Not all that long ago, OSV very favourably reviewed Yuzo Koshiro’s Original Sound Track for Sekaiju no MeiQ (Etrian Odyssey III) and generated some very interesting dialogue between the readers. The music for these games has enjoyed quite a history of love from OSV, and I’m quite happy to carry on that tradition, or perhaps happy that this album deserves it.
Considering Yuzo Koshiro’s Ys contributions were one of my prime motivations for getting into game music, my lack of interest in this particular series might be a bit baffling. On the other hand, I don’t own a Nintendo DS (they’re marketed as primarily a girl-gamer gadget here in Australia, funnily enough) and I don’t play all that much anymore anyway. Except Final Fantasy: Dissidia, and ironically I quite dislike the arrangements for that.
So what right have I, you may ask, to talk about this album? Have I played the game? Nope. Do I intend to? Nope! And here’s where I reply to the hypothetical query with my own: how good must the music be for someone who hasn’t played the game to want to tell you all about an arranged version? The answer lies a click away…
Good. Very, very good. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s cut to the heart of the matter: you do not need to have played the game to appreciate an arrange album. In fact, you really only need two things: the original music and the arrangement. And I’ve been listening to both. A lot. I even asked a few friends who have played the games if it’d be worth me getting into (I bought a PSP just to play Dissidia), but the responses were fairly negative. And really, are we that surprised? Plenty of great OSTs and arrangements come from less-than-stellar games. This is not new territory.
I’m not even that huge a fan of the original music. When it comes to Koshiro, I get all fond-and-misty-eyed about Streets of Rage, Actraiser and, of course, Ys. When I first heard the Sekaiju no MeiQ III OST, it wasn’t exactly memorable stuff to me. I liked Jayson’s review of it, figured I needed to get it at some point, and then moved on. But my interest in Basiscape (who have taken over the arrangements) and a random encounter with one of the arranged tracks forced my hand. And then my wallet. And now my pen.
A colleague of mine on another site made a poignant note about the track I heard. Of Yoshimi Kudo’s arrangement “Battlefield – The First Campaign,” Don of Square Enix Music Online said it comes across “as a tribute to Koshiro’s former place of work[.] The image that immediately comes to mind from the opening notes is clearly “Falcom Sound Team JDK.”” To be honest, his astute observation at first intimidated me – what can you say other than to nod in fervent agreement? But as I listened to the rest of the CD, I realized that I can add to this: I think the whole album is treading the same path as Sound Team JDK. I also think there’s no coincidence to the three words ‘Super Arrange Version.’ The former Sekaiju arrangement albums were ‘okay’ by me, but this one has somehow crossed the line and achieved a fullness only the best arranged albums ever attain.
We’ll start with the incredibly powerful track I’ve just mentioned. “The First Campaign” is all rock for the first two minutes, allowing the violin to serve as the melody’s voice, with the guitar taking over about a minute and half in. So far, So JDK. But at exactly two minutes, the extra-sharp violin reminds me instantly of Ryo Yamazaki’s ‘Blinded by Light’ from Final Fantasy XIII (itself owing Falcom at least a slight nod) followed by woodwinds and chunkier rhythm riffs leading into a flighty and technically impressive guitar solo. I want to make it clear that this track isn’t copying JDK or Yamazaki: it’s taking the next step in that style.
The same can be said of the other tracks. Take the first, for example: Noriyuki Kamikura’s “That’s the Beginning of the Adventure.” Rich acoustic guitar, violin, clarinet and a backing of processed choir recalls not so much the original “Feena” from Ys but arrangements thereof, particularly from the Ys Origin Super Arrange Version. In fact, when I return to the original version of this tune, something about it is too Ys, but it could be the synthesizer style that is Koshiro’s forte. I will accept that I probably cannot always divorce the instrument from the style, and that one Koshiro synth album can sound to me much like another.
One of the great triumphs of this album is that it has made me realize (or maybe remember) how much depth you can pull from a ‘simpler’ piece of music. At times, the arrangers merely replace the synth with real instruments, and I’d contend that when you’re augmenting a composition by Koshiro, that’s often enough. But with each track the arranger has considered the source, laid it out flat and then folded it meticulously, layer after layer. This can go several ways. In the case of “First Campaign,” Mitsuhiro Kaneda’s martial “Engrave Thy Name,” and Kamikura’s saxxy-as-hell “Those That Slay and Fall,” it’s like the forging of a katana. At the other end of the scale, you have the origami crane delicacy of Azusa Chiba’s “Waterfall Woodlands” and “Your Adventure Has Ended.” In between, there’s a ravelling and then unravelling sensation to the likes of Kimihiro Abe’s “Labyrinth II” and Kudo’s Labyrinths arrangement.
And that’s another thing a superior arrangement album does well: it takes the listener from one extreme to the other, not just in representing the game’s progress from town to dungeon to boss (which the OST should do by default), but from pastoral to hymn to ballad to metal/rock to orchestral. Should an OST already do that as well, it’s almost a given that a Super Arrange Version may look a little redundant at best. But for Koshiro and his unapologetically oldschool synth adherence, the Super Arrange Version is like a faithful remake (I am tempted to cite the transformation of Ys III, a truly terrible game, into The Oath in Felghana), an ovation that acknowledges a true master of the field.
If memory serves me right, the first ever Super Arrange Version CD was for Falcom’s Sorcerian in 1988; it was a fairly primitive affair compared to what we get these days, but the reinterpretation of music created with severe software limitations started there. If you search for ‘Super Arrange Version’ you’ll get a screenful of Falcom, which amuses me since Falcom’s OSTs, particularly the Redbook versions via PC-Engine, are generally the best thing about the game. Until now, most of the best arrangements came from Sound Team JDK, as did most of the worst. It’s interesting to note that there has never been a Squaresoft ‘Super Arrange Version’ of anything, although it had plenty of thematic arrangement albums (Celtic Moon, Pray, Brink of Time, CREID and Potion just to name a few). Then you have the likes of Sakuraba’s (Square) Enix arrangements, which took prog-rock and made it more proggy and more rocky (Star Ocean, Valkyrie Profile 1), took orchestral and made it more orchestral-y (Valkyrie Profile 2) and occasionally did so with very neat voice samples from the game. Sometimes that’s exactly what I want to hear. Etrian Odyssey ‘Super Arrange Versions’ have sort of sat in the shadow, which is a shame because as we’ve said, they’re pretty good, particularly Sekaiju no MeiQ², which has Sakuraba, Fukui and Koshiro himself flexing their instrumental muscles.
But for me, Sekaiju no MeiQ³ Super Arrange Version is something new. It has all the verve and drive of any Falcom soundtrack and the polish many Falcom soundtracks are lacking. I think it’s more than fitting that the unofficial godfather of Falcom’s musical success should be the foundation for the next great arrangement album, and all accolades must go to this team from Basiscape for their diverse, energetic and above all authentic interpretations of Koshiro’s paradoxically inimitable style.Tags: Basiscape, Falcom, Reviews, Sekaiju no MeiQ, Sound Team jdk, Super Arrange Version, Yuzo Koshiro