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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Shopgirl (Barrington Pheloung)

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Most people know Steve Martin for his comedic roles in classic and not-so-classic comedies, but fewer know that he has also amassed a reputation as a skilled writer. While one might expect and actor and comedian to only write screenplays, Martin has written plays, essays, screenplays, and novels since the 1990s; these include pieces for the New Yorker and the screenplay for the thriller Traitor. In 2000, Martin wrote his first novel: Shopgirl, the tale of a lonely and isolated twentysomething named Mirabelle who is torn between an affair with an older businessman and a liaison with an affable slacker. The novel attracted favorable notices, and Martin was able to shepherd it into a film in 2006, writing the screenplay from his novel and starring. Shopgirl the film was received as favorably as Shopgirl the novel, and remains well-regarded if a bit obscure years later.

In his role as producer, Steve Martin retained director Anand Tucker to make Shopgirl; for the film’s score, Tucker turned to his usual collaborator Barrington Pheloung with whom he’d worked on his previous two films, 1996’s Saint-Ex and 1998’s Hilary and Jackie. The Australian composer had worked steadily in television and film over the course of his career, and is probably best known to score fans for his title theme and background music to the long-running British TV series Inspector Morse.

True to his roots in classical music, Pheloung devises a score that is part stately minuet and part Thomas Newman quirk with a hint of Philip Glass or Michael Nyman minimalism, reflecting the film’s dramatic portions as well as its quirkier material. The main thematic material is debuted in “Meeting Mirabelle,” with a full-orchestral classical sound playing a layered string theme that’s full of delicate beauty. The progressions of that theme are woven throughout the remainder of the score, often on piano or mallet percussion with the overall effect being magical, slightly otherworldly, and sad. The theme gets an extended outing in the final track, the six-minute “Main Titles,” which mixes the minuet, the quirky “La Ronde” material, and the album’s strongest brass (it being predominantly strings, mallets, and piano elsewhere).

The quirkier parts of the score are less original; Pheloung’s use of mallet rhythms makes it clear that Newman’s seminal American Beauty was on the temp track. Nevertheless, tracks like the four-part “La Ronde” have a definite energy to them, and they are suffused with enough of the score’s overall personality that they avoid falling into the a simple temp rehash territory that so many scores inspired by Beauty have. The rambling piano rhythms and minuet feel are always there to tie the various pieces together into a cohesive package.

When Pheloung turns to full-on tragedy for the film’s scenes of sadness and loss, he leans heavily on undulating piano figures and high strings to move the score’s sound and theme into heartache. “A Broken Trust” uses a solo violin over a solo piano playing fragments of the main theme to devastating effect, “Mirabelle’s Story” inverts the title minuet into something painfully sad, but Pheloung saves his heaviest emotional punch for “Breaking Up.” For the scenes of Martin’s character being spurned by the woman he has grown to love, the composer sets loose his full string section and pianos in a morose, interrupted melody that’s the high point of the album.

Shopgirl won’t wow listeners with its creativity or in-your-face personality; instead, it is a masterclass in using existing musical pieces in an effective way, with Pheloung’s musical personality deftly bringing together comedy, tragedy, and tragicomedy for an effective, low-key, and moving musical experience. Director Tucker would re-team with Pheloung for his next few projects, And When Did You Last See Your Father? and Red Riding:1983 but Shopgirl could wind up being the pair’s biggest hit together and Pheloung’s most high-profile film score of his career thus far (Tucker’s 2010 modest hit, Leap Year, was scored by Randy Edelman). Accordingly, Filter Records put out an album with Pheloung’s full score around the time of Shopgirl‘s release; the album was not widely distributed and has become rather uncommon in the years since, but is not extremely difficult to obtain albeit at a premium price. Shopgirl is definitely worth seeking out if you can find it, though, and it may leave listeners hungry for more from Pheloung’s sparse discography.

Rating: starstarstarstar

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

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

The Tree of Life (Alexandre Desplat)

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Terrence Malick is one of the most respected and most divisive directors working in film today, and his works have aroused strong feelings, pro or con, in everyone who has viewed them. His 2011 film The Tree of Life was no less so, earning nominations in several Academy Award categories while simultaneously being savaged by many viewers and critics. Despite (or perhaps because of) his reputation, Malick had attracted a variety of top-flight musical talent to score his projects, from Ennio Morricone on Days of Heaven to Hans Zimmer and co. on The Thin Red Line to James Horner on The New World.

For The Tree of Life, Malick recruited French composer Alexandre Desplat, who was in the midst of an extremely busy year. 2011 saw seven movies scored in whole or in part by Desplat, including his Oscar-nominated score for Best Picture winner The King’s Speech and a score for Best Picture nominee Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Desplat is often strongest in his contemplative mode, featured in scores such as Birth and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, than his disappointing attempts at epic fantasy writing as in The Golden Compass and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The Tree of Life represents in some ways the ultimate evolution of the former style, with his usual waltzes and melody supplemented by Philip Glass influenced minimalism.

Fans of Glass will probably enjoy what they find here, especially in “Circles,” the album’s longest and most impressive track. Cellular composition, repeated motifs, and a cyclical and evolving feel make the 11-minute centerpiece cue a true tour-de-force without losing Desplat’s distinctive voice. Echoes of Benjamin Button and Birth are to be had elsewhere, often in the most melodic and piano-led cues like the desolate “Childhood” and warm “Awakening,” although it’s by and large a score of textures more than melody or theme. Those expecting the empty bombast of Desplat’s Compass or Potter will be disappointed, though the composer does include his signature waltzes in the pair of “Motherhood” and “Fatherhood.”

Desplat also blesses the score with an air of impressionistic darkness in many cues. The aforementioned “Awakening,” for instance, includes a sinister full string section under its gentle piano melody, skillfully intermixing optimism and unease in a similar way to the deep electronic pulses from Birth, before building to an unnerving crescendo at the end. He uses other innovative techniques, like a solo and vaguely out-of-tune leading string in “Good and Evil” or discordant, Elliot Goldenthal style shrieking strings in “Temptation” (perhaps the score’s darkest cue).

From the minimalistic opening piano of “Childhood” to the inviting cyclic minimalism of “Circles” through the darkness of “Awakening” and “Temptation,” to the final innocent and childlike “Skies,” Desplat’s album truly feels like a musical journey. With only his signature musical voice to bind the score together, the composer nevertheless manages to create a cohesive musical narrative that can stand well on its own. This was perhaps the wisest decision Desplat made, given Malick’s history of tinkering with his films’ soundtracks: creating an album that can exist completely independently of its film, a contemplative masterpiece perfect for engaged listening or as a backdrop to writing or other creative endeavors.

There is one downside to the album: anyone looking for the classical pieces that were inserted into the film to replace the majority of Desplat’s original music will be disappointed. Malick, despite working with the very best original composers that Hollywood has to offer, often uses very little of the score they prepare, with what is used often chopped up and redistributed. This led to many angry viewers upset with the album from Lakeshore records, which includes only Desplat’s original score instead of the many classical pieces by John Tavener, Arsenije Jovanovic, and many others. This led to many reviews roundly trashing Desplat’s album for what it is not, rather than what it is.

Still, as long as listeners know exactly what they are getting into (and the available sound samples represent an excellent cross-section of Desplat’s music) they won’t be disappointed. It may be closer to a quasi-rejected score, or an instrumental “music inspired by” album, but The Tree of Life is still a musical journey well worth taking by one of Hollywood’s strongest musical voices. Lakeshore Records’ score album has become rather scarce the film’s release, commanding slightly inflated prices, but it is still readily available in digital form.

Rating: starstarstarstarstar