Archive for November, 2010

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Falcom Special Box ’90 – “First Flight to You” (Michio Fujisawa)

November 30, 2010

Nihon Falcom Corporation is a famous game company in Japan that specializes in RPGs, particularly Ys and Dragon Slayer. From 1988 to 1997, the company released box sets containing originals and arrangements of their best music from that year (though labeling it with the next year). It’s a truly amazing collection as the albums initially had a wide range of arrangements, including vocal, heavy rock, new age, and sound scores/drama. I found out about the Falcom Special Box collections when Slightly Dark did a special on one. Falcom Special Box ’90 contains four albums, one from each of the above styles, though each disc averages about 20 minutes. My favorite disc is the New Age Music, which is a beautiful mix of cello, violin, and piano. The pieces were arranged by Michio Fujisawa, who is still arranging Falcom music, and some of the tracks have been reprinted in various albums over the past 20 years.

Falcom Special Box ’90 – “First Flight to You” (Michio Fujisawa)

“First Flight to You” is an arrange of the ending theme to Ys II, so it is particularly joyful, conjuring images of free birds flying over summer hills in the early morning light and the hopeful emotions of a joyous return. The notes of the original roll off the gentle touch of piano and violin, dancing in playful meter to punctuated leaps. The cello provides an emotional base and later (1:50) plucks joyfully along with the piano. There are three parts to the song, the first a regular loop, the second a variation (1:08), followed by a slow break (2:24) with new/freeform material, ending with a final variant on the theme (2:48) – classic AA’BA” structure. The final reprise is particularly joyful with violin and piano at full emotional vigor and new material on the piano. The piece ends – I think – a little abruptly, but that does not detract from its pleasant, relaxing excellence.

The original version was composed by Mieko Ishikawa (Dinosaur, Star Trader) and Yuzo Koshiro (ActRaiser, Shinobi). Hardcore Gaming 101 has an extensive overview of the series.

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The Adventures of Bayou Billy – “Street and Swamp Fighting (Stages 1, 3, 6, 8 BGM)” (Hidenori Maezawa, et al)

November 29, 2010

The Adventures of Bayou Billy (1991), known in Japan as Mad City (1989), is one of the more obscure Konami titles and a forgotten soundtrack by Hidenori Maezawa. Nice graphics and tripping music, the game is forgotten because it was infamous for its difficulty (Spoony Experiment has a fantastic Until We Win feature about it). Billy West must save his girlfriend Annabelle Lee from the vicious gang of Godfather Gordon, fighting his way through swamp and street, driving a jeep through the bayou… Sorry, Billy, but it’s times like these when you’re probably better off just finding a new girlfriend! (and get a shirt while you’re at it!) Anyway, the music is fairly unique, quite a different sound from much NES music of the time, particularly the first stage theme, “Street & Swamp Fighting” .

The Adventures of Bayou Billy – “Street & Swamp Fighting (Stages 1, 3, 5, 8)” (Hidenori Maezawa, et al)

The piece opens with a funky guitar and hip swamp bubble popping. The main melody is played on a square wave whose identity is a little hard to pin down – perhaps trumpets or strings? – with some nice highlights from the trumpets. Its grungy slide is similar to that found in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Battletoads, a slam beat from the bayou. At 0:37 there is a nice break with punctuation from that dancing guitar. Coupled with the opening, the first loop is at 1:00, but after this, the loop length is 37 seconds, which is pretty decent, especially since the track is fairly dynamic.

The real reason I wanted to talk Bayou Billy though was this awesome arrange by Evil Horde called “El Lagarto“. I gotta say, this one took me by surprise, as I’d never heard the soundtrack before. The 70s disco-funk guitar is back with some slick Latin clapping and salsa-hot percussion – with a bongo solo at 3:16! Also check out that clapping break at 1:36 – this track is super-slick. This is sure to get your toes a-tapping and the ghost of Ricardo Montalbon dancing. Take a unique soundtrack and add a mix like this – a complete blast that’s also different from anything I’ve heard! The title, “El Legarto”, is the Spanish word for lizard – as in alligator!

The kings of this soundtrack are Jun Funahashi (Ys VI, Lost in Blue) and Hidenori Maezawa (Contra, Super C), who later collaborated on Castlevania III, which is some of the best music on the Famicom. The other composers were Atsushi Fujito (Castlevania: Bloodlines, Contra III: The Alien Wars) and Shinkon Ogura (Snake’s Revenge). Killer composers, all.

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King Kong 2 (MSX) – “End of the Adventure” (Commandcom)

November 28, 2010

Konami seems to have a good track record of releasing two versions of each of their games: one for the Famicom, the other for the MSX. Castlevania/Vampire Killer; Contra; Metal Gear 1 and 2/Snake’s Revenge. And now we have King Kong 2, with the MSX version King Kong 2: Yomigaeru Densetsu (King Kong 2: The Legend Restored). In the Famicom version (Ikari no Megaton Punch), players took the role of King Kong himself in his quest to find his beloved Lady Kong. With Yomigaeru Densetsu, it’s the adventurer Mitchel, also out to find Lady Kong, only this time to give him a blood transfusion. The game even resembles the MSX Metal Gear in terms of graphics and level design. Anyway, this forgotten Konami game recently saw an arrange by Commandcom (aka Jorge Mira Boronat) on OCR.

King Kong 2: Yomigaeru Densetsu – “End of the Adventure” (Commandcom)

While I think the soundtrack to Ikari no Megaton Punch is better, I have to admit that the “Stage 1” theme (arranged here) is an absolutely fantastic, catchy melody and pushes what the MSX could do, and it’s great to see how both soundtracks ended up with such great scores. The thing is, I don’t really like the MSX as much as the Famicom (though admittedly, it does sound a little more ‘Japanese’). The MSX usually doesn’t have quite the same impact as the Famicom, which in the right hands (say Kuniyo Yamashita or Hidenori Maezawa) can create a score much more lively and dynamic, due primarily to the extra channels and grittier sound (though Kuniyo Yamashita composed Vampire Killer with about as much gusto as the Famicom version). Still, Commandcom does an excellent job of really fleshing out the ideas present in the original, with lively piano, an adventuresome march, and wicked drumwork. It presents a grand feel of adventure, thick jungles, wild animals, and (in this case) helpful natives. Commandcom references Indiana Jones and Pirates of the Caribbean in his musical style, all excellent adventure scores. This is truly where the strengths of game music arrangements lie, being able to take an original piece and upgrade it for modern ears. It’s truly an example of how the bamboo model of the original song becomes a fully realized building with more powerful technology.

The original soundtrack was composed by Motoaki FurukawaMetal Gear for MSX and Dracula X: The Rondo of Blood.

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Castlevania: Harmony of Despair – “Ruined Castle Corridor”

November 27, 2010

I just discovered that in January Konamistyle is releasing the soundtrack to Harmony of Despair, the XBLA game that came out earlier this year which allowed you to play with up to three friends as one of Castlevania‘s heroes (and heroines!). What’s even cooler is there will be a bundle that includes this along with the Castlevania Tribute 1 and 2 albums (Tribute!? You steal men’s souls! And make them your slaves!). I’m hoping it won’t be a bunch of electronica… However, I’ve given the Harmony of Dissonance soundtrack a listen and was quite impressed. While it’s a selection from mostly newer games in the series (would have loved to hear some Castlevania IV and GameBoy arranges), Harmony of Dissonance has a truly rocking soundtrack with primarily new arranges. One of my favorites is “Ruined Castle Corridor”, the main castle theme from Aria of Sorrow.

Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance – “Ruined Castle Corridor”

Konami’s heavy metal treatment of “Ruined Castle Corridor” is pretty intense, with live guitars and an excellent synth library. The track might be called Soma’s Theme, the young man who is cursed with becoming the next Dracula (though he must start out as a college kid with a penknife – how he learns to wield a 6-foot sword of demon slaying in six hours, don’t ask). Anyway, the piece has a slight tinge of sadness, of bearing the burden of fate. Ultimately, much better than the meatier metal of Rize’s “Soul of Axe Armor” (named after the blue Axe Knights who roam the castle).

Michiru Yamane composed the original version of this theme, but she also composed an arranged version for the Lament of Innocence soundtrack titled “Cross of Fate“. This fantastic piece has Mrs. Yamane’s trademark percussion line, mixing a standard drumbeat (well-defined here as usual) with weird synthetic whisperings (see also 2:40). The drums are particularly intense and mesh well with the string, piano, and trumpet-driven melody. The piece has some excellent organ work beginning 2:40, the type of intricate, virtuostic work Castlevania is known for. This ending section goes on for perhaps a little too long without variation though, but it is still a fantastic arrange and a far cry from the blurry audio of the Gameboy Advance.

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Donkey Kong Country Returns (Kenji Yamamoto)

November 26, 2010

While I haven’t had a chance to play through Donkey Kong Country Returns yet (looking really forward to getting a copy though!), I did get a chance to listen to the soundtrack. My conclusion is that it’s pretty much a split: half the music is good, half is disappointing. First off, the instrument selection has greater variety than the original (which has a bass static to it due to lower bitrate) and seems to have come straight from swank jungle-themed lounges (so far straight-on) with a nice infusion of ethnic sounds (chanting, for instance).  However, the synthetic instruments just don’t seem to have the punch they did in the originals, and I think part of this comes from the synth lines and instrument library. I’ve heard some people say Nintendo’s instrument library is a little bit dated, and maybe this is an indication of that. Also, Kenji Yamamoto’s compositions are lacking in the environmental sounds that characterized the David Wise’s Donkey Kong Country soundtrack (a major sticking point in my view). Yet another disappointment is most of the soundtrack is arranges of pieces from the original Donkey Kong Country, giving the game the soundtrack of a complete reboot.

Donkey Kong Country Returns – “Jungle Groove” (Kenji Yamamoto)

It all comes down to the composition though, and this is where I’m split. Take the new rendition of “Jungle Groove”. Mr. Yamamoto’s rendition is a bit more intense and lacks the environmental sounds of the original. There are some fun additions here, such as the digeridoo, but the synth line seems a little out of place. I think the real trouble is pieces like “Jungle Groove” have a long and storied history, with plenty of other remixes and arranges to compare. In this regard, it’s difficult to outdo the best of the past 15 years, especially when the feel of the tracks has changed. Without so much comparison, they would probably stand higher as original compositions.

Still, there are some fantastic arranges here though that outdo the originals. Take “Fear Factory”, for instance: Read the rest of this entry ?

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Secret of Mana – “Angel’s Fear” (Hiroki Kikuta)

November 25, 2010

I’ve already talked some about the Mana/Seiken Densetsu series before, but not yet the most notable piece of Seiken Densetsu 2/Secret of Mana (1993), “Angel’s Fear”.

Secret of Mana – “Angel’s Fear” (Hiroki Kikuta)

“Angel’s Fear” opens with the dragon’s roar, a mysterious, primeval sound, a sound echoing from Nature’s heart. The same idea would fit nicely with Princess Mononoke‘s soundtrack, I think. This transitions to the opening phrases of “Angel’s Fear”, a call-and-response between alternating bars of piano that are complimentary in such a way that neither would be complete without the other. The piano casts brilliant rays of light through the resplendent forest canopy, the purity and vitality of nature. The next segment puts the piano as accompanying melody while a flute plays the “Mana” theme. This is followed by the second half of the piece, transitioned through cymbals, and invokes images of summer wind blowing through the trees. It is one of the finest tunes from videogames that shows the tranquility and spirit of nature. The name is a little ambiguous, but I think it might refer to the fear that something might happen to the forest, dominated by a massive world tree, the Mana Tree.

There have been a large number of arranges to “Angel’s Fear”, but I haven’t been fully satisfied with any of them. The first is in Seiken Densetsu 3 (never released in the US) with a piano and harp arrange, Read the rest of this entry ?

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Heavy Metal Thunder -The Recordings-

November 24, 2010

I found about this soundtrack a few years back to my pleasant surprise – to a rock fan like me, a title like Heavy Metal Thunder (not to be confused with the Saxon album of the same name) has to be good! And it certainly was: 45 minutes of total rock-out, a wide variety of styles from super-talented musicians. And it wasn’t just good metal, it was Japanese metal where you can’t understand what the hell they’re screaming about – which makes it all the more awesome. Take the title song for instance, “Heavy Metal Thunder” by The Sex Machineguns. Both the name of the song and the name of the band demand some attention. I mean, just check out this cover:

Heavy Metal Thunder -The Recordings- – “Heavy Metal Thunder” (The Sex Machineguns feat. Michael Schenker)

The Sex Machineguns are one of Japan’s top heavy metal bands. Their skills are among the best in the world. Though they have not made a number 1 single or album yet, their work consistently sells out almost instantaneously throughout Japan. Their name is inspired by the Sex Pistols because they believe that “machineguns are more radical than pistols.” “Heavy Metal Thunder” appeared on their ninth album of the same name and later became the title of a crappy robot fighting game by Square (they can’t make a fighting game to save themselves). It was also the name of a late-night rock show that pit the best bands against each other to make the ultimate rock-out. Note that “Heavy Metal Thunder” also features Michael Schenker. Schenker is one of the ultimate rock-out dudes, who played in UFO and founded Scorpion.

My translation of the lyrics and more after the break.

Read the rest of this entry ?

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Chrono Trigger – “Frog’s Theme” (Yasunori Mitsuda)

November 23, 2010

One of my favorite characters from Chrono Trigger is Frog, a knight who, while on a quest to defeat the warlock Magus, was defeated in battle and transformed into a frog before the body of his comrade and the shattered sword of legend. Frog lives in exile, unable to show his face to the world of humans, but secretly continues his war against Magus.  When Chrono and his friends are ambushed in Manoria Cathedral, Frog rushes in to their aid. However, after the princess is rescued, Frog returns to exile and will not return until the Masamune is forged anew. If, during your quest, you choose to fight Magus instead of take him on your team, Frog returns to his human from as Glenn, the green-haired knight. In Japan, Frog is known simply as ‘Kaeru’, which translates directly as ‘Frog’, but also could mean “to come home”, which is a wonderful play on Frog’s status as an exile. While a rather simple tune, it, along with the character, has become beloved to fans of the game through his humble confidence.

Chrono Trigger – “Frog’s Theme” (Yasunori Mitsuda)

“Frog’s Theme” opens with a blaze of flute, trumpet, and drums, a nice medieval march. This short 15-second intro ends with a flurry of trumpets and a nicely-timed cymbal crash. The second segment is the main part of the song, a 30-second ballad played on a flute or tin whistle. The high pitch reflects Frog’s amphibious nature but also his pride and sorrow at his curse. The piece is still very comforting because it lets you know you have a close friend at hand. While the high notes would normally be hopeful and happy, they are played in a minor key, which communicates sadness and determination. This made the piece perfect for alignment with the Civil War song “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again“, in an arrangement by Ailsean, which also used a minor key because it was based off the melody of an Irish antiwar song.

Note there are two versions of “Frog’s Theme”. The first was available on the Japanese soundtrack and contains a longer intro (shown above). The shorter one is only a 30-second loop with the main melody. This one was released on the Nintendo DS soundtrack. Read the rest of this entry ?

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What Makes it Memorable? – Mega Man 3 – “Title” (Yasuaki Fujita)

November 22, 2010

For the final entry into “What Makes a Song Memorable”, I’m going to take a look at one of the most beloved themes from one of the most popular game series: the “Title” theme from Mega Man 3. Composed by Yasuaki Fujita (aka Bun Bun), the Mega Man 3 soundtrack was one of the crowning scores of the series. Mr. Fujita later left to work at SNK on Pulstar, but has since returned to work on Mega Man 9 and 10.

Mega Man 3 – “Title” (Yasuaki Fujita)

Mr. Fujita pulled out all the stops with this piece. “Title” combines a memorable, jazzy intro with a high-energy main theme, smoothly mixing both the series’ jazz roots as well as modern pop music. It uses a simple melody, but one that has plenty of call and response – each bar expands on a theme presented in the previous one.

Also note the piece doesn’t just use a single chord, but varies the two square waves to play slightly different notes (see 0:12, for instance, as well as the nice jazzy line at 0:42). The layering here is excellent as well, particularly when accompanied by punctuation from the drums, with a pounding club beat. It’s right up there with the Mega Man 2 theme.

Out of all the arranges for the theme, my favorite is by Project X, Read the rest of this entry ?

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What Makes it Memorable? – Chrono Trigger – “Corridors of Time” (Yasunori Mitsuda)

November 21, 2010

Chrono Trigger has one of the most memorable soundtracks in a game. Looking through all the arranges of Chrono Trigger music, it becomes clear that the most popular of these is “Corridors of Time” (also known as “Chrono Corridor”). With more dedicated mixes than any other on OCRemix (12 to “Schala’s Theme” which has 10) and a popular choice among doujin arrangers, “Corridors of Time” is a good fit for “most memorable piece from Chrono Trigger.” So how does Yasunori Mitsuda do it?

Chrono Trigger – “Corridors of Time” (Yasunori Mitsuda)

First, he establishes an underlying melody using the mystic, ethereal bells playing four notes in a series of four bars, each beginning with a slightly higher note than the next (it is interesting to note that “Schala’s Theme” uses a similar set of notes – 8, to be exact – in a different melodic structure, so the two have a similar level of memorability). This pattern is repeated throughout the entire piece, and the tones selected are pleasing to the ears. There is also a nice echo to the bells, which becomes clearer in the DS version (above). The constant repetition creates a meditative feel (though I suppose alternatively it could make you go mad if repeated long enough!). Thankfully, more variation is added 10 seconds in with some groovy-cool bongoes and almost-liquid drums. Atop this is layered the main melody, beginning at 0:18, with a fine exotic transition. I’m not sure what instruments are used here, but this outlines another key factor to Mr. Mitsuda’s music (particularly this song) – exotic instruments that give the music a unique feel. Bells, bongoes, and hippy guitar – though perhaps it makes us want to ask whether the people of Zeal are meditating on the secrets of the universe or ‘meditating’ on hashish. At any rate, the unique sound of the instruments aids in memorization.

Next, the melodic structure. Here, the first half is comprised of easy notes that maintain a dominant key, returning often to the same two high and low notes with low range, creating two distinct bands of repeated notes that make the melody simple and easy to recognize – but also achieve a set tone that has a meditative quality. It is also important to note that the bottom note in the tonal key has longer notes that are repeated more often, creating emphasis. In the second half, the guitar is replaced with a female choral line. In juxtaposition with the first half, the choral line plays long, high notes, creating a nice contrast in both instrument, scale, and pacing. I also think these high female chorals are distinct and memorable.

Finally, “Chrono Corridor” establishes a tone and emotion that is also distinct and memorable. It is played in a minor chord that recalls something in the ancient past, an exotic location with warm skies where meditation is the primary pursuit. However, the people of Zeal have become so engrossed in their magic and studies up in their guru cloud they have forgotten the people on the snow-covered earth. So while the music seems to have its head in the clouds, there is a sadness here that is ignored – the loss of the earth, a loss of sense of reality.

There are a lot of mixes to “Chrono Corridor”, so it is very difficult to go through them all and find out what are worth the listen. One standout piece is “Corrupter of Time” by Jordin de Bruin and Tweak, a nice rock mix (it’s possible!) done in the style of Metallica. This is four minutes of rock-out with Schala and the Nu’s (I’m calling that their band).