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At the edge of the universe, out there in the world of uber-hardcore ambient, lie some pretty weird soundtracks. The Baroque OST is one of these. It'll be interesting, to say the least. Read on to find out what lurks in the hearts of twisted soundtrack composers.
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I use the term "ambient" pretty loosely. Something like the Vagrant Story OST classifies as ambient in my book, as does the non-opera stuff in Parasite Eve. But the true Ambient style, at least as I understand it, is a phenomenon that's more than simply repetitive atonal music -- just as Jazz is something more than modal chords and improvisation.
The Baroque OST is such a soundtrack. Composed (mostly) by Masaharu Iwata, it is Ambient, to the letter. Be forewarned, some of the stuff is *way* out there. Take "Confusion", for instance. This track could probably be classified in the Experimental Noise genre of music (yes, there is such a thing). It begins with some wind and thunder effects, then in come some rapid effects that sound like running and fighting heard very far in the distance. Droning in the background we can also hear some heavily distorted samples that sound like voices communicating over a radio. The scene reminds me of a battle. As the radio voices fade out, a steady echoing click sound is heard, growing ever louder, and playing at very regular intervals. It becomes rather disturbing when you begin forming images in your mind of what the music is supposed to represent.
Noise isn't the only kind of music you'll hear, however. Several tracks are more of the "droning atmospheric" style of music, quite common in game soundtracks that have industrial themes, such as Xenosaga. Pieces like this have some degree of harmony to them... always sustained and sort of wailing in the background. "Namu Ami" is a great example of this style. It begins with sound effects only, something that sounds like a rolling metal oil drum and a bunch of rattles and thuds. Then the drone kicks in, reverberating around the musical space and giving the mood more of a physical presence. At about 2:30 this wicked ratcheting plays, and it sounds so much like a laugh that it's scary. I guess that was the point. :P
Another great song for atmospheric harmony is "Alice In", which sort of combines the harmony and melody together in a tune that reminds me of the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It must be because it sounds pretty and otherworldly, quite a partner for the underlying darkness present in this piece.
Some of the songs have more of a melody than others... but they are still solidly ambient. "One Foot in the Grave" starts to open the soundtrack up to songs that are less focused on sound effects. While it does have plenty of wailing and other good effects, I think the memorable part of the song is the eerie melody.
By no means does Iwata stick to the non-melodic stuff that most of us associate with Ambient. At least half of the tracks on Baroque pull styles from dark industrial, choir chants, and even some electronica. A few noteworthy examples are "Into Our Tresspasses", "One", and "Multiplex". Then there are the first and last tracks of Iwata's work, "Great Heat 20320514" and "Hold Baroque Inside". The former utilizes a grunge-y sort of synth, featuring an extremely distorted guitar and some sound effects that remind me of the NES Mega Man games. The latter is even further from the chaotic noisy weirdness that the early tracks use. It's a piano piece with electronic backup that sounds far too light to be in this beast of an OST.
The last four tracks were not composed by Iwata. "Interludium" is a contribution from John Pee, who worked with Iwata on Treasure Hunter G. It's not anything great, just something that fits in with the more industrial tracks on the album. The remaining three were composed by Toshiaki Sakoda. His tracks are actually worth special mention. "Baroque 204 Forest" is by far the most conventional song in the Baroque OST, and the only one to utilize orchestral instruments. "Baroque 205 Blue" is a very interesting song that blends elements from tribal ambient and hard rock. And finally, "Baroque 206 Black" is a really short (but sweet) way to end the soundtrack. I won't spoil the surprise, but let's just say that the repetition in the early part of the piece will leave you unprepared for the little twist at the end. You might want to lower the volume on your speakers before you hit the end, too.
Now, to answer the burning question: is Baroque a good purchase? That's tough to say. If you've tried Ambient before and you know it isn't your thing, definitely not. If you're unfamiliar with the genre, as most mainstream-oriented people seem to be, Baroque isn't a good way to test the waters -- I recommend checking out independent artists on the web, or listening to soundtracks like Parasite Eve. If, however, you know you like Ambient, then Baroque is probably a sure thing. It explores many of the sub-genres within Ambient music, but nothing so hardcore that it will turn off an open-minded listener. It's one of those little-heard-of soundtracks that deserves far more attention than it receives.