I have only relatively recently discovered the delights of Yasunori Mitsuda. Not only does he have an evident talent for making sublime melodies but a full grasp of sampling and how it can be used to its fullest. In my opinion these are the two most important attributes of a video game composer. The Xenogears soundtrack is certainly one of his masterpieces. It creates a broad spectrum of moods for the incredibly diverse material and locations in the game from rural villages through deserts, cathedrals, ships, and even futuristic floating cities as well as dealing with religion, Freudian psychology, and the philosophy of Nietzsche. Naturally with its high critical acclaim and popularity an arranged album would follow quickly in its footsteps; this came in the form of Xenogears Creid. This album was created by the composer himself and had heavy Celtic leanings. There were some absolutely beautiful and inspired arrangements present coupled with some rather lacklustre additions. (Did he actually change anything in "Two Wings" and "Mobius"? Except changing the vocalist who was rather shoddy compared to Joanne Hogg and brought the two tracks down greatly, majorly disappointing).
A few years down the line and the fan-made production OneUp Studios started to formulate its own arrangement of the Xenogears soundtrack. It held an open competition for fan arrangements of tracks from the soundtrack and selected 20 to become part of the album Xenogears Light (initially to be called Xenogears Shaking the Ivories, a name I'm glad didn't make the final cut, before the idea of a relaxing 'mood' album was settled upon). The album was recorded and then released in 2005 and has had a very good reception from what I can see.
Anyway irrelevant and overly long exposition over now so I'll move onto the album itself. I have to say, reading the various sources, that there are aspects that cause feelings of trepidation as well as eagerness with regards to listening to the album for the first time. This album is made into a cohesive whole by the fact that there is one mood running through the album, a calm and light humour with the intention of relaxing the listener. The problem is that having such a uniting theme can lead to an album being rather flat and vapid with all the tracks sounding the same. As far as I can see the instrumentation is fairly consistent with the piano taking the main role but other instruments coming in to support, therefore a greatly varied instrumentation is not present to perhaps help vary the tone of the album. This album has also been described as 'contemporary', a word I often flinch at when I see it used to describe an album because I associate it with incomprehensible arty music. The sort of music where when it comes to the applause a group of students and their aged music professors in the front row instantly provide a standing ovation while your left there thinking 'I don't get it'. Whether this is the case with this album or not I'll just have to find out but I have a tolerant sense of hearing so as long as the melodies are not mutilated too much this shouldn't be too large a problem. Then there is the fact that I am a virgin... when it comes to proper fan-arranged albums. Although I have heard stand alone fan arrangements I have yet to hear an entire album's worth. A really top notch fan arrangement is very hard to come by as they are quite tricky to compose well from my own personal experience.
However there are also definitely some positives. The selection procedure should hopefully ensure that only the best arrangements get through and the fact that there are many arrangers may overcome the problem of a monochromatic 'mood' album due to, hopefully, varying styles between arrangers. There has also been a great deal of praise for this album scoring mid nineties in the two reviews I have seen which clearly ranks it amongst the top arranged albums out there.
Looking at the track list I am presented with tracks which were obvious choices: "Singing of the Gentle Wind", "Shevat...", and "October Mermaid"; as well as some intriguing choices: "Grahf, Emperor of Darkness", "Dreams of the Strong", and "Into Eternal Sleep" ("Stage of Death"). It looks like I am set for some interesting interpretations with the latter tracks which I most look forward to especially the fast paced "Stage of Death" (some skill would definitely be needed to craft that into a 'light' track due to a lack of melody in the original).
Well I think I have inferred as much as physically possible out of the scraps of information I found scattered on the Internet so now there is nothing left but to listen to the thing. I hope it's not too 'light' or I'll fall asleep.
I have to say that this album certainly reaches its goal of being a relaxing selection of music of the highest quality. The recording is impeccable with every nuance of expression from the multitude of instruments used (more than I had anticipated) captured perfectly and none of the potency of the pieces lost. On the whole the arrangements are clever and intricate using the subject material to great effect yet changing just enough to cast a new light on some old favourites. The overall style is impressionistic mixed with jazz, contemporary certainly but not in the way I had described previously. It is understandable and when it dabbles into more adventurous harmonies they are used effectively to create the desired mood creating some magical sections (I think exemplified best at the end of "October Mermaid"). There are a myriad of textural devices used most notably in "Grahf..." where violin tremolo (sul ponticello would have been better suited in my opinion) and glissandi create a creepy feel worthy of the dark emperor himself. However I thought the album was a little long, standing in at a hefty 74 minutes and 6 seconds I felt perhaps some of the tracks could have been cut to make the experience a bit more pleasurable. It felt a little like an endurance test when I got into the second half; not very relaxing. Less is more as they say.
Pieces that caught my ear on this first listen include "Shevat...", which has an interesting mix of keeping to the original and experimenting with it; "One Who Bares Fangs at God", an odd piece which contrasts with the rest of the album and thus has a very individual quality to it; and "The Alpha and the Omega", which brings out the original's melodies superbly and has a great ambience to it. There were some pieces that appealed less. "Singing of the Gentle Wind" was one of my favourites from the original soundtrack but the magic didn't quite come through in the arrangement. "The Treasure Which Cannot be Stolen" was far too long and coincided with a bit of personal lull in the album before the pick up towards the end.
On first listen the outlook is certainly positive and I hope that a closer inspection will help me to appreciate the album further, arrangements often only reveal their secrets to the most attentive of listeners. Well, the album certainly doesn't wear off after heavy listening on my family holiday. I guess one advantage of it being so long is that there is a lot of material to digest and luckily my fears that this would be a very monochromatic (or what ever the equivalent is for music) soundtrack were laid to rest quite early on.
First I will develop on the comments made from first time round. The instrument quality on the whole is very good but initially I felt the violinist wasn't up to the same standard as some of the other players. This probably comes from me being a violinist myself and thus being naturally rather critical of the performance. I felt that the player could have used a little more vibrato in places but I now think the lack of impact was mainly due to inadequate writing. I think this was best shown in "Grahf..."; clearly the arranger knew a great deal about advanced technique on the violin but it definitely came across that he wasn't a violinist himself leading to a slightly underwhelming performance. However, in contrast to this I found the use of the husky low register in the flute especially effective and fitted perfectly with the sinister atmosphere of the piece.
The piano was played excellently with no major faults or mistakes in the performance as far as I could hear and he carried off the light feel very effectively in the vast majority of the pieces. In spite of this I found that some of the pieces were a little intense — "Bonds of Sea and Fire" in particular — for an album that is supposed to be light in texture. I am not entirely sure whether this is the performer or the arranger's fault; was the dynamic marked fortissimo or did the player get a little carried away with the big chords and the runs? I am of the opinion that is both their faults. Clearly the Beethoven like runs do not really belong in a light and relaxing album but I feel perhaps the performer could have interpreted the piece better and perhaps overcome this problem. The best piano writing was in my opinion to be found in "Tears of the Stars, Hearts of the People". Just by listening to it I could tell it would be a joy to play with the hands coalescing well and it is certainly an immense improvement on the original although sticking rather rigidly to it.
I still have no problem with the style of music. The jazz inspired pieces definitely fit in very well with the mood of the album. Perhaps the most notable of these is "Valley Where the Wind is Born", which is definitely one of the most relaxing of all the tracks on this album. The woodwind's character is transfigured into beguiling piano phrases with a blithe saxophone accompaniment that blends seamlessly. The feel reminds me of many of the tracks on the Final Fantasy X-2 Piano Collection, an album which every time I listen to I picture a very sophisticated bar with a live pianist on a dais at one end providing smooth background music as the customers gaze out over a star lit city. I get the exact same image accompanying this track; it oozes smoothness and doesn't resort to the pop ballad schmaltz of some of the other tracks on this album. Another jazzy favourite is "My Village is Number One", which transfigures the original perfectly into this very rich solo piano piece. This piece shows the more lively side of the genre being full of rhythmic vitality but it does have its more introspective episodes — in particular when it quotes "Broken Mirror" using the upper register of the piano effectively as a marked contrast to the heavy use of the lower register. It does suffer from the same loud and stodgy chords as "Bonds of Sea and Fire" but in spite of this it maintains a consistent calm feel mostly helped by the underlying harmonies.
As well as the jazz style there is a full compliment of other genres, from the Spanish folk song of "Ship of Regret and Sleep" to the ... 'individual' style of "One Who Bares Fangs at God". The former translates the original perfectly into a piece harking of Albeniz, although it sticks fairly close to the original in terms of melody and harmony it creates a very unique style with the piano and guitar blending together perfectly even though it isn't an often seen combination of instruments (or maybe that's just from my personal experience). The latter seems to heighten the quirkiness of the original (A minimalist battle theme? Innovative if a tad soporific) with an interesting mixture of instruments including bongos, piano, bass guitar, flute, and a violin. It comes across a little disjointed at times mainly due to the focus on the individual little ostinato patterns but it has character and successfully achieves a mellow arrangement of quite a sinister and threatening track.
The length of the album is still a slight downside. I feel that perhaps some of the arrangements that worked less well should have been dropped in order to create a shorter album but of higher quality. However this is only a problem if you decide to only listen to the album as a whole. Once the album gets onto the computer and the MP3 player the tracks can be drawn out of the ether without having to listen to the whole album in order I find this snag becomes irrelevant. All the tracks can stand on their own and I often find myself listening to them for recreational purposes (rather than just for this review).
In terms of the notable and less notable tracks there have been a few changes in my opinions. My favourite is "The Alpha and Omega", which not only transcends the fact that it is a great piece of music but has allowed me to fully appreciate the beauty of the original. Before I had listened to this track if you had asked me which was my favourite aspect of the original "The Alpha and the Omega" I would have probably suggested the interesting choral counterpoint or the unique sound of the piece (reminds me slightly of Karl Jenkins' Adiemus) but now it is the melody of the first section which draws me to it. It seems laden with sadness but also has a sense of triumph; very appropriate for an ending theme. The track is fleshed out nicely as well. The introduction serves as a fitting prelude for the main theme and it is full of allusions to the original even including the 'lum lum' (well it sounds like that to me) bits but plays with the source material enough to make it interesting to listen to. It also has a nice structure recapitulating the first theme but with different harmonies to suggest a feeling of nearing conclusion which is especially apt for its penultimate position in the album.
Another favourite is the opening track "Premonition", which is a very emotive arrangement of "Omen" and "Light from the Netherworld". It finds a good balance between sticking with the original and toying with it; for example it distorts the piano motif from the original and translates it onto the electric piano whereas the alluring main melody which is presented on the violin keeps to its roots. I have to say that, unlike the previous track I have mentioned, this piece works better as a piece on its own rather than as an arrangement. It is a very attractive piece to listen to but I find that towards the end it diverts a little too far from the original (or maybe I'm just not listening hard enough) to make a good enough comparison to the original. However, as I have said, it is one of the most listenable tracks on the album and is a fitting start to the album as a whole reflecting the quality present all along the trail.
Back to the other end of the album, I find my third beloved theme "Into Eternal Sleep". This is an interesting one and I have been intrigued by its presence as an arrangement. The title suggests that it has used "Back to Sleep" as the source for the material and I can certainly hear some hinting towards this theme in the track however this track has also been said to be an arrangement of "Stage of Death" which I can also hear excerpts of. The question is what is it an arrangement of? This makes the track quite an enigma; the previous tracks have obvious sources which are corroborated by their titles but this one seems open to interpretation. I find this a very interesting and innovative way to end an album. The music reflects this to a certain extent being very quiet and understated almost floating away as the album tails off; there is no grand cadence just a broken chord on the piano with a low register echo. It is quite chilling actually.
Now it is onto those that favoured less well in my opinions. I still find "Singing of the Gentle Wind" as annoying as when I first heard it. Where in most of the arrangements the alterations bring out new interpretations of the piece I find this degrades the original's beautiful and serene melody contorting it into some form of pop ballad. It is undoubtedly calm and relaxing and in perfect step with the 'light' bit but I find the original more so in this area; the original's harmonies and chord progressions are what gives it any form of standing with the other tracks in the album. It is not a bad track really; the fusing of the acoustic and electric piano is sublime and it does do a little playing with the original to give it an alternative angle. However in comparison with the large volume of excellent tracks on this album it doesn't really stand up amongst them in my opinion. I had similar problems with "Gathering Stars in the Night Sky". A similar effect is trying to be achieved in both these tracks and they fail in the same areas. The main problem is that both of the originals are possibly as relaxing as you can get, making a relaxing arrangement of them has made them fall a bit flat in comparison to the others.
However there are examples on this album of successful arrangements of already relaxing themes. "October Mermaid" (how on earth they got June and October confused I don't know) adds interest by adding dissonance and unusual harmonies to the original theme creating an interesting interpretation of the original. "Shevat..." manages to create an interesting feel with a vibrant jazzy undercurrent almost trying to break through the relaxing mood of the track, it provides interest as well as melodic integrity even hinting to "Broken Mirror" in the closing phrases. Perhaps I just do not like the style the two tracks were done in but then again the schmaltzy pop ballad style of a "Treasure which Cannot be Stolen" grew on me through the course of my further listens. In the end, I just don't feel these tracks compare with the other high quality of tracks on this album.
I have to say that, for a fan-arranged album, this is a triumph of game music arrangement. All the tracks have merit even if some don't quite live up to their neighbours' prowess. There are some instant gems which I have mentioned and elaborated upon above. All the tracks have something to give to the album and although I complain of its length I find it hard to pick out which ones I would remove, this album has turned out to be more 'can't have too much of a good thing' than 'less is more'. Mitsuda would undoubtedly approve such a creation; it captures his melodic talent and gives it an intriguing twist (although maybe he would be a bit miffed that his fans perhaps surpassed his own Xenogears Creid). The Xenogears soundtrack is done justice with its beautiful melodies wielded expertly by the arrangers using them to create a textured and multifaceted invention in music. There are no direct transcriptions (something which plagues professional productions) with every track playing with the original to make it an entertaining and engrossing experience. Overall I feel this is certainly up there with the Final Fantasy X-2 Piano Collection as well as Xenogears Creid as a masterclass in arrangement. An instant classic. Maybe I'll have to check out some more fan arranged albums in the future.