Gravity Rush (Kohei Tanaka)

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Japanese developer Keiichiro Toyama was behind the first Silent Hill for Konami and its spiritual successor the Siren series for Sony; in 2012, he was asked to tackle a much different project: an open-world game based around the manipulation of gravity. Originally developed for the Playstation 3 and entitled Gravité, it was moved to the portable Playstation Vita during development as a launch title, making use of the handheld’s built-in gyroscope to allow players to manipulate gravity simply by tilting the system. Though its plot of an amnesiac girl given gravity-shifting powers by a mysterious cat to save the floating city of Hekseville wasn’t shortlisted for any writing awards, Gravity Rush (known as Gravity Daze in Japan, a much cleverer title) was among the best-reviewed PS Vita launch titles. Only the portable system’s spectacular marketplace failure kept it from reaching a wider audience.

Toyama had collaborated with a diverse stable of composers for his previous games; Silent Hill fans remember Akira Yamaoka’s fan-favorite industrial-ambient music, while the Siren series saw Toyama switching between Hitomi Shimizu and Kuniaki Haishima. For Gravity Rush, though, Toyama went for a more tonal and melodic approach to the music and retained the experienced Kohei Tanaka. With a long resume in film, anime, and video game composition stretching back to the 1980s, Tanaka’s lush style is well-known among enthusiasts but the composer is probably most familiar to mainstream audiences for his score for the Enix SNES RPG Paladin’s Quest (Lennus in Japan), the PS1 Alundra series, and the PS3/Xbox 360 Resonance of Fate (End of Eternity in Japan) co-composed with Motoi Sakuraba.

Tanaka’s approach to Gravity Rush is eclectic; while his lush personal style is often in evidence and performed with gusto by a (partially) live ensemble, he also throws in entirely synthesized tracks, rock instrumentals, and textural dissonance. That is the biggest issue with the album up front: it lacks stylistic cohesion in many places, and while Tanaka does compose a main theme, its applications are relatively limited in the music that differs from the composer’s usual orchestral or synth palette.

Tanaka had experimented with jazzy saxophone interludes in Resonance of Fate, but his finest work for Gravity Rush takes that sound to a whole new level. Inspired by the jazz age aesthetic of Hekseville, he composed a number of excellent orchestral tracks around his lively sound. “Pleasure Quarter” is the standout track of the whole album, blasting with lively muted brass and honky-tonk keyboarding; almost as potent is the end credits song “Douse Shinundakara” (“You’re Dying Anyway”) which features lively lyrics delivered in a spot-on imitation of a speakeasy swing singer. The more straightforwardly orchestral tracks often include an infusion of smokey Parisian jazz as well; many also feature variations of the main (and only recurring theme) first heard in “Discovery of Gravitation.” The more synthesized tracks had a few highlights as well, like the delightful piano/synth “Ruined Paths.”

The music is at its weakest when Tanaka is outside his usual wheelhouse, and meaty portions of the album are given over to rather mediocre attempts at rock or dissonant ambience. The lengthy, grinding “The Lowest Quarter” is the low point of this approach, sounding more like a second-rate Yamaoka imitation than Tanaka. The relatively few attempts to fit the superior jazz age sound of the highlights with rock instrumentals winds up sounding incoherent and ridiculous in places like “Assault Cnida.” And a few of Tanaka’s orchestral tracks fall flat as well; critics were often unimpressed by the combat in Gravity Rush, and tracks like “Evil Shadow” and “Decisive Battle” back up that assertion with limp organ and orchestral meandering.

Gravity Rush winds up being a little frustrating, with some of Kohei Tanaka’s very best work mixed in with failed attempts at a more diverse set of styles and a general overall lack of cohesion. It still merits a recommendation for those delightful jazz age highlights like “Pleasure Quarter” and “Douse Shinundakara,” though, and with the creators promising a sequel despite the PS Vita’s continuing struggles, Tanaka may very well return to expand upon the best parts of his sound. As with many Japanese video game soundtracks, Gravity Rush received a full album release overseas and is available as a (pricy) import.

Rating: starstarstar

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