Mr. Peabody & Sherman (Danny Elfman)

Cover

One of the better-remembered segments from Jay Ward’s Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends, the time-hopping and pun-laden adventures of the world’s smartest dog and his adopten son have remained lodged firmly in the American popular consciousness for over 40 years to the extent of even having the monicker of their Wayback Machine borrowed by the Internet Archive. As with many nostalgia properties from that era, Mr. Peabody was not immune to plundering for big-screen remakes by a creatively bankrupt Hollywood, and a motion picture version of his adventures with Sherman were in development hell for many years before the 2014 release of Mr. Peabody & Sherman. The film itself turned out rather well, despite the usual Dreamworks stunt casting, but its spring release date coupled with unexpectedly fierce box office competition served to mute its impact.

As a Dreamworks film, a score from Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control studio seemed as inevitable as a voice cast packed with flavor-of-the-month vocals for Peabody & Sherman. But, surprisingly, the filmmakers turned to Danny Elfman instead. Elfman has surprisingly extensive credits for children’s movies, going back as far as his breakout hit Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, but for many years seemed to be moving away from the weird and wacky music that was at one point his bread and butter. For Peabody & Sherman, though, that sound was back with a vengeance.

One suspects that Elfman got the job because of another movie he scores a few years earlier, also about a young boy and a time machine: Disney’s Meet the Robinsons. And, to be fair, there are parallels between the two works, especially in the energy and saturation of Elfmanisms. But while Meet the Robinsons eventually turned to adventure and had some serious and tragic undertones, Peabody & Sherman remains firmly in fun and wacky territory throughout its entire running time. It’s easily the wackiest thing that Elfman has done since Flubber in 1997, and is perhaps the closest the composer has come to the original Pee Wee‘s manic energy thus far.

The album contains a main theme that appears throughout starting with “Mr. Peabody’s Prologue,” and it gets put through an impressive number of guises, from the playful Nino Rota energy of that first track to a full-on Alfred Newman Egyptian treatment later on. The composer Elfman seems to be looking to for the most inspiration, though, is Carl Stalling: like the late leader of the Looney Tunes, Elfman incorporates fragments of popular public domain tunes into his most energetic pieces, from anachronistic blasts of “La Marseillaise” for Marie Antoinette to blasts of Beethoven for, well, Beethoven himself.

Though the main theme is present throughout, the constant stutterstop Stalling energy of the music might be irritating to listeners looking for a more through-composed and straitlaced style. For Elfman fans, though, the music represents a family reunion of sorts, a gumbo of the most fun and wacky elements from Pee Wee, Flubber the original Men in Black and Meet the Robinsons without its spacy or weighty elements. Compared to Epic or Frankenweenie from the previous two years, both scores full of theme and motion, the silly slapsticky tack that Elfman took is even more notable. It’s enjoyable on a rather different level.

The Peabody & Sherman album by Sony Classical provides a good 40 minutes of Elfman score, alongside a few source songs and tangos as well as a piece in which a stunt-cast Stephen Colbert mocks Mr. Peabody’s musicology skills. It’s a solid product, though American purchasers should beware its incredibly flimsy packaging, which offers nothing to hold the CD in place. For those with a tolerance for vibrantly thematic mickey-mousey music in the Stalling or David Newman vein, Peabody & Sherman is quite the treat.

Rating: starstarstarstar

Fifty Shades of Grey (Danny Elfman)

Cover

It’s enough to make one choke with surprise; only in the current media age could a book like Fifty Shades of Grey have bound itself so tightly and so quickly to the popular consciousness, without a safe word in sight. Author E. L. James was somehow able to dominate a heretofore unknown market when she filed the serial numbers off her BDSM Twilight fanfiction and saw the abusive relationship between her ersatz Edward and imitation Isabella climb the sales charts and beat a whole new genre of softcore “mommy porn” into shape. It was a given that films would follow–it had worked for Twilight!–and auteur director Sam Taylor-Johnson was tied to the project along with a pair of young starlets. The resulting film was awful in a very interesting way, the director and stars barely able to gag their contempt for the material–and, in the case of the stars, each other! Needless to say, this didn’t keep the film from whipping up substantial profits, and two equally risible sequels are sure to torture reviewers for years to come.

Taylor-Johnson’s only prior film, Nowhere Boy, had been a John Lennon biopic with minimal score. She therefore roped a composer for Fifty Shades of Grey who also had a background in popular music as well as a noted appetite for the twisted: Danny Elfman. Elfman was no stranger to movies with the sort of erotic charge that Fifty Shades aspired to, notably To Die For, but he still seemed an odd fit for the assignment. Then again, the Twilight series had reined in such film score luminaries as Carter Burwell, Alexandre Desplat, and Howard Shore; Elfman was in many ways a much more appropriate choice to write a film score fans bought in unmarked paper bags.

Elfman commands a small orchestral ensemble with contemporary drum beatings and bass guitar for the score, augmenting both from time to time with a small chorus. The overall feel of his music, surprisingly, is cold, clinical, and detached: it’s music that is contemporary, uneasy, and above all aloof. In short, Elfman’s music seems to mirror the detachment that the actors and director felt for the project, keeping it at arm’s length. In fact, the score’s closest sonic bonds seem to be the Errol Morris scores that Elfman has done, Standard Operating Procedure and The Unknown Known; the Philip Glass style string “cells” in particular, repeating themselves as other instruments churn above and below, are very reminiscent of those documentaries.

A basic thematic idea strikes in the titular “Shades of Grey,” and recurs in a low-key fashion throughout (particularly in “Variations on a Shade”) but never truly asserts dominance over the rest of the music. Another motif, “Ana’s Theme,” is similarly rather backgrounded. There is also absolutely no music that could be described as traditionally romantic or mirroring the kinkier aspects tied up the subject at hand. Perhaps the subtle theme and unsettled soundscape are Elfman’s response to the creepy stalker vibe and abusive power dynamics that suffuse the film. In any case, don’t expect to be struck by Elfman’s use of thematic material or whipped into a frenzy by lush romanticism.

The score’s real highlight is the short choral piece, “Bliss,” that was at least co-composed if not entirely written by Elfman’s “additional music” hand for the project, David Buckley. As is often the case in film music it’s not entirely clear if Buckley simply arranged Elfman’s ideas for the choir or wrote the entire piece from whole cloth while incorporating some Elfmanisms. Either way, the piece is coldly rapturous, a stiff if subtle punch, and a very unique sound that the score could have used more of. The following two tracks, “Show Me” and “Counting to Six,” also deviate from the generally uneasy and cold material that comes before. But rather than offer romance, they are string-led laments, devastatingly sad and beautiful. Not the wah-wah cheese many expected, but those tracks plus “Bliss” are the furthest afield Elfman whips from his Errol Morris style and the closest to outright romance listeners are going to get.

A short 45-minute score album was released alongside the inevitable collection of terrible songs that included two score cuts (“Bliss” and “Variations on a Shade”); the movie’s high profile meant that the score even appeared in some brick-and-mortar stores. It’s not top-drawer Elfman however you slice it, but one has to respect that the composer hit the film with his best shot, writing music that was an order of magnitude better than the drek it accompanied. Listeners who are unfamiliar with Standard Operating Procedure and The Unknown Known will probably get the most out of the album, provided that they are not too embarrassed to add it to their shopping cart. For Elfman, Fifty Shades saw him beginning a period of engagement with the Hollywood machine for several enormous projects. From bowing out of (or being rejected from) The Hunger Games in 2012 and having few of his scores make a major splash in the interim, by the summer of 2015 Elfman was slugging it out at the top of the box office with half the score of Avengers: Age of Ultron to his credit. It’s not a binding opinion, but the twin hits of Fifty Shades and Ultron may just be the beginning of a new period of Elfman domination.

Rating: starstarstar

Confession (Ryan Shore)

Cover

Confession was a 2005 project about murder and coverups at a prestigious all-male Catholic prep school that wasn’t able to secure theatrical distribution, winding up instead as a direct-to-video offering. A longtime project of its writer/director, Jonathan Meyers, and based on a spec script he penned in high school, the film is primarily remembered today as the first starring role of Chris Pine, who less than four years later would be cast as Kirk in 2009’s Star Trek. An avowed film score fan, with a letter of encouragement from Carter Burwell to prove it, Meyers ultimately retained Ryan Shore to score his film. Shore, the nephew of Oscar-winner Howard, had a resume of similarly low-budget but ambitious films to his credit in 2005. He was therefore able to tackle Confession with a live orchestra, albeit a reduced one of 22 players, and live choral aspects as well.

Confession opens with its greatest highlight: a stunning choral piece in “Philosophy” that evokes liturgical music in its use of a solo female voice with supporting male choir. A lengthier performance in a similar vein bookends the album with “Sacred,” with snatches of choral music appearing in places throughout the rest of the album, taken up either by male or female voices. These passages are so effective in an Erich Whitacre/John Tavener manner that they overshadow much of the rest of Shore’s music–enough so that one almost wishes the entire score had been performed a capella.

Shore’s main theme is low-key and rather drab compared to his terrific choral music; when it appears in “Requiem” and “Confession,” it is primarily to tie together lengthier passages of dark, churning music. The film’s oft-grim tone and talky nature perhaps precluded more intrusively melodic writing, but one couldn’t help but feel that an approach like the one Shore would later use in Shadows might have been a better listening experience on album. “Bennet’s Confession” “Priest Interrogation” include the theme as well, but it is backgrounded or not present in most of the album’s meatier cues, leaving the music to create an unsettled atmosphere without any of the panache that characterizes the sections for voices. “Bicycle” and “Rain” provide the only respite from the generally oppressive atmosphere prevalent outside the vocal cues, with lighter Thomas Newman style riffs.

Though Ryan Shore had primarily been represented on the Moviescore Media boutique label, ever the champion of high-quality film music written for lesser-known projects, he was instead able to team with La-La Land Records five years after Confession was released, in 2010, to put out an album of his music. At 42 minutes, it is a short score on album but virtually every note recorded for the film is present (along with detailed notes from Shore and Meyers about their collaboration); however, unlike the MSM albums, Confession is only available as a physical product in a limited 1000-copy print run. Due to the film’s obscurity, though, it is available extremely cheaply both direct from the label and on the secondary market. The beautiful solo choral parts of the album will resonate most strongly for most listeners, though devotees of Shore’s more action-packed style of Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer or active thriller soundscape of Shadows may find themselves disappointed.

Rating: starstar

Elite: Dangerous (Erasmus Talbot)

Cover
Elite was an epochal game for many players on home computer systems, using basic wireframe graphics to place players as starship pilots in an expansive universe. Like many more sophisticated sandbox games, there was no set objective and no endpoint, other than raising one’s rank in combat to that of “Elite.” Countless hours of space combat and trading gave the game unrivaled cult appeal for a whole generation of gamers, to say nothing of inspiring titles like Privateer or Escape Velocity. But the actual Elite sequels were disappointments, with Frontier: Elite II and First Encounters: Elite III both being plagued with technical problems and stiff competition from imitators. The series lay dormant for nearly 20 years after Elite III before a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign successfully raised the money to make a direct sequel on modern systems. Elite: Dangerous has been well-recieved since its debut, though its always-online play (even in single-player) means that those without access to high-speed internet are still left out in the cold.

The development cycle of Elite: Dangerous was such that the project’s audio lead had time to carefully solicit composers for the game through a series of pitches and demos. Ultimately, newcomer Erasmus Talbot was commissioned to pen the score; while he had worked on some iOS games, shorts, and commercials before joining Elite in 2013, it was by far his most prominent credit to date. Talbot brought experience in sound design and implementation to the table, a benefit in working with a game that procedurally changed its music in response to player input, and he was instructed to create a hybrid score that utilized traditional symphonic and choral colors alongside synthesizers and electronic textures. The commission was complicated by the fact that what had initially been planned as a fully orchestral recording for its acoustic components wound up as a largely synth endeavor with live soloists: singers, percussion, some woodwinds, solo horn, violin, and oud were the sum total of live music recorded for the project.

One might have expected overtly synthetic elements to dominate a score about spaceships in space, but Talbot’s music is far less harshly electronic than comparable efforts like Jon Hallur Haraldsson’s EVE Online. Influences from that work can be felt in some of the pulsing and shimmering synths, and the use of world music elements like oud and singer Mia Salazar harkens most strongly back to Paul Ruskay’s Homeworld score. The overall use of ambient texture combined with a number of common motifs is perhaps most reminiscent of Jeremy Soule’s scores in the Elder Scrolls series, but Talbot’s score works these influences together in a way that rarely feels derivative.

Most prominent and surprising to someone expecting the harshness of EVE Online is its thorough use of both synth and live choral elements–“like distant calls weaving in and out
through the vastness of space,” as Talbot says in his liner notes. Singers Salazar and Hannah Holgersson are joined by synth male voices and a synth children’s chorus in a series of the music’s most prominent thematic building blocks based on the various factions encountered in the game. Near and Far Eastern choral textures, African and Middle Eastern tones (though thankfully never to the “wailing woman” level of early 2000s cliche), masculine chanting, and classical European voice elements all make appearances–often in their most wistful and ambient mode.

The game’s battle tracks are its most traditionally symphonic, with rippling percussion and brass added over elements of the more ambient tracks. It’s interesting that the battle music is presented in pieces rather than in suites as is the typical practice with video game music. Rather than slapping together the various parts as they might have been procedurally combined by the game’s music engine, listeners are presented with 30 short songs that represent different combat scenarios at varying levels of intensity (low, medium, and high). It’s a refreshing approach, if slightly bitty in a Thomas Newman way, and it of course means that listeners are free to string together whatever parts they like rather than being chained to a single “frozen playthrough.” But the combat music is also where the limits of Talbot’s budget show the most clearly: he is forced to work with a mostly synth orchestra, and parts of it (especially the prominent brass) sounds terribly fake.

Arguably, the highlight of the effort is the Frameshift Suite, music for high-speed travel and starport landings in Elite: Dangerous. It brings together the vocal, ambient electronic, and acoustic soloist elements of the broader score into a single, tonal, and cohesive whole. It’s the best showing-off of the game’s broader music style to those who may be bored by the Soule-inflected ambience of the exploration music and irritated by the phony brass blasts of the more traditional battle tracks.

Listeners’ response to Elite: Dangerous will likely be predicated on how much weight they give to its various elements. Lovers of ambient but tuneful music, subtle choral effects, and scoring that reflects diverse video game ane cinema influences will probably enjoy it; those looking for a traditional symphonic experience, harsh EVE Online atmospherics, or Hans Zimmer power anthems will probably be much less interested. If nothing else, the game’s commercial download album (a CD is mentioned in the liner notes that apparently never came to fruition) is an extremely generous 140 minutes and 86 tracks for less than $10, meaning that listeners who like only the exploration, Frameshift, or combat music will still have a wide selection. It’s a shame that Elite: Dangerous can’t be played without an internet connection, but its music certainly can, and it makes for a fine experience on its own.

Rating: starstarstarstar

Halo 4 (Neil Davidge)

Cover

Even though developer Bungie had departed from the Halo series with 2010’s rather tired prequel Halo: Reach, Microsoft was unable to put its killer app cash cow franchise to rest. Forming 343 Studios as a subsidiary–and thereby assuring that, unlike Bungie, it could not leave for greener pastures–Microsoft had Halo 4 in development as soon as Reach shipped. Returning to the only real dangling plot thread from the third game and the massive character origin retcon from Reach, Halo 4 attempted to build a more emotional story around the series’ characters in addition to a threatening race of conveniently undiscovered aliens. The story’s attempts at emotional resonance were undercut by the emotionlessness of the main character, who has never cared a whit for the massive and detailed background mythology built up around him (being more concerned with where and when to give out free bullet samples when ordered to), but Halo 4 was a predictable sales success, and sequels will probably follow on a biennial basis until the heat-death of the universe.

Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori had scored the first five Halo titles with a distinctive blend of choral voices, dance-influenced electronica, and orchestral music. But they had departed with Bungie to work on the disappointing Destiny–an assignment that would ultimately be the end of their tenure at that developer. 343 Studios brought on an interesting replacement in their stead: Neil Davidge, a songwriter, producer, and musician, though Halo 4 would be his first video game score. While Davidge’s name might be unfamiliar to listeners, the name of the group with which he is most associated, Massive Attack, is most likely not. As part of the group, Davidge had been involved with several bestselling albums as well as Massive Attack’s first forays into film scoring, Unleashed (AKA Danny the Dog) and Bullet Boy. As a solo artist, Davidge’s most high-profile score was probably the psychic actioner Push; it was therefore an open question how he would respond to a high-profile assignment like Halo 4 with its own preexisting fanbase and sonic world. Perhaps as a response to this, 343 Studios paired Davidge with additional music composer Kazuma Jinnouchi, an experienced video game musician with a track record in the Metal Gear Solid series.

First, and perhaps most controversially, Davidge completely dismissed all of O’Donnell and Salvatori’s themes for the Halo series in favor of his own original compositions. The decision wasn’t as unprecedented as it seemed, with O’Donnell and Salvatori themselves largely avoiding any references to iconic Halo themes in their scores for ODST and Reach. But while the overall style of those scores was still suffused with O’Donnell and Salvatori’s musical personalities, Davidge didn’t attempt to outright ape his predecessors. His score was built from similar building blocks–the Chamber Orchestra of London, the RSVP Voices and London Bulgarian Choir, as well as an array of synthesizers and electronics. The overall bent of the score, interestingly, is far more organic than what O’Donnell and Salvatori come up with despite Davidge’s own background, with far subtler synths and relatively few instances of them taking center stage. When tracks like “Awakening” do bring electronics to the forefront, the pulses and tones used are quite distinct from the dance-inflected beats for which the series was known.

Obviously, Halo 4 should be judged on its own merits in addition to its place within the wider series. So what does Davidge come up with of his own in terms of thematic material to replace O’Donnell and Salvatori’s themes? The answer is, sadly, not much: Davidge’s score has very little in the way of themes, and certainly nothing approaching the memorability of the previous scores. To borrow a metaphor from a concurrent media property, the composer had the opportunity to do a Patrick Doyle, whose Goblet of Fire also largely discarded series themes but came up with blisteringly good new ones that inhabited a similar sonic world. Instead, with Halo 4, Davidge and his team pulled a Nicholas Hooper, a score with definite strengths produced by someone with real talent but which fails to weave highlights into a cohesive and thematic whole. A villainous theme of sorts does appear in “Nemesis” with a reprise in part in “Revival,” but it doesn’t make much of an impact. “117” is the closest the score comes to the broad heroics of the previous games in the series, albeit again not at the same level of prominence or memorability, but that track was actually written by co-composer Kazuma Jinnouchi, not Davidge.

As with the other Halo soundtracks, album production is a sore spot as well. The most common complaint leveled against the disc was that several of the most prominent cues in the game did not appear on it, despite a 77-minute length and six downloadable tracks. Fans particularly coveted the opening menu music, “Atonement,” which offered a mournful Arabic vocal as a replacement for the earlier Gregorian chant, and the end credits music, “Never Forget (Midnight Version),” the only remix of a O’Donnell/Salvatori theme in the game. With the later release of Halo 4 Volume 2, it was revealed that these were also Kazuma Jinnouchi compositions, explaining but not excusing their absence from the physical disc. It’s a bit disingenuous, to say the least, to omit the best-loved music from a game simply because it wasn’t written by the primary credited composer, and the original album suffers for its lack of Jinnouchi’s music, which is generally more thematic, more memorable, and a better sonic fit for Halo. The same “frozen playthrough” philosophy that dogged earlier albums returns as well, with some of the album’s better material buried in suites. Worse, the six downloadable tracks are all nauseatingly bad “remixes” instead of music that might have been composed too late in production to meet the CD’s street date.

A 77-minute disc was pressed for the game’s 2012 debut, with the aforementioned remixes as downloadable “bonuses.” Perhaps as a response to customer complaints, a additional download-only album would follow in 2013, featuring more music from Davidge and especially Jinnouchi, whose single track on the initial album is joined by nine others including the O’Donnell/Salvatori remix. It’s clear that the powers-that-be felt the same way about Davidge and Jinnouchi as listeners did; the inevitable Halo 5 follow-up has Jinnouchi listed as sole composer in early reports. One has to agree with the decision, as Davidge’s music, while serviceable and with an impressive orchestral/electronic pedigree, simply did not live up to the spirit of the games in the way that Jinnouchi’s compositions did. The available Halo 4 album suffers as a result, sinking into blandness with a few flashes of color thanks to Davidge’s inability to provide something to replace the dismissed O’Donnell/Salvatori themes and the marginalization on album of Jinnouchi’s attempts to fill that gap. One wonders what the latter will do with a solo Halo to his credit, or if 343 studios will simply hire the now-available O’Donnell for their future efforts. Halo 4 may be worth a bargain purchase, but is sure to disappoint in many areas all the same.

Rating: starstar

Final Fantasy VI (Nobuo Uematsu)

Cover

On the heels of their wildly successful RPG Final Fantasy V in 1992, developer Square immediately began production of a sequel for the same platform, the Super Nintendo. Over a year of brisk development, a complex tale emerged with fourteen playable characters, more than any game before or since, larger and more detailed sprites and field graphics, and extensive use of Mode 7 graphics. In many ways it was the ultimate evolution of Final Fantasy V‘s style, with a straightforward first half and an open-world second. But above and beyond that, the resultant Final Fantasy VI features more pathos than all its predecessors combined, tackling weighty issues like suicide, teenage pregnancy, war crimes, and more. Its heroes actually fail to save their world and have to spend half of the game dealing with the consequences of their failure–tempered with plenty of lighthearted character moments, of course. The game was a fantastic success and has since been ported to a variety of post-SNES systems; more crucially, unlike Final Fantasy V, it was given a lovable Ted Woolsey translation and a release in the USA under the title Final Fantasy III. As a result, it influenced a whole generation of US game developers and echoes of its themes and steampunk aesthetic resonate to this day.

Nobuo Uematsu was no longer Square’s sole resident composer by 1994, giving him the freedom to devote all of 1993 to music for Final Fantasy VI while leaving other projects to fellow staffers. He tackled the project enthusiastically, writing a much longer score than any he’d penned for previous games and responding to the game’s steampunk/1800s look with a score that includes several rich classical influences. Richard Wagner’s Teutonic operas were a natural fit for the game’s story of godlike creatures interfering in mortal life and the ascent of characters to godhood (if not quite draining the gods’ power to run machines and having an insane jester be the one to so ascend), but Uematsu also looked to his beloved prog-rock groups–many of whom had themselves been influenced by Wagner and his contemporaries–for inspiration as well. Thus one can hear echoes of Queen and the rock operas of the 1970s and 1980s as well, resulting in a score that’s a fascinating melange of influences and instruments, with (synth) orchestral elements alongside guitar, synths, and the closest the SNES was able to come to human voices in 1993. Uematsu himself would later say that after finishing the score he could retire from game music with no regrets.

With fourteen player characters, and two villains to boot, Uematsu responded by adapting the Wagnerian leitmotif in a John Willams vein, giving every character their own theme and often one or two variations thereon. This thematic diversity is unprecedented, with very few games past or present attempting anything like it; Uematsu himself never attempted the same level of theme and variations even in his later leitmotivic Final Fantasy scores. There is no main theme as such, but “Terra’s Theme” serves as the closest equivalent, with the largest number of variations dominating the first part of the game where the amnesic magic-user Terra serves as a player analog. “Terra’s Theme” serves as the first world map theme, presenting a hauntingly sad melody on panpipes with synth orchestral accompaniment, but the melody is introduced in a more subdued oboe version with militaristic snare at 2:32 in “Opening Theme.” A gentle piano rendition in “Awakening” is closer to a true theme for Terra based on its usage in the game, and listeners are treated to a bittersweet full synth orchestral reprise at 7:46 in “Ending Theme” and again on solo flute at 16:46 as the character manages to survive the end of all magic in her world. Uematsu also gives “Terra’s Theme” interesting twists in “Save Them!” with the theme in counterpoint to brassy action music at :32, and twisted into an anguished form at :12 in “Metamorphosis.”

The gambling airship pilot Setzer has a surprisingly heroic theme in C major that, interestingly, is reprised extremely frequently throughout Uematsu’s score. In addition to “Setzer’s Theme, which takes up the melody on brass, there is a heartbreaking version in A major for solo piano with acoustic guitar accents in “Epitaph,” representing the character’s lost love. The first airship theme, “Blackjack,” returns the theme to brass with an optimistic, opulent air for the flying pleasure palace, while a tender reprise in C major can be found at 1:28 in “Ending Theme.” Bold and triumphant strains of Setzer’s theme dominate the latter half of “Ending Theme” during the game’s credits, providing resounding accompaniment to his airship’s triumphant sendoff. Similarly, “Locke’s Theme” presents a heroic theme for an antihero, giving the thief/treasure hunter a heroic string melody with rambunctious percussion accompaniment, a reprise in tragic mode for the character’s own lost love in “Forever Rachel,” and a reprise in the “Ending Theme” at 6:36. The latter represents some of the most complex counterpoint Uematsu ever attempted, cannily blending Locke’s theme with that of his new love, Celes, as the music deftly switches from one theme to the other. Reams more could be written on each theme and its reprises, especially in the astonishing 21 minutes of “Ending Theme” which runs through every one of them in sequence; from the Morricone-esque whistles of “Shadow’s Theme” to the resounding cello of “Gau’s Theme” there’s nary a weak link to be found.

Celes’ theme is the centerpiece of the game’s trademark opera, a 16 minute stretch that employs synthesized (wordless but synched to Japanese lyrics) vocals for a sequence in which a character takes the place of a prima donna. There is a definite influence of Wagner and Verdi in the portentous “Overture,” the tender variation on Celes’ theme in “Aria de Mezzo Carattere” (“Aria of Half Character,” presumably a reference to the character impersonating an opera singer) the overwrought “The Wedding” and the goofy “Grand Finale?” battle track. There’s no denying that the synth opera voices sound a little tinny and silly to latter-day ears–it was 1993 after all–but they do an excellent job in spite of their limitations. Taken together, the opera excerpts represent Uematsu’s music at its most comic but also its most classical, and presages the increading use of live voices in the series, in both as choral or classical and ribald pop modes.

Final Fantasy VI‘s insane jester villain Kefka and the Empire he works for (and later kicks to death) get a theme each. Kefka’s is a prancing and deceptively lighthearted comic dance that shows up in fragments in “Last Dungeon,” and “Dancing Mad” while the Empire receives the polar opposite, a dour and serious motif that ranges from martial (“Troops March On”) to ominous (“Under Martial Law,” “The Empire Gestahl”). The pick of the villains’ music, though, is the game’s battle themes; while both the electric guitar of “The Decisive Battle” and the aggressive tympani and orchestral fury of “The Fierce Battle” are notable, the “Dancing Mad” final boss suite towers over them all. Tipping the scales at over 17 minutes, “Dancing Mad” is divided into four distinct movements that each loop twice, corresponding to a different tier of the final boss and running the gamut of styles from classical opera to prog rock. The first tier reprises earlier material from “Opening” and “Catastrophe” into a fully orchestral mode with breathing noise accents and operatic voices for the most aggressive music in the game, while the second lets loose with synth opera vocals, percussion, and organ. The third tier is, of all things, an extended fantasia for organ with interpolations of “Kefka’s Theme,” not really menacing at all but impressive and abstract all the same; the final tier unleashes progressive rock with interludes of mournful voices and laughter and more fragments of the villain’s theme. It all flows together wonderfully despite the diversity of styles, and serves as an excellent lead-in to the 20 minutes of glorious thematic reprises that bring the score to a close with “Ending Theme.”

The major impediment to enjoying Uematsu’s work is, as with virtually all his pre-Final Fantasy VIII scores, the sound quality. The SPC 700 sound chip in the SNES was among the strongest synthesizers of its console generation, and sound programmer Minoru Akao and sound engineer Eiji Nakamura worked with Uematsu to wring everything they could out of it. For the time, the sound is excellent, in places even stronger than the MIDI Final Fantasy VII, and the music uses an impressive variety of specialty instruments from bagpipes to mouth harps to the aformentioned synth vocals. Final Fantasy VI‘s synths also have a rich reverb like Final Fantasy IV, eschewing the dry sound of Final Fantasy V. But the fact remains that the music is synthesized, obviously synthesized, and this will be a fatal blow for many listeners regardless of the quality of the underlying melodies. There have been rearrangements, of course, but none of them has ever matched the mix of the original: orchestral remixes give short shrift to Uematsu’s electronic and prog-rock influences, synth remixes neglect the fine orchestral lines, and even the most faithful live arrangements aren’t able to get the volume balance quite right, with some instruments drowning others out. The technical complexity of re-recording the score–which would involve recording and mixing every section of the orchestra and every line of synths separately and mixing them together–is probably too daunting, though. A few other irritating quirks–mostly brief sound effects–also mar a few tracks.

Upon release, Final Fantasy VI was a big hit for Square, and so was its score. Several arrangement albums were released before the year was out, including an orchestral album, a piano arrangement, and a full 23-minute live recording of the opera scene. This acclaim extended to the USA as well, where Square put out a deluxe 3-CD set identical in content to the Japanese release under the title Kefka’s Domain. Though available only via mail order, it was one of only three CDs released by Square during the 16-bit era (alongside Secret of Mana and Secret of Evermore) and both it and the Japanese pressing remain readily available domestically or through importers. Uematsu’s score is, in strict musical terms, probably the most creative and complex of his entire career; it’s certainly the most thematic. And for all its crazy-quilt of musical influences from Queen to Wagner to Morricone, Final Fantasy VI is able to craft disparate elements into a unique and compelling whole. It was, and remains, Uemastu’s career high and the finest score of the 16-bit era and the Final Fantasy series as a whole.

Rating: starstarstarstarstar

High Art (Shudder to Think)

Cover

High Art was writer-director Lisa Cholodenko’s debut feature after a number of smaller shorts and TV projects. A protege of Miloš Forman, Cholodenko created a film that was a steamy dramatic look into the world of high art photography and the complex relationship between two lensers played by 80s icon Ally Sheedy and up-and-comer Radha Mitchell. Given a rather limited art house release upon completion in 1998, High Art received good notices on the film festival circuit and a number of smaller awards but was rewarded with only an indie-sized gross. It tends to be remembered today as a stepping stone in Cholodenko’s increasingly successful career as a director, which later led to 2010’s Best Picture nominee The Kids Are All Right.

Though Cholodenko’s partner, musician Wendy Melvoin of “Wendy & Lisa,” has had a successful career in scoring TV shows like Heroes and Nurse Jackie, the director’s first two films were scored by members of the indie rock group Shudder to Think. Shudder to Think had been in existence, with a varied lineup of performers, since 1986 and had seen some success both on the charts and on tour. The group’s first film score had come the year before High Art, for Jesse Peretz’s 1997 version of First Love, Last Rites, but that project had been mostly songs while Cholodenko would request substantial amounts of instrumental scoring for her project. As such, High Art wound up being virtually the first instrumental film scoring experience for the primary contributors, vocalist Craig Wedren and guitarist Nathan Larson, though the film and album also include several songs.

High Art‘s instrumental score, running about 25 minutes, begins with the lovely and ethereal “Opening” which offsets the sound of a glass harmonica with sepulchral wordless female voices. It’s very tonal and moving in the style of Brian Eno’s warmer material or Eric Whitacre’s more experimental music. Darker strands of the same sound, with more tortured and distorted vocals appear in “She Gives Tone,” and a relatively brief reprise in “End Frame,” with more muted glass harmonica chords without much in the way of vocals in “Photographic Ecstasy,” “Neoteny,” and “Last Lines.” While the style is ambient, at its best with the heavenly vocals mixed in this material is quite compelling, with “Opening” by far the strongest cue on the album.

One drawback that vocal groups often encounter with composing instrumental scores is the tendency to compose them just as they might the backing instrumentals for a song–without the strong central melody that their sung lyrics often add. Too often, this leaves these scores feeling like mixed-down multi-instrument song tracks rather than a cohesive score. Sadly, Shudder to Think does fall prey to this on a number of tracks. Music like “Dominoes,” or “Mom’s Mercedes” have that exact feel, laying down smooth grooves and languid instrumental guitar lines but ultimately seeming like vocal songs with the innards scooped out without the fascinating texture that the better tracks have. A smattering of Shudder to Think vocals and tracks by groups like Reservoir and the JeepJazz Project, some instrumental, some not, round out the rather generous 45-minute soundtrack from Velvel.

As such, High Art is essentially a curiosity, capturing a pair of composers that would go on to better things at the very beginning of their film scoring careers. The potpourri of styles and the essential weakness of many of the poppier tracks winds up detracting from the best ambient vocal material, and the disc never really hangs together as a stand-alone listen. As is often the case, fans of the band will likely be disappointed–especially given the song-driven guest-artist nature of their prior First Love, Last Rites. Still, despite the film’s relative obscurity, copies of the disc are cheap and readily available if listeners are curious.

Interestingly, High Art became a jumping-off point for full-fledged scoring careers for Craig Wedren and Nathan Larson after Shudder to Think dissolved that same year. Wedren eventually amassed an impressive list of film and TV credits, including School of Rock and Reno 911, while Larson carved out a surprising niche for himself in scoring critically acclaimed but controversial film projects, including Boys Don’t Cry, and The Woodsman. Both would work with Cholodenko again; Wedren scored her sophomore feature Laurel Canyon, while both men together wrote a score for The Kids Are All Right that was ultimately replaced by one by Carter Burwell (the director’s third feature, Cavedweller, was scored by Wendy Melvoin herself).

Rating: starstar

Koudelka (Hiroki Kikuta)

Cover

An ambitious late-era Playstation 1 game, Koudelka was the first title from developer Sacnoth. With Squaresoft-style production values, the game featured highly detailed 3D models, fully rendered backgrounds and FMV cutscenes, and a highly unusual Gothic setting in Wales circa 1898. During a troubled development cycle, the developers reportedly clashed over whether the game should be real-time or turn-based, and gameplay wound up a curious hybrid of Resident Evil horror outside combat and Final Fantasy within. Worse, the game’s reach exceeded its grasp, leading to relatively little gameplay over four discs largely stuffed with cutscenes and battles that took place in a dark void with pop-in models and long loading times. Combine this with some truly baffling development decisions–like the entire game hinging on recovering an otherwise unremarkable item to avoid instant death, or the best ending requiring actually losing to the final boss–and it’s not hard to see why, for all its strengths, Koudelka was not a success and doomed to relative obscurity, though it did serve as a starting point for the later cult Shadow Hearts series.

The overall Squaresoft style of the game was no accident, for Sacnoth was founded by Hiroki Kikuta, an ex-Squaresoft employee who had worked primarily as a composer. Reportedly wanting to tackle weightier and darker subjects than many of the RPGs at the time, Kikuta wound up serving as designer, director, and composer for Koudelka, an unprecedented level of involvement for a onetime composer comparable to John Ottman’s work on Urban Legends: Final Cut. Of course, Kikuta had worked in anime and manga before joining Squaresoft as a composer, so he had the requisite experience, and the large budget that distributor SNK gave Sacnoth to work with meant that for the first time he was able to work at least in part with a live ensemble. At the same time, Kikuta’s involvement as writer/director meant that the intense musical focus he’d had on Secret of Mana and its sequel, sometimes nearly 24 hours a day, was no longer possible.

Perhaps as a consequence of this, there is virtually no field music of any sort in Koudelka. Only battles and cutscenes are scored, leading to a drastic cutback in the amount of material the score has to offer. With the brevity of all but the very longest cutscenes, this guarantees that Kikuta’s battle music absolutely dominates the game at the expense of the normal battle theme being virtually the only music heard for massive swathes of the game. Each of the four main battle themes is built on a foundation of tambourine taps and roiling percussion, a rhythmic base that’s immediately identifiable as Kikuta’s style and most similar to his most percussive efforts from Secret of Mana 2. “Waterfall,” the aforementioned main battle theme, is 8 minutes of that rhythmic foundation with staccato overlays of dulcimer, panpipes, and synths with one interlude of woodwinds and chimes and another that scales back to dulcimer. Its structure is essentially one loop without the panpipes, the first interlude, a second loop with panpipes, the second interlude, and then repeating once again. It’s a clever idea to try and wring the maximum amount of variation from the basic structure of the song, but the repetitious nature of the music means that it will wear out its welcome on album long before its halfway point–and in-game even sooner than that.

The main boss theme, “Incantation Again,” modifies that basic structure by adding blasts of panpipes from the very beginning and adding in thumb piano accents–an interesting texture not heard often in video game music. Despite being considerably shorter than “Waterfall,” the greater variation of its length means it holds up better–but again the relatively spare sound causes it to lose steam as a listening experience relatively quickly. The final two battle themes are for the bizarre final boss in her two forms; the first, “Patience,” powers up the thumb piano from “Incantation Again” while using the same bass line with a much more defined melody on woodwinds and occasional strings. The final battle–the one you have to lose to get the best ending!–is accompanied by “Kiss Twice,” the highlight of the lot and the album as a whole. While maintaining the same drum and tambourine percussive backing as “Waterfall,” and the rampant thumb pianos from “Patience,” “Kiss Twice” adds a strong and truly distinctive melody in classic Kikuta style, doubled on flute and chimes, with affecting interludes on solo chimes against thumb piano runs so fast they could never be performed in real life. One gets the sense that Kikuta started with “Kiss Twice” and stripped it down progressively to concoct the other battle themes; it’s a clever idea that doesn’t quite work out in practice, as that means that the most basic and repetitive version of the music is the one that goes on the longest and dominates the album.

Kikuta’s cutscene music is included on album, but these tracks (drily labeled by scene number) are extremely short, less than 16 minutes of music across all 24 scenes, and this keeps them from being developed as anything other than bursts of dark ambiance. Choral effects are quite prominent, often manipulated or processed, as are creepy whispers and other tricks. The longest have some promise, with “#scene7c” offering an ambient but affecting woodwind melody, “#scene18″ presenting some very avant-garde choral work in the vein of Eric Whitacre, and the concluding “#scene20″ with the best melody on the album heard fleetingly. The lengthier cutscenes that open the album offer some interesting material as well; Kikuta’s “Requiem,” performed by soprano Catherine Bott, is another fascinating if all-to-brief bit of choral writing in the Whitacre vein. “Dead,” the lengthiest non-battle Kikuta track on the album, is played by a live string trio, and is quite affecting if rather dour and with few of Kikuta’s trademarks. Curiously, the lengthy a capella “Ubi caritas et amor” (“where charity and love”) is actually a 1960 piece by French composer Maurice Duruflé from his Quatre motets sur des thèmes grégoriens, augmented by some creepy Poltergeist-style giggling by the children’s chorus.

If Secret of Mana 2 sometimes gave the impression that Kikuta was outside his comfort zone writing more serious music, Koudelka seems to confirm that. There’s plenty of promise evident in scattered spots throughout the brief score (less than 50 minutes excluding three lengthy “live” remixes at album’s end), but ultimately it feels like Kikuta is uncomforable writing in this ultra-serious mode, suppressing his natural composing instincts with their heavy influence from pop and progressive rock in favor of something dull and beige and “serious.” Naturally, the development struggles and multiple hats Kikuta was wearing didn’t help; it’s possible that with more time and more creative control he could have developed a better marriage of his distinctive sound and the seriousness the material demanded. It’s worth noting, though, that he would never attempt to write anything so straitlaced again.

A 70-minute album of Koudelka‘s score was released between the game’s American ship date and its Japanese one (in a sign of Kikuta and Sacnoth’s ambition to appeal to international gamers, the game actually dropped in time for Black Friday and only 16 days later in Japan). With the failure of the game, it’s not terribly common, but is an interesting curiosity nonetheless and worth having if only for “Kiss Twice,” “Dead,” and “#scene20.” Sadly, Koudelka would be the last game scored by Kikuta to see international release; after the game’s failure, the composer left Sacnoth, had no involvement with Shadow Hearts, and spent several years in the wilderness without an assignment of any kind. Obscure music for even more obscure dating sims and hentai games were all he worked on between 1999 and 2006, when he released his first major solo album, and 2008, when he had his next major game assignment. One can’t help but feel for Kikuta over the failure of such an ambitious project that the dent that it seemingly put in his career afterwards, especially since the music and released game wound up so underachieving.

Rating: starstar

Secret of Mana 2 (Hiroki Kikuta)

Cover

1993’s Secret of Mana had been a hit for Squaresoft, moving the company into action RPGs in a big and innovative way. So the appearance of a sequel two years later was little surprise; what was surprising was how much the development team was able to do with the concept. Designed for cartridges from the beginning, the game–known as Seiken Densetsu 3 or “Legend of the Holy Sword 3″–used many of the ideas the team had been forced to scrap when converting Secret of Mana from CD to cartridge. The game had 6 possible protagonists, each with a branching upgrade tree, and three completely different final dungeons and bosses–to say nothing of a second half that is totally nonlinear. The resulting title, while missing much of the original’s goofiness, was highly praised for its replayability and its expert use of the SNES hardware near the end of that console’s lifespan. However, despite previews and notices that the game would be released outside Japan in late 1996 as Secret of Mana 2, the game never saw an overseas release of any kind. There have been myriad explanations for this, from technical glitches that made translation and certification difficult to the expectation that overseas gamers were finished with 2D games after the debut of the Playstation and Nintendo 64. Whatever the reason, Secret of Mana 2 was part of a sad trend: of the 10 games Squaresoft produced in Japan after Final Fantasy VI/III as part of their creative explosion in the 16-bit generation, only two(Super Mario RPG and Chrono Trigger) saw a foreign release. The only international availability that Seiken Densetsu 3/Secret of Mana 2 would ever know was at the hands of hobbyists who released homemade translation patches for the game.

One of the key facets of Secret of Mana’s success had been its innovative score by newcomer Hiroki Kikuta. His quirky combination of contemporary pop elements and game music stalwarts had been a perfect fit for the game’s variable tone, and his usage of distinct musical styles within his chosen instrument set for the wacky and wistful portions of gameplay remains distinctive to this day. His assignment to Secret of Mana 2 was therefore a no-brainer, and it was the second of thee project he’s complete as a Square staffer. As with the original game, Kikuta programmed his own sound samples rather than relying on synths from a sound programmer; this bore particular fruit in the area of percussion, with rhythmic samples that are among the best, if not the best, that the SPC700 chip could provide. On the other hand, Kikuta worked under a bit of a disadvantage for the sequel: while the previous game had used all 8 channels of sound the SPC700 provided while cutting out musical lines for sound effects periodically, with Secret of Mana 2 one of the channels was given wholly over to sound effects, leaving the composer with only 7/8 of the musical resources he’d had before. He also, for whatever reason, chose to have a much drier sound with less reverb–comparable to the difference between Uematsu’s Final Fantasy IV and Final Fantasy V–which sapped away some of the overriding fantasy atmosphere from the project.

“Angel’s Fear/Fear of the Heavens,” Kikuta’s major theme from Secret of Mana and by far its most remembered element, returns in the sequel. In fact, Kikuta–perhaps responding to the theme’s popularity–integrates it in many more places, albeit never in quite the same vein of wistful wonder that made the original such a knockout. The introduction, “Where Angels Fear To Tread,” opens with rambling pianos before cutting to a high-energy version of the original theme against urgent snare drums–a nifty inversion of the original. “And Other,” the game’s fanfare, uses the theme as sung by synth voices as a stinger to a triumphant outburst. It’s in “Angel’s Fear” that Kikuta really gives the theme a workout, changing the shimmering mallets of the original’s opening for gently rolling pianos before bringing in the main melody on an acoustic guitar. Interestingly, he delays the fourth note of the theme and strings the final three together as a descending triplet, giving the theme a terrific sense of improvisation and intangible “difference” compared to the original. The same arrangement of notes, this time on chimes with acoustic guitar backing, appears in “Breezin’,” one of the concluding suite of tracks. It’s a very low-key and lovely statement that breaks up longer sections of Mitsuda-esque guitar noodling and synth voices, if totally lacking the exuberant energy of the original’s “The Last Truth from the Left.”

Kikuta also makes the intriguing choice to take the final boss theme from the previous game, “Meridan Dance,” and twist it into a dour and militaristic track for the end of each character’s unique prologue as “Meridian Child.” This same mutation of “Meridian Dance” appears throughout several of the more high-energy battle tracks, like “Nuclear Fusion” and “The Sacrifice Part Three” and winds up serving as a thread of its own to hold the score together. Kikuta’s battle themes in general are a much more varied lot for Secret of Mana 2 and are especially notable in their use of synthesized percussion. “Rolling Cradle” features unparalleled (for the SNES) drum rolls and rhythms, while “The Sacrifice Part One” uses the sound of shattering glass as a percussive element and the following “The Sacrifice Part Two” is an all-percussion frenzy combined with fragments of a twisted mallet melody. The pick of the bunch is undoubtedly “Hightension Wire” which exceeds the joyous exuberance of “Danger” in the previous game through the use of backbeats, prominent bass, woodwind accents, and a delightful synth melody. The final battle theme, the previously mentioned “The Sacrifice Part Three,” is another highlight; it’s far more serious than “Meridian Dance” but employs fragments of that theme and aspects of “Angel’s Fear” into a whirling, and lengthy, whole.

“Far more serious” is probably an apt descriptor of Kikuta’s entire score for Secret of Mana 2, in fact, and he uses less of several elements that made the original so goofy: prominent backbeats, quirky melodies, doubled mallets, and so on are in shorter supply. It’s possible that Kikuta wasn’t as comfortable with the level of seriousness the new game demanded, as the music uniformly lacks the same amount of wistfulness and exuberance that the original displayed. In fact, outside of statements of “Angel’s Fear,” there’s little wistfulness to be had at all, and much of the field music that was the source for that or the wackier tracks in the previous game sounds thin and rather uninspired by comparison (the missing eighth sound channel certainly not helping). This weakeness is compounded by the strange arrangement of the album, which clusters the duller field themes on the first disc while stuffing the final platter with the more rewarding battle themes and reprises of “Angel’s Fear.”

Despite this weakness, there’s no shortage of relative gems throughout the score. Each of the six characters gets a motif of sorts, albeit only one and never reprised or varied, and some of these are quite terrific: “Lefthanded Wolf,” for instance, uses growling bass guitar to great effect, and “Raven” is a fun romp with marimba and synth voices. Some of the field themes do a better job than others, with the jaunty bongos of “Damn Damn Drum,” the bizarre ambience of “Weird Counterpoint,” and the delightful marimba and chime dance of “Don’t Hunt the Fairy” as some of the best. The game’s flight theme, “Can You Fly, Sister?” is also a resounding highlight, a soaring piece that builds on, and exceeds, the backbeats and melodic strength of “Flight into the Unknown.” It’s also worth noting that, for better or for worse, all of Secret of Mana 2‘s songs are given plenty of room to breathe: the three-disc album loops each twice, the good and the mediocre, in the sort of expansive album release that Secret of Mana demanded but was never given. It’s also, curiously, available at a reasonable price even from importers, possibly due to overprinting on Square’s part.

Secret of Mana 2 is a curious happening, a mix of material that builds nicely on Kikuta’s elements and flat songs that seem to belie the composer being a bit unfomfortable with the more serious direction the series had taken. For all that, it’s still recommended to anyone that’s a fan of late-era 16-bit music, the original Secret of Mana, or Kikuta himself–just don’t expect it hit the same lofty highs. Secret of Mana 2 represented a career high for Hiroki Kikuta as well, briefly cementing him as the Mana series composer of choice, but it was not to last: after one final project for Square in 1998, Kikuta left the company to helm the ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful Koudelka. The obscurity into which the latter project threw him is one of the bigger tragedies of game music as a whole, but as shown by the continued influence of his Mana songs and themes, and their continual rearrangement and reuse in later games and by fans, his legacy is still secure.

Rating: starstarstarstar

Secret of Mana (Hiroki Kikuta)

Cover

1991’s Final Fantasy Adventure, released in Japan under the title Seiken Densetsu: Final Fantasy Gaiden, had been one of developer Squaresoft’s first forays into real-time action RPGs instead of their turn-based bread and butter. Very much in the style of Nintendo’s own Legend of Zelda series, Final Fantasy Adventure had been a successful Game Boy release but director Koichi Ishii had seen potential in the design for a much more ambitious product, leading to Seiken Densetsu 2 for the Super Nintendo, released in 1993. Originally meant for the SNES’s abandoned CD add-on, and downsized accordingly to fit on a standard cartridge, the game was bright, colorful, action-packed, and featured groundbreaking drop-in, drop-out local multiplayer–all in the context of an expansive and slightly goofy high fantasy adventure. Ultimately released as Secret of Mana rather than Final Fantasy Adventure 2 outside Japan, the game was and remains well-reviewed and popular despite–or perhaps because of–a rushed, barebones translation that localizer Ted Woolsey claimed nearly killed him.

Squaresoft veteran Kenji Ito had scored Final Fantasy Adventure and was initially attached to Secret of Mana as well. But in the explosion of creativity at Squaresoft in the 16-bit generation (which saw 22 games released in less than 5 years for the SNES alone), Ito was badly needed for the Romancing SaGa series, and instead the assignment went to a new and untested hire: Hiroki Kukuta. A self-trained musician like many on Squaresoft’s staff, Kikuta had an eclectic career before joining the company, with scores for anime and artwork for manga among his many projects. After being rejected by his first choice in the game industry, Falcom, Kikuta was able to impress Squaresoft’s musical majordomo Nobuo Uematso with his enthusiasm for progressive rock (a genre near and dear to Uematu’s heart) to land work as a debugger and sound effects designer. In the AAA development environment of today it seems almost unthinkable for someone so new and untested to be given such a major project to score solo, but the atmosphere within Square at the time was such that Kikuta got the gig after Ito bowed out in much the same way that Yasunori Mitsuda would be handed Chrono Trigger two years later.

Kikuta approached the project in a very hands-on manner, creating his own sound samples rather than relying on those fashioned by Square’s synth programmers in order to maximize the potential of the SNES’s SPC700 sound chip. this resulted in a soundscape that was considerably more lush than that of many contemporary games, at Squaresoft or otherwise, at the expense of having to surrender parts of the sound channels to sound effects from time to time. The composer also explicitly sought to reflect the game’s duality between silly and serious–it does, after all, feature a soul-destroying lich, a visit to Santa Claus, a floating techno-fortress of death, and long-distance travel by cannon–through the use of two different musical styles that both mixed the sensibilities of 16-bit game music with the pop tunes that had gotten Kikuta hired in the first place. That duality between the weird and the wistful would wind up being the defining trait of Secret of Mana‘s score.

The wistful half of Kikuta’s compositions are led by the game’s most prominent theme and certainly its most popular: “Fear of the Heavens” (also translated as “Angels’ Fear”). Inspired by Balinese music as well as natural ambient noise, the track opens with what can be interpreted either as whistling wind or whalesong before moving into a simple echoing piano melody. It’s gradually joined by other instruments as the soundscape–and the title screen it accompanies–opens up. The effect is arresting–especially to players in 1993–and goes a long way toward explaining the score’s enduring popularity. This most popular track is a bit of an oddity in that it lacks most of Kikuta’s contemporary touches; the field theme “Into the Thick of It” is probably more representative of the score as a whole, combining an acoustic guitar with a melody for doubled woodwinds and synth voices. The later “A Curious Happening” is a similar potpourri mix of a contemporary bass and hi-hat with rhythm guitar and doubled woodwinds and accordion (!) with synth voices in support.

Those wackier compositions that make up the other half of Kikuta’s score use many of the same instruments and techniques with a somewhat greater emphasis on pop backbeats. For instance, the game’s primary town theme “The Color of the Summer Sky” is all prominent backbeats against peppy, poppy woodwinds and synth accordians with prominent keyboard and mallet accents, all of which would become Kikuta’s trademarks in future projects. “Dancing Animals” and especially “The Little Sprite” are some of the best examples of this same mix of quirky melody, contemporary instrumental choice, and overall affable wackiness that’s especially notable for its complexity of rhythm and percussion. The conclusive and joyously upbeat “The Second Truth From the Left” is probably the ultimate enjoyable exemplar of this style. For all the same inspirations that he and Uematsu drew on, the two men’s styles are immediately distinguishable; in fact, Kikuta’s use of percussion and rhythm is so distinctive that even in his later and more obscure projects it’s typically immediately distinguishable.

There are often times when the Kikuta’s twin styles, the wistful and the weird, commingle as one might expect, and most of these are related to the most important moments of the game’s lengthy plot. The game’s joyous first flight theme, “Flight into the Unknown,” swirls together backbeats and bass guitar with a moving string melody, while its second flight theme, “Prophecy,” mixes the same elements but replaces the backbeats with a cascading flute melody and the bass guitar with staccato mallet percussion and synth voices to quirky yet chilling effect. A percussion-heavy remix of “Into the Thick of It” in “Can You See the Ocean” is notable as well, as is the chillingly off-kilter chiming and chanting of “Ceremony” where the Balinese influence on the score is at its most evident.

As there is no distinction between field and battle, Secret of Mana has somewhat fewer battle themes than its contemporaries. The primary theme, “Danger,” has an ultra-serious and percussive first half that has its only melody in string slashes and bass, before moving over in its second half to a surprisingly upbeat and quirky melody–Kikuta’s wistful/weird in a nutshell. The final battle theme, “Meridian Dance” is much the same, offering a melody that’s like a twisted if surprisingly optimistic version of the “Fear of the Heavens” theme over urgent percussion and bright synthy brass. the penultimate boss, the Dark Lich, gets its own battle theme in “The Oracle,” a beefed up and synthetically enhanced version of “Ceremony” that uses sped-up chanting voices and the original’s music-box melody alongside electric pulses for an utterly compelling–and unsettling–mix. While Kikuta’s work is always very melodic, these rearrangements are the closest he gets to Uematsu’s more traditionally thematic and leitmotivic structure from the Final Fantasy series.

Interestingly, Kikuta’s work was singled out to the extent that it enjoyed one of the very first releases of a Japanese game soundtrack–and indeed, a game soundtrack of any kind!–in North America. A reprint of the Japanese release was made available to American buyers in December 1994, alongside Uematsu’s Final Fantasy VI, through Squaresoft of America’s catalog as one of only three soundtrack discs released in that format (the third was Secret of Evermore). The American disc is identical to the Japanese Seiken Densetsu 2 Original Sound Version released a year earlier, and they both suffer from the same problem: as single platters, both are overstuffed with 44 tracks of Kikuta’s music, meaning that his compositions only loop a single time. This doesn’t effect “Fear of the Heavens,” as it never looped in-game anyway as such, but does hobble many of the other tracks that badly need room to breathe. A 2011 box set re-release in the vein of the Kingdom Hearts Complete Box simply reissued the same single disc without expansion. Short of playing the original game or seeking out its emulated SPC700 music files, the only source of fully looped music from Secret of Mana is the controversial 2012 re-release/remastering Secret of Mana Genesis, and that’s a shame–even if you approve of Kikuta’s rather limited changes to the music, it represents less than a third of the original tracks. And, of course, it goes without saying that anyone who can’t stand the 16-bit synth quality of the SNES era need not bother listening, though to be fair Kikuta’s work is among the best and clearest that generation has to offer.

Despite those problems on disc, Secret of Mana remains a refreshingly spirited and creative work, one that even 20 years later is instantly recognizable for Hiroki Kikuta’s unique sound and highly recommended as such. Thanks to the success of the project, Kikuta would go on to score two more games for Squaresoft, Secret of Mana 2/Seiken Densetsu 3 in 1995 and Soukaigi in 1998. Frustrated with the lack of direct control he had over projects at Squaresoft, though, Kikuta would leave in favor of work on his own project, Koudelka, the failure of which led to long years in the wilderness for the composer and a lack of major assignments. Even if he had retired completely from scoring after 1993, though, Kikuta’s musical legacy was secure–there hasn’t been a game in the Mana series since that hasn’t referenced his work overtly or indirectly, and he continues to have a cult following among lovers of video game music to this day.

Rating: starstarstarstarstar