Originally released for the Saturn in 1998, Sting's Baroque fused horror with role-playing elements in a stylish way. While the game received mixed reviews and mediocre sales, its soundtrack has gone on to become a cult classic. In a refreshing shift from the cheesy approaches of Clock Towetr and Resident Evil, the score was a dark and fascinating mixture of various elements ambient, industrial, 'new age', and noise music among them. Perhaps surprisingly, the score was composed principally by Masaharu Iwata, a composer usually known for his symphonic approach to tactical RPG scores. It is also one of the few scores in his career when he stood up on his own, rather than assisting another composer. Still highly regarded to this day, Basiscape celebrated the soundtrack with a re-release in 2012, featuring four new tracks.
The album begins with an especially experimental composition: "Great Heat 20320514." A mixture of grunge and dark electronica, Iwata combines heavy overdriven guitar riffs, a penetrating percussion line, and even some oriental melodies as the piece reaches its climax. The composition manages to sound incredibly oppressive, yet also be electrifying, particularly in conjunction with the game's terrifying opening FMV.. Dark electronica is heard in other parts of the score, too, most notably with "One Foot in the Grave." This track features a rapidly repeating distorted bass note, which gives the piece rhythmical impetus and an industrial feel. All sorts of sounds are overlaid, including an eerie synth glissando and various industrial booms. A striking melody enters in the latter half of the track, opening up the soundtrack thematically, while preserving the dark emphasis. Both tracks succeed in being deliberately unpleasant and unnerving, while still having enough addictive qualities and creative additions to entertain.
The first piece of noise music comes with "Sanctuary." Here, no real melody or musical phrases exist. Instead, an array of strange noises take their place samples of rats, bats, raindrops, footsteps, and heart beats among them. There is some instrumental backing, including faint piano chords and chime motifs, but the piece definitely blurs the boundaries of sound and music. While some aspects sound dated by today's standards, the various elements are still convincingly mixed and implemented. Another effective scene setter is "Confusion". It opens with some wind sound effects and the sound of a moving train then enters, becoming increasingly louder as it grows closer to the protagonist. Eventually distorted voices that sound like they are communicating via a radio enter, fading in an out, as the train noise enters again and becomes increasingly more apparent. Though it is subject to personal contemplation as to whether 'noise music' is an oxymoron, these tracks are undeniably effective within the game and are unique to game soundtracks.
Closely related to noise music are certain ambient pieces that combine atmospheric droning with other noise, but also have a degree of harmony to them. "Namu Ami" and "Little" are the best examples of this. In the former, the drone repeatedly echoes and gradually intensifies, creating the feeling of a person's presence; this figure is eventually revealed at the 2:30 with the alarming sound of a man cackling. In "Little," the drone is the sound of a baby crying, and though the drone has a less musically significant role, it is equally unnerving and gives the music an extraordinary feeling. Though other background noise is heard, the melodies from "Iraiza" are also prominent, making it relatively conventional compared to the other ambient pieces. Please note that there should be an emphasis on the word 'relatively' here; this comment is not intended to infer that it is a typical ambient theme, but rather that only a hint of melodic progression would make a theme more conventional in Baroque.
Despite the abundance of dark music, Iwata presents some outstandingly warm and beautiful themes here. He manages to combine eerie industrial music with sweepingly beautiful slow-developing melodies in "Iraiza," a heartfelt addition to the first part of the score. It's surreal, but provides some comfort amidst all the dark ambience that surrounds it. Another high achiever is "One," which features the sound effects synonymous with noise music heard in previous tracks together with a lulling and repeated choral melody. The richness and purity of the vocals creates a profound contrast with the shadowy sounds that lie underneath and the way it develops so slowly leaves one completely mesmerised by the end. "Multiplex" is also incredible, managing to convey the atmosphere of a dark, empty, and mysterious other world, yet also sounding hopeful thanks to the gorgeous instrumental contrasts and the introduction of subtle piano melodies after the 2:00 mark. Once again, Iwata offers the perfect balance.
The pinnacle of the soundtrack is "Hold Baroque Inside", a twist on 'new age' convention. The dreamy piano motif from the "One" theme repeats throughout the introduction and lulls gently as synth samples are softly integrated underneath. After the introduction, the piece goes on to recapitulate the "Great Heat 20320514" theme. This time, however, the theme is used in a less unnerving way, though overdriven electric guitar motifs from the original are occasionally heard, ensuring that the theme doesn't entirely lose its edge. After returning to the "Multiplex" theme once more, the theme ends calmly, leaving one in a completely relaxed state. Despite a few dark and dramatic touches, the track is essentially a relieving and enlightening one. It is especially refreshing to hear after all the dissonance and aggression heard in the 34 minutes preceding it.
The stand-alone experience is slightly weakened by the inclusion of a number of shorter tracks. While "Into Our Trespasses" and "A Style of Baroque" integrate similar features as the spectacular openers, they're too brief to leave a long-standing impression. Likewise, the four tracks that follow "Hold Baroque Inside" composed by Sting's John Pee and Toshiaki Sakoda seem more like afterthoughts than fully-fledged compositions. "Deep Interludium" is another dark electronica track, but lacks the sophistication of Iwata's contributions and soon grows repetitive. "Baroque 204 Forest" and "Baroque 205 Blue" provide stark contrasts to the rest of their soundtrack with their respective orchestral and tribal stylings, but neither fully develops. The last theme, "Baroque 206 Black," is intended to simulate the death scene of the game and it combines all sorts of strange samples, such as heartbeats and heavy breathing. The amount of tension in this theme is huge, but it all ends after 34 seconds with the sound of a huge crash.
There are four brand new tracks featured at the end of the reprint's soundtrack. Two are prototype pieces that Iwata submitted while the developer was scouting for a composer. They explore rich colours and ambiguous moods with morphing synthpads reminiscent of Vangelis. However, they aren't quite as unique as the hybridised material featured elsewhere. "Miraculous Loop" is a brand new vocal theme composed in memory of Baroque. While there are hints of dark industrial stylings, the majority of the song is upbeat and pop-flavoured, with a spirited performance by Haruko Aoki. With "Timeliness", Iwata revisits the sound of Baroque one last time. With stormy sound effects, eerie synth drones, and ambiguous melodic progressions, the majority of the track emphasises the moody feel of the game. However, the closing passage reprising the chord progression from "Hold Baroque Inside" on rich synthpads conveys the light at the end of the tunnel. A great way to encompass the Baroque experience.
Though the Baroque Original Soundtrack is one of the most creative video game horror scores, it is unlikely to be globally loved. Those who dislike most experimental music, dark electronica, and noise music will abhor much of this score. Nonetheless, for those people who are looking for something completely different, this soundtrack can be mind-blowing. Despite a few shortcomings several short tracks and slightly dated samples the album otherwise succeeds in being a landmark creation for both Masaharu Iwata and game music as a whole. From "Great Heat 20320514" to "Hold Baroque Inside," Iwata impresses throughout the experience and certainly shrugs off the image of 'Sakimoto's symphonic-loving sidekick' in breathtaking fashion. It is recommended that any prospective buyers listen to the samples beforehand, as the style of this music really won't appeal to everyone. Those who enjoy what they hear should purchase Basiscape's excellent reprint.