The art of the “arrange album” is somewhat lost these days. So it comes as a surprise that in 2011, Xenogears is the focus of a new orchestral album performed by the Bulgarian Symphony Orchestra.
Read on if that sounds like fun.
Some quick history for the uninitiated: when Xenogears was released in 1998, it was during a huge jump in scope and ambition for games. The plot was completely insane – everything from breaking up a wedding to the origin of God was touched upon in some kind of ridiculous (and awesome) way.
The soundtrack was also ambitious. An intense opening sequence, “Dark Daybreak,” followed by Joanne Hogg’s “Stars of Tears” was a breath of fresh air. I don’t think I really heard vocals of that caliber on a soundtrack before – this was right before the excellent Soukaigi score – and I was barely on track two.
Around the same time, Yasunori Mitsuda banded together a group of international musicians, mostly from Ireland and Japan, and as “Millennial Fair” the group released CREID, an album based on the Xeno soundtrack. Combining Celtic mysticism with Japanese rock created a beautiful, enduring album with character and style that holds up well today.
So it is strange that after a quiet thirteen years, Mitsuda pops up with a brand-new orchestral album, released digitally, on CD and even on vinyl. I was anxious to hear MYTH as I always thought Xeno would sound great in an orchestral setting.
The Bulgarian Symphony Orchestra’s clear strength in this recording is the string section. Their style is rich and expressive, if at the expense of being technically perfect. I prefer this style of playing to the more straight-laced performances, and the emotion from the strings works for this music. The brass, winds and percussion are weaker links in the ensemble- accordingly, the arrangements are thick with strings, focusing on the innate strengths of the orchestra.
As for the arrangements, MYTH generally holds tightly to the source material. I was happy to hear “upgraded” versions of classics in the vein of an old arrange album. Changing the identity of the music seemed unnecessary, since CREID had already accomplished that.
The opener, “Dark Daybreak,” sticks largely to the original format. It is not as explosive as the OST, but the live orchestra lends a more natural sound. Also true to its roots is “Flight.” I was pleased to hear the French horn part exactly as I remembered from the soundtrack, adding warmth and character. The arrangement has little flourish, aside from a newly written break-down/build-up in the center, but the original melody and harmony are strong enough to carry the track on their own.
“Unstealable Jewel” was also subtly expanded for drama. The gentle dialogue between the violin and cello sections is particularly effective. “The Gentle Breeze Sings” follows, featuring better instrumentation than the OST. The heartfelt cello solo carries the melody throughout the piece, occasionally lending it to the woodwinds for a line or two.
The more adventurous renditions mostly work too. “My Village is Number One” is better than the original. A gentle introduction plays out before moving straight into a Celtic beat, followed by the full orchestra. This track is a big improvement that brings out the strengths in Mitsuda’s writing that were previously hidden behind MIDI patches. “In a Prison of Peace and Regret” is made over, replacing the harpsichord with a string orchestra for a fuller, darker sound. “Bonds of Sea and Flame” is another successful experiment, in which the orchestra effortlessly passes Bartholomew’s theme around, section to section, tempo to tempo, before an epic finale. “Lost… Broken Shards” clocks in at barely over one minute – but a beautiful minute it is. This is a favorite theme of mine, and this rendition is expressive and rich. The lone piano is joined by a cello, like words of encouragement.
Unfortunately, “Stage of Death” didn’t work as well. It’s not bad, but it is unremarkable. The song needs some excitement and spice. There’s a lack of color and vivaciousness to the performance that a track like this requires. “The Wind Calls to Shevat in the Blue Sky” is also on the bland side. A little ethnic percussion or piano, like the original, would have gone a long way. Many fans like this tune, but on MYTH, it stands out in my mind the least of the album’s fourteen songs, and is also one of the shortest tracks. Also mildly disappointing is “The Beginning and the End,” which is basically the original version plus a string orchestra (good), but the vocals are much weaker than those belted out in the original (bad).
A couple of piano solo arrangements are here too. While very pretty, CREID’s version of “October Mermaid” is more expressive, and “Faraway Promise”, the final track, sounds a little like its on autopilot. Both songs are pleasant but unremarkable. A little darkness in the timbre of the piano, a la Brandish Piano Collection, would have given the songs stronger identities.
I guess a Xenogears album would not be complete without “Small Two of Pieces,” and it’s here, complete with Joanne Hogg. However, her vocals are just copy-pasted from the original track – it’s not a new performance. Her voice is fantastic, but since she was singing for a pop song originally, it’s the wrong style for a soft orchestral arrangement. Someone on the production side should have sprung for a new recording. And though classier in its new arrangement, the orchestral version lacks not only the excitement and anxiety of the original, but even that from the rest of MYTH. It meanders, maintaining a low volume without much of the song’s characteristic climax and release.
Having listened through a few times, I feel like MYTH is unbalanced – part masterpiece, part phone-in. It begins strong, and retains a rich quality through most of the album. But there small moments of weakness, and the final two or three tracks are underwhelming, strangely missing the passion they should have. Like a row of books with only one bookend MYTH lacks a defined ending. There’s no resolution to the album – it just kind of ends, mostly due to an unconvincing “Small Two of Pieces.”
Two-thirds or more of the album is very appealing, so despite a weak finale, the quality of several individual tracks makes it a worthwhile listen. Though it fails to tell a complete story the way CREID did, the chance to hear Xenogears played by an orchestra is a rare treat.Arrangements, Live, Mitsuda, Orchestral, Piano, Reviews, Square Enix, Squaresoft, Videogame, Xenogears, Yasunori Mitsuda