Tag Archives: Reviews

Review: Castlevania Music From The Netflix Original Series

The highly anticipated Castlevania series has finally hit Netflix, and Lakeshore Records has published the meaty hour-long soundtrack by composer Trevor Morris (who coincidentally has both first and last name shared with Castlevania lore). He’s provided an interesting and intense score featuring pulsating synth work and a blend of strings and choir that, while unusual to describe, fit in perfectly with the action on screen. Listening to the score without having watched the series, I was immediately drawn to “Main Title” with its oppressive synth swells and Gothic vibe. The rest of the soundtrack was effectively mood setting, but it wasn’t until watching the series and having the context for the music that it really struck me.

“Wallachia,” for example, features a desolate ambiance with gritty electronics that accompanies the world of this Castlevania adventure perfectly. The tense but subdued “Vlad Searches for Lisa” quickly turns to malice with ominous synth work as he discovers her fate, and “There are no Innocents” is a twisted and dark blend of buzzing synths and droning strings. The guttural male choir featured in “Hordes Descend on Targoviste” is effectively terrifying, as are the crunchy synths and choir swells of “Bloody Greist.” Things get more calculating and contemplative in “Bit of Dried Goat,” exotic and mysterious in “We Can’t Turn Away,” and explosive and dangerous in “Trevor Fights the Cyclops.” There’s hope and triumph in “I’m Trevor Belmont,” a sense of finality with heavy percussion hits, a church choir, and a descent into madness with “Let me Kiss You,” and new age synths and angelic choir in “Alucard Rises.” The album closes with the uplifting and hopeful “Hunter, Scholar, Soldier.”

I would have never thought dark pulsating synths would fit so well in the Castlevania universe, but in context, they do. They feel like an unnatural heartbeat chugging away beneath somber and desolate strings, pads, and choir. While there isn’t a whole lot of music to walk away with and hum here, there is some great brooding music that will take you through the ups and downs of the excellent first season of the series. I’m already looking forward to sinking my teeth in to whatever comes next!

Pick up the album up now on iTunes or wait for the physical release which comes out August 4 on Amazon.

Review: SQUARE ENIX MUSIC Presents Life Style: cry…

Square Enix launched a neat album series at Tokyo Game Show 2015 called Life Style. It started off with volumes to accompany driving and and relaxing (which fits in well with what we’re doing with Prescription for Sleep: Game Music Lullabies), and 2016’s event saw “cry” and “up” editions added to the series. I really love the concept of game music for daily living, as I have various playlists set up for this exact thing, and Square Enix has quite a catalog to pull from when it comes to compiling music for this purpose, as evidenced by the fact that I can’t source most of the tracks on this album.

This volume is intended to contain “sad” themes, of which there are many in Square Enix’s catalog. Starting from the top is the aptly titled “Drowning in Despair” with strings and piano, followed by a new arrangement of “Aerith’s Theme” with twangy acoustic guitar, strings, and bells. I can’t say it’s very suitable for crying, as it’s more beautiful than anything, but perhaps the source material may make somebody cry. The same follows for the healing “Now I’m Near the Best,” the sinister “A Son’s Loss,” the lullaby-esque “Sleeper’s Wake,” the contemplative “Lament,” and the mysterious “Movement in Green” (from Final Fantasy X). Getting into more cry-appropriate material, however, “Casualties of War” works in low tones with harp and male choir, “Ashes of Dreams” (from NieR) is a melancholy ballad sung by Emi Evans, and “Noel’s Theme -Final Journey-” is reflective with its female vocals about loneliness and regret. The closing track, “The Girl Who Stole the Stars” (from Chrono Cross) is a fitting closer with its somber strings and female vocals.

It would appear as though Square Enix stuck to modern releases, which I suppose is best for a “life style” album that you will play wherever it suits you. 8-bit and 16-bit tracks may not always go over well in all locales.

What drew me to this series outside of the concept was the artwork. Each volume sports vibrant colors and blown up pixel art on a thick cardboard folding sleeve. There really isn’t much else going on with the packaging, but the design is quite pleasing to the eye. The albums have unfortunately been sold exclusively at events, and are not available online. Keep an eye out on used markets where they can be picked up for cheap if you’re interested, though!

Review: ALICE ORDER ORIGINAL SOUNDTRACK

I can’t say I know much about Square Enix’s mobile title Alice Order, but I’ve heard good things about its soundtrack composed by Yuki Hayashi. Hayashi is mainly known for his work in the realm of anime, so I was curious to delve in. There’s a blend of orchestral, instrumental, and electronic soundscapes found within, all of which is wonderfully produced.

The opening track, “ALICE ORDER,” introduces sweeping orchestra with electronic percussion and bass, creating a sleek and cool atmosphere. There’s tension in the mission select theme with chugging bass and brass, an energetic blend of orchestral and rock in “Valkyrie Dance,” and guttural electronics and fast-paced espionage vibes in “Advance Troops.” “Result” offers a uplifting march, “In Progress” adds tribal percussion to the electronic/orchestral mix, and “Forces Conflict” is ominous with glitchy percussion and desolate and distant guitar work. There’s a tragic piano and string ballad titled “What is lost,” a mysterious droning synth track called “Wave of mystery,” and a touch of playfulness in “Fleeting peace” with its triangle, pizzicato strings, and acoustic guitar. Rounding out the album are “Mighty force,” a grandiose struggle, “Invasion of darkness,” a pumping electronic track, and the explosive “Divine judgment.”

In all, there’s a nice mix of music here to demonstrate Yuki Hayashi’s talent. Fans looking for some cool and sleek electronic music might want to give this a try since it’s unlikely anyone outside of Japan has played the game. It’s available on CD Japan.

Review: Last SQ

I was a huge fan of the SQ album series from Square Enix, featuring remixes from Square Enix artists and their associates, covering all sorts of styles. It went on for many years, and even spawned several live events, but they finally brought the series to a closer with Last SQ.

The collection is largely a compilation of tracks from across the series with one new track opening and closing each of two discs. Starting with the compilation material, I was really happy to see the crazy →Pia-no-jaC← battle medley,  the brilliant rock opera “Aria” by Reign of the Kindo, and the chiptune spin on Secret of Mana here. The guitar and marimba version of SaGa Frontier’s “Rosenkranz,” the jazzy “Troian Beauty,” and the infectiously upbeat “To Far Away Times” from Chrono Trigger by livetune and LIVE-A-LIVE by Sexy Synthesizer were all must-haves for this collection as well.

The new material by Megumi Shiraishi may be a little more polarizing as largely hybrid cinematic takes on classic themes. The first is a gritty version of Chrono Trigger’s final battle and main themes, complete with live shakuhachi and rumbling percussion, while the original Seiken Densetsu battle theme gets an explosive (and short) orchestral rock arrangement with beautiful female vocals. Live violin is featured throughout another bombastic arrangement from LIVE-A-LIVE, and closing out the series is a rockin’ medley with live guitar, shakuhachi, and violin covering “Chaos Temple,” “Dancing Mad,” and the “Final Fantasy” main theme. It’s a nice way to close things out.

If you’ve never delved into the SQ series, this is a good start. Grab it on CD Japan if you’re interested.

Review: SaGa SCARLET GRACE ORIGINAL SOUNDTRACK

I’ve admittedly not completed a single game in the SaGa series, but that hasn’t stopped me from appreciating Kenji Ito’s sweeping and majestic orchestral scores. In fact, I’ve reviewed a number of them and their arrangements on this very blog. After hearing a sample on the Square Enix Music sampler last year, I was looking forward to the Scarlet Grace soundtrack in particular, and I’m not disappointing upon hearing it now. There’s all the wondrous orchestral beauty, chugging metal, and more that you’ve come to expect, and then some.

Starting with sweeping and joyous overture and the contemplative and regal and uplifting “Scarlet Dark Star,” it’s then on to the spunky guitar and string ballad, “When Flowers Bloom ~ Urpina Theme,” the upbeat rock battle, “Trampling Petals ~ Urpina Battle,” and the swaying lullaby-esque “In a Quiet Forest ~ When Hearts Are Tested.” “That’s Cute, Right” is an infectious bubbly electronic track, “Graveyard ~ Siegfrey’s Theme” is dark and ominous, and “Devil – The Fallen One” is epic synth rock in classic SaGa fashion.

Some of my favorites include “Guardian of Martial Arts ~ Divine Star Marigan,” a determined march with rolling snares and a regal tone, “Ever Near to Sorrow,” a somber and tragic piece with harp and slow strings, “Quietly ~ Taria Theme,” a fantasy pop ballad with woodwinds, strings, and bells, and “Grassland ~ The Wind and One Who Presses Forward,” a hybrid Western/Asian-flavored track with spunky Western bass and galloping percussion. The album closes with all the explosive vigor you’d expect, with wailing guitars, rock organ, romantic violins, and epic strings.

In all, Kenji Ito has done another wonderful job, showing once again that he may be the man to take up the Dragon Quest mantle someday. His orchestral work is getting that good.

Pick up the album 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.

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: 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.