Archive for October, 2010

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Final Fantasy VII – “One-Winged Angel” (Nobuo Uematsu)

October 31, 2010

Go to any Final Fantasy or general game music concert, and unless it’s specifically organized for a particular series or company, you will probably hear an arrangement of “One Winged Angel” (often by howling encore request).  The song’s popularity is probably due to four main reasons: the fame of Final Fantasy VII is such a popular game, the battle scene with Safer Sephiroth was very memorable (particularly its combination of long, cinematic magic spells wreaking apocalyptic destruction at a time when such things were novel), it used a recorded choir for the first time in the series’ history (and good audio quality always makes things seem better), and that it’s a good song. You combine all three together, and you give a piece legendary status. It is perhaps best to view “One Winged Angel” in regards to its orchestral arrangements, as these place the song in the way it was meant to be played, to which the original synths, good as they are, can’t compare. Run-down of both major versions, with lyrics, after the break.

The best recording of “One-Winged Angel” is from Distant Worlds and conducted by Arnie Roth Read the rest of this entry ?

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Castlevania: Curse of Darkness – “A Toccata into Blood Soaked Darkness” (Michiru Yamane)

October 30, 2010

Castlevania remains one of the best series for game music as well as one of the best to listen to for Halloween. Combining horror and gothic themes with a wide range of musical styles from baroque to jazz and even combining a few (symphonic rock, anyone?), the series demonstrates its creators’ love of music and the possibilities of its use in games. Though Michiru Yamane has left Konami and the Castlevania series, she remains the Queen of Castlevania, as it were. One of her most astounding soundtracks is Castlevania: Curse of Darkness (2005) for the PS2 and XBox. While the game is pretty shabby, the music is nothing short of top-notch and one of her best soundtracks to date. Here is my favorite piece, “A Toccata into Blood Soaked Darkness,” the theme of the first Dracula fight. This song, along with an abridged version of the original soundtrack, is available from iTunes.

The Dracula battle takes place in a circular arena in front of the throne at the top of Dracula’s Castle, shrouded in black mist. The fierce battle against the shape-shifting vampire (curse his teleportation!) is pitched as an fitting epic finale, with rising waves of choral and brass supported by floating strings and organs – organs that sometimes fly to the heavens), all driven by a pounding drum beat and bubbling synths. It is the most outstanding Dracula fight theme in the series (even better than the more widely known “Illusionary Dance”). The only thing that was really missing from this sequence I felt was a driving rainstorm to even further illustrate the desperation of the final battle.

The song has been shown in concert before at Leipzig and Play by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, but no official recordings have been made. Their song layout varies from performance to performance, but there will be two upcoming shows in Vancouver and Dayton, OH.

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Silent Hill 2 – “Theme of Laura” (Akira Yamaoka)

October 29, 2010

Akira Yamaoka is a pretty cool guy. I got to see his presentation at GDC this year, and he couples his music with a great sense of humor, as well as some nice reflections on the world. Sort of a philosopher-composer, perhaps? Anyway, I love his work with Contra: Shattered Soldiers/Shin Contra and am interested in his new work with Grasshopper Manufacture, but I was also a little surprised to see his Silent Hill 2 (2001) soundtrack was picked as one of the top game albums (it’s also available on iTunes). “Survival horror” and “enjoyable game music” aren’t exactly two things you’d think would combine. Of course, we have Eternal Darkness, so it’s not like there is no precedent. So I figured, hey, let’s give it a listen! I was quite surprised – I’ve never played Silent Hill before, and so wasn’t sure quite what to expect. This album has a lot of great guitar pieces like “Promise” and “Overdose Delusion”, one of the best being “Theme of Laura”, but it also has a nice mix of atmospheric tracks such as “Null Moon” and “Ashes and Ghost” punctuated by brilliant and reflective piano pieces such as “Forest”. The ‘horror’ tracks are interesting pieces that aren’t atmospheric as in “OMG MONSTER IS COMING!” but more that there is something going on here psychologically. It gets me to questioning (again!) what exactly makes a ‘good soundtrack’. It probably isn’t listenability – I can think of better things to do than listen to the crazed scraping of “Betrayal”. Is it a good song though? If so, would it be good because it is well-composed technically? Or because it fits with the scene? (and again, context is lost to me). I have to wonder instead if the album is so highly rated simply because it has these great guitar pieces!

If we’re looking for one reason to listen to Silent Hill 2‘s soundtrack, it’s the guitar pieces, especially “Theme of Laura”.  Laura is a mysterious little girl who wanders Silent Hill, but is unable to see any monsters. “Theme of Laura” has the wistful curiosity and wandering steps of a child but also packs a strong sense of melancholy to go with its driving beat. It turns out that Akira Yamaoka spent three days composing this piece.

The track opens with an acoustic guitar playing a ballad; the piece is driving, mysterious, and ultimately endearing with a call and response between the two halves of the core melody. The echoing guitar notes present the track’s sadness, strings the mid-range, and the clapping of drums and metallic scraping of cymbals firmly establishes the piece’s driving beat. The haunting melody has a driving twang to it that seems lifted straight out of James Bond, rolling steps on a descent into madness and mystery (I have to wonder if Mr. Yamaoka is a Peter Gunn fan – but then again, who isn’t!). Yet the track in its entirety also has a distinct feel similar to “Hotel California,” a sad guitar, driving melody, and sense of impending, unavoidable disaster. The track is fairly long but never feels like it has gone too long; each new variation of the theme adds new perspective. I would go so far as to call this a perfect piece.

There is another piece on the album, “Theme of Laura (Reprise)” done in piano and violin Read the rest of this entry ?

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Castle Crashers – Swampland (Waterflame)

October 28, 2010

I’m a fairly big fan of Castle Crashers (probably why there’s a few tracks from it on this blog…) and when I was looking for a zombie track to put up, I realized that a) I’d already used music from WarCraft III and b) I’m not familiar with the Resident Evil soundtracks (nor do I yet have the soundtrack to ZombieSmash…maybe if it was in FLAC…). Anyway, “Swampland” from Castle Crashers is a nice ‘zombie invasion’ theme to fit this time of year. The Castle Crashers soundtrack was very interesting in that the majority of the songs were already written by artists on Newgrounds. Waterflame, a Norwegian composer, contributed several pieces, including “Space Pirates”, the forest theme, but I think this is the best piece he contributed. The other interesting thing is the tracks just don’t loop very well in-game, as they contain a very short (but noticeable) audio gap (something that I think could have easily been remedied by deleting a half-second of silence at the end of each track). In any event, the version uploaded here is actually a looped version of the original (which you can get off of Waterflame’s Newgrounds page).

Castle Crashers – “Swampland” (Waterflame)

“Swampland” is the kind of gloomy, oppressive stuff you’d expect to find in a zombie hideaway. A deep, moaning strings section opens the track, over which is quickly layered a haunting music-box piano and atmospheric percussion from snake rattles and cymbal scrapes. The track simply seems to ooze mist and creatures of the dark places. Each instrument adds another layer to the piece until one minute in when the exotic bongo beat rises from the bubbling muck like the sloshing feet of the undead, until it rises to a chanting height for the final 30 seconds. Great stuff for fighting shuffling zombies and black knights. Did I mention this game was awesome?

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MusyX GBA Demo Song 1 (Chris Huelsbeck)

October 27, 2010

This piece is technically not vgm; rather, it is a song created to demonstrate the power of the MusyX system for the Gameboy Advance. Chris Huelsbeck created this demo and the MusyX system for Factor 5 in 1999, and it stands as one of the best examples of the capabilities of the GBA system (the song is still available on Factor 5′s website). I’ve remembered the song since its debut when hopes were high for Nintendo’s new system, the Gamecube, as well as the possibilities for the Gameboy Advance. And honestly, it sounds much better than a lot of GBA music produced. It also fits nicely into this Halloween time of year. As the demo sounds oddly similar to Castlevania, I have to wonder if Mr. Huelsbeck would ever produce a soundtrack for a vampire-slaying game! So what are you waiting for? Grab your whip, wooden stakes, holy water, and crucifix and turn up the speakers: it’s time to fight the undead!

MusyX GBA “Demo Song 1″ (Chris Huelsbeck)

The demo opens with a ticking clock and atmospheric explosions of thunderclaps. One of the central instruments, the hair-raising strings, demonstrates the tool’s capacity for stereo fades and – coupled with the thunder – is sure to bring a smile to Castlevania fans in particular. A staple of cheesy horror, these grim strings are used throughout the song. Likewise, when the heroic trumpets are introduced 25 seconds into the piece, they are also used in heroic bursts at key points for excellent timing. The majority of the song is made up of an action beat, and it is here that the piece diverges from traditional Castlevania to Huelsbeck’s unique style. There’s a nice break halfway through to add the xylophone, demonstrating again the tool’s capacity to include a wide range of high-quality instruments and dynamic layering.

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Chrono Trigger – “Decisive Battle with Magus” (Yasunori Mitsuda)

October 26, 2010

Let me begin by saying this: Magus is a badass. He’s a warlock who fights with a scythe and black magic. He owns a gigantic castle in some prime swamp real-estate that’s garrisoned to the gills with all manner of imps, skeletons, and dark beasts. He turned his arch-nemesis (who’s also awesome) into a frog. And he’s out for revenge against the monster that sucked his sister into the tempest of time. Oh yeah, and he’s got an awesome cape. In short, the kind of guy you love to fight – and what’s even better, you even get to play as him!

Chrono Trigger – “Decisive Battle with Magus” (Yasunori Mitsuda)

The fighters face off as a dark wind blows through the flame-lit chamber, low strings menacing. A grim tin flute whistles through the night, samurai against the reaper. The main battle suddenly strikes with pounding drums, desperate clarinet, doomsday strings, shrill flute, and rattling tambourine keeping time in the chaos of battle before the trumpets overtake the field in a proud solo. In the ensuing route, Mitsuda mixes in evil laughter – the same evil laughter that plays in the previous track, “Strains of Insanity” that sets the tone for the final confrontation. At the end of the loop, the track begins once again with the dark, tense strings of the opening, signaling a lull in the battle, one that will not last long…

The entire piece has a deliberate melody overflowing with malice that smoothly moves from one note to the next, playing quick call and response – Yasunori Mitsuda has a clear talent for composition, even in his early works. This version is from the PlayStation version of the game, which featured a slightly remastered soundtrack. Interestingly, “Decisive Battle with Magus” seems to have been most recently translated as “Magus Confronted” in the Nintendo DS version of the soundtrack (which is not as good as the PS1 remaster. Actually, I like the soundtrack so much, I also have the soundtrack to both the SNES and DS sitting on my shelf!).

“Magus” has seen a flurry of arranges, popular guy that he is. They range from orchestral to rock to…gangsta? Given that Magus has somewhere in the range of 20 noted remixes, what are the best ones?

To start, “Magus” seems to work best with rock, and there are no shortages of excellent arranges. The best of these has to be “Atonement” by Michael “Darangen” Boyd, which is American rock to the core: meaty guitars and face-smashing action. The piece begins with heavily distorted guitar scratching that sounds just like Magus’ evil laughter, but the piece gains its stardom through the mighty drumwork which, when coupled with acoustic guitar and clarinet in the middle is absolute aural heaven. By the end of the song, the guitar has taken on a sawlike buzz that when layered with flute makes for a fine ending.

I have to say though I am a sucker for Jonathan Striker’s “Distortions from Dark Matter” that, while lacking in instrument polish, makes up for it in composition, which is a frantic, chaotic guitar smash through Magus’ castle, complete with various flavors of maniacal laughter. The track never caught on, even at VGMix 2.0, but remained a favorite of mine since day one.

You’ll also want to feast your ears on Star Salzman’s “Black Wind Rising“, the second-most amazing remix outside of “Atonement”. While the piece begins like a standard enough orchestral arrange, it quickly accelerates to an apocalyptic orchestra to synth rock, followed by a frantic electronica symphony that switches focus what seems like once every 30 seconds. With so many different genres in one song, it goes down as nothing short of epic and a must-listen.

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Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest – “Silence of the Day” (Kenichi Matsubara)

October 25, 2010

Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest was the first Castlevania game I’d ever played. And once I did, I wished I’d played the game sooner, as I fell in love with it instantly. This was in the late 90s, so I was younger then, but even this – one of the poorer entries in the series – captivated me with the whip and jump action, as well as the power-up system. Today, the game is a bit tedious and so I enjoy other games in the series more, but it introduced a lot of elements that were later implemented into classics such as Symphony of the Night.

Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest – “Silence of the Day” (Kenichi Matsubara)

“Silence of the Day” is probably the most easily-recognizable piece from the game. An easy track, the piece features a well-defined drum beat and a strong melody defined by long notes with short steps between. The track has a march-like quality, as Simon trolls the streets looking for clues to help him lift his curse. We can see the shops and shuttered houses as Simon walks past, aware that the curse of Dracula still lingers on the land…

It is interesting to compare the Famicom Disk version with the NES version. The NES version has more timbre to its sound, meaty square wavs that sound more like analog audio than replicating orchestral instruments. The Famicom Disk System sounds better, though is less familiar. We never knew what we were missing out on!

“Silence of the Day” has seen multiple arranges – probably the most out of Castlevania II save “Bloody Tears.” The best of these has to be from Akumajo Dracula MIDI Collection, mainly for the amazing opening with drums and bells that sound like the interior of a church bell tower. The last half of the track is a type of dance theme accentuated by the bells and piano. It’s not bad, but quite a departure from the first half. Nice use of trumpets here, too. The track ends with some Halloween-style pipes.

The second notable one is “What a Horrible Night” by virt (Jake Kaufman), which uses a fugue of about a dozen violins, each played and recorded by Kaufman. What results is a rough estimation of a violin concerto playing the piece (far better than Dracula New Classic). The piece also contains “Monster Dance“, the night theme. When night falls, the memorable line “What a horrible night to have a curse!” haunts the screen, and you know you’re in for trouble!

Composer Kenichi Matsubara (The Lone Ranger, Gradius IV) was responsible for both Castlevania II and Haunted Castle, both released the same year. As a result, he had to reuse some tunes, such as “Bloody Tears”. This probably explains why the soundtrack is a bit sub-par to the arcade game.

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Castlevania – Lament of Innocence – “House of Sacred Remains” (Michru Yamane)

October 24, 2010

Castlevania – Lament of Innocence is one of the best soundtracks in the series. Michiru Yamane combines a wide range of musical styles in her games, from hard rock to dance to baroque, and often mixes them in the same song (“Resonance of Malevolent Souls” even used a digeridoo!). Lament of Innocence in many ways exemplifies this technique. Haunting baroque pieces such as “Ghostly Theater”, the strikingly haunting “House of Sacred Remains” and the jazzy battle themes such as “Traces of Malevolent Souls” are several of the outstanding pieces. It’s little wonder then that AOL Radio scored this the number oneCastlevania soundtrack andis definitely worth picking up off of iTunes if you haven’t already. My pick for the best track is a cross between “House of Sacred Remains” and “Ghostly Theater”, but I’ll go with the former for its unique approach (and more gothic fitting for the Halloween season).

“House of Sacred Remains” opens with a stark organ solo, a 26 second intro with a single, mournful organ that plays the track’s foundation melody of 21 notes. By doing so, Yamane firmly establishes the mood and setting of the piece – a giant abandoned cathedral that has been profaned by the undead, a stark, empty house of worship where the echoes of mass have long since been forgotten. The leaps between notes seem initially shocking and foreign, but quickly become the foundation of the piece. After this opening, the piece transitions into the main section, a choral segment that seems disembodied from human voice with its tremulous, hollow singing, electronica percussion and sonar echoes forming the base line of the melody. At the end of this section, the organ is again added to the mix as it moves to a masterful piano segment (1:36). Here, we have a sense of walking through the abandoned cathedral, finding secrets and exploring the mystery and decadent splendor of the place, even in decay – ribbed vaults rising to the ceiling, gothic tracery and overturned pews. At the end of the section, the organ returns again for a tremendous finale with some heavy drumwork (2:36), slowly building in intensity and finally adding the choral section. The piece loops at 3:08 for what is a truly astonishing opening to what for many is the first main level of the game.

Michiru Yamane arranged the album in the Castlevania Original Soundtrack – a title that is ill-named considering how Castlevania has always been the name of the series in the US. The piece “Christmas Carol ~From House of Sacred Remains” is a unique take on the theme, transforming it from a grim, somber chamber to a field of bright snow with an opening dominated by female choir and delicate triangle percussion. Past this, the overpowering male soloist takes over in place of the organ and the track transitions into and electronic dance that culminates in an organ finale. It’s an incredible roller-coaster, though ultimately one that lacks the core mastery present in the original work.

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Castlevania Chronicles – “Etude for the Killer” (Sota Fujimori)

October 23, 2010

Death is one of the staple enemies from the Castlevania series, finding his way into practically every game. He is also fun to fight (albeit usually incredibly difficult). In Castlevania Chronicles (2001), a remake of Akumajo Dracula for the X68000 personal computer (in itself a remake of the original Castlevania), Death has a new lair, this time with pleading prisoners in the dungeons, hanging skeletons and mutilated corpses, a Frankenstein miniboss in the alchemical lab (in the first Castlevania, only philters and bottles were shown; Frank was the boss of the previous stage), and strangest of all, little babies that pop out of specimen jars (o_O). However, the coolest part of Death’s lair was the top floor, which contains what at first appears to be a scenic overlook of Transylvania which later crumbles, turning out to be an enchanted painting. The floor is filled with many of these, including one that contains writhing bodies embedded in the wall or trapped in the painting. An awesome stage, with a rather unique baroque-style etude for the background music.

Castlevania Chronicles – “Etude for the Killer” (Sota Fujimori)

“Etude for the Killer” is a sweeping, decadent homage to Death, who silently stalks the haunted halls of Dracula’s Castle. An incredibly complex piece like the title’s namesake, “Etude for the Killer” combines organs with strings, clarinet, flute, harpsichord, and haunted choir with rapid notes and quick transitions between instruments. There are some nice instrument techniques used here, such as plucking of the cellos, cymbal crashes into the waltzing second half. With a loop 1:18 in length, “Etude for the Killer” communicates a great sense of gloom and mystery, coupled with the sweeping movements of evil spirits and the mechanical movements of skeletons and ghost knights. It’s truly a dance with Death.

The original version from Akumajo Dracula (1993) used chip of the X68000 for an FM sound similar to that of the Sega Genesis. This version is far more frantic than that of the Chronicles version, particularly with the plucking sound in the first half, and overall excellent percussion. The grating hiss of the FM chip fits perfectly with the chaos of the composition and ends with a wonderful fade back to the main piece 1:05. However, outside of the funky instrument selection, amazing percussion, and similarity to Castlevania Bloodlines, the original version of “Etude for the Killer” honestly isn’t that stand-out from the original Akumajo Dracula soundtrack for the X68000. It doesn’t have quite the impact of say “Clockwork Mansion” from Super Castlevania IV, which both the level and the song owe some inspiration to.

Of course, the album release contained two other versions, one on the Roland CM-64, the other the Roland SC-55 (the same synthesizer used in the MIDI Power Pro series). The SC-55 version sounds closest to the X68000 FM synth while the CM-64 version is a slightly different arrange. Neither is very appealing to me.

Castlevania Chronicles was composed by Sota Fujimori (Contra: Shattered Soldiers, Beatmania). The original version was composed by Hiroshi Kobayashi (Contra III: The Alien Wars) and two aliases Shin Chan (Wild Guns, Spanky’s Quest) and Jigokuguruma Nakamura (Dracula X: Rondo of Blood).

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Year One

October 22, 2010

Wow, has it been a year already? I’ve been so busy the past couple weeks that I’d completely lost track of where I was on the schedule!

Initially, I thought I’d end this blog exactly one year into it (in fact, I’ve had my final song picked out for a LONG time). And I honestly think that VGM Daily will be running to a close here after a few more weeks. It has nothing to do with changes in my interests; rather, I’ve covered most of the songs I really enjoy and my busy schedule makes it difficult for me to listen to new material on a regular basis (even though I know there’s tons of great music I simply haven’t heard yet).

The other reason is I’ve accomplished most of what I set out to do when I began this. I managed to keep this blog running – daily – for 365 days and at least appear to have said something intelligent with each post (though the writing has varied). Then again, just because you write a lot doesn’t mean the writing improves – just look at Dear Abby. So I can’t really say I’m too much better at talking about game music than I was a year ago. I’ve also been able to make one post a day before going to bed (or in some exceptions, getting it done first thing in the morning).

The blog has also changed a little from its original plan. One song per day has lately become two or three versions of the same song each day. Some games feature multiple songs rather than one single ‘exemplar’ of the soundtrack (something I find to be quite impossible). Further, instead of using songs from one game each day (for a total of 365 games), there have been so many examples from certain games as to make the selection a little lopsided. But hey, you write what you know, and these songs represent nearly all the games that I know.

I suppose the final reason is that I reflected on all the time I’ve spent working on this blog. If I estimate about an hour each day, then after one year of using one hour of my time, I’ve effectively used 365 hours – or 1/24 of the year. This got me wondering: what have I done productively with the other 23/24 of my year? (ok, 1/3 of it was spent sleeping). And when I realized this, I am no longer sure that using that one hour to write about one song is as useful as other things I could be doing.

VGM Daily will continue as a daily blog for at least a few more weeks – but I doubt it will last a second year. After this, I think it will change to something different – maybe VGM Weekly?

Anyway, for those of you who have been listening since Day One, thank you for your support! And for all the new folks out there (wow, I’ve come a long way since then, as this site now gets over 100 users a day on average!), thank you for visiting the site! I’d like to thank as well all the game composers out there who have been writing such excellent music for the past 40 years! Your music means a lot to me, and I will continue to buy, listen to, talk about, and write about game music!

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