Front Mission Alternative Original Soundtrack
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For those wondering what the connection between Riow Arai and Front Mission is, this soundtrack should explain it all. Arai did all the music for Front Mission Alternative, the review we have here. If you want to see more, just go here for the rest of the Front Mission stuff.
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When one mentions the name "Front Mission", many immediately think of Front Mission 3, the last title for PlayStation. Unfortunately, most of the Front Mission Series remained in japan, and only serious importers would get the chance to see what the fuss was about. It's an amazing series featuring strategic combats involving futuristic mechs. There are currently five games released thus far and here are the composers for each title: Front Mission (Yoko Shimomura & Noriko Matsueda), Front Mission: Gun Hazard (Nobuo Uematsu, Yasunori Mitsuda, Masashi Hamauzu, Junya Nakano), Front Mission Alternative (Riow Arai), Front Mission 2 (Noriko Matsueda), and Front Mission 3 (Koji Hayama & Hayato Matsuo). When one looks closely, they quickly notice an outsider: Riow Arai. Who might this person be? Has he done much for Square or any other companies ? Let's answer these questions with a descriptive biography.
Riow Arai had begun composing music since 1995, he had released a few solo albums, one being "Again" and in 1997, he was offered a job at Sega for composing a few select tracks for Sega Touring Car Championship for the Saturn. Some of his tracks written for this project were refused, and Riow proudly kept his creations in case he could use them in the near-future. That occasion soon came after he was offered the task of composing for one of Square's most famous series : Front Mission. Their latest title in development, simply called Front Mission Alternative. Abbrievated as "FA", it was a new type of strategy-rpg, it was done in real-time opposed to the usual turn-based grid combat system, so no "battle" themed tracks were created for this project. The producer insisted the tracks would loop incessantly and also made it quite clear he wanted a techno score. Riow got the message clearly and did his homework. After about 6 months of constant fiddling with melodies and techno beats, the soundtrack was finally ready. After the release of "FA", Riow had chosen to stick to his true calling : mainstream dance music. He has since released several internationally reknown albums such as "Circuit '72" and "Mind Edit". Now many must be wondering : What was Square thinking when they hired a mainstream dance musician to score one of their high profile games ????
Actually, the soundtrack to "FA" isin't half bad, but it is drastically diffrent from the rest of the series. It starts off with "Opening", which begins with a few generic beats, then explodes into a cacophony of weird sound effects. Then comes an extremely rapid drumbeat, followed by another, and another. The weird SFX keep on coming. Not your usual opening track, that's for sure. "Sandtown" starts off with a few cymbals and beats, a few drums, and it stays this way for most of the track, until Arai decides to add a few rapid drumbeats, which start off quietly and keep on getting louder and louder. "Jungle" is kinda nice, you get mainly tribal drumbeats mixed with techno beats, Arai simply keeps on adding effect after effect, which makes it a fairly basic theme. "Woods" dosen't offer much variety, he just adds on layer after layer of techno sounds while the main melody repeats continously. "Rock" is an interesting change, you get loads of drum beats, sometimes slow ones, at other times, very rapid. While the main melody is repetitive, it still manages to entrance the listener to the very end. After a while, Arai starts to break his beats up, sounding as if the record is malfunctionning, which is effective in getting the listener to notice these sudden changes in the track. "Beach" is one of the quieter themes, a nice jazzy track which is slow-paced and allows the listener to slowly sink into the theme. "Port" brings back the music to its quick techno beats and sound, Arai inserts a few sound effects which sound like an alarm of some sort. "Night" have a few special things to it, at points you get to hear a synthezised saxophone in the background, which is something you won't hear again the soundtrack. "Town01" is one of the more difficult tracks to get into, Arai goes all out with the beats and crazy drumbeats, which do repeat up to four time, each time getting more and more intense. "Town02" is in the same style of "Town01", but not as difficult to get into, Arai throws in a few vocal samples in there, which sounds like a person wailing. "Desert" is funny to me, as when you hear the beats in this track, it sounds as if Arai was simply hitting pots together, yet the exotic feel of the track represents the heat of a desert pretty well. "Bonus" is one of the most boring tracks, it never changes from beggining to end, Arai simply adds an extra effect here and there, but that's it. "Airport" is a rather unique track, it starts off with a chant followed by gamey blips 'n bloops, then the usual techno beats come in, but at one point, Arai slips in a few interesting samples, it sounds like a person talking through a malfunctioning radio, then you hear another "singing" back. It does this a few times, which I found to be a very nice touch of originality. "Defeat" uses continuous beats and a few voice samples.... and a piano !!! Wow, the piano dosen't waste time in getting the listener to pay attention to the notes. It surely does portray the sadness and despair when you and your troops of WAWs(Walking Armored Wanzers) are defeated. "Under" is another track filled with beats and fast drums, but unfortunately, it dosen't change too much and bores quickly. "Ending" is easily the best track, Arai demonstrates that he can compose beautiful, emotional music after all, as he uses the piano with amazing expertise.
So, how about the oddity ? Should you buy or not ? Well, it depends on a few factors. First off, are you big on techno music ? And are you willing to shell out a decent amount of money to hunt it down ? I got mine through a japanese contact at Yahoo Japan Auctions, it seems to be the best place for it. I got mine for 60$, so that gives you a good idea of how high it can go for. While the soundtrack seems to have few tracks, most of them are over 5 minutes long, so you do get your money's worth, provided repitition dosen't bother you too much.
Shiryuu's already mentioned the history behind Riow Arai getting the job of doing Front Mission Alternative's music, so I'll try to focus on just the soundtrack itself. If you were to plot the Front Mission soundtracks on some kind of scale, you'd find FMA lying far from the others, no matter what scale you used. While the other soundtracks employ a wide range of musical genres, Alternative sticks to only one -- Arai's own personal blend of hardcore electronic ambience and trance. It also requires greater effort from the listener to fully appreciate it, as the music is extremely complex, which is totally opposite the Front Mission tradition of easy-listening background music.
It begins with "Opening", which is sort of a mix, offering a great deal of variety (compared to the other tracks, which are fairly consistent). It's got some traditional drums, more experimental percussion instruments, and some ambient symphonic stuff in there to round everything out. Another candidate for coolest percussion instruments is "Woods". Beginning with a good workout of the handclap instrument, it covers all the percussion bases. It's almost all percussion, but there's some flat bass and oscillating synth waves in there too to provide variety. Arai pulls some instruments out here that I've just never heard before. In the latter half of the song, the wavey melody starts to become more prominent, but the weird percussion instruments will always be the things that stick in my mind.
A lot of the songs on the soundtrack sound surpisingly funk-esque. Some of them you have to listen for a bit, like "Sandtown" (the bass solo at 3:00 is a dead giveaway though). Others are really obvious, like "Port" with its groovy bass, and the string-heavy "Under". Many of the tracks follow similar musical veins, too. We get some smooth jazz (kinda R&B) with "Defeat", which has some really awesome improv-style piano in it. "Beach" has some improvisation too, but it takes the form of an odd triangle wave straight out of the NES days. It's a sure hit for fans of cool jazz.
Then there are always those tracks that stand out, and on this soundtrack that's definitely a good thing. Tribal junkies will no doubt look to "Jungle" without being told. The heavily distorted melodic instrument is the one to follow here... it pulls a few fast changes, and the last variation is particularly cool. "Town 01" is a crazy hyper dance track, following patterns similar to "Sandtown". "Airport" is another funky song, but it's got some creepy ambience in the background that really duels with the drums and bass. The harmonies, the duality of styles, and a few well-placed voice samples make this a track to remember. And we can't forget "Ending", which is not dance-like at all. It's got repetition all right, but the electric harp and bouncy synth notes really give it a slow ambient feel that totally sets it apart from the rest. However, my personal favorite by far is "Desert". The percussion used here sounds downright industrial, like banging on metal lids. The sharp spikes of melody in the background keep urging you on, like an escape theme you'd find in many game soundtracks.
Probably the most unusual piece on the Front Mission Alternative OST, "Rock" deserves some special examination. Its big innovation is that it reverses the traditional roles of drums and melody instruments. Most songs rely on a constant bassline and drums, putting most of the variation in the melody. Here, the melody is just some simple repetitive synth chords. (For the first minute and a half, it's just a single chord played over and over!) But all the action happens in the drums and in the quiet bass. Here, the drums are where all the creativity happens, churning out some really complex polyrhythms. It seems to push and pull the melody instruments in different directions, falling into step one minute and then weaving a counter-rhythm the next. You'll miss all this if you don't listen for the drum work.
Complex electronic music is notorious for being difficult to get into, and Front Mission Alternative is no exception. I certainly didn't like it all that much the first time I heard it. If you're not into that sort of music anyway, then there's really no way this soundtrack will change your mind, even Riow Arai's style is pretty unique. However, if you're a trance fan, if you're into funk-style remixes, or just have a taste for anything weird, FMA will probably rock your world if you give it a chance. This is not traditional game music, and it certainly isn't traditional Front Mission music, but it's won a special place in my heart for sure. Yeah, it's long been out of print, but Shinryuu has given some really good tips on tracking down your own copy.