I have absolutely no idea how this game (and soundtrack) slipped under my radar. It is especially shameful for me because I am actually a self-professed Jeff Ball megafan. I make no apologies for this, and if my review shows any bias as a result, I do not care. Jeff Ball is a great person who makes great music. His Tiny Barbarian soundtracks are stupidly catchy, and Jeff has done violin performance and recording for everything from Mass Effect to Steven Universe. Furthermore, as made plain in this album’s liner notes (digital or physical), one can find the following statement:
Aside from music, Jeff is an advocate for mental health, a supportive member of the LGBTQ+ community, and an avid anime fan.
What’s not to love?!
Even if I didn’t know these things about Jeff, however, I think I would still be impressed with this soundtrack. What finally got it onto my radar, for the record, was RPGFan’s own 2018 Music of the Year feature. Two editors put this album in their personal favorite picks, and the album also hit our overall top 20 out of over 100 worthy contenders for a spot on our prestigious list. Putting two and two together, I knew I had made a significant error in overlooking Timespinner. I’m here today to right that wrong.
After many listens, my *hot take* on the Timespinner soundtrack is that it succeeds because the creators never tried to hide their source of inspiration. Jeff Ball openly states that, as the game had Metroidvania games (including Symphony of the Night) as a source of inspiration, that he used the harpsichord extensively and studied the work of Michiru Yamane. My suspicion is that, had the development team claimed to be creating something entirely original with no inspiration, the result would have felt derivative. Through the full disclosure, players (and listeners) are able to perceive what makes an intentional homage fresh and original.
And truly, Jeff is excellent at channeling a variety of JRPG classics. Timespinner is absolutely is a unique soundtrack, and yet … there are many tracks that remind me of specific composers and/or specific games. Many come from the 32-bit era. Some examples: “Provisional Sanctuary” has an ethereal touch akin to the slower tracks Motoi Sakuraba wrote for Star Ocean 2 and Valkyrie Profile; “Pioneer’s Horizon” has the energy of a Lunar town theme, especially with the flute performance by Kristin Naigus; “The Sacrifice of Heroes” features a haunting and memorable melody akin to “Radical Dreamers” or “Star-Stealing Girl” from Chrono Cross; “Temporal Salvage” has all the energy and instrumentation of a Symphony of the Night track, with that swift 12/8 triplet melody.
But none of these songs are carbon copies of their “inspirational” sources. Not even close. Jeff makes each and every environ his own, every battle theme something special — with bonus points for irregular time signatures on tracks like “The Broken” — and every instrument his own paintbrush, dipped in a color of his choosing. Those colors really add to the landscape of Timespinner, giving it life and contributing to its unique atmosphere.
Make no mistake: this one is a masterpiece. Jeff’s past soundtracks have been consistently enjoyable, and, in my mind, he’s proven himself as accomplished as other indie composers (e.g. Alec Holowka, HyperDuck SoundWorks, Laura Shigihara, Josh Whelchel, Kan Gao, Jessica Curry, even Austin Wintory). With Timespinner in particular, however, Jeff has demonstrated not only a new side of himself, but many dimensions of himself that he’s never shown before. As a cherry on top, Jeff chose to include unused and prototype tracks at the end of the soundtrack, so we see a hidden dimension of music that didn’t even make it into the final game! We can all be very thankful for that as well, especially “Lake Desolation.”
I’ve allowed my shame to subside. No one can be omniscient when it comes to the best artifacts of new popular culture. Now that I have experienced Timespinner (game and soundtrack both), I encourage you to take my recommendation to heart.
If you look for this soundtrack on Bandcamp, you will find the digital release. And, if you get there before it’s too late, Materia Collective did run a limited print of the physical, 2-CD set. If you’re a collector and you loved yourself some Timespinner, I would encourage you to pick up the physical artifact!