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Xenoblade Will "Most Likely" Be A Great Soundtrack (Review)

Xenoblade Will “Most Likely” Be A Great Soundtrack (Review)

July 14, 2010 | | 7 Comments Share thison Facebook Xenoblade Will “Most Likely” Be A Great Soundtrack (Review)on Twitter

It’s finally here, the album we’ve all been waiting for. The past few months leading up to the Xenoblade soundtrack release have certainly been interesting with a slew of informing coming out about the soundtrack. First it was Yoko Shimomura’s involvement, then Yasunori Mitsuda coming in with the ending vocal theme, then Dog Ear Records handling the soundtrack release. The team even sat down with Satoru Iwata at Nintendo for a special Iwata Asks interview about the game’s music. People care about this game, and they also care a lot about the music.

With that said, the 4-disc monster is finally here. Many of you have already listened to it and have come to your own conclusions, but I have some strong feelings about the score. Notice how the title says that I think Xenoblade “WILL” be a great soundtrack?

Find out what I mean by that in my review after the jump.

First of all, this is easily the hardest review I’ve ever had to write, and the reason for this is quite simple, and doesn’t have any bearing on whether it’s good or not. This album contains a lot of atmospheric and even ambient music, which, while I tend to enjoy, gets difficult to listen to when there are 4 discs of it–close to 100 tracks–that you ideally want to know fairly well before giving your appraisal of the album as a whole. The only answer I’ve been able to come up with by listening to the album nearly four times all the way through is, “I don’t know.” Given the atmospheric and often minimalistic nature of the score, I can only imagine that it works wonders when matched to the game’s vibrant visuals. As a stand alone soundtrack release, however, it’s a challenge.

One thing that struck me right from the start was the fact that while Yoko Shimomura was touted as the game’s composer, she was only responsible for about 15% of the music. As it turns out, Manami Kiyota, who is known for her lyrics and vocal performances on Final Fantasy Song Book [mahoroba] and The Black Mages III, handled about 50% of the music (who knew she was a composer?) and ACE+ (Tomori Kido and 10 Short Stories vocalist CHiCO + Kenji Hiramatsu) were responsible for the remainder. Quite an odd distribution of labor considering it was supposed to be Shimomura’s soundtrack, but I guess that really doesn’t matter in the end. The music here is all quality stuff.

Delving into the music itself, it’s important to note that while listening to the album the first two times through, I hardly even looked up from other tasks I was performing on the computer to take note of a track title. There are very few melodies that draw your attention to the tracks themselves, which may be good in the context of the game in that it enhances the in-game action without proving to be a distraction, but it makes for an otherwise “background” listening experience at home.

The opening theme, imaginatively titled “Main Theme,” comes courtesy of Yoko Shimomura and is rather moody when compared to your typical RPG main theme. It’s emotional and minimalistic, and won’t have you humming along. If you are looking for that typical RPG sound, however, it does appear a few times. “Daily Life” covers your typical town theme music with whimsical woodwinds and gentle percussion while “Hometown” brings in acoustic guitar, piano, and strings. “Riki the Legendary Hero” is really the only playful track on the album use of harmonica and whistling. It feels somewhat out of place, but is interesting nonetheless. In what’s listed as an “unused version,” the regal “Hope” is actually one of my favorite tracks on the album along with “Guar Plains,” which acts as somewhat of an anthem for the game in my mind given that it was one of the first pieces of music released on the game’s official website. It’s probably the most memorable piece on the album, coming off as ethnic with Spanish guitar and toy percussion. Also on the topic of RPG music, I was reminded more than once of past Mitsuda titles, including Chrono Cross and Xenogears with the lovely ballad “Memories” and the poppy “Colony 6 ~Hope~,” respectively.

About that dominant atmospheric stuff. While I know it’s sometimes difficult to appreciate ambient music, I thought I should mention a few of the tracks that were particularly well done. The use of choir and distant bell tolls in “Mystery” as well as the droning pads and scattered percussion in “Uneasiness” really give off a dark atmosphere, while “Creeping Shadow” is the most unsettling of all with its heavy layer of reverb and absence of higher-end frequencies that give the track a repressed feel. My favorite, however, is “Field of the Machinae.” It opens with distant tones that almost sound like something out of Metroid before reverberating synths are added. Eventually percussion kicks in as a razor sharp synth lead carries a surprisingly beautiful melody on to the finish.

From there, we have a few surprises. Starting with one of the first tracks on the album, we get this electronic orchestra hybrid that sounds like something out of an action flick. “Prologue B” starts us off, sounding like the accompaniment to a chase sequence, while “Crisis” drives the tension with heavy orchestral bass drums and intense strings, and a melody that will actually make you look up to find out what you’re listening to. “The Night Before the Decisive Battle” is another star with its ascending progression that is decisive and powerful, as if certain that victory is ahead.

My favorite tracks on the album, however, are the heavy metal tracks. Yes, I said heavy metal, and I’m with you in not having expected them at all. Coming early in the track list, “Confrontation with the Enemy” comes as a huge surprise with its wailing electric guitars, chugging synth bass, and dreamy belltone chords. I initially thought I was listening to some 1980s rock music (in a good way), but the strings and piano do well to break things up. A choir is added, giving the piece an epic edge, and I have to say that this is one of the best tracks on the album. From there, we get a cool gothic rock opera similar in style to Castlevania with “Tragic Decision” before “The Awakening of the Giant” joins together rock elements and a creepy organ progression . “Xanthe” (which acts as the game’s final battle theme) adds a choir and even an Asian-influenced piano and string melody to the mix, forming a unique combination that somehow works, making it one of the more memorable pieces on the album. “Those Who Bear Their Name” is another favorite with its serious guitar shredding and powerful brass accompaniment. This is as rockin’ as it gets, reminding me of Ryuji Sasai’s pioneering spirit on the SNES.

Things of course get more tense towards the end of the album. “Central Arsenal” is really great in that it’s an epic piece of music that pushes you forward without beating you over the head with bombastic orchestral nonsense that seems so typical these days. “Within the Giant / Carcass” provides a weird sort of funky-yet-mysterious sound with a groovy electronic bass and electronic tones that weave throughout the piece, while “Within the Giant / Pulse” is a variation on the same theme that adds percussion and an increased tempo, driving the listener forward towards the final conflict. “To the Last Battle” is kind of an unassuming final dungeon track. I can’t say I was surprised by the time this track rolled around, but it’s pretty minimalistic, focusing on strings, and with percussion tucked away far in the back of the mix. At several points, all of the elements drop out except a simple string melody or a xylophone melody, lending the track a pretty dynamic range. The last track, “Colony 6 ~Future~” reprises “Guar Plains,” which is a good choice given that it’s one of the only memorable melodies on the album. As the final track, it’s appropriately upbeat.

But hey, we left out Mitsuda’s contribution. For some reason, “Beyond the Sky” appears at the end of the second disc. It features mainly piano and Sarah Lim’s gentle voice, although there’s an acoustic guitar tucked away in the background as well. Percussion and strings join in about midway through, giving it some punch and taking it in more of an upbeat direction. Lim performs quite wonderfully, and it’s a great track that will likely be even more enjoyable in the context of the game’s ending scene.

And there you have it. In the interest of time and space, I had to leave a lot out, but trust me when I say that this is an atmosphere-driven soundtrack. Regarding the packaging, it’s also somewhat minimalistic. You already know the album cover, but the booklet is rather brief, with short liner notes from each composer as well as a track list and list of credits. I do like how the discs are each printed with one of the game’s characters on a red metallic background.

While I can’t say I’m in love with this soundtrack at the moment, I appreciate the direction they’ve taken, and am even more excited for the game itself after hearing it. For those who are reading this and are thinking, “Damn it, I was so looking forward to this soundtrack,” let me qualify what I’ve said about Xenoblade by giving you another soundtrack reference that I didn’t care for before the game’s release: Chrono Cross. Maybe that makes me a bad person, but just as I’ve come to love the Chrono Cross soundtrack, I expect I will do this same with Xenoblade after playing it.  It’s currently available from CD Japan and Play-Asia.

What do you think of the team’s ambient approach? Have you heard the Xenoblade soundtrack and care to add some of your own commentary?

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