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Game Music

Catch a Glimpse of Ys SEVEN – Falcom JDK Band Live Summer Festival 2009

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[Editor's note: Here we are again with an amazing concert writeup from Justin Pfeiffer, one of our correspondents from Japan. He previously brought you some lengthy impressions from EXTRA - Hyper Game Music Event 2008, and now has impressions from Falcom's JDK Band Live Summer Festival 2009.  It's a great read, so check it out!]

Ys SEVEN
is almost upon us.  Have you preordered your copy?  (If not, get to falcom.com now!) The best action-RPG series ever continues on the PSP and Falcom’s JDK Band was alive this summer to kick off Ys I&II Chronicles and Ys SEVEN.  I was on the scene with some of my Falcom maniacs in Japan to get our fix of JDK Band rockage.

Check out OSV’s concert report and take a peek into Falcom mania in Japan after the jump.

I can’t tell you how pleased I am with the revival of JDK Band (Rebirth) in 2006.  While I hold a tepid liking for the original JDK Band and Tomohiko Kishimoto’s arrangements in the 80s-90s, this new and improved JDK Band has shown nothing but quality in their performances and albums in the last few years.

The band members change slightly each performance, but the core of the unit has been established by singers Icarus Watanabe and Kanako Kotera, guitarist Masaru “Angelo” Teramae, and bassist Eichi Inoue.  Lead male vocalist, Icarus Watanabe, has become (at least on the Ys side of things) the face of JDK band with his trademark horns, red vest, and ability to get the crowd roaring.   Kanako Kotera, the lead female vocalist and one of the original members of SKY, is known (and perhaps idolized) more by the Sora no Kiseki fans, as she handles all the vocals for that series.  Lead guitarist, Masaru “Angelou” Teramae, replaced Miki Sumiya after Falcom’s mammoth 20th Anniversary Live in Tokyo in 2007 and has continued to bring an awesome edge to the band with his razor-sharp solos and charisma on stage.  As for bassist Atsushi Enomoto, well he’s been with the new band since day one.

Newer second lead guitarist, Eichi Inoue, has been holding his own beside Angelo on stage.  His addition has boosted the band’s sound and although he may not be as animated as Angelo, rips a mean solo when it’s his turn.  The current keyboardist, Maiko Kawahara, while appearing very sweet and smiley on stage, needs to up her game if she wants to hang with the likes of Angelo and Inoue when it’s solo time.  JDK Band Rebirth’s original keyboardist, Shige Yamamoto, used to seriously tear it up with his keytar, exemplifying the sound of barraging synthesizers that Falcom fans love.  In previous concerts, Maiko Kawahara’s solos have come off as a dead point in the middle of a song, as her solos tend to be very narrow with elongated notes, sometimes even falling obnoxiously outside of key.  Currently, the violinist is Mizuki Mizutani, who has been doing an excellent job since replacing Ren Ohara last year.  The induction of the violinist in the new JDK Band has played a major role in Sound Team jdk’s compositions as of late.  As if anticipating its existence in a future concert, the composers have been incorporating the violin in the main melody of their recent games.  This was evident as well in Ys SEVEN’s opening theme, but more on that later.

This is the fifth JDK Band concert I’ve attended, but the butterflies I get before the show never die.  Still, five times is a pretty low count if you consider the number of times hardcore fans in Japan accumulate.  Myself living in Osaka, I tend to only attend the shows that come to the Kansai area, regardless of the counterpart performances in Tokyo.  The people I attended the show with, spent some serious nerd-caliber time with before and after the show, and whom I will be introducing later in this article, are the type who make the trip across Japan to see JDK Band at both performances on each occasion.  This means they rack up about four attendances each year, as the band holds about two big performances per year these days.  Perhaps I need to up my game too.

Our day started out at karaoke.  The twenty-seven of us planned to meet around two o’clock and spend the afternoon at karaoke for a couple hours before the show.  Our group was established via mixi, a community-based website in Japan, and it is tradition for us to have an afternoon gathering before the show and a dinner party after the show.  When I say karaoke, I don’t mean standard Japanese “karaoke,” where everyone sings their favorite j-pop song and obligatorily claps.  There wasn’t even any singing.  Rather, we use the karaoke booth to create our own Falcom music headquarters.  Upon entering the jumbo room, one of the more tech-savvy members immediately hacks the sound box, rerouting the inputs and outputs, turning the machine ultimately into a vessel for our Falcom music, complete with PSP component video-out to the high-def screen.  This means anyone can plug in their PSP, laptop, or sound module, and play their play set over the surround speakers in the room.  I suppose it would be possible to create our own Falcom karaoke playlist from the vocals and sing along, but that never seems to happen.

The “secretary” of sorts, Mizuho-san, who organizes the events, prepared name tags for everyone, including our mixi user name and profile picture printed on the front.  It almost felt like a mini Falcom-Con.  As she handed out the nametags, each person was asked to step in front by the karaoke monitor (which now had Brandish -Dark Revenant- on screen) and give a short self-introduction, including name, concert history, and Falcom “inception.”  There were many unique stories to be heard.  Some of the hardcore had been Falcom fans since Asteka and Dragon Slayer for the PC-8801.  Yet others had only jumped on board since the arrival of Sora No Kiseki.  My inception, incidentally, was Ys III for the Sega Genesis (which led to Ys I&II for PC-Engine CD and so on) which shocks Japanese fans.  Most people in Japan encountered the series with Ys I on the PC-8801, PC-Engine, or perhaps Ys VI for Windows.  Certainly not the outcast Wanderers from Ys, and for the Mega Drive.  I’ve made myself well-known among the group by, for one, being the only non-Japanese to break into this circle.  And two, making a scene by publicly lying to Kaneko Kotera in front of the entire crowd at a show a few years ago when she asked the audience who had traveled the furthest, then looked to me and I shouted, “America!” even though I had only traveled about an hour and a half from Nara that day.  I got scolded afterwards.

Once self-introductions were over, Falcom mingling madness began.  Everyone began talking to the people around them, exchanging Falcom trivia, concert history, and game music knowledge.  It’s truly rare to be able speak with someone face to face who will understand you when you say, “Yes! I absolutely love Mieko Ishikawa!”  People took turns hooking up their PSPs to the karaoke box to play their pre-made Falcom set lists and impress everyone with their rare tracks.  Everything from Legend of Heroes, to Lord Monarch filled the room.  To my surprise, there is a lot of Legend of Xanadu played at our gatherings, as perhaps it is considered one of the less popular and album-released series in Falcom’s line up, and therefore more play-worthy.  One member brought his Falcom CD collection which many of the newcomers drooled over.  The same guy even brought the official “Falcom Bible,” which contains detailed notes about Falcom’s earliest works, development, artwork, and a complete staff profile section that even included Yuzo and Ayano Koshiro (which I drooled over).  One particular veteran sported a Falcom jacket that must have been from 1987.

Once our Falcom-fever had been fully piqued from the afternoon session, we made our way to the concert hall to get down to some serious Falcom livage.  Most of our crew had attended the Ys Festival in Akihabara a couple months prior and took advantage of ticket presales, allowing us to breeze toward the front the line and take our spots around #30.  There was absolutely no program or Falcom-related material to be seen at the door (as it’s been for the past couple years).  I headed straight for the goods sections to pick up the new Falcom Live T-shirt and headed over to the drink counter.  To my surprise this year, Falcom actually created some original drinks for the fans.  The menu included “Potion,” a non-alcoholic sports drink, “Traveling Redhead,” a wine-based cocktail, “Esterian Ocean,” a grapefruit-based liqueur, and “Eyes of Fact,” a vodka-based orange cocktail.  I went for the Eyes of Fact, but ultimately I tried all three cocktails before leaving the show.  HP… Max!

Next, I headed for the stage.  The most notable aspect of the area was the catwalk extending from the base into the crowd.  This meant only one thing: solo zone.  Like always, the concert was all-standing.  Naturally the perimeter of the catwalk was the first area to be occupied, but I managed to get a spot three people deep from the right side of the catwalk.  People slowly milled in and the arena gradually filled up.  Unlike shows in previous years, there was no moshing for the front stage and people coolly took their spots as they arrived.  The hall, in fact, never filled completely and I frankly expected a larger turn out.  This may have been attributed to the fact that it was a predominantly Ys-themed concert.  Sora no Kiseki, on the other hand, which has had a stronger showing at previous concerts, has a poppy, anime quality to it that tends to pull other fans out into the wild.

The next moment was quite surprising when a woman announced over the speakers that taking photos was permitted.  It sounded like a warning at first, but continued on saying, “We would like to inform our patrons that the use of cameras and video recorders is … permitted.” (Except in Japanese of course)  Everyone was thrown back by the statement.  She continued, “Please enjoy uploading all of your pictures and videos to YouTube and Nico Nico Douga.” Is she kidding?  It was for real.  For the first time in Falcom concert history, all usage of cameras and video recording was permitted.  This announcement fell in accordance with Falcom’s declaration of free use of all music in the media and Internet.  As soon as the shock wore off, gigantic cameras and cell phones suddenly appeared and everyone realized that this was going to be a much different show than they had anticipated.

The concert began with “MIGHTY OBSTACLE – The Wind of Zemeth,” the boss theme from Ys VI arranged vocally from The Songs of Zemeth album.  This is the opener for all of JDK Band’s Ys-driven concerts.  They opened as usual with a dark stage, long keyboard crescendo, followed by the melody line cued by electric guitar.  Icarus Watanabe took the stage, headed immediately for the catwalk and got everyone in the crowd pumped up with fists flying in the air.  Unlike other game concerts I’ve been to in Japan (like The Black Mages, for instance) where the people just stand there and don’t move, Falcom fans let it all hang out.  Even the timid female members among our group were pumping their fists in the air.  “MIGHTY OBSTACLE” has become one of my favorite songs to be performed live, as I actually prefer the vocal version to the original.  It’s definitely a great opener.

Next was Kanako Kotera’s turn to take entrance, and she entered with “Cry For Me, Cry For You,” the opening theme from Legend of Heroes VI: Sora No Kiseki – The 3rd, and one of the only non-Ys songs of the evening.  This is one of the fan favorites at the Sora no Kiseki concerts (sometimes Falcom breaks the shows into two parts: Ys and Sora no Kiseki).  Therefore, it was an appropriate song for her entrance and kept the energy high, as it is a fairly upbeat song.  Kotera was looking cute as usual.  Though I’m glad Falcom dropped the SKY trio, which was more or less an idol group for Falcom, complete with ditsy antics by the singers and in essence, painful sacrilege.  It was nice to hear this song though, as it has become a trademark at Falcom concerts.

Icarus and Kotera took a moment to formally greet the crowd and mentioned that the concert was in celebration of Ys on the PSP and spent a few minutes promoting the game and goods section.  Then Kotera mentioned that Falcom had asked her to appear in the next Legend of Heroes VI drama album, and Icarus said, “Oh?  I never heard anything about that.  Thanks Falcom!”  It was pretty amusing and their chemistry was on point as usual.  What followed was a rush of classics from Ys I and II.

First was “Tower of the Shadow of Death,” the background theme to Darm Tower from Ys I.  This was the first time JDK Band Rebirth had performed this song, but it had appeared on their Spring 2008 album with an industrial-rock sound (incidentally sounding nothing “band-like” at all), so it wasn’t completely new.  Admittedly, Tower isn’t one of my favorite songs from Ys, however I actually like the industrial sound of the Spring 2008 version.  The version they played here was just like the Spring album arrangement, minus the industrial sound, but the result was quite nice, with the live drums creating a more rock-like sound, the keyboard covering the background synthesizer accompaniment, and two guitars carrying the main melody.  I was very pleased with this inclusion in the concert.

Next came “Rest In Peace” played gently over the keyboards. (The game over theme?)  I was a bit puzzled how they were going to turn that into a full performance but it ended up being just an interlude to “Endless History (The Morning Grow),” the famed vocal version of the ending theme from Ys I and the credits theme to the original Ys anime.  They had not performed this song live since Falcom 20th Anniversary Live, so it was pretty monumental for the audience.  Instrumentally, the arrangement was kept perfectly intact compared to the original, aside from the slightly varied guitar solos by Angelo, so you can imagine how it sounded live.  The vocals were, like before, handled by Icarus, not Kotera, and he did a splendid job.  The crowd was obviously pleased, and many members from our group commented later at the dinner party that their favorite moment of the performance was “Endless History.”

After that was a vocalized version of “See You Again,” the beloved ending theme to Ys I, sung by Kotera.  They opted for the up-tempo version, similar to “Victory” on Midori Kawana Sings Ys, which is basically a straight vocal version of the peppy original, rather than the slower, probably more well-known vocal version, “Smile Again,” from Perfect Collection Ys II.  I was a bit disappointed by this since I don’t particularly care for the zippy, fun-filled original anyway, which comes off even worse in vocal form, as it did in Midori Kawana’s “Victory.”  Still, I was singing along, gaily, as even bad Ys songs are good.  This was the first time they had performed this song too, since Falcom 20th Anniversary Live.

Then they played the legendary, “To Make The End of Battle,” the opening theme to Ys II and probably the most representative song of the original JDK Band.  The crowd went wild.  JDK Rebirth has performed this song in previous concerts and they always keep the arrangement meticulously intact from the original, aside from the solo sections (they even keep that odd part where the entire band pauses for a second before coming back to the main melody in the second verse).  Unfortunately for me, I’m not very fond of the original JDK Band arrangement and prefer Ryo Yonemitsu’s version on Perfect Collection Ys II much more.  Therefore I wasn’t quite as thrilled as everyone around me, but I can’t help but love and respect such an ode to a classic.

After that was “Overdrive,” one of the unused pieces of music from the original Ys soundtrack, which was brought back in Ys Origin’s soundtrack and appeared on Ys Origin Super Arrange version.  This first appeared on JDK Band Rebirth’s roster in their Spring concert of 2008 and I was very glad that they brought it back for this performance.  The band arrangement sounds very good with the melody played by electric guitar and violin.

The next song was my favorite of the evening.  I had been waiting for something new, or at least something performed live for the first time.  And I got it.  What they gave us was “Termination,” the last battle from Ys II.  There are many good versions of this theme out there, but this version was possibly the best I ever heard.  The arrangement was perfect, with a heavy rock sound that was up to date and emphasized the best parts of the melody.  Angelo ripped the main melody on guitar in the first strain then surprisingly, Mizuki Mizutani came in to carry the melody in the second, which worked really well.  This guitar to violin pattern seems to be one of Rebirth’s trademarks and I’ve grown to love it.  I was probably rocking out harder than anyone else at this point.

Keeping the high, the band suddenly announced that they would be playing two, never before heard songs from Ys SEVEN. Ys SEVEN!  I couldn’t wait.  The first song was Ys SEVEN’s opening theme, and if you’ve seen the Ys SEVEN trailer, you know it.  This was the first time for me though and I loved it immediately.  I was more curious than anything and was listening intently.  What amused me was that there were fans in the audience rocking out like crazy, fists pumping in the air as if they’d heard it a hundred times, as if it was “Palace of Salmon” or “Boy on a Wing.”  The second song from Ys SEVEN sounded suspiciously boss-like and included lot of heavy guitar riffs and badass melody in the vein of ‘MIGHTY OBSTACLE” for Ys VI.  It wasn’t as good as the first song, but it showed promise and I look forward to hearing it more in the actual game.

Moving right along, the band went next into “Valestine Castle” from Ys III, one of my personal favorites and the single most popular song at JDK Band concerts to date.  The band nailed the song as perfectly as ever and all the veteran attendees in the crowd had their fist pumps timed perfectly to the offbeat notes at the end of the song.  Incidentally, the version they play at the concerts is based on the Oath in Felghana version with the extra guitar riffs in the melody and violin coming in later to carry the song.  Following that were two other favorites from previous concerts, “Genesis Beyond the Beginning,” the opening from Ys Origin, and “Release of the Far West Ocean,” the opening from Ys VI.  Icarus sings during “Release of the Far West Ocean,” ala the Song of Zemeth version, which ended the show on a high point.

Of course, shows are never over when they say they are (at least not in Japan) and after the band left stage, it was time for everyone to chant “An-ko-ru!”(encore) obligatorily.  Instead however, everyone began chanting “J-D-K!”  The band came back to a roar of cheers sporting the new Ys SEVEN T-shirts from the merchandise counter.  They treated us to another round of Ys SEVEN opening, which was a little easier to absorb the second time and confirmed my fondness of it.  They oddly enough, ended the evening with “Silver Will” from Sora no Kiseki SC, the only other non-Ys song of the concert.  I was a little surprised, but I suppose they needed another reason to bring Kotera out on stage, as she had been either non-existent or floating around giving vocal backups to Icarus the entire concert.

All in all, it was a very good concert.  Out of the sixteen songs that the band performed that night, fourteen of them were from Ys.  Fourteen!  There were some previously performed songs from Ys that didn’t receive a performance that night, such as “Erst” from Ys VI and “The Dawn of Ys” from Ys IV, but beggars can’t be choosers.  Personally, I was hoping they would perform “Headless” from Brandish -Dark Renevant- as a bonus, since the opening was performed by JDK Band as well, and has yet to be performed live.  Unfortunately, the band was no where in sight after the show for an interview, but I will try to set something up in the future.

After the show, we had our dinner party, did self introductions (again?), and talked the night away about Falcom and game music in general.  About ten of us stayed together in a traditional Japanese inn, and Scream no Hito, who we’ve featured on this site before, was also in attendance.  He played us a lullaby on his violin before we went to sleep.  No, I’m just kidding.

Game concerts have become an international phenomenon, and Japan is almost falling behind.  Luckily, Falcom is dedicated to pleasing its fans and has been providing them with one of the best rock concerts out there.  They show no sign of slowing down either.  The next concert will probably be in the Spring of 2010, where they are likely to cover new tracks from Ys SEVEN and Legend of Heroes VII.  Hopefully I will still be around to make attendance.  In the meantime, Ys SEVEN is September 17th.  I’ll be booked.

[All photos courtesy of Justin Pfeiffer]

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