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

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Koudelka (Hiroki Kikuta)

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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