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Xenosaga Limited Edition Bonus DVD review

Posted : 6 years, 4 months ago on 4 July 2012 11:08 (A review of Xenosaga Limited Edition Bonus DVD)

When it comes to video games, Xeno is a prefix that is more or less guaranteed to create sparks when uttered in conversation. Whether it's the debate that Xenogears' various development problems keep it from being the quote unquote "perfect" game (really, don't even get me started on this one....) or how utterly ridiculous it was for Nintendo to forgo releasing Xenoblade abroad when the demand was obviously there, the truth is Xeno games have a history as checkered as their acceptance by gamers themselves.

As ambitious as these games really are, the problem that some had with Xenosaga's lengthy cutscenes is well justified. Like any given Metal Gear Solid title, it seemed the player was left watching almost as much as they where playing. That said, while there's a bit of hyperbole in there it's not like these scenes were boring and flaccid. In fact, there are several scenes throughout the game that make it worth replaying. Yet the concept of honesty makes it necessary for me to admit that Xenosaga's gameplay undoubtedly plays second fiddle to its story.

Unfortunately, Xenosaga is a bit conflicted here as well. While its narrative is a lot easier to navigate than that of Xenogears, Xenosaga has the "unique" trait of having an NPC that's far more interesting than many of the player's characters. Who am I talking about? Andrew Cherenkov. When the game opens, we find come to see that Commander Cherenkov is second in command aboard the Woglinde, but what we learn about him from that point on challenges one's perception of good and evil and quickly overshadows anything the game tries to establish about Shion, the main character.

This is the main reason I tracked down Xenosaga Limited Edition Movie DVD. When you get right down to it all of the characters are important, but Cherenkov is something else entirely. You just don't run into an all-encompassing character like this very often and being able to relive his story with minimal fuss was of the utmost importance to me. Anyway, beyond a small hitch or two, Andrew's story is faithfully preserved on this pre-order bonus, as is the remainder of the game's narrative. Still, with so much material on hand there are obviously areas where this item falls short. I could get into specifics about the scenes that are included/excluded (trust me, I have some definite gripes) but can't due to spoilers and space.

There are few isolated instances where the video cuts out for fraction of a second. Nothing too grievous, but it does take away from the product's overall level of quality. There was also a small section where the audio dropped out in similar fashion. Still, considering this was initially a bonus item that didn't cost customers anything I'm more than willing to overlook such slight miscues. There are also no subtitles. The subtitles from the game are now absent and the video is now completely unobscured. Depending on what your looking for this can be good or bad.

Such issues aside, the further one gets in the DVD the less material they'll ultimately find sacrificed. Personally, I don't find the second half the game/narrative as exciting as the first (mainly due to the lack of Cherenkov) but it doesn't but too much of a damper on the proceedings. The only other real downer is the time since episode II's release has made the Xenosaga Limited Edition Movie DVD a somewhat uncommon item. Still, as most know it's somewhat hard to tell when or if these pre-order bonuses will end up becoming something down the road or if they are really worth procuring. In this case I have to say I'm hook, line and sinker. That said, fans of the series will probably have no problem in following suit.

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Coming from the Sky review

Posted : 6 years, 4 months ago on 4 July 2012 11:01 (A review of Coming from the Sky)

Winners of the "Be Your Own Label" contest held by Noise Records, France's Heavenly are a progressive/speed metal outfit in the vein of late 80's Helloween. Coming from the Sky is the record that resulted from the band's first recording session and was met with a rather cold reception from the press. While the album would fair better with the public than professional critics, how does this debut stack up in today's world? A lot better than one would think.

As one would expect the music on Coming from the Sky drenched in all the typical trappings of Euro power metal style and offers no apologies for it. Lead vocals soar and choruses are backed up with enough force that one can literally imagine that a small, hardened platoon was hired to sing them. Solos are long and lengthy as are the songs themselves, tackling subjects like battles and perseverance that have become the calling card of the genre. It's not as drawl as this explanation is making it out to be, but the experience is derivative when it's at its worst and at its best. Things start off with the opening intro. While having an opening intro is a cliche in itself for a power metal album, no one will doubt this is a power metal album upon hearing this. Tongue-in-cheek as it is, the funny part is how unnecessary it is once "Carry Your Heart" comes across ones speakers. Following up this ode to love is the strong and stout "Riding Through Hell" that conjures up the images of kings, crowns and kingdoms.

Things quickly take a turn for the worse with "Time Machine." Of all the tracks on the album, it's painfully obvious this wayward creation received the most attention with its trio of vocalists (Ben Sotto, Kai Hansen and Piet Sielck) yet fails to yields anything of value. The performances fit the song like a glove since it sounds like a low-end Gamma Ray number, but in reality, it's the kind of thing people use to exemplify how power metal beats the same old drum. Disruptive as "Time Machine" really is, it does little to derail the seductive "Number One" or a ferocious number like "Our Only Chance" that can round a corner on a moment's notice. The album revisits its opening notes with the short and sweet "Fairytale" before returning to the fray with the "My Turn Will Come" which is unfortunately the last moment of magic as "Until I Die" and "Million Ways" finish the album off in rather weak fashion.

While I'm sure some will obviously question the value of a release that bears no real evolution over the nearly twenty year-old material it takes influence from, there are times things are enjoyable because they feel so familiar. This describes Coming from the Sky to a tee. It's far from inspiring (well, "Carry Your Heart" has been known to jazz me up something fierce) and can be rather flat at points, but this is a case where I prefer to be an optimist despite the obvious drawbacks. I'd recommend others to do the same.

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Divine Invitation review

Posted : 6 years, 4 months ago on 4 July 2012 10:56 (A review of Divine Invitation)

A compilation born out of fact that some where having trouble finding the band's first two releases in the years following their release, Divine Invitation presents the “best five” tracks from 2003’s Invitation and 2004’s Divinity, backs them the band's original demos and two new recordings featuring the band’s latest vocalist. As one would expect with the "best of" section, the word "best" essentially means "crapshoot." The winners and losers aren't easy to discern from a wayward album like Invitation and this is reflected in the picks from that album. There is a lot less at stake with the selections from Divinity given that album is a lot more homogeneous from a conceptual and architectural standpoint, but these tracks will only make one hunger for the full album. While sparking an interest in the material that lies beyond this compilation is a good thing, it defeats the original purpose of this compilation which is to act in lieu of the full albums. That’s bad news for this record but good news for the band and its music in general.

Beyond the haphazard selection that presides over the first section of the album, tracks eleven and twelve present one with a glimpse of the future and current vocalist Marco Luponero. In the general sense these tracks are more rock oriented than the European metal-flavored pieces that open the album and act as a prelude to what listeners can expect if they pick up the band’s 2009 release Unholy. The final portion of the disc will most likely only interest the most devout of fans and is interesting and noteworthy for all the wrong reasons. Some of the demos presented (the ones from 2002) are actually better than the finished products found on Invitation. For example, check out "Unicorn (2002 Demo)" and then check out the version that falls earlier on the album. Did they really need to bog down a song to such a point?

Containing demos that are often better than the finished product, a hit-and-miss "best of" selection and two, somewhat skimpy additions, I can't really suggest "Divine Invitation" as a starting point for new Altaria listeners. This isn’t saying the album can’t act as a starting point, it’s just the album isn’t going to appease those that know and eventually experience what lies beyond it on the full length releases.

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Tomb Raider PSX Redbook Audio review

Posted : 6 years, 4 months ago on 4 July 2012 05:33 (A review of Tomb Raider PSX Redbook Audio)

It’s something that doesn't need to be said. It’s something that is nowhere near surprising. It’s something that everyone knows is there, and exists in every facet of life. The concept of debate is alive and well in this world and in its people, from subjects ranging from politics to religion to gaming. Like politicians, most gamers can usually hold their own in conversation, unloading salvo upon salvo of ammo when it comes to explaining or defending a point of view. Sometimes, getting some of them to stop is harder than providing a constructive counterpoint to the point they’re trying to make. As intense as such conversation can become, would anyone want it any other way? But really, what sparks these battles of pros and cons? From the vague, off-the-wall reference to a full-blown decree of love or hate for a game itself it often doesn't take much, yet does anything draw a line in the sand quicker than uttering a phrase like “the golden age of gaming?”

Such distinctions are relative for obvious reasons, but in writing this, I can’t help but feel a soft spot in my heart for the original PlayStation and how it introduced so many players to the third dimension. However, in my case, this wasn't the real draw behind the console. An emerging teen at the time of its launch, the gritty worlds presented in games like Final Fantasy VII, Resident Evil and Tomb Raider seemed more appealing than the bright and colorful ones presented in games like Super Mario 64. Such a statement is not an attempt to downplay the impact Mario 64 had on the industry and its players, but for someone looking for an edgier and more adult oriented experiences, it wasn't the answer. Tomb Raider and its protagonist Lara Croft were. As cut and dry as it would seem for the game to become a personal favorite, there was a lot more to the equation than the above would imply. There was also the music of Nathan McCree.

Redbook Audio to the Rescue!

As most game music followers know, “redbook audio” is a term that refers to music from CD-ROM based games that can be read and accessed through normal, traditional means like an everyday CD player. Because of this, most of the music from Tomb Raider is right there for listeners to enjoy outside the game as long as they have a copy of the game itself. However, it should be noted there is a painful exception for PC players here. Due to performance issues related to the slower speed CD-ROM drives in use around the game’s launch in 1996, the music was omitted from this version of the game outside a few ambient themes and the opening number. Bummer! On the other hand, in a somewhat decent tradeoff, PC players would have the ability to save their games on the fly unlike their console counterparts who would have to make do with strategically placed, one-shot save crystals.

While the CD-ROM format may have limited this particular iteration of the game, it would only open it up further on the aforementioned consoles. The limited application of music in Lara’s world, coupled with the expansive amount of space granted by compact discs, would allow the game’s developers to bypass the use of sequenced music. Famous, early examples showing the limits of such programmed music on the PlayStation would include games like Final Fantasy VII and Wild Arms, games with so much music that redbook audio would not be a plausible solution. With such freedom in hand with Tomb Raider, Nathan McCree and his Roland JV-90 synthesizer (outfitted with an SR-JV80 orchestra expansion board) would more or less be uninhibited in their quest in bringing key parts of the game’s quest alive beyond their visual representation. But in the real world where progress is a necessary evil, how well do these musical moodscapes fair today? You may be surprised.

Heeding the Call of the Tombs

First, let’s heed the advice of Alucard (from Symphony of the Night) and skip right past track number one which is roughly thirty minutes of “computer data” that is of no value without the console itself. Starting with track number two, we find the first piece of actual music, a tune that has become known as “Lara’s Theme.” Warm and pleasing in nature, its job of inviting the player into Lara’s world on the game setup screen is more than familiar to most. A beckoning call from the brass section kicks things off, with the gentile stings of a harp and a haunting - yet relaxing - choir joining the proceedings in quick order. There's a certain aquatic feel to it which is most likely born out of its serene quality and that the edited, game play version of the track (track 4) usually crops up around bodies of water. This in-game edit ingeniously dumps the section where the chants come together in their effort to form a mid-piece climax, allowing it to dissipate cleanly when the game goes back to its cryptic, moody self with “Ambient Noises” (track 5) lurking in the background.

When things require for the silence to be shattered by the threat of danger, McCree offers up a two pronged attack. The methodical advancement heard throughout “Battle in the Ancient Courtyard” (track 8) and its shortened counterpart (track 16) bring an impressive amount of power and drama to the fold while avoiding the problems that come with presenting intensity in an orchestral style. Generally, these are reserved for more organic threats like creature attacks where something is actively tracking you down, although there are a handful of exceptions where this doesn't hold true. The same can be said for compositions like “Escaping Danger” (track 6) and its edit “More Danger” (track 20) in that they are not regulated to environmental hazards and traps, but are geared towards such a purpose with their uneasy nature. A similar sensation runs through “The Trapped Hallway” (track 9) as well, though it is more forthright with its plan to lead the player into a false sense of security – something that can be quite deadly.

Other numbers devote themselves more to depicting the splendor and scale of given locations rather than the various pratfalls within them. The tag team punch thrown by the reflective sadness in “Ruins of a Lost Civilization” (track 10) and the inquisitive grip of “Architecture of the Past” (track 7) is hard - if not downright impossible - to ignore, and leaves less, all encompassing numbers like “Another Deserted Place” (track 17) and “An Abandoned Chamber” (track 3) behind when removed from their in-game context. A similar fate awaits the darkness found within the event driven “Derelict Mechanism” (track 18) as well, its elements ultimately put to better use elsewhere even though its male dominated choir brings plenty of interesting aspects to the table.

Another area that falters outside the scope of the game is the small collection of musical cues or jingles. “Secret” (track 13) is the least susceptible to such a “fish out of water” syndrome in that it’s a classic in and of itself. The remaining pieces “Danger” (track 11), “An Ancient Door Opens” (track 12) and “Age Old Artifact” (track 15) all serve their purpose when certain keys, objects and doors are found and activated but make for dry and jumpy listening experience otherwise.

A Few Spare Cogs and Fuses:

Last but not least are a few remaining outtakes and voiceovers. Track 19 presents an alternate, unused version of “Lara’s Theme” that has been fitted with a musical prefix born from either “An Abandoned Chamber” or “Another Deserted Place.” Also included and abandoned is an additional, shorter take on “Architecture of the Past” (track 21) with some subtle instrument changes and a fainter conclusion. The nuttiest outtake has to be the slower, deeper rendition of “Secret” found on track 14 which quickly makes one appreciate the inflection of the final version. Beyond the music itself, one can also find the voiceover tracks for four of the games in-game cut scenes (tracks 22~25), Lara’s vocal instructions from the mansion training level (tracks 26~50) and some rather amusing quips from the game’s human antagonists in the remaining six. As expected, much like the original Resident Evil, the voice acting in Tomb Raider leaves a lot to be desired (especially in this day and age) but there is something that just feels right even when listening to such crude dialogue. Rest assured, it “ain’t nothing personal” against good voice acting.

A Decade Later: Tomb Raider Revisited

As most know, along with a few other classic games from the 32 bit era (e.g. Wild Arms) the original Tomb Raider was re-imaged for the next generation of consoles a little less than ten years after its original release. However, with the panning of Angel of Darkness by players resulting in Eidos switching development teams, one couldn’t help but wonder what Tomb Raider Anniversary would offer even though a heavy dose of fan service was expected. This would apply to the music as well, but unlike the game itself - whose best moments where those taken and adapted from the original – the orchestral bombast that Troels B. Folmann presented throughout the soundtrack added nothing to McCree’s pieces when they made an appearance. Folmann’s work in Anniversary pretty much hits the nail on the head when it comes to my distaste for western composers and their over reliance on orchestration. Of course, there is the obvious hypocritical aspect of such an opinion given the original score was orchestrated as well but at least McCree knew how to keep it tasteful and balanced. In the end, not only did McCree craft something that avoids embracing the stereotypes that come with the style, he created something that will easily outlive that which shamelessly does.

A Game and Score Not To Be Forgotten

Despite the ebb and flow of time, Nathan McCree’s original musical portrait of the adventures of Lara Croft stands as tall today as it did over twelve years ago, and was an integral part in what brought the game to life. Its short length and limited in-game application may appear to be strike against it but nothing could be further from the truth, as these musical asides only emphasizing the importance of the silence in Lara's world. In other words, what the game’s music doesn't do is just as important as what it does and there are few soundtracks where such a statement seems appropriate. Video game music fans that were never enticed by Lara’s third person adventures (“enticed” perhaps not being the best choice of words here) should still check it out as copies of the game are relatively inexpensive.

Editor’s Note: The track titles used above are unofficial and are not endorsed by either the composer or Core Design Ltd. To date, there has never been any official declaration of the name these compositions should go by, the titles above used mainly for clarification purposes.

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Wild Arms XF Original Soundtrack review

Posted : 6 years, 4 months ago on 4 July 2012 05:12 (A review of Wild Arms XF Original Soundtrack)

As a Wild Arms fan, to say I've found the series’ time on the Playstation 2 to be a success would be a lie. Regardless of the fact that each outing on the platform is far from horrible, the reality is that Media Vision has failed to create a game since the original Wild Arms or its first sequel, Wild Arms 2nd Ignition that has captured my heart and imagination. Even as time goes by, images of Metal Demons plaguing the land and the looming threat of encroaching parallel universes remain frightfully clear in the back of my mind.

It was also around this time that my auditory honeymoon with composer Michiko Naruke’s Western flavored scores began to dwindle; the advanced, overgrown sound of Wild Arms 3 scraping the underlying simplicity that brought previous scores alive, replacing it with a textured, almost abstract style that felt like a conscious effort to play complexity catch-up with other composers. While Wild Arms 3 seemed fit to close the lid on the sound that defined the PS1 games, a small reprieve was offered with 2004’s Alter code:F before Wild Arms 4 sealed the deal. Of course, with Naruke falling ill the door was barely shut before it was thrust back open, ushering in yet another chapter in the series’ musical history. Naruke’s exit was a shame, but for a listener whose taste refused to evolve alongside her style it’s a rather moot point. With the reigns in the hands of Masato Kouda and Noriyasu Agematsu the series continued onward, offering a mostly favorable experience but one that did not exactly re-ignite the coals that fueled the flame that is Wild Arms music.

Taking such a pessimistic view into account, it’s not hard to imagine one taking such a passive attitude towards the release of the Wild Arms XF Original Soundtrack. As for expectations, there were none outside the presumption it would maintain the direction of its most recent predecessors and little else. Boy was I wrong. Wild Arms XF is not the Second Coming as far as the series’ music is concerned, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t the best soundtrack the series has seen in a good, long time. Perhaps the most surprising aspect was the shift in the genre the game presented, something this listener was completely unaware of until the soundtrack had already made its impression.

From the outset, newcomers Junpei Fujita and Hitoshi Fujima waste no time in presenting their re-invigorating take on what makes a Wild Arms battle theme a Wild Arms battle theme. The mellow, laid back melody of Fujita’s “Siren’s Beautiful Sword” is simply enchanting, as is the synergy created by its contrast with the brisk pace of Fujima’s “Birds Soaring Over the Battlefield.” It’s hard to describe how a rather straight edged experience can gel with a more abstract, Sakuraba-like number (e.g., the organ usage) that can turn a corner at a moments notice yet as unlikely as it sounds this interaction is of great importance. Beyond this point, Fujima’s work with scenario and event pieces blends into the background as Fujita continues his stride with battle themes. Dripping with a flavor that is undeniably befitting of a strategy RPG, the subtext of “This Sword Style Rages Still” is reminds one of the perplexing choices to be made as they move their units around the battlefield.

Another fresh face, Daisuke Kikuta takes over Agematsu’s job of creating annoying, yet strangely satisfying crisis tracks. “Dramatic Turn” is akin to WA5’s “Emergency Sign” and comes off as an overzealous dance track. You know you should dislike it and that it doesn't deserve any kind of praise yet it accomplishes its purpose in spite of itself. When it comes to battle themes, Kikuta’s contributions connect in two major ways though they’re really one in the same. The guitar in “Slap the Cheek in a Mood to Kill,” “A Beast, Brute and Monster's Claws” and “Mechanical Dancing Fight” forms the obvious part of the connection, but it’s the idea that these would play when fighting a more formidable opponent as opposed to a run-of-the-mill enemy that makes them successful. The only real hitch is even though Kikuta makes the most use of the guitar, it is used to greater effect by the other composers in a more reserved manner.

Being the mainstay composer for the series since Wild Arms 4, it’s sad to see that Masato Kouda has learned nothing new when it comes to town themes. It’s not as if tunes such as “Outrageous Folks” and “In the Sunlight” are bad by any stretch of the imagination, they’re just extremely stereotypical with their cardboard cutout Western feel and no-brainer instrument choice. The fact of the matter is it’s not hard to write such music; what is hard is to write a something that seems stereotypical yet is anything but. Ironically, Kouda succeeds in doing this elsewhere: the drive of “A Quick Night in Elecius” being very reminiscent of what one would expect to hear in a film portraying a tragic and unavoidable battle as the cries of the defeated fill a ominous sky. Taken at face value, the use of such a common motif that is also employed in “Intense Battle Below the Sky” and “The Trail of Those Who Fight” may seem uninspired yet Kouda seduces the listener with its vague sense of familiarity and makes it his own. “Snarling Men Clad in Heavy Armor” makes use of the militaristic clank-like percussion present in “The Trail of Those Who Fight” while cleverly avoiding the main hook while the somber “Slice the Way to the Truth” chooses to embrace it without seeming like a sorry excuse of reprise that’s there to solely inflate the tracklisting.

Despite the enjoyment that can be found in the tracks above, whether they present a composer going out on a limb to create something unique is questionable. Experimental endeavors like Kouda’s “Death Trap Siege” and “The Beauty of Spreading Terror” by Fujita step in to answer the call and account for some of XF’s hidden allure. The muffled, almost hypnotic beat of “Death Trap Siege” has a semi-gothic flair to it though describing it in such a manner seems rather inaccurate. In “The Beauty in the Spreading Terror” the distorted synth and bubble-like effect creates a villainous chill that doesn't break down any barriers but is nevertheless interesting in its implementation.

Out of all XF’s contributing composers, it is ultimately Agematsu that becomes the victim of circumstance. It’s hard to give a solid battle theme like “Duel Sign” props and airtime after absorbing the aforementioned pieces by Fujita, Fujima and Kouda. A lot of Agematsu’s shortcomings may stem from the fact that while all the composers manage to take some influence from Naruke, Agematsu has the hardest time taking that resource and making it his own. The prime example of this is “Blank Easel” where Agematsu takes the excellent melody from his vocal theme “Honki no Uso” and can’t resist the urge of slapping the Wild Arms whistle in it, an unflattering cliché as is his revival of “To the End of the Wildness” in “Crossfire.” At times it feels as if Agematsu is a little too concerned with preserving where the series’ music/sound has been rather than taking it where it needs to go. The biggest question concerning Agemetsu’s contribution to the soundtrack is whether or not he was behind the theme that ties the FINAL DISASTER series and “Perpetual motion” together with Kouda’s “Weapons Born from Man's Womb.” Unfortunately, given the spread in the composing credits it’s doubtful we’ll ever know; my money is on Kouda since he is created with the most straightforward and engrossing version.

There are numerous other tracks thoughout the Wild Arms XF Original Soundtrack that stand to exemplify how far (and how little) XF has progressed beyond its predecessors. With this in mind, it may seem appropriate to scrutinize some of the negatives more harshly and meet the experience halfway. Still, despite my love/hate relationship with some things Wild Arms, I am simply smitten with some of the material and the lows are no match for the highs. For the first time in ages this fan looks forward to the future of Wild Arms music (well, there is no future) with a renewed sense of cautious optimism; I hope others will as well.

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Wild Arms Advanced 3rd Original Soundtrack review

Posted : 6 years, 4 months ago on 4 July 2012 05:01 (A review of Wild Arms Advanced 3rd Original Soundtrack)

In the world of gaming, change is an unyielding force. There may be those that kick and scream against it, but time unapologetically leaves things behind. Cruel as it may seem, the passage of time also has a peculiar way of making us see things we couldn't see before, even helping us realize that every transformation isn’t for the better. But perhaps the most damaging idea that can be born out of such reasoning is changing something for the sake of changing it or changing it because one can. Still, the same can be said of the opposite path, the stagnation that can be created by hopelessly sticking to one’s guns out of the fear of failure.

Enter Wild Arms, a series that has never become conformable with such certainties. With role-playing games becoming ever more relevant in the late 1990’s, fierce competition had driven Media Vision’s signature IP from the heights of its PSX debut to its designation as a filler title. Wild Arms Advanced 3rd reflects all the above and then some, being a mishmash of ambitions, successes and failures. Which ones relate to Naruke’s work on the soundtrack? The answer may surprise you.

While it may be more than obvious to anyone that is reading, I am not here to defend the Wild Arms 2nd Ignition Original Soundtrack from its critics. That being said, talking about what Advanced 3rd has to offer without reflecting on 2nd Ignition is, quite literally, impossible since its flaws correlate to what has changed and why. Listening to the 2nd Ignition soundtrack, it’s not long before one realizes the idea of “change” couldn’t have been more perfectly timed. A new console brings new possibilities, but given the fact that the PlayStation 2’s sound capabilities aren't a quantum leap over the original PlayStation, this would be a rather superficial reason to implement a style change. Digging the grave deeper on this being the catalyst is the fact that neither Wild Arms nor Wild Arms 2 pushed the PlayStation's sound to its limits like a late era Final Fantasy.

Given that technological advancement probably had little to do with Advanced 3rd’s new sound, what about the game, or more specifically the world within the game? Obviously, any self-respecting composer is going to take the surrounding environment into consideration, and Naruke accomplishes this effortlessly with instruments like the guitar and its guttural inflection. But with the game having what many fans feel is the most “western” world out of any entry in the series, do the ideas surrounding the “Old West” really lend themselves to such a style any more than they already do? While the various storylines that have graced the games over the years have reveled in blurring the line between good and evil, justice in the real Wild West was probably a lot more cut and dry. No one is going to fault a video game for layering what would otherwise be a simple story, but given the influences that birthed Wild Arms music to begin with, it again seems unlikely that anything in this entry’s world would fuel such a shift. In fact, in presenting an even more authentic western world, one would think that keeping the melody at the forefront of the experience would have been an even greater priority than usual.

However, before revealing one man’s theory on why the series’ music has evolved, let’s take a look at the one-third of the score that doesn't part with tradition. The standard battle theme, “Gunmetal Action” takes a welcome break from the good kind of brashness the defined Wild Arms classics like “Critical Hit!” and “Battle Force” with its serene splendor, as does its accompanying fanfare, but both are highly susceptible to listener burnout. Seriously, if you like these tracks do not play the game. Due to the game’s severely high encounter rate, coupled with the grindingly slow pace of battles, it took me years – and I mean YEARS - to recuperate my taste for these tracks. Personal traumas aside, the song that deserves the most praise is the standard boss theme “Blood, Tears, and the Dried-up Wasteland” which more than makes up for the atrocious “Battle VS Mid Boss” from the second game, teaming with interesting touches throughout. Add to this an agreeable collection of dungeon and town themes and it’s easy to see there are some old-school offerings available here despite the face-lift Advanced 3rd likes to portray as its calling card.

As great as such pieces may be, everything comes right back to the remaining two-thirds of the soundtrack and the abstract architecture it employs. There aren't many tracks that take on this quality the whole way through - it’s mainly used to reach the core “nugget” of melody - but it’s only for these brief pockets where Naruke sounds like Naruke. The flowers and candy version would have me suggest that she may have wanted to take the series music in another direction and nothing more, but the structure of these songs leads me to believe something else is going on. The cynic in me thinks this is all born out of stubbornness, or an unwillingness to examine and correct past mistakes. In other words, Naruke developed a “hit and run” approach with scene/event themes in order to avoid tackling past problems. Why confront something when you can just avoid it? The problem is while the music of 2nd Ignition may have put her on thin ice with some listeners, was the result so damaging that carving a new path was ultimately easier than fixing the old one, the one based around melody?

This is the central question surrounding the Wild Arms Advanced 3rd Original Soundtrack. Given this is the woman who gave us tunes like “Lone Bird in the Shire (Rudy's Theme),” why the facade? I thought this was someone who understood that unnecessary complexity was a road best not traveled, that the music for any given game did not need to be the antithesis of composition as long as it enhanced and conveyed what was on the screen. Where is that Naruke for the majority of this four disc score?

Alas, Naruke seems to have fallen into that trap of “New, new, new!” But why? The problem doesn't really lie with Naruke as much as it does with Wild Arms Advanced 3rd as a whole. While the game may have been well-crafted creation - at least that's what keep telling myself to avoid the fact I found it boring and dry - with nothing outside Naruke’s music moving forward the emotion it exuded from players was almost as bleak as the wastelands of Filgaia itself. Point blank, the whole situation is ironic and is far from honest. This has a lot to do with the game brings to the table musically for obvious reasons, but also makes it’s easy to tell the honest apart from the dishonest, and when two-thirds of the score ends up in the latter category, you’re in trouble. How can one expect the listener to form any kind of a bond with the composer if they believe they’re not being true to their creative forces? 2nd Ignition may have had some ugly moments, but there was never a point where I felt I was being lied to. Sometimes the truth is ugly, but I’d rather have a two disc ugly truth than a four disc lie – something that’s a kick in the pants considering this is where SPE Visual Works gets serious about making unabridged releases. When it comes to lying, I’m done lying to myself that everything a composer churns out is something I have to enjoy. Shoving an experience down your throat in some vain attempt to like based on its creator is a fool’s errand. This is perhaps the greatest lesson Wild Arms Advanced 3rd has taught me, and for that I’m grateful.

Unlike the diamond in the rough that was the Wild Arms 2nd Ignition Original Soundtrack, the Wild Arms Advanced 3rd Soundtrack is a lot like panning for gold. While you may stumble across a few golden nuggets here and there, the fruitless searching in-between makes one ponder the promises that come along in the name of progress. If one can take anything away from such doubt, it’s that change is constant, promises are not always kept and things never stay the same. When it comes to the world Wild Arms music, may the next change be a good one.

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Parasite Eve Original Soundtrack review

Posted : 6 years, 4 months ago on 2 July 2012 10:13 (A review of Parasite Eve Original Soundtrack)

Like a lot of gamers, I absolutely loved growing up when the 32/64-bit machines were at the height of the industry. So many games were born out the competition between Nintendo and Sony, yet as most know some competitions were fought and won long before the Nintendo 64 was even released. Stealing Squaresoft from Nintendo over issues like the cartridge vs. disc debate was a definite win for Sony, one the console rode all the way to the bank. Squaresoft games were and remain some of the most celebrated titles of all time, and I have to admit that Squaresoft logo became an unofficial seal of quality to me. Yet as time passes we start to see things as they are, perspective and insight crashing the party and throwing its two cents in the equation whether we like it or not.

Such is the tale of Parasite Eve, the "cinematic" RPG. While we'll obviously never see an end to long-time, jubilant fans leaping to the defense of a beloved title, I have to admit that, as a game, Parasite Eve has failed to age well. Such a view has more to do with the game's gameplay than anything else, but this doesn't mean one can't appreciate the myriad of other things the game accomplished and still manages to do well. That said, most games are not defined by a sole element, games come together when their individual components work with one another. Some parts may be stouter than others, and some parts may even be able to stand on their own. It's this line of thinking that relates to perceived strength of the Parasite Eve Original Soundtrack, a soundtrack that continues to receive a significant amount of accolades thirteen years after its release.

Starting up this two disc set, it really not hard to see why Parasite Eve's score has maintained such a consistent following. Along with "Chaosium Sword" from Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos, "Primal Eyes" has my vote for best video game opening ever. Its mix of rock and techno is just so powerful, so visceral that you can't help but know it lives beyond physical confines of your speakers. Yet as I try to steer this paragraph into a fairytale ending that everything is as good as candy on the Parasite Eve soundtrack, I can't. While some would have you believe that all of the game's music is capable of standing on its own, a sizable portion of Parasite Eve's music is dependant on context. Actually, make that highly dependant on context. There are pieces here - like the three part "Memory" series - that can't live beyond their usage in the game. This doesn't derail the experience per say but it does mean it's a lot less bulletproof than it is at first sight.

Another battle that rears its head in the early going is the confrontation between the lesser used survival horror stylings ("Mystery Notes," "Gloom and Doom" and "The Surface of the Water") and the techno influences the game is known for. The latter can shine when given the proper treatment ("Missing Perspective") but it's obvious it can't hold up against the sound that makes this soundtrack what it is. Yet when one speaks of what makes this soundtrack what it is, many listeners seem to underestimate the importance of repetition within Shimomura's work. Considering the style of music that dominates this score, I think most would believe the incorporation of such an element would be a given, but certain tracks (like the wonderful "The Omission of the World") come under fire for this while other tracks ("Wheel of Fortune," "U.B.") get away scot-free.

But speaking of being guilty, Parasite Eve does run into legitimate trouble with its use of use of repetition. The obvious culprit here is something a lot of soundtracks do: their over reliance of the main theme. This isn't much of a problem in-game when different situations call for different kinds of tracks (battle, field/area and scene) but it's definitely compounded in soundtrack form. A related problem, one Parasite Eve shares with the Brave Fencer Musashi Original Soundtrack, is the synthesized opera singing. As essential as this in driving home the setting and mood of the game, I think most can probably agree that this pushes the hardware's sound capabilities to its limits which is pretty unattractive in and of itself. That said it's far from being a real deterrent.

When all is said and done, is Parasite Eve still one of the defining soundtracks of the 32-bit era? While most would unwaveringly say yes I'd have to lean towards no. A few years ago I would have paraded this score around as a flawless masterpiece but simply see things I didn't see back then. I am glad I've had that time to reflect on what's here and I'm glad I can be that honest with myself. The score definitely deserves most of the praise it receives but a little more criticism wouldn't hurt it.

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New Era review

Posted : 6 years, 4 months ago on 2 July 2012 10:06 (A review of New Era)

While one will likely question the validity of such a claim, "New Era" is an anomaly among the usual offerings from the typical list of Euro-flavored suspects, even though it really isn't. Point blank, there is nothing "revolutionary" here, nor is it a "renaissance" of any kind, and, as cutthroat as it might seem for the opening of a review, "New Era" channels a lot of previous Stratovarius material beyond the typical nuances of the sound. For example, the solo in "Heroes" is lifted right out of 1995's "Against the Wind" and "Born Upon the Cross" is essentially a slowed down version of 2003's "Elements."

Yet, as odd as odd as it may seem, even with these kind of things staring me right in the face as I listen, and falling out of love with some of Stratovarius' previous material over the last few years, it doesn't make me angry. It doesn't scream "rehash" or "lazy" at the top of its lungs like the similar occurrences on Stratovarius' Polaris does. The reason behind this has a lot to do with the last, self titled Stratovarius album released in 2005. Looking back and listening to that album, and taking Tolkki's dislike of the album and band's turmoil into account, it's not hard to look beyond that music and see that the band was, quite literally, a mess, miserable and together mainly out the legal implications they would have faced if they didn't reconcile. Simply put, it was an album that was far from honest even though I have to admit I liked the Dreamspace-esque darkness that dominated some of its songs.

On the other hand, "New Era" does sound honest. Listening to it, it sounds as if Tolkki and his trio of vocalist actually enjoyed making this album instead of just aiming to get something out there to avoid breaching a contract. Again, if Kotipelto (a vocalist who's voice is becoming less and less a personal favorite) sang these songs as originally planned, this would probably just be another, near soulless Stratovarius album, but the tri-fecta of singers borrowed from other outfits (Edguy, ex-Helloween, and Thunderstone) is much more than the gimmick it initially appears to be. Can't imagine anyone other than Kiske singing "Last Night on Earth or "Revolution Renaissance," the best title cut Tolkki has written in years despite the obvious and obligatory cheese? The same applies to the other vocalist and their efforts and are, and much like Olaf Hayer's work for Luca Turilli's solo works, are easily half the reason I've stuck with the album as long as I have which is saying a lot when the newest albums by HammerFall and Gamma Ray fail to stick even when they do offer something different.

In the end, there isn't anything special about "New Era" - especially from a technical point of view. Still, even though it's easy to acknowledge and accept this, the album (especially as a whole) does kind of feel special in some abstract, intangible way.

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Mandrake review

Posted : 6 years, 4 months ago on 2 July 2012 10:01 (A review of Mandrake)

In his famous bit "Why We Don't Need the Ten Commandments," George Carlin asked why God settled on giving man *ten* commandments. Why not six, eight or twelve? The answer was that ten was a psychologically pleasing number, it was the basis of the metric system, it - perhaps most importantly - sounded official. So what does the number ten have to do with Edguy's "breakout" album Mandrake? Well, Mandrake turns ten this year and as such it seems more than appropriate to reflect back on how "well" it’s aged over the past decade.

As if the inflection above didn't give away what's to follow, Mandrake hasn't aged well. At all. In fact, I can't think of a worse breakout album than this. Why do I say such things? I think most fans can agree that Edguy was already making stellar music way before this album dropped (the ever-so impressive Vain Glory Opera comes to mind) and Mandrake's success only serves to remind one that Edguy should have received the kind of recognition they receive now at least three years before this point. I can't help but think how much more impressive the story of Edguy's rise would be if Vain Glory Opera had been their breakout album. But no, for many the story begins with a by-the-numbers album that is highly overstated in what it has to offer.

So what is wrong with Mandrake? The first problem flies somewhat under the radar (at least for a few years) and it takes about half the album with it: there is way too much filler here. "Golden Dawn," "Jerusalem," "All the Clowns," "Save Us Now" and "Fallen Angels" are pure, unadulterated filler. "All the Clowns" and "Save Us Now" have become victims of the humor reaper that eventually claims funny Edguy tracks for the soulless entities they are but I'd expect some to raise an objection or two with "Fallen Angels." Still, I knew this was a filler track the minute the band tried to make it sound more impressive than it really was on their first live album Burning Down the Opera. The same situation really applies to ten minute "Pharaoh" as well. Edguy simply has better tracks in their catalog.

But speaking of superior tracks, one of the greatest tricks Mandrake tires to pull is making average tracks seem a lot more viable than they really are. The greatest example of this has to be "Nailed to the Wheel." At first there doesn't seem to any negative to this edgy, in-your-face track but it eventually reveals itself as the one-dimensional cardboard cutout it really is. Speaking of things that die hard, one of the biggest blows to the album is when "Painting on the Wall" hits its expiration date. With this being one of the album's centerpieces along with "Tears of a Mandrake" it should surprise no one how damaging this is.

So, given that I've been picking off tracks as quickly as George picks off commandments in the aforementioned piece, you may be wondering when - or if - I'm going to praise anything that can be heard here. Well, I am, but the pickings are slim. As if there was any doubt, the title track is worth one's time as is the ballad "Wash Away the Poison" which is just different enough from previous Edguy ballads to eek out a name for itself. In another odd twist, the bonus track that's on every copy of this album in existence ("Devil and the Savant") isn't as disposable as one would initially think either.

While I'm sure there are those that think I've had fun dismantling what Mandrake has to offer, rest assured I have not. Nothing more would make me happier than to remember this album in a brighter light given this was my first Edguy experience. But if I have learned anything over the last ten years, it's not to lie to myself and avoid unpleasant truths, of which there are many. While the failings of a ten year old album are far from being truly important in the scheme of things, you got to start somewhere. Unfortunately for Edguy, way too many people started here.

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Twister: Motion Picture Score review

Posted : 6 years, 4 months ago on 2 July 2012 03:01 (A review of Twister: Motion Picture Score)

Just like every other review I've written for a major motion picture score I have to preempt the main event and say that I'm probably the last person that should comment on the soundtrack to a movie. I know it sounds kind of harsh putting myself down but in general movie scores aren't my thing - the music working in context and not living beyond it. However, given the borderline man-crush I have for Twister - my guilty pleasure of a bad movie if there ever was one - the reasons why the music lives on outside of the movie are all too clear.

So why does Twister's score prevail where others have failed. Well, I think a lot of that has to do with composer Mark Mancina. In general I'm not the biggest fan of the bombastic, orchestral stylings that Hollywood brings to the table in a lot of motion pictures. Sometimes I feel that orchestrating a piece of music is an easy way out, an easy way to build suspense. Listening to this score, I have little problem admitting that Twister takes this route. So if Mancina takes "the easy way out" why am I so attracted to his work? Well, a lot of it has to do with complexity. Again, I am probably the last person that should have an opinion on it given my general lack of experience with the genre, but when listening to the music on this disc I don't think Mancina breaks the bank with these compositions. In a certain sense I think music is a little, shall we say, underdeveloped. Well, that's not really the right word per say, but the music really strikes me as something that hard-core film score buffs would find a little underwhelming. I know a lot of the above is hypothetical and I'm not trying to put any words into anyone's mouth but I simply believe there is better film-based music out there.

Given that, the question remains why does Twister's score seem so attractive? It's accessible - very accessible. Perhaps too accessible but accessible nonetheless. It's kind of like the shallow end of a pool. The water in the deep end is too cold to just jump right in so you systematically inch in from the stairs at the less abrasive end. I know that such an analogy is really far from being any kind of complement and is rather unjust towards Mancina's work but you can't always force the listener to dive right in and appreciate every nuance of what's before them. You need works that bridge the gap and that is where I think the score to Twister scores most - if not all - of its points.

So while it's pretty clear I enjoy the music as it's presented in the movie, does it make the successful transition to a standalone experience? Does it remain buoyant or does it sink to the darkest depths? Well, generally it remains afloat but there are two things that complicate the endeavor - the first being the tracks do not appear in the order they appear during the movie. The score opens with "Wheatfield" which is heard shortly after the flashback to Joe's childhood but after that the track listing hops around a lot and tracks like "Drive In" and "The Big Suck" simply come up to bat too early. You'd think you could solve this problem simply by rearranging the order the tracks play in but you can't since the first six tracks have the unfortunate bonus of flowing into one another.

Complicating things even further is the inclusion of material that didn't make it into the movie. You might think that fleshing out these pieces would be a good idea but as spiteful as it might seem I'm only interested in the parts that actually have context. Pieces without homes in the movie ("Where's My Truck?") can drag out the experience and some of them that are a mix of both ("Wakita") meander to the point where my attention starts to wonder. This isn't to say these sections can't be interesting: the opening of "Sculptures" really hides the familiar piece it finally evolves into and "Cow" is really all over the place (in a good way) as it covers several important refrains in its five minute play time. That aside I still have to say this soundtrack would be much more attractive if it was simple and streamlined and tracks ended on the notes they ended on in the film.

Another major of the album really revolves around "William Tell / Oklahoma Medley" otherwise known as the "storm chasers" medley. I'm sorry but this piece needs to be closer to the version heard in the movie. It's an instrumental part of the movie and to hear it in such an unfinished state doesn't really do it any justice. It really feels "half full" where it stands now. The final nail in the coffin for most will be this score's price. Because of its age this motion picture score is obviously out of print and copies fetch a decent amount on the second hand market. Even as a fan of the music I have to question how many people will take the plunge especially after all the negatives I listed above. I have to admit it's a pretty pricey expenditure.

As detrimental as the faults may be I can't stay mad at the Twister: Motion Picture Score even knowing what I know. Even the track titles put a smile on my face as they come up, cleverly alluding to their given scenes in the movie. A rousing refrain is all it takes to remind me of my favorite crappy (and poorly edited) movie. I admit it's doubtful that this will find a home in the collections of those not into film scores but for those looking for gateway into that realm of music Twister's not a bad place to start.

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