Mishima (Philip Glass)

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Japanese writer Yukio Mishima lived a complex and controversial life, nearly winning a Nobel Prize for his fiction but also being deeply committed to Japan’s pre-war philosophy and government–so much so that, after a failed attempt at a military coup, he committed ritual suicide. The complex tale inspired an equally complex 1985 film from Paul Schrader, writer of Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, whose Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters mixed archival footage, reenactments, and adaptations from Mishima’s fiction. Schrader is on record as considering the effort his finest as a filmmaker, and Mishima was a major critical success despite its minimal budget and occasional oddities.

Mishima would boast a score from the legendary classical composer Philip Glass. At the time, Glass had only one major film score to his credit: Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 opus Koyaanisqatsi. Glass’s minimalist, textural, but still tonal score had proven very popular, leading director Schrader to seek him out for his project. Intrigued, Glass accepted the commission despite the production’s low budget on the condition that he be allowed to rework his contribution into a symphony. Collaborating with the Kronos Quartet for some of the score’s more intimate moments, Glass eventually came to regard Mishima as one of his favorite compositions, and a “turning point” in his musical development.

Glass is a composer with a definite style, and his score for Mishima bears all his trademarks like repeating cellular rhythms and string figures and augmentation by some non-traditional orchestral elements. Indeed, the cyclical figures used by glass from the very first track are so strongly identifiable with Glass that fans can probably point to them in other compositions from Koyaanisqatsi to The Hours. The key differentiator between Mishima and Glass’s other scores is its relative brightness and accessibility. From the opening notes of “Mishima/Opening” there is a brightness about the music, enhanced by prominently mixed synthesizer accents alongside the organic elements and bold hits on triangle, timpani, and chimes. This brightness pervades most of the music and keeps Mishima from becoming too dour, a fate that too often befalls the work of Glass and the Quartet.

Instrumental choices help to add additional lively color to complement Glass’s indominable style. “Osamu’s Theme/Kyoko’s House,” for instance, uses an electric guitar offset against the solo strings of the Kronos Quartet in a bizarre, but creative, melding of Glass’s cellular minimalism and 1960s pop music. The prominent synthesizers mentioned above play a part as well, as does a surprisingly active percussion section, which is mixed in a much bolder way than the usually brass or string- centric Glass compositions. When all the elements come together, as in “November 25: The Last Day” the effect is astonishing.

Mishima is in many ways a shorter, kinder, and gentler Koyaanisqatsi: it is full of Philip Glass’s trademark ideas, but by presenting them in a bold, attractive, and efficient package, first-time listeners are less likely to be alienated. Glass’s shorter, concert version of his music is the only one available on album, running a lean and mean LP-optimized 45 minutes compared to Koyaanisqatsi‘s 70+. The relative brevity of the tracks on album also favors the Glass novice; with only one track (“Runaway Horses”) nearing the composer’s usual epic cue length, each bite-sized morsel is over before it has a chance to wear out its welcome. As such, Mishima is heartily recommended not only as a score in its own right but as an easily accessible point of entry into Philip Glass’s lengthy and often difficult oeuvre.

Rating: starstarstarstarstar

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Final Fantasy VIII (Nobuo Uematsu)

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Final Fantasy VIII was Squaresoft’s followup to its breakout hit Final Fantasy VII, which had been a tremendous success in its native Japan and and even bigger smash abroad, bringing countless new gamers to the RPG format. As a result, no expense was spared on the new game, which featured the most advanced CGI cutscenes of its day, impressive, fully-textured ingame graphics, and a massive marketing push. The game also took exactly the wrong lessons from its predecessor by amping up those same animated cutscenes without providing a coherent world for them to occupy or likable characters to inhabit it. As a result the game has aged badly, with the lack of effort put into streamlining the confusing battle system or fleshing out the paper-thin characters and plot painfully apparent as once-dazzling visuals now seem trite and faded. It’s a stark contrast to the simple graphics and endearing characters that had been hallmarks of the Final Fantasy series up to that point, and sadly the developer would make the same mistakes again in the future. For all Final Fantasy VIII‘s failures as a game and as a followup to Final Fantasy VII, though, the game was nonetheless successful though it fell far short of its predecessor’s widespread appeal.

There was never any real doubt that Nobuo Uematsu would return to the franchise; Final Fantasy VII had made him legions of new fans worldwide, and the new game’s higher budget meant that his efforts would be far more realistic, devoid of the tinny synth that dogged that game, at times making it sound worse than Final Fantasy VI a whole console generation earlier. Working directly with a Roland SC88 synthesizer and programmer Keiji Kawamori, Uematsu created a clear and high-quality synth sound for the game that stands up to other high-quality efforts like Legend of Mana or Vagrant Story released for the Sony PlayStation shortly thereafter.

At the same time, Uematsu would abandon the leitmotif-based structure that had been the cornerstone of his two previous Final Fantasy scores, instead opting for a smaller number of overarching themes and strong incidental scoring. Implicitly recognizing the banal shallowness of Final Fantasy VIII‘s cast, Uematsu swapped his John Williams approach of individual character themes and variations for a Jerry Goldsmith methodology of fewer themes to represent story concepts. He develops three major themes throughout the work: a snarling theme for the game’s villainous (if ludicrous) sorceress villains, a lush love theme for the juvenile romance between the two main characters (such as they are), and an upbeat friendship theme to represent the main cast as a whole (lazily identical backstories and all). In many ways–and again, much like Jerry Goldsmith–Uematsu’s score is forced to do much of the heavy emotional living where the game itself cannot.

Building on the success of his “One-Winged Angel” from Final Fantasy VII, Uematsu often gives his prominent and powerful sorceress theme a resounding choral backing with Latin lyrics, based around the nonsense words “Fithos Lusec Wecos Vinosec.” It opens the powerful “Liberi Fatali,” anchors the menacing “Succession of Witches,” and appears in full in the track “Fithos Lusec Vecos Vinosec.” This choral sensibility is one of the album’s great strength, and the live singers’ voices enliven the otherwise synthesized tracks they appear in. The sorceress theme is given plenty of airtime in instrumental tracks as well, snaking through some of the game’s most pulse-pounding battle sequences before being sent off with a solo piano in the contemplative and gorgeous “The Successor.”

Uematsu’s prominent love theme is based on the pop song “Eyes On Me” which he wrote with lyricist Kako Someya for Japanese pop sensation Faye Wong (with English lyrics in all its incarnations in game and on disc). One of the more unfortunate side effects of Final Fantasy’s explosion of popularity was the inclusion of pop songs, which first appeared in this installment of the series and have since been present in most major releases since. They have never really fit in, despite being penned by Uematsu, and the banal “Eyes On Me” interrupts the otherwise lovely (and fully orchestral) “Ending Theme” in addition to its solo outing. The love theme is far more effective when interpreted as an instrumental, and it serves as a main theme of sorts. The attractive solo piano “Julia” first introduces it, reflecting the conceit that the song was composed in-universe about one of the characters. Uematsu references it in music-box form in the soft “My Mind,” twists it into a triumphant fanfare in “Blue Sky,” and otherwise has a field day with the strong melody separate from the unnecessary pop song that is its raison d’etre.

Finally, the game’s band of hollow but attractively rendered characters is given a friendship theme to provide warm pathos where their antics cannot. The early “Balamb Garden” features the first outing of this theme, alternating with a melody specific to that track; its later appearance on a mournful guitar in “Where I Belong” is a direct reference. “Tell Me” puts the theme through a more melancholy but equally lovely variation, while the theme gets its longest and most complete outing in the beautiful “Ami” which begins as another piano piece on an album stuffed with them before adding additional layers of orchestral synths. While it is often the most low-key of Uematsu’t themes, the friendship theme is perhaps the most satisfying and sunny overall.

The incidental scoring independent of the album’s main themes is quite strong, and Uematsu’s style is prominent enough to tie the pieces together without explicit thematic references. He goes about his task with aplomb, creating tracks as diverse as the gentle, melodic “Fisherman’s Horizon,” the acrostic “Breezy,” and the delightful, string-based “The Mission.” Even though the game lacks a proper airship, Uematsu even turns in a rousing airship theme in the form of “Ride On.”

Final Fantasy VIII’s battle and action themes are particularly noteworthy, especially the standard battle theme, “Don’t Be Afraid.” Normal battle themes have long been Uematsu’s weakest tracks, often much more bland and modernistic than the surrounding music, but “Afraid” takes an effective classical approach, underscoring the brass with racing staccato strings and strong percussion. The boss battle theme “Force Your Way” is more modernand innovative, setting a Hammond organ, synths, and electric guitars against an orchestral backing to great effect. The larger-scale battles are album highlights, particularly “Premonition” and the climactic “The Extreme,” both of which interpolate the sorceress theme and build from soft beginnings to explosive action statements. The final sequence of the game, an unbroken series of “Premonition,” “The Legendary Beast,” “Maybe I’m A Lion,” and “The Extreme,” rivals “Dancing Mad as Uematsu’s finest moment in action scoring, giving the nonsensical battles the music accompanies a strong set of gravitas.

For anyone looking for a variety of strongly thematic and innovative music in Nobuo Uematsu’s distinctive style, and doesn’t mind the composer’s total abandonment of the leitmotif structure he used in the two previous Final Fantasy games, Final Fantasy VIII is a must-have irrespective of the weak game it accompanies. It is Uematsu at his best, refusing to rest on his laurels and crafting engaging new music that in many ways takes his previous achievements to the next level–it is, in many ways, the composer’s finest all-around Final Fantasy score. The superior synth is a great boon to sensitive listeners as well, making the music much more palatable and accessible and a good choice for series novices looking to sample it. Though Uematsu would contribute to further games in the series in whole or in part, he was never quite able to equal or top his musical efforts in this game or its two predecessors.

Rating: starstarstarstarstar

Final Fantasy IX (Nobuo Uematsu)

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The last of three Final Fantasy titles released for the PlayStation 1, Final Fantasy IX was a game that harkened back to the series’ roots, with characters and a story filled with references to earlier games. With a lighter tone (albeit with plenty of darkness) and more character-based humor–and stronger characters–the game was a reaction to the excesses of Final Fantasy VIII and the last time that anything like the steampunk setting that had defined the first six installments of the series would appear in a single-player game. The title was a success, though somewhat less so than its immediate predecessors, confirming that the move toward more realistic character models and extensive cinematic action that had begun with Final Fantasy VIII would continue through Final Fantasy XV and the series’ foreseeable future.

Returning for his ninth consecutive Final Fantasy was Nobuo Uematsu, sole composer of all eight previous games int he series, whose participation had never really been in doubt. Despite generous development time of nearly a year, Final Fantasy IX proved a challenging project for the composer, who single-handedly penned an astonishing 160 tracks of music, clocking in at over five hours once looped and pressed to disc. Uematsu had never written anything so massive before, and in fact the score remained his longest project until the only partially released Final Fantasy XIV over a decade later. The game also proved to be his swan song as sole composer for the series; Uematsu’s participation in future Final Fantasy titles dwindled to nothing leading up to his departure from Square-Enix for freelance work; some sources have attributed this move to exhaustion after such a daunting project.

Final Fantasy IX saw Uematsu returning to the leitmotif style he had abandoned in the previous game, and each member of the game’s primary cast receives a signature theme, almost all of which are further developed with variations. The low-key, pizzicato “Vivi’s Theme,” for instance is interpolated into the vibrant and wacky “Black Mage Village.” The rousing “Quina’s Theme,” replete with pounding tympani and woodblocks, is the basis for the far more subdued “Qu’s Marsh,” while the tragic Renaissance “Freya’s Theme” is adapted into a whole series of increasingly heartbreaking modes. Oddly, the game’s main character is provided with an upbeat leitmotif in “Zidane’s Theme,” but Uematsu never offers a strong reprise of that buoyant melody. The villainous Kuja is particularly well-served with the omninous piano-based “Kuja’s Theme” and the pounding, menacing “Immoral Melody” being excellent counterparts to the well-developed sorceress theme from the previous game.

Uematsu provides further melodic material with the game’s main theme, which weaves in and out of many tracks (such as “Over Those Hills,” the final world map theme in the entire series) but which curiously never receives a full concert performance on the official album, and the haunting Terra motif, a harp arpeggio distantly related to the Final Fantasy “Prelude” that appears in “Terra” and “Bran Bal, the Soulless Village.” The composer also makes explicit references to earlier games in the series, bringing back his chocobo and moogle themes and the complete unaltered “Victory Fanfare” in addition to rearrangements like “Gulug Volcano” (a piece 8-bit enthusiasts will recall from Final Fantasy I).

Since Final Fantasy IX is lighter in tone than its predecessors, Uematsu imbues the album with some of his quirkiest and most off-the-wall tracks, like the aforementioned “Black Mage Village” and the delightfully kooky “The Frog and the Scoundrel.” Unfortunately, this light tone also means that the game’s battle themes leave something to be desired: while temporary, event-based themes like “Hunter’s Chance” and “Feel My Blade” are delightful, the meat-and-potatoes tracks suffer. The final battle themes are among the weakest in the series (though they are easily eclipsed by those in the later Final Fantasy X), while the normal battle theme is limp. The dark, aggressive “Boss Battle” makes up for this somewhat, but winds up being overused; unlike the other games in the series, there are no themes for more pivotal battles, and there’s nothing to compare with the potent battle music of the previous game.

Uematsu’s original idea for Final Fantasy IX was a mix of authentic Renaissance instruments without any of his usual instrumental creativity. This style was so far out of his wheelhouse that he found it impossible to continue, but the tracks that he did write in that style make up a good deal of the album’s filler. His quasi-medieval tracks like “A Place to Return to Someday,” “Oeilvert,” or “Esto Gaza” run toward dull ambiance. The “Oeilvert” theme in particular is overused despite its weakness, leading one to see why Uematsu abandoned that sound in mid-production for something much more vibrant. And while some of Uematsu’s music in the medieval vein is beautiful and liting (“Evil Forest,” “Dali Village”), much is underplayed and frankly boring (“Treno,” “Daguerreo”). It’s worth noting, though, that even at its most dull, the synths are crystal-clear, easily rivaling Chrono Cross for the best synthesized sound that the PS1 could conjure.

On album, the score has a somewhat unusual history; four discs of score were released as the Original Soundtrack just before the game’s launch in 2000, featuring 111 tracks and about 280 minutes of music. Most of the fully orchestrated music that played during the game’s cinematic sequences was left off, as were a few tracks from the game proper. These leftover tracks were gathered up and released four months later as a separate, fifth disc, called Final Fantasy IX Plus and featuring an additional 42 tracks with about 75 minutes of music. Even at five discs, much of the music is not looped, meaning that it plays only once before fading out instead of the industry standard twice–a further indication of just how massive and exhausting a work Uematsu turned out.

Still, if you’re a fan of Nobuo Uematsu’s work, Final Fantasy IX stands as his most massive solo work as a Square-Enix staffer, complete with high quality synth and thematic diversity. Despite the presence of many comparatively dull tracks and filler, Final Fantasy IX remains a strong album overall, and a worthy swan song to Uematsu’s involvement with the series.

Rating: starstarstarstar

Final Fantasy XII (Hitoshi Sakimoto)

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Final Fantasy XII‘s release came in the middle of a drought of sorts: aside from the online-only Final Fantasy XI and the stopgap Final Fantasy X-2 and a host of other inferior spin-offs, it was the only all-new iteration of the venerable Square-Enix role-playing series between 2001 and 2010. The game was created by much of the team behind the Final Fantasy Tactics series, and its mature and labyrinthine political plot was a welcome departure from the histrionics that occasionally marred the series. Despite a protracted development period and some controversy over its Tri-Ace-like battle system, Final Fantasy XII was a well-reviewed late-lifespan title for the Playstation 2.

Final Fantasy XII would also see a torch passing of sorts; it was the first all-new Final Fantasy title to have no major input from the series’ longtime composer Nobuo Uematsu, who wrote only the brief ending song “Kiss Me Good-Bye” which was not adapted into any other facet of the game’s score. His replacement: Hitoshi Sakimoto, best known for his work on Vagrant Story and Final Fantasy Tactics and head of the Basiscape music production studio. Sakimoto had been a staff composer at Square from 1997 to 2002, and his close association with the Final Fantasy Tactics team meant that no one else had been seriously considered for the job.

Final Fantasy XII was trapped in development hell for several years, leading to numerous delayed release dates–but it also gave Hitoshi Sakimoto ample time to work the bugs out of his score. Comparing the final tracks to their pre-release counterparts, given out as downloadable promotions, it’s clear that Sakimoto was refining his compositions continually throughout, and it shows in the final product. The synthesized instruments, while still slightly tinny in some places, are greatly improved over not only the demo tracks but most of the previous games as well. Only the use of a live orchestra for all tracks in Final Fantasy XIII could improve on the lush sound of its prequel, though a full orchestra was used for the opening and closing portions of Final Fantasy XII as well.

On the whole, Sakimoto’s score is bold, bright, and brassy; perhaps the most upbeat and optimistic music he’s ever penned and often lightyears away from the darkness of Vagrant Story while very much sharing its sound palette. He employs parts of Uematsu’s leitmotif structure, though, with his “Main Theme” incorporated subtly in many places, and a handful of character or faction themes like the grandiose “Theme of the Empire” or the dreamy, aggressive “Ashe’s Theme.” Sakimoto also unifies his music through consistent instrumentation and orchestration, giving it a distinct color and tone in his personal style.

Sakimoto’s music for towns and events is impressive; “Royal Capital Rabanastre” combines light brass with bright string work and rhythmic tambourine, while the delightful “Secret Practice” features whirling woodwinds, strings, mallet percussion accents, and militaristic percussion into a wonderfully quirky mix. “Little Villain” is in the same vein, with lighthearted strings giving way to a combination of tambourine, plucked strings, and woodwinds. There is also downbeat, more mystical music, like the slow, contemplative “The Princess’ Vision” and “Dark Night,” both of which feature drawn-out string playing set to harp and concert bells. While there are weaker tracks like the dull “Battle Drum” and “Jahara,” they are isolated islands in a generally engaging soundscape.

It’s in his battle and dungeon themes where Sakimoto has perhaps his greatest success: they”re some of the most rousing tracks he’s ever composed. “The Phon Coast” features stellar choral work that recalls the best moments of James Horner’s Krull set against large-scale percussion, while “The Dalmasca Eastersand” features driving brass that begins as a rhythm line but quickly soars to incredible melodic heights. “Esper Battle” is almost entirely brutal percussion and choir, an awesome if repetitive aural assault, as is the later variation in “Esper.” The combat material goes from strength to strength: “Giving Chase,” which adds growling brass and whirling strings to the mix, “Decisive Battle,” with its Holst-like brass spikes, and the final “Struggle for Freedom,” which sets the “Theme of the Empire” against soaring statements of the “Main Theme.” It’s breathless, exciting stuff, lightyears beyond the uninspired battle themes of the previous several Final Fantasy games, if admittedly not at all in line with Nobuo Uematsu’s progressive-rock style.

Uematsu’s contributions to the album are extremely limited, Sakimoto adapts some of the composer’s older work, which gives the music a strong Final Fantasy connection while remaining true to the instrumentation and feel of the album–a smart approach keenly missed in the later Final Fantasy XIII. Uematsu’s “Final Fantasy” theme returns for the first time since Final Fantasy IX, as does the unaltered “Victory Fanfare.” The “Chocobo Theme” gets no less than two renditions, once bouncy and driving, the other more subdued and elegant, and “Battle With Gilgamesh” from Final Fantasy V is dusted off and given a rousing makeover. The only curious omission is the “Moogle Theme,” which is absent despite the clear presence of moogles throughout the game.

In keeping with his role as lead composer and producer at Basiscape, Sakimoto was not the only composer to write music for Final Fantasy XII: his fellow Square-Enix veterans Hayato Matsuo and Masaharu Iwata join him for a handful of tracks. Matsuo, best known for previous collaborations with Sakimoto like Ogre Battle and contributions to various Front Mission titles, takes on some of the darker and more atmospheric tracks, generally with disappointing results. His music is quite bland, with comparatively poor synth, but worst of all, it is completely out of sync with Sakimoto’s. Since Final Fantasy XII often relies on Sakimoto’s style to hold it together, and Matsuo’s tracks are unable to fit in, it represents a key weakness of the score; luckily, Matsuo’s contribution is limited to just seven tracks out of one hundred. Masaharu Iwata, another old collaborator of Sakimoto’s, wrote two deliciously dark tracks that do a far better job of blending in with Sakimoto’s material, much as in their old collaboration on Final Fantasy Tactics. Classical composer Taro Hakase, along with Yuji Toriyama, contribute a single closing track which, although “inspired by” Sakimoto’s main theme, also clashes with the majority of the album and robs the main composer of the opportunity to write an end credits track. These non-Sakimoto tracks represent the album’s biggest weakness, and the reason for bringing in additional composers remains truly mystifying.

It’s also worth noting that, although he does adapt Nobuo Uematsu’s Final Fantasy themes, Hitoshi Sakimoto makes no attempt to sound like the older composer. The style and instrumental color of the work is strictly within Sakimoto’s established sound; it overflows with his trademark harp arpeggios, pizzicato strings, and rising brass notes. Like Masashi Hamauzu on Final Fantasy XIII, Sakimoto does not compromise his style at all to attempt to fit in with earlier Final Fantasy titles. As such, if listeners do not like Sakimoto’s style as heard in previous efforts like Final Fantasy Tactics or Vagrant Story, there is little to recommend Final Fantasy XII. Similarly, if listeners insist on Uematsu’s unique fusion sound for the series, they are bound to be disappointed: Sakimoto’s work has virtually no modern trappings, no electric guitars, no progressive rock (or any rock) influence, and no overt electronics (beyond the synthetic nature of the game’s faux-orchestral instruments).

Nevertheless, Final Fantasy XII is an easy recommendation for anyone looking for thematic consistency in their Final Fantasy scores and who would appreciate some of the series’ most rousing, optimistic, and hugely orchestral music (despite the near-total absence of Nobuo Uematsu). Fans of Hitoshi Sakimoto’s style in particular will be delighted with the work; even if Sakimoto’s work is somewhat diminished by the presence of other composers in minor roles, his work is an excellent contribution to the Final Fantasy discography as a whole. A CD with a few highlights was released in the US by Tofu Records in 2006, but to get the full flavor one must either import the full 4-CD set from Japan or purchase the iTunes version. And, despite his stellar work on Final Fantasy XII, Hitoshi Sakimoto would have relatively few assignments from Square-Enix in the future, with only the few original tracks in Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings and Final Fantasy Tactics A2 to his name.

Sakimoto: starstarstarstarstar
Matsuo: starstarstar
Iwata: starstarstarstar
Hakase/Toriyama: starstarstar
Overall: starstarstarstarstar

Sanctum (David Hirschfelder)

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A survival film about cave divers trapped in a flooded New Guinea cavern, Sanctum was an Australian 3D production executive produced by James Cameron, himself an enthusiast for underwater activity. Inspired by the real-life struggles of divers in similar situations–including parts of the film’s technical crew, some of whom later perished in situations eerily similar to those in the film–Sanctum was a modest success on its release. It earned a healthy return on the filmmakers’ investment, but with only middling reviews and no major stars aboard, it quickly sank into the cave of obscurity after its 2011 release.

As an Australian production, it stood to reason that Sanctum would retain an Australian composer, and Victorian David Hirschfelder was tapped for the assignment. For many American listeners, Hirschfelder was probably most notable for his twin Oscar-nominated scores in the 1990s, 1996’s Shine and 1998’s Elizabeth. With that track record, few would have thought him capable of large-scale action/fantasy scoring, but with the back-to-back pairing of Legend of the Guardians and Sanctum, he thoroughly proved his credentials in that area with vivid and complex writing for a full orchestra and choir.

Sanctum‘s greatest asset is its sweeping thematic richness. The two main building blocks are introduced early: a throaty, mournful native New Guinean singer in “A Sacred Place” and a bold, adventurous march for the cave explorers which debuts in “Espiritu Esa Ala.” Both are deeply integrated into the following tracks, with the “Sacred Place” vocals often accompanying moments of despair and death while parts of “Espiritu Esa Ala” crop up in moments of hope and beauty. Smaller motifs are present throughout, such as the grinding electric guitars representing peril (the score’s only real departure from acoustic instruments and the human voice).

If the album has a flaw, it’s that the boldest thematic highlights are at the beginning and end of Varese Sarabande’s generous 70-minute album, with a rather lengthy middle section that only uses fragments of the “Sacred Place” and “Espiritu” themes as accents. As the film moved on to darker territory of death, hopelessness, and betrayal, the “Espiritu” theme largely disappears, replaced with guitar-led suspense/action material, until returning triumphantly for the finale and end credits suite. This causes the listening experience to sag somewhat in the middle, and listeners may be tempted to fashion their own album cut which focuses more on the score’s thematic strengths.

Still, as a whole Hirschfelder’s Sanctum is very pleasing, especially in an age of cookie-cutter action/adventure scores; its overachieving score earns a solid recommendation as a soon-to-be hidden gem of 2011 in film music. Sadly, Hirschfelder’s involvement with Sanctum and Legend of the Guardians did not lead to further assignments along similar lines; his scores throughout the 2010s have been for relatively minor films, and indeed none of them would even see a CD release until 2014’s The Railway Man.

Rating: starstarstarstar

Arctic Tale (Joby Talbot)

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2005’s March of the Penguins opened up a new world of opportunities for big screen nature documentaries. While the BBC had been producing episodic and feature length docs at a high standard of quality for many years, March oudid the Beeb by grafting a warm, if anthropomorphic, storyline onto the documentary footage and connecting with audiences bored by the more accurate, procedural attitudes of other documentaries. When it came time to cut 15 years of similar footage of polar bears into a motion picture, National Geographic fashioned it into an even more overtly feel-good and anthropomorphized tale. With animal “composite characters” given names and motivations and eco-warrior narration co-written by Al Gore’s daughter, no one could accuse 2007’s Arctic Tale of being subtle in either its message or its attempts to connect with audiences (though disappointing box office returns and a healthy life in reruns on TV were the project’s ultimate fate).

Classically trained British composer Joby Talbot had worked mostly in television, most notably The League of Gentlemen for the Beeb Two, before his first major feature scoring assignment in 2005, the Douglas Adams comedy adaptation The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It was an odd choice, giving a relatively inexperienced composer a scoring assignment of this nature with only a few features under his belt, but Talbot responded with a pleasant surprise and one of 2007’s most obscure film score treasures.

For Arctic Tale, Talbot penned a grand, thematic score in the tradition of the best nature documentaries and dramatic films. From the first moments of “Kingdom of Ice,” when he introduces his sweepingly majestic main theme, the composer layers on expansive music with an optimistic sound, strong tonal melodies, and an overall pastoral feel despite the chilly subject matter. Talbot evokes the icy Arctic setting in subtle ways, mostly with chimes and mallet percussion, but it’s never overwhelming and the balance between warmth and icy majesty is one of the album’s great strengths.

A few moments of cellular writing (as in “A Small Miracle”) recall Philip Glass, and there are some stylistic nods to George Fenton’s famously lush BBC documentary music as well; the most soaring parts of the work like “The Arrival of Spring” also recall Elmer Bernstein’s rollicking music for National Geographic projects of yore. This is merely a case of inhabiting the same sonic universe, in most cases, rather than temp track influence or direct homages. Even the more troubled music, like the sinister “The Storm” and tragic opening of “Strange Encounters” have the same expansive scope and lush orchestration (the latter building into perhaps the most joyful statement of theme and motion on the album).

Film score fans only familiar with Talbot through The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy will be mightily impressed by what he accomplished with Arctic Tale. The composer essentially took the most creative, positive, and hugely orchestral sound from that film, the duo of “Planet Factory Floor” and “Earth Mark II,” and crafted it into a full-bodied 45-minute score of beautiful, uplifting, and pastoral music.

Arctic Tale came in the midst of a purple patch of feature scoring for Joby Talbot, including the aforementioned Hitchhiker’s Guide (2005), The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse (2005), Son of Rambow (2008), Penelope (2008), and Franklyn (2009). The mixed success those films suffered in the marketplace unfortunately meant that Talbot received relatively few film assignments mixed with a few classical commissions in the years since, which is a shame. All of the scores share the same lush orchestral sound, and Arctic Tale is perhaps the pick of the lot as the ultimate expression of Talbot’s harmonic, thematic, and enjoyable music. Highly recommended (though beware the song compilation from the film with none of Talbot’s score), and as of this writing available for as little as one cent for the CD and $7 for a digital download.

Rating: starstarstarstarstar

Final Fantasy XI (Nobuo Uematsu, Naoshi Mizuta, and Kumi Tanioka)

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Final Fantasy XI was Square-Enix’s first large-scale venture into the massively multiplayer online RPG (MMORPG) market, though inexplicably the developer chose to make the game an actual, numbered Final Fantasy as opposed to a side title or gaiden. The resulting game completely gutted the famous narrative drive of the series in favor of a repetitive online quest structure with an odd, if innovative, auto-translation feature to allow Japanese and foreign audiences to play on the same servers. Released in 2002-2003 and thereby beating rival World of Warcraft to the market by over a year, the game required extensive additional hardware for the PS2, an internet connection, and a monthly subscription to play; its concurrent release on Microsoft platforms made it one of Square-Enix’s first multiplatform releases as well. Despite its total abandonment of all but the most superficial aspects of Final Fantasy, Final Fantasy XI performed fairly well in the marketplace and remains online and available; many longtime series fans were disappointed by the new format, though, and Square-Enix wouldn’t produce an all-new single-player Final Fantasy for five years.

One benefit of making Final Fantasy XI a part of the main series was that it gave series composer Nobuo Uematsu the opportunity to write music for the game. Uematsu was in the midst of winding down his involvement with Square-Enix at the time, and alongside Hanjuku Hero 3D Final Fantasy XI would represent his last large-scale work with the company before leaving it to become a freelancer. As such, like Final Fantasy X before it, Uematsu chose to collaborate with other Square-Enix staff composers Naoshi Mizuta and Kumi Tanioka for the score. Mizuta was perhaps best known for stepping into Yoko Shimomura’s shoes with mixed success on Parasite Eve II, but had worked for Capcom for years beforehand; with the departure of many of Square-Enix’s superstar 80s and 90s composers in the 2000s, he would become one of the company’s most prominent staff musicians. Tanioka had done some work for Square’s Chocobo’s Dungeon spinoff series, but she would be best known for her subsequent work on the Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles series for Nintendo platforms.

Uematsu’s contribution was far, far more limited than in Final Fantasy X: he wrote only ten tracks of music, and only nine original pieces if one discounts his adaptation of the preexisting “Prelude.” Tanioka wrote a comparable twelve tracks, leaving the remaining twenty-eight to Mizuta, who would go on to write the music for all subsequent Final Fantasy XI expansions, leaving him the dominant musical voice in the game.

This is a pity, as Mizuta is simply unable to create music as interesting or varied as his co-composers. There are some highlights, notably the heroic march he provides for “Hume Male” and the Mitsuda-esque “Voyager,” performed on an acoustic guitar. But most of the remaining tracks are forgettable, and tend to fall into predictable patterns–acoustic guitar backing with woodwind melodies. Mizuta’s battle themes are slightly more effective but still very perfunctory, with the requisite brass and percussion but little in the way of melodic development or character, which is especially appalling considering the series’ strong record in that area. The nadir of Mizuta’s work is the unbearable “Castle Zvahl,” a ponderous nine minute gothic piece that utterly fails to justify its running time. Mizuta also fails to adapt Uematsu’s main theme–or any of the veteran composer’s themes, for that matter–preferring instead to mix “The Prelude” into some of his tracks.

Kumi Tanioka comes off much stronger, particularly in the suite of town music she writes. “The Republic of Bastok” is an album highlight, mixing claves and percussion with a lively woodwind theme to create a bustling and industrious atmosphere. “Metalworks” is a more subdued take on the same idea, and is similarly strong. Tanioka also adapts Uematsu’s main theme in “Fury,” a strong arrangement that emphasizes brass and percussion and adds an electronic beat. She pens her share of dull tracks too, such as the plodding “Gustaberg,” and several of her pieces seem inappropriate–note the heavy electronic backbeat in “Elvaan Female.” Though not without significant weaknesses, Tanioka distinguished herself well; fans will note strong stylistic similarities between her work on Final Fantasy XI and her strong later scores for the Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles series.

Uematsu’s musical contribution is by far the strongest, which is unsurprising given his greater experience. His main theme, which is fully orchestrated with a live choir and Esperanto lyrics, is far and away the album’s best piece, opening it in such a spectacular style that everything that comes after is something of a letdown. The theme is so strong that Mizuta’s refusal to adapt is it perplexing, though Uematsu contributes several strong variations of his own in “Recollection” and “Repression.” “Ronfaure,” familiar to many people because of its inclusion in the Dear Friends concert series, is also noteworthy, especially the melancholy second half. And “Airship,” an emotional and wistful piece for acoustic guitar and electronics is sublime, among the composer’s best tracks–appropriate, since was virtually the final airship song Uematsu ever wrote. Uematsu would return to Final Fantasy and MMORPGs with his score to the dire Final Fantasy XIV, though that product’s horrible reception and eventual reboot meant that most of his contribution was minimized and no comprehensive soundtrack album was ever released.

Final Fantasy XI is therefore decidedly mixed; Naoshi Mizuta’s work is generally dreadful, while Kumi Tanioka provides some excellent tracks and Uematsu gives a solid effort with several songs that can stand proudly alongside his finest. As with all Final Fantasy albums, Final Fantasy XI is most easily available through an importer on an online download, and acquiring a new or legitimate copy can be an expensive proposition–whether it is worth the cost or not will have to be left up to individual buyers. Its a few excellent tracks may be enough to make you overlook the dullest and most forgettable Final Fantasy score yet.

Mizuta: starstar

Tanioka: starstarstar

Uematsu: starstarstarstar

Game Music Bundle 7 Addendum

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Game Music Bundle 7 is no longer available, but just before the clock ran out its producers sweetened the deal by adding three additional bonus albums to the roster: Dragon Fantasy Book II Original Soundtrack by Dale North, Ether One Original Soundtrack by N. J. Apostol, and The Music of Junk Jack X by James Primate.

While these bonus albums can only be purchased individually now, the following capsule reviews are provided for the sake of completeness. Go here to be notified of future Game Music Bundle releases!

Bonus Albums

Dragon Fantasy Book II Original Soundtrack (Dale North)
Many artists, both indie and mainstream, have attempted to capture the sound and feel of classic 1990s RPG scores, and that is what this album attempts. Its clearest influence is Noriyuki Iwadare’s often goofy music for the Grandia series, but references to VGM majordomo Nobuo Uematsu are thick on the ground as well. These artists were successful because they had a pop songwriter’s ear for melody, no fear about crossing genres in search of the right sound, and worked skillfully with the synths at their disposal. Many imitators fail at one or all of the parts of that formula, but this is generally quite pleasant and successful, even if it fails to approach the genre’s high points.
Rating: * * * *
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Ether One Original Soundtrack (N.J.Apostol)
One might expect, given the title, for Ether One to have an ethereal sound, and at times it certainly does. But the album is, all in all, heavy and repetitive (if often good-natured and occasionally attractive) ambience, good at establishing a mood but less successful at maintaining interest with the best of such sounds.
Rating: * * *
Purchase

The Music of Junk Jack X (James Primate)
This album presents a very spare sound, like an early and raw SNES or Genesis game, occasionally recalling the most ambient and hard-edged moments of Earthbound. The music is affable enough but is so thin and occasionally harsh in its employment of sound effects and bleeps that only the most devoted fans of this sort of sound and approach are likely to get much out of it separated from the game.
Rating: * *
Purchase

Return to Oz (David Shire)

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Expectations can be a tricky thing to manage, and 1985’s Return to Oz is a great example of this. As a “sequel-in-part” to the beloved 1939 Technicolor music The Wizard of Oz, moviegoers and critics were doubtlessly expecting something as breezy and singsong from Return to Oz. What they got instead was a deliciously dark take on Oz and a relatively faithful adaptation of original author L. Frank Baum’s third Oz novel, Ozma of Oz. While the 1939 original wasn’t without its moments of darkness, Return to Oz‘s psychiatric hospital, head-stealing witch, and Will Vinton-animated demonic Nome King were too much for people with the wrong expectations. It died a quick box-office death as part of Disney’s disastrous flirtation with large-scale dark fantasy in the summer of 1985 (opening just one moth after The Black Cauldron), and Return to Oz had to wait for home video to find its adherents among devotees of dark 1980s fantasy films.

The post-Star Wars salad days of the 1980s were a time when many composers were able to try their hand at large-scale sci-fi/fantasy scores, and for Return to Oz the producers made an interesting choice: David Shire. Shire had a rich history of working in film, television, and musical theater as a composer and arranger, but there was little in his back catalog to recommend him for an epic dark fantasy (much less one based on a universally-beloved property). Though classically trained, Shire’s scores had mainly been gritty, realistic affairs like The Conversation and The Taking of Pelham 123; he was probably best-known at the time for Saturday Night Fever. The only sci-fi/fantasy film of any note he had tackled prior to Return to Oz was 1984’s 2010: The Year We Make Contact, which had featured a rich orchestral denouement but had been largely synthesized. Nevertheless, Shire was inked to the project and, with a substantial budget at his disposal, recorded his score with the London Symphony Orchestra.

Shire provides a lush score, largely string-led, that is rich with complex, long-lined themes and motifs. His main idea in the score, introduced in “Dorothy Remembers” and given its fullest outing in “Finale and End Credits,” is a dark yet gorgeous string fantasia reminiscent of the most troubled parts of Trevor Jones’s The Dark Crystal and David Newman’s The Brave Little Toaster. The amount of clarity and depth in the orchestrations is particularly impressive, with the LSO acquitting itself particularly well. For all Shire’s use of electronics before and after, they are a relatively minor part of the overall sound, primarily limited to shimmering synths to back the acoustic ensemble, with some menacing textures in “Dorothy and the Nome King” as the only time they take center stage.

Return to Oz isn’t an action film, but there are moments of surprising depth and power. The towering organ-led “Flight in the Storm,” for instance, resoundingly accompanies the asylum escape sequence. “The Defeat of the Nome King” mixes intense and swirling strings with fierce and atonal music for the special effects sequence at the end of the film. “The Flight of the Gump” offers much lighter and optimistic action, a thrilling piece of major-key escape music that recalls the soaring music John Williams would later write for Prisoner of Azkaban. The music is thematically rich as well (and even moreso in the movie), with distinct motifs for Oz, Ozma, Tik-Tok, Mombi, the Gump, and the Nome King constantly weaving in and out of the work.

Despite the dark fantasy aspects of Return to Oz being the primary attraction of the score (and, for many, the film), it is not the only component of the score. Shire also composed a bright ragtime piece to represent the brighter side of Oz, as heard in the concert cue “The Return to Oz Rag March.” It’s a fine piece of music on its own, and the only time that Shire’s music even approaches the affable sound of The Wizard of Oz, but it doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the score’s lush fantasy sound. In several tracks, most notably “The Defeat of the Nome King,” the sudden shift to the Rag March gives the music a schizophrenic character, and compared to the lighter music in “The Flight of the Gump” the various appearances of the Rag March seem abrupt and rather jarring. The choice of ragtime is a little odd in and of itself, perhaps a nod to the musical style that was most popular during Oz author L. Frank Baum’s 1900-1919 career writing the books, but Shire implements the idea with gusto.

Sadly, David Shire would never have the opportunity to write in such a hugely symphonic fantasy mode again; while there are a few sci-fi projects on his later resume like Short Circuit and episodes of Amazing Stories, his career declined rapidly throughout the 1990s and what little work he was able to get was closer in tone to The Conversation than Return to Oz. And despite the high quality of Shire’s score, the movie’s box-office failure has made its music difficult to come by for years. One of the few scores released by electronic music label Sonic Atmospheres, Return to Oz was pressed to LP in 1985 in a 50-minute presentation, but the score was difficult to find from the outset. It fell to independent musical label Bay Cities to finally release the score on CD in 1990, but even then relatively few copies were made and the album tends to fluctuate wildly in price as copies become more or less scarce. Still, the album–any album–is well worth seeking out by lovers of high-quality, lush, and dark 1980s fantasy scoring (a sound that is in short supply these days).

Rating: starstarstarstar