Category Archives: Reviews

Review: Hiro 30th Anniversary Album Thank you for listening!

Hiro may not be a household name, but you’ve likely heard his music. He’s the legend behind many of the earliest SEGA soundtracks, including those for Hang-On, Fantasy Zone, After Burner, and more. Catchy, technically impressive, and incredibly prolific, this album demonstrates all of these and more with one disc of “best of” material from his 30 years in the business, and a second disc of arrangements by Hiro and others many of which are entirely new to this collection.

So much of this music is amazing, from the chugging 1985 rock synths from Hang-On, the infectious catchiness of Space Harrier, the swanky swing in Enduro Racer, the playful and iconic Fantasy Zone, and the realistic jazz, pop, and exotic flavors from Out Run. There was fantastic ’90s rock with After Burner, sticky-sweet pop with Dynamite Dux, epic fantasy and explosive ’80s synth rock with Sword of Vermilion (one of my personal favorites), the comedy of Rent-a-Hero, and more modern dance, grunge, J-pop, and J-rock with his Sega Saturn era contributions.

The remix disc features all of the same songs, but arranged. There’s a lot of jazz to be had with SEGA’s [H.] band, a classy jazz ensemble called Akai Ryu-sei, and arrangements from Hiro himself from across the ages. Some are simple synth upgrades to the originals, while others are full-fledged jazz renditions, but all are tastefully done. There’s also a funky and wild dance/chiptune take on Sword of Vermilion by none other than Hip Tanaka, a retro synth/chiptune spin on Dynamite Dux by Omodaka, a big anime-style vocal opening from Rent-a-Hero, and a dreamy funk fest by Taito composer Shohei Tsuchiya with Crackin’ DJPART2.

So, let’s get on to the bad news. Unfortunately this album is not being sold through any regular soundtrack import sites. Your best bet is to hit Amazon or eBay if you’re looking for this one. There will be mark ups, but it’s a fantastic bit of history chronicling an unsung hero in game music.

Review: SQUARE ENIX MUSIC SAMPLER CD VOL.11

Another Tokyo Game Show, another Square Enix Music sampler CD. This is the eleventh (see volumes 9 and 10), given to customers who made purchases over a certain threshold. The discs have evolved over the years to include full tracks from recently-released and upcoming albums from Square Enix Music’s label, and they had a lot to show this year.

The sampler begins with “Nox Aeterna (E3 2013 Trailer)” from Final Fantasy XV, a tragic and somber affair. The music that has been performed from this game is fantastic, and I wonder if this trailer track will appear on the final soundtrack release. From there, “No Turning Back” is a tense Hollywood action cue from Kingslaive (which I rather enjoyed), “Blazing Heart of Justice” is pure metal from Justice Monsters Five, and two tracks–a Japanese pop vocal piece and a pumping battle track with Masashi Hamauzu’s signature piano and strings–from World of Final Fantasy that have me excited for this soundtrack in particular. SaGa Scarlet Grace offers beautiful sweeping orchestra, Final Fantasy XII Zodiac Age introduces a gorgeous orchestral sound to “Ozmone Plains,” and NieR Music Concert & Talk Live offers a live vocal rendition from NieR that I can’t wait to hear and watch. Some new games are included, such as a synthy Celtic track from Celestial Aruls, some great synth music from Naoshi Mizuta from both Akashic Re:cords and Guardian Codex, an RPG town theme from Pop-Up Story: Mahono Moto to Seiju no Gakuen, a folksy vocal theme from Kamitsuri, and two unreleased tracks from Mobius Final Fantasy: one that offers mellow male vocals and synth work similar in style to Mitsuto Suzuki’s solo albums, and another that is sweeping and epic, working in the Final Fantasy main theme.

In all, this is a strong sampler that shows a lot of great music in the works. There’s the usual stuff to be excited about, including Final Fantasy XV, NieR, and SaGa Scarlet Grace, but some of the lesser-known titles now have my interest.

Stay tuned for our reviews of these albums in the coming months. Unfortunately the sampler will be difficult to find with TGS being long over.

Review: FINAL FANTASY Record Keeper Original Soundtrack

A lot of people had fun messing around with FINAL FANTASY Record Keeper, and I’m sure more than a few dug the arrangements featured throughout and wanted to get their hands on them. Well, Square Enix has you covered with this compilation album featuring a variety of talent mostly from outside Square Enix, who you can learn about on VGMdb.

The arrangements are fairly straightforward, with little twists to fit special holidays or combined into tidy medleys. “Mystic Mysidia -Halloween-,” for example, gives the mischievous tune some mysterious bells and defiant strings in A Nightmare Before Christmas fashion, while jingle bells join the Final Fantasy VII main theme and “Gold Saucer,” making for a jolly Christmas arrangement. “Eyes on Me,” “Celes,” and of course, “Theme of Love” combine for a perfect Valentine’s Day medley, and a lovely sleep-inducing Tanbata (Star Festival) medley features lots of harp and bells to capture that celestial atmosphere.

There are several one-off arrangements, including rockin’ versions of “Battle at the Big Bridge” and “Decisive Battle” from Final Fantasy VI (which features a few other songs as well), a dreamy trance version of “The Man With the Machine Gun,” a bubbly techno-flavored “Vana’diel March,” a wedding organ-infused “Prelude,” and a pumping electronic/rock version of “Blinded by Light” (one of the more complex arrangements by Monster Hunter/Dragon’s Dogma composer Tadayoshi Makino).

While there isn’t a whole lot to sink your teeth into, if you played with the app and want the music, it’s available at CD Japan.

Review: Motoi Sakuraba Band Arrangement Album / STAR OCEAN & VALKYRIE PROFILE

While Motoi Sakuraba’s name isn’t as well known as many JRPG composers out there, he’s probably written more music than any of them. He’s composed all or at least the majority of the Tales series, Star Ocean series, Valkyrie Profile series, Baten Kaitos series, and numerous others. There were two separate years in the 2000s where he produced three separate 4-disc soundtrack releases. He’s a beast, and in recent years, he’s worked on the Dark Souls soundtracks too.

He’s mainly known for his progressive rock music, and has performed and recorded several shows over the years. This album is special, however, as it was his intent to focus on battle music from older titles to bring them to life with a live rock performance mainly performed by himself. He performed all the drums, piano, rock organ, and synths himself, and had a professional guitarist and bass player help out. This album should be intriguing enough just for that, but the music is some of the best from Star Ocean, Star Ocean 2, Valkyrie Profile, and Valkyrie Profile 2, so you’d want to check it out anyway.

Most of the tracks have never been arranged before (a few have been performed during previous shows, but not with Sakuraba on so many instruments). The twelve tracks tread on a lot of different territory, from the gritty “The incarnation of the devil,” to the unpredictable and unsettling “Dynamite.” One of my favorites, “The true nature of all” brings in harpsichord and a high-pitched synth with a strong fantasy vibe, while “Mighty blow+Shiver” gets a siren-like synth lead that hints at danger, “Never Surrender” is slow and melancholy with some heartbreaking piano, “For Achieve” sports lightning-fast percussion and guitar, and “Tangency” is classic crazy Sakuraba with explosive percussion and rock organ with a sweet breakdown about halfway through. The oft-arranged and performed “Unconfirmed God Fighting Syndrome” is uplifting and awesome as always, “KA.MI.KA.ZE” is a decisive and measured adventure, and “Confidence in the domination” gallops in with guitar shredding and non-stop aggression.

In all, the album is a real treat for Sakuraba fans and a nice introduction to some of his earlier work heard with a live band for those who don’t know his work as well. Pick it up at CD Japan if you’re interested.

Review: Final Fantasy Brave Exvius

Noriyasu Agematsu is a name gamers and even game music fans may not be familiar with, but they should be. He’s had a pretty prolific career working with Elements Garden and other groups. I first came to know his work thanks to the excellent Chaos Rings soundtracks that Square Enix put out a couple years ago (I actually have review notes of these albums but never wrote my reviews… maybe I need to). For those who are super familiar, I’d love to hear some recommendations, as Agematsu has another hit on his hands with Final Fantasy Brave Exvius, and it seems as though game music fans are now taking notice.

The score features orchestral fantasy with high production values, working in lots of Final Fantasy love throughout with bits of “The Prelude,” “Final Fantasy,” and the opening notes of the original Final Fantasy battle theme as well. It feels upbeat, yet mature, as conveyed through its contemplative opener, “Moment of Recall.” There’s everything from the energetic “DUEL!!” with its addition of rock percussion and Celtic influences, the gorgeous and serene “Peaceful Village,” the spooky and dangerous “Not of this World,” and the decisive military march, “The Initiation.” The acoustic guitar and string section in “Walkabout” are incredibly upbeat and uplifting, while “Overcome the Menace” gets industrial, the grandiose “Tree of Tales” sports beautiful harp work and string swells, the soothing “Snowdrop” includes angelic choir and bells, the exotic “Mirage Palace” brings in tribal percussion, and “Amigo de Chocobo” offers a bluegrass spin on the classic. “Antiquities” is another great track that combines ethereal pads with funky synth bass, while the playfully dangerous “Force and Furious,” the amazing organ concerto “End is Night,” and the epic “Celestial Battle” close things out.

A few of my absolute favorites include the sweeping and majestic “Great Voyage,” the relaxation-inducing sway of “Joie de Vivre,” and the contemplative and mysterious piano of “Mystic Ruins.” But really, the entire score is fantastic.

So, now on to the bad news. Apparently Square Enix sold this soundtrack exclusively through their online store, and according to CD Japan, who was taking special orders for it, it’s out of print.  Fortunately it is on iTunes for $15.99, so I suggest grabbing it there.

Review: Dark Souls III Soundtrack

The Dark Souls II soundtrack was one of my favorites of 2014. So I was excited to see Yuka Kitamura and Motoi Sakuraba teaming up once again for the third, and presumably final, installment. Fans of the series should know the drill by now, no music outside of key hub areas and boss battles. That lends to score a pretty action-heavy lean, but the variety of moods presented does prevent much of the fatigue you’d expect.

The opening “Premonition” is rightfully somber and smoldering, giving a hint at what’s ahead. The titular “Dark Souls III” sports foreboding bell tolls and choir before exploding into dark and tragic strings with beautiful harmonies, while “Prologue” brings in the guttural male choir and buzzing strings that have been used throughout he series. Finally, “Firelink Shrine” is bleak and desolate with droning bass, a female choral section, and a soundscape that doesn’t feel at all safe.

As far as the boss themes go (always the highlight), “Iudex Gundyr” doesn’t disappoint with its slow build, powerful strings, rustic harpsichord, and call and response male and female choir. “Vordt of the Boreal Valley” is somewhat of a death march with chugging bass, “Curse -Rotted Greatword-,” is sweeping and frightening with its gurgling choir and sense of corruption, “Crystal Sages” is appropriately wise and methodical, and “Deacons of the Deep” sports a massive and regal organ. There’s the tense and bombastic “Pontiff Sulyvahn,” the beautiful and graceful “Dancer of the Boreal Valley,” the deep brass tones of “Old Demon King,” the small hints of beauty hidden behind a deep brooding male choir in “Oceiros, The Consumed King,” the slow and contemplative “Abyss Watchers,” the wonderful dark waltz of “Yhorm the Giant”, and the epic and tragic “Lorian.” Finally, the grandiose and elegant “Soul of Cinder” sports some references to themes of the past, which is a nice touch, and the ending themes are melancholy and somber, and not at all triumphant.

Fans of Dark Souls music will appreciate this score just as they did the others. While it’s hard to capture the same magic the third time in, Kitamura and Sakuraba have done a fantastic job with this installment, and I’m looking forward to hearing what each of them do next.

The soundtrack was available with pre-order editions of the game, so it may be difficult to find at this point, but I’m sure you can find the soundtrack CD online through various outlets.

Review: DISSIDIA FINAL FANTASY -Arcade- ORIGINAL SOUNDTRACK

I remember when Dissidia was first announced. This was the fighting game Final Fantasy fans wanted (not Ergheiz!). The scores for the first two Dissidia games were fantastic, incorporating some lovely arrangements and original themes, so I was excited to get my hands on the soundtrack album accompanying the franchise’s first foray into arcades.

What you’ll find are pretty familiar sounds. Big, bombastic orchestral originals, and orchestral-rock hybrid arrangements of your favorite Final Fantasy battle themes. The opening theme takes a more melancholy approach with the series theme, but the glitchy “Prelude” will get the nostalgia and energy flowing pretty quickly. From there, the heavy metal flows, including a thunderous version of “The Rebel Army” from Final Fantasy II, which came as a surprise, a bombastic orchestral and synth version of the Final Fantasy IV final battle theme, the latter portion of “Dancing Mad” from Final Fantasy VI, and really cool spins on the main battle theme and “Fight With Seymour” from Final Fantasy X. “Flash of Steel” from Final Fantasy XII incorporates Hitoshi Sakimoto’s signature orchestral elements and adds in chugging bass and rock percussion on top, while *Eden Under Siege” from Final Fantasy XIII comes as a welcome addition, full of grit, wailing distorted guitars, rock percussion, and strings. “Antipyretic” from Final Fantasy Tactics also gets a slow and desperate arrangement with piano and sorrowful strings. The last track offers a remix of the Dissidia main theme, “Massive Explosion,” by SQ album series arranger Novoiski, bringing in synth sweeps, chiptune, and dub step elements.

There isn’t really anything groundbreaking here in terms of arrangements, but the rock-oriented takes on classic Final Fantasy tunes should please arcade-goers. Pick the album up at CD Japan if you’re interested.

Review: BRA★BRA FINAL FANTASY Gaiden: Minna de Bravo!

We’ve really enjoyed the BRA BRA brass arrangement CDs, so it was cool to not only see a live concert series in Japan featuring some of the arrangements, but also a new CD featuring a collection of recordings both old and new, but mostly new, with some of my favorites from the series yet.

The album opens with the infectiously upbeat “Opening Theme” from Final Fantasy that treads on big band, surf rock, and ska territories before “Moogle’s Theme” puts forth the expected comedic approach with playful tuba and silly tempo shifts. “Main Theme” from Final Fantasy V is energetic and upbeat, with a full production behind the brass (the recording is borrowed from elsewhere), while “Gogo ~ Slam Shuffle” is pure fun on recorder, “Johnny C Bad” is rambunctious, and “Spinach Rag ~ Character Medley” from Final Fantasy VI visits all of our favorite themes from the game, although sometimes too briefly, in big band style, with Gogo, Celes, and Setzer’s themes standing out.

There are a number of surprises featured throughout which blew me away. “Fisherman’s Horizon” is one of Uematsu’s finest compositions, and the beautifully layered and swelling performance is simply moving. “Shuffle or Boogie ~ Waltz for the Moon,” also from Final Fantasy VIII, is another surprise, ranging from upbeat to tense to funky with a killer saxophone solo. Final Fantasy IV’s “Final Battle” never gets enough love, and the lightning-fast percussion, brass stabs and swells, and wonderful solos make for a spectacular and completely unexpected experience. Similarly, the “Main Theme from Final Fantasy VII” sports a cinematic arrangement for brass, acoustic guitar, and piano, and is hardly recognizable, but when you do recognize pieces and bits, it’s quite serene. I’d love an entire album of this style of arrangement, as it reminded me a bit of the Genso Suikoden III Bosque Aroma arrangement album. Finally, a secret track at the end brings another surprise with an upbeat loungy jazz version of “Birth of a God” from Final Fantasy VII, closing out on a high note.

What really allows this album to stand out is the inclusion of tracks that rarely get this sort of attention, and were completely unexpected. I hope Square Enix and arrangers contributing to these projects continue to take risks in the future. Unfortunately the album is only being sold at tour stops in Japan, but I imagine it’ll turn up after the tour is through at the end of 2016. Keep an eye out.

Review: ADVENTURES of MANA Original Soundtrack

Most know the Seiken Densetsu franchise for the second game in the series, which is known outside of Japan as Secret of Mana. However, the first game, originally released on the Game Boy and again on the Game Boy Advance, is now enjoying yet another re-release on iOS, Android, and the PlayStation Vita. It also gets another arranged soundtrack, putting Kenji Ito’s memorable melodies in the hands of former Falcom JDK member Noriyuki Kamikura, Nobuo Uematsu protege Tsutomu Narita, and Ito himself.

From the lovely strings and piano of the moving main theme, “Rising Sun,” to the blazing rock with epic organ of “The Final Conflict,” this album acts as a great introduction to a soundtrack that many may have missed. “Bloodsands” sports chugging guitars and the battle cry of brass, “Village Theme” features sleepy and comforting woodwinds and acoustic guitar, and “Town Theme” is a bouncy, bubbly piano, flute and guitar piece that would be right at home in a drunken tavern, and is easily my favorite track on the album. There’s also the rocking overworld, “Endless Carnage,” that gets the blood pumping, the orchestral-rock fusion track, “In Search of the Sword of Mana,” with its pumping octave-jumping bass, the dark and mysterious “Dungeon Theme 1,” and even a funky version of Uematsu’s chocobo theme. Then it’s the exotic droning and sitar of “Dungeon Theme II,” the angelic “The Mana Shrine,” and the sweet harp tune, “Say it With a Song.” From there you have all the remaining RPG trappings, including a synth rock battle theme, a regal castle tune, a comical moogle theme, and several melancholy ballads.

This is really a classic score from Kenji Ito, and Narita and Kamikura have done a great job with the arrangements. Anyone who’s an Ito fan or is looking for a classic JRPG romp, I recommend picking up the album from CD Japan.

Review: STAR OCEAN 5 -Integrity and Faithlessness- Original Soundtrack

Motoi Sakuraba has had quite a prolific career. At one point, he was chugging out several four-disc soundtracks per year, all with his signature progressive rock style. He took a break from it all to work on more orchestral and choral works with his excellent Dark Souls soundtracks, but I was certainly looking forward to a return to his roots with Star Ocean 5, and the soundtrack doesn’t disappoint. There’s all the space fantasy rock you can handle, and even a few tracks that sound like they’d be right at home in Dark Souls. Expect chugging guitars, laser-like synths, and tons of rock organ; Sakuraba is back!

Four discs of material is a lot to wade through, so I’ll try to call out my favorites, which include “The Fecund Plains of Resulia,” an epic and bombastic fantasy track with a powerful and uplifting melody, “Central Resulia, The Capital” with regal strings and harpsichord, lending a rustic feel to this beautiful symphonic piece, “Spacetime Chaos” with its layered and mesmerizing pads, the horrifying “Flabbergasted” with its shrill strings atop a bed of deep brass and scattered percussion, “Cruel Fortune, How Your Wheel Doth Turn” with its heartbreaking string swells and woodwinds, “Over the Planet” with its tense and determined melody, “Lakes and Marshes With Doubt” with its layered bell tones and ethereal ambiance, “Silk Road in the Sky II” with its trippy space synth leads and Jean Michel-Jarre-esque pads, the dangerous march, “Event Horizon,” with its buzzing strings and terrifying brass swells, “Uncontrollable Anger” with its ominous and mysterious strings and bass that is reminiscent of Jaws, the tragic and sinister “Tears in the Sun Make a Rainbow,” “Mission to Deep Space” with its jazzy saxophone and electronic elements, and “Do Evil” with its beefy synth sweeps and dissonant strings.

That classic Sakuraba prog rock sound? It’s heard everywhere, but some of the standouts include “Wild Fight, No End in Sight” with his bizarre time signatures and explosive battle stylings, “Under Pressure” with a funky bass line and ominous strings and pads, and “Mortal Combat” with its lightning-fast guitar work and intense builds. In terms of channeling that dark and bombastic Dark Souls sound, look no further than “Hour of Judgement,” “Kronos,” and “Powerbroker,” all of which are tense, grandiose, and awesome.

Sakuraba fans like myself will definitely have the nostalgia flowing by the time this album is through. Newcomers will benefit from hearing Motoi Sakuraba’s classic rock stylings through the lens of his extensive experience working on more orchestral compositions over the past several years. In any case, it’s awesome, and fans of RPGs and rock music will want to pick it up on CD Japan.