It’s hard to imagine, but it was just a mere four years ago that fellow Decibel scribe and ear to the underground’s underground Dutch Pearce brought a then unknown one-man death metal project by the name of Ripped to Shreds to our attention via our Demo:listen column. Putting the one in one-man project is Andrew Lee, a fast-rising metal phenom of the current day death metal Renaissance in which we currently find ourselves. Lee has since been keeping the archivists at Metal Archives good and busy with a slew of releases, either from Nameless Grave Records—the label he co-owns with Draghkar guitarist Brandon Corsair—or from one of his many, many bands. We have received no less than four full-length albums showing off Lee’s bonafides within a 365-day period, including his solo album and love letter to the shred-centric Shrapnel Records discography Heavy Metal Shrapnel, the anime-themed mincegore madness that is Houkago Grind Time’s Houkago Grind Time 2: The Second Raid, his deadly session guitar work on Pharmacist’s Flourishing Extremities on Unspoiled Mental Grounds and Ripped to Shreds’ critically-acclaimed 劇變 (Jubian), their first for new label home Relapse Records.
But before all of the fretboard feats, gurgling gutterals and anime appreciation, Lee found a life-long hobby in video games. PC gaming entered his life at an early age thanks to family and friends alike and has remained an outlet for him even as his musical output has rapidly increased. While not actively writing the latest essential listen, Lee finds himself completely immersed in his growing library of action RPGs, first-person shooters and visual novels. Our extensive discussion with the metal mastermind touched on a wide range of genres, titles and technical details that show just how impactful art’s most interactive medium has been and how his hobby may yet grow to be even more in the future. Stay a while and listen (er, read) as we party up with Andrew Lee for our latest digital dungeon crawl.
What was your first gaming experience?
I don’t remember exactly which one, I know there were two. It was either Doom II; it was, like, ’95, ’96? My dad, he works in the computer industry and he brought home a bunch of games that his co-workers showed him. I’m pretty sure we installed it using a floppy because we were still using those back then. So, it would have been Doom II or I think it was some QBasic game where there’s gorillas throwing bananas at each other on towers. I was 5 or 6. I had no idea how to actually play Doom without, like, cheating. [Laughs] I had to use God Mode because I was just too young to really understand how to play it. I had a whole bunch of older family friends who would come over and play and I would watch them. I would say probably Doom II and maybe Tomb Raider. I have an older sister and she would play Tomb Raider a lot and I would watch her play.
I think the first game that I got that I really understood how to play on my own was the first Pokémon. I actually didn’t really remember the Doom music until I went back to play it when I was older, but I definitely remember a lot of the Pokémon music. I had Red. The battle theme, it’s really easy to arrange that into something that sounds really cool and rocking and metal.
Have you kept up with Pokémon?
I played Gold and Silver, and then after that I didn’t really touch Pokémon until Black and White. I got Sword and Shield, I got Scarlet and Violet. I didn’t play whatever came in between Black and White and Sword and Shield. I did notice with the 3D Pokémons and the more advanced stuff, I actually didn’t like the music as much. Maybe because I was used to the chiptune. I didn’t have a Playstation or a N64, so I played a lot of emulator stuff as a young teen; a lot of Super Nintendo, I even played some NES stuff. So a lot of game music to me is kind of focused around chiptune. The newer Pokémon games, I think they have actual recorded musicians. It’s just not really the same anymore.
Have you tried Scarlet and Violet?
Yeah. I beat the Elite Four but when I tried to do the raids, oh my god. The online stuff is so bad. I put it down. If I hear there’s been some significant patches, I might pick it up again but the online raid stuff just frustrated me so badly. It’s really buggy. The difficult ones you can’t complete on your own and you have to party up with other people, but the connection just drops, there’s no matchmaking so you always get the people who have no idea what they’re doing and it’s just not fun.
I’ve [Michael] see the compilations of the insane bugs. But at the same time, a lot of people have been saying that it’s actually really fun.
It is. It is really fun all the way up until you try to do the five-star raids. Then it’s like, I don’t want to touch this game. [Laughs]
What else have you been playing lately?
The new league for Path of Exile just dropped, so I’ve been playing that. But mostly I am holding out for Baldur’s Gate 3. I saw over the weekend, finally, we have a release date. [Laughs] I went through the beta—the first act of Baldur’s Gate 3—when it came out. I haven’t touched it again because I don’t want to overplay it and burn myself out on it. It’s looking really good. I had some doubts about Larian as a studio. I played [Divinity: Original Sin 2] and obviously it’s a great game, but it has a very particular kind of storytelling that’s not very serious. It’s not like Monty Python, but it doesn’t really take itself seriously. Everything is really jokey. It just has a really different atmosphere from the old BioWare/Black Isle [Studios] stuff. I was concerned that they wouldn’t be able to nail the right tone for BG3, but it seemed to turn out OK so far.
So you’re primarily a PC player?
Yeah. I had a PS2, but I think I played Final Fantasy X and Kingdom Hearts. I didn’t play that many PS2 games. Mostly it’s PC.
Is there any particular reason that you prefer PC?
I think mainly I just had it when I was younger. I played a lot of multiplayer stuff in college that was PC focused, like Starcraft, Dota. We actually played a lot of Warcraft III in high school with my friends. We tried to play [Counter-Strike] but none of my friends are really that into shooters, so that didn’t stick for very long.
Are you a fan of shooters?
Yeah. Of course Doom II and I played Quake. That was ’98 or ’99. I like Half-Life 2, but I think it’s a little bit overrated. [Laughs] I know Doom 3 gets a bad rap, but I like that one a lot. Far Cry was really good. The one that I played the most was F.E.A.R. I think that one was relatively late. That was 2006, maybe? For me, F.E.A.R., the single-player for that game is still pretty unmatched. I can’t think of many shooter campaigns I’d rather play over the first game.
What about it really stands out to you?
It feels really good to shoot stuff, especially with slo-mo. They really nailed the whole John Woo bullet time with crazy particles flying everywhere. And then I think the way that they did the encounter design, the way that enemies would appear to be really smart. There would be enemy chatter, they would seem like they were working together. When you compare that to a lot of the games from that time, it’s kind of like, one enemy shows up here, you shoot it, you turn around, there’s a new enemy. You just play whack-a-mole until the game decides, OK, this zone is done, move on to the next room.
James tracked down a Metal Injection track-by-track breakdown of the latest Ripped to Shreds album 劇變 (Jubian) that you did and for the song “Race Traitor,” you mentioned Nobuo Uematsu and his direct influence on you. You said, “Final Fantasy has been such a huge part of my life and the music is always beautiful. He is one of my biggest inspirations.” Can you expand a bit more on that?
I saw a family friend, he was playing Final Fantasy VIII, I believe. So, this would have been ’97 or ’98. I didn’t have a Playstation, so I eventually got my hands on the PC version of FFVIII, and that was probably ’99 or maybe 2000. That was really my entry into the whole series because after I played FFVIII, I went back and I played the NES I through III, the Super Nintendo stuff, IV, V, VI. I’m still not really into VII, honestly. I’ve played through VII on the PC with the mods, I played the VII remakes. I find it really overrated.
Maybe because VIII was the first one I ever played, but VIII is definitely my number one Final Fantasy of all time. And I think it has the best soundtrack. I through VI are all very 8-bit/16-bit chiptune stuff, and there’s still great melodies and a lot of really cool ideas, but they’re very basic and simple sketches. VII had some pretty good melodies, but I don’t think they really took advantage of the soundfonts that the Playstation had to offer until they hit VIII. IX was like a throwback. I don’t really like IX, I don’t like IX’s music. And then X, that’s when they started doing everything with synthesizers and recording it using real instruments and all that stuff. They still included I think two songs with real instruments on Final Fantasy VIII. I know there’s the opening theme and the Faye Wong song [“Eyes on Me”] and everything else I believe is midi with the PlayStation soundfont.
Uematsu is kind of like a gamer’s introduction to classical music. Even though Uematsu is not really writing in the actual idiom of classical music, he uses orchestras in ways that are very similar. I would compare him to a Romantic composer because they have a similar approach to melodies and Uematsu is not really trying to push the boundaries of music. The music in Final Fantasy always serves a purpose. It’s not really music for music’s sake. I haven’t heard if Uematsu ever wrote something and then they built a scene around it. I’m sure it must have happened a few times. I think that’s kind of the difference between “game music” and “art music” to me.
If you look at some of the recognizable tracks from Final Fantasy VIII or the ones the Black Mages worked with later, like “Man With the Machine Gun” or “Maybe I’m a Lion,” they’re definitely to serve a purpose to support a theme or an event.
I can see how they might say, “Hey, Nobuo, come up with a central theme for the game and let’s build all of the musical themes off that.” But I think most of the music was probably written with a specific scene in mind.
It seems like—understandably—the music for a game is very important for you. Has the music ever been a point where a decent game became a good game or a decent game became a bad game?
Music can obviously really elevate games, even when they’re kind of bad or if you wouldn’t normally enjoy the music by itself. Modern Doom is a really big example of that. I listened to a lot of Meshuggah when I first got into metal. New Meshuggah doesn’t really speak to me. If I just listen to Mick Gordon’s soundtrack on its own, I’m like, “This is not interesting.” But it serves the modern Doom games so well, I can’t really imagine those Doom games having something different. I think those are a huge part of the games’ identity. Ripping and tearing and blowing stuff up wouldn’t be as fun with a different soundtrack. That’s where a good game becomes great.
I think a game that I played a lot longer than I would have was Octopath Traveler. That one has really incredible music, but the game itself is so bad. [Laughs] It’s like a throwback JRPG. It’s got 8 characters and 8 little stories, but none of the stories are really related and none of the characters actually interact with each other. Even though they’re in the same party, they’re not really gonna talk to each other or do anything together. For me, that was kind of like, I don’t get why I’m playing this game. But it has incredible themes, incredible battle music, town music, what have you. So I was like, I’ll keep playing and hope it gets better. [Laughs] I had to drop it [about] 12 hours in because it was not getting any better.
With you having so many different things happening, whether it’s the label or the bands, do you specifically sit down and try and factor video game time into the day? Is there anything that you particularly do?
I’m not really a disciplined kind of person. When I have the idea for a specific release or I’m talking with my friends, then I have to sit down and eat, sleep, breathe that release until it’s totally finished. But then, once it’s done, I’m just playing games or watching anime. I’m not really doing anything. I still practice guitar about an hour a day. It’s not like I’m actively trying to come up with new music every single day. It’s really more like, when I have the idea for a whole bunch of songs, then I’ll drop everything, sit down and it’s like, OK, let’s work on this.
Have you ever been able to bond with bandmates or bands that you’ve worked with about video games?
I think my bandmates play different games than I do. I know [guitarist] Mike [Chavez] talked about playing the new Grand Theft Auto. I really dislike open-world games. I’ve played some that I like a lot, like Breath of the Wild, Yakuza. Maybe that’s it. Oh! Sleeping Dogs! That one’s really good. I think, for me, I particularly like Sleeping Dogs because it was set in Hong Kong. I did an internship in Hong Kong way back. I lived there for a couple of months. It’s just a setting that’s very rarely seen in western video games.
In the U.S., at least, the game market has been dominated either by North American or Japanese developers, with a smattering of European developers here and there. But recently, China and Taiwan have kind of become bigger players in the gaming market. You have Genshin Impact. For us survival horror nerds, you have Devotion and Detention. Anybody who plays Soulsborne games is excited about Black Myth: Wukong, which is still in development. Does this give you hope for better Chinese representation in video games?
I played Genshin Impact. In some ways, it’s obviously a Chinese game. In other ways, it’s Chinese otakus who wanted to make their dream game and get a whole bunch of Japanese voice actors and actresses in their game. [Laughs] There’s still huge elements of Chinese culture in Genshin that you just wouldn’t see in Western games. But that one to me is not exactly a “Chinese” game in the way I would think about something like a martial arts game or one of those Romance of the Three Kingdoms games. I’ve actually never played a Romance of the Three Kingdoms game. I know there’s about a billion of them that come out every year—different MMOs or Dynasty Warrior-type games—but I’ve never actually played any of those.
Are you familiar with the game Devotion?
I think it was banned of Steam for a while because the developers cursed out Xi Jinping? Something like that?
I think they put an Easter egg in there comparing him to Winnie the Pooh.
Right. To me, that’s really the only reason that Americans cared about that game. At least from my perspective, people only know about Devotion as a way to make fun of China.
I [Michael] knew about it beforehand because I follow a lot more of the indie horror games. The news of Devotion getting delisted was actually kind of surprising to me. With China getting a much larger gaming audience as they’re welcoming in more outside gaming culture, is that kind of interaction with the government something that causes concern for you, or would you compare it to something like the ESRB in America or the same kind of thing that we’ve gone through before with Night Trap and Mortal Kombat back in the ’90s?
Mostly, it’s just surprising. I was under the impression that China had their own gaming ecosystem and that Steam wasn’t really a thing in China. Big games have their own specific China publishers. I think Tencent is partnered up with whatever big games come out there. To me, it’s mostly just surprising that China would care about Steam. I don’t play games in China, I don’t really know that many people from the mainland. Maybe they have a different perspective on how gaming is done there.
Do you feel like Chinese culture is belittled in the gaming industry?
You know the stereotype of capital G “Gamers,” right? I think definitely among Western game consumers, there’s kind of that stereotype.
Part of what I [Michael] find really cool about the Internet and gaming culture and, more specifically, indie gaming culture becoming much more normalized and much more accessible is seeing these developers you obviously wouldn’t otherwise. Seeing those kinds of cultures that have been marginalized in the past now being kind of brought more into the fold, it’s refreshing. Something like Dynasty Warriors, even though it is a Japanese perspective on Chinese culture…
They love Romance of the Three Kingdoms in Japan. It’s crazy. There’s so many different series—anime and dramas—that are all based off Romance of the Three Kingdoms. I don’t know if it’s more popular than Sengoku Warring States period in Japan, but I think it’s pretty close.
I do think that even with the proliferation of easy access to games across the globe, there’s still a pretty big cultural gap that will prevent a Western audience from really accessing some games. For instance, everything is written in Chinese or everything’s written in Tamil or any other non-English languages. I have this impression of Europe where everyone kind of speaks some English and English is the de facto game language for the West, but I think very much in Asia, every country has their own very small developing scene that doesn’t really get exports.
There’s this one big RPG series out of Taiwan called Sword and Fairy. It’s been going since the early ’90s or something. Sword and Fairy 7 is getting an English release [and] just came out worldwide. I remember thinking that it looked kind of interesting. It definitely reminded me a lot of martial arts movies that I’ve seen. I haven’t yet tried it out just because I feel like it’s going to be so different from what I would expect out of an RPG. When you play an action RPG, you kind of have these expectations. I’m kind of talking pre-Dark Souls. I never got into the whole Dark Souls thing. There’s expectations for how action RPGs should control, how they should play. I’m just not sure that I would be able to really get into it. But I should probably give it a try eventually.
Are there any other not super popular games that audiences may not know that are near and dear to your heart?
Nox. It would have come out at the same time as Diablo II. It probably just got really overshadowed by Diablo II. [Laughs] It is also an action RPG, but it’s definitely very Monty Python. It’s less about grinding up loot, because there’s not really any randomized loot. There’s three classes and they all play really differently. It’s a very different experience from Diablo, but I can see how a lot of consumers at the time would have been like, “This is just a cheap Diablo knock-off.” Nox is definitely one of my favorites.
Have you found any decent games of anime series that you enjoy?
I tend to not play adaptations. I don’t play fighting games, but I know that [Kill la Kill -IF] was supposed to be pretty good. The Dragonball Z fighting games are also supposed to be pretty good. [On] the GameBoy Advance, they have these Dragonball action RPGs. Those I’ve played. They’re early GameBoy Advance games, so they’re a little bit crude. In general, I don’t really play any adaptations of anime games. There are plenty of games that I like that got turned into animes. Like Fate/stay night. You guys have heard of Fate/Grand Order, right? It should be No. 1 or No. 2 all-time in mobile gaming. [They’ve made] a staggering amount of money. But before there was the mobile game, there was a visual novel and there were three anime series and I think four movies. But Fate/stay night. It’s a visual novel. It’s from a writer named Nasu. He wrote a lot of visual novels that were kind of influential in the early 2000s. His company is called Type-Moon. Fate/stay night is the one that I think is most popular in the West. It’s broken up into three routes with each of the three main heroines of the game. The anime that adapted the second route is the one that got super popular. That one is probably the only really “anime” game, even though the game came first. [Laughs]
Are there any other anime adaptations of games that you enjoy?
I liked Higurashi. I think the English name would be When They Cry.
Oh! The writer for this is writing Silent Hill f. Both of us are huge Silent Hill nerds. Everybody was freaking out about this guy writing f and I was like, “I should probably check that out.”
There’s a really old anime that I liked, but it’s a little bit crude, and then there’s a newer anime remake. It’s not exactly a remake, but if you’ve never seen anything from the series before, I would watch the new one. It’s one of those mid-2000s horror anime that I think was probably a big meme back then just because of a lot of stuff that happens that’s kind of creepy or weird or violent. It’s really hard to talk about this series without spoiling it. [Laughs]
One thing I [Michael] try to seek out is horror anime. I like weird, and every time I look for horror anime, it’s mostly just like, “Look at how violent this is!” It’s not really the same.
I mean, it can be violent. I think the way a lot of stuff presented in Higurashi is kind of more weird and creepy.
I’m actually really surprised they never made an anime of this one. It’s a game called Song of Saya. It’s also violent, but that one has really sick and creepy atmosphere. I think it’s really good. I don’t know if you’ve ever watched [Puella Magi Madoka Magica]. The writer is this dude called Gen Urobuchi. He’s kind of famous for writing really creepy, fucked up scenarios. He did Song of Saya, he did Madoka, he did Fate/Zero. Those are all really good. He did Psycho Pass, Aldnoah.Zero. I actually never watched either one of those. It just didn’t sound that appealing to me.
[Psycho Pass] came up because I [Michael] really liked [Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors] and I was looking for more stuff like that. And then there was some other one that came out for Switch. AI: The Somnium Files?
I tried to play that one. I couldn’t get through it. For me, a visual novel has to have really specific kinds of things. I want it to be mostly text-heavy. I don’t want to do a lot of clicking around, investigating stuff on the screen. For me, something like Raging Loop is much more classic visual novel. The games that try new stuff are more like a Western adventure game, like Tex Murphy or whatever. Those don’t really hit the mark for me. I would absolutely check out Raging Loop if you liked 999.
Are there any other games coming up over the next year or two that you’re excited for?
[Sighs] I know it’s going to be a massive disaster and a huge piece of shit. I am still gonna play Diablo IV when it comes out. [Laughs] I know it’s going to be terrible.
Any final thoughts?
Brütal Legend: Great music, terrible game. Mega Man X series: Awesome music.
I know [2021’s] Heavy Metal Shrapnel was supposed to be an ode to Shrapnel Records, but honestly, to me, it really sounded like the soundtrack to the best Mega Man X game that was never made.
Yes! That was definitely a huge part of that album. I love the shit out of Mega Man. I’m really, really bad at it. [Laughs] I play it on emulators and I have save states and I can brute force my way through a boss with save states. But the music for Mega Man is so fucking good.
And we interviewed Kyle Beam from Undeath and he was very much of the same opinion on Brütal Legend. I [Michael] love Double Fine, I love Tim Schafer. He makes good games. Psychonauts 2 was an amazing game. But, fuck, I hate metal video games. It’s a veneer people put on a game that’s half-baked.
That’s something I really want to change, but… It’s still way too early to really talk about it. But it’s something I want to change.
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