Oh! Samurai Girls! A Music Collection (BSPE-1065)

It’s been awhile since Hitoshi Sakimoto’s Basicape Records put out some music. The tail end of 2016 saw the release of the soundtrack to the PC game Oh! Samurai Girls! A Music Collection with the return of composer Azusa Chiba and Yoshimi Kudo to follow up 2012’s “S” collection. You’re in for an eclectic winter-flavored soundtrack with strong Japanese influences.

From the sweet and magical opener to the mix of upbeat and playful to funky and cool tracks that follow, there’s something here for everyone. There’s epic orchestra, tender ballads, swaggering jazz, ninja rock, and even an appearance by J.S. Bach with a Christmas version of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” There are breakbeats, lullabies, and crashing metal along with traditional Japanese instruments, exotic desert music, and even folk. The album closes it with a series of heavy metal tracks complete with chugging bass and wailing guitars.

The two-disc album can be picked up on CD Japan if you’re interested.

Review: NieR Music Concert & Talk Live Blu-ray

I absolutely adore NieR. It ranks among my favorite soundtracks of all time. I’m also a huge fan of vocalist Emi Evans, and I’ve always been disappointed that I’ve never been able to see her perform the music from NieR lives in all the many times she’s done it. Thankfully Square Enix decided to publish this recent concert and live talk event on Blu-ray for the world to enjoy, and enjoy it I have.

The performance includes all the key tracks, with MoNACA composer and pianist Keigo Hoashi performing his own themes along with the lovely Reiko Tsuchiya Quartet. Vocalists, including Emi Evans, are of course featured prominently. There’s the somber introduction, “Snow in Summer,” followed by Emi Evans’s angelic vocals in “Hills of Radiant Winds,” “Kaine,” and “Song of the Ancients / Devola.” I realize I’m going over them quickly here, but they are each absolutely stunning compositions and live performances.

Things get more interesting with “The Wretched Automatons,” which sees Emi Evans perform her usual lead with Nami Nakagawa (also a performer from the original NieR soundtrack) handling the lower notes. Nagakawa truly impresses throughout the entire evening with her amazing range. She can hit some incredible lows and highs, making a perfect accompaniment to Evans or running the entire range all on her own, including on her NieR: Automata track.

Vocalist J’Nique Nicole comes to the stage to perform “Weight of the World” from Automata. The track has a sort of sleek and sexy ballad vibe, similar in style of something from Metal Gear Solid of 007. It’s an interesting track, and I’m curious to see how it sets the tone for the rest of the score.

Evans again comes to the stage to perform the heartbreaking “Grandma,” the sweet and reflective “Ashes of Dreams,” and is joined by Nakagawa for a riveting encore, “Song of the Ancients / Fate” featuring the two performing in perfect harmony. It’s quite a thing to see done live.

I’m glad they decided to keep the talk separate from the concert, as watching long portions of talk in the middle of the music can be a drag. I also enjoy the packaging design, with the sleek black and white cover with a nice wood grain texture that lends it some class.

In all, I couldn’t be more happy with this release. The music isn’t included in MP3 format on the disc like other Blu-ray releases have been, so you’ll have to pick up the limited edition version of the game to get the audio alone.

Feel free to pick up the Blu-ray on CD Japan in the meantime if you’re a fan of NieR’s music!

Review: SONIC THE HEDGEHOG 25TH ANNIVERSARY SELECTION

It’s hard to believe Sonic is over 25 years old. There have been good times, and there have been bad times, but one thing that’s always been particularly great about the series is the music. SEGA put together a two-disc “best of” compilation album of tracks from across the entire franchise and released them this past summer. The album features a more upbeat and poppy “Blue” disc and a darker and grittier “Black” disc.

The blue disc features classics such as the classic FM synthesis pop tune that started it all, “Green Hill Zone,” and the high-flying and majestic “Sky Sanctuary Zone” from Sonic & Knuckles. There’s the carnvial-like atmosphere of “Palmtree Panic” with its cheering crowds, the tribal “Mt. Red: A Symbol of Thrill,” and the dance tune, “Join Us 4 Happy Time.” We then get into the upbeat, inspirational rock that modern Sonic has come to be known for. “That’s the way I like it” gives us ska, “Neo Green Hill” combines 8-bit sounds with crunched down modern ones, and “Wave Ocean” is a cool fast-paced rock track with lightning-fast percussion. There’s the pumping “Theme of Metal City,” the adventurous and mariachi-flavored “A New Venture,” DNB and strings in “Windmill Isle,” and spacey synths in “Reach for the Stars.” One of my favorites, “Escape from the City,” appears in its Sonic Generations remix form, while “Beyond the Speed of…” is a super catchy pop-infused rock track from Sonic Runners, which we previously reviewed.

The black disc is heavier on the metal and synth syide. “Chemical Plant Zone” from Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is not only one of the greatest tracks from the series, but one of the most unique with its super funky layered bass. There’s chugging electronics in “Death Egg Zone Act 1” from Sonic & Knuckles, spunky rock in “Skydeck A Go! Go!,” and danger and grit in “Vengeance is Mine.” “For True Story” goes trip hop, “Rain Canyon” brings in octave-jumping slap bass and rock organ, and “Theme of Sonic the Hedgehog (2006)” sports big strings and rock, creating a cool hybrid. The ascending strings, orchestral hits, and buzzing bass in “Crisis City” stand out, as does the ominous and brooding synth sweeps and desolate sound of “Un-gravify.” Majestic and epic are good words to describe “Super Sonic vs. Perfect Dark Gaia,” while “Planet Wisp” sports a lovely piano ballad on top of funky bass and energetic percussion.

As somebody who owns many Sonic soundtracks, I still appreciated this collection as a historical look at the series. It’s changed direction a lot over the years, but they’ve always done a great job emphasizing speed with super catchy music, whether in synth pop or rock styles. Pick it up on CD Japan if you’re interested.

Review: FINAL FANTASY XV Original Soundtrack

Yoko Shimomura’s long-awaited soundtrack for Final Fantasy XV is finally here. I tried my best not to spoil it for myself, only listening to a few scattered samples and playing through one of the two pre-release demos, but even those demos couldn’t have prepared me for what was in store. The score is simply massive. It’s probably the most diverse and most “live” Final Fantasy soundtrack to date, with orchestras, session artists, and more spread over 96 tracks. I was surprised to find strong blues and Hollywood-style electronic/orchestral hybrid influences throughout, and I think fans of Yoko Shimomura will be pleasantly surprised by the variety.

I obviously can’t run through 96 tracks, but I can call out some of the key tracks. The title theme, “Somnus (Instrumental)” is melancholy and beautiful, which is a good way to sum up the majority of the score. The elegant piano work featured here is the binder that brings the entire body of work together, weaving in and out of tracks where you might not even expect it. It’s then on to blues with the spunky “Hammerhead,” which comes right out of a dusty western flick, while the exploration theme, “Wanderlust” combines whimsical orchestra with this gritty Western sound.

The battle themes are fitting, with the tense dissonance of “Encroaching Fear” that acts as a lead in to confrontations, and the powerful string and brass “Stand Your Ground” acting as the battle theme proper. “Lurking Danger” is a dark and terrifying piece that plays when a major confrontation is around the corner, and “Hunt or be Hunted” is a bombastic orchestral track that will have you thinking Metal Gear. Other standouts include “NOX AETERNA” with its profoundly distraught string work, the explosive “Veiled in Black” with contrasting chugging electric guitars and romantic piano sections, and the somewhat comical fishing theme, “Reel Rumble,” which sports rock organ and big brass to accompany your aquatic battles.

There is quite an eclectic assortment throughout, with the feel-good “Relax and Reflect” coming as a lovely contemporary jazz tune, the dreamy acoustic “Safe Haven,” and one of my favorites, the funk-infused “Urban Chrome” that accompanies the garage where you make modifications to your car, sporting jazzy keys and wah-wah rhythm guitar. There’s bossa nova with “Galdin Quay,” the infectiously upbeat alternative rock with “Bros on the Road,” the Spanish-flavored “Lestallum” with guitar and shakers, and the magnificent “Valse di Fantastica,” a lovely waltz that feels so distinctly Shimomura. I really enjoyed the sweet and sweeping “NOCTIS” as well, which is warm and uplifting, as well as the sorrow-tinged “Song of the Stars” with its solo female vocals.

This is Final Fantasy, however, and the menu theme offers a lovely chillout version of “The Prelude” titled “Crystalline Chill.” There are new takes on the Chocobo theme, and also a radio that plays classic Final Fantasy tunes that has series fans abuzz. Interestingly, Final Fantasy XV doesn’t hit you with wall-to-wall music, but rather leaves a lot of silence to emphasize the moments where music does actually play. This allows players who so desire to fill in the gaps with the music in the car (and MP3 player that allows you to take that same music with you on foot). It’s certainly a nice touch for fans to enjoy their favorite Final Fantasy tunes within Final Fantasy XV.

The drama definitely gets more heavy as the score progresses, so without spoiling any of the game by discussing the feelings associated with key tracks from the latter portion of the soundtrack, suffice it to say that you’re in store for an emotional roller coaster.

In all, while this is a different kind of Final Fantasy score that we have never heard before, I think it works. It’s definitely more Western in style in that it’s less thematic and more background score to accent the game’s action without standing out too strongly at any given moment, but playing through the game, I’m enjoying it thoroughly.

You can pick it up on CD Japan in four-disc CD, one-disc Blu-ray, and in massive limited edition format, the last of which includes a piano arrangement disc and all of the music from the in-game radio.

Ukiyo no Shishi/Ukiyo no Roushi Background Music Collection (SRIN-SRIN-1139)

This one may have slid by your radar earlier this year, but you’ll want to check it out. SuperSweep Records looks back at this PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita title offering a cool blend of electronic music with traditional Japanese instruments by Patapon and LocoRoco composer Kemmei Adachi.

You’re in store for some really amazing atmospheres, starting out of the gate with the opening track, which features pumping electronics and the addition of Japanese koto, shakuhachi, and vocals. There’s plenty of funk throughout, tense stealth espionage cues, a hauntingly beautiful ambient piece with sound effects and siren-like female vocals, a lounge track with flamenco-like guitar and koto, what I’m calling ninja dance music with bumpin’ bass, crunchy and glitchy electronic offerings, and an amazing 90s dance track that will get the nostalgia flowing.

Pick Ukiyo no Shishi/Ukiyo no Roushi up on CD Japan if you want to try something different. There’s not a whole lot of music like this out there.

Review: JUSTICE MONSTERS FIVE Original Soundtrack

Justice Monsters Five is a bit hard to explain. A mobile pinball title for iOS and Android, but also an mini-game in Final Fantasy XV, Justice Monsters Five is about as epic as pinball will ever get. The music is outsourced to Unique Note, founded by former Capcom artists Tetsuya Shibata and Yoshino Aoki along with some new faces, as well as Yoshitaka Suzuki. Expect big orchestral cues that are fitting of the game’s title, but a little surprising if you just know it as a pinball game!

“Justice Monsters, Assemble!” opens with a bombastic orchestral super hero theme before “Blazing Heart of Justice” brings in the heavy metal thunder. “Prince of Peerless Power” gets regal piano, “Right Here, Darling” introduces ethereal twinkling bells and electronic whirring, and “Let Us Dance, Mis Amigos” sports chugging guitars underneath a heavy dance track. There’s trance in “Only in My Dreams,” upbeat rock in “Justice Monsters Five,” and wailing electric guitars and an impressive guitar solo in “Gaze into my Demoneye…” Several epic orchestral marches follow on to the end, with the whimsical and folksy “Halcyon Days,” the soothing bossa nova “A Hero’s Day Off,” and the dreamy electronic track “Time Well Spent” closing things out.

In all, it’s a pleasant surprise from Unique Note and Suzuki, and particularly surprising given the game it comes from! While the album was sold at TGS 2016, it’s not currently available on CD Japan. Hit up the official website for where to purchase.

Review: Sonic Runners Complete Soundtrack

I’d heard great things about the Sonic Runners soundtrack, although I’ve yet to play it. The album cover is pretty snazzy to be sure, and I’ve been a fan of Tomoya Ohtani’s Sonic material for some time. As it turns out, though, Sonic Runners may be my favorite Sonic soundtrack since Sonic Generations and Unleashed. Ohtani provides a memorable blend of pop rock that sounds right at home in the Sonic universe, and thankfully omits the vocals, which can yield high rewards but are always a risk in my opinion. This does lead to a few tracks feeling like they are just waiting for vocals to be inserted, but I’ll take a great instrumental over a poorly executed vocal any day.

The album opens with the uplifting rock track, “Beyond the Speed Of…” with its doubled-up piano and guitar and an incredibly catchy melody that’s used elsewhere, including in my favorite track, “Going my Way,” which uses electronic filtering effects to great result. “Spring Emotions,” another favorite, is typical J-rock with beautiful strings and and the use of accordion throughout the chorus section, while “End of Summer” features pop piano, fluttering electric guitar, and a sweet atmosphere. From there, “Fly Away” sports some concerto-like piano work, “Power Ride” introduces shredding metal and pumping percussion, “Theory of Attack” offers some spunk, “Where to Today?” is a whimsical march, “Go Quickly!” is a lightning-fast flight with a carnival vibe, “Fiery Passion” is funky with rock organ and crazy rhythm guitar, “Strange Parade” is a dancey electronic track, and “Magical Snow Day” is a frosty tune with jingle bells and a jolly bass line.

There isn’t a ton of material here. Thirteen tracks, over 40 minutes of music, but it’s all fantastic. This is how Sonic music should be! Even better, this gem is only $12.50 on CD Japan. Get on it!

Review: VALKYRIE ANATOMIA -THE ORIGIN- Soundtrack

It’s been quite some time since we’ve heard new Valkyrie Profile music by Motoi Sakuraba. As it turns out, he missed writing music for Square Enix’s oft neglected series, and this mobile prequel serves up 20+ tracks that offer something new along with a boost of nostalgia by revisiting some of the most popular themes from the series. Expect Sakuraba’s signature progressive rock and orchestral offerings with a distinctly somber atmosphere throughout.

Right out of the gate, the haunting opening theme sports epic choir and string swells and a hint of tragedy. This continues through much of the orchestral and rock material, including the unsettling “Behave irrationally II” with its woodwinds and bells, the descending orchestral rock in “The maze of dungeon,” and the terrifying “Emotional upset #2” with its big brass and ominous choir. One track brings in a rustic vibe with the use of a harpsichord, while another is a slow and mellow lullaby. One of my favorites is a melancholy piece featuring harp and emotionally-tinged strings that would be right at home in a Dark Souls hub area, while another standpoint, “enfant terrible,” is equally unsettling with its use of woodwinds and a bassy string section. The album closes with a continuous mix that runs for over 20 minutes, featuring quick cross-fades between tracks.

In all, I think I speak for most when I say I’m surprised but also pleased to see this music released. There are many fans of the series, and even though this is a small offering of new material to satiate that Valkyrie Profile music itch, what’s here is quite good. Unfortunately, it’s not widely available at this time (it was released at the Tokyo Game Show store in September), so hopefully Square Enix offers a wide release in the near future.

Review: WORLD OF FINAL FANTASY Original Soundtrack

I haven’t been keeping close tabs on World of Final Fantasy as a game, but I have been greatly looking forward to the soundtrack, particularly after learning Final Fantasy XIII composer Masashi Hamauzu would be at the helm and after hearing the samples from the Tokyo Game Show sampler this year. The album doesn’t disappoint. There are wonderful melodies throughout, fantastic arrangements of songs from across the Final Fantasy series, and great production values.

It’s hard to call out just a handful of songs, but I’ll do my best here. The opening theme, “Innocent²,” is a beautiful vocal ballad with strong Celtic and pop vibes, reminding me of the infectiously upbeat Genki Rockets. It’s actually by Ryo Yamazaki, and it’s incredibly well done. “World of Beauty,” one of my favorite tracks, sports swelling strings and contemplative piano before moving into a triumphant and uplifting section that screams adventure. There’s Hamauzu’s signature strings and piano throughout with the playful “Lann’s Melody,” the glitchy futuristic electronic track “World of Nine Wood Hills” which sounds like an IMERUAT song complete with vocals presumably by Mina, and an upbeat orchestral rock tune with chugging bass and dancing piano called “World of Battle” which was previewed on the aforementioned TGS sampler. Other favorites include the dreamy lullaby, “Refreshing Melody,” the mesmerizing “Labyrinth of Dragons” with its repetitive layers, twirling piano, and Mina’s voice once again, the slow night variation of the main theme, “Moonlight Melody,” the tense espionage music in “Confrontation Melody,” the upbeat and folksy “World of Sunshine,” the spooky and ethereal “Labyrinth of Trees,” and the closing vocal track, “World Parade.”

And those arrangements I mentioned? They’re many in number, and some of my favorites include “Snow -F,” a very contemplative and slowed down version of the iconic Final Fantasy XIII theme, a lovely regal strings and harpsichord version of “Castle Cornelia” and a killer rock performance of “The Scene of Battle” from the original Final Fantasy, a super hero version of “Edgar” from Final Fantasy VI with rockin’ guitar, string stabs, and big brass, “Don’t be Afraid” from Final Fantasy VIII with a heavy electronic bass and surfer rock guitar, and “The Sending” from Final Fantasy X with its Japanese instrumentation worked in with glitchy electronics.

In all, this is one of the best Final Fantasy albums I’ve heard in some time. Hamauzu and team have done a wonderful job with the original tunes and the arrangements alike. I could even go for some arrangements of the original themes! Piano Collections, anyone?

Pick it up at CD Japan if you’re interested.

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.