Music Review with Zero, Kero, and Shinryuu the Hero
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Remember Xenogears, kiddies? Well, this is like Xenogears, but it's the OST for Xenosaga this week. I think it's actually a prequel to Xenogears... I'm not sure. That's why I listen to soundtracks instead of playing the games -- less confusion that way. :P
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Take one of the most popular game music composers, Yasunori Mitsuda, buy him a plane ticket to London, England, and set him up with that city’s own Philharmonic Orchestra and what do you get ??? Easy, pure genuis, one of the most epic scores ever written for a videogame, or any musical score for that matter. It has it all, intensity, emotion, variety, power, etc…. Anywhoo, if we go back on Mitsuda’s history a bit, we see that he had one MAJOR influence, when Mitsuda started with Square in 1992, he wasn’t a composer yet, he was a sound engineer, his first project being Hanjuku Hero on the Super Famicom. Well, if Mitsuda wasn’t composing, then who was ? Koichi Sugiyama, yes, THE Koichi Sugiyama was hired by Square as a guest composer, and Mitsuda was to assist him in his works, needless to say, the opportunity to work with a living legend must have been a very enriching experience for Mitsuda. Since Sugiyama is known to have collaborated with the London Philharmonic in the past to orchestrate his Dragon Quest scores, it has to be one of the influences that got Mitsuda to choose to work with the London Philharmonic for Xenosaga. Anywhoo, on with the review.
Disc 1 General Review
Disc 1 starts with « Prologue » which sounds way too much like an opening for a movie, yet it has the « Sci-Fi » feel in it, a very powerful and awesome opening theme, and it’s performed by the orchestra, in the end we hear some interesting chorals, although I can’t make out what they’re saying. Usually Mitsuda is not known for making outstanding battle themes, but he proves otherwise with « Battle ». It gets you right off, lots of violin samples here folks, with a bit of drum on the side, you probably can’t tell, but it’s not orchestrated, yet it sounds so good you won’t care if it’s synthetized or not. Last but not least, this battle theme is pretty intense, and does give the impression that you’re fighting something real nasty. « Gnosis » starts off quietly but soon the trumpets roar their way into the piece, backed up by bells and drums, this gives the impression of a powerful nation or something, very epic and of course, very good. « Battle with KOS-MOS » is certainly a type of boss theme, but woah, it’s really powerful, at some point we get a quiet interlude, then the track repeats, which makes it really stand out. « Followed Space Shuttle » is a fast paced theme which mostly comprises of violins, trumpets and drums. It gives off the feel of urgency, that something really bad is going on… « U-Tic Engine » is really weird, it has an instrument known as the « flutter », and has a good deal of chorals, I don’t why, but I happen to really like this track. Anywhoo, Disk 1 has more goodies, up to you to discover them.
Disk 2 General Review
Disk 2 contains more chorals and other really standout tracks, so why don’t we go through the standout tracks, huh ?
First off we get « Anxiety », a 4 minute long piece, it has a lot of variety, starting off from very calm music, to a fear-inducing passage containing some piano and some violin and some other instruments which I can’t identify, but it is very enjoyable to listen, defenately one of the high points of Disk 2. « Zarathustra » is a very powerful piece, very poignant, very sad. It starts off with some organ, then some chorals join in, in which the saddening factor is increased greatly, I can’t listen to this without nearly shedding a tear, it’s that emotional. I must be used for a saddening scene obviously. « The Miracle » is the best choral piece in the entire soundtrack, the latin lyrics makes it sound sacred, but when the drum joins in and the chorus gets louder, it gets only better. « Albedo » is worthy of a mention, it is an opera-like piece, at a point the voices get very loud and intense, it’s quite creepy but it must fit its purpose really well, whatever it might be. « Omega » is another of the really good tracks, I’m guessing it is a boss theme, it starts off with spacey sound effects, but soon we hear some chorals, as if to imply « This fiend is NOT to be messed with », then it gets really intense when the acoutic guitar, the violins and an electric guitar make their entrance into the track, the following only gets better and better, you get the epic feel of a mighty boss battle, but there’s more, the electric guitar returns backed up by some violins, trumpets, drums, the works, then it suddenly stops, it’s a shame the track dosen’t repeat, cuz it is VERY good. « Last Battle » is very similar to « Those who Bare Fangs at God » from Xenogears, but this time, Mitsuda adds a bit more variety to the track, at one point you’ll hear a chorus, at another point some wicked organ, and some violin, wow !! This really sounds like the battle to end all battles, it’s very powerful, not as intense as « Omega », but good nonetheless. After the « Last Battle », we are treated to some fantastic vocal songs, yep, Joanne Hogg who made her first appearance on Xenogears, returns in Xenosaga, and she delivers two of the most beautiful songs to be heard in a videogame, « Pain » and « Kokoro ». So there you have it, folks !
For the conclusion : Should you buy this CD ? If you can afford it, the answer is yes. You have NO excuse to pass up this magnificient CD set, NONE !!!!! The only soundtrack which might surpass the quality of Xenosaga might be Final Fantasy XII (when it comes out and we know who’s composing, that is) or the not-coming-so-soon Dragon Quest 8, if Sugiyama decides to use an actual orchestra, such as the London Philharmonic, to perform the score, one can only imagine and drool at the aural delights we’ll be served. For the time being, Mitsuda is currently composing the music for Breath of Fire 5 along with Hitoshi Sakimoto of Ogre Battle/Vagrant Story fame, so we are very confident that it will be very good.
Orchestrated music? I think so. Xenosaga's soundtrack is quite a different turn compared to it's predecessor/sequel, and has a feel of it's own which is in itself reminding this reviewer of large-scale epic mech battles. Will the game also deliver what the music does? Time will tell...ONWARD! To disk one!
Well, starting from the beginning, first track is the prologue...something calm, smooth, scene-setting as well which has a movie feel to it, don't ask me what they're singing at the end, it's beyond my understanding skills.
The opening, on another hand, is a little less vocal, but has the similar scene-setting mood as the prologue in accelerated mode. Very repetitive for a very straightforward use by my guess.
Third theme is where things get good, I've always been a fan of battle musics and this one does not dissapoint. Moderatly high tempo, many instruments and yet a simple melody makes this one hard to get bored of, which is good seeing the game most likely will have a fair share of battles.
The biggest flaw of this soundtrack by my account is the over-repetitiveness of a certain partition, which is used in Rising Emotion and in many other songs later. The main theme of the game is remixed too often...beyond three it's just too much, although the song IS good with the few instruments softly entwined. Game Over theme is basically the same and the Closed Minded Girl track as well, with the Shion Memory track to boot. Thankfully those are the only repetitions of the main theme with different instruments and tempo...for disk one.
Shion's crisis...it's a mix. A part is the usual (getting annoying by now) main theme but most of it is a strong mix of trumpets and drums with a bit of violin that gives the feeling something horrible has/is/will happen, but it drops too soon to a softer tone and loses the feeling halfway.
Battle with Kos-Mos, boss battle, lots of cymbal hits, trumpets, bit of background violin, it lives to the expectation of a boss that's dangerous and capable of tearing your characters into mincemeat.
Life Or Death, another one with high tempo and good trumpet, giving the idea that death is likely not the good option of the two, as it carries the epic feeling into it. Loops a bit early for my tastes, but overall it's good.
Margulis, now this one I like, simply because it sounds Eeeeeeevil. Not as in acting eeeevil, but in eeeevil army marching or something similar. A lot of drum work in this one and violin in a well balanced track, perfect for any would-be dictator.
And those are all my picks for Disk one, the rest simply...too trivial for my taste or lacking that 'Oomph' to make it in this review, to Disk two, and beyooond!
Ormus being our opening piece, and what a piece. Mostly vocals in it but it has that religion feel to it, almost sacred sound which the chorus nicely captured in a little CD. One of the few tracks that could be listened to for hours on end.
The Ressurection and The Miracle, both vocal tracks which I also enjoy greatly, simply for the crescendo which marks them both nicely, and Miracle has an instrument in as well, a large drum to be exact.
Zarathustra...another evil-ish track, due to the great amount of organ music in it, has a big of phantom of the opera feel, but the evil does not last as the organ is traded for a violin, and the feeling changes to one of tragedy. A good use of instruments overall in this one.
Kos-Mos...ach, main theme again, NEXT!
Albeto, now this one's special, beginning with a crescendo of instruments to be interrupted by a singer that'd probably belong in the opera seeing her rather long notes. A shame I have no idea what's the voice saying, but it sounds like the anthem for the evil protagonist character, and thus is likely to be the prelude to a great battle.
And said battle could be the Omega theme, as it starts off soft during what is likely to be the pre-battle speech we often have nowadays, and as it keeps a high tempo during most of the track with few trumpets, lots of violins and surprisingly what I believe to be an electric guitar...go figure.
Proto Merkabah. Now we're in REAL battle theme business. It starts off smooth and soothing with a vocal track and trumpets, a bit of flute and drums, giving the impression that something's rising. Something big, something BAD. A bit of static distortion as well before the loop, and it probably leads to the last battle theme after a while since they are next to each other...and they combine well anyway. The last battle is one of the few tracks with piano work in it, and has a feel reminding me of Secret of mana because of that. Violin, vocal and piano gives for epicness feel when properly combined, give it your all with no regrets. It beats the other battle tracks by my opinion, simply because of the large variety of instruments and the never-ending beat which suggests this is a battle for the history books.
Pain is likely coming right after the final battle, as it's a nice soft vocal song with piano entwined in it. I don't particularly like it much, since the second ending vocal track, Emotion, has better lyrics in my opinion.
Conclusion: If you can stand the somewhat repeating tracks, this would be a 'must-get' OST in my book, since it's one of the few good orchestrated ones coming out. It gets a 8 out of 10 on total, and that's just because the main theme drove me nuts for listening to it so often while writing this.
Before I begin, I'd like to point out that some of the track names in Xenosaga are given in Japanese, others in plain English. I'm still a beginner when it comes to Japanese, so please pardon some of my rough translations.
I am a somewhat peculiar specimen in the vast industry of game soundtrack reviewers. While it seemed that everyone and their mother was praising Xenogears as one of the greatest soundtracks of all time, I actually found it to be quite disappointing. Maybe it was the hype. Maybe it was the style. Don't get me wrong -- I'd take a bullet for Yasunori Mitsuda any day of the week. I just didn't think the Xenogears OST was as good as, say, Chrono Trigger. I would even rank Mitsuda's work for the Mario Party games as better stuff than what was seen in XG.
I've figured out that what first got me hooked on Mitsuda was his light, whimsical music. Chrono Trigger was chock-full of it. While it had its share of sad and angry tunes, very few of the tracks could be called "heavy" or "hardcore". (The same goes for the Mario Party games, but even more so.) The XG OST was a surprising move away from this kind of music, and what let me down so much was not that Mitsuda was trying something new, but that he hadn't quite let go of his old style. And the light-hearted tracks of Xenogears tended to be the ones I clung to, probably because they were the ones that reminded me the most of Chrono Trigger. I was afraid to embrace this new, serious Mitsuda, and I have a feeling that Mitsuda himself wasn't quite comfortable either.
In the Xenosaga OST, Mitsuda finally takes hold of a style that he could only faintly grasp in Xenogears. This is serious stuff. It's a delightfully dark, foreboding style that combines traditional movie-style symphonic pieces with some heavy industrial instrumentals. With some twists thrown in there, too. ^_^ I grouped some of the more notable songs in this soundtrack into groups according to their style. This is not to say that the tracks are divided. The dark atmosphere binds these pieces together and gives them a cohesion that XG lacked. The track arrangment is also quite good, so that one style does not get repeated over and over again.
While listening to XS, you feel that the whole time this soundtrack is building up to something big. For the mood pieces, foreshadowing some sort of eerie plot twist, this goes without saying. The battle themes do it too -- while listening to them, you feel like you're taking part in somesort of nightmarish, never-ending series of fights. There is rarely any release to this tension, so the battles always feel like there is "just one more baddie to go". The same is true for the soft pieces and the small number of happy victory themes. Of course there are exceptions, like the aptly named "Nichijou", which I have translated to "Just Another Day", which is a nice relaxing piece that evokes a calm, beachy mood. But in general, the XS OST keeps you waiting in anticipation of the next piece. Sometimes it's creepy and foreboding, sometimes it's more of a cry of despair. But there's always this ever-building tension there, pulling you in deeper and deeper as you listen, and continually raising the bar for each successive track.
Just popping in the first disc and listening to the Prelude should put you in just the right mood. It starts out with a very conventional symphonic opening that is a bit like John Williams' mood music for Star Wars. Then the whole brass and percussion sections start a revolution in motion, followed by the strings and their weird off-beat rythms. Pretty soon the whole orchestra is in a frenzy. A choir of voices then comes in to soothe the anxiety for a while, wrapping your ears up in a soft musical blanket. But even in this sweet passage, there is something that is not quite right... a hint of dissonance that leaves you ready for something a bit darker. A bit of side story about this piece: the first time I heard it, I was riding in a car on a lonely road in Sequoia National Park at night. I can't imagine a more appropriate setting for this piece. Don't ever try this unless you like feeling on edge. Verrrrry creepy stuff. O_o;;
"Opening" introduces the industrial side to this soundtrack. Quite a contrast to the narrative Prelude, this song is definitely more ambient, which is not surprising for slow industrial music. (Note that I use "industrial" rather loosely, just as most people probably use the term "metal" loosely.) Gotta love those instruments, from the electronic tones to the factory sound effects, to the droning voice "hum". These two tracks are actually a great representation of the basic tone of the soundtrack. If you're not sure about buying XS, see if some nice person (*wink wink*) would be willing to send you samples of these two -- and if you like them, you're bound to love the rest.
There are many fine examples of the symphonic and industrial styles on both discs. The ones on Disc 1 tend to be more instrumental and menacing, building up to some unknown climactic terror. Sometimes they are vague and ambient, like the symphonic "Shion's Crisis" or the industrial "Startup Test". Other times, they are right there in your face. "U-TIC Engine" sounds like an evil army is on the march, and it hides none of its sinister character -- it even has a chorus of evil laughs at the end. It's also a great fusion of both the symphonic and industrial styles. Fusion pieces such as this one are found all over Xenosaga, especially in the second disc. Some of them are quite unusual, such as "Omega" on Disc 2, which features an electric guitar.
Disc number two also features some fantastic choir work, blending a religious motif with the hard symphonic and industrial stuff that is introduced in the first disc. I assume the game features a similar blending of themes (which isn't surprising, given that Xenogears did exactly this). "The Resurrection" is a beautiful joyous song, going against the dark grain of the soundtrack for a bit. "Zarathustra" and "Song of Nephilim", however, are quite the opposite. Then there's "Proto Merkabah", with its white noise sound effects blended with a single voice crying out in despair. And my personal favorite of the entire soundtrack, "Albedo". I can't describe the full effect of this song, so that means you've got to go out and listen to it. It features a tenor singing as though he were part of some dark opera, backed up by a full orchestra, which is pretty unnerving in itself. The end of his passage is this haunting "oooh oooh oooooowoooooh", which is sure to send shivers down your spine. But it gets better. The singer and the whole orchestra immediately drop out, and all that it heard is a single piano playing this back-and-forth sequence of minor chords, and the creepiness factor increases tenfold. Not even Sephiroth was this creepy.
It is a testament to Yasunori Mitsuda's skill as a composer that he is able to effectively combine so many different styles of music into a single "uber-style" that makes a single unified impression. Xenosaga would be quite a robust OST even if it stopped with the symphonic and industrial stuff (plus the fusion), but it goes even further than that. There is a healthy helping of solo piano pieces, plus a few other tracks that feature piano as a major instrument. Disc 1 has "Sorrow", "Shion ~Memory of the Past~", and "Little Girl's Spirit Shut Away". The last of these is one of my favorites, as it sounds just like one of Chopin's Nocturnes. Disc 2 has "Nephilim", "Warmth", and "Shion ~Emotion~". All of them are quite well-done, some of them in the style of classical composers, though you'll realize that both of the Shion tracks are piano renditions of the soundtrack's main theme "Pain", which I'll get to in a moment. An interesting addition to XS is Disc 2's "Green Sleeves", which is a piano rendition of that famous ancient song. While I didn't think Mitsuda's version was anything special, I have to admit it was a nice unique touch.
The battle themes are also very well-done, borrowing a bit from Xenosaga's equally-dark cousin, Final Fantasy VII. "Battle" is obviously the normal battle theme, a nice motivational piece with a moderate tempo. From the way they sound, I'm guessing that "Battling KOS-MOS", "Life or Death", and "Durandal" are also battle themes. And then of course, on Disc 2, we have "Last Battle". This one bears some special attention. It has some fantastic instrumentation, moving from one rhythm to the next, keeping a repeating piano chord in the background, and building upon it with a rich chanting choir and a violin which plays a theme introduced in a Disc 1 track, "Gnosis".
Now we get to the vocal pieces -- not the choir songs, but the tracks performed by Joanne Hogg, the same artist who sang the awesome "Small Two of Pieces" in the Xenogears OST. "Pain" is a theme heard several times earlier in the soundtrack, in the piano "Shion" pieces plus a chime version on Disc 1's "Emotion" and Disc 2's organ remix titled "KOS-MOS". A couple of these are not exact copies of "Pain", but rather variations on a slightly different harmony. "Pain" is not quite as good as "Small Two of Pieces" in my opinion, but I imagine that personal preference will be a pretty big factor here. "Kokoro", the second vocal piece, is a lesser follow-up to "Pain", and a track that I would have felt just fine leaving off the soundtrack entirely.
Xenosaga's biggest strength, aside from Mitsuda's successful fusion of several musical styles, is its enormous power. It just builds and builds and builds, heading for a climax that seems unimaginable. And unfortunately, it remains unimaginable, since the ending tracks prove unable to give this beast a proper finishing job. This should not be taken as an insult to "Pain" or "Kokoro", (well, maybe a little bit to "Kokoro" :P) but rather as a compliment to the bulk of the OST. It simply raises the bar so high that it cannot surpass itself. To write a proper ending to XS, Mitsuda would have had to kill himself with the effort. There are a couple filler tracks here and there, but the vast majority of the XS OST is simply too good to pass up. It's well worth your money, believe me.
If you liked the serious side of Mitsuda that was glimpsed in XG, then XS will be quite a trip for you. Even if you prefer his lighter stuff, like I do, please give XS a listen. You just may find a place in your heart for Mitsuda's serious side, and if you start with XS intead of XG, you'll get a much better impression. Xenosaga is the soundtrack that Xenogears *should* have been.