Inside Out (Michael Giacchino)

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2015 saw Pixar, once the king of computer animated films, struggling to emerge from a creative slump that had seen it produce mostly mediocre spinoffs of existing properties like Cars 2 or Monsters University. Its summer 2015 entry, Inside Out, managed to break that streak with a dazzling return to form, positing what the inside of a preteen’s head would look like as acted out by a handful of anthropomorphized emotions. While not the most original idea (Herman’s Head had mined the same territory decades earlier, as had Disney’s own Cranium Command), Inside Out nevertheless nailed the execution, producing the potent mix of laughter and pathos that distinguished Pixar’s very best and becoming a hit with critics and audiences.

Though Pixar had seem some diversification in its use of composers with Patrick Doyle and Mychael Danna in recent years, Michael Giacchino remained one of the studio’s top names, and he reunited with director Pete Doctor for Inside Out. This meant that the shadow of their previous collaboration, 2009’s Up, would loom large over the project’s music: after all, that aerial adventure had produced one of Giacchino’s most affecting scores and rewarded him with an Oscar statuette. Inside Out also came out during an abnormally productive year for Giacchino, with three other scores out at around the same time, including Jurassic World, which went head to head with the animation and gave Giacchino the Remote Control-like achievement of scoring the number one and number two films at the box office for weeks in a row.

Unlike the fully orchestral Up, Giacchino chose to tackle Inside Out with, by and large, a smaller ensemble. Though some tracks like “Rainbow Flyer” employ the full weight of the orchestra for key moments, by and large Giacchino relies on piano, ukelele, glassy synth textures, and a handful of rhythm and brass instruments for the overall sound. One can understand his decision in terms of the film’s very intimate story, taking place in a tween girl’s head, calling for a more intimate sound.

Giacchino’s centerpiece for Inside Out is a theme for the emotion Joy, which debuts on solo piano in “Bundle of Joy” and forms the lion’s share of the albums opening and closing segments, from “Nomanisone Island/National Movers” to “The Joy of Credits.” Giacchino presents a interesting downbeat variations in places like “Tears of Joy” but for the most part the Joy melody is flitting and beautiful, instantly memorable, and lights up the album whenever it appears. It’s definitely one of the composer’s strongest themes, able to go toe-to-toe with any other melody he’s conjured in recent years.

The middle of the album–and the film–largely neglects that theme, though, in favor of a number of smaller and more fragmented motifs. There’s a bouncy theme for Bing Bong the imaginary friend in places like “Chasing the Pink Elephant” and “Imagination Land,” for instance, though it’s strangely missing from “Rainbow Flyer” in favor of a sweeping, bittersweet original piece (which one wishes there was more of, honestly, with only a brief end credits reprise!). The character of Sadness gets a downer of a motif on tuba in “Team Building” and elsewhere, though the connection between it and other tracks like “Joy Turns to Sadness” where the character is prominent is rather tenuous. There’s also a David Newman-like piece for the tween girl as she turns runaway in the film’s later reels, though its impact is minimal at best.

The real problem is that the middle portions of Giacchino’s music ignore his best melody in favor of short cues that have little narrative thrust and little to connect them aside from the composer’s style and a few glassy textures. The Elliot Goldenthal tribute “Abstract Thought,” for instance, is fun but doesn’t seem to be in the same sonic universe as the brilliant Joy material. The end result is an album that is frontloaded and rearloaded with excellent material yet hobbled by a big memory dump in the middle, which is rather disappointing given how well Giacchino was able to pull his central themes through a similar set of challenges in Up.

An album for he film was, unlike Up, issued as a CD and a digital download alongside the film; the CD includes the music from the lovely but geophysically inaccurate short Pixar short Lava as a bonus track. For Inside Out,, Giacchino produced an outstanding theme that ultimately makes for a flawed but fun experience on album. It’s nowhere near the powerhouse that his score for Up was, or even the contemporaneous Tomorrowland, but it’s worth committing to long-term memory if only for its moments of intense Joy.

Rating: starstarstar

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Vacuum Tube Girls Symphony (Hiroki Kikuta)

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Original music has been composed for video games, films, TV shows, slot machines, and even Dungeons and Dragons campaigns. So why not for trading card games? That’s exactly what Japanese video game industry veteran Hiroki Kikuta did when he wrote Vacuum Tube Girls Symphony. The aforementioned vacuum tube girls are the heroines of a game called Shinukan, a Kickstarter-backed project that billed itself as “The Kawaii Steampunk Android Trading Card Game” and sought to bring a Japanese fanservice sensibility to a milieu dominated by straitlaced games like Magic the Gathering. The game was able to make its $20,000 goal in August 2014 and shipped in June 2015 (Kickstarter projects being rather infamous for their slipping deadlines).

Whether Kikuta was attracted to Shinukan as a commissioned artist, as a backer, or simply as an enthusiastic fan, his Vacuum Tube Girls Symphony accompanied its release as a digital download on the Bandcamp indie music platform. After a long drought in the 2000s, the 2010s had seen the composer back in the saddle with numerous projects, from full-fledged video game soundtracks to guest tracks and arrangements to solo endeavors. Seemingly comfortable in his role as a video game music elder statesman, Kikuta began experimenting with more longform compositions that seemed influenced by the cellular and minimalist structure of musicians like Philip Glass, Michael Nyman, and Stephen Reich. Indeed, Kikuta’s the two most recent solo albums, Pulse Pico Pulse and Integral Polyphony, had been lengthy experiments in that regard, with the latter expressly dedicated to Reich. Those albums, fascinating meldings of the worlds of minimalist concert music and VGM, often strayed rather far afield from the sound that had endeared Kikuta to a generation of gamers.

The Vacuum Tube Girls Symphony represents an even more fascinating attempt to combine Kikuta’s quirky signature style with Reich-style minimalism. Like Secret of Mana +, Kikuta’s legendary experimental arrangement album based on his first video game score, Vacuum Tube Girls Symphony is arranged into a single, 42-minute track that cycles through several distinct movements. From 0:00-4:00, the music takes the form of a string and solo piano duet strained through heavy analog noise to mimic the sound of an ancient 78-RPM vinyl recording, presumably as a nod to the retro-futurism design aesthetic Shinukan embraces and mixes with its fanservice. At 4:00, a full-quality militaristic motif in Kikuta’s signature style emerges, punctuated with the sound of breaking glass as a percussion instrument among the drums and marimbas (an experiment the composer also used in Secret of Mana 2). This builds up to, at around the 7:00 mark, the full blossoming of the album’s primary theme, a glorious brassy statement backed up by a blazing orchestra hits and a full silverware drawer’s worth of unorthodox percussion. Beginning around 13:00, the music switches to a different and much more low-key melody, carried on woodwinds with pizzicato strings and pianos, and very much in the style of the composer’s post-Koudelka works. A percussion phase similar to the first one but stripped of many of the odder instruments comes in at 13:00, particularly similar in its doubled pizzicato and normal strings to Kikuta’s efforts for the Shining series beginning in 2011.

A gentle woodwind melody is cut in with the Shining percussion at 18:00, segueing to a return of the gentler style, this time with a more pronounced and quite lovely theme and veering, at times, into the mysterious and sinister–again, very much in the style of the adult games Kikuta scored between Koudelka and Shining Hearts. The percussion returns by 23:00, serving to add a militaristic edge to the continuing woodwinds before eventually bringing back the Shining Hearts doubled strings for an extended outing. By 28:00, a reprise of the low-key melody from 13:00 has subsumed the percussion and serves as an introduction to the return of the brassy primary theme and its glass-shattering backing at 30:00. Kikuta gives the theme a workout, continuing it to the 38:00 mark, where the scratchy 78 RPM music returns to close out the remaining four minutes.

The use of cellular rhythms, repeated with minor variations, is prevalent at each stage of the work, giving it at times the minimalistic feel that characterizes Glass, Nyman, and Reich, and was the overwhelming style present in Pulse Pico Pulse and Integral Polyphony. But the melodies, the use of percussion, and the employment of doubled strings and pizzicato plucking, is classic Kikuta, referencing works from Secret of Mana 2 to Shining Hearts and all points in between. There’s no denying the minimalism, but there’s also no denying the indelible fingerprints of the composer’s unique style. The only part that seems out of character is the lengthy into and outro, where the simple music is mangled by vinyl filters–truly one of the more tiresome musical devices in use today. Along the same lines, Vacuum Tube Girls Symphony‘s gigantic length does allow for remarkably fluid transitions between the various parts of such a diverse work, but it can be a bit of a bother hunting and pecking for a favorite section (a problem it shares with Secret of Mana +).

Still, the Vacuum Tube Girls Symphony represents perhaps the best merging of Kikuta’s unique rhythmic and melodic sense with his interest in minimalist experimentation to come along thus far. Whether you put it on in the background while playing a game of Shinukan or simply listen to it on its own, it’s a fascinating work. As of this writing, the full 42-minute album is available at Kikuta’s Bandcamp page for $10; his fans and those interested in the techniques with which he experiments will both appreciate what the work has to offer.

Rating: starstarstarstar