Play for Japan: The Album is a benefit album Released in the aftermath of the massive earthquake that hit Japan near the end of the winter of 2011. It was created as a collaboration between some of the most renowned game music composers of the East and West, partnered through the desire of famed Silent Hill composer Akira Yamaoka. This unique album, all of whose proceeds are going towards charities related to the disaster, is a milestone for the game music community: a physical manifestation of the power of music, and the inherent closeness it enables despite language and distance barriers. With the greatest composers in the field offering their most heartfelt sympathies through song, how does the overall album sound?
"Reminiscence" by Metal Gear Solid's Nobuko Toda starts the album on a somber note, utilizing strings heavily to evoke a thick, emotional melody. The piece is short but well developed, staying just shy of sappy, instead being richly melodramatic. "The Temple Stone," an ethnically cinematic styled piece by Call of Duty's Sean Murray, features Middle Eastern styled vocals and some pleasingly quick and well handled mood shifts, closing on a more uplifting tone than it began. Jason Graves, composer of the Dead Space franchise, here composes the dark "Necromancer," a multifaceted piece that takes the listener through a variety of slightly ethnically colored moods.
Akira Yamaoka's "Ex Amino" sounds quite similar to the composer's Silent Hill work, starting with its electric guitar playing a mournful melody over a grungy beat. It soon opens into a fuller and fresh sound, always keeping a careful hold on its dark undertones. The melody always retains an element of hopefulness, leading to a kind of light/dark duality which the piece pulls off resplendently. Square Enix's resident electronic expert Mitsuto Suzuki's "Play for You" is exactly what one would expect of the composer. The piece is lighthearted and doesn't stray from the composer's roots, but the inherent cheeriness and hopefulness is hard to dislike, especially the fantastic swelling of the melody which occurs about halfway through. However, it isn't as easily appreciable as other more traditional pieces on the album.
Nobuo Uematsu contributes an arrangement of "Every New Morning" from his relatively recent solo album, 10 Short Stories. The piece is Uematsu at his melodic best, and with its heavy Asian inspiration and uplifting melody, the song is a fitting pick. Hirokazu Tanaka's enjoyably silly "HVC-1384" is a treat to listen to with its wacky melody, percussion and sound effects that pepper the piece's every moment. Though it may come off as irritatingly inconsistent to some, it's more focused than a cursory listen would reveal, and Tanaka expertly manages to keep the wildness fresh over its lengthy playtime.
On the western side of things, there are plenty of noteworthy contributions. Laura Shigihara, whose previous credits include Plants vs. Zombies, composed "Jump," a peaceful and deceptively simple vocal with hopeful lyrics and softly dramatic tone. Transformers' Penka Kouneva contributes the short, ethereal "White Cloud," featuring soft synth and an operatic voice. The piece is nice, though its length mars it from having a lasting impact. Tommy Tallarico contributes an arrangement of "Greater Lights," a cinematic and emotional song originally from Advent Rising. While recycled, it stands among the best this album has to offer with its yearning melody and beautiful vocals.
"Pine Wind Sound", courtesy of EverQuest's Laura Karpman, is an atmospheric piece that is very airy, lacking substance and ultimately not terribly fulfilling. The vocals seem strewn about at random over a soft synth bedrock that isn't too interesting. Likewise "Moshi Moshi" by Red Dead Redemption's Woody Jackson is a rather simple, atmospheric piece which starts off uninteresting yet slowly becomes more riveting, though never enough to be fully captivating. "Bear McCreary's "Maverick Regeneration" by contrast, is quite well focused, though his choice of instrumentation won't be to everyone's taste, being a sort of chiptune and orchestral fusion that is somewhat irresistible for those who enjoy both. The piece picks up some steam halfway through, becoming infused with a dose of rock elements that complement the melody quite well.
"Rise Up!," composed by Lord of the Rings' Chance Thomas, is a piece with gospel origins. It is a little too obtrusively sappy for this reviewer, though those who enjoy the genre would likely enjoy Thomas' contribution. In a special contribution by music games expert Arthur Inasi, "We Are One" barely avoids said sappiness thanks to its somber and complex instrumental accompaniment to its vocals, though said accompaniment doesn't really change as the song soldiers on. Inon Zur's somber "Remember" is far more emotional, with a complex melody that doesn't attempt to stir the listener yet manages to evoke feelings nonetheless. It's fascinating to see the traditionally bombastic Dragon Age composer express a more personal side here. An excellent choice with which to end the western contributions.
Koji Kondo contributes, perhaps to no one's surprise, "Super Mario Medley on Two Pianos," a piece exclusive to the iTunes release of the album. The pieces in the medley are all typical choices from the vast quantity of Mario music existent; the real focus is Kondo's rather enjoyable arrangement, making full use of the pianos at his disposal to create a piece that, while slightly erratic, is perfectly enjoyable. If Yasunori Mitsuda's "Dimension Break" is a preview of the long awaited Chrono Cross arrange album, then the latter cannot come soon enough. The piece as represented here is quite stirringly beautiful, leaps and bounds above the already magnificent original. This predominantly hopeful, heavy on strings helps mirror the album's opening piece, creating a fitting conclusion.
While created for a fine cause, this album is not without its flaws. Some of the best pieces are not original to this work, and several of those that are aren't particularly interesting. What's more, there is a tremendous diversity here from gospel vocals, eccentric chiptunes, to cinematic symphonies that it can be an incohesive listening experience. That said, most pieces are a delight to listen to, and the arrangements are better than their originals. Most composers' contributions are emotional without delving too deeply into overly sappy melodrama, yet even those that do have some redeeming merit. With its overabundance of different styles, this is a tough album to adequately describe and recommend. But really, anyone who enjoys the works of the composers featured will find something to love here, and might discover a new composer to love while he or she is at it.