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Devil May Cry 5 Composers Jeff Rona & Cody Matthew Johnson Discuss Creating Their Tracks “Crimson Cloud” & “Subhuman”

With the recent release of Devil May Cry 5, gamers are right where they want to be, slaying demons alongside Nero, Dante and a new protagonist named V. While the gameplay is similar to the other titles in the Devil May Cry series, focusing on fast-paced "stylish action" as the player fights off hordes of demons with a variety of attacks and weapons, the soundtrack is completely new. A soundtrack that includes 136 original compositions by Casey Edwards, Cody Matthew Johnson, Jeff Rona, John R. Graham, Steven McNair, Kota Suzuki, Hiromitsu Maeba, and Yoshiya Terayama. A five-disc package is already available and Laced Records will be releasing a vinyl this summer. So, fans of video game music pretty much won the lottery with Devil May Cry 5. The music is one of the highlights of the hack and slash thrill ride and does a great job of pushing the story along while taking the adventure to the next level. In the below exclusive interview, we spoke with 2 of the composers, Cody Matthew Johnson and Jeff Rona, about their contributions to the game.

Devil May Cry 5 is available now on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.

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Horror DNA: We read that Crimson Cloud has almost no guitars in it. Is that true? How difficult was it to do this with the guidelines given to you from Capcom?

Jeff Rona: It’s about 99% true. I wanted Crimson Cloud to sound and feel different from the rest of the score, which is very guitar heavy. So there’s only a tiny bit of guitar buried in the track towards the end of the song, and it’s super distorted and barely sounds like a guitar. It’s more something you feel - a raw aggressive wall of sound.

HD: What were some of the first lyrics you wrote for Crimson Cloud?

JR: I came up with the title first and suggested it to Rachel [Fannan, vocalist]. She liked it and took a first pass on the lyrics. Then we started working on the demo and we collaborated on the rest of it. We recorded a rough demo with partial lyrics and sent it to the DMC5 team. They were very happy, and only had a few small suggestions, which we were happy to integrate into the lyrics as we finished up.

HD: Could you reveal any lyrics from Crimson Cloud that didn’t end up making it into the game?

JR: Everything we worked on ended up in the game. There was nothing left over. In fact, before we finished the song we had to add more sections to it. Whenever you play V, the lyrics actually change the better you get. It’s an adaptive interactive song. So there are a lot of alternate lyrics, but they’re all in the game now. We didn’t hold anything back.

HD: Rachel Fannan did vocals on Crimson Cloud. What was the best part of working with her? What did she bring to the project that other artists couldn't?

JR: Rachel Fannan is amazing! She is so talented, so open minded and willing to take chances. She is a cool singer songwriter who is willing to be experimental. I’m pretty sure this pushed her as hard as she’s ever been pushed in terms of making ultra-aggressive music. But she loved the challenge, and the process working with her was pure joy. I’d written the basic instrumental track and gave her a mix of it to listen to. She does this thing where she puts on headphones and sits with a little notebook in her lap and just writes down random ideas in no particular order. She freestyles whatever pops into her head without any mental editing. Then she shares it all with me and we started to move parts around to build the structure that became the final song, both verses and choruses. We worked together on the song’s melody, and she’s amazing with doubling vocals and doing all the harmonies. But mostly her willingness to take musical risks and go out on a limb as an artist is what made her the perfect choice for me.

HD: Crimson Cloud is V's theme. The song has a big influence on players and how they should view the character, while educating them on the backstory. Did you feel any of this pressure when creating it?

JR: V is a new character and didn’t have the same history as Dante and Nero. Both Casey Edwards and Cody Matthew Johnson had to work on characters with a history in the DMC universe and had to keep that in mind as they developed new material for this game. I didn’t have any of that thematic baggage. So once I came up with a sketch the creative team liked, I focused only on making the best track possible for the character and the game. I didn’t have to think about the musical legacy of the character.

Although I knew a lot about V before sitting down to write music or lyrics, our goal was not to make the lyrics an accurate or detailed description of the character. Most of the lyrics are only suggestive of V and the world he inhabits. They are more visual than telling the story. Otherwise the song would’ve been a spoiler! So no one should take the lyrics literally. But buried inside are a few little clues!

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HD: Did Subhuman change a lot from the initial demo to where it ended up?

Cody Matthew Johnson: The initial quoted amount of music was that of a typical song length, about 3 minutes, with the arrangement closely following song structure too. As you imagine, it had things such as: intro, verse, chorus, outro, etc. plus transitional elements between sections.

It wasn’t until after the first couple of demos where Subhuman really started to expand and spin a wider web functionally in the game. With each demo delivering, it could take up to two weeks to hear from the developer (Capcom), they were just listening to the song but meticulously editing and programming into the very early pre-beta stages of the game to see exactly how it felt to play as Dante and did Subhuman fulfill that fantasy. Over the course of about four months composing the song, with every revision I would build out an additional 16 bar section that was just an idea that didn’t make it into my first demo. Then I'd simply ask something along the lines of, “hey, this was an idea at one point but didn’t quite fit into the arrangement of the brief, what do you think of adding this breakdown >>here<<.

Having these open conversations about Subhuman to refine it in order to optimize immersion and player experience, it grew into this amazing collaboration between Capcom and I, sending assets and ideas back and forth until I nearly quadrupled the initial quote of music from about 3 minutes to nearly 10 minutes of a full dynamic immersive battle theme for Dante.

The development didn’t just stop in the demo phase either, guitarist Mark Heylmun was brought in to record guitars in addition to my own. In the recording process, Capcom would ask Mark to add sound effects, dive bombs, guitar solos, scraps, bends, you name it. All of these sounds, solos, and effects were then processed and cut into Dante’s sound set and programmed into the audio engine to yet again increase the variability, reactivity, and dynamism of the gameplay.

HD: Jeff Rona, composer of Crimson Cloud, said that he tried to not use guitars in that track. While Subhuman uses a lot of guitars. Why do you think Capcom wanted such a different sound?

CMJ: I literally couldn’t have enough guitars for Subhuman. When you start a new video game project, every developer has a unique way of conveying their musical ideas and the game’s needs to you. Capcom always has a very detailed and expansive brief that covers early gameplay footage, technical requirements, notes about the musical system, plot points (without spoilers of course! Composers should never be trusted with spoilers -- ha!), and a very detailed written description of what they want for the music. In the first three sentences alone the words 'heavy', 'aggressive', 'metal', 'guitar', and 'synth' were used about four to five times each, along with phrases like 'requiem choir' and 'brain-shaking synths that feel like death'. These are all of course translated from Japanese so a lot of their original intention and sentiment can be literally lost in translation, so it’s my job to dig a bit deeper and begin a conversation through musical feedback.

Fortunately, they were very clear and receptive to my ideas and yes, you’re absolutely correct Subhuman ended using a lot of guitars.

For Devil May Cry 5, there are three distinct and very different (both characteristic and stylistic) playable characters. In previous canonical games in the franchise, heavy darker elements and lighter, fun, playful elements in the story and dialogue are represented by a musical balance of metal, rock, industrial sounds and EDM, breakbeats, and up-tempo grooves. In Devil May Cry 5, there was a unique opportunity for the first time in the franchise to make a clear separation between the characters' identity musically and create a battle theme for each that is uniquely fresh while also still existing under the sonic guise of the Devil May Cry franchise.

HD: Subhuman is Dante’s battle theme. What do you think was the most important message to convey with the lyrics about the character?

CMJ: As any story-line progresses, it's inherent that characters change as they grow older, and Devil May Cry 5 was an opportunity to show Dante in a different light. There are a few key moments in the game (spoiler free!) where Dante struggles with concepts that have always aligned with the franchise: family, inner demons, and as a nephilim the struggle of light and dark. Subhuman was a chance, musically and lyrically, to represent Dante’s arc in Devil May Cry 5, leaning a bit closer to his inner devil rather than his inner angel.

Though not literal, one of the big ideas for the lyrics was a metaphorical conversation Dante would have with himself and the world around him -- attempting to keep the demons inside withheld and ultimately embracing the truth of his reality and using it as a weapon to defeat the onslaught of demons before him.

HD: What has been one of your favorite horror video games in the past 5 years?

CMJ: Straight up horror games are really hard for me to play - same goes for horror movies or TV shows. I can’t play or watch them alone! I’ve always been the guy who watches people play Fear, Resident Evil, or The Evil Within from a distance. When we were recording Subhuman, Michiteru Okabe, the producer on Devil May Cry 5, was visiting Los Angeles and gifted me a copy of his recent title Resident Evil: Revelations 2, which I have really enjoyed playing! As a cooperative game it has been the perfect way to share that horror with someone else and inch through the game.


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