Metroid Metal began modestly as a single Metroid remix posted to a message board by musician Grant Henry. Since then, the band's debut album Varia Suite has premiered at the 2009 Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle and received the favorable notice of legendary composer Hip Tanaka. Writing original music under the artist name Stemage, Henry is currently in the process of creating his first game soundtrack. Called Alpha Squad, the Xbox Indies action title is being designed by independent developer Dragon Divide.

At the PAX East expo in Boston, the musician joined Dan Behrens, Micheal Molnar, Dan Taylor and Kevin Lawrence in performing live arrangements of music from the Metroid game series. The performance followed a panel on videogame arrangements hosted by Game Music 4 All, centering on a compilation called IWADON that I helped research and featuring a Ninja Warriors cover by the artist. This discussion, the first in a short series on PAX East, centers on Henry's approach to composing for an indie title and how the score has been influenced by his prior experiences in game arrangement.

<a href="">Sampler - (City, Sewer, and Winter Levels) by Stemage</a>

Do you feel your experience with Metroid Metal has been good preparation for writing the soundtrack to Alpha Squad?

Grant Henry (Stemage), musician: I do. This is the first time I’ve ever worked on something contributing to a videogame instead of covering music from it. Always striving for better quality for Metroid Metal has improved my production, and I feel more confident producing music that starts and ends out of my studio.

When did Steve from Dragon Divide first approach you to write music for the game?

He contacted me last September (later starting on it right after finishing the Super Metroid ending for Metroid Metal) and I wasn’t really sure at the time if I wanted to take it. I’ve always done music at my own leisure, without any time constraints. This is the first time I’ve ever signed on to something that had a definite end and had this amount of material involved. It’s a ton of tracks.

What was it about Dragon Divide's request that interested you in joining the developer?

When he originally contacted me, I realized that he was familiar with my work outside of Metroid Metal. He had an awareness of my solo material and even knew of a song that I had submitted for a Halo 3 soundtrack contest. I felt there was a sync in terms of the art direction he was going for and the way the game was going to play. At the time it seemed to him that people were not taking advantage of what the Xbox Indies service had to offer and he saw it as a platform to create something special.

<a href="">Prelude (SM) by Metroid Metal</a>

As a departure from Stemage and Metroid Metal albums, how are you finding the challenge of writing looped music for the game?

It’s a huge challenge and has been a great learning experience. I tend to write music that is complex and I’ve intentionally had to scale that back so that a song can flow back into itself with the loop. Some of the loops can be thirty seconds; some can be two and a half minutes. There's an art to it, not just in terms of the writing of the music, but also in the production: there are things that you can do to make it sound seamless.

Listening to Varia Suite, it's easy to imagine a story built around the narrative arc of the album. Has creating music that takes listeners on a journey been a priority of yours?

Dynamics are really important to me. It’s a big part of every song. On this soundtrack, when working with a very short loop you also have to create a sense of consistency. The dynamic structure of the songs will carry over into a full-length soundtrack that has just as much of a story as the game does. Once it’s done, I’ll put it in order and we’ll see how it does as an album.

<a href="">Strati Part 1 by Stemage</a>

How did you find arranging a track for the IWADON: Hiroyuki Iwatsuki Tribute Album? Iwatsuki has mentioned online that he’s been a big Stemage enthusiast for years.

It was fantastic. I had not been familiar with his roster of games and now so much awareness has been brought to his music. To be a part of that is amazing. The way that it was rolled out I thought was impressive, in marrying the music to the educational component. I feel the project overall was pulled off with an amount of polish that was very surprising. It was also great to see it come together in the form of a panel.

What were you looking to accomplish in your treatment of the Ninja Warriors opening theme?

I had great source material to work with, and I did very little to alter the melodies, except to take the intro section and change the key. I wanted to find a tempo that would work for the beginning and the end because they are very different in tone, but I needed to find a way to connect them. If they were all different tempos, it would not have worked. I also spent some time embellishing small nuances and working on the transition into the title screen music. There’s an inspirational early ‘90s guitar solo in there as well.

On the subject of PAX, have you enjoyed the 2 Player Productions DVD from the expo?

Definitely. All the Metroid Metal guys are incredibly happy with the way that turned out, both in terms of our own set and the overall chronicle of the entire experience. We are not playing very often, so to be able to have a document of what it was we put together is really special. The PATV series is also amazing. Those guys sort of came out of nowhere and impressed everyone.

There is of course a very strong independent game presence at the Penny Arcade Expo, for instance there's the PAX 10 competition. Has being at PAX influenced your determination to enter the industry

I have been watching that scene and other activity in the industry out of curiosity. This project is kind of an experiment for me, especially in terms of the time and genre constraints. It’s a test of how much music I can write in a short period of time that still has the integrity I want to give it. It’s gone really well, and while I’m not getting my demo ready and hauling out to GDC just yet, I am keeping my eye on it.

[Music from Stemage original albums and the upcoming game can be heard on Bandcamp. Photo by Jeriaska.]