and its packaging. Over the past year, I along with all of you have seen this concept grow beyond what I ever thought imaginable. I feel like this space has become a haven for artists and even labels to share their stories, and give us all a glimpse behind the soundtracks we love. Thank you so much for reading and for all your support. Let's have another amazing year!
If you liked what you just read and want to help support me by bringing more content like this to you in the future, please check out my Patreon. Every tier includes early access to each and every review I put out. I've also put together some exclusive VGM WAX-Themed swag like stickers and a T-Shirt for those of you who want that. I have to say they are pretty sweet! I will also be releasing exclusive and unique behind the scenes content available only through this program! Much love to all of you and thank you for the past year. It has completely transformed my life. I can't wait to share more of my passion, love, and creativity with each and every one of you beautiful people!
Remastered for vinyl by:
Vinyl produced & distributed by:
Black Screen Records
Where to buy?
This album is still readily available directly from Black Screen Records or as a bundled package with Jon's two Shadowrun soundtracks. If you have yet to check out these albums I highly suggest you just go for it, and grab all three. I know you won't be disappointed. The album is also available in limited quantities directly from Jon Everist’s Bandcamp page. You can also snag a digital copy as well to stream or download in whatever high quality format you desire!