"I didn't even understand or process what was happening story-wise. But for years after that it stuck with me, that boy called Sora and his adventures."
Crystalpep64 is a big fan of Kingdom Hearts. So much so that his recent release, Door To Darkness is a concept album based on the series. It dropped on Seikomart this April, blending lofi beats, samples from the game and Vaporwave stylings into a unique package. It’s a brooding, haunting album and whether you’re a fan of the Kingdom Hearts series or not- a necessary listen.
Nostalgia is important to Vaporwave- but what sets Door To Darkness apart from many of its peers is how focused it is. We know Vaporwave can succeed by drawing on big, wide emotions. Taking on broad influences like retro technology, Japan, Korea, hauntology and advertising. But the idea of taking one very specific piece of artwork -in this case a video game- and basing a Vaporwave album on it, holds a special flair to it.
Door To Darkness is also notable due to being slightly more futuristic in its ambitions. Much of Vaporwave draws on the sights and sounds of the ‘80s and ‘90s, but an album rooted in the ‘00s? That’s a cool idea. Kingdom Hearts brings back surprisingly vivid memories for me, so when I first heard Crystalpep64’s album I knew I had to speak with him.
Sam L. Barker:
How important is Kingdom Hearts to you? I never played the games myself, but I still have a lot of nostalgia for it. It’s quite an iconic series at this point.
My Kingdom Hearts-story really began on a PlayStation 2 that belonged to one of my friends. We used to spend entire days having fun in front of the TV. There were a bunch of games, some good, some bad, but I liked one in particular, and that was Kingdom Hearts 1. When we played it for the first time, I was only about 10 years old and I was just thrilled to experience those adventures with all these colourful Disney characters. I wasn't always there when my friend played it so I never saw everything in the game. And I didn't even understand or process what was happening story-wise. But for years after that it stuck with me, that boy called Sora and his adventures. When I was sixteen I finally got myself a PlayStation 2…and there was much catching up to do.
I played Kingdom Hearts 1 for the first time from the beginning until the very end. And when Ansem was finally beaten and Utada Hikaru's Simple and Clean chimed from the TV, I knew that this was as special a game as I imagined it to be all those years.
Kingdom Hearts reminds me so strongly of that mid-00s internet era. When streaming and fan culture was just starting to bubble up through the web.
I remember when I was first getting properly into music- and I was using the internet to find new artists. I'd be searching for all these punk and emo bands on YouTube and there'd be so many videos using Kingdom Hearts as a backdrop to the songs. Still images, edited videos, fanart, the lot. It was mixed in with a lot of the really popular media at the time, like Death Note, Naruto, Final Fantasy. So even though I never played it I associate it really strongly with that time period.
That made your album connect nostalgically with me, maybe in a different way to how you might expect!
The relationship between Kingdom Hearts and that kind of emo music was the real deal back then. I thought for a long time, that Evanescence's Bring Me To Life was part of the original KH soundtrack. AMVs were something I'd never heard of before, and it kind of introduced me to the art of mixing unrelated visuals with audio and creating something new in the process. Those edgy themes really resonated with a lot of people and I know exactly that my 14-year old self was one of them. (I'm listening to Evanescence right now, for the first time in years haha).
There’s actually one specific Kingdom Hearts AMV that my mind always goes to. Gives me goosebumps rewatching it.
It’s also interesting because Kingdom Hearts is itself kind of an exercise in Nostalgia. It’s all about reconnecting people who (at the time it was released in 2002) were teenagers with characters like Mickey, Goofy and Ariel. Characters they probably grew up through their childhood watching and loving. But it’s blending that Disney influence with a kind of cool, edgy Final Fantasy aesthetic. Which was super popular with teens at the time. To help combine who they are now- with who they were then.
Yes, Kingdom Hearts is often described as a mix of Disney and Square Enix, but to me at least, the Disney-part far exceeds the Final Fantasy elements. The Disney movies that appear in the game are childhood favourites of so many people. Aladdin, Hercules or Winnie the Pooh, these were characters who accompanied me very early on in my life through their movies, tv-shows and merchandise. So I believe their inclusion really adds to that nostalgia inherent in the games.
Can you talk about the packaging of the album? The artwork, the design, the poem card. It looks awesome. It’s got that chunky mid-00s style going on.
As the general idea of the EP was becoming clear, the big challenge was, of course, to find a name. As befits a game in which keys are featured prominently, there’s a lot of references to doors. Doors that lead to strange places and other worlds. Doors that protect something, or shut something away. Having such a strong symbol in the title and on the cover of the EP seemed appropriate for a series of games that so often worked with and through symbols. The original idea was to use the close-up of the door (the one that's now the inlay) as a cover, to mimic opening a door when you open the case of the tape, but in the end, we decided to use the stronger of the two images as the main-visual.
Even if you have never played the game, you still might know about the game’s reputation of telling a rather complicated and convoluted story. It’s not hard to understand if you play all the games, but once time travel and doppelgängers get introduced, it’s easy to mix up all the different plot-points.
The quote I chose to be printed on the inlay highlights the twisting, layered nature of the series. But it’s also a very important part of a conversation in which one of the oldest beings of the Kingdom Hearts universe explains the principles of time travel to the hero, who is about to be swallowed up by the darkness. So that's neat.
I'm a big fan of blending low, or popular culture (like video games or Pop Punk), with big impactful ideas. So I really love what you've done with Door To Darkness. Mixing a very cute, accessible video game with your really earnest impactful music. Like you're taking something easy to dismiss as flimsy and corporate and going, "no: this stuff means a lot to me, and it has for a long time." You really care about this. And I can super relate to that passion.
With nostalgia being a key-element of Vaporwave, tracks that come with this distinctive video game sound, like t e l e p a t h テレパシー能力者 - 永遠に生きる for example, really got me going when I first discovered this genre. Growing up with video games also meant growing up with video game music and I try to archive every good video game soundtrack I come across. Kingdom Hearts’ soundtrack composer Yoko Shimomura really left an impression on me, and I hope that I have enriched her compositions with my own influences.
I’d like to think that through that process I was able to create a new sound experience that can inspire the listener. No matter if they’re fans of talking ducks and big keyblades or not!
"You were able to go back in time to just before your home became a Sleeping World, only because a past version of you already existed there.
You're not gonna wake up, okay?
Look- there's no real versus dreams anymore. There's just you, us and this."
Illustration by VHS MIDNIGHT STYLE.